What Sharapova needs to achieve in 2015

On Monday, we evaluated some of the top ATP stars in terms of what -- if anything -- they had at stake going into the new year. Now we’ll look at the women in the same three categories.

The Champions

No. 1 Serena Williams ended the frustrating Grand Slam season of 2014 with a flourish -- a win at her native US Open. With 18 major singles titles to her name, it’s hard to say anything at all is riding on 2015 for La Serena. She’s 33 years old now, and her most reasonable goal is breaking a three-way tie in the major title count with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.

No. 2 Maria Sharapova is in a somewhat unusual situation. At 27, she has a career Grand Slam. That puts her in the history books, even though she’s won just five Grand Slam titles (most recently at the French Open) -- not nearly good enough to put her on the short list of great champions. What she can do, however, is add at least a win or two over Serena to her dismal 2-16 head-to-head record. Don’t ever forget that people always forget: Should Sharapova beat Williams on a big stage, it will do wonders overnight for her status.

No. 4 Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic played a dream final to win the second Wimbledon title of her career in 2014 and played with consistency not seen since 2011. Did she hit a career reset button in 2014 -- that’s the big question hovering over the tall and rangy left-hander.

No. 7 Ana Ivanovic hasn’t won a Grand Slam title since the one she bagged at the French Open in 2008. She’s had few resurgences since then. Give the diligent Serb credit for persistence and fidelity. It’s imperative for her to avoid backsliding once again. Her critical assignment: Find a way to win a big match or two at the most crucial of times.

No. 42 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, a former No. 1 and two-time Australian Open champ, is hoping to recapture her form after an injury-plagued (knee and foot) 2014 that caused her ranking to plummet because of inactivity. To put it bluntly, her career is at stake given her history of frailty. If she can play pain-free, the rest will take care of itself.

The Contenders

No. 3 Simona Halep played an outstanding French Open final (losing to Sharapova) in 2014 and backed up the enormous strides she took in 2013. She’s nimble, swift and an excellent counter-puncher, but she let a few opportunities slip away after that performance at Roland Garros. The Romanian homebody also changed coaches despite her success last year. The question surrounding her now is: Can she close the deal and win a big one?

No. 5 Agnieszka Radwanska, a Wimbledon finalist in 2012, has been compared with a magician owing to her creative shot selection and general feel for the ball. But a number of players have figured out how she gets that rabbit out of the hat. With new coach Martina Navratilova at her side, Radwanska will try to add a little more aggression to her game. The best female player ever produced by Poland, Radwanska’s main job this year is to find more offense -- or perhaps accept that she doesn’t have enough ooomph to win a major.

No. 6 Eugenie Bouchard made the semifinals or better at three Grand Slam events in 2014, yet she’s won only one title in her entire career (Nurnberg). The 20-year-old Montreal native was the “it” girl in tennis in 2014. She’s so media-friendly and marketable that she’s already created a backlash, which also suggests that what Bouchard most needs to do this year is back up those results. No player will have as much pressure on her shoulders.

No. 8 Caroline Wozniacki’s A-game went AWOL during her relationship with Irish golfer Rory McIlroy, but it returned with a fury after their breakup in May 2014. Now the only woman ever to hold the year-end No. 1 ranking for two consecutive years without having won a single Grand Slam event has worked herself back into position to pick up where she left off. She’s older and wiser but needs to show she can be better as well.

Players of Interest

No. 13 Andrea Petkovic of Germany is not merely a fun-loving and charming personality (who can forget the “Petko dance”?) -- she’s an excellent athlete whose progress was derailed by injuries. (She clawed her way back from No. 149 to 39 in 2013.) She’s strong and blessed with a good competitive temperament; it’s time she laid all her cards on the table.

No. 20 Garbine Muguruza of Venezuela was outside the top 50 at the start of 2014, then she made headlines with a stunning second-round upset of French Open top seed Serena Williams. She’s just 21, so time is on her side; she can afford to slip up and make mistakes. But if she wants to establish herself a leader among the wave of young players, she needs to build on her present position and make a run at the top 10.

No. 30 Madison Keys spent the better part of 2014 becoming accustomed to her status as a top-30 player after a breakout 2013.The 5-foot-10 native of Rock Island, Illinois, has a potent serve and heavy forehand. She’s just 19, but that’s not too early to display the consistency of a contender at big tournaments.

No. 31 Belinda Bencic of Switzerland has people thinking that the nation isn’t too small to produce a female star to rival Roger Federer. At 17, she could still be competing in the juniors. Instead, this poised, clever youngster who started last year ranked No. 212 seems ready to contend for major titles thanks to a silken game and a cool Chris Evert-esque temperament. She’s one of those players who focuses on the fact that she has everything to gain rather than on the reality that she’s just a kid and has nothing to lose.

No. 35 Sloane Stephens, once the great American female hope, had a terrible year that started with her loss of status as a woman designed to shine on the biggest stages and ended with a nagging wrist injury and an uncertain coaching situation. Early this year, she hired Nick Saviano, who developed and brought Bouchard into the first-class car. Stephens needs to win -- it’s a simple as that.