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Tennis - 12. January 2013.

Azarenka, Williams on course for crash course.

By Vivienne Christie

Most players claim not to look beyond their first round opponents, but as the draw of Australian Open 2013 unfolded today it was likely Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams were casting a sneaky glance towards the semi-finals.

A Melbourne Park meeting between the defending champion Belarusian and the five-time Australian Open champion — both in the top half of the field — could occur in the tournament’s penultimate round. And considering the standard of the most recent Grand Slam encounter between Azarenka and Williams — in the 2012 US Open final — that could mean one of the highest-quality Australian Open women’s semi-finals yet.

Stretching three sets and more than two hours, Azarenka was just two points from the title at 5-3 in the third set before steely Serena recovered to claim her 15th major with a 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 victory. A gracious Azarenka promptly declared she had much to learn from Serena, making future matches between the stars highly anticipated.

Azarenka has claimed just a single win against Serena in 11 career meetings, but led the American by a set when she was forced to retire from their third-round Australian Open 2009 match with illness. 

While many look forward to the potential Melbourne Park encounter, there are early-round challenges for both players to navigate.

For Azarenka that means a first-round meeting with Romania’s Monica Niculescu – who she has defeated in each of their four-career meetings – and a potential third-round clash with the rapidly improving Urszula Radwanska (younger sister of Agnieszka).

Williams faces another Romanian, Edina Gallovits-Hall, whom she easily outclassed in Miami in 2008 in their only match. From there Williams will face Slovakian Magdalena Rybarikova or Spaniard Garbine Muguruza, before a potentially dangerous match against Yaroslava Shvedova in the third round.

One of the biggest improvers on the tour last year, Shvedova outclassed defending champion Li Na at the French Open, recorded a golden set (winning every point) against French Open finalist Sara Errani at Wimbledon, and pushed Serena to three sets in the fourth round of the same event.

One who probably won’t be looking beyond the first round is Caroline Wozniacki. After first-round losses in both Wimbledon and the US Open, the former world No.1 now faces another dangerous first round opponent in Sabine Lisicki, who has outclassed the Dane in two of their three career meetings (the most recent in Charleston in 2009).

Petra Kvitova and Francesca Schiavone, both Grand Slam champions, will contest a similarly significant first-round encounter. The 2011 Wimbledon champion and eighth seed here, Kvitova has claimed just a single match in two lead-in Australian events.

Schiavone, the 2010 French Open winner, lost early in Hobart but her flashy game is often at its finest at the Open. In 2011, the Italian saved six match points to defeat Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-4, 1-6, 16-14 in a fourth-round epic over four hours and 44 minutes – the longest women’s Grand Slam match and the second-longest overall match of the Open Era. Kvitova leads Schiavone 3-1 in head-to-head meetings.

In the bottom half of the draw, all eyes will be on second seed Maria Sharapova who has drawn fellow Russian Olga Puchkova in the first round. If results go according to rankings, Sharapova will face Venus Williams in the third round. Other seeds in the same quarter include 15th seed Dominika Cibulkova and 23rd seed Klara Zakopalova.

Ninth seed Samantha Stosur, the highest ranked and only seeded Australian, has a winnable first round against Chinese Taipei’s Kai-Chen Chang. She is the world No.84 but outclassed the Australian in their only encounter, in Osaka last year. Should she turn the tables, Stosur could meet another recent nemesis in Jie Zheng, who eliminated the Australian from Sydney earlier this month.

Australian Open 2011 finalist Li Na is a potential fourth-round opponent, with Sorana Cirstea and Julia Goerges the other seeds in Stosur’s quarter.

Another Australian, Bojana Bobusic, faces a tough first-round task against fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska, while 16-year-old Australian wildcard Ashleigh Barty meets 15th seed Dominika Cibulkova.

Casey Dellacqua faces exciting American teenager Madison Keys first-up and Olivia Rogowska, another wildcard, will play a qualifier

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