The 2018 tennis season is under way, and the Australian Open draws are out. With Serena Williams not defending her title after childbirth, the ladies’ draw is even more wide open than usual. Here are some first-round matches to watch at the opening major of the year.
(7) Jelena Ostapenko vs. Francesca Schiavone – Two French Open champions will square off in the opening round. The Latvian seventh seed did well to back up her breakthrough in Paris last year and finished ranked inside the top ten. She is winless so far on the young season, but is capable of hitting her way through everyone if she can find even a little bit of decent form.
The 2010 French Open champion postponed her retirement plans after last season. The veteran Italian’s variety and Ostapenko’s raw power should create an entertaining match.
(11) Kristina Mladenovic vs. Ana Bogdan – These two players are pretty anonymous to everyone except super dedicated fans of the sport, but the backstory here is impossible to ignore. The 11th seeded Mladenovic is on a 14-match losing streak. You read that right. Mladenovic has not won a singles match since last August and is shooting up the record books in the worst way possible.
Fortunately for her, she did major damage in the early part of last year. Thus, her ranking is still high enough for her to get decent draws for now. Getting a first-round matchup with someone ranked outside the top 100 is good news for Mladenovic, but she lost to a player ranked outside the top 300 just last week, so anything is possible.
No one likes to admit it, but everyone is going to watch a train wreck. Thus, every Mladenovic match is appointment viewing until the losing streak ends.
Sam Stosur vs. Monica Puig – For the first time in a long time, Sam Stosur is not the highest-ranked Australian woman at her home Grand Slam. The former U.S. Open champion has always struggled here, but perhaps the pressure has lessened a bit this year.
The reigning Olympic gold medalist from Puerto Rico is also struggling at the moment. No matter what happens in this one, a very talented player is going to get a big win.
(5) Venus Williams vs. Belinda Bencic – Spare a thought for Belinda Bencic. Last year, the former top 10 player was coming back from injury and drew Serena Williams in the first round at this event. This year, she is coming back from injury and draws Venus Williams.
Bencic is playing very well at the moment after a slew of titles at smaller professional events. Her ranking is back in the top 80 after falling as low as 400. However, dealing with Venus at a Grand Slam is a whole different level.
The American looked sluggish in her season debut in Sydney last week, but most of what we have seen from the 37-year-old in the last year has been astonishingly good. Bencic has the talent to beat anyone, but Venus has always managed to overpower her. If Williams comes out flat as she sometimes does, her time in Australia will be much shorter than she would like.
Top half predictions
World No. 1 and top seed Simona Halep heads up the draw. She bagged singles and doubles trophies in China to start the year. However, the Romanian has never played well here. In fact, she has crashed out in the first round the last two years. Halep has yet to figure out how to play her best tennis at the majors.
Additionally, she has been handed a tricky draw that could see her face former Grand Slam finalist Eugenie Bouchard and two-time Wimbledon winner No. 27 Petra Kvitova in the first week. Kvitova has struggled since returning from a stabbing injury last spring, but she tends to pull her act together at big events. Moreover, she can overpower Halep on a good day. Australian 18th seed Ashleigh Barty could also be dangerous if she handles the home crowd well.
The really interesting part of this half is the names that are clustered together. Reigning Wimbledon champion No. 3 Garbiñe Muguruza, No. 21 Angelique Kerber, No. 14 Anastasija Sevastova and unseeded five-time major winner Maria Sharapova are all in the same group of 16. That means that only one of these four title contenders can reach the quarterfinals.
Muguruza has failed to finish a tournament this year because of injuries. Sharapova has been hit or miss since returning to the tour, but underestimate her at your own risk. Kerber has had a nice resurgence to start the year by tearing through the field in Sydney, and Sevastova is a late bloomer who can hit shots that don’t even have names.
Prior to the draw, one of these names would have been a safe bet to make a deep run. Now, it is reasonable to speculate that whoever emerges from the scrum above may not have much left in the tank for the rest of the field.
That logic opens the door for some other seeds like No. 6 Karolína Plíšková, No. 8 Caroline Garcia, No. 9 Johanna Konta, No. 17 Madison Keys and maybe even No. 20 Barbora Strýcová. Strýcová has always struggled to keep her emotions in check, and the others dealing with injury concerns were just not playing well. Much like Kvitova, Garcia seems to get hot without any rhyme or reason. In a wide-open draw that only features two previous Australian Open champions, a player like that is most dangerous.
Semifinal prediction: Garcia d. Kvitova
Bottom half predictions
This half of the draw is much cleaner. It is best to view it with three in form players at the center. No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki led the tour in finals last year and has already reached one this year. No. 4 Elina Svitolina won the season opener in Brisbane. Lastly, No. 12 Julia Görges is on a 14-match winning streak.
None of these three players has ever won a Grand Slam, but they are the only ones in this half that appear capable of winning this one. Wozniacki has been so close so many times, but she will never have a better chance at major glory. She is playing well and hitting the ball harder than she ever has.
This is one of the first times we are heading into a major with people talking about Svitolina and Görges as real contenders, so they may not react well once things get started.
There are a few other players who cannot be totally discounted in this part of the draw. 31st seeded Russian lefty Ekaterina Makarova always plays well in Australia. It would also be foolish to overlook fiery Aussie 23rd seed Daria Gavrilova. The same goes for the winner of the Williams-Bencic first-rounder. Finally, keep an eye on a pair of Americans. No. 10 CoCo Vandeweghe and unseeded Alison Riske.
Semifinal prediction: Wozniacki d. Svitolina
Championship match: Wozniacki d. Garcia
The Australian Open begins Sunday night at 7 p.m. ET across the ESPN family of networks and Tennis Channel. I will tweet out my complete picks for both singles draws before play starts. You can follow me on Twitter below!
Featured image from matchpointtimes.com
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