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:
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
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
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
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
S. Williams d. Osaka
Kerber d. Sabalenka
Kerber d. S Williams