MELBOURNE—Here is where the beleaguered tennis-tournament previewer is usually obliged to say, in so many words, that he or she doesn’t have any idea who is going to win the women’s event at a Grand Slam. The prognosticator may couch it in less humble terms: “The draw is wide open," perhaps. Or, “there are more questions than answers." Or even that dubious and unquantifiable stand-by: “tennis has more depth than ever.” But the writer is really saying that it's all one big piece of guess-work and let's just see what happens.
Those stand-by terms mostly ring true at this year’s Australian Open. After the last three majors, all won by first-timers, who could plausibly say that the draws aren’t wide open, and that for every player you can name who has a shot, there’s a question, a caveat, a “But . . ." coming up in the next sentence?
New years bring new hopes, though, and we came into to 2012 with the tentative beginnings of a reliable new order at the top of the women’s sport. Very tentative, considering that it really only took shape at the last tournament of 2011, in Istanbul, where Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka reached the final and joined fellow young-un Caroline Wozniacki in the Top 3. Of course, the new WTA already looks a little worse for wear this season. Wozniacki hurt herself in Sydney, while Kvitova struggled in the same event and lost when she had a chance to take over the No. 1 ranking. So we turn to Azarenka, who came through to win the tournament, as our new new future.
The WTA: A different place every week. What it sets up for these two weeks is an undeclared battle between old guard and new. Alongside Caroline, Petra, and Vika, we have the return of 28-year-old, four-time Slam champ and defending Aussie winner Kim Clijsters, as well as the return of 30-year-old Serena Williams to a tournament she has won five times.
How will the top three kids, who have a total of one major between them, measure up? We’ve asked before, most recently at last year's U.S. Open, and the answer has usually come back: “not so well.” Will it be any different in Melbourne in 2012?
Wozniacki is as famous for her major-tournament bummers as she is for any of her victories, but she did come close in Oz last year. She held match point against Li Na in the semifinals before ultimately losing. Now she might have to see Li on the other side of the net again; they’re scheduled to meet in the quarterfinals.
Wozniacki was slowed by wrist inflammation last week, but appears ready for Melbourne. She’ll go against the city’s own, 107th-ranked Anastasia Rodionova in the first round. Jelena Jankovic is the highest seed in her side of this section, but two other players stand out as possible earlier threats: Christina McHale, who beat Wozniacki in Cincinnati last year, and Lucie Safarova, a hard hitter who is good for an upset. Only one has a chance to make it to Caro, though: McHale and Safarova play each other in the first round.
Did I just say that Li and Wozniacki were scheduled to meet in the quarters? That can only be on paper, because the 11th seed has also been placed in this quarter, and she happens to be Kim Clijsters. The Belgian, like much of the tour so far this year, has been injured, but her withdrawal from Brisbane was precautionary. Still, she hasn't played a Slam since May. Clijsters’ brackets include Arantxa Rus, who beat her in Paris last year, and Daniela Hantuchova, who has played some good tennis so far this season.
What else can I do but go back to the tried and true: There are more questions than answers here.
First-round match to watch: McHale vs. Safarova
Azarenka leads off this section, and as I wrote above, with her win in Sydney she now takes over as the young(er) gun to bet on. This is usually a good time of year for her—twice she has had Serena Williams on the ropes before losing on these courts—and more important, she’s in a better place mentally than she used to be on court. Against both Radwanska and Li in Sydney, Azarenka rebounded briskly from early and mid-match swoons. She opens in Melbourne with Britain’s Heather Watson, and might get the sometime-prospect Bojana Jovanovski in the second round. After that, the top two seeds in Azarenka's section are Flavia Pennetta and Shaui Peng. Pennetta reached the Auckland final, but had to retire with an injury.
The No. 8 seed, Radwanska, is at the bottom of this quarter. She has a challenge in the first round with Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and possibly another a couple of rounds later from either Yanina Wickmayer or Tsvetana Pironkova. Tenth-seeded Francesca Schiavone is here, as is 16th-seeded Julia Georges, and Kimiko Date-Krumm.
Sleepers: Date-Krumm; Wickmayer
Shaky territory. At the top we have, precariously, Vera Zvonareva, the seventh seed who lost her opening match of 2012. At the bottom, we have Maria Sharapova, the fourth seed who has been tottering on a bad ankle for months and hasn’t played a match in 2012. In between, we have Serena Williams, also coming off an ankle injury and a long period on the sidelines.
What about Serena? We know, from the now-famous six-pack practice photo, that she’s fit (even if Serena claims she got that way not by exercising, but by “laughing a lot”). And we know she’s made a career of coming to Oz with little match play and winning anyway. As always in these situations, though, she’s unpredictable—those titles never come without a miracle escape along the way. One player in her section, other than Zvonareva, who seems capable of hanging with her right now is Brisbane champ Kaia Kanepi.
Also here, with a shot: Svetlana Kuznetsova and Sabine Lisicki.
Young American to watch: Sloane Stephens
When we were asked to do our editor’s picks earlier this week, the world seemed to belong to Petra Kvitova, so I took her in Melbourne. Now, after some sketchy play in Sydney, I’ve had second thoughts. As I said: Every week gives us a new WTA. It seems that Kvitova is still, and may forever be, prone to wide swings in consistency. She could win this whole thing easily, or go out in a blaze of unforced errors in the first round.
Still, Kvitova is the player to beat in a pretty interesting section. She opens with Dushevina and has Kirilenko as her closest seed. Ana Ivanovic and Anastasia Pavluchenkova are also in the vicinity, though neither is setting the world on fire in 2012. Bartoli and Jie Zheng are on the other side, along with sixth seed and home-court head case Sam Stosur.
If Stosur calms the nerves, she has the best shot of unseating Kvitova (and possibly winning the tournament). If not, look for Jie Zheng, winner in Auckland and former semifinalist here, to do damage. She opens with an intriguing match-up against American teenager Madison Keys.
First-round storyline match to watch: Dokic vs. Chakvetadze
Semifinals: Azarenka d. Li; Kvitova d. Williams
Final: Kvitova d. Azarenka