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Australian Open women's preview: Another US-AO Open double for Osaka?
The WTA draw looks likely to be filled with early drama, tension, and unpredictability. Here’s a look at how the brackets have shaken out, and how the dust may settle, on the first women’s major of 2021.
Published Feb 06, 2021
In recent years, the women have carried the Grand Slams through the first week, before the big guns on the men’s side begin to face off in the quarterfinals and beyond. That may be the case again, as the WTA draw at the Australian Open looks likely to be filled with early drama, contention, and unpredictability. Here’s a look at how the brackets have shaken out, and how the dust may settle, on the first women’s major of 2021.
Ashleigh Barty, who skipped most of 2020, is certainly rested. But will that rest turn to big-match rust? As of Friday, she had won her first three tune-up matches, but a tune-up is not a Grand Slam, and it’s definitely not a home Grand Slam. Barty is the top seed and the world No. 1 for good reason, but she’s sure to feel the pressure of trying to win in front of her fellow Aussies. She reached the semis at this event for the first time last year, but the 24-year-old has also gone out in the first round three times.
Is there anyone in her quarter how can take advantage of Barty’s nerves? Ekaterina Alexandrova, the 29th seed and her potential third-round opponent, has the game and the grit to do it. Anett Kontaveit, her possible fourth-round opponent, and someone who plays well in Australia, does, too. And so do a few players on the other side of this section, including No. 11 Belinda Bencic, No. 18 Elise Mertens, and, most prominently, No. 6 Karolina Pliskova, who has been to the semis here once, and the quarters twice. But there’s a lot that can happen, upsets very much included, before we can start speculating about quarterfinal match-ups.
U.S. Players of Interest: Shelby Rogers and Danielle Collins. Rogers played Barty tough, and Collins did the same against Serena Williams, in their tune-up matches this week. Collins could get Pliskova in the second round, and Rogers could get Barty in the fourth.
Dark Horse: Alexandrova. Already this week, the Russian has beaten Iga Swiatek and Simona Halep.
First-round matches to watch: Alexandrova vs. Martina Trevisan; Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Barbora Strycova. A feast for the WTA faithful; Mertens vs. Leylah Fernandez; Karolina Muchova vs. Jelena Ostapenko; Karolina Pliskova vs. Jasmine Paolini
Yes, Sofia Kenin lost badly on Friday to the woman she beat in last year’s Australian Open final, Garbiñe Muguruza. And no, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything where the Floridian is concerned. Kenin was double-bageled by Victoria Azarenka in Rome last year, before turning around and making the final at Roland Garros three weeks later.
Can Kenin pick up the slack in time to make a run at defending her Aussie Open title? She’ll face an Australian wild card first, before getting either Anastasija Sevastova or Kaia Kanepi in the second round—each, in very different ways, a potentially difficult opponent. After that, though, this section seems manageable for Kenin. The highest seed in her half is No. 13 Johanna Konta, and the first seed she could face is Donna Vekic. While there are strong players on the other side—Elina Svitolina, Victoria Azarenka, and Maria Sakkari included—Kenin won’t see any of them until the quarters.
Player of Interest: Jennifer Brady. The US Open semifinalist is seeded just 22nd, but she seems to have landed in a promising bracket.
First-round matches to watch: Coco Gauff vs. Jill Teichmann. They played earlier this week, and Gauff survived a close one; Sloane Stephens vs. Yulia Putintseva; Sakkari vs. Kiki Mladenovic; Azarenka vs. Jessica Pegula; Sevastova vs. Kanepi
There are things for No. 3 Naomi Osaka to like, and not like, about her draw. On the plus side, the next-highest seed in her quarter is No. 8 Bianca Andreescu, who last played a match in November 2019, and who has already skipped the first event of 2021. Also good news for Osaka: The woman she beat in the 2018 final, Petra Kvitova, is safely on the other side of this section.
But Osaka, who has looked mostly unbeatable since the end of last year’s pandemic lockdowns, does have some obstacles in her immediate path. She’ll start against flame-throwing Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova; she could face Caroline Garcia in the second round, and Ons Jabeur in the third round; and in the fourth she may get one of the sternest tests of the fortnight, from 2020 finalist Garbiñe Muguruza, who has started the new season in form. Still, Osaka’s level and belief are a match for anyone’s right now.
First-round matches to watch: Andreescu vs. Mihaela Buzarnescu; Su-Wei Hsieh vs. Tsvetana; Pironkova; Venus Williams vs. Kirsten Flipkens
As so often seems to happen, much of the cream of this Grand Slam draw has gathered at the bottom of the brackets. Simona Halep, Serena Williams, Iga Swiatek, and Aryna Sabalenka, to name four much-talked-about players, are all in this quarter.
Halep is the top seed among them, and No 2 overall. She has been ousted early in Melbourne a few times in the past, but she doesn’t have much to complain about with her early draw this year. The 2018 finalist will start against an Aussie wild card, and the first seed she could face is No. 32 Veronika Kudermetova.
Swiatek, the 15th seed, is one section up from Halep, and would seem to have a manageable path to a fourth-round meeting with the Romanian. The Roland Garros champion will start against Arantxa Rus, and could play Camila Giorgi in the second round.
How about Serena? The 39-year-old has mostly looked sharp to start the season. Her 20th Australian Open will begin against Laura Siegemund; Serena hasn’t dropped a set in her two previous meetings with the German. The first seed that Serena could face is No. 24 Alison Riske.
Finally, at the top of this section is Sabalenka. Traditionally, she has looked like a force to be reckoned with coming into this event, only to have the wind quickly knocked out of her sails. Is she setting up for a repeat of that performance? After having her three-tournament win streak snapped this week, Sabalenka will begin her Aussie Open against Viktoria Kuzmova, and may get a test from either Daria Kasatkina in the second round, or Shuai Zhang in the third.
First-round match to watch: Kasatkina vs. Katie Boulter
Semifinalist: S. Williams
Semifinals: Barty d. Kenin; Osaka d. S. Williams