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.