2017 Australian Open: Women’s fourth round preview

The women’s round of 16 throws up some interesting clashes – as discussed in The Outside In preview.

TOP HALF

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.

BOTTOM HALF

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.

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