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2014 Australian Open: Women's Draw Preview

Jan 10th 2014

In contrast to a top-heavy men’s draw, the women’s draw at the Australian Open provides relative balance that should test all contenders to comparable degrees.

Serena Williams

First quarter:  Just as an Aussie hope drew top men’s seed Rafael Nadal in the first round, an Aussie hope drew top women’s seed Serena Williams in the first round.  Hobbled by injury at last year’s Australian Open, Serena has enjoyed more success Down Under than at any other major.  She should overpower elegant but light-hitting US Open quarterfinalist Daniela Hantuchova to reach the second week, where a more intriguing contest awaits.  Among the hottest players heading into Melbourne, 2008 finalist and former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic followed a strong fall by winning a small tournament in Auckland, her first outdoor title in nearly six years.  The woman once known as “Aussie Ana” might battle top Australian woman Samantha Stosur for the honor of facing Serena.  But the opportunistic Tsvetana Pironkova, a finalist in Sydney, might derail Stosur and this clash of one-time major champions.  Least effective when playing at home, the Aussie does own a marquee victory over Serena at the 2011 US Open. 

A distinctly Italian flavor pervades the rest of this section, bookended by the two women who form the world’s top doubles team.  Neither Roberta Vinci nor Sara Errani shone in singles earlier this month, far from the European clay where they thrive.  The door thus lies open for a trio of rising stars from Great Britain and its former colonies.  While Sydney semifinalist Madison Keys brings the greatest momentum to the fortnight, Eugenie Bouchard holds a seed and eyes an easier draw.  The American and the Canadian probably fancy their chances more than British lefty Laura Robson, who has achieved the most notable results at majors.  A recurring wrist injury left Robson uncertain until the draw and could leave her vulnerable to Wimbledon semifinalist Kirsten Flipkens or the returning Vera Zvonareva.  It is hard to predict whom Serena will meet in the semifinals, then, but it is doubtful whether it matters.

Semifinalist:  Serena Williams

Li Na

Second quarter:  Like Serena, world No. 4 Li Na has compiled more consistent results at the Australian Open than at any other major.  Li also has developed a special fondness for the month of January, winning four of her seven titles then in addition to her two finals in Melbourne.  With three qualifiers in her vicinity, she should have plenty of breathing room to play herself into the tournament.  Explosive shot-makers could collide with her near the midpoint of the fortnight, but Li has dominated this group on hard courts.  Having defeated Ekaterina Makarova at the US Open last fall, she will look to stop the Russian short of a third straight Australian Open quarterfinal.  Sabine Lisicki remains a one-surface specialist irrelevant outside Great Britain, and Lucie Safarova seems content to linger in the shadow of countrywoman Petra Kvitova.  The unseeded name who leaps off the page, Venus Williams, will compete as long as her body allows her, but a rout by Maria Sharapova in Melbourne last year proved that she cannot keep pace with the elite. 

Lefties beginning with K set the tone in the lower part of this quarter, each of whom produced solid weeks in Sydney.  Although her inconsistency undid her in a semifinal there, Petra Kvitova started her season much more impressively than she did in 2013.  An intriguing third-round clash against surprise US Open semifinalist Flavia Pennetta looms as a test for Kvitova’s fortitude and will more than her game.  The same could be said of the projected encounter between Kvitova and Angelique Kerber, still on the fringes of the top 10 and also a finalist in Sydney.  A former Wimbledon champion, the Czech could hit through Kerber with ease when her weapons fire at optimal efficiency, but the German’s tenacity will exploit any chinks in the armor.  American fans may want to follow the fortunes of Alison Riske, whose draw could open if she upsets a struggling Elena Vesnina in her opener.

Semifinalist:  Li Na

Maria Sharapova

Third quarter:  Someone watching Maria Sharapova in Brisbane this month might not have guessed that the Russian had played only one match since Wimbledon or that she had endured another of her enforced absences.  Returning from injury before the Australian Open has mattered little to Sharapova in the past, and she will aim for her seventh semifinal in her last nine appearances there.  The heavy serve of Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who earned a top-10 win in Sydney, might keep her at bay longer than the ordinary first-round cannon fodder.  Her path looks straightforward from there, filled with counterpunchers more comfortable on clay.  Sharapova never has faced Dominika Cibulkova on a hard court, but victories on green clay and grass bode well for another meeting.  So does a routine win on the slow hard court of Indian Wells over Carla Suarez Navarro, a US Open quarterfinalist last fall. 

The brightest breakthrough of 2013 belonged to Simona Halep, who soared from outside the top 50 to the verge of the top 10.  Halep should crack that group after this tournament, although she never has excelled at majors.  An all-Romanian battle against Sorana Cirstea enlivens a section that also contains two Serbs.  While Bojana Jovanovski may struggle to defend her fourth-round points, Jelena Jankovic can expect to improve upon her first-week exit in Melbourne last year.  Suddenly back in the conversation, Jankovic can anticipate a match dripping with personality when she meets Andrea Petkovic in the third round.  Experience will serve the winner well in a section of raw competitors.

Semifinalist:  Maria Sharapova

Victoria Azarenka

Fourth quarter:  At the US Open, world No. 2 Victoria Azarenka escaped indifferent stretches of play in an early draw that did not challenge her.  She might face stiffer competition in Melbourne when she squares off against a pair of Americans who threatened her at last year’s Australian Open.  The two-time defending champion dropped a set to Jamie Hampton in the first week, and Sloane Stephens rebounded from a poor first set to fluster Azarenka in the second set of their semifinal.  Pressure lies heavy on Stephens to defend those 900 ranking points, a key reason for her top-15 ranking.  Opponents near her will hope that nerves from that task will aid them in notching an early upset, something that Svetlana Kuznetsova has more than enough talent to accomplish.  The Russian reached two major quarterfinals before fading in the second half with an injury.  If she does halt Stephens, Kuznetsova must attempt to reverse a loss to Azarenka on this court a year ago.

Only once since early 2011 have long-time friends Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki drawn their weapons against each other on a tennis court.  After adding new coach Thomas Hogstedt , the former No. 1 from Denmark soon may become more than Rory McIlroy’s new fiancée.  The transition to Hogstedt may require time, however, considering how long Wozniacki worked under the watchful gaze of her father, Piotr.  Once dominant against a fellow star of Polish origin, Agnieszka Radwanska, she has lost ground in that sub-rivalry recently.  Neither woman displayed her best form in Sydney this week, which might give hope to the powerful baseliners between them.  Radwanska specializes in picking apart monochromatic games like those of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Kaia Kanepi.  Still, courts that continue to play fast in qualifying may complicate this elite counterpuncher’s hopes. 

Semifinalist:  Victoria Azarenka

Final:  Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova

Champion:  Serena Williams