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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Australian Open: Aussie's Own Changing of the Guard

When Kim Clijsters cracked an untouchable forehand winner to set up match point against Caroline Wozniacki, there was a moment of impassioned beauty. Her eyes snapped shut as she clenched her first beside her face, chest heaving with excitement, nerves and exhaustion. She appeared near tears, understanding the terrible importance of the point she was about to play, but when she stepped back to the baseline, she appeared calm—her veteran grace shining through. Moments later a desperation lob from Wozniacki fluttered skyward, and with one clean swing, Clijsters batted the match-ending volley into the court, solidifying her place in the semifinals and ensuring Wozniacki's drop from the top spot.

And now it's official. The WTA will have a new no. 1 player after the Australian Open, ending the Dane's 67 week "domination" of the women's tour. Three standout players are vying for the spot, and all are worthy, but who will it be?

Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, and Petra Kvitova each have a chance, and the dogfight will begin with today's semifinals. Sharapova must win the title while Azarenka need only stay one step ahead of Kvitova (meaning she must win if she faces Petra in the final). Should the Czech advance to the championship without Azarenka, but lose, she will still earn enough points to claim the rank.

Azarenka will take on Clijsters in her semifinal match, looking to advance to her first major championship. The Belarusian hits the ball flat and hard from both sides, but she'll need to do more than thump the ball up the court to keep Clijsters off balance. Azarenka is best when she's at full flight, taking on physical rallies with her much-improved fitness. She's consistent, strong-willed and isn't afraid to get scrappy, and what makes her more of threat against Clijsters than Wozniacki is that she can strike winners at will.

Having won three slams (including the 2008 Australian Open) Sharapova has the most impressive resume of the three no. 1 contenders. She needs to deliver her best tennis, however, as she takes on Petra Kvitova—a Wimbledon final rematch that will undoubtedly showcase some of the biggest hitting on tour. Sharapova seems to have contained her service woes, and will need to continue that trend against a free-swinging opponent who enjoys obliterating slow second serves. Kvitova will need to maintain focus and prevent any dips in quality (something we have seen too often in earlier rounds) or else Sharapova will have an easy time finding her range.

Regardless of the outcomes, however, the WTA will have a new leader in the rankings, something many critics of the sport  having been begging for for months. In an interview, Wozniacki said she is confident she will reclaim the top spot, but something tells me it won't be so easy. Her fellow young-guns are starting to relish their time on the big stages and thrive in high-pressure moments. Defending powerful blows, Wozniacki's greatest talent, won't hold up much longer if these talented opponents stop choking and start winning.

The question is no longer when will Wozniacki consolidate her no. 1 ranking, it's will she ever get it back?

-Kedzie Teller, Senior Editor


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