By Dennis Passa
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
BRISBANE, Australia _ There may be no tougher act to follow in any sport in 2016 than Serena Williams’ attempt to match her nearly perfect season of tennis last year.
Williams, who won the first three majors in 2015 and lost in the U.S. Open semifinals _ 26 consecutive wins in majors, just missing a calendar-year Grand Slam _ will begin that attempt when she teams with Jack Sock for the American team at the Hopman Cup in Perth, Western Australia.
The Americans play their first match Monday against Ukraine.
The tournament is part of the Australian Open Series that includes the Brisbane International, which begins Sunday and includes defending champions Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova, and next week’s Sydney International and Hobart International, culminating in the start of the Australian Open on Jan. 18 at Melbourne Park.
In between, Auckland, New Zealand will also host separate women’s and men’s tournaments over the next two weeks. This week, Shenzen, China hosts a WTA tournament and Doha, Qatar (Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are the headliners) and Chennai, India (with Stan Wawrinka) hold ATP events.
Last year, Williams began her 53-3, five-title season with a win over Sharapova in the Australian Open final. She followed that with a win on clay in the French Open and on grass at Wimbledon before losing in a shocking upset to Roberta Vinci in the U.S. Open semifinals.
Williams and playing partner John Isner lost in the Hopman Cup final last year.
Her singles opponent in Perth on Monday, Elina Svitolina, is winless in three matches against Williams, who was named Associated Press female athlete of 2015. The Ukrainian, who will team with Alexandr Dolgopolov, says it’s always best to try to get to Williams early in a match.
“Sometimes she starts slowly,” Svitolina said. “It makes it really tough because you never know if she’s going to serve an ace, or a double fault, or it’s going to be a normal point.”
Andy Murray and Heather Watson, representing Britain, also play their opening match Monday against France’s Caroline Garcia and Kenny De Schepper.
The Hopman Cup begins Sunday when the Australia Green team _ Nick Kyrgios and Daria Gavrilova _ play Germany’s Sabine Lisicki and Alexander Zverev. In the other match, the Australia Gold team, featuring Lleyton Hewitt, who will retire after the Australian Open, and Jarmila Gajdosova, play Karolina Pliskova and Jiri Vesely of Czech Republic.
At Brisbane, top-seeded Federer and second-seeded Kei Nishikori are among those with first-round byes, while Sharapova will play fellow Russian Ekaterina Makarova in a replay of last year’s Australian Open semifinal.
“For a first match, it’s a pretty high-quality match against a pretty tough opponent,” Sharapova said.
Sharapova and top-seeded Simona Halep are both in the top half of the Brisbane draw. Halep, after a first-round bye, could face two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, who plays a qualifier in the first round, in the second round. Garbine Muguruza is the No. 2 seed.
Sharapova said the hot and humid weather in subtropical Brisbane is the perfect preparation for the often scorching conditions in Melbourne during the Australian Open.
“I started this event quite late in my career, but once I did I just felt it was the best preparation I could have going into the first Grand Slam,” Sharapova said.
Federer arrived in Brisbane on Saturday. The 34-year-old Swiss, winner of a record 17 Grand Slams, won his last major at Wimbledon in 2012. Novak Djokovic won three Grand Slam titles last year while Federer’s best efforts were reaching the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals.
“I’ve come so close, I’ve played very well, but I don’t feel any frustration because of it,” Federer said. “I’m still happy with how I’m playing. It was Novak’s year …”
“But at the same time I don’t feel sorry for myself. I’ve won so much throughout my career, I feel like if I keep pushing forward it might happen. If not, it’s OK.”