Charleston may have kicked off the WTA clay court season at the start of this month, but following this weekend’s Fed Cup ties, the tour goes full steam ahead for the European clay court swing… More
The women’s round of 16 throws up some interesting clashes – as discussed in The Outside In preview.
Notable absentee from the players to emerge from the top half in the first week is 4th seed Simona Halep – who lost to American Shelby Rogers in the first round, citing an ongoing knee injury. That loss has not changed the state of play in this section of the draw too much, however – Halep’s form had been patchy, and hadn’t been favoured to do well by many.
(1) Angelique Kerber vs Coco Vandeweghe
The defending champion needed three sets to overcome both her first and second round opponents, and has looked far from convincing so far. Being the number 1 seed and defending champion at a grand slam is an experience entirely novel to Kerber, and she hasn’t played the part particularly well. Her third round victory over Kristyna Pliskova – the twin sister of the 5th seed Karolina – did show much improvement, with the German only dropping four games. Kerber may be growing into the role, and tournament.
Coco Vandeweghe is likely to prove a tougher test than the older Pliskova twin. The big-hitting American took out the 15th seed Roberta Vinci in the first round, and won her place in the round of 16 by knocking out Eugenie Bouchard in three sets. Bouchard has looked the best she has in a while so far this season – which adds up to an impressive run to the fourth round for Vandeweghe. Powerful, but inconsistent, Kerber’s defence and consistency should be too much for Vandeweghe to overcome – Kerber has beaten the American in their two previous encounters, both of which have been on hard courts.
In truth, Kerber has been blessed with a very favourable draw – and yet has made hard work of it. She should reach the quarter finals, but is yet to stamp her newfound authority on this tournament.
Sorana Cirstea vs Garbine Muguruza (7)
Having broken into the top 10 and won her first major title at the French Open in May, Garbine Muguruza is rightly considered one of the forefront next generation players on the WTA. However, outside of her outstanding clay court season, Muguruza didn’t really have a hugely impressive 2016 season as a whole, and she had not been heavily favoured to go deep at this year’s Australian Open. However, the Spaniard has been quietly going about her business so far, and after a tight two set victory over Marina Erakovic in the first round, has looked assured, not dropping a set thus far in the tournament.
Her opponent, the 78th ranked Romanian Sorana Cirstea, scored an upset over the 10th seed Carla Suarez Navarro in the second round, and followed it up by dispatching a top 50 player in Alison Riske in two sets. Cirstea will come into her career-best Australian Open run full of confidence, and an upset here isn’t out of the question – for all of her quality, Muguruza hasn’t been able to achieve consistency at slams yet.
Mona Barthel vs Venus Williams (13)
Barthel, ranked 181 in the world, has come through qualifying all the way to the last 16, adding up to six wins in a row – including a hugely impressive upset over the Olympic champion Monica Puig in the second round. Her lowly ranking does not do her justice, however – the 26 year old has previously broken into the top 30 in the world, and the second half of her 2016 season was decimated by injury problems. With so many wins under her belt, Barthel’s confidence will be as high as it has been for some time.
Venus, in truth, has had a fortunate draw through to the fourth round – but has nonetheless been untroubled and professional in navigating it. Having won all three matches in straight sets, she won her third round match over Ying-Ying Duan (the Chinese Davenport…) to the loss of only one game. She’s not had to play much tennis – which is vital considering her health concerns, and veteran status, and could prove key given the extraordinary amount of tennis Barthel has had to play to get here. A rested and confident Venus shouldn’t be shaken by Barthel. Side note – both being powerful, but streaky, players, this match has the potential to be an incredible display of power tennis. Or to be absolutely error-laden.
Anastasia Pavlychenkova (24) vs Svetlana Kuznetsova (8)
This all-Russian clash is probably the match of the top half. Pavlychenkova scored an impressive victory over Elina Svitolina in the third round, who reached the semis in Brisbane, and was expected to do well at this tournament. Pavlychenkova has been consistently around the top 30 for several years now, and capable of big wins over higher-ranked players, but her slam record isn’t the best, and but this year is her first time making it to the second week of the Australian Open.
Her compatriot, Svetlana Kuznetsova. beat fellow veteran Jelena Jankovic in the third round, in what is arguably the match of the women’s draw so far – 9-7 in the deciding set. Pavlychenkova is a decent player in good form, and is capable of troubling top 10 players, but Kuznetsova has looked impressive so far – only dropping four games in her first two matches, and having come through that tough test from Jankovic will now be battle-hardened. My money is with the higher seed.
Third seed Agnieszka Radwanska lost in the second round to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, but as in the case of Halep, Radwanska wasn’t considered a huge title contender, and has been markedly inconsistent at slams in recent years, so the loss of the third seed hasn’t caused the shockwaves in the draw that you might expect it to.
Karolina Pliskova (5) vs Daria Gavrilova (22)
Pliskova came into the tournament in great form, having won Brisbane. The powerful Czech is top of the aces count so far – hitting 33. She was utterly untroubled in her first two matches, dropping only four games and hitting two bagel sets. She served up a bagel in her third round match against Jelena Ostapenko too – sandwiched between the loss of the first set, and a crazy 10-8 deciding set, after having been 5-2 down against her young opponent. Survival instincts of a champion? Pliskova is fancied by many to do well in this tournament, given her great start to the year, and having survived a serious scare, looks set to go far.
She faces home favourite Daria Gavrilova – the 22nd seed has needed three sets in each of her matches so far – having impressively upset 11th seed Timea Bacsinszky in the third round to make it to the second week of the Australian Open for the first time , and with her first round match against Naomi Broady being a particularly close shave. Coming through that match against the bit-hitting Brit, who hit 19 aces, is good preparation for the power of Pliskova, but despite her home advantage, Gavrilova should be overwhelmed by one of the form players of 2017 so far.
Jennifer Brady vs Mirjana Lucic-Baroni
The surprise match up of the last 16, contested between two unfancied players. Lucic-Baroni upset third seed Radwanska in the second round, and the veteran journeywoman has backed up that win with her run to the fourth round. Impressive, considering she has only once previously made it beyond the first round of the Australian Open, all the way back in 1998.
Her opponent, the American Jennifer Brady, was still in nappies back then. Lucic-Baroni has 13 years and about 40 ranking places on the 21 year old, who is playing in her first grand slam. Lack of experience hasn’t held her back though – Brady has come out of nowhere to make a quietly impressive run, beating Brit Heather Watson in a three set thriller, 10-8 in the decider, and then upturning the Russian 14th seed Elena Vesnina. Difficult to call this one – Brady in particular is an unknown quantity, and could be one of the breakout players of the tournament. Her serve is a particular weapon, hitting 30 aces so far in the tournament – the second-most in the women’s draw.
Ekaterina Makarova (30) vs Johanna Konta (9)
The 9th seed has been given a brutal draw, but has so far come through it confidently and impressively. Most impressive of all has to be her imperious victory over Caroline Wozniacki in the third round – the former World No. 1 had been talking during the tournament about how she felt she has been playing the best tennis of her career, but Konta put paid to any talk of an upset by hitting 33 winners in a fantastic display of clean hitting – dropping just four games. Konta has been one of the players of 2017 so far – winning Sydney the week before the Australian Open.
Going deep at Sydney doesn’t always bode well for players, however, though Konta didn’t show any signs of tiredness in that victory over Wozniacki. Her fourth round opponent, the Russian Makarova, took out 6th seed Cibulkova in the third round, and has a good record in Melbourne – having made the quarter finals twice previously, and the semi finals in 2015. She will be a tricky opponent on these courts for Konta, but with the form Konta is in, she should win through to the quarter finals.
Barbora Strycova (16) vs Serena Williams (2)
Serena’s feathers have hardly been ruffled in her first three matches – she’s dominated opponents without ever hitting top gear. Many were hopeful of a tasty match against Lucie Safarova in the second round – but Serena dispatched the Czech with ease. Compared to Kerber, Serena has certainly been more impressive, but has hardly been cutting through the draw with indominatable ease, as she used to.
The 30 year old Czech, Strycova, is currently at a career high ranking of 16 in singles, and has made fairly comfortable progress through the draw so far, having not dropped a set. Strycova, known as a pretty bright personality on the tour, isn’t daunted by the prospect of facing the number 2 seed – having said in press after her third round victory that “she’s human, and she is beatable. This is a Grand Slam, and we are talking that she already won, but I don’t like these talks”. Watch out, Serena.
Realistically, Serena hasn’t looked vulnerable so far, and shouldn’t be troubled.
Six days of the Australian Open have passed. The tournament began on Monday, with 256 players entered into the two singles draws proper – and that’s not to mention the doubles players. The fourth round awaits – and the 128 men and 128 women have been whittled down to 16 a piece. You could call it, quite literally, a decimation.
Such is the exponential nature of a tennis tournament – especially a grand slam. The first round is packed with what seems like an overwhelming amount of tennis, and before you know it the draws have been whittled down to what is considered the business end of the tournament – the second week.
A lot of tennis has been played, and a lot of stories have been told. The first week of a grand slam is hectic – it’s easy to forget the sheer extent of what happens. Already, we’ve seen Simona Halep lose in the first round, and Agnieszka Radwanska fall early too. Nick Kyrgios lamely folded against Andreas Seppi – to the disappointment of his home slam fans, and the general dismay of the tennis world. Dan Evans – the plucky Brit who used to have all of the talent and none of the work ethic – applied himself to upset Marin Cilic, and has backed it up with a career-best fourth round at a grand slam. Roger Federer has returned – and was absolutely vintage in his crushing third round victory over Tomas Berdych. Rafael Nadal is back amongst it too – initially with less fanfare than his long-time rival, until an explosive fourth round encounter against rising star Alexander Zverev, Rafa coming through in a battling five sets.
I am primarily a women’s tennis fan – I blogged on the eve of the tournament on how taking a break from following the game has left me feeling unsure of the state of the women’s game. It’s quickly transpired that that is true of those most well-versed and up to date on the happenings of the WTA Tour. Halep and Radwanska exited early on, young guns Muguruza and Pliskova have endured, albeit with some challenges, and the two favourites in Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber are heading up their halves of the draw with little incident, but neither particularly impressing – although Serena certainly edges Kerber. Nobody has really taken the tournament by the scruff of the neck, and set the tone. Truthfully, although I already feel much more familiar with the undulations of the game, I can’t say I’m any closer to calling who wins this tournament. This tournament, and the WTA in general, really does seem like anyone’s game right now – ripe for somebody to make it their own.
The most seismic story of all thus far in the tournament comes not out of the women’s draw, but the men’s, with Dennis Istomin’s quite astounding upset of Novak Djokovic on Wednesday. Multiple narratives unfold from that one match: what seems another checkpoint on a troubling downward trajectory for Djokovic, Andy Murray looking a sure bet for the Number 1 ranking through to Wimbledon at least, and being an overwhelming favourite to win his first Australian Open, not to mention Istomin himself – who graced Rod Laver Arena with the best match he’s ever played in his career, having won a wildcard to the main draw.
That’s what is emergent from just one match. So far, in six days, 224 tennis matches have been played, and most of them haven’t been contested by these familiar top 20 names, but by players who fly under the radar of the general tennis consciousness. This is the nature of tennis. Matches which to those players are of as much significance as Djokovic’s early loss will be to him, but go entirely unnoticed by most tennis fans. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni received acclaim for her upset of the third seed Radwanska in the second round, but have many really appreciated the significance of the veteran’s run to the fourth round? She first played at the Australian Open in 1998, and has only once previously won a match here. This tournament for her is a career highlight, but not many will know about it.
By the end of the second week, these stories and narratives of the early rounds will have faded even further from our memories. Will we remember Jennifer Brady in years to come? The 21 year old American is playing in her first grand slam here, and upset Elena Vesnina to reach the round of 16.
To be fair to ourselves – this is an awful lot of tennis to digest, especially when you’ve fallen out of the loop as I have. At the same time, it’s almost like a crash course – I feel at the end of this first week absolutely full to the brim with new knowledge and insight. The novelty of the countless narratives grand slams bring with them can’t help but fill you with excitement for the season to come – and that’s one of the brilliant things about the Australian Open. Being the first major tournament of the year, and so early on in the tennis calendar, it sets the year ahead up so tantalisingly, and comes after just enough of a break over the off-season to make you hungry for tennis again.
As appetisers go, you’re left feeling pretty full. And with 16 players left in each draw, there’s a long way to go before the main course.
Ahead of the first grand slam of 2017, beginning Monday in Melbourne, The Outside In takes a look at the form and prospects of the top 10 seeds in the women’s draw.
- Angelique Kerber
The German stunned the tennis world in Melbourne last January, when she beat Serena Williams to win her first major title. Backing this up with an excellent season – including a second grand slam title at the US Open, and the year-end number 1 ranking – Kerber rightly goes into this fortnight as one of the favourites for the title on her favourite courts.
The pressure of being defending champion is a new experience for the 29 year old German, however, and there’s no way to know how well she will deal with this. Kerber’s 2017 season hasn’t got off to the greatest of starts, with a 1-2 record heading into this fortnight, losing to Elina Svitolina in Brisbane and Daria Kasatkina in Sydney.
Kerber would probably be happy with her draw, with not too many potential banana skins. Her first round opponent, Lesia Tsurenko, is ranked just outside of the top 50, but has lost in the opening round in each of the past 3 years at the Australian Open, although she comes into the tournament in good form, off the back of a semi final run in Hobart.
If she navigates the opening rounds successfully, Eugenie Bouchard could be Kerber’s third round opponent. The one-time Wimbledon finalist has fallen off the trajectory many envisaged, but can still pose problems on her day.
- Serena Williams
If you really had to put money on it, you’d probably still pick Serena. The march of age, and an injury-hit 2016 season has revealed chinks in the American’s once seemingly impenetrable armour, but when at her healthiest and happiest. Serena is still the best player on the WTA Tour – especially on her favoured hard courts.
The 6-time champion at Melbourne Park heads into the tournament with her form an unknown – she called time on her 2016 season early, and her return to the tour in Auckland, lost to 72nd-ranked American Madison Brengle. Still shaking off rust, Serena could be vulnerable early on – especially as she has a tricky first couple of rounds ahead of her, facing Belinda Bencic in the first round, and the winner of Yanina Wickmayer and Lucie Safarova in the second. If she survives these prospects, expect Serena to go deep – she has made it to the semi-final or better in each of her last 6 grand slams.
It used to be the case that if Serena went deep, she won the title, but the changing state of the women’s game means this is no longer the certainty it once was – Serena lost 2 grand slam finals last year. It’s been said that Serena struggled with the pressure of history – she spent last year chasing her 22nd grand slam title, to equal Steffi Graf’s record in the Open Era. 23 could await in Melbourne, and for all of the caveats, it remains a foolish move to rule Serena out.
- Agniezska Radwanska
The Pole comes into the fortnight in good form, having made the final in Sydney. With two semi finals in the past 3 years, Radwanska has had good results in Melbourne in the past, and has made it to the second week in each of the past 6 tournaments.
Having said that, Alize Cornet is a potential third round opponent – the melodramatic Frenchwomen lost in the Brisbane final in the first week of the season, and can pose problems for anyone on the tour, and is a match-up to watch out for in the first week. The in-form Karolina Pliskova could be called favourite to emerge from Radwanska’s quarter, although Radwanska has never lost to the Czech in 7 encounters.
- Simona Halep
Halep lost early in her only tournament of 2017, in Shenzhen, bowing out to Katerina Siniakova of the Czech Republic. Halep has lost 3 times in the first round at the Australian Open, including last year, and is one to bear in mind for an early upset.
She has a tricky draw too – with the Olympic gold medallist Monica Puig her projected third round opponent, and Venus Williams awaiting in the round of 16. The Romanian is far from a sure bet for the second week. She has beaten her first round opponent Shelby Rogers in their only previous encounter at the 2015 US Open, in a comfortable straight sets victory, and can be expected to come through that match up.
- Karolina Pliskova
Of the top 5 seeds, Pliskova comes into the Australian Open in the best form, having lifted the title in Brisbane. The Czech helped her country to a Fed Cup title at the backend of last season, but didn’t have much to write home about in the Asian autumn swing, following her debut Grand Slam final at Flushing Meadows.
She has never previously made it to the second week in Melbourne, but expect her to break that duck this fortnight, with a very manageable draw ahead of her. Agnieszka Radwanska awaits in the quarter final, and although she has never recorded a victory in this match-up, this tournaments seems as good a time as any for that to change.
- Dominika Cibulkova
The diminutive Slovak hasn’t managed to replicate the form that saw her lift the 2016 season-ending championships in Singapore so far this season, losing to Eugenie Bouchard in Sydney and Alize Cornet in Brisbane. Cibulkova has had a very mixed bag of results in Melbourne, being a frequent early round loser, but reaching the final in 2014.
She has been drawn into Serena’s quarter, and despite her season-ending form last year, hasn’t looked a likely contender to carry those performances through in the early part of 2017, and wouldn’t be expected to pose much of a stumbling block to Serena.
- Garbine Muguruza
Muguruza made the semi final in Brisbane, and can be reasonably expected to hold her seeding in Melbourne, with a comfortable looking draw through to the quarter final.
However, the Spaniard, best known for her prowess on clay courts (memorably beating Serena Williams in the final of Roland Garros last June) has never made a quarter final at the Australian Open previously, and outside of her title at the French Open, lost before the fourth round in each of the other 3 majors last season.
- Svetlana Kuznetsova
The veteran Russian will be playing in the 15th Australian Open of her career this season, and finds herself in the top 10 courtesy of a very strong culmination to the 2016 season, including a semi final run in October’s WTA Finals. An average-looking start to 2017 has seen her lose to compatriot Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Sydney, and Garbine Muguruza in Brisbane.
Kuznetsova’s best performance at the Australian Open remains the quarter finals she reached in 2005, 2009 and 2013, and she has lost in the 1st or 2nd round in the previous 3 editions of the tournament. However, her recent resurgence means she enters this fortnight in much better standing than she has been for several seasons. Elina Svitolina is a potential fourth round opponent, and the 11th seed – who beat Kerber in Brisbane during a run to the semi finals – seems well placed to spring an upset.
- Johanna Konta
The 9th-seeded Briton is arguably the form player of 2017, scoring an impressive victory over Agnieszka Radwanska in the Sydney final, following a semi final run in Shenzhen. Her surprise emergence as a top 10 player in 2016 was catapulted by far a career best major performance in Melbourne – reaching the semi final.
Despite her form going into the fortnight, it will be a tough ask for Konta to replicate her 2016 performance, potentially having to navigate Cibulkova in the round of 16, and Serena Williams in the quarter final. Nonetheless, expect Konta to at least hold her seeding – though Caroline Wozniacki could provide a tasty match up in the third round.
- Carla Suarez Navarro
The Spaniard is yet to play in 2017, and despite her quarter final result in 2016, has never looked particularly comfortable on the hard courts in Melbourne. Given potential vulnerabilities, she has a fortuitous draw in the form of Jana Cepelova, who is ranked outside of the top 100, and retired hurt in her second round match in Sydney. However, Suarez Navarro has traditionally had inconsistent results in tournaments off of her favoured clay courts, and given her lack of match sharpness, an upset would not be too surprising.
Title winner – (playing it safe): Serena Williams will lift her 7th Australian Open title, and history-making 23rd grand slam title overall.
Early round upset – Cornet over Radwanksa, 3rd round.
First round loser of the Top 10 – Carla Suarez Navarro.
Tennis was once a big part of my life, in the form of the rollercoaster ride of the WTA Tour. In this modern era of sports consumerism, this meant hours upon hours of following TV coverage, chasing down reliable online streams, and immersing myself in the community as hosted across various forums and social media platforms. I read about tennis, I wrote about tennis, I thought about tennis – all the time. I obsessed over tennis. And I knew about tennis.
My passion for the game burned brightly, and for a while I thought it had burned out. The changing landscape of my personal life pulled me away from the game – and newfound busy-ness and priorities meant I seldom had time to miss it. I didn’t lose my association with tennis completely – the easily accessible updates of the social media age kept me informed, and you can hardly miss the Grand Slams. I kept well abreast of the major stories and narratives, as any general sports fan would. I watched Serena Williams tick off slams on her way to the record-equalling 22. Flavia Pennetta won the US Open – and then retired. Monica Puig stunned the Olympics. Last I remember, Eugenie Bouchard and Simona Halep were ready to take over the sport – and yet it’s Garbine Muguruza who became a first time major winner. Maria Sharapova was caught doping, and suspended for 15 months. Victoria Azarenka had a baby. Ana Ivanovic called time on her career. Petra Kvitova was attacked by a burglar – robbing her of what looks like a significant part of her career. A lot has happened.
A lot has happened, and I know a lot of it – but I don’t know about tennis like I used to. I know the big title winners and the rankings of the top players, but I couldn’t really tell you how they got there. I’m conscious of the shifting landscape of the game, but the state of the field, what to expect coming into the 2017 season? I can’t really claim to have a clue.
I want to know about tennis again. I want to know about how Karolina Pliskova plays, what is it that has propelled her to be a top 5 player. I want to be familiar with the ins and outs, ups and downs, week in and week out grind of the tour. I want to be able to have opinions based on more than just my resting knowledge and watching the second week of slams.
As a Brit, I want to know more about Johanna Konta – whose meteoric rise to the top 10 of the WTA has taken more than just the ill-informed by surprise. British tennis is in a privileged place right now, and I want to enjoy that.
A lot has changed. There are some constants – it can’t really be claimed that anyone other than Serena William (ranked number 2 behind the transformed Kerber) rules the sport still, on her day. But her days are fewer in number than they use to be, and the gap between her and the field, which once seemed so insurmountable, is ever-narrowing. Serena, at the age of 35, was plagued last season by fitness trouble, and more vulnerable to challengers old and new. It was Kerber who finished the year on top, by winning two majors and securing the year end Number 1 ranking. Serena lost this week to Madison Brengle in her return to the tour in Auckland, and question marks remain over her form going into the Australian Open, starting Monday.
The waning strength of Serena’s hold over the game, and the continuing emergence of the next generation combine to create a field rife with opportunity. Absences of players such as Sharapova, Kvitova, and Azarenka, through various means, compound this. The stalling trajectory of Radwanska and Halep leads to less certainty over who will take advantage. Change is afoot.
I want to know about it all. I want to experience it all. I want to immerse myself in tennis again. 2017 looms before me, and the rest of the tennis world – and I can’t wait to dive in.