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.
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
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
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
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
Barty d. S. Williams
Muguruza d. Sabalenka
Muguruza d. Barty