Rivals expect Williams to fire at Open

Serena Williams’ Australian Open opponents have backed the dominant American to return to her best at Melbourne Park this week.

Williams will play her first competitive match since her shock US Open final loss to Roberta Vinci on Monday when she meets Camila Giorgi in the first round.

The 34-year-old managed one and a half sets against local Jarmila Wolfe at the Hopman Cup before cautiousness over a knee injury caused her to withdraw from the event.

Discounting that and the International Tennis Premier League, it will have been 128 days between the disappointment of Flushing Meadows and the opportunity to once again chase tennis’ grand slam.

World No.2 Simona Halep says she doesn’t doubt that on Monday afternoon, when Williams sets foot on Rod Laver Arena, the American will pick up where she left off.

“She is strong enough,” she said.

“Many players have injuries in this period.

“You cannot be 100 per cent on court but if you play without pain you can come back fast.”

Third seed Garbine Muguruza said the break wouldn’t slow Williams’ domination of the sport.

“She’s still there. She’s still dominating,” she said.

“I’ll keep fighting to stay there and just be in the top level.”

Williams said she felt `130 per cent’ ready to begin her campaign for a seventh Australian Open crown on Saturday.

Halep is like many in the women’s field entering the tournament with injury concerns.

The Romanian said on Sunday she felt `ready’ to begin the year’s first slam despite adding a cold to her nagging achilles issue.

Muguruza has a foot complaint, joining No.4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska (leg), No.5 seed Maria Sharapova (forearm) and No.6 seed Petra Kvitova (gastro) with concerns.

Those question marks lead many to believe the greatest challenge to Williams’ authority in Melbourne will be 14th seed Victoria Azarenka.

The Belarussian, a two-time Open winner, won the Brisbane International and is second favourite with bookmakers.

Azarenka said she paid little attention to outside influences on the eve of a big tournament.

“I’m not that much aware about (growing expectations) because I try to read other articles,” she said.

“It’s quite normal that somebody had success going in, predictions … it’s just for me it’s a little bit irrelevant.

“I just feel excited. I try to live in the moment. Carpe diem.”

Sharapova – who lost to Williams in last year’s final – is also without tennis since last season.

She said she was focussed on her first-round opponent, Japan’s Nao Hibino.

“It’s always tricky, especially going into a match against somebody I’ve never faced before,” she said.

“I can’t look too far ahead of myself. I haven’t played for a few weeks.

“I have to keep my expectations quite low and just work my way, work my game, work my mindset through this draw.”

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