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Australian Open women's preview

Throughout the Aussie Open, I'll be writing my usual previews for local website theshark.com.au, with match betting action for each round. To kick off the fortnight, here's my look at the women's draw.

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Amid the stinking hot weather embracing Australia in January we have the Australian Open, a brutal test for tennis players, most of whom spent December in freezing cold Europe. Those who haven't done the hard yakka in preparation will be found out. Victoria Azarenka is current number one and defending champion, but this time there's a 100% fit Serena Williams in the draw. That pair stand clear above another six or eight players, then it falls away for genuine winning chances. Let's take a look through them:

1 - Azarenka - came up with a new excuse for a retirement last week in Brisbane - a bad pedicure! That's 25 retirements/withdrawals in six years, the woman has the pain threshold which would embarrass the average bunch of pre-schoolers. Or was it a convenient excuse to avoid Serena? Her quarter looks smooth sailing but then comes the semi-final. She's no.1 in the rankings but with a 1-9 record against her, she can't be fav for the title, especially being drawn in the same half as her.

2 - Sharapova - collarbone injury has kept her out of two lead-up events, Brisbane and an exhibition in Asia. Everything revolves around her serve. If that injury hasn't disappeared completely, then she's vulnerable from R1. If it has gone, she's underdone and vulnerable once she starts meeting top 30 players. Poor record v Serena means the title is a big ask even if fit and firing. Watch closely, she may be ripe to oppose early - Martic, Venus Williams, Cibulkova and then Kerber steadily increase the pressure she will face.

3 - Serena W. - well, for most female players, they say being loved up can only send their career backwards. For Serena, shagging her coach seems to be working just fine. A pre-season workout in Mauritius (with other players in the Mouratoglou camp) tuned her up nicely for Brisbane, recording her first tournament win in Aus other than the Slam. She's fit, she's firing, she's scaring the others off. She's won this event in the past looking a a stone overweight coming off injury, hard to see any of them beating her if she stays fit and healthy.

4 - A.Radwanska - capable of wearing down any player on her day, although it would take the top three to be slightly off their best to succumb to her. 0-4 vs Serena, 3-12 vs Azarenka, 2-8 vs Sharapova, 4-5 vs Li. In Maria's half, gives her some chance of making her second Slam final. In dominant form this year, hasn't dropped a set so far in two tournaments, but has only faced one top 10 player.

5 - Kerber - has settled into the top 10 with string of consistent performances throughout the year. Not sure she's topped out just yet, avoiding Serena will make a big difference to her chances. Yet to get beyond R3 here so far, her last five Slams have delivered two semis, a QF, a R4 and R3 here last time. She was the last player to beat Serena - way back in August.

6 - Li - tough as nails and showed her trademark resilience to wear down Keys in Sydney on Wed night in an entertaining encounter. Won lead-up event in Shenzhen, dealt with change in temp from 2C to 42C, a finalist here two years ago, nothing's beyond her. 4-8 v Sharapova, 1-6 vs Serena, 5-4 vs Radwanska, 4-5 vs Azarenka. In the weaker half, can go a long way again.

7 - Errani - the Italian rabbit who had a sensational 2012 (you may recall we backed her here a few times last Jan); the question now is will she be a flash in the pan or be able to sustain her ranking? There's nothing brilliant about her game other than sheer tenacity. Heat and wind are her biggest allies, wearing down the impatient opponent. Flogged by fellow 'person of diminutive stature' Cibulkova in Sydney which is a bit of a concern. Putintseva or McHale in R2 are talented enough to test her R2, Kuznetsova is hiding behind them for R3.

8 - Kvitova - having severe problems with asthma when the heat and humidity builds up. Impossible to win a Slam in that state, watch her and the weather forecast on a match-by-match basis. Schiavone shouldn't bother her too much in R1, Robson R2 and Stephens R3 might work her a lot harder.

9 - Stosur - 0-2 so far this Aussie summer after having surgery to clean up her ankle, and the streak actually stands at five since the Kremlin Cup. That doesn't bode well for her chances here. Draw crucial. Weaker half, has Li and Radwanska to worry about.

10 - Wozniacki - no Grand Slam title win coming for her, anyone thinking she'll ever claim one is advised to go to Specsavers or consult a therapist. Lisicki R1 looks the best early matchup in the women's draw.

Beyond that there are a few who might go a few rounds or take a decent scalp along the way.

Vekic - 16yo, has reached a Tour final already. Big future.

Stephens - one of the impressive American teens coming through. Hard worker, the girl can play. Reaching the second week is not beyond her with that draw.

Barthel - scrapes in as seed 32, in great form winning seven matches already this year. Radwanska R3 is her likely conqueror.

Keys - very impressed with this young American. 17yo, gives the ball a real crack and moves fairly well for her physique. 19-3 since the US Open, and while many of those were at a weaker level, I'm tipping her to make an impact at at least one of the Slams this year.

Barty - the next big thing for Australian women's tennis, she has stepped out of juniors early with her heart set on making the big time. Still young, has to develop more weapons, but she is capable of giving most seeds a run for their money. Meets Cibulkova R1, will be running for hours!

Watson - troubled by an elbow injury of late, faces Cadantu then Barthel who is in great nick.

Robson - the Melbourne-born Brit faces Oudin R1 and possibly Kvitova R2. If they cop a hot and windy day, Laura shortens right up against the Czech.

Kuznetsova - back from a serious knee injury, showed in Sydney that she is regaining her touch. Any seed facing her won't want to be off their game. Should be able to take out Hsieh R2, who hasn't been fully fit lately.

Putintseva - potty-mouthed Russian straight out of juniors, described by some as the most annoying player to hit the women's tour in years. Arrogant, rude, gets in opponents' faces, but also mighty talented.

BETS

How do they beat Serena? I heard one veteran pundit say this could be the year for the Serena Slam and I couldn't argue with him. She is primed in January and has the wood over her rivals. A shade under evens on Betfair at time of writing - that's virtually a coin flip over whether stays fit for the fortnight.

For a trade, the bottom half is the place to look. It's not particularly ambitious as she's fifth seed, but Kerber is the biggest price of the main chances down the bottom. I like her chances of reaching the final, so there are two options for you - trade the outright market (currently 38 to win) or back her to reach the final at around 10.

And don't forget the WTA fantasy comp, it closes tonight GMT before the tournament starts. Visit www.wtatenniscomp.com for details!

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