Australian Open Women's Preview—Will youth continue to dominate?

Australian Open Women's Preview—Will youth continue to dominate?

Veterans—most notably, Serena Williams—will look for a chance to stage a counterattack.

Over the last year, youth has been served—and has done most of the serving—on the WTA side. Naomi Osaka, Ash Barty, and Bianca Andreescu are all 23 or under, and all won major titles last year. But only two of them will be in Melbourne; does Andreescu’s absence give the veterans—most notably, Serena Williams—a chance to stage a counterattack? Here’s a look at the Australian Open women’s draw.

In a world where parity is the rule, how do you pick a winner?

First Quarter

Barty has a lot of things going for her. She’s the top seed, she has a road to the semis that doesn’t look overly bumpy, and she’s coming off a win at her most recent big event, the WTA Finals in Shenzhen last October. She’s also playing at home: Whether or not that’s also a positive remains to be seen. The last Australian woman to win Down Under was Chris O’Neil in 1978. And having home-court advantage didn’t help Barty in the Fed Cup finals last year; she went 1-2 and Australia lost to France.

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Who might step up if Barty falters? Petra Kvitova and Madison Keys are the next-highest seeds in this section, and both have powered their way to the semifinals and beyond at Melbourne Park in the past.

Dark horse: Alison Riske. She’s coming off a career year, and she has a decent draw.

First-round matches to watch: Barty vs. Lesia Tsurenko; Keys vs. Daria Kasatkina; Kvitova vs. Katerina Siniakova

Semifinalist: Kvitova

Second Quarter

From an American standpoint, this is where things begin to heat up. The top two seeds in this section are Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, and the most newsworthy first-round match-up pits, for the second time in the last three Slams, Venus Williams vs. Coco Gauff.

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Osaka is the defending champion, and she finished 2019 on a high note, with a couple of important titles. But she could face some land mines: Saisai Zheng in the second round; Venus or Gauff in the third round; and Barbora Strycova, possibly, in the fourth round. The other side of this section may be even stronger: Sloane Stephens, Shuai Zhang, Sofia Kenin, Johanna Konta, Caroline Wozniacki, Dayana Yastremska, and, of course, Serena, are all there.

First-round matches to watch: Osaka vs. Marie Bouzkova; V. Williams vs. Gauff; Stephens vs. Zhang; S. Williams vs. Anastasia Potapova

Semifinalist: Osaka

Third Quarter

A section with Simona Halep and Belinda Bencic as its two top seeds would seem to be a good place for a rank-and-file player to land. As talented as the Swiss and the Romanian are, they can both have their bad days—as evidenced this week by Bencic’s loss to Danielle Collins and Halep’s to Aryna Sabalenka. Halep also has to contend with a potentially difficult first-round match against Jen Brady, who opened her 2020 with wins over Barty and Maria Sharapova.

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Who might the benefit from being in a Bencic-Halep quarter? Sabalenka and Collins, to name two. The Belorussian starts against Carla Suarez Navarro, and the American, who reached the semis here last year, against 87th-ranked Vitalia Diatchenko.

Player of Interest: Su-Wei Hsieh. She has sliced and diced her way to the third and fourth rounds the last two years in Melbourne.

First-round matches to watch: Halep vs. Brady; Donna Vekic vs. Maria Sharapova; Karolina Muchova vs. Kirsten Flipkens; Su-Wei Hsieh vs. Yulia Putintseva

Semifinalist: Collins

Fourth Quarter

Karolina Pliskova and Elina Svitolina are very good in Grand Slam tune-up events, a fact borne out again by Pliskova’s impressive title run last week in Brisbane, where she edged Osaka and Keys in the final two rounds. Now, can either Pliskova or Svitolina finally go one better and win an actual Grand Slam?

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This draw gives them a chance—Serena, Osaka, Barty, and Kvitova are all in the other half, and Andreescu isn’t in the tournament at all. Who’s more likely to take advantage of this opening, the Czech or the Ukrainian? Svitolina lost badly to Collins in her only match of 2020 so far, but her road to the quarters looks plausible. She starts against Katie Boulter; the first seed she could face is Anastasia Sevastova; and her fourth-round opponent might be Kiki Bertens. Pliskova, by contrast, has started the year quickly, but may face some early obstacles in Melbourne—Kiki Mladenovic in the first round, Coco Vandeweghe in the second round, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the third round, and, possibly, Angelique Kerber in the fourth.

Also here: Amanda Anisimova, Garbiñe Muguruza

First-round matches to watch: Pliskova vs. Mladenovic; Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Marketa Vondrousova

Semifinalist: Pliskova

Semifinals: Osaka d. Kvitova; Pliskova d. Collins

Final: Osaka d. Pliskova

Champion: Osaka