I loathe making predictions. I always give everyone a shot, from the world no. 1 to the world no. 200. So making a prediction, and essentially saying that I think a particular player will come out on top, sends me into much deliberation and unease. Nevertheless, you want predictions, so predictions you shall get.
I shall just emphasise that these opinions are subject to change…
WOMEN’S AUSTALIAN OPEN DRAW ANALYSIS
Projected quarter-final: Simona Halep (1) vs Karolina Pliskova (6) (Halep leads H2H 5-2)
For the first time in her career, Halep – who opened her season by winning the Shenzhen Open – is entering a Grand Slam as the no. 1 player in the world. Still searching for her maiden major, it is essential that she prevents this adding pressure to her shoulders.
With a strong team around her – including an Aussie coach, Darren Cahill – Halep looks to be embracing and enjoying her stint atop the rankings, but it has not done her any favours in regard to her first round draw in Melbourne. Aussie wild card Destanee Aiava – one of the home nation’s brightest upcoming stars – is her initial opponent, and the hard hitter will have the backing of the crowd. Should Halep avoid a third straight first round exit, a potential second round meeting with Eugenie Bouchard will appear tricky to the casual observer. Nevertheless, the Canadian is far from the form that took her to the 2014 Melbourne semifinals. If she is fortunate enough to survive an opening clash with talented Frenchwoman Oceane Dodin, world no. 112 Bouchard would likely raise her level to face Halep – her victim in the 2014 Wimbledon semifinals – but even progression beyond the round of 128 is not a given for the woman on a nine match losing streak.
No. 27 seed Petra Kvitova may be a lethal potential third round opponent, but her Melbourne fortunes have not been bright in recent years: with the two-time Slam champion failing to make it past round three since her semifinal run in 2012. That statistic does not stand in favour of her making a deep run this season. But with the unpredictability of the WTA tour, any of Kvitova, pint-sized American Lauren Davis, big-match player Jana Cepelova and former major semifinalist Andrea Petkovic have a shot at round three.
Meanwhile, many eyes will be on Sydney finalist and 18th seed Ashleigh Barty as a possibility to take on Halep in the fourth round – but the Aussie is under pressure from the offset. Fast-rising Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka, with her determination and variety, could test Barty after a quick turnaround from Sydney, while a potential second round clash with hot-and-cold Italian Camila Giorgi is dangerous for the winner. Of possible third round opponents, Naomi Osaka – the big-hitting Japanese star who has added Sascha Bajin to her team – is the name that stands out, although 16th seed Elena Vesnina has experience going deep in major events.
Besides Barty and Vesnina, other leading names campaigning for a fourth round berth include 2016 semifinalist Johanna Konta and former world no. 1 Karolina Pliskova – who is still seeking her maiden Slam trophy despite pushing Angelique Kerber to three sets in the 2016 US Open final. While 21-year-old Brazilian Beatriz Haddad Maia started finding her hard-court groove at the end of last season, and lurks in Pliskova’s path, the Czech’s first real test is likely to come in round three. No. 29 seed Lucie Safarova, a seasoned lefty, has played some of her best tennis in Melbourne and could cause some issues is she can navigate beyond first round opponent Ajla Tomljanovic, an Australian wild card. Before surgery kept her out of the game for months, Tomljanovic was on the rise and claimed some big scalps on tour, and the former Croat is steadily returning to form. If neither Safarova nor Tomljanovic make the last 32, then both Sorana Cirstea and Zarina Diyas – also lying in Pliskova’s way – each have the potential to make things interesting.
If Konta can get past her opener with American Madison Brengle, a kind draw means that no. 20 seed Barbora Strycova is the most likely opponent to keep her from a potential fourth round collision with Pliskova.
DARK HORSE: Ajla Tomljanovic
SEMIFINALIST: Petra Kvitova
Projected quarter-final: Garbine Muguruza (3) vs Caroline Garcia (8) (Muguruza leads H2H 1-0)
Split this quarter in half, and the top section is unquestionably the most loaded. While Muguruza – who exited in the fourth round last year – should not face trouble until the third round, a semi-resurgent Agnieszka Radwanska has the tools to give her a test in the last 32.
Still, neither player is the strongest-looking in this section of the draw, as 2016 champion Kerber – champion in Brisbane, and on a nine match winning streak – appears almost back to her best with the pressure of 2017 taken off her shoulders. The German, playing well above her no. 21 seeding, is a probable fourth round opponent for either Muguruza or Radwanska, although her progression remains no guarantee. She opens against countrywoman Anna-Lena Friedsam, who was on the brink of upsetting Radwanska here two years ago before succumbing to cramps. Friedsam is on the road back from surgery, however, so only time will tell if she can get back to her top-45 standards in order to test Kerber’s rediscovered consistency. Should the two-time Slam champion survive, 21-year-old Donna Vekic and her on-off power game is not a test to be taken lightly in round two. But if Kerber can use her angles and peak counter-punching to force the Croat into errors, a meeting with 14th seed Anastasija Sevastova or five-time major champion Maria Sharapova – triumphant here in 2008 – could well be on the cards. Sharapova leads that particular rivalry by a slim 4-3 advantage, although she has lost her last two meetings to the German.
Still, the Russian – making her first Australian Open appearance since a banned substance was found in her system, right here in Melbourne two years ago – would do well not to look ahead of her potential third round duel with Sevastova. The Latvian knocked Sharapova out of last year’s US Open, and her fluid strokes nearly bagged her another victory over the current world no. 48 in Beijing a few months ago.
Meanwhile, 8th seed Caroline Garcia should be pleased at her less-crammed section of the draw – although an opener against 2017 Luxembourg Open champion Carina Witthoeft, who is playing the best tennis of her career, will not be a breeze. Still, the Frenchwoman herself had a stellar end to the season – netting back-to-back Premier titles in October – and she will fancy her chances to take on either teenager Marketa Vondrousova or Japan’s Kurumi Nara in round two. Experienced no. 28 seed Mirjana Lucic-Baroni leads the charge to duel her in the last 32, although Aliaksandra Sasnovich – who recently reached the Brisbane International final as a qualifier – will be confident, and may spy an opportunity.
Having seen the draw, many may well be hoping for a fourth round clash between Garcia and 11th seed Kristina Mladenovic: the top ten star’s former doubles partner, between whom there is now a little friction. But Mladenovic comes into the event riding an embarrassing 14 match losing streak, and even an opening round defeat to inexperienced Romanian Ana Bogdan is conceivable. Either feisty Kazakh Yulia Putintseva or Great Britain’s Heather Watson – who has a handful of top 20 wins to her name – would await for the winner in round two, with no. 17 seed Madison Keys the most likely candidate to become a third round opponent.
Given that she reached the US Open final last season, made the Australian Open semifinals as a 19-year-old and was the most-talked-about rising star on tour not so long ago, Keys comes into this event rather under the radar. The American might just use these conditions in order to spring a surprise.
DARK HORSE: Madison Keys
SEMIFINALIST: Angelique Kerber
Projected quarter-final: Venus Williams (5) vs Elina Svitolina (4) (H2H tied at 1-1)
Bookended by two of the most reliable WTA competitors of the present, this quarter has more sandwich than filling at first glance. Still, 2017 runner-up Venus Williams – the only player to reach the second week of every single Grand Slam for the past two seasons – does not get it easy in her opener. The American holds a 4-0 head-to-head advantage over Swiss 20-year-old Belinda Bencic, but the former top ten player is finally rediscovering how to win after duelling injury and the rigours of the ITF tour. Bencic has not played many matches on the top echelon of the tour lately, but she carries a 15 match winning streak and a Hopman Cup victory into the fortnight.
Should Venus come through unscathed, things calm down in comparison to other sections of the draw. Sweden’s Johanna Larsson or a qualifier in round two precedes a third round in which Ekaterina Makarova, the no. 31 seed, is her projected opponent. But Venus will know not to overlook the Russian lefty. Makarova has beaten Venus’ sister, the absent Serena Williams, here before.
Julia Goerges, the no. 12 seed, is Venus’ projected fourth round opponent, and honestly looks on track to get there. At a career-high ranking, the German is on a streak of three straight titles won – a statistic one cannot really argue with. Sofia Kenin, a young American hope, has been fast improving during the past few weeks, but Goerges will be the favourite sail beyond their contest and into a potential clash with France’s Alize Cornet – who knows a thing or two about pulling off upsets. While Aussie 23rd seed Daria Gavrilova is projected to make round three, Hobart International champion Elise Mertens – whose smooth progress and weapon of a forehand were overshadowed last season – could easily make it in her place.
In the other section of the quarter, Svitolina’s potential fourth round opponent is US Open champion Sloane Stephens – who captured a shock New York triumph last season after returning from surgery a matter of weeks beforehand. In her late teens and early twenties – starting with the 2013 Australian Open, where she toppled Serena Williams – Stephens was known for her regular deep Slam runs, and she will have to rediscover that magic to have any hope of going far in Melbourne. The woman who has not won a match since the tour’s most recent Grand Slam opens her campaign against China’s Shuai Zhang – the feel-good story of the 2016 Australian Open, where she ended a run of 14 straight main draw losses at majors with an upset of Simona Halep. If Stephens gets past the former quarter-finalist, either a qualifier or French veteran Pauline Parmentier will take her on in the second round. No. 22 seed and rising star Daria Kasatkina is in line for round three.
Svitolina, meanwhile, faces a qualifier in her opening match. Things heat up in round two, where the winner of a tantalising clash between powerful Maria Sakkari and recent Shenzhen Open finalist Katarina Siniakova awaits. The third round could actually take the tension down a notch: Shuai Peng, a former US Open semifinalist and the 25th seed, is the projected opposition, with two wild cards and a qualifier the alternatives.
Given that the players who are on fire heading into majors these days rarely win them, Svitolina currently looks a likely candidate to triumph at the Australian Open – which would be the ASB Classic champion’s maiden major trophy. It is, however, difficult to see Venus Williams fail to reach the final four of a hard-court Grand Slam event in the absence of her sister – even if falling one win short of victory is becoming a regular theme for the tennis legend.
DARK HORSE: Julia Goerges
SEMIFINALIST: Elina Svitolina
Projected quarter-final: Caroline Wozniacki (2) vs Jelena Ostapenko (7) (Ostapenko leads H2H 4-0)
The highest-ranked counter-puncher of the present versus one of the biggest hitters on tour is an appealing match-up for the last eight. But Wozniacki has not reached the semifinals in seven years, while Ostapenko is playing just her third Australian Open – and has never progressed beyond the third round.
The 20-year-old will begin her bid to eradicate that statistic against a fellow French Open champion: Italian veteran Francesca Schiavone, whom she has never faced before. Ostapenko’s game is more suited to fast courts, and should be enough to see her through. The Lavian’s next real test would likely come in the third round, where nifty Monica Niculescu, flat-hitting Aleksandra Krunic, Germany’s Mona Barthel and no. 32 seed Anett Kontaveit would all prove tricky opposition.
No. 10 seed Coco Vandeweghe – who was mere games away from making the final last season – will be a force to be reckoned with if she can replicate her blistering Melbourne form of 2017, and has every chance to potentially meet Ostapenko in the fourth round. Still, the American has one of the most loaded sections of the draw to navigate beforehand. Big-serving Hungarian Timea Babos takes her on in round one, ahead of a likely second round encounter with former top ten player Carla Suarez Navarro. Any one of Olympic gold medalist Monica Puig, 2011 US Open champion Samantha Stosur, experienced Kaia Kanepi and 24th seed Dominika Cibulkova could then await in only the third round.
In contrast to Ostapenko’s prospective path, Wozniacki’s looks a whole lot less of a struggle. True, first round foe Mihaela Buzarnescu is entering the event off a run to the Hobart International final. But WTA Finals champion Wozniacki is looking in pretty convincing form, and both Buzarnescu and Jana Fett – who reached the junior Australian Open final in 2014, and could well await in the second round – are unlikely to seriously trouble the Dane. The third round could be trickier, with Catherine Bellis – the hyped-up American teenager who pushed Wozniacki last season – and former French Open semifinalist Kiki Bertens potential opponents. In the fourth round, 15th seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova could await. The Russian reached the quarterfinals here last season, and has a reasonable opportunity to repeat her run to the last eight if she can avoid upsets against the likes of underrated Ukrainian Kateryna Kozlova, slicing-dicing Kirsten Flipkens, seasoned pro Kateryna Bondarenko and 19th seed Magdalena Rybarikova.
Every season at the Australian Open, there is one surprise semifinalist. Sloane Stephens, Eugenie Bouchard, Madison Keys, Johanna Konta and Coco Vandeweghe have played that role for the last five years. Waveringly, I am going to predict that the same woman who made a surprise appearance in the last four in 2017 does so again.
DARK HORSE: Anastasia Pavlyychenkova
SEMIFINALIST: Coco Vandeweghe
SEMIFINALS: Kerber d. Kvitova, Svitolina d. Vandeweghe
FINAL: Elina Svitolina d. Angelique Kerber
Thanks for reading! Let me know what you think of my predictions and who you think will win the tournament. As you could probably tell, I really do not know…