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Australian Open: With no Serena Williams, there’s no sure thing to win

Romania's Simona Halep hits a return during a

Romania's Simona Halep hits a return during a training session ahead of the Australian Open in Melbourne on January 11, 2018. Photo Credit: Romania’s Simona Halep hits a return during a training session ahead of the Australian Open in Melbourne on January 11, 2018.

What can we expect from the women’s draw in the Australian Open now that new mother Serena Williams announced she is not yet ready to play at that level?

No one knows, which is a bad thing if you like transcendent stars such as Williams and a good thing if you like chaos.

On a conference call to promote ESPN’s coverage of the event, which starts Sunday, analyst Chrissie Evert said, “To me, if you were to ask me to pick a player to win . . . which I hope you don’t, because I have no idea.”

On cue, a reporter asked Evert who she thinks will win. She named Simona Halep, currently No. 1 in the world, on the theory that she will be motivated to improve on a disappointing 2017 in majors.

But Evert prefaced that answer with a disclaimer: “I say this without a lot of conviction.”

Jelena Ostapenko, Garbine Muguruza and Sloane Stephens won the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open last year after Williams won in Australia while pregnant.

The U.S. Open produced an all-American final four on the women’s side, capped by Stephens’ breakthrough, but she has not won a match since beating Madison Keys in the final in Flushing in September.

A repeat for Stephens would be a big boost to American tennis – and a big boost to ESPN’s ratings for the event in Williams’ absence. But there is no sign that is a reasonable possibility.

“This is the jinx that any surprise winner of a grand slam seems to have had,” Evert said. “If you look at past history, you look at all the players that have won it for the first time, who weren’t expected to win it, it’s sort of like it changes your whole life. I think she’s had a lot more demands. She’s been doing more press, making more appearances, doing a lot of charity work, which I have to compliment her for. She does have a program in Compton, California. She helps a lot of kids there.

“That plus the fact she has been injured. Her body hasn’t been 100 percent, I think it’s taken a toll. I don’t think Sloane is a real intense kind of player anyway. I think she’s kind of a relaxed player when she goes out there. I question whether she has a burning desire to win more grand slams or to be No. 1 in the world. I don’t see that burning desire as much as I see it with other players. I’m sure that’s just my opinion, maybe I’m wrong, but that’s what I’m seeing with her.”

So if not Stephens, who? Shrug.

“There’s an abundance of talent out there,” Evert said. “Yes, we have nobody besides Serena who has taken the bull by the horns, since Serena has been out of the game . . . On the other side of the coin, it’s probably more intriguing because you have 20 players that can win a grand slam. Certainly you couldn’t have said that 10 years ago or even five years ago.”

Evert cited some players capable of winning the event who currently are ranked lower than No. 25, including Dominika Cibulkova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Petra Kvitova.

“It’s unbelievable, the depth and the fact that the talent is plentiful right now,” Evert said. “That’s what we have to celebrate. We no longer have a dominant player. This is a new look at women’s tennis. This is the way it is right now.

“We’ll see when Serena comes back. It might be a different story. But for right now this is a different look. Everyone has to make adjustments in their thought process and their enthusiasm when they watch women’s tennis. It is intriguing. Before it wasn’t. We knew and we respected the brilliance of Serena. We hailed her. But right now there’s just so much talent out there.”

Fellow analyst Patrick McEnroe then interjected, asking, “What about Madison Keys?”

Evert agreed she, too, has a chance. The more she continued scanning the rankings list, the more names she threw out: Daria Gavrilova. Daria Kasatkina. Caroline Garcia. Caroline Wozniacki. All the way down to 70th-ranked Naomi Osaka.

“Women’s tennis at a major reminds me of a male golf major; 20, 30 people, maybe more, could win it,” McEnroe said. “It is a unique time. We were so used to the women’s tour being dominated by a couple of players. Now we’re certainly used to that on the men’s side in the last decade or so . . . The women’s side is completely wide open. You can make a case for multiple players that have a chance to win it.”

The big question for the rest of 2018 is whether that will change once Williams returns. She gave birth to a daughter, Alexis, on Sept. 1 and returned to play and lose an exhibition match against Ostapenko on Dec. 30.

“I think she can come back as good if not better than before, for sure,” Evert said. “I think she can. I think her decision not to play the Australian Open was a smart one because now she’s just going for grand slam titles. She wasn’t ready. She wasn’t ready physically. She wasn’t ready mentally.

“I mean, this is the type of tournament where there’s so much talent that Serena could not have played her way into the tournament anymore because she probably would have gotten tough matches the first and second rounds. I don’t think she would have won this tournament anyway.

“It will all depend on really the motivation. I think having a child sometimes -- well, it changes you forever, but whether it will change the competitiveness of her remains to be seen. She can say she’s just as competitive as ever, but there’s a lot that goes into having a child and being a mother. It’s a 24-hour-a-day job mentally, emotionally and physically. She’s never been presented with this situation before. It remains to be seen how she’s going to handle it.

“But I think physically with her body, she can get herself into fighting shape and she can be playing as well if not better than before. I think that’s a positive.”

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