Draws are out and the first tennis major of the year is within touching distance. As always, Melbourne, Australia will serve as the beautiful backdrop. Play gets going Sunday night here in America (Monday morning in Australia). This is my breakdown of the ladies event. I will cover all first-round matches to watch, sleepers, and predictions.
First round matches to watch:
(15) Roberta Vinci vs. Coco Vandeweghe- Vinci, an Italian stalwart, is still plugging away at age 33. Vandeweghe’s raw power will provide a sharp contrast to Vinci’s variety and counterpunching skills. This could go either way.
(12) Timea Bacsinszky vs. Camila Giorgi- Bacsinszky has yet to play a match this year. Giorgi hits the ball as hard as anyone, but she does not always know where it is going. If she is on, a rusty Bacsinszky will have her hands full.
Lucie Safarova vs Yanina Wickmayer- Two injury-prone veterans who have each been to the business end of majors before. This should be fun. The winner will likely get Serena in the second round. Speaking of Serena…
(2) Serena Williams vs Belinda Bencic- This is as tough an opener as Serena has ever had. The talented Swiss teen has struggled with injuries, but was a top 10 player a year ago. Bencic announced her arrival by beating Serena in Toronto in 2015. Just to be safe, the American better knock the rust off early.
(22) Daria Gavrilova- The diminutive Aussie has notched some big wins in the past and is the kind of player who will relish the crowd support of playing at home. A run to the final eight is realistic.
(23) Daria Kasatkina- Russia continues to produce outstanding young female tennis talent. Kasatkina leads the latest crop. Her form in Australia may have peaked in Sydney last week, but a player of her talent cannot be overlooked.
(17)- Caroline Wozniacki- Admittedly, a multi-year former world number one is not much of a sleeper. However, the defensive minded Dane is flying under the radar and in decent form with a favorable draw. Like Gavrilova, the last eight is a real possibility.
Eugenie Bouchard- The WTA’s Canadian poster girl continues her slow climb back towards the top after a massive rankings drop in 2015. In 2016, she won enough matches to be taken seriously again. After a solid start in 2017, she is positioned reasonably well here. The winner of her projected second rounder with Kasatkina should oppose Kerber in the round of 16
Top half- To call this part of the draw wide open is a gross understatement. Top seed and world number one Angelique Kerber leads the pack, but her slow start to the year and general lack of power makes her very beatable. There is no obvious candidate to do it in the early rounds.
Some are touting Kasatkina. The young Russian knocked off Kerber just last week. However, beating a world number one, who also happens to be the defending champion at a major, is a much tougher task. Hot and cold French Open champ Garbine Muguruza has the weapons to win any event she plays in, but the seven seed is in a cold stretch right now. Steady Romanian fourth seed Simona Halep has a punchers chance. For me though, it is veterans and former major champs like (9) Svetlana Kuznetsova and (13) Venus Williams that are always most dangerous in a draw like this. Expect some upsets that will assist Kerber as she grinds her way back to the final. Semifinal prediction: Kerber d. Kuznetsova.
Bottom half- This is the half with the big hitters. Serena Williams is hunting for her 23rd Grand Slam Title to break Steffi Graf’s modern era record. However, Williams was clearly rusty in her second round loss to fellow American Madison Brengle at the season opening event in Auckland. Even so, we all know that Williams is capable of flipping the so-called switch at the Grand Slams.
As detailed earlier, her early draw is tricky, but it is almost impossible to pick her to lose in the first two rounds of a major. Fifth seed Karolina Pliskova is my co-favorite to reach the final from this half. The Brisbane champ and reigning U.S. Open finalist is still fairly new to the biggest stages of the sport, but she has the “it” factor. With a massive serve and powerful groundstrokes, she epitomizes the modern player. She has no fear of Serena. She beat both Serena and Venus last summer. While a possible second rounder with unorthodox Romanian Monica Niculescu may be uncomfortable, the Czech is in a zone right now. While names like (3) Agnieszka Radwanska, (9) Johanna Konta, and Wozniacki will provide stern tests, this entire half is set to build towards a Pliskova/Serena semi. Semifinal prediction: Pliskova d. S. Williams
Championship match: Pliskova d. Kerber
The Australian Open begins Sunday night at 7:00 p.m. ET across the ESPN family of networks and Tennis Channel. I will tweet out my complete picks for both singles draws on Sunday before play starts. You can follow me on Twitter below!
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