Serena Williams faces daunting draw for 19th Slam

Serena Williams of the U.S. eyes a return during a practice session ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 17, 2015. The Australian Open will take place from January 19 to February 1.
Serena Williams of the U.S. eyes a return during a practice session ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 17, 2015. The Australian Open will take place from January 19 to February 1. AFP/Getty Images

Only Serena Williams could finish a season No.1 in the world, win a U.S. Open, tie Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert with 18 Grand Slam titles and consider that a bad year.

But by Williams’ lofty standards, 2014 really was a mediocre season, at best. She seemed, dare we say, human at times.

Williams lost to Ana Ivanovic in the Australian Open quarterfinals, lost to Garbine Muguruza in the French Open Round of 64 and lost to Alize Cornet in the Wimbledon fourth round. Cornet, the 19th-ranked French player, beat Williams all three times they played last season.

A U.S. Open title over good friend Caroline Wozniacki saved Williams’ year from being a complete disaster. That victory was her 18th major title, putting her in rarefied company with Navratilova and Evert. But Williams later said the pressure to reach that milestone distracted her much of the season.

“I put so much pressure on getting to [Slam title] No.18 that I kind of panicked a little, got a little tight and stressed out,” Williams told the Miami Herald last month, before hosting a charity race on Miami Beach. “Getting even with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova was a little too much for me to handle. I kept thinking, ‘Is this going to happen? Is it not? Am I always going to be stuck at 17?’ The weight’s been lifted off my chest. and now I can just play free. No. 19’s going to be easier.’

Easier, maybe.

But it won’t be easy — at least not in Melbourne, where Williams, 33, faces a daunting draw. Her quarter includes former No.2 Vera Zvonareva, No.11 Australian finalist Dominika Cibulkova, two-time Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka, fellow American Sloane Stephens (who upset Williams in 2013), her 2014 nemesis Cornet, her French Open conqueror Muguruza and No.8 Wozniacki.

One player she won’t have to face early is her sister, Venus, who turns 35 in June and has made a comeback after slipping in recent years. The elder sister won four titles in 2014 and is back in the top 20 at No.18. She has seven major titles on her résumé but has not reached a quarterfinal of a Grand Slam event since 2010. That streak could end next week.

Venus Williams is coming off a title in Auckland. She won the final over Wozniacki.

“Venus is one of the class athletes of this generation and my outsider pick to win the Australian,” ESPN commentator Pam Shriver said. “She’s had a lot of adversity and some incredible ups. I love her fight. She’s definitely someone to keep an eye on.”

On the men’s side, second-ranked Roger Federer seeks his 18th Grand Slam title. The 33-year-old father of four (two sets of twins) came close last summer, losing the Wimbledon final to top-ranked Novak Djokovic in five sets. He kicked off this season by winning the title at the Aussie Open tuneup tournament in Brisbane. He beat up-and-comers Milos Raonic, 24, and Grigor Dimitrov, 23, along the way.

It was his 83rd title and 1,000th match victory. Only two other players in the Open era, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl, have won 1,000 matches,

“There were a lot of question marks about Roger a year ago at this time,” Shriver said. “But that win over [Wilfred] Tsonga at night in Week 1 of the Australian Open set the table for a really good year.

“The Wimbledon final was the match of the year in tennis. To think he is still atop the sport with two sets of twins … we’re lucky to still have him as a force.”

Darren Cahill, also calling the action for ESPN, added: “Roger’s love and enthusiasm for the sport never wavers. That is what is more remarkable than the remarkable things he is doing on the court at this age.”

Djokovic remains atop the rankings and is a four-time Australian Open champion who plays some of his best tennis Down Under. He is coming off a quarterfinal loss to big-serving Ivo Karlovic in the Qatar Open, but there is no reason to believe he won’t be a contender in Melbourne.

Rafael Nadal is trying to get back in championship form after a year during which he battled back issues and underwent an appendectomy. The affable and humble Spaniard is one of the all-time greats with 14 Grand Slam titles but has only one non-French Open title at a major since 2011.

This year did not start well for Nadal, as he lost his first match of the season 6-1, 3-6, 4-6 to 127th-ranked Michael Berrer in Qatar. Other men to watch include defending champion Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, Raonic, Dimtrov and Andy Murray.

2015 Australian Open

When/where: Monday to Feb.1; Melbourne, Australia.

TV: ESPN and Tennis Channel.

Defending champions: Li Na, Stan Wawrinka

Players to watch: Men — Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, Andy Murray, Milos Raonic; Women — Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Simone Halep, Petra Kvitova, Venus Williams, Agnieszka Radwanska, Madison Keys, Taylor Townsend.