Australian Open Preview: Three Little Words
This year's Australian Open is essentially about three little words.
Serena, Serena and, oh yeah, Serena.
Much like London, Melbourne isn't Paris, or even Flushing Meadows. If Serena Williams is focused and in-form -- though even that hasn't necessarily been essential for Serena in Oz on the way to many of her five career AO titles there -- it's downright impossible to envision anyone else winning this title. Ever since experiencing the shock of a come-from-ahead loss to Virginie Razzano in the 1st Round of Roland Garros last spring, the first such early slam defeat in her entire tennis existence, all Serena has done is become the only woman in history to, in succession, sweep titles at Wimbledon, the Olympics, the U.S. Open and WTA Championships in a single season.
Oh, and, at an alarming rate if you're another WTA player with dreams, that is, she's been talking a great deal about history (she's now just two slams behind both Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert's 18) and living up to her place in it in the final stages of her career. Williams hasn't even shied away from talk of a possible "Serena Slam II," which would be three-quarters of the way to reality with a title in Melbourne, and this time it'd have a "Golden glow," too. And if that were to happen, who WOULDN'T place pretty good odds on Navratilova's record of six straight slams being in jeopardy? And, remember, this is happening not long after Williams' career and life were threatened due to an injury and multiple medical emergencies (Serena even had additional surgeries on her toes this offseason) AND on a WTA landscape that is arguably flashing its most high-level competition in about two decades. Serena comes to Melbourne riding a 16-match winning streak, has won 52 of her last 54, and is 35-1 since losing that match to the veteran Pastry in Paris.
Oh, there are contenders in the draw who COULD beat her. Vika Azarenka's career changed for the great at this tournament a year ago, and Maria Sharapova has routinely found herself playing in major finals over the past year. But Williams has beaten those two-with-the-best-chance "rivals" like a proverbial drum over the years. I mean, she was 8-0 against them in 2012, and is 20-1 versus the two since 2005.
Well, I guess there IS one other thing to consider when it comes to the probability of Williams lifting a third straight slam trophy. Why, The Radwanska, of course. Serena proved to be immune to It's machinations in last year's Wimbledon final, though the evil alter ego of Agnieszka Radwanska DID manage to get its progenitor into a third set against Williams in the SW19 final, coming within a few games of actually claiming the #1 ranking. The same #1 ranking that Serena could claim over the next two weeks.
But Serena was ultimately immune to The Rad in London. So, surely she will be in Melbourne, too. Right?
Hmmm, just in case, I guess I'd better do a quick overview of the draw, quarter-by-quarter, just in case:
1. Victoria Azarenka, BLR...the #1 player. The defending champion. And no one's idea of the "favorite" no matter how legitimate a top-ranked player she has been over the past year. Oh, Vika has the game to take down Williams, as she showed yet again at last year's U.S. Open. It's just that she's only finished the deal once in twelve match-ups, and Serena was playing injured when she did ('09 Miami). But Vika IS the favorite in her quarter, of course. She need not crush opponents like she did last January to reach the semifinals, but it surely wouldn't hurt to build up as much momentum as possible considering what would likely await her there -- and an infected toe won't allow her to take a "pass" this time around, either.
2. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, RUS...despite being the #24 seed, the Hordette is the second-best player in the quarter. She's worked hard to get into the best shape of her life, and it showed during her final run in Brisbane.
3. Svetlana Kuznetsova, RUS...her resume (two slam titles) tells you she has the game to do anything. Your head tells you, hot off her best result in a year (albeit just a QF), she could just as easily flame out in week one.
4. Sara Errani, ITA...naturally, she'll be overlooked again. But her '12 slam success -- including a QF in Oz -- proved her to be a survivor. And with the one-never-knows qualities of Kuznetsova and Pavlyuchenkova directly in her path to matching last year's Final 8 result, don't be shocked if she slips through again. It probably won't happen, but just don't be SHOCKED if it does.
THE BRACKET BUSTER: Urszula Radwanska, POL... in a "normal" world, Kuznetsova would be listed here. But in a WTA season so far under the spell of The Rad, Aga's sister -- a possible 3rd Round opponent for Vika -- gets listed since she might get the family's first shot at the Belarusian in 2013.
THE WILD CARD: Elena Vesnina, RUS... just how much confidence will the fiery Russian carry into Melbourne after her first career title in Hobart?
DON'T COUNT HER CHICKENS: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, RUS... if her Brisbane loss to Serena plays with her mind, 1st Round opponent Lesia Tsurenko (Q) might not be an easy out. And then there's her possible 3rd Round foe. Some player from Denmark. Speaking of...
THE POOR ("losing early gives me more time to spend with Rory, anyway -- so lose/win!") SOUL: Caroline Wozniacki, DEN... Caro is riding a streak of two straight 1st Round losses in slams. With an opponent like Sabine Lisicki in the 1st Round in Oz, it could be three-in-a-row. If she wins, she might get Lucie Hradecka. Then Pavlyuchenkova. Then Kuznetsova, who just beat her last week. Then Vika. Then Serena. And she'd STILL only be IN the final. Expect loads of time to sightsee with Rory.
=In the End...=
Assuming she swears off any pedicures while in Melbourne, Vika would be hard-pressed to NOT emerge from here.
1. Serena Williams, USA...if she REALLY wants it, it'll be her quarter. To begin with. And she sure seems to want it.
2. Sloane Stephens, USA...she earned Serena's respect in their encounter in Brisbane, but the #29 seed will have to outlast some big names to get another shot at Williams in the QF. Petra Kvitova is in her section. As is Laura Robson, who Current Sloane just defeated handily in Hobart. And Nadia Petrova is down there, too. Based on form, Sloane SHOULD reach the Final 8, but so far in her career she's found a way to lose-from-ahead against top players in big events. If she can finally wring that out of her game, she'll make a mark in Melbourne. IF.
3. Yaroslava Shvedova, KAZ...she had a golden shot against Serena at last year's Wimbledon, but let it get away. She might get another in the 3rd Round here.
4. Nadia Petrova/RUS & Petra Kvitova/CZE...oh, Nadia. Oh, Petra. Neither has looked particularly great (in singles) in '13, but Kvitova has been so discouraging thus far that I have more "confidence" in Nadia's chances. Yes, I actually said that. That said, I'm not sure she'll reach week two, either.
THE BRACKET BUSTER: Yaroslava Shvedova, KAZ... second verse, same as the first? Or something entirely different?
THE WILD CARD: Maria Kirilenko, RUS... her results -- singles and doubles -- have been in a funk in '13, but maybe she'll break out of it.
DON'T COUNT HER CHICKENS: Petra Kvitova, CZE... it says something about the (mental and physical) state of the #8-seed Czech's game that it wouldn't be a surprise to see her lose to Francesca Schiavone in the 1st Round. Was she really almost ranked #1 a year ago?
THE POOR SOUL: Edina Gallovits-Hall, ROU... don't expect Serena's 1st Round record in slams to suddenly slip to 48-2. I'm just sayin'.
=In the End...=
Ummm, let me see. Serena.
=THE RADWANSKA (and Aga) QUARTER=
1. Agnieszka Radwanska, POL...really, a case can be made that A-Rad's path to the semis is the easiest of the top four seeds. Of course, not much has bothered her in '13. She's 9-0 with two titles and hasn't lost a set. She double-bageled Dominika Cibulkova in the Sydney final. The biggest obstacle to a Final 4 would be Li Na, who A-Rad just beat in straight sets a few days ago.
2. Li Na, CHN...Carlos Rodrigues knows something about having a player peak in the second week of a slam, so don't count Li out. Plus, she's a past AO finalist, and this as close to a "home" slam as any Chinese player is going to get... at least until China buys the WTA, of course. Forcing A-Rad to play eight match points to finally do her in showed that she's still got room to peak following her Week 1 title in Shenzhen. Maybe she will if and when she gets a Radwanska rematch. Of course, making Aga work overtime probably just made The Rad angry.
3. Ana Ivanovic, SRB...as always, the talent is there. AnaIvo has put her post-slam/post-#1 nosedive behind her. But challenging in a slam is another thing. Still, she might give A-Rad her first real test in the Round of 16.
4. ummm, maybe Jelena Jankovic??????...I probably should say Julia Goerges, Zheng Jie or someone like that. But I just wanted to pull up the mental image of JJ wearing an elf costume again. Ah... there is it. Somehow, with Queen Chaos, it doesn't seem all that strange.
THE BRACKET BUSTER: Sorana Cirstea, ROU... she's capable of taking out Li in the 3rd Round. If she does, this quarter -- and maybe ALL of us -- might just be doomed. Citizen Anna or no Citizen Anna.
THE WILD CARD: The Rad... just how much havoc does It want to create? Is another "dead spot" on a court Down Under in the future? Will It slip Vegemite into everyone's sandwiches? Will It give a top player a "bad pedicure?" Oops, that last one was from the "What Will The Radwanska Do to Screw with Vika?" list that I never got around to posting a few weeks ago.
DON'T COUNT HER CHICKENS: Mona Barthel, GER... the German plays well in Australia, but there's no certainty the #32 seed will get past Ksenia Pervak in the 1st Round. On the bright side, she'd avoid a 3rd Rounder vs. A-Rad.
THE POOR SOUL: Samantha Stosur, AUS... who'll put her out of her Australia misery? Don't be surprised if it's Chang Kai-Chen in the 1st Round.
=In the End...=
The Radwanska's sway just seems far too powerful. But maybe La Petit Taureau -- via Carlos R. and Li -- can use The Force to strike a blow for us all in the ongoing battle.
1. Maria Sharapova, RUS...I know Sharapova SHOULD be the favorite here. And she probably WILL be the last one standing. But then why do I have an underlying sense of doom when it comes to considering Maria's Melbourne chances? Sure, she has that "collarbone injury." And no match play coming in. And then there's The Rad, Yuri & Yelena, etc. Oh, yeah -- and the toughest draw of any of the top four seeds, one which might only START to get dicey with Venus Williams in the 3rd Round.
2. Venus Williams, USA...she's been handling her Sjogren's quite well since last summer, and has a real chance to remind everyone exactly who she is at this slam. It might not happen, but how can you avoid thinking about what a big over Maria in the first week would do to the entire bottom half of the draw?
3. Angelique Kerber, GER...lest we forget that Kerber was the only player last year to defeat both Serena AND Venus. She's yet to reach top form in 2013, but she's proven quite adept the past eighteen months as manuevering her way through the draw to the latter stages of a slam.
4. Dominika Cibulkova, SVK...of course, what The Rad did to her confidence in Sydney might affect this ranking greatly.
THE BRACKET BUSTER: Venus Williams, USA... hopefully, we'll at least see the spectacle of Sharapova vs. a Williams in the first week of a slam.
THE WILD CARD: Ekaterina Makarova, RUS... she defeated Serena in Melbourne last year, and could slip through to the 4th Round again without causing too many ripples.
DON'T COUNT HER CHICKENS: Maria Sharapova, RUS... again, just a weird feeling.
THE POOR SOUL: Anabel Medina-Garrigues, ESP... still neck-and-neck with Anna Smashnova as the only players with ten tour singles titles and zero slam Round of 16's. That won't likely change in Melbourne, Hopman Cup title or no Hopman Cup title. The Spanish vet plays Marion Bartoli in the 1st Round.
=In the End...=
I've vowed to not pick Sharapova here, so take your pick for who'll probably face off with The Rad with the future of the world (well, almost -- it'd only be a semifinal) at stake: Venus, Kerber or Cibulkova. Though, of course, maybe we should hope it's NOT Dominika. I don't know if she could take it again. Poor thing.
TOP PLAYER: Lesia Tsurenko, UKR
...the #1 Q-seed, Tsurenko opened up with a win over Bethanie Mattek-Sands and never looked back.
RISER: Vera Dushevina, RUS
...one of three Russian qualifiers, more than any other nation.
SURPRISE: Luksika Kumkhum, THA
...the 19-year old, who upset MJMS in qualifying, is the only woman from Thailand in the main draw, which will be her first at a slam.
VETERAN: Greta Arn, HUN
...the 33-year old is the most senior of the qualifiers.
COMEBACK: Michelle Larcher de Brito/POR
...remember her? One of two qualifiers from Portugal.
FRESH FACE: Daria Gavrilova, RUS
...the former Girls #1, now 18, was the youngest qualifier.
SISTERS: Chan Yung-Jan/TPE & Maria Joao Koehler, POR
...there were were two Sema sisters, a pair of Rodionova siblings and a single Scholl in the Q-draw, but Chan was the only tennis-playing sister to make it through to the MD. One of the reasons for that was "sister killer" Koehler, who advanced through her second straight AO qualifying tournament with wins over both Chiara (no longer ChiChi) Scholl and Arina Rodionova.
DOWN: Monica Puig, PUR
...the #2 seed lost in the first round of qualifying to Wang Qiang, who'd previously lost in the final of China's AO Wild Card Playoff tournament. Wang lost in the second Q-round.
OTHER QUALIFIERS: Akgul Amanmuradova/UZB, Vesna Dolonc/SRB, Karin Knapp/ITA, Valeria Savinykh/RUS
WILD CARDS: Ashley Barty/AUS, Bojana Bobusic/AUS, Jarmila Gajdosova/AUS, Caroline Garcia/FRA, Sacha Jones/AUS, Madison Keys/USA, Olivia Rogowska/AUS, Zhang Yuxuan/CHN
LUCKY LOSER: none so far
Q1: Cagla Buyukakcay/TUR d. Tamarine Tanasugarn/THA 4-6/6-2/10-8
...still out there, but with still-diminishing results.
Q2: Daria Gavrilova/RUS d. Eugenie Bouchard/CAN 7-6/7-6
...the '10 U.S. Open Girls champ takes out the '12 Wimbledon Girls champ.
Q1 - Gibbs d. Y.Sema 6-4/6-3
Q2 - Dolonc d. E.Sema 6-1/6-3
...Erika outlasts Yurika, but not Vesna.
Q2 - Savinykh d. An.Rodionova 7-6/4-6/6-2
Q3 - Koehler d. Ar.Rodionova 6-2/4-6/6-1
...more Aussie misery.
Q2 - Buyukakcay d. L.Kichenok 6-4/6-1
...and Nadiya won a doubles title without her at a challenger event, too.
Q2 - Koehler d. Chi.Scholl 6-3/6-1
...Chiara. ChiChi. Chiara. There are things to like about both names.
*AUSTRALIAN OPEN "Q-PLAYER OF THE WEEK" WINNERS*
2006 Ashley Harkleroad, USA
2007 Julia Vakulenko, UKR
2008 Julia Schruff, GER
2009 Elena Baltacha,GBR
2010 Yanina Wickmayer, BEL
2011 Vesna Manasieva, RUS
2012 Paula Ormaechea, ARG
2013 Lesia Tsurenko, UKR
*SLAM QUALIFYING/WILD CARDS*
=CONSECUTIVE QUALIFYING RUNS=
2...Lesia Tsurenko, UKR ('12 US/'13 AO)
=CONSECUTIVE AO QUALIFYING RUNS=
2...Maria Joao Koehler, POR (2012-13)
2...Valeria Savinykh, RUS (2012-13)
=CONSECUTIVE SLAM WILD CARDS=
2...Olivia Rogowska, AUS ('12 US/'13 AO)
=CONSECUTIVE AO WILD CARDS=
5...Olivia Rogowska, AUS (2009-13)
2...Ashleigh Barty, AUS (2012-13)
2...Bojana Bobusic, AUS (2012-13)
2...Madison Keys, USA (2012-13)
*AUSTRALIAN OPEN TOP SEEDS*
2003 Serena Williams (W)
2004 Justine Henin-Hardenne (W)
2005 Lindsay Davenport (RU)
2006 Lindsay Davenport (QF)
2007 Maria Sharapova (RU)
2008 Justine Henin (QF)
2009 Jelena Jankovic (4th)
2010 Serena Williams (W)
2011 Caroline Wozniacki (SF)
2012 Caroline Wozniacki (QF)
2013 Victoria Azarenka
*RECENT AUSTRALIAN OPEN SEMIFINALISTS*
2005: S.Williams (W) - Davenport (RU) - Dechy/Sharapova
2006: Mauresmo (W) - Henin-Hardenne (RU) - Sharapova/Clijsters
2007: S.Williams (W) - Sharapova (RU) - Clijsters/Vaidisova
2008: Sharapova (W) - Ivanovic (RU) - Jankovic/Hantuchova
2009: S.Williams (W) - Safina (RU) - Zvonareva/Dementieva
2010: S.Williams (W) - Henin (RU) - Li/Zheng
2011: Clijsters (W) - Li (RU) - Zvonareva/Wozniacki
2012: Azarenka (W) - Sharapova (RU) - Clijsters/Kvitova
*AUSTRALIAN OPEN GIRLS FINALS - since 2000*
2000 Aniko Kapros/HUN def. Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez/ESP
2001 Jelena Jankovic/SRB def. Sofia Arvidsson/SWE
2002 Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova/CZE def. Maria Sharapova/RUS
2003 Barbora Zahlavova-Strycova/CZE def. Victoriya Kutuzova/UKR
2004 Shahar Peer/ISR def. Nicole Vaidisova/CZE
2005 Victoria Azarenka/BLR def. Agnes Szavay/HUN
2006 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS def. Caroline Wozniacki/DEN
2007 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova/RUS def. Madison Brengle/USA
2008 Arantxa Rus/NED def. Jessica Moore/AUS
2009 Ksenia Pervak/RUS def. Laura Robson/GBR
2010 Karolina Pliskova/CZE def. Laura Robson/GBR
2011 An-Sophie Mestach/BEL def. Monica Puig/PUR
2012 Taylor Townsend/USA def. Yulia Putintseva/RUS
=ROUND OF 16 PREDICTIONS=
#1 Azarenka d. #16 Vinci
#24 Pavlyuchenkova d. Kuznetsova
#3 S.Williams d. #20 Wickmayer
#29 Stephens d. #12 Petrova
#6 Li d. #18 Goerges
#4 A.Radwanska d. #13 Ivanovic
#5 Kerber d. #19 Makarova
#25 V.Williams d. #15 Cibulkova
#1 Azarenka d. #24 Pavlyuchenkova
#3 S.Williams d. #29 Stephens
#4 A.Radwanska d. #6 Li
#5 Kerber d. #25 V.Williams
#3 S.Williams d. #1 Azarenka
#4 A.Radwanska d. #5 Kerber
#3 S.Williams d. #4 A.Radwanska
...nearly impossible to go any other way. And, hopefully, The Rad is pleased with my sacrifice of the other half of the draw. Sorry, Maria.
Meanwhile, I got an email from Carl. He wouldn't say where he and Carla were staying for their honeymoon, but he DID send their picks!
CARL: Sharapova d. Azarenka
CARLA: Li d. S.Williams
As far as the men...
=ROUND OF 16 PREDICTIONS=
#1 Djokovic d. #20 Querrey
#5 Berdych d. #22 Verdasco
#4 Ferrer d. #16 Nishikori
#24 Janowicz d. Hewitt
#6 del Potro d. #12 Cilic
#3 Murray d. #18 Dolgopolov
#9 Gasquet d. #7 Tsonga
#2 Federer d. #13 Raonic
#1 Djokovid d. #5 Berdych
#4 Ferrer d. #24 Janowicz
#3 Murray d. #6 del Potro
#2 Federer d. #9 Gasquet
#1 Djokovic d. #4 Ferrer
#3 Murray d. #2 Federer!!!
#3 Murray d. #1 Djokovic!!!!!!!!!!!!!
...I've lost my mind now, I guess. I blame The Rad.
Check out Galileo West's AO preview over at ATP Backspin, where he reminds me of one my previous "brilliant" predictions. So take all my picks with an extra, Carl-sized grain of salt, of course. Well, all of them except for Serena winning.
All for now. Day 1 -- and the Daily Backspin -- awaits.