The new season has well and truly begun and the year’s first Grand Slam – the Australian Open – begins this Monday. The first two weeks of 2015 have thrown up a mix of old warhorses and young guns emerging as Women’s champions in the various warm-up events before the Australian Open.
Are we going to see the familiar faces at the end of the fortnight or just like last year, a new name will be engraved on the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup? Let’s have a look at the Women’s draw.
The first quarter of the draw is headed by World No. 1 Serena Williams. The 18-time Grand Slam winner Serena comes to Melbourne having displayed sloppy form at the Hopman Cup. With Maria Sharapova hot on the trail of her No. 1 ranking, here’s a chance for the numero uno ranked player to raise her game. But her path is riddled with names she would like to avoid – Garbine Muguruza (potential fourth round opponent) and Alize Cornet (potential quarter-final opponent).
One of the biggest names that lurks in Serena’s part of the draw is her own best buddy and eighth seed Caroline Wozniacki. The Dane’s resurgence last year has been worth watching and she started this year by reaching the Auckland final. However, a tender wrist forced her to retire from her Sydney match. The affable Dane will need to address her injury problems as well as the challenge of former champion Victoria Azarenka, who is unseeded this time.
Azarenka starts against Sloane Stephens which is a rematch of their controversial 2013 semi-final match. She is slated to meet Wozniacki in the second round – a match which should be exciting to watch.
Pick: Serena Williams
First round match to watch: Victoria Azarenka v Sloane Stephens
The most in-form player in this quarter is the Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova. The Czech would very much like to erase the memories of her devastating first round defeat last year. And to do that, she comes to Melbourne with some perfect preparation – she won the Sydney title on Friday.
Kvitova will have to contend with the likes of sixth seed Agnieszka Radwanska and Venus Williams. Radwanska led her country, Poland to its first ever Hopman Cup triumph just days back. But most importantly, she has the support of Martina Navratilova as her new coach.
Venus Williams has also begun the new season in thunderous fashion. She became the fourth oldest player to capture a WTA title at Auckland. A Venus versus Kvitova encounter is always special but for that to happen, the elder Williams sister has to reach her first Slam quarter-final in many years.
Two Americans who could upset the applecart are Madison Keys and Varvara Lepchenko. Rising star Keys has roped in former three-time Slam winner Lindsay Davenport and the experienced Lepchenko with her aggressive game, is always a threat.
Pick: Petra Kvitova
First round matches to watch: Flavia Pennetta v Camila Giorgi, Samantha Stosur v Monica Niculescu.
Ana Ivanovic who had a major career turnaround last year, has expressed her desire to add another Slam to her resume this year. If the Brisbane finalist would like to do it in Melbourne itself, her path is fraught with danger. She needs to be wary of the big-serving rising talent Karolina Pliskova. The Sydney runner-up showed the exit door to Ana at the US Open and has improved by leaps and bounds since then.
Ekaterina Makarova is another name who every title contender would not like to see in their part of the draw. She accounted for Venus Williams last year, Angelique Kerber and Marion Bartoli in 2013 and Serena Williams in 2012. That is quite a frightening upset record , and all that just at the Australian Open!
Another player gunning for a Slam lies in this quarter of the draw itself – Simona Halep. The Romanian clinched the Shenzen title few days earlier and is raring to go despite the withdrawal from Sydney due to gastrointestinal illness. Her rise up the ranks in 2013 has been phenomenal and she would like to go one better than her 2014 French Open runner-up showing. But first, she has to tackle the likes of Sabine Lisicki and Sara Errani.
Pick: Simona Halep
First round matches to watch: Sabine Lisicki v Kristina Mladenovic, Julia Georges v Belinda Bencic.
The fourth quarter is headlined by the player who arrives at the Australian Open with loads of confidence. Having shown terrific form en route to the Brisbane title, Maria Sharapova is hungry for her sixth Slam as well as the No. 1 ranking. Her draw appears to get challenging from the fourth round. The former champion is slated to meet the big-hitting lefty Lucie Safarova who can always pose some serious threat to the big stars. The Russian’s last three clashes with Safarova have all been three-setters and this will be Maria’s first serious test.
The five-time Grand Slam champion’s quarter-final opponent, as of now, seems to be one between Angelique Kerber and Eugenie Bouchard. Kerber ended Maria’s Wimbledon hopes last year and the Canadian Bouchard presented Sharapova with a stiff test at the French Open. This quarter would also be interesting to see how Bouchard handles her ‘sophomore’ year.
Pick: Maria Sharapova
First round matches to watch: Caroline Garcia v Svetlana Kuznetsova, Lucie Safarova v Yaroslava Shvedova.
Semi-final Predictions: Serena def Kvitova, Sharapova def Halep
Final Prediction: Serena def Sharapova
Renowned coach Paul Annacone has picked one out of Serena and Sharapova to reign supreme this year. But as last year has shown, with seven rounds to go, the favourite tag can have little importance. We shall know the answer in a fortnight.