The first tennis major of the year is almost here. We have become used to majors being wide open for the women in recent years. This year’s Australian Open may be the most wide open yet. World No. 1 and top seed Simona Halep has not won a match since last August. A lingering back injury explains some of that. Also, an astounding 10 ladies have a chance to leave Melbourne as the top-ranked player in the world. Before taking a shot at predicting the unpredictable, here are some openers to watch.
(1) Simona Halep vs. Kaia Kanepi- The tennis draw Gods have a sense of humor. At the last major, Halep was the top seed and lost to Kanepi in her opener. The hard-hitting Estonian is a tough matchup for anyone and no stranger to making runs at majors. We’ve not seen Kanepi since the run at the U.S. Open that nipped Halep. As mentioned above, Halep is struggling as well as coachless. This is a coin flip.
(25) Mihaela Buzărnescu vs. Venus Williams- A living legend will take on a 30-year-old Romanian who really started to make waves prior to an ankle injury last summer. Buzărnescu has not been the same since. It is strange to see the elder Williams sister unseeded, but she is still more than capable of beating anyone. She seems to be starting 2019 healthy too.
(10) Daria Kasatkina vs. Timea Bacsinszky- A current top ten player faces a former one. These two make their living on variety and placement of shot, not power, a rarity in the modern game. Bacsinszky’s last year and a half has been derailed by injuries. However, she reached the quarters in Sydney last week and played well against Maria Sharapova at the season-opening event in China. Her Russian opponent is 0-2 on the young season. Upset alert is on in a big way here.
Eugenie Bouchard vs. Peng Shuai- There is reason for optimism in regard to Bouchard for the first time in a long time. The former Wimbledon finalist has reached the quarters or better in her last three events dating back to last year and including an exhibition event to start this year. She is back in the top 100. The Canadian will face an intriguing test from the unorthodox Chinese veteran. Shuai is a former major semifinalist in her own right. The winner here will likely set up a second rounder with Serena Williams.
Top half: This half is considerably more loaded than the bottom. As detailed above, she is struggling and has a tough opener. Should she get past that, she will have to go through at least one Williams sister to reach the quarters. This is not the kind of draw any player needs to build confidence. A suddenly resurgent Bouchard is also floating around here, and Serena will have to be on high alert for her in round two.
The loaded first section of 16 could create an opportunity for others in this half. U.S. Open champion and fourth seed Naomi Osaka has handled herself pretty well on and off the court since shocking the world in September. However, the 21-year-old has had an underwhelming start to the year and has spoken openly about struggling to compete at a high-level week in and week out. Former two-time Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka is back down under for the first time in three years and could see Osaka early on, as could (13) Anastasija Sevastova who drives her opponents insane with slices, dropshots, and all kinds of junk balls.
The two names to watch are (7) Karolína Plíšková and (6) Elina Svitolina. Plíšková kicked off the year with a title in Brisbane and can come close to matching the power of Serena Williams should they meet in the quarters. The former U.S. Open runner up has played Serena enough to not be intimidated. She only trails the head-to-head by one. Also, the younger Williams sister is not quite back to her pre-childbirth level.
Svitolina has never reached a major semi, but won last year’s season ending event and should take a lot of confidence to the big stage from that. Frankly, if Osaka stumbles early, there are not any players around the Ukrainian in the draw that should trouble her before the semis. That is what happens when a group of 16 is as loaded as the first section of this draw.
Semifinal prediction: Plíšková d. Svitolina
The two hot players in this half are (8) Petra Kvitová and (11) Aryna Sabalenka. Sabalenka’s power makes her potential endless. She has gone from outside the top 100 to the top 15 in a little more than a year. The 20-year-old Belarussian has only been past the second round of a major once. Given the state of the ladies game, the title hype around her in Melbourne is understandable, but a little early.
Kvitová is erratic, but she has raced through the field in Sydney this week. Also, being erratic is no longer a reason not to trust a pro women’s tennis player. Every player in Australia has question marks related to either form, health, or just being ready to win a major again or for the first time. Still, a two-time Wimbledon champ like Kvitová is a safer bet to go deep than someone like Sabalenka. The could play each other in round four.
Defending champ Caroline Wozniacki faces an uphill battle to defend her title. The third seeded Dane has had a tough road since being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis last summer. She has lost six times to her potential third round foe (30) Maria Sharapova. The arrow is not pointing up for Sharapova either but Wozniacki is a very comfortable matchup for her. (15) Ashleigh Barty could cause problems for either Sharapova or Wozniacki in the fourth round. The Aussie likes playing at home and is refreshingly comfortable in all parts of the court.
The rest of this half has two names that will get some title consideration. (2) Angelique Kerber and (5) Sloane Stephens. Stephens seems bored to start the year. She has already dropped two sets at love on the young year. The American can flip the switch any time, but she has not won a match in Melbourne since 2014.
Kerber is a three-time major winner, including this event in 2016. She can get overpowered, but she doesn’t beat herself. In an event this wide open, that makes the German lefty very unique.
Semifinal prediction: Kerber d. Kvitová
Championship Match: Kerber d. Plíšková
The 2019 Australian Open begins Sunday night at 6:30 ET with coverage on several ESPN platforms and Tennis Channel. This is Monday morning in Australia. Be sure to follow me on Twitter below for complete predictions and more throughout the event.