Australian Open 2021 women's singles preview: Ashleigh Barty gets decent draw; Naomi Osaka gunning for second AO title
Ahead of the Australian Open's long-awaited return, Firstpost takes a look at the women's singles draw and attempts to determine the potential outcome of all four quarters
The last couple of weeks have seen Tennis Australia — the organising body bestowed with the unenviable task of hosting a global tournament amidst a pandemic — forced to deal with more drama than you'd find in an entire season of Keeping up with the Kardashians. A string of COVID-19 cases combined with pretty strict travel protocols have come together beautifully to serve up a heady cocktail of disgruntled players, cancelled tournaments and forced withdrawals. Yet somehow, in spite of everything that fate has thrown in its path, as of right now, the Australian Open is still happening.
So ahead of the Australian Open's long-awaited return, Firstpost takes a look at the women's singles draw and attempts to determine the potential outcome of all four quarters:
The first and only name that jumps out upon a cursory glance at this quarter is that of Ashleigh Barty. The local hero and one-time Grand Slam winner had a rather quiet 2020, as she chose to sit out much of the truncated season after the coronavirus truly derailed the sporting season, but she's back, and back in some style. Barty won the first three of her matches in the Yarra Valley Classic, a tune-up event for the Australian Open, before being gifted a spot in the final by a walkover, courtesy of an injured Serena Williams.
There are a couple of athletes in here that might derail Barty's attempt to become the first Australian woman to win the Australian Open since Chris O'Neil in 1978. Ekaterina Alexandrova, Barty's potential third-round opponent, is one who might be a little more remarkable now than she was a week ago, seeing as she beat both Simona Halep and Iga Swiatek in the Gippsland Trophy just days ago. There's also the probability of a tough matchup against Anett Kontaveit in round four, who reached the quarter-finals of this tournament in 2020.
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There's also Karolina Pliskova to contend with. The sixth-seed has long-threatened to break into the upper echelons of the WTA roster, but has fallen short on every previous occasion. Her inconsistency is baffling to say the least, but there's no reason to believe that she can't make a good fist of it with luck on her side. If Pliskova is to finally win her first Grand Slam title, she'll likely have to get past one of either Belinda Bencic or Elise Mertens, both of whom look set to run into each other in the third round.
First-round matches to watch: Karolina Muchova vs Jelena Ostapenko
Potential semi-finalist: Ashleigh Barty
Sofia Kenin is a strong contender to win this quarter, but things haven't been going the American's way of late. She was beaten handily by Garbine Muguruza in the warm-up tournament for the Australian Open just a few days ago, and she's not looked her usual assured self since her defeat at the hands of Iga Swiatek in the French Open final.
Kenin will begin the tournament with a first-round match against Maddison Inglis, an Australian Wild Card entry who is yet to break into the WTA top-100. From that point on, however, it only gets more difficult. In the second round, she will find herself up against one of either Anastasija Sevastova or Kaia Kanepi, both of whom are seasoned pros. Kanepi is currently in the midst of a really good run which has taken her all the way to the final of the Gippsland trophy, so she could be a tricky proposition for the American.
The other side of the quarter has a few good players in it, including the likes of Elina Svitolina, Victoria Azarenka, and Maria Sakkari. Of these three, Svitolina looks the most dangerous on paper, but Azarenka had quite an impressive 2020, and she could easily navigate a path through this draw. Azarenka begins her campaign against American Jessica Pegula, and will most likely run into Sakkari in round three. Svitolina, on the other hand, could face a difficult battle early on, with the talented teenager Coco Gauff likely to face her in the second round.
First-round matches to watch: Maria Sakkari vs Kristina Mladenovic; Anastasija Sevastova vs Kaia Kanepi
Potential semi-finalist: Sofia Kenin
All in all, this quarter seems like it's relatively easy to call. Naomi Osaka has a couple of risky matchups in the early stages of the tournament, but there really shouldn't be anything to worry her. She kicks off her campaign with a first-round tie against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who she beat with ease the last time the pair met. After that, she's likely to run into Caroline Garcia in the second round and Ons Jabeur in the third, both of whom have an upset in their locker, but Osaka should sail through these matches.
The major obstacle in Osaka's path is likely to come before the quarter-finals, seeing as both Garbine Muguruza and Angelique Kerber are potential fourth-round encounters. Muguruza begins the tournament against Margarita Gasparyan, while Kerber will take on American Bernarda Pera. Muguruza, who reached the final in the previous edition of the tournament, enjoys a decent head-to-head record against Kerber, and she is likely to come out on top if the pair meet in the third round.
The highest-seeded player in the other half of this quarter is the 2019 US Open winner Bianca Andreescu, but the 20-year-old Canadian could be in for a difficult tournament after having missed the entire 2020-21 season through injury. Another player worth keeping an eye on is veteran Petra Kvitova, who finished runner-up in 2019 and made it to the quarter-finals in 2020.
First-round matches to watch: Naomi Osaka vs Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova; Bianca Andreescu vs Mihaela Buzarnescu
Potential semi-finalist: Naomi Osaka
There's always a 'group of death' when it comes to knockout tournaments, and in this edition of the Australian Open women's singles draw, it has to be the fourth quarter. The quality on display here is staggering, with some of the biggest names in the game finding themselves up against each other for that coveted semi-final slot. It's nigh impossible to guess at who will make it out of this quadrant, but the trio of Serena Williams, Simona Halep and Iga Swiatek look like the best contenders.
For Serena, things are looking a little difficult at the moment, as a shoulder issue forced her withdrawal from a tune-up event, but she's recovered from worse before, so it would be foolish to rule her out prematurely. Serena begins with a match against Laura Siegemund, a player who has never even managed to take a set off of her, while the first seeded-player Serena is likely to run into is Alison Riske. Serena's section of the quarter looks largely uncomplicated, save for a potential fourth-round tie against Aryna Sabalenka. Sabalenka is fresh off of a major title win in Abu Dhabi, and she could pose a threat to the American if she puts a good run together.
Halep, who does not have to worry about Serena until at least the quarter-final, will be a little concerned about the probability of facing Polish star Swiatek again. Swiatek won the French Open 2020 in dominant fashion, and perhaps her biggest scalp at that tournament was that of Halep, who she absolutely destroyed in straight sets. The duo will most likely meet yet again in the fourth round, unless there's an early upset.
First-round matches to watch: Iga Swiatek vs Arantxa Rus
Potential semi-finalist: Serena Williams
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Naomi Osaka registered multiple records and milestones following her Australian Open title win on Saturday against Jennifer Brady.
Osaka edged a tight first set but controlled the second to win 6-4, 6-3 in 77 minutes in front of thousands of fans at Rod Laver Arena.
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