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Azarenka could be the only threat to Serena

The contenders for the women's title at the Australian Open will descend on Melbourne Park today, keeping their cards close to their chest as they try to plot their way to victory in the first grand slam of the year.

If you listen to the pundits, the title is Serena Williams' to lose. The world No.1 has won here five times and will be hungrier than ever, having seen Victoria Azarenka win "her" title in each of the past two years. Azarenka is the only player who has been able to regularly push Williams over the past 18 months but, invariably, the American has come out on top.

Victory here - she opens against the Australian wildcard Ashleigh Barty - would give her a sixth Aus­tralian Open title and mean she moves on to 18 grand slams.

The significance of that will not be lost on Williams, who would move level with Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert in the all-time list.

With Maria Sharapova not having played in three months after injury - and not having beaten Williams since 2004 - Evert believes Azarenka is the only player who can stop the world No 1. Azarenka was roundly booed by the Melbourne crowd last year when she took a lengthy medical timeout at a crucial time in her semi-final against Sloane Stephens.

Evert believes the Belarussian is mentally strong enough not to be affected by that this time around. "I think she's very tough mentally and her memory is short," she said. "I don't think she's going to give one thought to that whatsoever. I think it's another year, life goes on and I think she's looking ahead.

"This tournament is very special to her because she's won it a couple of times; she's had great success, she's had some big wins, and I think she loves the surface. She likes the speed of the court, she likes the moving and I think she's going to be very dangerous here. I don't think what happened before will affect her whatsoever."

Britain's Laura Robson, whose left-wrist injury continues to improve, faces last year's Wimbledon semi-finalist, Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium.

n Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova, a former Wimbledon semi-finalist, won her first WTA Tour title at the Sydney International with a 6-4, 6-4 final win over Germany's fifth-seeded Ange­lique Kerber. She had to qualify but went on to eliminate Sara Errani and Petra Kvitova, seeded Nos. 3 and 2 respectively.

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