Will the Australian Open kickstart a dominant season for Serena?

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WATCH—TC Live breaks down the Australian Open draws:

 

Will we have another year of depth, or a return to dominance? That’s the question I asked in my 2019 WTA preview earlier this month, and the Australian Open looks set to give us our first answer. There are high seeds and proven recent winners, like Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber. There are young guns like Naomi Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka. But there’s also a seven-time Australian Open champion, Serena Williams, still very much in the mix. Here’s a look at how that mix might play out over the next two weeks.


First Quarter

These brackets start with a bang: The top seed, Halep, will open against the player she may have dreaded seeing in the first round more than any other, Kaia Kanepi. Kanepi beat Halep in the opening round at last year’s US Open, and she has a game that’s powerful enough to do it again. In fact, Kanepi may even be the favorite in this one in many people’s eyes.

But that’s only the beginning of this section’s intrigues. Elsewhere, Serena will start against 73rd-ranked Tatjana Maria of Germany. Her sister Venus will start against 25th-seeded Mihaela Buzarnescu. Two-time Slam winner Garbiñe Muguruza will face Zheng Saisai. No. 10 seed Daria Kasatkina will play Timea Bacsinszky. Two potential, unpredictable dark horses, No. 7 Karolina Pliskova and No. 27 Camila Giorgi, are also here. Much of the cream has risen to the top of this draw.

Semifinalist: S. Williams


WATCH—Osaka reflects on a rough outing at Brisbane:

 


Second Quarter

The top two seeds in this section, Osaka and Elina Svitolina, essentially traded places last summer. When it began in Paris, Svitolina looked like a player who was ready to make a Grand Slam breakthrough; when it ended in New York, Osaka was the one who had made that breakthrough. Which will be the bigger factor Down Under, the confidence that Osaka gained from winning a major, or the hunger that Svitolina still has to do the same? Svitolina ended her 2018 season with a win at the WTA Finals in Singapore; the previous year, Caroline Wozniacki won in Singapore and followed that up by winning her first major at the Australian Open.

Osaka and Svitolina will both have their obstacles to overcome. Osaka starts against Magda Linette, who is coming off a solid win over Maria Sakkari in Hobart. After that, Osaka could face home favorite Daria Gavrilova, and then two-time champion Victoria Azarenka. As for Svitolina, she may go up against 20-year-old Viktoria Kuzmova, who reached the semifinals in Auckland, in the second round. Soon after, she could face Madison Keys, who made the quarters in Melbourne last year.

How fit is the oft-injured Keys? She hasn’t played since October, when she withdrew from Zhuhai with a knee injury. The answer to that question might give us the answer to who will advance from this section.

Also here: Anastasija Sevastova and Qiang Wang. The 27-year-old from China had a breakout fall in 2018.

First-round matches to watch:

Keys vs. Australian teen Destanee Aiava

Azarenka vs. Laura Siegemund

Semifinalist: Svitolina


WATCH—Match point from Kvitova's emphatic win over Kerber in Sydney:

 


Third Quarter

For a No. 3 seed and defending champion, Wozniacki is generating precious little pre-tournament chatter. In this section alone, three other players, Petra Kvitova, Aryna Sabalenka, and Ash Barty are garnering more attention. Rightfully so: Sabalenka won the title in Shenzhen to start the year, and Kvitova and Barty each looked impressive in their tune-up events in Oz. All three will be semifinal contenders in Melbourne.

Also here: 30th seed Maria Sharapova. The 2008 champion could face Wozniacki in the third round.

First-round matches to watch:

Sakkari vs. Jelena Ostapenko

Wozniacki vs. Alison von Uytvanck

Semifinalist: Kvitova


WATCH—Match point from Goerges' semifinal win over Kuzmova in Auckland:

 


Fourth Quarter

What’s the state of Angie Kerber? She won this tournament in 2016 and reached the semis last year, but she didn’t play well or look happy in a quick defeat to Kvitova this week in Sydney. She also changed coaches during the off-season. While her first-round opponent, Polona Hercog, has beaten her twice in five meetings, Kerber’s draw looks manageable after that. The first seed she would have to face is No. 29 Donna Vekic.

If Kerber reaches the quarters, who will she find there? The seedings say it will be No. 5 Sloane Stephens, though Sloane didn’t look any happier in her own loss in Sydney, to Yulia Putintseva, than Kerber did. Maybe that’s because she knows she hasn’t won a match at the Australian Open since 2014.

Players of Interest:

Kiki Bertens: The looked great in Sydney, and would benefit from an early loss by Stephens in Melbourne. If she didn’t have a 3-6 career record at the Aussie Open, she’d make a good dark horse pick.

Julia Goerges: The No. 14 seed won a title in Auckland last week. Can this late-bloomer, who can blow anyone off the court when her forehand is clicking, improve on her second-round defeat here last year? She’s reached the round of 16 Down Under three times.

First-round matches to watch:

Kerber vs. Hercog

Stephens vs. Taylor Townsend

Bertens vs. Shenzhen finalist Alison Riske

Goerges vs. Danielle Collins

Vekic vs. Kiki Mladenovic

Semifinalist: Goerges


Semifinals: S. Williams d. Svitolina; Kvitova d. Goerges

Final: S. Williams d. Kvitova


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