With the Australian summer winding down, the focus of the new season will turn to Melbourne Park for the year’s first Major, the Australian Open. In a draw that looks as interesting as perhaps unbalanced, (the top half is much harder than the bottom half), here’s how we expect things to play out:
1. Simona Halep: The top seed is a mess right now. Coachless, coming off of back surgery at the end of last year and switching to a new racket, the Romanian has not won a match since the semifinals of Cincinnati last year. In an ironic twist of fate, Halep will face Kaia Kanepi in the first round as she did at the US Open last year when the Estonian won easily 6-2 6-4. Her #1 ranking is likely to be gone after Melbourne and her days as a top contender may also go with it.
2. Angelique Kerber: She has looked good since winning Wimbledon last year and reached the finals at the Hopman Cup with Alexander Zverev for the second year running. Lost in the quarterfinals of Sydney to Petra Kvitova, but is deservedly the favorite and has a good-looking draw. Hopefully, Aryna Sabalenka makes it to the semifinals, where a match against the German will likely determine the champion.
3. Caroline Wozniacki: Let’s just get this out here now: she’s not defending her title. She has shown no form since beating Halep one year ago (bar Eastbourne and Beijing) and will go out to the first big hitter she plays. That could be Maria Sharapova, who might be waiting in the third round.
4. Naomi Osaka: Won her first Major title in New York in utterly dominant fashion, dropping one set in seven matches, capped off by a dominant win over Serena Williams in the final. Admitted after her Brisbane loss to Lesia Tsurenko that she was disinterested, which is not a good sign. Her one saving grace is that she landed in the perfect section of the draw, with Elina Svitolina the highest seed she could face before the semifinals.
5. Sloane Stephens: OK, I admit it: I was wrong about Sloane finding “newfound consistency.” She was bageled twice in Sydney, both times by qualifiers and she hasn’t won a match at the season’s first major since 2015. If she’s into it, she could go a long way, a possible quarterfinal against Sabalenka or Kerber a delightful prospect. If not, she could lose to anyone.
6. Elina Svitolina: Perhaps not being talked about as one of the favorites will benefit the Ukranian this time. She’s not coming into Melbourne with a title (as she did in 2018 after winning Brisbane) and while she’s in the “section of opportunity”, she had her best chance in the quarterfinals last year before getting dismantled by Elise Mertens. She’ll get it done eventually, but she has to prove it to me first before I pick her again.
7. Karolína Plíšková: Won her second Brisbane crown in the last three years and the coaching team of Conchita Martinez and Rennae Stubbs will lead her to a major or two at some point in her career. Could it be here? Sure, but she’s failed to deliver in the majors since being three games away from the title at the 2016 US Open. Like Svitolina, I’ve picked her a lot. Unlike Svitolina, she’s at least made another major semi. Probably playing the best of anyone in the top half.
8. Petra Kvitová: Speaking of playing well, that’s exactly what the Czech did in 2018, winning a tour-best five titles. She won a thriller in the Sydney final against Ashleigh Barty. Only one career semifinal in Melbourne, which was seven years ago. Could see Sabalenka for a second straight tournament (Kvitova beat her in the first round of Sydney last week) as well as a second straight major (Sabalenka took her out in the third round of the U.S. Open). Also has a possible third-round encounter with Belinda Bencic.
9. Kiki Bertens: It’s been a delight to watch the talented Dutchwoman evolve her game on surfaces other than clay as evidenced by her title in Cincinnati last summer, staging a memorable comeback against Halep in the final. Also beat Venus Williams and Pliskova at Wimbledon. Lost a thriller to Barty in the Sydney semifinals and doesn’t have an easy draw with Alison Riske in the first round and either Aliaksandra Sasnovich or Anett Kontaveit in the third round. Still, a deep run is a real possibility.
10. Daria Kasatkina: Since Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova isn’t seeded here and thus won’t feature in this report, someone has to take her mantle as most frustrating Russian on tour to watch. She has all the skills to challenge the top players, but too often resorts to pushing, defensive tennis instead of offensive, attacking tennis. Reached her first two major quarterfinals in Paris and London in 2018, but was blown away by Stephens and lost to Kerber in a more competitive match. Her loss to Sasnovich in the first round of Sydney can be forgiven. Her loss to 283rd-ranked wild card Kimberly Birrell in the first round of Brisbane cannot. She has a long way to go still.
11. Aryna Sabalenka: Despite being in the same half of the draw as Kerber, she’s the second favorite as the 20-year old Belarussian has copped three titles since last summer (two of them at the Premier level), was the only player to take a set off of Osaka in New York and has all of the weapons to win this and any other major she enters. Will the pressure of expectations at a Slam for the first time get in her way? We’ll find out. It’ll be a fun ride nonetheless.
12. Elise Mertens: Shocked everyone by reaching the semifinals last year, but has backed up that result by being on the cusp of the Top 10. She really doesn’t have a powerful, overwhelming shot (a negative on fast courts), but she’s an excellent mover and does everything pretty well. Reached the quarterfinals of Sydney and is the “section of opportunity” (you’ll be seeing this term a few more times). Can she repeat last year’s performance? Maybe, but regardless, her upward trajectory continues.
13. Anastasija Sevastova: I’m a big of the Latvian and was positively thrilled to see her reach the semifinals at Flushing Meadows last year, ending Stephens’ title defense in the quarterfinals (the round she had reached the previous two years). Her all-around game and variety are a pleasure to watch. Can she translate all of that to a faster court? Not sure, but guess what section of the draw she’s in.
14. Julia Goerges: Defended her title in Auckland and reached the Wimbledon semifinals last year, edging Bertens in the last eight. Has never been past the fourth round Down Under, but her game is made for these courts. Unfortunately, she landed in the same section as Kerber. Still, good to see her hold steady in the 10-15 range in the rankings.
15. Ashleigh Barty: She was playing well coming into her home Slam last year and is in even better form this time around (won Zhuhai, is in the final of Sydney). Another player with a lovely all-around game, she displayed that in beating Halep a couple of days ago. I picked her to reach the semifinals last year (she lost to Osaka in the third round) and, based on her draw and current level, might do it again.
16. Serena Williams: Played in the stress-free environment of the Hopman Cup alongside Frances Tiafoe as coach Patrick Mouratoglou was focusing on how she looked in her singles matches. The good news is she’s reached the last two major finals. The bad news is Kerber and Osaka dominated her both times. Would it surprise me if she won? No. Am I picking her to do so? No. Could face sister Venus in the Round of 16 at the major where they first met 21 years ago.
17. Madison Keys: She’s got a new coach (again) in Jim Madrigal and is dealing with injuries (again), this time her left knee giving her problems. Reached two major semifinals in 2018 and still hits a huge ball. She’s in the “section of opportunity” (there it is again!) and could face Svitolina, who she beat at the U.S. Open, in the fourth round once more.
18. Garbiñe Muguruza: A shame she withdrew from her second-round match in Sydney against Bertens as she looked fairly good against countrywoman Carla Suarez Navarro in the first round. I’ll stand by my claim that getting rid of Martinez as coach was the biggest mistake she ever made, but she does at least draw one of the most vulnerable top 10 seeds in Kasatkina.
19. Caroline Garcia: What’s happened to her? She took the fall of 2017 by storm, winning Wuhan and Beijing as well as reaching the semifinals of the WTA Championships in Singapore. Her 2018? Non-descript to say the least, reaching just two semifinals. Like Svitolina (to a much lesser extent), maybe the pressure of not having to live up to her expectations/seed will benefit her. She won’t beat Goerges in the third round, though.
20. Anett Kontaveit: The Estonian is another one high on my personal list of favorites, but she’s failed to live up to what I thought and predicted she could do in majors so far. I’ll still support her, but dispiriting losses to Lesia Tsurenko in Brisbane and Monica Puig in Sydney have me backing off of her for now. Could be knocked out by Sasnovich in the second round.
21. Qiang Wang: I really don’t want to say this, but is she really as good as the seed next to her name? Reached four finals in smaller events, winning in Jiangxi and Guangzhou, runner-up in Hong Kong and Zhuhai. The best opponent she faced was Barty, who she lost to in the season-ender. No doubt she has talent and some power, but Sevastova will end her tournament in the third round. Heck, even Aleksandra Krunic could beat her in the second round.
22. Jelena Ostapenko: That serve……………….she overcame it to reach the Wimbledon semifinals, losing to Kerber, but until she fixes that shot, she’ll never fulfill her enormous potential. What happened in Paris two years ago was not a fluke and is still only 21, but she won’t always be able to win in spite of that serve. Brutal first-rounder against Maria Sakkari.
23. Carla Suarez Navarro: Pushed Wozniacki to three sets here last year and has a nice draw for two rounds until she sees Serena in the third round. Still with the mantle of best player to never reach a major semifinal.
24. Lesia Tsurenko: Took advantage of Kontaveit and Osaka coming out (and staying) flat in Brisbane to reach the final. Was on the verge of the title until nerves and a terribly unfortunate ankle injury in the third set against Pliskova got to her. Won’t get past Sabalenka in round three, but the Top 20 beckons for the Ukranian.
25. Mihaela Buzarnescu: Speaking of unfortunate injuries, the Romanian suffered an even worse ankle problem than Tsurenko, wheeled off of the court in Montreal against Svitolina a week after winning her first career title in San Jose. Credit to her for playing her best tennis at age 30, but got the short end of the stick in facing Venus in the opening round, even if the seven-time major champion is not in great form.
26. Dominika Cibulkova: I have no reason to believe what i’m about to type, but i’ll go ahead and do it, anyway: the Slovak is in perfect position to surprise and possibly reach the semifinals. Why? She’s a former finalist, she has a kind draw (yes, she’s in “that” section) and the lone big hitter in her way is Keys, who can self-destruct at a moment’s notice. Osaka (if motivated) could knock her out in the quarterfinals, but Cibulkova will relish the chance if she gets it.
27. Camila Giorgi: Speaking of hit-and-miss, that’s exactly what the Italian will do. She lost to Kerber in the second round of Sydney and will face a taller, more consistent power player with a much better serve in Pliskova and therefore, she’ll be going home in round three.
28. Su-wei Hsieh: What a delightful game the 31-year old possesses. She upset Halep with court craft, skill, variety and poise in the third round of Wimbledon last year and took her third career title in Hiroshima in 2018. She could face Victoria Azarenka in the second round and Osaka in the third, which would make for a brilliant match of contrasting styles.
29. Donna Vekic: Drew a virtual walking bye in Kristina Mladenovic in the first round and played very well to reach the semifinals in Brisbane, losing to Pliskova. It seems she might finally be starting to put it all together and use her talents to their greatest effect. If she plays Kerber in the third round and puts up a good showing, she’ll have done well.
30. Maria Sharapova: The comeback is not going as she planned and she retired against Sabalenka in the quarterfinals of Shenzhen as the Belarussian was dragging her all over the court, leading 6-2, 4-1. She’s lucky to have drawn Wozniacki, but Barty will end her tournament in the round of 16.
31. Petra Martic: Always talented, oft-injured. Won a 125K tournament in Chicago and reached the quarterfinals in Quebec City to get her ranking high enough to earn a seed. She has an interesting draw with Marketa Vondrousova in the second round and Stephens in the third round. All in all, it’s good to see the Croat back on the court.
32. Barbora Strycova: Well, she at least will provide us (as always) with great entertainment, but in drawing Yulia Putintseva in the first round and possibly countrywoman Katerina Siniakova in the second round, the drama could be ratcheted up a few more notches. Has made the fourth round here the last three years.
Dangerous unseeded players
Aliaksandra Sasnovich: I’m amazed no one is talking about the talented Belarussian as a possible sleeper. Upset Kvitova in the first round of Wimbledon last year and already has wins over Kasatkina and Svitolina this year. Having just missed a seed by one spot, she draws Kirsten Flipkens in the first round, Kontaveit in the second round and Bertens in the third round, a draw that could see the 24-year old into her first major Round of 16.
Maria Sakkari: Beat Venus on the way to her first career final in San Jose. Unfortunately, she froze in the championship match against Buzarnescu, winning just one game. Her movement and return game will serve her well against Ostapenko. If she gets by that, a second-round match against either Astra Sharma or Priscilla Hon should see her get to the third round to play Barty. Like countryman Stefanos Tsitsipas, she’s on the rise.
Dayana Yastremska: She’s in the Top 60 on the strength of a title in Hong Kong, blasting Wang in the final. Made the semifinals in Luxembourg, claiming a notable victory over Muguruza. Made the quarterfinals in Hobart, losing to Bencic. She gets Samantha Stosur (who never plays well in her home slam) and Suarez Navarro in the second round (doable) before a third round encounter with Serena. The tennis fan who doesn’t already know about this skilled 18-year old will now.
Venus Williams: Why am I putting her on this list despite the fact she’s barely in the Top 40 and her one tuneup match was a loss to Bianca Andreescu in the second round of Auckland? Easy. If you think Kanepi will beat Halep again (which I do), then she should be able to handle Buzarnescu in round one, get past either Alize Cornet or Lara Arruabarrena in round two and either Kanepi or Hobart champion Sofia Kenin in round three to set up a last 16 showdown with Serena. Let’s hope for one more great run by this legendary champion.
Iga Świątek: So you might be wondering “who?” Well, this 17-year old Pole is this year’s version of Marta Kostyuk, the sensational Ukranian who reached the third round of the main draw last year after qualifying at age 15. Winner of the Junior Fed Cup at age 14, Świątek won the French Open girls’ doubles title, Wimbledon girls’ singles title, and Gold in the Youth Olympics in 2018. She won six straight sets in qualifying after dropping the first set to Olga Danilovic in the first round. She makes her WTA Tour-level main draw debut against Ana Bogdan and if she gets past that, Giorgi in round two. Pliskova will beat her in round three if she upsets the Italian, but all of us should be keeping an eye on this brilliant young talent.
Best first-round matches
Halep vs Kanepi: There’s really no need to say much about this one except that when Kanepi wins, because of Halep’s current state, the shock value will be less than it was in New York.
Sakkari vs Ostapenko: The Latvian will need to serve well or she’ll be out right away. A feisty competitor, Sakkari will push Ostapenko and may very well emerge as the victor. If they’re both on, this will be a treat.
Venus vs Buzarnescu: It’s great the Romanian is back after the horror of her injury in Canada last year, but she (like Venus) has played one warmup match to get ready for Melbourne. Venus will pick on her serve, but if the seven-time major champion isn’t protecting her own serve well, this could be a long one.
Kvitova vs Magdaléna Rybáriková: The Slovak reached the fourth round here last year and may be able to take advantage of a tired Kvitova, who won a marathon in the Sydney final against Barty. The Czech’s poor record in Melbourne (she’s only been past the third round twice in nine matches) combined with possible fatigue means Rybáriková is definitely in with a chance.
Pliskova def. Mertens: This may come as a bit of surprise to see Mertens back in the semifinals, but her draw is very open and she’s steady enough to defeat any player in her path back to the last four. The issue will be in this match when she plays someone who not only can overpower her, but is in good form and steady. Pliskova will finally reach a second Grand Slam final.
Kerber def. Sabalenka: As I said above, this is, for all intents and purposes, the championship match. The 11th seed has a brilliant future ahead of her and will be a multi-Slam champion in the future, but I think Kerber will stop her here. The German will be able to get Sabalenka in enough long rallies and force enough errors to claim a narrow win and reach the final.
Kerber def. Pliskova: These two played one of the best Major finals in recent memory with their three-set classic in 2016 at Flushing Meadows. Kerber will be seeing a more consistent version of Sabalenka here and very well may be pushed to the brink again (Pliskova led 3-1 in the final set of that 2016 U.S. Open final). In the end, the German’s steadiness and pinpoint ground game will see off a spirited challenge by the Czech to capture her second Australian Open title and fourth major overall.