2017 Australian Open Preview Pt. 2

With my preview of the men’s singles draw done and my predictions made, it’s time to turn to the women’s singles draw. With play about to start, there’s plenty to talk about and a host of potential upsets from the first round onwards.

Quarter one

First things first, let’s kick off with the undisputed queen of 2016, the defending champion and world number one Angelique Kerber. The German stunned the tennis world with her inspired performance in beating Serena Williams in last year’s final to win her first Grand Slam, and backed it up by winning the US Open. The German has been shaky so far this season, winning only one of her three matches, and she has a tricky first round tie against dangerous Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko. The two have met only once before, in Sydney in 2015, with Kerber winning a tight three setter. She was slow to start in last year’s tournament, saving a match point in her first round match against Misaki Doi and a similar performance could see her fall immediately. Tsurenko, however, withdrew from the Hobart quarter finals with a viral illness, and will have to be back to full fitness if she’s to pose a risk to the German.

If Kerber gets through against Tsurenko, the draw opens out a bit for her. Her second round opponent in Carina Witthoeft or Eri Hozumi is unlikely to cause too many problems (though Witthoeft gave a good account of herself against Kerber at Wimbledon), while any of her potential third round rivals – Kristyna Pliskova, Viktorija Golubic, Yaroslava Shvedova and Irina Begu – would have to find their best levels to see off Kerber. Things could become trickier in the last sixteen. Kerber is projected to face Roberta Vinci, but alternative opponents include Daria Kasatkina, Eugenie Bouchard and Coco Vandeweghe. Again, Kerber at her best should safely make it past any of these players, but she was no match for Kasatkina in their match in Sydney, so danger lurks.

The bottom half of the quarter is headlined by Roland Garros champion Garbiñe Muguruza. If she’s back to her best, the Spaniard’s draw should see her comfortably reach the quarter finals, but we saw enough erratic displays from her in 2016, particularly in Grand Slams, to know this is far from guaranteed. She starts off against New Zealand’s Marina Erakovic, an opponent she should comfortably vanquish, before a potentially tricky second round encounter with Lauren Davis, buoyant from winning her first WTA title in Auckland last week.

The third round could see a rematch of her second round loss in the US Open to Anastasija Sevastova, though the Latvian’s form so far this year suggests she’ll struggle to make it this far, with American Christina McHale a more likely third round opponent. McHale beat Muguruza in front of her home crowd in Madrid last year and, when on form, has the game to cause another big upset, but Muguruza looked composed and assured in Brisbane so should have enough to make it through. Her projected fourth round opponent is fellow Spaniard and former doubles partner Carla Suarez Navarro. Navarro, though, hasn’t yet played this year due to injury. She could face a surprise loss in the first round against the tricky Jana Cepelova. Other last sixteen opponents could include last year’s surprise quarter finalist Shuai Zhang or Shenzhen finalist Alison Riske. I’d back an in-form Muguruza to see off any of those players with relative comfort.

I’m going to be controversial and back Muguruza to be the one to make it out of this quarter. While I’d love to see Kerber have a deep run in her first defence of a Grand Slam title, I have a sneaky suspicion that she’ll lose in the fourth round against Kasatkina. If not, Muguruza’s Brisbane form was significantly better than what Kerber produced in Brisbane and Sydney and I think the Spaniard could beat Kerber.

Quarter two

The second quarter is probably the easiest of the four. It is headlined by fourth seed Simona Halep, who has a great chance to better her runs to the quarter finals in 2014 and 2015. Her first round tie however, as with many first round ties for the big names, brings up more than a slim chance of an upset. Halep is drawn against Shelby Rogers, the American who made a name for herself with a stunning run to the quarter finals of Roland Garros in 2016. Rogers has played well so far this year in Brisbane and Hobart, and if Halep’s mental demons come to the surface, she has the game to take full advantage.

Should Halep get through, her second round opponent will be either Germany’s Annika Beck or Australian comeback kid Ashleigh Barty. Though she’s the more experienced of the two, Beck has lost her first two matches of 2016 very easily, giving Barty the chance to grab some welcome ranking points, as she looks to climb to the top of the game on her return from her self-imposed exile. Though again, Halep should beat either player and make the third  round.

In that round, she could face two of tennis’ brightest new stars, Olympic champion Monica Puig or 16 year old wildcard Destanee Aiava, the first player born in the 2000s to play in a Grand Slam main draw. Aiava looked very comfortable in the spotlight in Brisbane, coming through qualifying and beating veteran Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the first round one before giving a good account of herself in losing to Svetlana Kuznetsova. Aiava plays Mona Barthel, who at 26 is a comparative veteran, making her 24th Grand Slam main draw appearance. Barthel came through qualifying but can be very inconsistent. Inconsistency has also dogged Puig since her stunning victory in Rio. She has a very winnable first round match against Patricia Maria Tig in round one before playing Aiava or Barthel in the second round. Puig in Olympics form could quite easily stun Halep, but she hasn’t been able to get anywhere near that level since, while for Aiava to cause an upset would surely be the story of the tournament. I expect Halep to make it through to the last sixteen unscathed.

Her projected opponent at that stage is Venus Williams. Fans and pundits have learned for the entirety of this century that they write Venus off at their peril, but I’m going to do just that – and in the very first round. She faces Ukraine’s Kateryna Kozlova in a rematch of the first round of the US Open. Venus edged that one, but wasn’t at full fitness when she played in Auckland last week and played a very poor match against Jo Konta in the first round here last year. I predict Kiki Bertens will be the one to come through to face Halep in the last sixteen, which is a very winnable match for the Romanian.

In the bottom half of the quarter, the projected fourth round match is between Elina Svitolina and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Both have decent draws and have every chance of making it this far, though Kuznetsova could be derailed by the dangerous Katerina Siniakova, champion in Shenzhen, in round three. Either way, I’m backing the very conistent Svitolina to make the quarter finals, equaling her best Grand Slam result from Roland Garros in 2016.

In fact, I’m going to go further than that and predict that it will be Svitolina who makes it out of this quarter and into her first Grand Slam semi final. Halep’s nerves have come to the fore at this stage many times in past Grand Slams and I can see Svitolina capitalising on that.

Third quarter

The top half of the third quarter is headlined by Karolina Pliskova, champion in Brisbane and third favourite with the bookies. Pliskova had a fantastic second half of 2016, winning her biggest career title in Cincinnati, making her first Grand Slam final at the US Open and making the WTA Finals for the first time. She was clinical in Brisbane and if she can replicate her form, I predict her to go far in this tournament. Her draw for the first two rounds looks straightforward and, although Jelena Ostapenko or Yulia Putintseva could be tricky in the third round, she should comfortably make it through to the last 16.

In the fourth round, her projected opponent is twelfth seed Timea Bacsinszky. I don’t expect the Swiss to make it this far, given that she’s out of form, and instead I’m backing Croatian teen Ana Konjuh to make it through. Australian Daria Gavrilova is also in this section but she hasn’t looked very good at the Hopman Cup or in Sydney and could be out in the first round to Brit Naomi Broady unless she improves. If Pliskova and Konjuh were to meet in the last sixteen, it would be the second consecutive Grand Slam in which they’ve met, as Pliskova saw off Konjuh in the US Open quarter finals last year. I expect her to do the same again.

Third seed Agnieszka Radwanska finds herself as the major draw of the bottom half of this quarter. Her 2017 form has been up and down so far. She didn’t perform well as the defending champion in Shenzhen, losing to Riske in the quarter finals but appeared back to her best en route to the final in Sydney this week. In the final, however, she looked ordinary against an inspired Jo Konta and was unable to deploy any of her famous tricks to get herself back into the match. She has a stinker of a first round opponent in Tsvetana Pironkova. The Bulgarian, one of the streakiest players on tour, stunned the Pole in a wet and wild Roland Garros last year and has had big wins here before, including one over Venus Williams. This match is almost impossible to call – if Pironkova is on form, I’m calling an upset, but there’s as much chance of that as Radwanska wrapping it up inside an hour.

If Radwanska does get through, her draw becomes much easier for the next few rounds. Brisbane finalist Alize Cornet could be tricky in round three, though she’s only beaten Radwanska once in their eight encounters, while the seeds for her fourth round match are Elena Vesnina and Sam Stosur. Both players are yet to win a match in 2017, and I don’t expect either to beat Radwanska if they get through to play her. If, however, Radwanska loses against Pironkova, I’d back Cornet to get through and force a replay of the Brisbane final against Pliskova in the quarters.

Once again, I’m going to err on the side of controversy and predict a Pironkova victory, which means I’m backing Cornet as a surprise quarter finalist, though I predict that match will go the same way as the Brisbane final, with Pliskova winning comfortably.

Fourth quarter

The fourth quarter is probably the strongest and most challenging of the draw. The top half’s highest seed is Dominika Cibulkova. Coming off the back of her fantastic end to 2016, Cibulkova had mixed results in Brisbane and Sydney, beating Shuai Zhang and Laura Siegemund, but suffering surprise losses to Alize Cornet and Eugenie Bouchard. She should make it through to at least the third round (where Ekaterina Makarova or Sara Errani could lie in wait) but making it past the fourth round will be a much greater ask.

According to seedings, her opponent will be ninth seed Jo Konta. Konta is flying high after winning her second title in Sydney and is sixth favourite with the bookies – two places above Cibulkova, and I agree that if the two meet I’d back Konta for the win. But Konta has what can only be described as a horror draw. She plays the dangerous veteran Kirsten Flipkens in the first round and a reward for a victory is likely to be a clash with Naomi Osaka, the 19 year old often heralded as the future of the game. Assuming Konta sees of Osaka, she should then meet Caroline Wozniacki. Wozniacki has a decent draw and it would be a shock if she didn’t reach this stage.

On form alone, I’d back Konta to beat Wozniacki, but Konta has already played nine matches this season (more than any other on the WTA tour) and this could affect her ability to perform, as we saw when she played a lot of matches in the run up to the US Open. On the plus side, she didn’t drop a set in Sydney and none of the matches were particularly long. I’m backing Konta to continue her run and get past both Wozniacki and Cibulkova and reach the quarter finals.

The draw could then get even more difficult as the bottom section of the final quarter contains Serena Williams. Serena was poor in Auckland last week and she has probably the toughest first two rounds out of any player in the draw, but I expect her to raise her game for a Grand Slam like she always has. First up, she’ll take on Swiss prodigy Belinda Bencic, a player who’s gotten the better of her in the past. Bencic was ranked inside the top 10 under a year ago but injuries wrecked the middle two quarters of her season and she struggled to find any form in the final quarter, ending the year outside the top 40. She played alongside Roger Federer at the Hopman Cup last week, which is sure to have helped get her game back together, but I’m not expecting her to have enough game to see of Serena.

The second round could see a repeat of the 2015 Roland Garros final against Lucie Safarova. The Czech struggled to string results together in 2016 after missing the first part of the season with illness and injury but she still poses a danger. Despite this, Safarova has only taken four sets in nine meetings with Serena and has never won. After this, Serena should meet Timea Babos in the third round and either Barbora Strycova or Caroline Garcia in the fourth – both matches that Serena should get through.

If results go this way, this would lead to a quarter final clash with Konta. The two have never met and it would be foolish to back Konta to beat Serena, even though she has as much chance as anyone to do this. However, I’m backing Serena to make it through.

Predictions

In the top half of the draw, I’m going for a Muguruza-Svitolina semi final. On experience alone, I’d back Muguruza to make it through. In the bottom half, I’m predicting Pliskova vs. Serena. But this time I’m going to against experience and predict that Pliskova will repeat her win over Williams in the US Open semi finals.

In a final between Muguruza and Pliskova, I think it could go either way. Muguruza has the experience of both winning and losing a Grand Slam final, but Pliskova has been far stronger mentally in recent months and I’m backing her for the title.

Highest ranked 1st round exit: Agnieszka Radwanska

Last unseeded player in the draw: Alison Riske and Ana Konjuh (fourth round)

Quarter final 1: Kasatkina vs. Muguruza

Quarter final 2: Halep vs. Svitolina

Quarter final 3: Pliskova vs. Cornet

Quarter final 4: Konta vs. Serena

Semi final 1: Muguruza vs. Svitolina

Semi final 2: Pliskova vs. Serena

Final: Muguruza vs. Pliskova

Winner: Karolina Pliskova

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