Australian Open 2020: Women’s Singles Preview & Predictions

As we enter the new decade, the tour enters a new narrative.

In the 2010s, we predominantly saw Serena emerge as, (in)arguably, the Greatest of All Time. However, at the tail end of 2019, we saw a trio of young players emerge as Grand Slam champions and spark rivalries that have the potential to command our attention for the next ten years.

Will these three youngsters, Ash Barty, Naomi Osaka, and Bianca Andreescu, silence the old guard. Or, will tour veterans, like Serena, Simona, and Petra, add to the legacy of their already distinguished careers. Or, to further complicate things, will the “middle-generation”, which includes Karolina Pliskova, Elina Svitolina, and Kiki Bertens, elevate their established careers to Grand Slam heights.

Whatever happens, the tone of the next decade could be set in the coming fortnight.

Ashleigh Barty Adelaide Champion 2020

FIRST QUARTER

Last year, Ash Barty entered the Australian Open as the fifteenth seed on the heels of an excruciating loss to Petra Kvitova in the final of the Sydney International. It was the second year in a row in which the young Aussie came painfully close to claiming a title on home soil, only to fall at the last hurdle. Shaking off the disappointment, Barty went on to reach the quarterfinals, scoring a signature win of Maria Sharapova in the process.

The win propelled the young Aussie throughout the rest of the year, going on to claim the Miami Open, Roland Garros, and World No. 1 ranking in the coming months.

Whereas other players have crumbled from the pressure that comes with “World No. 1” attached to your name, Barty’s relaxed and composed demeanor has never let the moment get the best of her. She was cool-as-a-cucumber while claiming the WTA Finals trophy in Shenzhen and the largest payout in tennis history ($10M USD).

Melbourne hasn’t had a home-sprung champion since Chris O’Neil claimed the trophy at the dawn of the Open era. Since then, few Aussies have thrived under the raucous spotlight that the home crowd casts upon its local heroes. However, something feels different about Barty. Exhuming the carefree ethos that typifies the land Down Under, Barty seems prepared to go all the way this year.

She enters this year’s championships as World No.1 and on the heels of hoisting the trophy in Adelaide–vanquishing the demons that have haunted her for the past two seasons.

Furthermore, her draw doesn’t seem to pose many threats. She opens against Lesia Tsurenko, whose form seems to have cooled off significantly after reaching a career-high ranking of No. 23 last year. In Round Three, she could face Polona Hercog, whose inspired 2019 came to a demoralizing halt after losing to Coco Gauff at Wimbledon– a match watched all around the world.

The primary contender in Barty’s half of the quarter is Alison Riske, who seems to be continuing the momentum she generated in the second half of last year. In recent years, the courts of Melbourne have been some of the fastest on the tour. Furthermore, the higher bounce that Plexicushion offers places the ball in the strike-zone of flat-hitters like Riske. In short, with risk comes reward, so don’t count Riske out.

In the bottom half of this quarter sits last year’s finalist, Petra Kvitova. In the first round, she is slated to face former Doubles No. 1, Katerina Siniakova. Given Petra’s impeccable record versus countrywomen, that should be a fairly straightforward task.

The steepest competition the Czech lefty could face is Madison Keys, who enters this year’s tournament hot off the heels of a finals appearance in Brisbane. The American opens against Daria Kasatkina and could face Maria Sakkari in round three, however, Madison seems so thrive under the conditions of playing in a Slam, reaching at least the fourth round in eleven of her past fifteen Grand Slam appearances.

Semifinalist Prediction: Ash Barty

Serena Williams Melbourne 2019 2020 Auckland Champion

Second Quarter

Without a doubt, this quarter is the marquee section of the draw.

In the top half of the quarter, we’ve got last year’s champion, Naomi Osaka, Venus Williams, and Coco Gauff. It’s the first-round match between the latter two names that’s left the tennis community speechless.

Coco’s win over the elder Williams at Wimbledon last year launched the teenager into stardom. Since that signature win, Coco-mania hasn’t subsided.

Venus enters this year’s tournament rehabbing an injury and short on match play, having not won a match since September last year. Furthermore, she sits on the cusp of missing Olympic qualification, an event in which she’s openly declared as one of her incentives to continue to compete as she approaches 40.

However, given the history & circumstances, Coco certainly enters the match bearing the burden of expectation. She won once, but was it a fluke?

Continuing the tradition of coincidences, if Coco were to win this match, her projected third-round opponent would be Naomi Osaka–a rematch of their third-round US Open match last year. Will Coco be able to improve upon the 6-3, 6-0 lesson Naomi had to teach? Will we receive another iconic & heartfelt moment between the two?

Compared to Coco, the road for Serena Williams, who sit in the other half of this quarter, is far less treacherous. She opens against the fiery Russian, Anastasia Potapova, which should be a more than manageable matchup for her. In the fourth round, she could potentially face good friend (and recent double’s partner), Caroline Wozniacki, who is playing the final tournament of her professional career.

Unfortunately for the Dane, it remains questionable as to whether she will be able to make it that far. In round two, she is slated to face Diana Yastremska, who arrives hot on the heels of reaching the final in Adelaide. Furthermore, she enters 2020 with a new coach, Sacha Bajin, who coach Naomi Osaka to the title last year and who previously served as Wozniacki’s hitting partner.

If she were to solve that riddle, she could face Johana Konta in round three. Konta has been on a Grand Slam tear as of late, reaching at least the quarterfinals of the past three majors. In fact, the Australian Open has been Konta’s most successful Slam, being the site of her Grand Slam breakthrough in 2016. The British No. 1 owns a 73% match-win percentage at the event.

Semifinalist Prediction: Serena Williams

ozhalep

Third Quarter

When will Simona Halep be dealt an easy draw in Oz? In 2018, she battled Bouchard, Osaka, Kerber, and Pliskova en route to the final, before sputtering out just in front of the finish line against Wozniacki. Last year, she faced Kanepi, Kenin, and the Sisters Williams back-to-back-to-back-to-back.

This year, she returns to Melbourne with Darren Cahill at her side and she would love nothing more than to raise his home Slam’s trophy in his honor. However, yet again, her draw looks difficult.

She opens against Jennifer Brady, who pushed her to the limit at the Rogers Cup last year and who seems to be playing some inspired tennis after enlisting the help Julia Goerges’ former coach. However, the biggest threat in her section is Danielle Collins, last year’s surprise semifinalist who has already compiled a 6-2 record to start the year (which includes two Top 10 wins). This week, she came within points of defeating World No. 1 Ash Barty in the Adelaide semifinals, losing 7-6 (5) in the third-set breaker.

In the other half of this quarter sits Belinda Bencic, who owns a 3-3 record versus the Romanian, and Aryna Sabalenka, who demolished Simona 6-4, 6-2 just this week in Adelaide.

The latter player is playing with a renewed vigor, following the unexpected passing of her father during the off-season. Faced with the decision to stay at home or leave for training, the young Belarussian decided to leave because it’s what her dad would have wanted her to do.

While many expected big things for Sabalenka in 2019, she failed to make a dent until the Asian Swing, hoisting the trophies in Wuhan & Zhuhai. The ruthless youngster is nye impossible to stop when she’s on a streak; the question is if she can carry that momentum into the second week of a Slam.

Semifinalist Prediction: Sabalenka

Karolina Pliskova Birsband 2020 Champion

Fourth Quarter

In this quarter lie the “middle-generation” of players, previously mentioned. It is helmed by World No. 2, Karolina Pliskova, and on the opposite end of the spectrum sits Elina Svitolina.

Karolina recently defended her title in Brisbane (a first for the Czech) and en route brought an end to Naomi Osaka’s 14-match win-streak (saving match point in the process, no less). While the Czech is famous for her stone-cold gaze, however, underneath that calm demeanor she often battles with nerves during tense matches.

Unfortunately for her, her draw is extremely difficult–perhaps the most difficult of any player in the tournament. If she’s still feeling nervous, even with new coach Dani Vallverdu by her side, any of the players that she’s slated to face are more than capable of exploiting those emotions.

First off, she opens against Kristina Mladenovic, who loves nothing more than to spoil a party. In round two she faces the winner of Coco Vandeweghe (who blew her off the court at the 2017 US Open) or Laura Siegmund, who appears back-on-track after a nasty knee injury derailed her momentum in 2018.

Beyond, she could face Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who appears revitalized under the tutelage of Sam Sumyk, Jessica Pegula, who recently reached the Auckland final under new coach David Witt, or Taylor Townsend, the Auckland doubles champion with a trademark serve-and-volley game-style.

Also sitting in Pliskova’s way are Angelique Kerber (who retired in Adelaide with a back-injury) and Market Vondrousova, who returns to tour after undergoing wrist surgery last Summer.

Conversely, Elina Svitolina’s path to the quarterfinals is much easier. She opens against Katie Boutler, who is using a Protected Ranking to enter this tournament following a back injury, which relegated her to the sidelines for much of last season. However, Svitolina doesn’t enter this tournament in fine form either–bottoming out to 6-4, 6-0 in a listless performance last week in the first round of Brisbane.

In round three, the Ukranian could face Garbiñe Muguruza, who appears to be reinvigorated after dropping Sam Sumyk for Conchita Martinez. Conchita coached Garbiñe to the Wimbledon title in 2017 and, it appears, that her calm & relaxed personality works wonders for the Spaniard.  In 2020, she’s already reached two semifinals, in Shenzhen & Hobart.

Seminfinalsit Prediction: Muguruza

 

Semifinal Predictions:

Barty d. S. Williams

Muguruza d. Sabalenka

 

Final Prediction:

Muguruza d. Barty

WTA Retirement Watch 2020

As the decade pulls away in the rearview mirror, the prospect of retirement looms ahead for many of the recent decade’s greats.

Just recently, the tennis world digested the news of the immediate retirement of Dominika Cibulkova, former world No. 4, 2016 WTA Finals Champion and 2014 Australian Open runner-up. It is impossible for any die-hard tennis fan not to miss the peppy Slovakian, with her tennis ball-sniffing prowess and tendency to create knock-down, drag-out classics (if there is one match you have to watch it is her 2016 Wimbledon fourth round versus ‘The Magician’ herself, Agnieska Radwanska).

However, Dominika certainly isn’t alone in her contemplation of retirement. In fact, on the ATP Tour, many of her male contemporaries, such as David Ferrer & Tomas Berdych, have also called it quits. With the upcoming 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo looming around the corner, many of these players may find it to be the perfect time to hang up their racquets.

Check out below for my list of the Top 10 players likely to retire by the close of 2020.

(NOTE: for the purposes of this list, only players formerly ranked in the Top 10 are in consideration):

Stosur

10. Sam Stosur

Being a former World No. 1 in doubles, a three-time double Grand Slam winner, and a singles Grand Slam champion, Sam Stosur’s CV arguably earns her a place in the tennis Hall of Fame. In fact, her triumph over Serena Williams in the 2011 US Open Final ranks amongst one of the biggest Grand Slam final upsets in history.

However, the Australian’s best days appear to be over. A wrist injury in 2017 saw her ranking dip and she currently ranks World No. 92. In 2018, to start the year, she hoisted her home Slam’s trophy in Melbourne by winning the doubles title alongside Zhang Shuai. However, her year was punctuated by losing a dramatic Fed Cup rubber to France.

It is questionable whether she’ll be able to qualify for the Olympics, given how long her singles ranking has fallen and the fact that only the Top 10 ranked doubles players gain direct entry into the event (and Sam currently sits at World No. 15 in that discipline).

She’s recently hired a new coach, former doubles partner Rennae Stubbs. However, I expect the 2020 season to be treated as a victory lap for the Aussie veteran.

Errani

9. Sara Errani

The former World No. 5 & 2012 French Open Finalist’s reputation took a permanent hit when the ITF announced that the Italian failed a doping testing in February of 2017. Given her string of poor results leading up to the failed test, the controversy may not have made headlines if she had not attributed the failed result to “accidentally” ingesting her mother’s cancer meds while eating homemade tortellini…

While she petitioned to reduce her sentence, her own federation petitioned for it to be extended. Ever since she’s been struggling to regain Top 100 form (heck, she’s even been struggling to get her serve in the court).

While Errani may have been the tour’s most consistent Italian from 2012-2013, her compatriots Francesca Schiavoni,  Flavia Pennetta, and Roberta Vinci have since surpassed her accomplishments (and retired themselves). I expect the Italian to hang up her racquet and join their ranks in the coming months.

Carla Suarez

8. Carla Suarez Navarro

It feels like Carla has been on tour forever. Turning pro in 2003 (at the age of 14), many pundits made comparisons to another Spanish teen phenom–Rafael Nadal. While her career never quite rivaled Rafa’s, she did enjoy success in her own right.

In 2016, the Spaniard was on a tear, notching nine Top-10 wins during the first five months of the season, reaching the finals of Miami & Rome in the process (losing to Serena Williams & Maria Sharapova in those finals, no less). The run of form buoyed her ranking to World No. 6 & the trophy in Dubai the following year.

Her seven (yes, seven) Grand Slam quarterfinal appearances are nothing to laugh at. However, her form has taken a slide after suffering a wrist injury in 2018. The technique on her one-handed backhand (which is a work of art), depends on the ability to flick her wrist, and as such, she hasn’t been able to produce the angles that her game depends on.

While she still ranks amongst the world’s Top 40, I expect the Spaniard to call it a career after 2020.

(NOTE: On December 3rd, 2019, Carla announced that 2020 will be her final season.)

Petkovic

7. Andrea Petkovic

Andrea Petkovic is certainly the player I would miss most if she chose to bid adieu to the tour.

The German’s story matches her unique personality. After a dazzling 2011, in which she reached three (yes, three) Grand Slam quarter-finals, she suffered a gruesome on-court knee injury, tearing her ACL. Returning to tour nearly two years later, she reaggravated the injury in her comeback faceoff versus Viktoria Azarenka.

It wasn’t until 2014 that Petko returned, briefly reentering the Top 10 in 2015 and reaching the French Open semifinals. However, since, she’s hovered around World No. 60.

Andrea is one of the most intelligent players on tour. She studied political science in university & consistently talks about her love of writers like Ernest Hemingway in her press conferences. In fact, she recently won a journalism award for her contributions to Racquet Magazine.

All in all, I expect the German to always be a consistent presence in the tennis community, however, due to her uncooperative body, her playing days may be numbered. Hopefully, we’ll get to see the Petko dance at least one last time!

(NOTE: On December 11th, 2019, Andrea announced that she has no plans to return, however, a recurring injury will likely force her to miss the 2020 Australian Open.)

Kuz

6. Svetlana Kuznetsova

In 2019, the Russian reminded us why to never count her out. In Cinncinatti, she sliced and diced her way through the likes of Anastasia Sevastova, Sloane Stephens, Karolina Pliskova, and World No. 1 Ash Barty before losing a tight final to Madison Keys,

However, despite the run of form, the Russian failed to carry momentum into any other tournaments to close out the year.

Svetlana is an interesting character. She first tasted the highest glory that the sport can offer by winning the US Open as a teenager in 2004. She would eventually rise to World No. 2 and once again taste Grand Slam success by winning Roland Garros in 2009. However, her results in the past decade have not nearly touched those heights.

When she reached the semifinals of the 2016 WTA Finals (after a bizarre match in which she gave herself an on-court haircut), she explained the source of her energy to continue to fight, even after all these years: her heart.

However, given her recurring wrist & knee injuries, you have to wonder how much more heart the Russian has left to give through 2020.

Wozniacki

5. Caroline Wozniacki

The Dane has long-rued the moniker of “Slamless No. 1”. However, after overcoming a hobbled Simona Halep in the 2018 Australian Open final, her days of answering the question, “When are you going to win a Slam?” are finally over.

Since hoising the biggest trophy of her career, she has failed to replicate that success. She’s reached only eight quarterfinals in thirty tournament appearances between 2018 & 2019. At the end of 2018, she revealed her diagnosis and battle with autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis. While she claims to have managed the condition, she played a truncated season this year (compared to the jam-packed schedule she typically plays).

While she may be experiencing difficulties on-court, off-court she appears to be in good spirits. She recently married retired NBA star, David Lee. Considering the humiliating manner to which her former-fiancé Rory McIlroy called off their wedding not-to-be, I’m sure she couldn’t be happier. In fact, many of her on-court contemporaries, like Daniela Hantuchova, have alluded to the fact that her happiness off-court may be eating at her devotion to the sport, especially given all that she’s achieved.

(NOTE: On December 6th, 2019, Caro announced that the 2020 Australian Open will be her final professional tournament.)

US Open Tennis

4. Venus Williams

At the age of 40, Venus Williams could become the oldest player to compete in Olympic singles (since the sport was reintroduced in 1988). However, at the moment, Venus is far behind in the race to claim one of the four singles qualifying spots on the U.S. team. Currently, her sister Serena, Madison Keys, Sofia Kenin, Alison Riske, and Coco Gauff rank above the seven-time Grand Slam singles champion.

While there is one wildcard that the Olympic committee may grant to a former Gold Medalist or Grand Slam champion, that wildcard looks like a highly competitive prize with 2016 champion Monica Puig, Maria Sharapova, Viktoria Azarenka and Williams all vying to make the cut.

Queen V is a trailblazer true and true, but, after years of setting her sights on Tokyo, you have to question where the future Hall of Famer finds the motivation to continue to fight heading into her forties.

Sharapova

3. Maria Sharapova

Speaking of Sharapova, the Russian is still on a quest for redemption, after her brief 2016 ITF suspension due to a failed drugs test. While her competitive flair remains intact, she has yet to generate any kind of momentum since returning to tour in 2017.

Her first-round losses at Wimbledon & the US Open were nothing short of humiliating (particularly her 6-1, 6-1 drubbing by “nemesis” Serena Williams). In fact, she ended her season ranked World No. 131, her lowest ranking since 2002.

It certainly doesn’t help that she has basically been in rehab for the majority of her return, attending to recurring shoulder, forearm, and hip injuries.

The game has evolved since Sharapova hit her peak–requiring a blend of strength, spin, and athleticism to reach the top. Sharapova possesses only one of those assets, and, combined with an uncooperating body, it appears her days are numbered.

Azarenka

2. Viktoria Azarenka

I cannot think of a player with worse luck than Viktoria Azarenka.

Winning the Australian Open in 2012 amidst a 26-match win-streak, Vika emerged as the de facto World No. 1 and the decade’s only true rival to the GOAT, Serena Williams.

However, her reign at the top was cut short due to an aggravated Achilles injury. It took her a few years to regain confidence in her movement (and an endless series of unfortunate first-round draws didn’t help either).

When she achieved the Sunshine Double in 2016, blasting Serena Williams off-court in the Miami final no less, it appeared that the Belarussian had reascended. However, her pregnancy, which she announced shortly thereafter, forced her away from competition yet again.

Unfortunately, due to a highly-publicized custody battle, Vika didn’t return to court until 2018. And, since her return, she has yet to win a title or make a deep run at a Grand Slam.

This year, she enlisted the help of Wim Fissette, who coached her to the Sunshine Double in 2016. In fact, the Belgian is responsible for career-best seasons from many players, including Simona Halep, Kim Clijsters, Angelique Kerber, Johana Konta, and Sabine Lisicki.  However, it appears that he has left Vika’s camp and is now working with Naomi Osaka.

After a first-round loss in Melbourne this year, Vika broke down in tears, admitting, “I’ve been through a lot of things in my life, and sometimes I wonder why I go through them.” She continues, “But I think they’re going to make me stronger. I want to believe that. And, I’m going to work hard for it.”

We all have to hope that 2020 starts to show the fruits of the former World No. 1’s labor, because few deserve it more.

Kerber

1. Angelique Kerber

It might seem premature to list the 2018 Wimbledon Champion as a prime candidate for retirement. However, while the German has realized her greatest achievements in recent years, they have all occurred after the age of 28. Angelique holds the unique distinction of being the oldest woman to ascend to World No. 1 for the first time.

The German reached the Indian Wells final to lead 2019, her season was undone by Bianca Andreescu and an ankle injury that she succumbed to during practice in Madrid. She ended the year ranked World No. 20.

It is no secret that Angelique is one of the more popular players on tour. However, many of her closest friends that she rose through the ranks with, including Ana Ivanovic, Aga Radwanska, and Caroline Wozniacki, have already called it a career.

While recently, the German has made it a habit of excelling in  even-numbered-years, you have to wonder if the German might contemplate calling it quits if she faces another difficult year.

Coco Gauff & the WTA’s Age Eligibility Rule

The talent & star power of fifteen-year-old Coco Gauff is undeniable.

There are maybe five or six tennis players who are truly household names. Now, when I say “household name”, I mean a name that doesn’t require any introduction or commencement of their Grand Slam titles or Weeks at No. 1. Household status belongs to only a select few, players like Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, and Maria Sharapova.

After her Cinderella runs at Wimbledon and the US Open, Coco Gauff is already one of those names.

Call Me Coco

However, arriving alongside her crossover success is scrutiny of the WTA’s Age Eligibility Rule by tennis analysts & media alike.

The WTA’s Age Eligibility Rule is a core element of the WTA’s Player Development Program, which aims to “promote and enhance players’ career fulfillment, safety, and well-being.”

As the rule states, “A 15-year-old may play up to 10 professional events (WTA & ITF Women’s Circuit), WTA Championships (if she qualifies), plus Fed Cup.” However, as a player grows older, the number of tournaments they are eligible for increases.

In light of Gauff’s recent success, many have called upon the WTA to revise the Age Eligibility Rule or do away with the regulation altogether.

Lindsay Davenport argues that the Rule limits Gauff’s ability to climb the rankings and win titles, citing a 17-year-old Martina Hingis’ 1997 season to support her case. Similarly, Martina Navratilova contends that the rule unnecessarily piles more pressure on the young American to produce her best results within her limited tournament appearances. Lastly, some argue that the Rule robs fans of the chance to view one of their favorite players in action (and, after all, tennis like all sports is about the fans).

However, we can’t lose sight of why this Rule exists: to protect young players.

Consider Andrea Jaeger, who vaulted to the top of the sport at the age of 16. She reached the 1983 Wimbledon Final by beating Billie Jean King 6-1, 6-1 only to succumb to Martina Navratilova 0-6, 3-6. The reason for the shockingly lackluster performance? Emotional fatigue. The night before the match, Andrea’s notoriously controlling father locked her out of her apartment due to an argument from practice. Ultimately, Andrea had to rely on Navratilova’s help to convince her father to let her back in.

Andrea Jaeger

Consider Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who reached the semifinals of Wimbledon at the age of 17. She seemed destined for a fruitful career, only to retire three years later due in order to escape physical and financial abuse from her father. It was only after fleeing to Florida and rediscovering her love of the game with a new coach that she returned on tour, returning to a Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open at the age of 35.

Consider Jelena Dokic, whose years of mental abuse by her father led to her changing her nationality not once, but twice, and caused her to miss the middle section of what could have been a storied career.

The tennis world seems to be in agreement that Coco’s parents aren’t your usual tennis parents. Even Andrea Jaeger has taken note, observing in the WTA Insider podcast, “I’ve seen some interviews with her parents and they seem really well adjusted.”

However, it’s impossible to alter the Rule à la carte for Coco, a player who seems adjusted and ready for primetime, without simultaneously making players with less stable teams & families vulnerable.

When asked about her opinion on the issue, Coco admits, “I definitely understand why the rule is there; it’s to protect the player.” When pressed further on whether she’d play more, she explains, “Even if the restrictions weren’t there, I wouldn’t play as much as the older players do, just because I am still trying to develop my game and train.” “I would obviously play more than the [current] rules state, but I don’t want to over-do it because I’m still fifteen…”

While we all want more Coco, it is extremely important to find a happy medium that allows these young players to play while instilling further safeguards protecting these same players from potential abuse.

A Thorough Analysis & Predictions: 2019 US Open Women’s Singles

A year ago, entering the US Open, I wrote about how the stakes were as high as ever for the usual suspects on the WTA Tour.

Serena was seeking to tie Margaret Court’s elusive record by claiming her first Grand Slam post-pregnancy. Maria Sharapova was attempting to redeem herself following her doping suspension. Halep was looking to cement herself as the undisputed leader of a tour increasingly defined by parity. Former Grand Slam Champions Kerber, Kvitova, and Muguruza were seeking to re-establish themselves amongst the game’s elite.

After one revolution around the sun, many of these narratives remain intact. If anything, several new wrinkles have arrived.

Firstly, we’ve got the arrivals of several newcomers, led by World No. 1 & 2, Naomi Osaka & Ashleigh Barty who enter this year’s championships with the experience of lifting Grand Slam hardware.  Furthermore, we’ve got the likes of even younger WTA rookies Bianca Andreescu and Sofia Kenin knocking on the door to the podium. Last, but not least, we’ve got the cloud of last year’s final hanging over the entire tournament.

Enough of introductions. Let’s dive deep into the matchups that the draw gods have given us.

First Quarter

20180908 Serena Williams v Naomi Osaka - Day 13
September 8, 2018 – Naomi Osaka in action against Serena Williams in the women’s singles final at the 2018 US Open.

If Naomi Osaka is feeling any nerves heading into her first attempt at defending a Grand Slam title (or any achiness in her knee for that matter), her draw is exactly the kind that could expose those anxieties.

Entering the first title defense of her career, earlier this year, at Indian Wells, Naomi threw the pressure off, explaining that she didn’t perceive the task as a title “defense” but more as an opportunity to win another title. However, after bowing out in the quarterfinals to Belinda Bencic, she admitted to feeling nervous.

Crippling anxiety has been a recurring theme for the young Japanese this season. After bowing out early in Madrid (again, to Belinda Bencic–take note), Naomi explained that the desire to secure top seeding at Roland Garros got to her. Even after claiming the top position, her nerves attributed to her sputtering loss to Katerina Siniakova in the third round of Paris. In her post-match presser, she explained that she has been thinking too much about “the calendar-year Grand Slam…

If we’ve learned anything in the past year, it is that Naomi holds only the highest of expectations for herself. While these expectations give her the motivation necessary to reach the pinnacle of the sport, they can also send her reeling for months on end.

In an open letter to fans before the North American hardcourt swing, Naomi claimed to have rediscovered a love for the sport. Judging solely from her on-court demeanor in Toronto and Cincinnati this seems to be true. This revelation becomes all the more interesting when you consider the fact that last year Naomi penned a similar letter before pummeling her way through the field at Flushing Meadows.

However, this year, the situation is much different. Naomi is a two-time Grand Slam champion, World No. 1, and the uncomfortable circumstances of last year’s certainly linger.

Furthermore, Naomi’s draw pits her against many in-form players who will be swinging freely. Her first round opponent, Anna Blinkova, recently reached the quarterfinals of New York’s other tournament, the NYJTL Bronx Open, claiming a bagel set versus the tournament’s top seed, Wang Qiang, before taking a bow. In the second round, she could face Magda Linette, who, at the time of writing this article, is slated to play in the final of the Bronx Open on Saturday. Beyond that, she could face the tour’s newest superstar, Coco Gauff, in round three and if she is to move on to the fourth round she could face the player who has repeatedly had her number this season, Belinda Bencic. Also lurking in her section are Marie Bouzkova (recent Cincinnati semifinalist), Julia Pegula (2019 Washington, D.C. champion), and Annett Kontaveit, who recently beat Maria Sharapova in a three-set thriller and pushed Ash Barty to the brink last week.

The bottom half of this quarter is helmed by Kiki Bertens, who has firmly entrenched herself in the Top 10 after surging into the game’s elite at the tail end of last year. However, the only blemish on the Dutchwoman’s resume in the past year has been a deep run at a slam. She seemed primed to make a deep run in Paris only to be sabotaged by an untimely gastrointestinal virus. Unfortunately, her preparation for Open has been less-than-ideal, posting a 1-2 record on North American hardcourts (losing to Bianca Andreescu and Venus Williams respectively). However, her draw is more than manageable with the strongest competition she will have to face being slumping No. 9 seed Aryna Sabalenka who takes on former two-time US Open Finalist, Viktoria Azarenka in the first round.

SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Bertens

Second Quarter

Halep

The second quarter provides two of the more interesting sections of the draw.

The top half is led by fourth seed, recent Wimbledon champion, and Romanian superstar, Simona Halep, and is bookended by breakout sensation, 2019 Rogers Cup Champion, and Romanian-born Canadian, Bianca Andreescu.

Despite retiring in her quarterfinal match against Marie Bouzkova in Toronto, due to an Achilles injury, Simona looked to be playing near her highest level during her titanic tussle against eventual Champion, Madison Keys, in Cincinnati.

She’s got the draw to make the second week, however, lying in wait will likely be Bianca Andreescu. Bianca will be riding a surge of momentum following her second seemingly out-of-nowhere run this year, claiming the title in Toronto and defeating the likes of Kiki Bertens, Karolina Pliskova, and Serena Williams in the process.

Ironically. it was after a hitting practice with Simona Halep in Toronto in 2017 that the young Canadian gained the confidence necessary to pursue a career in the sport (and look how successful that has already turned out). Should the Halep-Andreescu match up come to pass, it will be interesting to see who emerges the victor. It could signify the limits to Bianca’s potential (if she has any). Destiny seems to be on her side, but logic tells me that Simona still has the edge in that matchup.

While the top half is dominated by two marquee headliners, the bottom is an ultimate duke-out. With

It is led by fourth seed and recent Wimbledon champion, Simona Halep and is bookended by a section containing five grand slam champions with eight Grand Slam titles between them. Sloane Stephens. Svetlana Kuznetsova, Jelena Ostapenko, Garbiñe Muguruza. Only one will make the fourth round. The projected prize for the sole survivor of the bloodbath? A date with Petra Kvitova.

SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Simona Halep

Third Quarter

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Eagerly seeking to remove herself from the WTA’s shortlist of slamless No. 1’s, Karolina Pliskova leads this quarter of the draw. While the Czech’s big serve and booming groundstrokes make her a logical pick to win Wimbledon, the US Open has been the site of her biggest success. In 2016, she reached the Final by beating the sisters Willams in succession and seemed poised to raise the trophy before Kerber’s forehand down-the-line turned the tide of the match. In the ensuing years, she’s reached two quarterfinals and looks to build upon a solid season in New York.

Karolina leads the WTA’s hardcourt power rankings and she has a manageable draw. Nearby Karolina’s name on the drawsheet are Bernarda Pera and Jamie Brady, players who have experienced recent success during the Summer hardcourt swing. Additionally, she could face former Top 10 player Carolina Garcia, reigning French Open open Finalist Marketa Vondrousova, 2011 US Open Champion Sam Stosur, or a resurgent Johana Konta.

The other half of this section is led by recent Wimbledon semifinalist Elina Svitolina. However, her draw can be considered brutal at best. She opens against junior standout Whitney Osuigwe and could have to face the likes of Venus Williams, San Jose Champion Zheng Saisai, gold-medalist Monica Puig or big-hitting rookie Dayana Yastremska. The other side of this section lies recent Cincinnati champion and former US Open finalist, Madison Keys, and Sofia Kenin who made back-to-back Premier Mandatory semifinals in Toronto and Cincinnati.

SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Karolina Pliskova

Fourth Quarter

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While the fourth and final quarter is led by No. 2 seed, reigning Roland Garros Champion and recent World No. 1, Ashleigh Barty, all attention in this section falls upon the titanic match-up of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.

With twenty-eight Major titles between them, the duo remains the tour’s premier rivalry (albeit a one-sided one) even fifteen hours after the first matchup. Their first-round face-off will undoubtedly sell out Arthur Ashe.

While Serena is coming off of back-to-back finals at Wimbledon and the Rogers Cup, Sharapova is coming into the match with a 2-3 record since returning to tour from injury in Mallorca. However, despite all signs pointing to an outright beatdown, I think this match might be Maria’s best chance to beat Serena in fifteen years. Serena enters the match with a bad back and boatloads of pressure given the circumstances of last year’s final whereas Sharapova has nothing to lose. While I don’t think Sharapova has the form or fitness to win the tournament, I think she’s got the hunger necessary to exploit any and all nerves Serena might face upon returning to Ashe for the first time since “the incident”.

Beyond Serena & Maria, spoilers include the crafty Su-Wei Hsieh, giant-killer Karolina Muchova, 2018 semifinalist Anastasia Sevastova (who seemed to crumble under the pressure of being ten points away from attaining a Top 10 ranking in recent weeks), and former Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard.

Flying under the radar is Ashleigh Barty, who only weeks ago was the No. 1 ranked player in the world. In-form players she could face include Camila Giorgi (recent Washington, D.C. and Bronx Open finalist), Maria Sakkari (who has secured three top 10 wins in as many weeks), and a resurgent Lauren Davis. Also sitting in this section is 2016 champion Angelique Kerber, however, she seems to be out of sorts since returning to bottoming out in the second round of Wimbledon.

SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Ashleigh Barty

SEMIFINAL PREDICTIONS

Halep d. Bertens

Pliskova d. Barty

 

FINAL PREDICTIONS

Halep d. Pliskova

Willpower as a Weapon

We are in the midst of another jaw-dropping run by Canadian phenom, Bianca Andreescu.

Never before have I seen a player imbue so much panache in her game. 

She’s got it all. She’s got power. She’s got placement. She’s able to run down just about every ball. She owns every shot in the book (and I mean every shot–she very rarely hits the same shot twice). 

She’s been thrown the gauntlet of draws in 2019 and she’s thrown the gauntlet back, amassing a 38-4 record as she heads into Sunday afternoon’s Rogers Cup final versus Serena Williams. 

Despite all of those weapons, I’d say that the biggest of them all would be her unparalleled willpower. 

Bianca comes to win. End of the matter. Time and time again this year, we’ve seen this will to win carry her over the finish line versus the cream of the crop on the WTA Tour.

Wozniacki. Venus. Muguruza. Svitolina. Bertens. Pliskova. Kerber (twice). Andreescu has claimed the scalps of each of these WTA veterans this year, collecting a 6-0 career record versus Top 10 opponents in the process.

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The force of her willpower is so strong that it seems to take the racquet out of the hand of her opponent–no matter who is on the other side of the net. In Friday’s quarterfinal match versus Karolina Pliskova, her presence intimidated the Czech into submission. Following her second consecutive win over Angelique Kerber in Miami, the typically cool German was clearly unsettled, calling Andreescu “the biggest drama queen ever” while shaking hands at the net.

However, that’s not to say that the strength of her willpower doesn’t lead to her detriment. She seems to have a tendency to ignore when her body has called it quits, racking up a recurring shoulder injury in the process.

Andreescu Injru

I see a lot of parallels between her and the immensely talented Argentinian, Juan Martin del Potro. Del Potro has often been described to have “a heart as big as his forehand” (his comeback run to the 2016 Olympic Final has to be one of the most heartwarming and heartbreaking runs in recent tennis history). While del Potro has tasted tennis’ ultimate glory, hoisting the US Open trophy in 2009, he has also stomached the pain of missing many years due to injury. 

In terms of a career, I think Andreescu’s willpower is a weapon that will undoubtedly lead her to Grand Slam glory in the future. However, I also fear it can affect the longevity of her career if not harnessed by the right team.

Where in the World is Jelena Jankovic?

As the US Open Series begins, I want to call attention to the mysterious and silent disappearance of a WTA veteran and former US Open Finalist, Jelena Jankovic, from the Tour.

Eleven years ago, the Serbian star was at the height of her career. She reached the 2008 US Open final–losing to Serena Williams in a highly competitive and entertaining two-setter. A couple of months later she secured Year-End No. 1. 

Jelena US OPen

Unlike her contemporaries Ana Ivanovic and Dinara Safina, Jelena never wilted from the extra attention that came with reaching the summit of the sport. In fact, Jelena thirsted for the show courts, commercial deals, and packed press rooms; she lived for the limelight.

While she remained in the game’s upper echelon for the next two subsequent seasons, her all-around consistency never put her in the position to vie for Grand Slam glory again.

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Joining the notorious club of “Slamless World No. 1s”, many tennis experts chalked up Jelena’s deficits to her defensive-oriented game. Compared to fellow ‘Slamless No.1’, Caroline Wozniacki, who spent the better part of a decade refusing to adjust her game, Jelena made adjustments almost immediately. Between the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Jelena gained sixteen pounds of muscle (yes–sixteen) in order to imbue more power into her relatively week serve and trademark down-the-line shots. However, the extra bulk proved to work to her detriment, hampering her agility so significantly that she failed to make a deep run at a Slam again until 2010. 

If anything, her hamartia (or fatal flaw) proved to be her mentality. Too often Jelena would take herself out of matches by berating her box or chastising the umpire. These problems became obvious when she suffered a two-season slide in 2011. When she reemerged in 2013, her melodramatic nature remained. Unsurprisingly, that season would be her last Top 10 finish.

It is interesting to note that when Jelena began her decent in 2014, a mini-rivalry emerged between her and a player who carried similar critiques from tennis pundits: Simona Halep. A future “Slamless No. 1”. Simona too was criticized for her passive tendencies and for headcase nature. When the pair faced off five times between 2013 and 2015, it was the Romanian who emerged victorious on every occasion. While it may not have been apparent at the time, this quintet of matchups signified the divergent journies these two players would embark upon. While Simona has famously exorcised her mental demons and gone on to win not one, but two Grand Slam singles titles, Jelena has faded into obscurity.

In 2018, after 56 consecutive appearances in Grand Slams (the third-longest streak in the WTA record books and sixth-longest streak across both tours), Jelena announced that she’d be skipping Melbourne in order to rehab a back injury. Moreover, after going winless since July of 2017, she admitted that she had been contemplating retirement.

Jelena Fall 2.jpg

After undergoing an eye procedure later that year, Jelena seemed poised to formalize these plans. She sent an invitation to journalists to a press conference in Rome–the site of her two most notable championships. In fact, her close friend and sometimes double partner, Andrea Petkovic, alluded to the announcement in a farewell message recorded in Charleston (on a side note: if you haven’t viewed their annual Charleston media day interviews, I highly suggest taking a peek–they’ll leave you in stitches). However, in the end, the event was called off, seemingly when the announcement of hometown darling, Roberta Vinci, announced that the tournament would be the site of her retirement (remember, Jelena is not one to be upstaged.)

Since, the former World No. 1 has vanished without a trace. The only mentions of her in the news have been the sale of her Rancho Santa Fe mansion for $13.5 million. 

However, after going radio silent, the former World No. 1 has reemerged on social media, posting photos and videos from a mysterious vacation— offering no indication of any preparation for a return to the WTA Tour.

As it stands, Jelena is one of two active players (without the surname Williams) who hold at least four wins over Serena. Additionally, she’s one of six active players who have ever claimed Year-End No. 1. However, she is also the only Year-End No. 1 without a Slam.

Whatever the outcome may, given her tenacity & outspoken nature, the story of Jelena Jankovic deserves a louder ending than one that fades into obscurity within the annals of Tennis History.

A Thorough Analysis and Predictions: Australian Open Women’s Singles

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While the tennis off-season is the shortest of nearly all professional sports, for the avid tennis fanatic, those ten weeks can feel unbearably long. I’m sure the players feel otherwise, with only a couple weeks to rehab their bodies before they resume their training. Nonetheless, the dust has finally cleared and the players are ready to vie for Grand Slam Glory once again.

Since my last preview, it feels like many of the storylines we’ll watch unfold during the fortnight remain unchanged. Serena is still in pursuit of Grand Slam trophy No. 24, Sharapova & Azarenka are still looking to recharge their comebacks, while Simona is looking to solidify her dominance over the tour.

Let’s preview this year’s draw:

FIRST QUARTER:

ozhalep

It must seem like déjà vu all over again for Simona Halep. Entering last year’s US Open, Simona seemed unstoppable, compiling a 9-1 record in seven days (that’s a “slam-and-a-half’s worth of matches). Somehow, Kaia Kanepi didn’t get the memo and blew the World No. 1 off the court in straight sets in the first round.

Somehow the draw gods have tapped the two to tango in the first round of the year’s first major again. However, the parallels to year’s Open don’t stop there. Like last year, the Sisters Williams have been drawn in her proximity. She’s projected to face Venus in round three and Serena in round four.

Last year, Simona’s herculean effort to reach the final was one of the most memorable Grand Slam runs this century, surviving a sprained ankle and two marathon matches to only to falter during the last hurdle in the final (being sent to the hospital after suffering from dehydration–no less). This year, she doesn’t look primed to replicate the same success. Recovering from a herniated disk, Halep has only played three matches since the US Open and enters the tournament short on match-experience. While coming in with low expectations might mean that she’s able to swing freely, something tells me that the question marks concerning the strength of her back will hold her back.

All in all, I’d say this section is Serena’s for the taking. She could face a re-inspired Eugenie Bouchard in the second round (who loves to step it up for big matches). Additionally, in the fourth round, she’s likely to face her sister Venus. Nonetheless, Serena looks fitter than ever and will be the favorite against whomever she faces.

In the bottom half of the draw, sit Karolina Pliskova, Daria Kasatkina, Gabiñe Muguruza, and Camila Giorgi. Karolina and Camila enter the Happy Slam looking hot, with Karolina opening her season by winning Brisbane and Camila ending 2018 with a title in Linz. Conversely, Dasha and Garbiñe come into Oz with question marks hanging over their heads, bottoming out during their AO tune-ups.

Whoever wins the third round match between Karolina and Camila, I expect will reach the quarterfinals. However, if they face Serena in that match, I don’t think either will prevail. Last year, both Karolina and Camila faced off against Serena in the quarterfinals of a Slam after having built up some serious steam during their first four matches. In the end, they both lost.

SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: S. Williams

SECOND QUARTER:

20180908 Serena Williams v Naomi Osaka - Day 13
September 8, 2018 – Naomi Osaka in action against Serena Williams in the women’s singles final at the 2018 US Open.

In this section of the draw lie three players carrying great expectations heading into the new season. First and foremost is Naomi Osaka. Since becoming a star overnight with her controversy-ridden upset over Serena Williams in the US Open final, Naomi has handled the pressure well. She hasn’t shrunken from the big stage like most first-time Grand Slam champs, reaching the finals of Tokyo, semifinals of Beijing, and, most recently, the semifinals of Brisbane. Osaka is no fluke and she’s out to prove it.

Last year, Naomi was proud to reach the fourth round in Australia. It was the first time that she had ever gone past the third round at a major in five attempts. Slated to face then-newly-minted World No. 1 Simona Halep, who had just survived a nearly four-hour marathon against Lauren Davis (on a sprained ankle, no less), Naomi seems primed to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. Instead, she sprayed balls wildly and Halep coasted to victory in about an hour. In the past year, Naomi has undergone a complete transformation, developing into a cool, calm, and collected competitor who’s able to temper patience with power. I firmly believe that this reformed attitude and gameplan will inevitably lead her to more Slams in the future–if not soon.

Her draw certainly suggests that she’s primed for a deep run as well. Opening against World No. 83 in the first round, her first challenge comes in round three, against either former World No. 1 & two-time Australian Open Champion Victoria Azarenka or junk-baller and giant-killer Hsieh Su-Wei. She handled her projected fourth round opponent Anastasia Sevastova well in Brisbane, showcasing her superior serve and newfound problem-solving abilities.

Her other potential fourth round opponent is Qiang Wang, who is another player carrying great expectations heading into 2019. Surging at the end of last year, amassing a 23-6 record after the US Open (reaching three finals),  she was declared by many to be the successor to Li Na’s legacy. However, in 2019, she’s only played one match thus far, a loss to Alison Riske en route to the final of Shenzhen.

This quarter of the draw is headlined by Elina Svitolina, who sit in the bottom half. By winning the WTA Finals last year, she finally put the rumors surrounding her sudden weight loss to rest and reignited questions surrounding her Grand Slam hijinx. While Wozniacki was able to leverage the momentum earned from her WTA Finals win in order to finally get the Grand Slam hoodoo off of her back, I don’t expect the same from Svitolina this go around. She lost her opening match to a red-hot Sasnovich while attempting to defend her title in Brisbane and her draw poses her against a couple players who could exploit the nerves she has to be feeling. She opens up against an in-form qualifier and in the third round, she could face another WTA Finals champion, Dominika Cibulkova.

At the top of her section sit last year’s semifinalist, Elise Mertens, and the always dangerous Madison Keys. Mertens’ level seems to have hit its peak and she has yet to earn another signature win over a Top 10 player at a big event since her breakthrough triumph over Svitolina in last year’s quarters. On the other hand, Madison enters the event with no match play, being the only player to not participate in any tune-ups heading into OZ so as to rehab some lingering injuries. Last year, Madison Keys entered almost every Grand Slam with little match experience and was still able to reach at least the quarterfinals of three of them and I expect her to be a contender this time, nonetheless.

SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Osaka

THIRD QUARTER:

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If the second quarter of the draw is characterized by expectations, the third is defined by a battle between two generations. Can the veterans put the young-guns at bay?

The top section of the quarter is led by Petra Kvitova who seems to be in top form. Reaching the semifinals of Sydney (at the time of writing) and claiming the scalp of Angelique Kerber, Kvitova seems primed for a deep run.

Standing in her way is another surging player: Belinda Bencic. A former Top 10 player, Belinda’s past three seasons have been derailed by injuries resulting in a loss of confidence for the young Swiss. However, her stellar performance alongside Roger Federer at the Hopman Cup seems to have inspired her current run of form, leading her to the semis of Hobart this week (at the time of writing). Last year, Bencic entered the tournament on a streak, claiming to $125k titles and upsetting Venus Williams in the first round. Projected to go far, the weight of expectations bore heavily on the young Swiss and she bottomed out to Luksika Khumkhum 1 & 3 in the following round.

Whichever player survives to make the second week will face either red hot veteran Lesia Tsurenko or the explosive Aryna Sabalenka. While the former reached the Brisbane final last week, coming within two points of victory, Aryna is by far the more dangerous player. Aryna ended 2018 by winning Wuhan and starting this year’s campaign by lifting the trophy in Shenzhen (as the top seed, no less). At 20-years of age, she seems to possess enough maturity to control her explosive repertoire while also carrying enough naive confidence to feel like she should win every match she plays.

Only last year, she was laughed off the court by the Melbourne crowd for her grunts during her match against home-favorite, Ash Barty. This year, I think she’ll be cheered on by fans as she clobbers her way through the field in Melbourne Park. I foresee her becoming an unstoppable force in 2019.

Speaking of Ash Barty, she’s one of the challengers that will test defending champion, Caroline Wozniacki in the bottom half of this quarter. Ending her season by hoisting the biggest title of her career at the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai, Barty seems to have returned with a new, matured attitude. In fact, it has already paid dividends, already claiming the scalps of Simona Halep and Garbiñe Muguruza.

 

Conversely, Wozniacki arrives in Melbourne to defend her title with a few questions hanging over her head. While she was finally able to exorcize her Grand Slam demons at last year’s Australian Open, the rest of her year was below-average until her title in Beijing. After that tournament, she revealed her recent diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. Insisting that the condition can be managed, she recognizes that her energy levels fluctuate day-to-day and I don’t expect the conditions in Melbourne to be kind to her.

Beyond Barty, other challengers standing in her way include two Maria’s: Sakkari and Sharapova. I actually think that the former poses a greater threat in Oz than the latter. Sakkari comes into the tournament after an extremely successful run at the Hopman Cup alongside her childhood friend Stefanos Tsitsipas. Their win against Federer in mixed doubles will undoubtedly be a highlight of her season and hopefully inspire a run of form that lasts throughout the year. Conversely, Sharapova enters Melbourne on a low. Retiring against Sabalenka in Shenzhen after suffering a thigh injury that seeming left her immobilized, she seems further away from recapturing her top-level from than ever before.

SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Sabalenka

FOURTH QUARTER:

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Compared to the top three quarters of the draw, the fourth quarter is by far the most… boring. While the section is headlined by Angelique Kerber, the rest of the competition doesn’t seem ready to post much of a threat.

The second-highest seed, Sloane Stephens, enters this tournament with a 1-2 record and seems to be listless after her “break” from coach Kamau Murray. Similarly, Caroline Garcia has lost both of her matches to open the year.

The only players who can pose a threat have tricky openers. No. 9 seed, Kiki Bertens, opens up against American Alison Riske, who reached the final of Shenzhen last week while Julia Goerges faces off against another American Danielle Collins, who pushed Kvitova to the limits in Sydney last week.

This quarter is Kerber’s to lose.

SEMIFINALIST PREDICTION: Kerber

 

SEMIFINALIST PREDICTIONS

S. Williams d. Osaka

Kerber d. Sabalenka

 

FINAL PREDICTION

Kerber d. S Williams