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.