Australian Open: Women To Watch In Melbourne
Australian Open qualifying is underway and lively predictions of top-ranked player performance are everywhere. Yet, there are lesser known players lurking outside the Top-10 who can produce, “I didn’t see that coming” moments. While marquee players Kerber, Kvitova, Radwanska, and Sharapova also sit outside the Top-10, lesser known they are not. The Australian Open WTA Main Draw begins with 128-players so let’s dig a bit deeper.
Daria Gavrilova-Australia via Russia
Let’s start with the present. In Sydney, Daria prevailed over Sam Stosur and Garbine Muguruza on her way to the semi-final. In 2017, Gavrilova upset Radwanska and then Cibulkova in New Haven to capture her first WTA title. She also went deep in Melbourne finishing in the round-of-16 eventually losing to Karolina Pliskova. Daria loves hard courts and the home crowd advantage may help lift her game to new heights.
Catherine “CiCi” Bellis-United States
2017 Newcomer of the Year (a media award), Catherine Bellis is ranked No. 56. Early on, CiCi showed a comfort performing on the bigger stages. At age 15, she dismissed then No. 12 seed Dominika Cibulkova at the US Open. Bellis became the youngest player to win a main draw match in 18 years. Her signature style is hyper-aggressive.
She is a player that goes for her shots and does not give up her plan. She, also, thrives on crowd energy. All of this makes her dangerous especially in early rounds where top players are adjusting to conditions. Bellis turned pro in 2016 and moved from 2016 year-end No. 90 to a 2017 high ranking of No. 35. Another advantage, Bellis is mentored by Chris Evert as part of a USTA development program.
A professional since 2004, “Kat” is not unknown but she is perhaps somewhat overlooked. Ekaterina finished 2017 strong on hard courts with a Citi Open title, round-of-16 finish in Cincinnati and a round-of- 32 finish in the Big Apple. Makarova lost to eventual US Open champion Sloane Stephens. Makarova has solid doubles and singles skills, the experience to manage a Slam schedule and to prepare well for any opponent. She recently made headlines dismissing French Open Champion, Jelena Ostapenko in Sydney, in straight sets. With 2017 coaching partner Nigel Sears by her side, it appears Makarova is continuing to build momentum.
Kasatkina also captured her 1st WTA title in 2017 in Charleston, South Carolina. She has given solid performances at the 2015 US Open and 2016 Aussie Open, both round-of-32 finishes and a round-of-16 2017 US Open finish.
She is another young player that handles big occasions well. Daria has held a steady place in the rankings for the past two years ending at 27 (2016) and 24 (2017).
Certainly not unknown at home, Barty finished 2017 strong. She captured her 1st title in Kuala Lumpur and finished as a finalist in Birmingham and Wuhan. During the North American hard-court swing, she finished in the round-of-32 or better. Ashleigh shows no sign of letting up with her performances in Sydney. Through doubles, she has developed depth to her game. She has more tools to change up and problem solve on the court. To underscore her 2017 singles inroads, she finished 2016 ranked No. 325 and is currently ranked No. 19.
This promising 20-year-old has yet to win a title and has struggled with consistency. That said, she had 2017 wins over Venus Williams, Angelique Kerber, Anastasija Sevastova, Barbora Strycova, and Heather Watson. Naomi recently added Sascha Bajin to her team. If Sascha is not familiar, he is the former hitting partner for Caroline Wozniacki (2017), Victoria Azarenka, and long-time hitting partner for none other than Serena Williams.
Combine Sascha with Naomi, a powerful clean ball striker, and the results may be significant. Naomi has the potential to go toe-to-toe with the big hitters and close 2017 losses have come against top players.
There are also several players making a splash in the lead-up events to the open, notably - Heather Watson, Katerina Siniakova, Julia Goerges, Aliaksandra Sasnovich, Camilla Giorgi, and of course Barty. With these smaller events, it can be hard to know if their performances will hold up against a fully intact draw and stand the test of a tennis marathon versus a sprint.
A last note - Swiss players Timea Bacsinszky and Belinda Bencic were considerations. Both are powerful shot makers and adapt their game well to hard courts. Timea, who sustained a hand injury late in 2017 is not on the entry list and Bencic seems fragile given a recent return from past injuries. Bencic will be immediately tested against Venus Williams in her first-round match. We will have a quick indication of her fitness and health status.
In Melbourne, the WTA rankings are in an unusual state for a variety of reasons. 2017 was a year without dominance. We saw seven No. 1 shifts - Serena, Angelique, Serena, Angelique, Karolina, Garbine and Simona (who captured the year-end spot). To find this type of No. 1 succession, one must look back to 2008. The good news, those players were Justine Henin, Serena Williams, Ana Ivanovic, Maria Sharapova, and Jelena Jankovic. It seems 2018 will be another wild ride of shifts and surprises. Fans may need to get comfortable with the uncertain and the reality of a transitional phase. The players in the middle are likely contributors to that outcome.