It’s slam time again, and while on-site reporters are badgering players for their inevitably subjective impressions of court speed (a subject I’ll address another time), hardcore fans are poring over drawsheets. As usual, I analyze the women’s draw by focusing on the early rounds and possible upsets, one eighth at a time. For every player I think has a decent chance to reach the third round, I list a form score, which indicates which players have been performing above expectations at their ranking (scores above 5) or below expectations (scores below 4).
The broiling Australian sun promises to have an even bigger impact on the tournament this year than usual, and certainly will have a stronger effect than any subtle variations in court speed. Temperatures will be hot today, and are forecast to be much hotter for most of the week—reaching well over 100°F or 40°C Tuesday through Friday.
Monday update: This post is now complete, updated to include analysis of the bottom half, which starts play later today (Tuesday in Australia). I did pretty well with my first-round predictions, though I failed to anticipate Julia Goerges’ easy upset of Sara Errani. I also didn’t expect Petra Kvitova to lose this early, though I did talk up Luksika Kumkhum a few weeks ago.
Serena Williams has started this season as dominant as she finished the last, beating Dominika Cibulkova, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka in succession to win the Brisbane title without losing a set. Serena was hampered by injuries and suffered early losses (by her standards) in her last two Australian Opens, but is the overwhelming favorite this year barring more calamities. Williams opens against 17-year-old Australian Ashleigh Barty, who has exceptional all-court versatility for her age. Over the past year, Barty has improved her ability to defend against tour-level power-hitters and use precise placement to gain control of points. But unless Serena plays very poorly, she should overwhelm the diminutive Barty in straight sets. Williams is unlikely to have any more difficulty in the second round, against either the aggressive but inconsistent Vesna Dolonc or clay-court specialist Lara Arruabarrena.
By seeding, Williams should face Daniela Hantuchova in the third round. But Hantuchova has started the season very poorly with a pair of erratic first-round losses, and will have her hands full in the first round with qualifier Heather Watson. Watson has spent most of the past year fighting her way back from mononucleosis, but will make Hantuchova win every one of her points. Whoever wins that match could face a challenge by big-serving Karolina Pliskova in the second round. But any of these players would have to play the match of her career to threaten Serena.
After years of nerves and disappointment in front of her home crowd, Sam Stosur has had her best lead-in to the Australian Open since 2007, winning three matches to reach the Hobart semifinals (after inauspiciously tallying an 0-3 singles record in Hopman Cup the previous week). But Stosur needed third-set tiebreaks to beat #147 qualifier Madison Brengle in the Hobart first round and the struggling Kristina Mladenovic in the second. More worryingly, Stosur fell in straight sets in the semifinals to dangerous but inconsistent shotmaker Klara Zakopalova—who she faces again in Melbourne’s first round. Stosur still has a 3–2 career record against Zakopalova, with every match having been decided in straight sets. The outcome this time will come down to who plays better today. Zakopalova will certainly feel less pressure than Stosur, surrounded by the afternoon crowd in Rod Laver Arena.
Whoever survives that contest is likely to face the surprise Sydney champion, Tsvetana Pironkova. Known mostly for her successes on grass, Pironkova finished last year in dismal form, and just two weeks ago lost in Shenzhen qualifying to #196 Viktorija Golubic. Pironkova had some luck with the draw in Sydney, benefiting from Ayumi Morita’s retirement with a wrist injury in qualifying, Sara Errani’s struggle with a back injury in the quarterfinals, and an unusually poor performance by Petra Kvitova in the semifinals. Nevertheless, Tsveti took maximum advantage of the opportunity, serving well and playing with an unusually good combination of power and control. She raised her game enough to frustrate left-hander Angelique Kerber in the final, hitting backhand winners past her opponent, whose inclination to hit crosscourt forehands under pressure played into Pironkova’s strength.
As well as she played last week, Pironkova is hardly known for week-to-week consistency. Assuming she gets past the solid clay-court specialist Silvia Soler-Espinosa in the first round, Pironkova will have a tough match against Zakopalova or Stosur, either of whom will find it easier than Kerber did to exploit Tsveti’s weaker forehand side.
Whoever wins that match is likely to face Ana Ivanovic in the third round. Ivanovic should outclass the powerful but struggling Kiki Bertens in her first match. In the second round, Ana will face either all-court counterpuncher Annika Beck, whom she should be able to overpower, or the technically talented but inconsistent Petra Martic. Martic won a set from Ivanovic last year at Roland Garros, but Ana’s form and confidence have improved since then, and Martic lacks the tactical initiative to be a likely threat.
Ivanovic has a tight 3–4 record against Stosur, and the pair split two hardcourt matches late last year in Moscow and Sofia. Ana has never lost a set to Zakopalova, and never lost a set on hard court to Pironkova.
Predicted fourth round: S. Williams d. Ivanovic
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Zakopalova
Not to be counted out: Stosur, Pironkova
After facing each other in the first round in Sydney, friends and doubles partners Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci must have blurted plenty more curses a few days later when they were drawn into the same eighth in Melbourne. Then again, with both having started the season poorly, there’s a good chance neither of them will reach their appointed clash in the fourth round.
Errani opens against Julia Goerges, who at her best certainly has the power to be a threat. However, after a nightmare 2013 season, the signs of improvement for Goerges this year are modest—an Auckland victory over Karin Knapp in a third-set tiebreak, and one good set in Sydney against Caroline Wozniacki, a player she hadn’t lost to in over three years. Goerges has never beaten Errani on any surface but grass. The match will come down to whether Sarita is still bothered by last week’s back injury. Somehow, after two and a half years in the top 10 and a US Open semifinal, Errani is still an underrated player on hard courts. If she’s healthy, she’ll draw enough errors from Goerges to prevail.
Whoever wins is likely to face Lauren Davis in the second round, one of the few players on the tour who can make Sarita feel tall. Like Barty, Davis wins matches with a combination of defensive speed, all-court skill, exceptional precision, and the ability to create sharp angles on offense. Errani beat Davis in straight sets last week in Sydney, and her strong topspin can lift balls out of Davis’ strike zone. Davis has never played Goerges, but like Errani should combine enough consistency and pressure to break down Goerges’ fragile execution.
The survivor of that section is likely to face the tournament’s only seeded teenager, Eugenie Bouchard. Bouchard started her season well, compiling a 2–1 singles record against a strong field in Hopman Cup, before suffering a nervous and erratic loss to an in-form Bethanie Mattek-Sands last week in Sydney. Powerful, already successful against top-20 players, and making quick progress eliminating the weaknesses in her game, Genie has an excellent opportunity to restore her confidence in Melbourne’s early rounds. She opens against fellow 19-year-old and #431 Tang Hao Chen, who won her wild card in November’s Asia-Pacific playoff—an event where she scored the only victory of her career over a top-200 player, another 19-year-old, #187 Risa Ozaki. Bouchard is unlikely to be troubled much more in the second round, against either Alison Van Uytvanck, yet another promising but relatively unproven 19-year-old, or veteran Virginie Razzano. When she plays at her best, Razzano can be a very dangerous opponent—but lately that happens only briefly and infrequently.
Bouchard lost the only match she’s played against Errani, in Acapulco last year on clay, a surface that definitely favors the Italian. Genie has never played Goerges or Davis. By the time that third-round match takes place, I expect Bouchard will playing well enough to be the favorite.
Vinci has an even tougher draw than Errani, opening against Zheng Jie, who has won all three matches the pair have played on surfaces other than clay. Vinci’s most natural game relies heavily on her slice backhand, a shot that tends to hover right in the quick and compact Zheng’s strike zone. Still looking for her first singles victory of the year, Vinci’s best hope lies in the fact that Zheng hasn’t been playing very well either, with no victories over top-30 players since May.
Whoever wins will likely face an even greater battle in the second round against 18-year-old powerhouse Madison Keys, who rolled over seventh seed Simona Halep on her way to the Sydney semifinals last week. Keys dominated her last two matches against Zheng, for whom her kick serve presents a serious problem. Vinci is better equipped to expose the rough edges that remain in Keys’ game, but to do so she would have to play much better than she has so far this year.
The winner of that match is most likely to face Kirsten Flipkens in the third round. While Flipkens has yet to duplicate the form that took her to last year’s Wimbledon semifinals, the gutsy all-court player has battled her way to solid results so far this season, reaching semifinals in Auckland (losing to Ivanovic) and quarterfinals in Hobart (losing to on-fire eventual champion Garbiñe Muguruza). Flipkens won her only match against Keys, last spring on clay in Brussels in three sets, but the fast-developing Keys may be the stronger player now. Flipkens and Vinci have split their two WTA-level matches, with Vinci winning on indoor hard court in 2010 and Flipkens on grass in 2012. Flipkens has never played Zheng.
On the other hand, Flipkens herself has a difficult path to the third round. She opens against powerful left-hander Laura Robson, who plays a good all-court game herself. But Robson had somewhat disappointing results late last year, and hasn’t finished a match yet this year, withdrawing from Auckland and retiring from the Hobart first round due to a wrist injury. Robson asserts that the injury is “all good now”, but her vague and somewhat inconsistent statements are not entirely reassuring, and in any case she’s likely to need more matches before she’s ready to beat a player at Flipkens’ level.
One more potential obstacle looms in the second round for Flipkens: former #2 Vera Zvonareva, who will be playing only her second match after taking a year and a half off to deal with injuries and illnesses. Zvonareva had the misfortune to draw top seed and ultimate champion Li Na in an internationally untelevised first-round match two weeks ago in Shenzhen, so her form and fitness are still largely unknown. I suspect she might have her hands full in the first round with resurgent and clever Australian left-hander Casey Dellacqua.
Predicted fourth round: Bouchard d. Keys
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Flipkens
Not to be counted out: Errani, Davis, Zheng J.
Li Na plays a hotly anticipated first-round match against powerful and talented Croatian Ana Konjuh, who just turned 16 but has already beaten two top-40 players, Urszula Radwanska last year in Fed Cup and Vinci two weeks ago in Auckland. Konjuh is also the reigning junior champion of both the Australian and US Opens, and has the fearlessness and shotmaking ability to compete with Li from the baseline. However, Li has the advantage in experience and consistency, and if Konjuh’s second-round Auckland loss to Davis is any indication, Li’s newfound willingness to force points to their conclusion by moving to the net may be just the thing to break up Konjuh’s attack. The youngster will make the match entertaining and competitive, but I have little doubt Li will find a way to win.
Li’s next opponent will be the winner of another intriguing first-round match between evergreen 43-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm and another 16-year-old, Belinda Bencic of Switzerland. Bencic holds the junior Wimbledon and Roland Garros titles, and has a more subtle and varied game than Konjuh, though her achievements at the professional level so far are a bit more modest. Of course, Date-Krumm has a few tricks up her sleeves as well, though her recent results have been mixed. The match should be entertaining and tactically complex, and the outcome is difficult to predict. Li should outclass either player, however.
Li’s most likely third-round opponent is the dangerous but wildly inconsistent left-hander Lucie Safarova. If Safarova plays her best, the match will be a competitive shotmaking display—but Li has beaten Safarova six straight times since 2005. If Safarova has one of her erratic weeks, she could fall to the aggressive but slumping Julia Glushko in the first round, or to 17-year-old potential star Donna Vekic or inconsistent powerhouse Lucie Hradecka in the second.
Known best for her big serve, flat-hitting forehand, and game that can be aggressive to a fault, Sabine Lisicki is being coached on a trial basis in Melbourne by Martina Hingis. It will be interesting to see if the tactical master’s input leads to noticeable changes in Sabine’s game. Lisicki opens against aging former #32 Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who still occasionally controls her powerful groundstrokes well enough to upset a top player, but more likely will be too inconsistent to stay with the German. In the second round, Lisicki is most likely to face Monica Niculescu, who is a crafty and unconventional fighter but is likely to find herself overpowered.
Next Sabine is almost certain to face the winner of a first-round showdown between two-time Australian Open quarterfinalist Ekaterina Makarova and and 2003 finalist Venus Williams, who also reached the final in Auckland two weeks ago. Venus is still capable of playing at a top-20 level, but can’t sustain it from one match to the next as well as she used to. She holds a 2–0 record against Makarova, but they’ve never played each other on hard court, let alone in Melbourne—an environment that seems to bring out the best in the versatile Russian left-hander. Makarova can defend or attack from the baseline, can hit winners on the run, can control points from the net, and has upset at least one seeded player at the Australian Open every year since 2010. Lisicki would surely prefer to play Williams, whom she beat on her way to her first title in Charleston in 2009, and dominated last year in Beijing. Makarova, on the other hand, beat Lisicki in straight sets last year at the US Open, and is likely to handle the Melbourne heat a bit better.
Predicted fourth round: Li d. Makarova
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Lisicki
Not to be counted out: V. Williams
Petra Kvitova started the year well, tallying a 3–0 singles record in Hopman Cup, but played a woeful semifinal against Pironkova last week in Sydney. Missed groundstrokes and struggles to control her service games aren’t unusual for the inconsistent Czech, but her strange lack of either emotional investment in the match or willingness to stick to her aggressive game were much more of a concern. Hopefully the 2011 Wimbledon champion has recovered from whatever mental or physical malady bothered her last week, and is ready to put her best into another slam campaign.
Petra should have a good opportunity to work her way into the tournament, playing 20-year-old Thai Luksika Kumkhum in the first round. Kumkhum bookended her 2013 season with increasingly impressive results, partly at the ITF level. But the best player Kumkhum has beaten was #39 Sofia Arvidsson in last year’s Australian Open, when Sofia was already entering the slump that has now removed her from the top 100.
Kvitova could have a tougher second match against either the lanky and aggressive Zhang Shuai or the talented but struggling Mona Barthel. Either could be a genuine threat unless Petra plays her very best—and by the time that match takes place the Melbourne temperature should be more than hot enough to bother the asthmatic Kvitova.
The winner of that match is likely to face the winner of an interesting second-round match between versatile former #10 Flavia Pennetta and the compact but power-packed Monica Puig. Puig made perhaps the biggest splash of her young career when she took fifth seed Kerber deep into a third-set tiebreak a year ago in Brisbane, and for the last few months her results have been solid but less impressive. If Pennetta is healthy and duplicates the form she showed beating Stosur in Hopman Cup two weeks ago, the Italian should prevail. But Flavia retired from her third Hopman Cup match and then withdrew from Hobart with an injury to the same wrist she had surgery on in 2012, and it remains to be seen whether she’ll be up to the tough baseline battle she’ll face from Puig.
When I looked at Kerber’s section of the draw, my first reaction was, “Oh, poor Jarka.” The aggressive and talented but inconsistent Jarmila Gajdosova is doing a good job working her way back after missing six months with mononucleosis, but Angie’s combination of pressuring groundstrokes, defensive speed, and unyielding determination is the perfect formula to expose Jarka’s weaknesses in the first round. Kerber is unlikely to have much more trouble in her second match, against either Caroline Garcia, whose game resembles Gajdosova’s in some ways, or big-serving but one-dimensional qualifier Alla Kudryavtseva.
Angie’s third-round opponent is most likely to be the winner of the first-round match between Elena Vesnina and Alison Riske. Vesnina had the best year of her career last year, finding new confidence, becoming more strategically robust, and winning her first two WTA singles titles. But Lena’s form and health are in doubt at the moment after she withdrew from Auckland with an ankle injury, and then retired from her second-round match in Hobart with a hip injury. Dangerous on grass for the last three years now, Riske is in a breakout phase herself, finding major success on outdoor hard courts for the first time over the past few months. Riske upset Barthel and Kvitova at the US Open, and took out fourth seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on her way to the Hobart quarterfinals last week. The American should be well positioned to take advantage of any weaknesses Vesnina reveals.
Either player could face a challenge in the second round from the powerful Yanina Wickmayer. But so far this year the injury-prone Wickmayer hasn’t shown any sign of improving on her mostly poor 2013 season, during which she lost her matches against Vesnina and Riske, both convincingly in straight sets.
Most likely Kerber will outclass any of these women in the third round. But Vesnina and Riske, in particular, have enough versatility and offensive ability to take advantage if Angie has an off day or her confidence falters—as it did last summer, during which she fell in straight sets to Vesnina in New Haven.
Predicted fourth round: Kerber d. Zhang
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Kvitova
Not to be counted out: Vesnina, Pennetta, Puig, Riske
Jelena Jankovic hasn’t been beyond the fourth round of any slam other than Roland Garros since 2008. She’s playing better lately, reaching the Beijing final and beating Kerber on her way to the Brisbane semifinals two weeks ago, but I don’t expect her to break her late-round slam drought this year in Melbourne. She opens against improving left-hander Misaki Doi, who could be a threat if JJ is off her game. But most likely Jankovic will prevail without major difficulty and move on to the second round, where her most likely opponent is Ayumi Morita. If Morita has recovered from the wrist injury that took her out of qualifying in Sydney last week, she could be a greater threat. It could be an entertaining match, with Ayumi looking to dictate points by stepping forward and hitting sharp angles and JJ waiting for opportunities to hit down-the-line winners past her. On the other hand, if Morita isn’t fully healthy, she could fall in the first round to Nadiya Kichenok, a promising young player who is probably not ready to be a threat to someone of Jankovic’s caliber.
By seeding, JJ’s third-round opponent should be the versatile but sometimes underachieving Magdalena Rybarikova. But Rybarikova faces a tough battle in the first round from former #9 Andrea Petkovic, who is still working her way back from a series of injuries but played well in Brisbane two weeks ago. Rybarikova won the only match the two have played, last year in Washington in two tight sets, but her 6-0 6-2 loss to Niculescu last week in Hobart suggests she’s nowhere near the exceptional form she was in in DC. Ultimately, I expect Petkovic to advance to the second round, where she’s most likely to face another tricky opponent, Peng Shuai. Peng played pretty well two weeks ago in Shenzhen—until she injured her hip in the final against Li. After a long and hasty trip to Hobart, Peng lost in the first round the following week to #234 Australian wild card Storm Sanders. If Peng hasn’t recovered from her injury, she could fall to Kurumi Nara in the first round. In any case, I expect Petkovic to combine enough power and consistency to fight her way to the third round. Petkovic seems to have good formula for beating Jankovic, having won their last two matches in straight sets.
After a stellar 2013 that brought her to the threshold of the top 10, Simona Halep hasn’t gotten fully up to speed yet this season, having failed to recover from a disastrous first set against Keys last week in Sydney. In Melbourne she should have a considerably easier opening match against qualifier Katerzyna Piter, who is not yet a fully fledged tour-level player. But Piter did upset #20 Flipkens in Luxembourg late last year, and could make things difficult if Simona plays poorly. Things could get a bit more difficult in the second round, most likely against Varvara Lepchenko. But while Lepchenko had a good run in Sydney, beating Svetlana Kuznetsova as a qualifier, the American is at her best on clay, and the heat should favor the more compact and efficient Halep.
By seeding, Halep should meet fellow Romanian Sorana Cirstea in the third round. Cirstea is an extremely talented but inconsistent player whose evident off-court intelligence puzzlingly fails to translate into tactical adaptability on the court. She has a dismal 3–8 match record since her career-topping run to last year’s Toronto final, with four of those losses coming to players ranked outside the top 100. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cirstea falls in the first round to aggressive all-court player Marina Erakovic, even though the New Zealander’s recent results haven’t been very good either.
The winner of that match could be vulnerable in the second round as well, facing the winner of a first-round battle between two promising young players who made strong runs through qualifying, 17-year-old Czech Katerina Siniakova and 20-year-old Kazakh Zarina Diyas. Siniakova reached the final of the junior Australian Open last year, but Diyas is my favorite. Her game has some weaknesses, but she’s a fighter and her backhand can be lethal, as she’s proven in the past by upsetting Jankovic and Peng, both in straight sets.
By the time Halep reaches the third round, she should be playing well enough to outclass whichever opponent she faces. (She trails the head-to-head against Cirstea, 1–2, but they haven’t played since 2010, and Simona’s offensive capability has shown a bigger improvement since then.) A victory there would bring Halep into the second week of a slam for the second straight time, and she has 2–1 records against both of her most likely fourth-round opponents, Petkovic and Jankovic. Convincingly, she beat Petkovic in their last two matches, both last year, both in straight sets.
Predicted fourth round: Halep d. Petkovic
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Jankovic
Not to be counted out: Peng, Rybarikova, Lepchenko
Playing just her second tournament after missing four months with a shoulder injury, Maria Sharapova looks ready for another good run at a slam. She survived a tough test by an in-form Kaia Kanepi two weeks ago to reach the Brisbane semifinals, where she predictably fell to Serena Williams. Maria faces another tough test in Melbourne’s first round from Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who kept her gutsy all-court game under exceptional control last week in Sydney, upsetting Bouchard and top seed Agnieszka Radwanska. Sharapova will need to strike hard early in points to keep the American from dictating from the net. But Mattek-Sands retired from her Sydney quarterfinal against Keys with a back injury, and Sharapova has lost only one set to her in the five matches they’ve played. Maria’s second match should be easier, against either clay-court specialist Paula Ormaechea or the powerful but rough-edged Karin Knapp.
Sharapova’s most likely third-round opponent is Alizé Cornet. Cornet played with more confidence last year and seems to have gained a better sense of when to use her versatile shotmaking ability rather than relying exclusively on her defensive speed. But Cornet’s recent results have been mixed—she played an excellent match to take Kvitova deep into a third set two weeks ago in Hopman Cup, then fell to Christina McHale in the Sydney first round, also in three sets.
Under other circumstances, I’d say Cornet’s first match against the multitalented Polona Hercog could be tricky. But Hercog will be playing her first match of the year after dealing with a rib injury, and is unlikely to be in good enough form to present a serious threat.
Cornet’s most likely second-round opponent is Camila Giorgi, whose hyperaggressive game has allowed her to upset three seeded players during attention-getting runs at Wimbledon the past two years. After her run to the US Open fourth round last year (beating Caroline Wozniacki), it’s tempting to conclude that she rises to the occasion at slams. But for a player as inherently inconsistent as Giorgi, that run of form could just as easily be a coincidence. At her best, Giorgi certainly has the offensive firepower to upset Cornet, but it’s more likely she’ll make enough errors to take herself out of contention. It’s also quite possible Giorgi will fall in the first round to 19-year-old Australian wild card Storm Sanders, who just won her first tour-level main-draw match last week against a tired Peng.
Sharapova should be able to dictate points and overpower Cornet without too much trouble, and her greater height and reach and better serve would leave even an in-form Giorgi at a loss for answers.
Carla Suarez Navarro has started the season with solid results, but won’t have an easy first match against resurgent and clever all-court player Vania King. Two weeks ago in Shenzhen, King upset Errani, who plays a style similar to Suarez Navarro. On the other hand, King later retired from her Shenzhen semifinal with a thigh injury. Should Suarez Navarro pass that test, she’ll likely face another in the second round from the tricky Galina Voskoboeva. But despite some solid results lately, Voskoboeva isn’t quite the threat she was two or three years ago, and the talented Spaniard with the famous backhand will most likely find a way to advance to the third round.
There Suarez Navarro is most likely to meet Dominika Cibulkova, who has also made a solid start this year, reaching the Brisbane quarterfinals and giving Kerber a tough first-round battle in Sydney. Domi’s draw is packed with difficult opponents, but she’s never lost to either first-round foe Francesca Schiavone or likely second-round opponent Stefanie Voegele. Schiavone is a poorer player than she was when she last played Cibulkova in 2011. In a way, Voegele is a similar player to Cibulkova, able to run down a lot of balls defensively and basing her offense primarily on ambitious placement, and the pair’s previous matches have been very close. But Domi has a dramatic advantage in power that should carry her through. Surprisingly, Cibulkova has never played Suarez Navarro, but the relatively fast surface should favor the Slovakian’s flatter hitting and preference for shorter points.
A fourth-round match between Sharapova and Cibulkova would be a remarkable hard-hitting spectacle pairing one of the tour’s tallest players against one of its shortest. Maria has a 2–2 record against Domi on clay, a 1–0 record on grass, and the two have never played on hard court. Domi’s two wins came in 2009 and 2011, however, when Sharapova was still struggling to rebuild her serve after shoulder surgery. If Maria is healthy and in form, she’ll have the edge.
Predicted fourth round: Sharapova d. Cibulkova
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Suarez Navarro
Not to be counted out: Voegele, King, Cornet
It’s hard to know how well Agnieszka Radwanska will play in Melbourne. She looked good winning all four of her singles matches against a strong field two weeks ago in Hopman Cup, then suffered a disappointing straight-sets loss to Mattek-Sands in Sydney. Fortunately, her early draw presents few problems. She opens against pugnacious 19-year-old Yulia Putintseva, whose results since the clay-court season have failed to live up to the hype promoting her as an imminent star. Aga’s second-round match might be even easier, against either of two tall players whose limited movement and consistency she can expose—Olga Govortsova or qualifier Duan Ying-Ying.
Radwanska’s likely third-round opponent is Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, another powerful but relatively one-dimensional player, who will pose a stronger threat but who hasn’t beaten Aga since 2009. Pavlyuchenkova relies heavily on her serve and her ability to hit winners when she needs them. But even a hitter as talented as the Russian can be outmaneuvered, and when her go-to shots aren’t working, matches can slip away from her in a hurry.
The signs about Caroline Wozniacki’s early 2014 form are as mixed as they are for her friend Radwanska. Caro withdrew from Brisbane with a sore shoulder, then in Sydney outlasted one shotmaker who has been her nemesis in recent years (Goerges) only to fall in straight sets in the second round to another (Safarova). Most likely Caro will get through her opening match against clay-court specialist Lourdes Dominguez Lino with little difficulty, but she could have a much harder time against likely second-round opponent Christina McHale. McHale has a 2–1 record against Wozniacki, with all three matches having been close. Especially in Melbourne’s hot conditions, Caro will need to seize an aggressive forward court position and put her greater muscle mass into her shots early in points, or she’ll find herself pulled into desperate defensive rallies by the angles McHale can generate. Wozniacki would probably prefer to play her other possible second-round opponent, the occasionally dangerous but injury-prone Chan Yung-Jan, against whom she has never lost.
If Wozniacki survives that test, she’s likely to face the winner of an exciting first-round match between two powerful, aggressive baseliners, the veteran Kaia Kanepi and 20-year-old upstart Garbiñe Muguruza. Both have proven they’re capable of overpowering the Danish counterpuncher, Kanepi having gone 2–2 against her since 2011 and Muguruza having won her only match against Caro in straight sets, last year in Miami. Hobart champion Muguruza, in particular, has improved since her last meeting with Wozniacki, playing more proactive defense and hitting more effective approach shots.
Neither Kanepi nor Muguruza has ever beaten Radwanska, but with Aga’s confidence looking more vulnerable lately and Kanepi’s and Muguruza’s games becoming more complete, this year could be the best opportunity yet if one of them gets that far. If not, Wozniacki has had some tough, long battles with Radwanska in the past, and they could well have another. But Aga has won their last three matches, the last two in straight sets. Both players know each other’s strengths and weaknesses well, but lately Radwanska has had the more varied tools necessary to exploit that knowledge.
Predicted fourth round: A. Radwanska d. Muguruza
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Kanepi
Not to be counted out: Wozniacki, McHale
After disappointing performances late last year, Victoria Azarenka made progress getting her game back on track two weeks ago, reaching the final in Brisbane (where she lost in two close sets to Serena Williams). She didn’t do it without showing vulnerability to lower-ranked opponents though, losing a set to Voegele in the quarterfinals and surrendering a 6-1 set to Jankovic before recovering in the semifinals. Like several of her top-10 rivals, Vika will be glad she won’t face too many major threats in the early rounds. In her opening match, she should have little problem overpowering inconsistent counterpuncher Johanna Larsson, who is generally at her best on clay. In the second round, Azarenka will face one of two crafty and unconventional players, Barbora Zahlavova Strycova or Hsieh Su-Wei. Neither can match Vika’s power. Hsieh’s confidence and form have eroded over the past year, and the resurgent Zahlavova Strycova is unlikely to match Azarenka’s competitive resolve if the contest gets close.
Vika’s most likely third-round opponent, the streaky but often formidable baseliner Bojana Jovanovski, could pose a greater threat, especially if Vika doesn’t serve well. But Azarenka has enough intelligence and versatility that she should be able to break down Jovanovski’s relatively simple game. Indeed, Jovanovski could lose in the first round to skilled and aggressive 20-year-old Jana Cepelova, or in the second to clever defender Yvonne Meusburger, who has played the best tennis of her career over the past seven months.
It’s not clear whether 2013 semifinalist Sloane Stephens will be physically capable of another impressive performance in Melbourne this year. She retired from her third match in Hopman Cup two weeks ago with a wrist injury, and then withdrew from Sydney. Christopher Clarey reports that she is, in his words, “feeling good enough about her wrist to play,” which doesn’t sound all that optimistic. If she’s healthy, Sloane’s early draw doesn’t look too bad. Both her opening opponent, Yaroslava Shvedova, and her most likely second opponent, Ajla Tomljanovic, are talented and dangerous shotmakers. But both are also very inconsistent players who are likely to be pressured into errors by Stephens’ natural power-grinding game, and unlikely to regroup with a plan B. However, if Stephens’ wrist is still painful or weak, either opponent may have enough sheer power to worsen the injury. Stephens’ likely third-round opponent, Svetlana Kuznetsova, will pose a greater threat, combining similar power with heavier spin and the experience and adaptability to put up a much more formidable fight. Then again, Sveta is hardly known for consistency, either, and suffered a disappointing first-round loss to Lepchenko in Sydney.
Even if Sloane successfully runs that gauntlet, she’s unlikely to fare any better against Vika than she did in last year’s Melbourne semifinal. Azarenka’s defensive ability neutralizes Stephens’ natural game style, forcing her to apply her power more aggressively and go for riskier shots earlier in points. Even when fully healthy and facing opponents less formidable than the defending champion, Stephens has been reluctant to play that way.
Predicted fourth round: Azarenka d. Kuznetsova
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Tomljanovic
Not to be counted out: Jovanovski
S. Williams d. Bouchard
Li d. Kerber
Sharapova d. Halep
Azarenka d. A. Radwanska
S. Williams d. Li (but see below)
Sharapova d. Azarenka
My head tells me I have sound reasons for my fourth-round and quarterfinal predictions, and that those lead inevitably to the conclusion that Serena Williams will win the 2014 Australian Open. My gut, however, tells me that Li Na‘s game is getting more complete and more formidable all the time, and that this might just be her time to break her six-year, nine-match losing streak to Serena. It’s also worth noting that there are significant reasons to doubt the health, form, or consistency of many of the top seeds in the bottom half, where the draw could break wide open and create a golden opportunity for an upstart like Halep or Muguruza.
Roster of the Missing
Maria Kirilenko withdrew with an injury which has been reported by various sources to be to her knee or ankle.
Jamie Hampton withdrew, presumably due to the hip injury she sustained in Auckland.
Urszula Radwanska withdrew to give herself more time to recover from shoulder surgery she had in October.
Romina Oprandi has been off the tour since Wimbledon with a shoulder injury.
Nadia Petrova, who has played only one match since Wimbledon due to a back injury, withdrew from all of this month’s tournaments citing her mother’s death last month in a traffic accident.
Iveta Melzer (née Benesova) has been out for a year and a half with a shoulder injury.