At the Australian Open 2018, it’s not just the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup that’s up for grabs for the women’s field – the World No 1 ranking is on the line as well.
Simona Halep currently sits atop the WTA rankings but there are five other players who have a chance of dethroning her at Melbourne - Caroline Wozniacki, Garbine Muguruza, Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova, and Jelena Ostapenko.
The unpredictable and tumultuous nature of the women’s game looks set to continue at the first Grand Slam of the season. In the absence of reigning champion Serena Williams, it’s tough to pick an outright favourite for the title. Also missing in action – two-time titlist Victoria Azarenka.
Here’s a detailed breakdown of the women’s draw with predictions for which players could emerge from it.
Halep, the top seed, headlines the top quarter of the women’s draw. The Romanian became the first World No 1 to clinch a title since Serena Williams at Wimbledon 2016 when she won at Shenzhen in the opening week of the 2018 season. Can she repeat the same feat at a Grand Slam?
Halep’s draw is littered with landmines and she will need to produce some of her best tennis to have a shot at lifting the trophy. Halep has never made it past the quarter-finals at Melbourne and was ousted in the first round in the last two years.
Halep starts off against Australian wildcard Destanee Aiava, and could face 2014 semi-finalist Eugenie Bouchard or France’s Oceane Dodin in the second round. But this is where it gets tricky for Halep.
The top seed’s third round opponent is projected to be two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova. Rising young star Ashleigh Barty, who is seeded 18, or Russia’s Elena Vesnina could be dangerous fourth-round opponents for Halep.
Barty, meanwhile, starts off against 19-year-old Aryna Sabalenka in an intriguing clash of upcoming youngsters. The 21-year-old Aussie has had an excellent start to 2018 by making the finals at Sydney.
Karolina Pliskova, seeded six, rounds off this section of the draw. She could meet compatriot Lucie Safarova in the third round. Ninth-seeded British hope Johanna Konta could pose a threat for Pliskova in the fourth round but Konta will need to overcome her lingering hip injury to make the second week.
If the seeds hold, Halep vs Pliskova promises to be a blockbuster last-eight match. Halep has the upper hand in this rivalry with a 5-1 winning record, and she should be able to neutralise Pliskova’s big-serving, big-hitting game.
Predicted semi-finalist: Simona Halep
First round match to watch out for: Ashleigh Barty vs Aryna Sabalenka. First meeting between the crafty home favourite and the Belarusian ball-basher.
Before the draw was made, one of the biggest questions was where would former champion Maria Sharapova land. The Russian makes her return to the Melboure Park, the same place where she was found guilty of doping. Sharapova was drawn in the second quarter with two other former World No 1s - Garbine Muguruza and Angelique Kerber.
Sharapova, who is unseeded and currently ranked 47 in the world, could face 14th-seeded Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia in the second round. It was Sevastova who had ended Sharapova’s run at the US Open in the Round of 16.
If Sharapova does make it to the last-32, she could find 2016 champion Kerber standing in her way. Kerber, after a miserable 2017, has hit top form this season under new coach Wim Fissette. The German is unbeaten so far in 2018 (8-0 winning run including Hopman Cup) and is emerging as one of the pre-tournament favourites.
Kerber will likely meet third seed Muguruza in the fourth round but the Spaniard’s injury woes put doubts over how far she can go at the Australian Open. Agnieszka Radwanska, who dropped out of the top 20 in 2017, is slowly trying to stage a comeback and has a chance to beat Muguruza in the third round.
The bottom section of the second quarter features Kristina Mladenovic (11), Madison Keys (17), last year’s semi-finalist Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (28) and Caroline Garcia (8) as the seeds. But given Mladenovic’s 14-match losing streak, Keys' lack of wins since the US Open final and Lucic-Baroni and Garcia’s fitness concerns, we could see a surprise quarter-finalist emerge from this bracket.
Predicted semi-finalist: Angelique Kerber
First round match to watch out for: Heather Watson vs Yulia Putintseva. Watson made a decent run at Hobart by making the semis and the mercurial Putintseva is always entertaining to watch.
When this quarter of the draw was revealed, there were audible gasps in the crowd. The draw threw up one of the juiciest first round matches ever – Venus Williams vs Belinda Bencic. Venus, seven-time Major champion, made two Slam finals in 2017 and shows no signs of stopping even at the age of 37.
On the other hand, Bencic made a comeback from injury in September 2017 and ended the year with 15 straight wins and three straight titles at ITF events. She continued her great run at the Hopman Cup, where she only lost to Kerber and then won the Kooyong Classic exhibition.
Bencic has never beaten Venus in their four previous meetings, but going by her current form, the Australian Open first round could be when she gets her first victory.
The third quarter has a few other players who are entering the Slam on the heels of some confidence-boosting wins. Elise Mertens has booked her place in the Hobart final, Daria Gavrilova made the last-four at Sydney, Julia Gorges humbled Caroline Wozniacki to lift the Auckland trophy and Elina Svitolina won her 10th WTA title at Brisbane.
Fourth seed Svitolina had a career-defining season in 2017, where she won five titles and rose to No 3 in the world. But her results never translated at the Grand Slam level, and her best Major appearance was quarter-final at Roland Garros.
Katerina Siniakova in the second round could be a tough match for the Ukrainian but she has a relatively easy path after that. Sloane Stephens could be a potential challenger in the fourth round but the American has not won a match since her US Open title win.
Ekaterina Makarova, who has made it to the second week in Melbourne for seven straight years, could again make a deep run. However, Svitolina’s smart play should help her make her maiden semi-final.
Predicted semi-finalist: Elina Svitolina
First round match to watch out for: Venus Williams vs Belinda Bencic. 37-year-old vs 20-year-old.
Caroline Wozniacki won the biggest title of her career at the WTA Finals in October 2017 by getting her first win over Venus in the final. With 27 singles titles and 67 weeks at No 1 the only thing that is missing from her resume is a Major trophy.
Seeded second at the Australian Open, the Dane has a great opportunity of clinching her first Grand Slam title. She faces the ever-improving Mihaela Buzarnescu (into Hobart final this week) in the first round but has an easy draw till the quarters.
Fifteenth seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 19th seed Magdalena Rybarikova or 30th seed Kiki Bertens are all in Wozniacki’s section but shouldn’t cause much trouble.
On the other end of the bottom quarter, the youngest French Open champion takes on the oldest French Open champion in the first round – Jelena Ostapenko vs Francesca Schivaone. Ostapenko hasn’t impressed much in 2018 but she is capable of blasting her way through the draw.
Dominika Cibulkova, another player attempting a revival, is a potential fourth-round threat for Ostapenko as is 2017 Australian Open and US Open semi-finalist CoCo Vandeweghe. The American thrives on hardcourts, and has the skills to match Ostapenko’s high-stakes, high-risk game.
Predicted semi-finalist: Caroline Wozniacki
First round match to watch out for: Samantha Stosur vs Monica Puig. Former US Open champion vs Olympic gold medallist.
Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.
Updated Date: Jan 12, 2018 20:59:44 IST