Australian Open: In women's draw of walking wounded, Serena is still favourite if she's in the mood

If we were to list the wounded women that will battle next week at the Australian Open or have completely withdrawn from the event, it might give a complex to the man who was responsible for chronicling the wounded warriors in the army of the Potomac. The women in tennis are left wondering over the after effects of a tightly packed season.

Naturally, Serena Williams will begin the first grand slam event of 2016 as an overwhelming favourite. With an incredible 21 titles under her belt, she has earned the right to be the woman to beat, every time she is in the mood to play tennis. But with injuries ravaging the field, including a suspect knee for Williams, it is also fair to assume that this is one of the most open draws at a big event in recent memory.

It is rather lame for a sport to be discussing injuries at the start of a new season, but the WTA schedule is packed all the way through to the year-end championships in Singapore. The fact that spots were up for grabs last year to the very end enticed several players to Asia in the aftermath of the US Open.

Williams was conspicuous by her absence during that phase, dealing as she was with the disappointment of missing out on a calendar slam, after losing in the semifinals of the US Open. But her withdrawal from the Hopman Cup earlier this month left many wondering if Serena was match ready after a long absence.

But Serena herself was very confident she was fit and ready to emulate Steffi Graf by winning a 22nd major title. 'My body is feeling great now, obviously I had a hiccup but right now it is doing much better,” assured the American, in an interaction with the Herald Sun in Melbourne. “I've had a few days of training so it's looking good.'

Australian Open: In womens draw of walking wounded, Serena is still favourite if shes in the mood

Serena Williams beat Maria Sharapova to the title in 2015 Australian Open. AFP

'We are all out there killing it. I just need to make sure I'm totally relaxed and at ease. It all comes natural after that,” added Williams, serving an ominous warning to her rivals. 'I know what I need to do on and off the court to win big tournaments. That is what I like to do.'

Maria Sharapova is suffering from a recurring problem with her forearm, an injury that has bothered her sporadically since last year. Her withdrawal from the Brisbane International headlined a series of similar stories that made bigger headlines than the tennis.

World No.2 Simona Halep has an Achilles heel that threatens to derail her efforts to catch up on the over-4000 point deficit from Williams. A stomach illness forced Petra Kvitova to withdraw from Shenzhen, and concerns grew when she dropped out of the Sydney International, citing gastroenteritis.

The winner in Shenzhen, Agnieszka Radwanska also pulled out of Sydney, citing a leg injury. Angelique Kerber is also suffering from gastroenteritis. Lucie Safarova has already pulled out of Melbourne owing to a bacterial infection.

Another major concern surrounds the health of Garbine Muguruza, who is suffering from plantar fasciitis. It is condition where the tissues and ligaments that serve to connect the heel bone to the toes and provide support to the arch of the foot. Orthotics might help insulate some of the pain, but it remains to be seen if she can be a serious contender in the next fortnight.

The laundry list of injuries complicates the women’s draw beyond recognition. It is nearly impossible to predict how the tournament might swing at least till we get through the first week and make a more informed assessment.

The top quarter has Williams, Sharapova, Belinda Bencic and Caroline Wozniacki. The top seeded American is set to battle Camila Giorgi in an intriguing first round encounter that has the potential to upset the apple cart, especially if Serena comes out rusty from the long time out.

The second quarter is deceptively easy for Kvitova, but there are a number of floaters in this section. The presence of Eugenie Bouchard and Dominika Cibulkova underline the threats that loom in this nick of the woods.

Radwanska is set to take on Christina McHale, an American with immense potential. If she gets past that test as expected, she could face Samantha Stosur in the third round before a likely meeting with Sloane Stephens (remember that she pulled out of Hobart) in the round of 16.

That brings us to the one woman who seems fresh and ready for 2016, Victoria Azarenka. The 14th seeded Belarussian promises to make a decent run and hunt for a third Australian Open title. She was impressive in her victories over Roberta Vinci and Angelique Kerber on her way to the title in Brisbane.

Azarenka is accompanied by Muguruza, Kerber, Timea Bacsinszky in the bottom half of the draw. Jelena Jankovic is also in the third quarter, seeded 19th and a likely spoiler in the third round. If as expected, Azarenka does play Muguruza in the fourth round, it will be an exciting match to watch.

The bottom section of the draw is loaded – housing Halep, a rejuvenated Venus Williams, Karolina Pliskova and Madison Keys. Ana Ivanovic, seeded 20, Sabine Lisicki (30), Zarina Diyas and Alize Cornet add to the intrigue in this complicated fourth quarter of the draw.

Given the level of uncertainty over player fitness and form, it is only natural that the outcomes over the next week or so do offer some interesting possibilities toward the business end of the tournament. The heat in Melbourne is bound to claim some victims too. And if Serena does wobble a bit during the early matches, the doors could open for a new champion in Melbourne on the last day of January.

But if she is in the mood and near full-fitness, don't bet against Serena Williams.

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Updated Date: Jan 17, 2016 17:20:42 IST

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