With Ashleigh Barty still holding down the top spot in the WTA rankings, the Aussie leads the field into her home Slam, the Australian Open, as the tennis world converges on Melbourne for the season’s first major. Here’s how we expect the two weeks Down Under to play out:
1. Ashleigh Barty: The Aussie has strengthened her grip on #1, winning the WTA Finals to end 2019 and just won Adelaide yesterday. She’s the first Australian woman to be seeded #1 in Melbourne in the Open era and her easy-going, laid-back demeanor will serve her well in dealing with the pressure. Reached the quarterfinals last year and with her form and playing on inspiration after the awful bushfires that have ravaged Australia, she is a solid second favorite behind Serena Williams, who she may see in the semifinals. If she can win that, the first home champion on the women’s side in 42 years may very well be crowned.
2. Karolina Pliskova: Defended her title in Brisbane, the first woman to win there three times, beating Naomi Osaka and Madison Keys in three-set classics (Brisbane as a whole was the best tournament of the season so far) in the semifinals and final, respectively. The narrative is the same: big serve, good groundstrokes, will be around into the second week, one of the favorites as she’s in good form, but she needs to deliver at some point. Dani Vallverdu and Olga Savchuk are her coaching team now. She’s in the better half of the draw and i’ve picked her to win before, but I won’t this time.
3. Naomi Osaka: It’s been a year of change for the defending champion. When last in Melbourne, she was working with Sascha Bajin, was coming off of her first major title at the U.S. Open and was ranked number one. She won in Osaka and Beijing in the fall to regain some confidence after a mostly uneven 2019. Now with Wim Fissette, she looked much better in Brisbane, reaching the semifinals. Her title defense should start relatively easily, but Coco Gauff in round three, Sofia Kenin in round four, Williams in the . quarterfinals and Barty in the semifinals will show us where she really is at the moment.
4. Simona Halep: This is one time where I can confidently say she won’t survive the first weekend. Her first-round opponent Jennifer Brady just beat Barty in Brisbane and Danielle Collins, who she will likely see in round three, has been in spectacular form to start 2020. The back issues and coaching uncertainty that plagued her coming into Melbourne last year are long gone, but she’s had some troubling losses recently: Taylor Townsend at the U.S. Open and Aryna Sabalenka, who she had beaten easily twice before, smoked her in Adelaide. If she gets to the Round of 16, i’d be surprised.
5. Elina Svitolina: She finally did it! Semifinals at Wimbledon and in New York marked the major breakthrough we were all waiting for. Unfortunately for the Ukrainian, she got routed by Halep at the All-England Club and Serena in Flushing Meadows. Did reach the finals at the WTA Finals, losing to Barty, but she’s only played one match leading into Melbourne, getting battered by Collins in Brisbane winning just two games. Svitolina has had better form to start seasons in the past, but looks set for at least a fourth round appearance. From there Kiki Bertens and Karolina Pliskova lie in wait, so a third straight Slam semi isn’t likely, but she can at least be satisfied with finally clearing that hurdle.
6. Belinda Bencic: Reached the semifinals of the last major, nearly forcing a third set against Bianca Andreescu at the U.S. Open (she really should have). At a career-high with her best seeding at a major, her usual preparation for Melbourne was thrown off with the cancellation of the Hopman Cup, she instead got blitzed by Collins in Adelaide. Her game style lends itself well to any speed or court surface and is in the easier half of the draw, although her section features Jelena Ostapenko, Donna Vekic, Aryna Sabalenka and Maria Sharapova. With that being said, another appearance in the final weekend of a Spam is a distinct possibility.
7. Petra Kvitova: Came within a few points of the title last year, losing a breathtaking final to Osaka. Tuned up for Melbourne by reaching the semifinals, losing to Keys in three sets. She may see the American in the fourth round again, Barty in the quarters (they played one of the best matches of last year’s tournament) and Osaka or Serena in the semis. It’s a brutal draw that may see the Czech fall out of the top 10, but she will be heard from in 2020.
8. Serena Williams: There’s been times where she’s been the favorite in name and reputation only, but make no mistake: she is THE favorite this time around. Won in Auckland and although the competition wasn’t the best, she finally won her first title since 2017. I’ve always believed part of the reason she’s been dominated in the last four major finals is lack of match play. She’s taken care of that this time. The quarterfinal with Osaka will be one of the matches of the tournament. It may also determine whether or not she ties Margaret Court’s record in her home country.
9. Kiki Bertens: The Dutchwoman showed herself well in Brisbane, losing a tough-three setter to Osaka in the quarterfinals (she did reach the doubles final with Barty). A finals appearance at the WTA Elite Trophy and a semi at the WTA Finals to conclude 2019, so her hard court form is still relatively good and she is in a good section of the draw with Svitolina her first big obstacle in the 16’s. Still underappreciated for how she’s improved her game off of clay.
10. Madison Keys: She came within a whisker of knocking off Pliskova in the Brisbane final and looked really solid throughout the tournament. A former semifinalist in Melbourne, the theme is the same: harness her power and she can go win a major. Before she can get to Kvitova again, she’ll have to deal with Daria Kasatkina and Maria Sakkari in two of the first three rounds, dangerous opponents even if neither is near their top form.
11. Aryna Sabalenka: She won the WTA Elite Trophy over Bertens and just reached the semifinals in Adelaide with a decisive victory over Halep, but she’s coming into Melbourne after the loss of her father recently and a breakup (again) with coach Dmitry Tursunov. Not the red-hot favorite she was a year ago, if she can get to the fourth round against Bencic, it’ll have been a successful tournament for her considering the circumstances.
12. Johanna Konta: The loss to Barbora Strycova in the Wimbledon quarterfinals may have been the turning point for the Brit and not in a good way. Pulled out of Adelaide with a knee injury after losing to the Czech again in Brisbane. When right, her quality is unquestioned, but low on health, form and (you would think) confidence, she’s prone for an early exit (her seed and ranking is held up by her results on clay!).
13. Petra Martic: She continues to climb upward in the rankings and she is a pleasure to watch, but her draw is rough: Julia Goerges in the second round, Alison Riske in the third round and Barty in the fourth. Ouch. Will be a contender when we get to the clay season.
14. Sofia Kenin: She continues to go about her business in a very understated way. That win over Serena at Roland Garros last year sent her on her way and she will only go higher from here. Lost to Osaka in Brisbane and could see the defending champion again in the fourth round. Let’s see if her steady baseline game can get her to the Top 10.
15. Marketa Vondrousova: It was great to see her back on the court after wrist surgery forced her to end her 2019 after a first-round loss at Wimbledon. Lost to Barty in the Adelaide quarterfinals in a Roland Garros final rematch. The draw did her no favors with Svetlana Kuznetsova in the first round and Pliskova down the road. Any result for Vondrousova is fine right now as getting back to top physical condition is her first priority.
16. Elise Mertens: Led Andreescu by a set in the U.S. Open quarterfinals before falling in three sets, a much-needed result after her year trailed off following her big win in Doha in early 2019. Took the doubles title in New York with Sabalenka, but lost early in both Shenzhen and Hobart. She’s in Halep’s section of the draw (who she beat to win that Doha title), but Heather Watson, who just beat the Belgian in Hobart and Karolina Muchova, could pose serious problems early on for the 2018 semifinalist.
17. Angelique Kerber: She has this weird pattern of having excellent even-number seasons and poor (by her standards) odd-numbered seasons. If that trend is to continue, she’ll have to overcome what seemed to be a concerning injury against Dayana Yastremska in Adelaide. Three-time major champions can never be counted out and her draw is OK, but the fourth round against Pliskova is about as far as she can expect to go. Let’s hope this great champion will be at her best as the year progresses.
18. Alison Riske: She’s playing the best tennis of her life and almost beat Serena at Wimbledon, losing a three-set classic in the quarterfinals. She knocked Barty out in London in the fourth round and she may very well get a chance to repeat that result here.
19. Donna Vekic: Another player at a career-high, the Croat lost to Yastremska in Adelaide and has one of the best first-round matchups in drawing Maria Sharapova. I’ve often thought she’s a tad overrated (or at least overhyped in terms of potential) as players with equal or greater power will handle her (although she is no lightweight in that regard). Sabalenka in the third round may prove that to be the case again.
20. Karolina Muchova: Talk about a pleasure to watch: her serve-and-volley masterclasses on her way to the Wimbledon quarterfinals (defeating Pliskova in the process) was something to behold. Won her first career title in Seoul and with her draw, it wouldn’t at all surprise me if this brilliant young Czech duplicate that result from the All-England Club here.
21. Amanda Anisimova: Like Sabalenka, she had to deal with the loss of her father, which occurred before the U.S. Open. She withdrew from the final major of last season and has fourth round points to defend. Will be fascinating to see her awesome power game go against Bertens and Svitolina in rounds three and four, respectively.
22. Maria Sakkari: Solid as a rock from the baseline, Osaka beat her in Brisbane and Vekic got her in Adelaide from a set down, so she has some questions to answer as to whether she can close out matches. Still, she should at least reach the third round, but will likely lose there to Keys. Better days will be ahead for the Greek.
23. Dayana Yastremska: Now with the best coach in tennis in her corner in Sascha Bajin, the spectacular Ukrainian reached her first Premier-level final in Adelaide, losing to Barty. Her power game is spectacular, her serve is solid, her forehand (especially on the run) is devastating and her backhand is steady. If she can develop a net game and more consistency, multiple majors will be in her future. The second round match with the retiring Caroline Wozniacki will be testing of her patience and the fourth round encounter with Serena will show us just how far she’s come and where Bajin has her at the moment. If she ever got by that, watch out…….
24. Sloane Stephens: How she is still seeded is rather amazing. Lost to qualifiers Liudmila Samsonova in Brisbane and Arina Rodionova in Auckland. I love watching Sloane play, but she may never fulfill the wondrous potential she has. Hobart finalist Shuai Zhang is her first round opponent and knocked her out in the first round here in 2016. I wouldn’t be shocked if she did it again.
25. Ekaterina Alexandrova: Took home her first career title in Shenzhen and is the top-ranked Russian. She’ll get to the third round and probably lose to Kvitova. We’ll see if she can carry over her good early-season form to the rest of 2020.
26. Danielle Collins: I feel like everyone is on the American to get back to the semifinals (and I may be, as well) after shocking the tennis world by reaching the last four in 2019. Decisive early-season wins over Svitolina in Brisbane and Bencic in Adelaide are the reasons why she is being tipped so much. Took Barty to the wire in the Adelaide semis. Feisty as always, she’ll do things her own way and will be a fascinating watch during this fortnight.
27. Qiang Wang: She reached her first major quarterfinal at the U.S. Open, knocking off Barty, but lost to Kerber in Adelaide, which is not a good sign considering the German’s current state. Serena overwhelmed in the final eight in New York and will almost certainly do the same in round three here.
28. Anett Kontaveit: There’s really nothing to say about the Estonian at the moment. She’s a threat with her power and talent, but if she beats Bencic in the third round, i’d be very surprised. I hope she picks things up coming forward.
29. Elena Rybakina: It’s a shame not every tournament preview that does these kinds of reports comments on all seeds because THIS is the next young player to watch. Took home her first career title in Bucharest last year, reached a further final in Jiangxi, semifinals in Luxembourg and quarterfinals in Wuhan. Began 2020 with a final in Shenzhen and a her second title in Hobart. At 6 feet even with a terrific game, this 20-year old is a future superstar. A shame she got drawn in the same section as Barty or I would have picked her to reach the semis.
30. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova: Blew a golden opportunity to reach her first Slam semifinal here last year, wasting a big lead against Collins. Played well against Barty in Adelaide and will probably give Pliskova a good run, but the nerves and inconsistency that have plagued her throughout her career will likely prevent her from pulling the big upset.
31. Anastasija Sevastova: Her U.S. Open results prove she can play on hard courts, but unfortunately her form is nowhere near that at the moment. Ajla Tomljanovic in round one, Garbine Muguruza in round two and Svitolina in round three mean she won’t be in Melbourne long.
32. Barbora Strýcová: The Wimbledon semifinalist is still hanging on (kudos to her for her doubles title in Adelaide). You’ll certainly see a lot of her as she faces Venus Williams or Cori Gauff in the second round and Osaka in the third. The plucky Czech will certainly add some flavor to the event.
Unseeded players to watch
Cori “Coco” Gauff: She’s been getting a lot of attention since her Wimbledon run last year. Took home her first title in Linz at the very end of last year and also copped doubles championships with Caty McNally in Washington and Luxembourg. If she’s allowed to develop properly without too much attention/pressure (some of it is natural, some of it is unnecessary), then she won’t be in this section of previews much longer. Remember, she’s still only 15.
Caroline Wozniacki: Despite the fact she’s likely to lose to Yastremska in the second round, this is a salute to a wonderful career as this is the final tournament she will play in. Never the most exciting player to watch, her steadiness, defensive skills and consistency is a tribute to the former number one’s work ethic. Here’s hoping she gives her fans one last thrill.
Jennifer Brady: She’s been to the Round of 16 here once before and her aforementioned win over Barty holds her in good stead. If she was gonna draw a top seed, she got the right one in Halep. If she upsets the reigning Wimbledon champion, she’ll have a chance to match that previous fourth round result.
First round matches to watch
Venus vs Gauff: Obviously. I think it’ll go the distance this time, unlike their Wimbledon meeting. If they’re both playing their best, this will be a classic. The torch continues to be passed.
Vondrousova vs Kuznetsova: The Russian was resurgent last summer, reaching the final in Cincinnati and will provide the Czech with a good test as she continues her comeback. Vondrousova’s court craft countering Kuznetsova’s power will be a fascinating watch.
Vekic vs Sharapova: The 2008 champion needed a wild card to get into the main draw and has fourth round points to defend. Power galore and probably lots of breaks, but that’s what will make this one fun.
Barty def. S. Williams: They played a three-setter a couple of years back at Roland Garros before the Aussie rose to the levels she is at now. Now on home turf, if Barty can handle the Williams serve (and subsequently hold her own, the greatest pressure any opponent feels against Serena) and use her wicked backhand slice to disrupt the American’s rhythm, then she’ll be in good shape. Of course, Serena could very well overpower the world number one and early round slugfest and how each handles it may very well also be key, but Serena’s movement will be exposed just enough for Barty to pull off the upset.
Pliskova def. Sabalenka: These draws never play out as we expect and despite the fact I said I wouldn’t pick the Czech to win again (and I won’t), her draw is too good to not have her get at least this far. Sabalenka represents the usual “surprise” entrant. Despite being the 11th seed, the Belarusian has never been past the fourth round at any major, but she has immense power where she can match Pliskova. The difference is (as always with the Czech) the serve where Pliskova will win many free points and capitalize on enough errors to go one step further than she did last year.
Barty def. Pliskova: The crowd will be in a frenzy, the anticipation will be at an all-time high and Barty will deliver. Her variety and movement will again neutralize the Pliskova power. The thoughts of the world number two being three games away from the title at the 2016 U.S. Open may also play into her mind (she led Kerber 3-1 in the third set). It’s been a magical last year for Barty and playing on emotion for her country, the Aussie will thrill the home folks and crown the first Australian champion since Chris O’Neil in 1978.