Queen Vika a viable alternative
Serena Williams may be the world's best but, at the prices, she looks worth taking on at the Australian Open, says Andy Schooler.
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Serena Williams has clearly been the world's best player for the best part of two years now.
Subsequently there's been talk that 2014 will be the year she crowns her career by completing the calendar-year Grand Slam, a feat last achieved by Steffi Graf back in 1988.
That may happen but winning 28 matches at specified peaks of the season is a big ask - and significantly one Williams has fallen short of by some distance in the past two years.
While the American has won 140 of her last 148 matches, going back to the start of the 2012 campaign, four of those defeats have come at the Grand Slam tournaments, meaning she won 'just' two Slam titles in both 2012 and 2013.
Williams starts the Australian Open as the odds-on favourite across the board but the fact is this is the only Slam she hasn't won in the last two years - you actually have to go back to 2010 for the last of her five triumphs in Melbourne.
Form suggests she's still a worthy favourite - she even started this season by winning in Brisbane, beating her two main title rivals here (Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova), but history also shows that an upset is more than possible.
Williams left Melbourne Park last year having suffered a shock quarter-final defeat to compatriot Sloane Stephens and the year before it was Ekaterina Makarova who pulled off the upset.
Sabine Lisicki and Virginie Razzano are others to have stunned Williams at the Slams over the past 24 months, with such losses usually coming out of the blue.
I can totally understand why people will still want to back Williams, even at 8/11, but I feel she's going into this tournament in the same position as she did at both the Australian and Wimbledon last season. In both of those she was an odds-on jolly who failed to deliver.
Essentially, at the prices, I'm prepared to take her on.
I've said it before and will say it again - the price gap between Williams and the one player who can consistently cause her problems, Victoria Azarenka, is too big.
Azarenka is out at a best price of 11/2, that's win-only with bwin. Yet the fact that she can be backed at 5/1 elsewhere makes her a viable each-way proposition and that's something I'm interested in.
This is the two-time defending champion we are talking about and the only player she'll be going off as the underdog against is Williams. That, of course, is if they meet in the final.
Even if that match-up happens, the Belarusian should not be written off as cannon fodder. Azarenka beat the world number one twice on a hardcourt last season - in Doha and Cincinnati - and also took her the distance in the US Open final.
It's also noteworthy that on the last two occasions they've met in Melbourne, 'Vika' has won a set. In the first of those, illness cruelly denied her the chance of an upset while, in the second, the roof was closed after she won the opener - and Williams performed better in the faster, indoor conditions.
Azarenka can trade with Williams from the back of the court and, while Serena still has the edge in the serving department, Azarenka's returning skills have been known to cause her trouble.
Azarenka's price has gone out since the draw, one which has seen her placed in the same quarter as the talented Agnieszka Radwanska, while her seeded semi-final foe is due to be Maria Sharapova.
However, Azarenka has dominated Radwanska in recent times, winning their last seven matches, the last five of which were all done in straight sets. She also has a decent record against Sharapova. The head-to-head may only read 7-6 but three of Sharapova's wins have come on clay. On this faster surface, I'd expect Azarenka to prevail - that's if the undercooked Sharapova makes it to the last four (she has played little since Wimbledon).
At the price, Azarenka should be backed each-way.
If I've convinced you that Williams just might be vulnerable and capable of blowing favouritism with a shock defeat before the semis - as was the case 12 months ago - then the quarter betting may well be worth diving into.
Williams is as short as 1/8 to reach the last four and that means there are some massive prices about her rivals in the section.
Rising star Eugenie Bouchard, who very much fits into the Sloane Stephens mould of potential surprise package, certainly looks a big price.
66/1 to win five matches for a player of her talent is large, even if one of those matches could be against the world number one. It might just be worth some small change.
Down in the third quarter, there's another big price that might be worth a dabble.
This is the section of Sharapova, who, as I've already suggested, I'm not keen on.
Jelena Jankovic and Simona Halep are rated most likely to take advantage if Sharapova fails to perform - it's worth noting the Russian already has a tricky opener against Bethanie Mattek-Sands to negotiate - but the prices reflect that and neither looks a mouthwatering bet, especially with plenty of expectation now on Halep following her success (mainly at a low level it has to be said) during the second half of 2013.
The next highest-ranked seed in the quarter is Carla Suarez-Navarro and the Spaniard can be backed at a whopping 45/1.
She made the quarter-finals here in 2009 and also the last eight at last year's US Open. Most recently she won through to the quarters in Sydney, showing she's capable of winning matches on these Plexicushion hardcourts.
Yes, I know Suarez-Navarro is capable of having a shocker - I'm not conveniently ignoring her double-bagel loss to Williams in New York last year - but the fact is this section of the draw looks one of the weakest and if Sharapova does fall early, then it will be there for the taking.
At the price, I'll have a minimum-stakes punt.
- The tournament gets under way at 0001 GMT on Monday and is being televised live in the UK on British Eurosport.