MELBOURNE, Australia - With all the talk about Serena Williams extending her current streak of major titles to three — another Serena Slam in the making — Maria Sharapova has another Williams more on her mind ahead of the Australian Open: Venus.
While Serena and top-seeded and defending champion Victoria Azarenka feature in the top half of the draw, and could meet in the semifinals, No. 2 Sharapova would play Venus Williams in the third round if they each win their first two matches.
Sharapova, who holds a 4-3 match career edge over Venus, including in straight sets on clay at Rome last year, doesn't want to get too far ahead of herself here. She's had very little match practice after pulling out of the Brisbane International with a right collarbone injury, but has been playing practice matches with a few Australian junior boys this past week at Melbourne Park, including main draw wild card Luke Saville.
"First of all, we still have to get to that point and then we can discuss it further," Sharapova said Saturday. "There's no doubt that she's a champion, an experienced one at that. No matter where she's ranked, what level she's at, she's a tough opponent."
Venus Williams' ranking dropped outside the top 100 after a seven-month layoff following the 2011 U.S. Open when she was diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome, an auto-immune disease that can cause fatigue. But she finished in the quarterfinals or better at five of the 10 events she played in 2012, winning the Luxembourg tournament and improving her ranking to No. 24 by year's end.
Serena Williams was even better, winning Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and London Olympics gold. A win at Melbourne Park would continue the major streak and keep her on track to repeat that Serena Slam she achieved after winning the French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open events in 2002 and completing her personal Slam in Australia in 2003.
Sharapova said Serena Williams' favouritism here doesn't affect her mindset going into the tournament.
"I think everyone reacts to it a little bit differently," Sharapova said. "There's a reason why everyone's playing here and everyone's in the draw. You can't worry about somebody else that's not even close to you in a certain part of the draw."
The draw has Serena Williams playing Edina Gallovits-Hall in the first round, while Azaranka begins her title defence against another Romanian, Monica Niculescu. Sharapova plays a fellow Russian, Olga Puchkova, while Venus Williams takes on Galina Voskoboeva of Kazakshtan.
Azarenka and Williams won't start until Tuesday. Sharapova and Puchkova will play the tournament's first match on Rod Laver Arena on Monday morning while Venus Williams plays Voskoboeva at the same time on Hisense.
Serena Williams claims she might not know who she's playing — "I never look at the draw," she said Saturday — but admitted she was feeling "calm and very relaxed" and excited by the prospect of winning every Grand Slam this year.
"That's an incredible goal," Williams said. "It hasn't been done since the '80s. I don't know if I can do it. Maybe someone else can. We'll see."
Only three women have won all four majors in the same year — Steffi Graf in 1988, Margaret Court in 1970 and Maureen Connolly in 1953.
Azarenka isn't thinking just year about four Grand Slams, she's just happy to have won her first last year at Melbourne Park. She had an outstanding 2012, winning 26 straight matches to start the year, the best on the WTA Tour since Martina Hingis in 1997, and won six of nine tournament finals she contested.
One of those wasn't the U.S. Open, where she lost to Serena Williams after being just two points from victory. A major earlier, Serena also beat Azarenka in the Wimbledon semifinals.
"Yeah, I think so," Azarenka said when asked whether Serena was the player to beat.
The two almost met last week at the Brisbane International, but Azarenka pulled out of their scheduled semifinal because of treatment for an infected toe caused by an overzealous pedicurist.
"There is nothing I could do possibly to make it happen," Azarenka said of her decision to skip the Brisbane match. "I think I did a very good choice, by the way. I'm feeling good right now."
And she's confident after winning last year, beating Sharapova in the final.
"It gave me a lot more self-belief," she said. "I always thought of myself as a really good player. Now that mental edge to kind of make the difference ... it definitely helped to bring a lot of inner confidence in yourself, knowing that you can do it."
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