Five women's contenders for Australian Open


Melbourne (AFP)

Five women's contenders for the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam tournament of the tennis season, which starts in Melbourne on Monday:

Serena Williams (USA), 34. Ranking: 1

Grand Slam titles: 21

Despite injury concerns, the American great insists she's ready to scoop her sixth Australian Open title and 22nd Grand Slam crown. Williams looked on course for a calendar-year Grand Slam last year, until a cruel upset in the US Open semi-finals by Italian Roberta Vinci abruptly ended her season.

Despite achieving a 53-3 win-loss record last year, the world number one often started matches slowly, leaving her battling from one set down.

It is a habit she can ill-afford this year with a formidable-looking Victoria Azarenka on the comeback trail and her three closest rivals in the rankings all hungry for their first Grand Slam crown.

Simona Halep (ROM), 24. Ranking: 2

Grand Slam titles: 0

The aggressive baseliner may not have a Grand Slam title to her name but at the end of last year she teamed up with Australian coach Darren Cahill, who guided Lleyton Hewitt to his two Grand Slam wins and number one ranking.

The diminutive but potent Romanian has been suffering from a persistent achilles injury that forced her out of the Brisbane International, but she's looked on form in Sydney.

Garbine Muguruza (ESP), 22. Ranking: 3

Grand Slam titles: 0

The young Spaniard was the breakout star of 2015. Muguruza started the year at what was then her career high of 21, but stormed to third by year-end, making her first Grand Slam final at Wimbledon and winning her biggest title yet in Beijing on the way.

The last time anyone had such a rapid assent was Petra Kvitova, now a two-time Wimbledon winner, in 2011.

Muguruza has said that learning to remain cool in tough situations has been pivotal to the improvements in her game. And going into this year she has more experience on her side. "I think my goal is to be calm," she said in Melbourne.

Agnieszka Radwanska (POL), 26. Ranking: 4

Grand Slam titles: 0

Radwanska finished strongly in 2015, when she won the biggest title of her career at the elite WTA Finals, and began this season by defending her title in Shenzhen.

She has started three of the last four years in the top five, but has not made it to a Grand Slam final since Wimbledon in 2012, where she lost out to Williams. She's earned nicknames including 'The Magician', 'Ninja' and 'La Profesora' for her trademark shot-making, but a leg injury forced her to take some downtime when she missed the Sydney International, the last tournament before the Australian Open.

Maria Sharapova (RUS), 28. Ranking: 5

Grand Slam titles: 5

The injury-plagued Russian hasn't been seen much on court since Wimbledon last year, when she went out to Williams in the semi-finals. Sharapova missed the US Open, retired from an event in Wuhan, China and withdrew from the Beijing Open before making it to the semis at the year-ending WTA Finals in Singapore.

Sharapova also finished runner-up to Williams at last year's Australian Open, her only Grand Slam final of the season. The 28-year-old withdrew from the Brisbane International without hitting a ball after hurting her forearm in practice, but the 2008 champion was upbeat on arrival in Melbourne, even joking to reporters about a laundry mix-up involving a pair of leopard-print knickers.

Victoria Azarenka (BLR), 26. Ranking: 16

Grand Slam titles: 2

The quirky Belarusian could be the most likely contender to upset Williams' Grand Slam dominance. Azarenka stormed her way to her second Brisbane International crown last week without dropping a set -- her first title since she beat Williams in Cincinnati in 2013, and following a two-year spell of injury problems.

With the top women's ranks wracked with injury and illness, the two-time Grand Slam champion's resurgence couldn't come at a better time. To underline her renaissance, 'Vika' has released a Rocky-style training montage set to a thumping soundtrack where she is also shown spraying graffiti and riding a motorbike. Williams features in a narration, saying: "Of course she'll come back. She's great. She's Victoria Azarenka."