Agnieszka Radwanska. Some would say she doesn't qualify in this category, but let's face it, she has never won a major, nor has she made the type of impact that captures the casual fan's attention. At this stage of her career, she's a clever, change-the-pace player capable of beating anyone (such as Caroline Wozniacki in this week's Sydney International), but never a presence when it really counts. I've got her reaching the final this time.
Kaia Kanepi. Yes, to some extent we're chasing returns here, touting a player who won during the first week of 2012. But she's also a powerful, deceptively crafty player who tends to post her best results in the biggest events.
Kanepi, the No. 25 seed, steamrolled the competition in Brisbane, knocking off four consecutive top-25 opponents in straight sets to win her second career title. The pride of Estonia has the big serve and thunderous groundstrokes to hang with the Tour's heaviest hitters and she's punched above her weight at majors before. Watch her push Serena Williams to the limit when they meet for a place in the quarters.
On the women's side, I tapped Victoria Azarenka in the Toss while noting that I really like Li Na, too. (It's a stretch to label them dark horses to win the Australian Open based on the rankings, but Sydney champion Azarenka has made only one major semifinal and Sydney runner-up Li struggled badly at the end of 2011.) Li showed a lot of maturity, grit and confidence in her three-set, comeback victory over Petra Kvitova on Thursday. Kvitova was blasting her off the court, but Li weathered the storm and the minute Kvitova's form dipped, she capitalized. By the time the third set rolled around, Li seemed fully in control. She got a tough draw with a potential matchup with defending champion Kim Clijsters in the fourth round, but a second Grand Slam title would not surprise me in the least.
As for the women, Kanepi won Brisbane last week, including victories over world No. 10 Andrea Petkovic and No. 11 Francesca Schiavone. She also ended 2011 strong and is a big-serving, big-hitting threat when healthy. At 26, if the breakout year is coming, it has to come now.
Caroline Wozniacki. She looks to be in even better physical shape than before, and I loved
Sam Stosur. A lot pressure on the most recent major winner, now burdened by playing in her "home Slam."
At 27, Vera Zvonareva's window for a major is closing. Possible early-round matchups with Kanepi and Serena will make her stay Down Under a short one -- and that's if the Russian survives a tricky first-round test against Alexandra Dulgheru.
Maria Sharapova. While I admire the Russian's fight and don't like counting her out, she has, by far, the toughest draw of any of the top seeds on the men's or women's side. Just to get to the semifinals and live up to her seeding, Sharapova would have to beat Giselo Dulko, Angelique Kerber, Sabine Lisicki or Svetlana Kuznetsova and Serena. I just don't see it happening.
I rolled with Wozniacki for a long time in 2011 and, though I still think she'll win a major in the next 24 months, her form tells me it will be a short stay in Melbourne. I'd be stunned if she reached the quarters this year.
Petra Kvitova. With Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters in such unsettled sates, it would be great to see someone take a firm grip on that No. 1 ranking, complete with big performances under pressure. We're all waiting to see if Kvitova has the type of relentless motivation that helped create so many champions, from Billie Jean King to Martina Navratilova, and we won't have the answer this soon. But I've got Serena going down before the semifinals -- pick a reason; it could be anything -- and that's the only break Kvitova will need.
Petra Kvitova. Much more wishful thinking than deeply-felt sentiment. But with Serena and Clijsters still shaking off "court rust," Sharapova still fighting with her serve, and Wozniacki still a defensive counterpuncher, maybe it's Petra Time. Piggybacking a dominant fall with a win in Melbourne would vault her to No. 1. And end our quest for the WTA vacuum-filler.
The only thing Serena Williams loves more than winning is proving the pundits wrong. Her ability to contend at majors at less than full strength graduated to legend here five years ago, when she arrived in Melbourne unseeded (ranked No. 81) and won it all. Even with the ankle sprain that forced her withdrawal from last week's Brisbane tune-up, I'm not ready to pick against her -- certainly not at her best Slam. The jackals will circle when she struggles early, and she
Serena was one match away from finishing off a jaw-dropping return to tennis last summer, and after taking off the entire fall season, she's arrived in Australia fit and motivated. I'm not taking her comments about hating tennis or the ankle injury she suffered in Brisbane too seriously. Williams is out to prove herself again and that's when she's the most dangerous.
The women's side is its usual funhouse, with injuries and a lack of force at the top. But I'll gamble that Clijsters comes back from the left hip injury she suffered in Brisbane. She's always played well in Australia, and while I think Kvitova is going to end up as the year-end No. 1, Aussie Kim is my pick for the hardware here.