Oz Preview: With Serena out, opportunities abound for Slam-less stars

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Svitolina has never made it to the semifinals of a Grand Slam. (AP)

A Grand Slam event without Serena Williams tends to end with a winner who has flown in from left field—just ask Jelena Ostapenko and Sloane Stephens. Will we see a third Down Under? The only thing we know about this Australian Open on the women’s side is that, with Serena on the mend, an opportunity like this might not come along again for a while.

Make your picks NOW in Tennis Channel's Racquet Bracket! 

First Quarter

Speaking of opportunities, is this the fortnight when Simona Halep finally wins her first major? The stars would seem to be aligning: She’s No. 1, she won her first tournament of the year, in Shenzhen, and, as noted above, she doesn’t have Serena to deal with. But there are reasons to continue to be skeptical of Halep’s chances. She lost early in Australia the last two years, and even without a Williams in her way, her draw is hardly obstacle-free. She could face Petra Kvitova in the third round, and either Karolina Pliskova or Johanna Konta in the quarterfinals. If either of the long and strong Czechs are on, they might be favored to beat Halep; and Konta is the player who knocked her out of Wimbledon last summer.

Player of Interest: Ash Barty. The Aussie had a career year in 2018, and is seeded No. 18; can she show off her best at home? She could face Camila Giorgi, who has been on a tear in Sydney, in the second round.

Question Mark: Konta. The Brit, who was born in Australia, has played some of her best tennis in Melbourne, reaching the semis and quarters. But she hasn’t been at her best since Wimbledon, and she was forced to retire with a hip injury in Brisbane.

Semifinalist: Pliskova

Click here for our Expert Picks on the women's draw.

Second Quarter

The injury bug has been catching Down Under, and both of the top two seeds here, Garbiñe Muguruza and Caroline Garcia, have been victimized. Muguruza was forced to retire with leg cramps in Brisbane, and she withdrew from Sydney with a leg injury. Garcia, meanwhile, retired from her season opener in Brisbane with back pain.

All of which means there are openings for everyone else in this quarter. That includes a player who knows her way around Melbourne Park, 2016 champion Angelique Kerber. Is the Angie re-ascendance upon us? After dropping from No. 1 to 21, the pressure is officially off, and it seems to be helping in Sydney, where Kerber has knocked off Venus Williams to reach the semifinals.

Question Mark: Madison Keys. The American loves Melbourne, where she reached the semifinals in 2015. And she’s coming off her first trip to a major final, in New York. But like her fellow US Open finalist, Sloane Stephens, she hasn’t won a match since.

Wild Card: Maria Sharapova. She isn’t literally a wild card this time, having earned her first direct entry into a Slam since her drug suspension. But the unseeded Sharapova has the power to shake up this draw. It won’t be easy, though. She could face the woman who beat her at the US Open, Anastasija Sevastova, in the second round, and Kerber after that.

First-round match to watch: 2017 Aussie Open semifinalist Mirjana Lucic-Baroni vs. occasional upset specialist Shelby Rogers

Semifinalist: Sharapova

Make your picks NOW in Tennis Channel's Racquet Bracket! 

Third Quarter

Can a 37-year-old be the favorite at a Grand Slam event? Venus Williams is forcing us to ask that once-unthinkable question. She played better than anyone at the majors last year, reaching two finals and a semifinal; and the woman who beat her in the Australian Open final in 2017, her sister Serena, isn’t in the field. But Venus’s road back to glory looks like a bumpy one. She’ll start against former Top 10 player Belinda Bencic (Venus is 4-0 vs. the Swiss, and has yet to drop a set to her); she could play Ekaterina Makarova in the third round (Makarova beat Venus Down Under in 2014); and she could face the hot-hitting Julia Goerges in the fourth round.

If she makes it through that, Venus might have to play No. 4 seed Elina Svitolina in the quarterfinals. The last time they met, in Canada last summer, Svitolina won 6-2, 6-1. Svitolina, who won in Brisbane last week, has played as well as anyone over the last year, and looks ready to make her first really deep run at a major.

Question Mark: Sloane Stephens. Yes, she won the US Open. No, she hasn’t won a match since. She’ll try to change that against a tough opponent, Shuai Zhang, in the first round.

Semifinalist: Svitolina

Click here for our Expert Picks on the men's draw.

Fourth Quarter

The question we asked about Halep at the top of this preview—is this her best chance to finally win her first major?—applies to Caroline Wozniacki as well. Wozniacki is No. 2 in the world for the first time since 2011; she’s coming off the biggest title of her career, at the WTA Finals in Singapore; and like Halep and everyone else, she won’t have to worry about Serena. In fact, on paper, Wozniacki’s draw doesn’t give her all that much to worry about in general. The three highest seeds in her quarter are Kiki Bertens, Magdalena Rybarikova, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and two of her most dangerous potential opponents, Jelena Ostapenko and Coco Vandeweghe, who eliminated her from the French Open and Wimbledon, respectively, last year, are safely on the other side of this section.

Player to Watch: Vandeweghe. She reached the semis Down Under in 2017, and has made herself into a big-match specialist under Aussie coach Pat Cash. Can she take the next step, to a Slam final or beyond, in 2018?

Semifinalist: Wozniacki

Click here for our preview of the men's bracket.

Final Call

Semifinals: Pliskova d. Sharapova; Svitolina d. Wozniacki

Final: Svitolina d. Pliskova


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