Wednesday January 11th, 2012

Caroline Wozniacki began 2012 with a new coach and a tenuous hold on the No. 1 ranking. (Paul Kane/Getty Images)

The Australian Open begins Monday in Melbourne. Here's a look at 10 of the top players and their prospects at the first Grand Slam tournament of 2012:

Caroline Wozniacki (current ranking: 1): It's easy to forget that Wozniacki was really close to making the final last year, unable to convert a match point on her serve in a three-set loss to Li Na in the semifinals. She'll have those points to defend with Petra Kvitova hot on her heels for the top ranking (Kvitova, in fact, could supplant Wozniacki by winning this week's Sydney International). But it's a credit to her that it feels like forever since she's taken the court without any pressure. That's part of the challenge of being No. 1.

The Dane hired a new coach, Ricardo Sanchez, during the offseason, and many are waiting to see what changes, if any, he'll bring to her game. Wozniacki has said she's prepared to take some losses if that means improving in the long run, but she's also noted that she hates losing more than anything. So will she play it safe and stick to the game that keeps her consistent but may be holding her back from a Grand Slam breakthrough? Or will she finally add some amps and go for winners, accepting the potential downside of a riskier approach?

It's also worth watching how Wozniacki deals with a left wrist injury. She called for the trainer multiple times during Wednesday's 3-6, 7-5, 6-2 loss to Agnieszka Radwanska in the Sydney quarterfinals.

"I hope it's not serious,'' Wozniacki told reporters after the match. "I could feel it today, especially in the third set, but I'm going to go get it checked out tomorrow and hopefully it's OK. I should be completely fine for the Australian Open.''

Petra Kvitova (2): The reigning WTA Player of the Year still is adjusting to the spotlight. She's repeatedly deflected questions about her chase for the top ranking, which she insists she doesn't think about. We all know the 2011 Wimbledon champion has the game to win her second major title, but given the tough conditions in Melbourne, a lot will have to go her way.

The 21-year-old Czech suffers from asthma and struggles in heat and humidity, which should be in abundance once the tournament starts. And if the weather breaks and Melbourne sees the unseasonably cool temperatures it's had this week, there's still the question of her ability to deal with the type of swirling wind that is now wreaking havoc on the qualifying tournament.

If the organizers are kind, they'll schedule Kvitova for a number of night matches. If the tennis gods are kind, they'll douse Melbourne with weather that would require the roofs on Rod Laver Arena and Hisense Arena to close. After all, Kvitova went 21-0 indoors last year.

Victoria Azarenka (3): If you needed more proof that the historically hot-headed Azarenka has learned to manage her emotions, look no further than her 7-5, 6-4 win over Marion Bartoli on Wednesday in Sydney. Azarenka came back from 2-5 under extremely windy conditions to win the first set. Then she rallied from a break down in the second set in the midst of mild chaos caused by a power outage at the tournament. She was never visibly frustrated, kept her focus and slowly elevated her game to beat an in-form Bartoli. Depending on her draw, there's no reason to think she can't make the final at the Australian Open.

Maria Sharapova (4): Who knows what to expect from Sharapova, but the early signs aren't good. She pulled out of the lead-up tournaments, clearly needing more time to deal with the left ankle injury she sustained in late September. She's been practicing in Melbourne, but with no match play in the tune-ups, she's going to need some easy early-round matchups so she can play herself into form.

Li Na has looked much better early in 2012 than she did late in 2011. (Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Li Na (5): Last year's finalist ended 2011 in a prolonged funk, and with the short offseason, one would have expected her struggles to continue into 2012. But something about Australia just suits Li. She showed great form in winning all three singles matches at the Hopman Cup (including a comeback victory against Bartoli), and she's advanced to the semifinals in Sydney. Given her horrid form at the end of last year, Li will head into Melbourne under the radar -- which is exactly how she likes it.

Samantha Stosur (6): All bets are off the minute Stosur steps onto Australian soil. The U.S. Open champion has never made it past the Round of 16 in Melbourne, and her early results this year don't indicate that's going to change soon. Ousted in the second round of Brisbane by Iveta Benesova and the first round of Sydney by Francesca Schiavone, Stosur must be sick of seeing headline after headline about her inability to deal with the pressure of playing at home.

But her lack of success in her last two tournaments and most recent Australian Opens could be as much about circumstance as it is form. In her last three Australian Opens, Stosur lost to Kvitova, Serena Williams and Elena Dementieva, none of which could be considered bad defeats. As for her 2012 results, Stosur struggles against lefties, which may explain her loss to Benesova, and having to face Schiavone -- a winner over the Aussie in the 2010 French Open final -- in the first round was just tough luck.

A good draw in the first week could boost Stosur's confidence and help her shake the big kangaroo on her back.

Agnieszka Radwanska (8): The big question is whether the magical form she summoned last fall while winning back-to-back titles in Tokyo and Beijing was a fluke or the sign of a new-and-improved Radwanska. So far, so good for the Pole, who has defeated Andrea Petkovic and Wozniacki (who, as noted above, was bothered by a wrist injury) en route to the Sydney semifinals.

Marion Bartoli (9): Bartoli came to Australia two weeks before the start of the season to train and get acclimated to the weather. The results haven't been too bad. She looks as fit as ever and is striking the ball cleanly. That said, she's suffered tough losses to Li and Azarenka, relinquishing leads in both matches. Those letdowns are worrisome, but Bartoli often can be counted on to score a big upset at a Slam.

Kim Clijsters (12): Clijsters withdrew from Brisbane last week with a hip injury, but insisted that she would be fit to defend her Australian Open title. Then word came Wednesday that she canceled her scheduled practice at Melbourne Park. We all know what Clijsters can do when she's healthy. The problem is she hasn't been fully fit for almost nine months now and I wonder whether her body can hold up over two weeks. Serena Williams (13): Exactly how bad is that ankle sprain? Serena looked great in Brisbane before withdrawing, and on two healthy ankles, she's still the player to beat in Melbourne. With critics questioning her desire after her recent comments about not loving tennis today, I'd expect Williams to have that fire to do what she came so close to doing at the U.S. Open. She may downplay her disappointment in not beating Stosur in the final, but make no mistake, that one still smarts four months later.

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