-- This could be a wild and woolly year in pro tennis. The status quo was shattered over the past 12 months, a purge that was a long time in the making and, perhaps, overdue. Now the pecking order in men's and women's tennis appears less stable than it has been in a decade. Here are five predictions for women's tennis in 2017:
1. Serena Williams will become the all-time Open era Grand Slam singles champion: Currently tied at 22 major singles titles with Steffi Graf, Williams won Wimbledon in 2016 but faltered in a melodramatic and ominous way for the second consecutive year at the US Open. Once an icy, implacable competitor, Williams now seems susceptible to meltdowns that undoubtedly embolden her rivals.
But those meltdowns don't happen at Wimbledon, a tournament that remains hers to lose. She may be 35 years old, but she will be well-rested after having skipped the entire fall tour to heal her troublesome right shoulder. Last year's loss to Angelique Kerber in the Australian Open final obscures Williams' terrific record Down Under. Williams' recent engagement to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian will probably be a stabilizing factor. It could be a big year for her.
2. The WTA will see a new No. 1: Kerber made a surprising and largely unexpected statement in 2016, winning two Grand Slam singles titles in three final-round appearances. En route to the US Open title, she accumulated enough points to take over Williams' No. 1 ranking and hold it to the end of the year. The only active player who can boast of having had a comparably successful Grand Slam year at any point in her career is named Williams.
But Kerber will be 29 before this year's Australian Open is over. She's never been one to gorge on W's. She won just one singles title besides that brace of majors in 2016, and while she's a hard worker, she's never been obsessed with winning. Kerber is friendly with her peers, and as a late bloomer, she's never developed that deadly taste for domination. She will be a force, but women like the Williams sisters, Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, Karolina Pliskova, Agnieszka Radwanska and others will have their chances.
3. Maria Sharapova will struggle through the summer: Tennis is a game of confidence, and the only way to grow it is by winning matches. Sharapova's fund of confidence is likely exhausted because she was suspended for most of 2016 for a doping offense. She hasn't played a competitive match since her quarterfinal loss at the 2016 Australian Open.
Aggression and intimidation have always played outsized roles in Sharapova's fortunes. But her game can run off the rails just as easily as it can run roughshod over an opponent's defenses. Sharapova has always hit her way out of trouble, and that habit doesn't die easily. She's had some experience with long breaks from the game. It will help as she tries to regroup.
Here's something that won't help the 29-year-old Russian: She is unloved by her fellow pros, whom Sharapova has always avoided and viewed narrowly as one-dimensional adversaries rather than peers. Some will be eager to get a few good licks in before Sharapova regains her pluck.
4. No American woman besides Serena will win a Grand Slam event: Madison Keys took big strides toward the top in 2016, finishing No. 8. But wrist surgery will force her to miss the Australian Open, the major where she's had the most success. Reuniting with former coach Lindsay Davenport seems like a good move, but it's difficult to coach a player into developing the kind of consistency it takes to winning seven consecutive matches at a Grand Slam event.
Sloane Stephens is down to No. 35 and a major question mark because of a foot injury that curtailed her 2016 campaign. She hasn't won a match since her third-round loss to Svetlana Kuznetsova at Wimbledon. Venus Williams, 36 and dealing with Sjogren's syndrome, just can't be expected to go the Grand Slam distance. She's down to No. 17 and will run into high seeds fairly early in tournaments. All the other U.S. players are prohibitive long shots.
5. Victoria Azarenka will eventually regain her top form: Leaving the game to have a child is a great career risk as well as a potential career rejuvenator. Kim Clijsters can speak to the second half of that premise eloquently, having come out of retirement after giving birth to a daughter to win the US Open in 2009. She was not only the first mother to win a major since Evonne Goolagong in 1980, but Clijsters was also the first unseeded player and first wild-card entry to win the event.
Unlike, Clijsters who was a durable player, Azarenka has always struggled with injuries. But let's remember that before withdrawing from the 2016 season in July, she was playing some of her finest tennis. Still just 27, Azarenka won three titles last year, including the prestigious Indian Wells-Miami double.