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• Posted in Australia / Tennis • By JoeBaker

One of the most talked about stories in the world of tennis at present is the return at the Australian Open of one of the game’s greatest ever players, Serena Williams, after the birth of her first child. As a 23-time Grand Slam Champion and the dominant force in the women’s game over the last decade, many are intrigued as to how the American will cope. Will she, at 36 years of age, be able to reach the same heights as before? Will she break Maraget Court’s Major record to officially become the most successful player of all time? It is just one fascinating sub-plot as one of the most eagerly anticipated and competitive women’s tours kicks off in 2018.

For starters, Williams isn’t the only famous name returning. The 2013 Wimbledon Champion Marion Bartoli, who retired from the sport straight after her biggest ever tournament win, has announced that she is set to make a comeback once fully fit. Taking inspiration from Venus Williams, who in her 37th year reached two Grand Slam Finals in 2017, Bartoli adds to a group of experienced players still capable of winning titles. In terms of comebacks, there will of course be ongoing focus on the new pantomime villain of the tour, Maria Sharapova, a five-time Major Champion who is only going to improve as she regains match sharpness following a controversial drugs ban. The inspiring story of Petra Kvitova will also continue, as she looks to return to her best form after incredibly making it back to the game after being stabbed in the hand. 

The absence of some major players last season left a gap for others to step into. One woman who certainly made the most of this opening was the young Latvian Jelena Ostapenko. Voted as the WTA’s Most Improved Player of the Year, the 20-year-old shocked the tennis circuit by coming from nowhere to win the French Open. She went from a top 50 player to ending the campaign as world number 7, being one of only 8 players to win two titles or more – a stat that itself shows the level playing field that currently exists in the women’s game. Expect Ostapenko to further make her mark in 2018. The same can now be confidently said of Sloane Stephens, who after several injury problems and dips in form and confidence, finally fulfilled her potential by winning the 2017 US Open. This will be the season in which we will see whether she really has it in her to follow in the giant footsteps of the Williams sisters.

And then we have the big favourites. This, you would think, will surely be the season in which Simona Halep, the Romanian who currently holds the world number 1 one spot, wins a Slam. Losing the 2017 French Open final, her second defeat at the last hurdle, was a surprise. Although she won only one title in 2017, her ranking shows how superbly consistent she was, with her accurate and powerful baseline game which thrives on all surfaces giving her the opportunity to consolidate her position at the top. An awful lot is also expected of Garbine Muguruza, the new Wimbledon Champion who thrashed Venus Williams in the final and now has two Slam titles, and 5 WTA trophies in all, to her name. At six-foot-tall with a huge serve and devastating forehand, she arguably has the biggest potential and depth of shots to make 2018 her own.

And if we’re talking about players on the rise, what about those who have been on a steady tumble in recent times? The name Angelique Kerber instantly springs to mind. In 2016 she was on top of the world, winning both the Australian and US Open titles and a Silver at the Rio Olympics. Yet last season was a disaster for the German. She failed to go beyond the 4th round in any of the Majors and reached only one tour final all year, which she lost. They say form is temporary and class is permanent – it would be fantastic for the women’s game if she can rediscover it this season.

As last season showed, there are always certain players who come out of nowhere to upset the establishment. The Dane Caroline Wozniaki is hardly an unknown entity on the tour but had a brilliant 2017, rising to number 3 in the world after reaching 8 tour finals. No one will want to face her now that she looks back to her best. For American fans, there are high hopes this season for Madison Keys. Those who have expected more from her following a visit to the semi-finals of the Australian Open in 2015 forget that she is still only 22 years of age, with her first Slam final visit at the US Open in September perhaps acting as the trigger for her to kick on and establish herself as a top 10 player. Another to watch out for is France’s Caroline Garcia, who was picked out for greatness not long ago by none other than Andy Murray.

And last but by no means least, what of our main British hope, Johanna Konta? It was a season of ups and downs for Britain’s number 1 last time out. She became the first British woman since Virginia Wade 39 years earlier to reach the Wimbledon last four, and reached a career high number 4 in the world, but then endured her worst ever losing run and ended the season breaking with her coach. At 26, Konta should now be going into her prime and with her most successful season behind her, would see 2018 as a failure if she doesn’t reach a Slam final and add to her WTA titles.

One article simply cannot do justice to the depth of talent currently playing on the women’s tour. This season is set to be one of the most exciting, and unpredictable, we have ever had. 

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