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Credible challengers increasingly hard to find in women's game

It is reasonable to assume that the status quo in men's tennis will be preserved this year – the grand slam titles will surely not go outwith the big four, although whether Rafael Nadal will play a prominent role must remain in doubt – but, by contrast, the women's game is wide open.

Who will lay hands on the main titles is much harder to predict. The first grand slam event of the year, the Australian Open, may give some indication of how the next 12 months will shape up.

Serena Williams ended 2012 in imperious form, winning Wimbledon, Olympic gold and the US Open in the latter half of the year. At 31, she is far from over the hill but she's certainly closer to the end of her career than the beginning. Her age, though, is less of an issue than for some of her peers; her selectivity in planning which tournaments she plays over the past decade has ensured that she has not fallen into the trap of over-playing, as have so many of the other top women players. This has ensured that her mind and her body are healthier than rivals who are 10 years her junior.

Williams is seeded only third but she is most people's favourite to take the title for a sixth time. She has begun 2013 as she finished 2012, in winning style, cruising to the Brisbane International title at the weekend and winning the final against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia, for the loss of just three games. She is always at her most vulnerable in the early rounds of a grand slam tournament but, if she can safely negotiate the first week in Melbourne, she is a good bet to go on to win the title.

The top seed, Victoria Azarenka, is looking to build on her 2012 season, in which she won six events, including her maiden grand slam title in Australia 12 months ago. The Belarusian will be praying that she does not have to take on Williams, against whom she has an 11-1 losing record, a stat that suggests an inferiority complex exists for her in this match-up.

Maria Sharapova is well on her way to regaining top form after career-threatening shoulder surgery in 2008. At No.2 in the rankings, and having completed her career grand slam when she won the French Open last June, her indefatigable spirit ensures that she will be a contender for every major title.

While Williams, Azarenka and Sharapova are the box office names in Melbourne, up to a dozen other women can lay reasonable claim to being title contenders.

Agnieszka Radwanska, the Wimbledon finalist; Sara Errani, the French Open finalist, and the German duo Angelique Kerber and Julia Goerges all had breakthrough seasons last year, but they are also representative of the problem currently afflicting women's tennis: outside of the top three, few other than a real aficionado would be able to pick the remaining top-20 ranked players out of a line-up.

The men's game has David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga snapping at the heels of the top four but those in pursuit of the top three women are a much less readily recognisable group. There has been less of a proliferation of surnames ending in 'ova' in the latter stages of the women's tournaments over the past 12 months, but the lack of flair in the women's game is, unfortunately, still there.

I must admit to being surprised at the failure of Asian women, and Chinese players particularly, to stamp their authority on the sport.

When Li Na won the French Open in 2011, I predicted that it would open the floodgates with regards to her and her compatriots competing for major honours. I fully expected Chinese women to begin to show signs of domination just as they do in badminton and table tennis but this has not come to pass . . . yet.

It is most likely that 2013 will produce at least one new grand slam winner in the women's game but, if Williams is in the mood, the safe bet is on her winning her 16th career grand slam title in Melbourne in a couple of week's time.

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