Previewing the 2017 WTA clay court season

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 in the lead up to Roland Garros. Many major names on the women’s tour are yet to have started their clay proceedings, and the Fed Cup has represented the first opportunity of several of these players to test their mettle on ‘la terre battue’ in 2017.

The change in surface of each spring is accompanied by shifting stocks in the power stakes on each tour. Some slide forth into the limelight, and others stumble in the dirt. The storylines and headline players of the first quarter of the season are often replaced by fresh narrative and new names at the top table. With several top players struggling for consistent form on the WTA tour in 2017, a few notable absentees, and the return of one of the tour’s dominant clay court forces in Maria Sharapova, an imminent change-up in narrative is even more palpable than usual.

Who will take charge? Opportunity and uncertainty on the red clay

The return of Maria Sharapova to the game, following her doping suspension, this Wednesday in Stuttgart looked to be the storyline that was going to dominate this part of the season. This was before Serena Williams shocked the tennis world by announcing this week (on Sharapova’s 30th birthday nonetheless) that she is 20 weeks pregnant, and would be playing no further part in the season.

The ramifications of this announcement will be felt more at the culmination of the clay court season, at Roland Garros, than in the events leading up to it.  Serena had already withdrawn from Rome, and has played only one tour level tournament this year, being absent since her Australian Open victory. Serena’s absence from the tour events has become a regular fixture in recent times – so in terms of opportunities opening up, it is really only at Roland Garros this will come to fruition. Though her dominance in women’s tennis has started to wane, Serena’s victory in Melbourne this January was yet another reminder that if her name is in the draw of a grand slam, she is still the favourite. The same would likely have held true for the upcoming French Open, and her absence removes a roadblock for several potential champions.

Before Serena’s announcement, it is likely the WTA clay court season would have panned out as follows – a few players would have put themselves in position following their performances in Rome and Madrid as frontrunners for the French Open, and then Serena would have returned and probably won the tournament anyway. For balance’s sake, it is worth noting that Serena has not won the title in Roland Garros since 2015, falling to Garbine Muguruza in each of the past two years, and a victory in Paris is less of a safe bet than it would be on the courts of Melbourne, Wimbledon, or Flushing Meadows. However, you would still probably take Serena against the field, and without her there, we will be more able to set more stock in the chances of the players who emerge from the warm-ups as the favourites.

Who these players will be, remains to be seen. Sharapova has an excellent clay court pedigree in recent years, reinventing herself from her self-proclaimed moniker of the “cow on ice” with her victory at Roland Garros in 2012, and following it up with her second French Open title in 2015. 15 months out of the game renders her form as unknown as it can be, and how Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome will pan out for the former World No. 1 really is anyone’s guess. Her participation at the French Open isn’t even guaranteed – with a decision on whether the French Tennis Federation will award her a wildcard expected within the next few weeks. If she is in the draw, and depending on how she does at the warm-ups, Sharapova is one player who could benefit heavily from Serena’s absence at Roland Garros; few need reminder that the Russian has failed to beat her American rival since 2004. Sharapova plays her first tennis match since January 2016 on Wednesday in Stuttgart, against a veteran who knows who way around a clay court in Roberta Vinci, and the world of tennis will be watching very closely to see how the Russian fares.

Joining Sharapova at Stuttgart will be a host of premier WTA players, including the (now) World No. 2 Angelique Kerber. Kerber has struggled to replicate her stunning form of last year that saw her win two grand slam titles and reach the World No. 1 ranking, and clay has not traditionally been her strongest surface – although she is defending a title in Stuttgart this week. Fed Cup has brought Kerber’s first clay court match play this year: a comfortable victory over Lesia Tsurenko will have boosted her confidence, although being followed by defeat to Elina Svitolina may have knocked some of the wind out of her sails. As the de facto number 1 in Serena’s absence, it will be interesting to see whether Kerber will finally be able to step into this role after her troubles so far this year. She is a proven champion, and the reset the switch in surface brings may be what is needed to kick start the German’s season.

Garbine Muguruza, last year’s winner at Roland Garros, is another big name in the Stuttgart draw. Despite her breakthrough title run in 2016 – and hugely impressive win over Serena Williams in the final – Muguruza does not actually have the clay court credentials one would expect, with her results on hard courts having been her strongest over the course of her career. Any player who has won the title in Paris will always be marked as a favourite in the clay court swing, and although she has also struggled with consistency in 2017, sitting only 13th in the WTA Road to Singapore rankings, Muguruza shouldn’t be underestimated in the coming months. A return to the clay courts which brought her the highlight of her career so far may be what she needs to pick up the trajectory she left off last June.

2017 has been plagued with inconsistency and injury for another big name on the clay courts on the WTA in recent years, the World No. 5 Simona Halep. Halep, a French Open finalist in 2015, has traditionally called clay courts her favoured surface, although this is perhaps less true in recent seasons as her hard court results have caught up. Halep did secure two straightforward victories this weekend, beating Great Britain’s Heather Watson and Jo Konta in Romania’s controversy-ridden Fed Cup victory over the British team. Given her history on clay, if Halep can find the consistency that has eluded her this season, she will likely be a major player this spring. This is a big “if”, however – Halep sits at a lowly 44 in the WTA Road to Singapore.

The difficulty of predicting the WTA clay court season is further compounded this year by the lack of clay court pedigree in the players who have driven the tour so far this season. On top of the Race sits Karolina Pliskova, the World No. 3 having won two titles on hard courts so far this year, and reaching the semi finals of both Indian Wells and Miami. The powerful flat hitting and big serve the Czech boasts do not traditionally translate well to clay, with these weapons being muted by the surface, and the 25 year old, not the strongest mover at the best of times, also struggles with the physical changes the surface brings, and so she is unlikely to make big waves.

Another dominant force on the tour so far this season is the unfancied Jo Konta, who won her career-best title in Miami. Not much can be said for Konta’s clay court history, who has come out of nowhere in recent years to surge up the rankings, and has never won a main draw match at Roland Garros – though she has only been in the main draw twice. In Fed Cup competition this weekend, she won well against the former top 20 player Sorana Cirstea, who is a fine clay courter, and in extremely adverse circumstances. She was however comfortably beaten by Simona Halep in the following rubber. How she will perform in the upcoming tournaments is much a mystery given the lack of evidence for her credentials on clay courts whilst a top player, but Konta has made her career out of springing surprises.

Sitting between Pliskova and Konta in the WTA Road to Singapore is former World No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. Wozniacki, who had the second half of her 2016 season truncated by injury, has been a consistent name in the late stages of draws this season, but has failed to translate this impressive form titles, falling in several finals. Clay court has not brought huge results historically for the Dane – her career-best at the French Open is a solitary quarter final in 2010, and she has failed to reach the final of a clay Premier Mandatory tournament. Given this history, and her problems in getting over the line so far in 2017, you can probably expect to see her making runs to quarters and semis, but without cementing herself as a title winner in the upcoming tournaments.

One player who can claim to have combined hot form this year with previous good form on clay is Elina Svitolina. The 22 year old sits outside the top 10 in the rankings, but is 6th in the race following a strong first quarter of the season. Svitolina won the Junior Roland Garros title at the age of 15, and the French Open has brought her only grand slam quarter final of her senior career, in 2015. Svitolina is one player who has been marked for a big grand slam breakthrough this season, and with Serena absent in the draw, a good lead up to the tournament could make the 2017 French Open the perfect opportunity. The Ukrainian fell to Julia Goerges in a shock defeat at Fed Cup this weekend, but then comfortably disposed of Angelique Kerber, a victory sure to fill her with confidence ahead of participation in Istanbul this week, where she is top seed.

Specialists and early movers

As the tour turns to the red clay,  the so-called ‘clay court specialists’ of the tour deserve some attention. Surface homogenisation in recent years means this is less a consideration than it was historically, but it would be remiss to ignore the potential of such players.

One such name is Carla Suarez Navarro – the Spaniard is a perennial name around the WTA top 10, often owing to her results on clay. The degree of her success on the surface is perhaps a tad overstated, however. She has reached only two French Open quarter finals, though this lack of success at majors pervades her career; she cannot really claim to have ever really made a truly deep run at any of the slams. You would expect the elegant Spaniard, with her game suited to and honed on clay courts, to be more of a force in this part of the year than she truly is.

Another player with historically strong results on clay, and who has thus become “one to watch” in the second quarter of the year is the Italian Sara Errani. Errani currently sits outside the top 100 in the rankings, however, and it seems unlikely she will reproduce the sort of form that saw her reach the 2012 French Open final this season. Her compatriot Francesca Schiavone had a stunning run to win the title in Bogota last week. The veteran is playing her last year on the tour this season, and with that title victory secured her entry into the French Open main draw, where she was champion in 2010. The likelihood of her replicating the form that brought her these titles throughout the next couple of months however, does seem low – with her title in Biel representing more of a ‘last hurrah’ than a true return to form. Sam Stosur is another whose stock rises on the clay courts – the Australian has a good history at Roland Garros, a former semi finalist, and is most at home on the dirt. In truth however, it is hard to claim any of these players as legitimate threats to the established top 10.

An early title winner on clay in the 2017 season is the 19 year old Daria Kasatkina, who won in Charleston. Not as much stock is set by results on the green clay of Charleston, which plays differently to the red European clay courts, but it is not a result which can be ignored – especially given the high hopes for the Russian teenager in the future, who currently sits just inside the top 30 in the rankings. Markéta Vondroušová is another teenager making waves, the 17 year old breaking through to lift the title in Biel last week. However, given her youth and inexperience, the future the 2017 clay swing seems too early for the future the young Czech has been marked for to materialise.

Anyone’s game?

Much seems unknown as we move to the second quarter of the 2017 season, particularly owing to the absence of Serena Williams, the return of Maria Sharapova, and the difficulty finding players who can boast of combining good form in 2017 with a strong clay court pedigree. Two other notable absences on the WTA Tour this season – in Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka – remove two other potential title winners from the equation, although the former in particular has never hugely excelled on the surface. Eight of the WTA top 10 are in action this week in Stuttgart (Keys and Serena being the two absentees), which also will feature the 2017 debut of Sharapova, and could be a good indicator of how the action will unfold on clay. A title there for any of these players would set them in good stead ahead of Madrid and Rome.

It does not seem unreasonable to predict that the 2017 French Open will see a new champion, depending on how players such as Muguruza and Sharapova perform in the coming weeks, and whether we even see the Russian at Roland Garros. Halep has been much mooted as a potential slam winner over the past few seasons, and despite her patchy form this year, this year’s Roland Garros seems as good a chance as any she’s had in recent times. The emergence of a new generation has shifted emphasis in terms of the names bandied around as first time major winners, of which Elina Svitolina seems best positioned going into the clay.

There will be ample opportunity for a player to step up and take the mantle of French Open favourite, and without the prospect of Serena looming, the player or players who emerges in this role can look forward to having a real run at the title in Paris.

Correction: Serena Williams won Roland Garros in 2015, not losing to Muguruza as incorrectly stated. Muguruza knocked Serena out in 2014 and 2016, not 2015 and 2016. Maria Sharapova defeated Simona Halep in the 2014 final, not 2015.

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Autumn in Australia

Today, Serena Williams made history.

Serena Williams making history is a familiar story in women’s tennis. Such is limitless nature of her achievements – everything she does seems to make or break a record these days. She toes the precipice of history on a constant basis.

It was even more special, this time. Serena Williams this morning won her 23rd Grand Slam singles title – breaking the record of Steffi Graf in the Open Era. Margaret Court’s record of 24 awaits – her next major title will see Serena equal that, the one after that will see her surpass it. History, again, awaits.

That isn’t necessarily what made this one so special, though. Somehow, that momentous achievement seemed slightly overshadowed by the story of the final, or namely, who Serena beat to win this title – her older sister, Venus.

The Williams sisters are legends, not just of this sport, but of all sport. As female athletes, they have paved the way. As black athletes, they have paved the way. Strip that all away – as Nike did in this fantastic advert – however, and you’re left with the simple truth that regardless of these qualifiers, as just athletes, they have paved the way. The level of dominance they have both at times held over their sport is remarkable. The heights of their achievement deserve to be applauded in any context. What they have done for the sport off the court – in terms of equal pay and advocacy – elevates their legacy to above that of just tennis champions.

Given this framing, it should be considered an honour to be able to witness Venus and Serena – at the respective ages of 36 and 35, contesting a Grand Slam final again. 16 years after their first. 20 years after they first burst onto the scene – here they still are, and as sports fans and spectators, we are privileged to have them.

This was Venus’ first Grand Slam final since 2009. Illness, injury, and age has hit her hard, and in recent years she’s been unable to keep the pace with her younger sister. She had a kind draw, but nobody had her pencilled in for the final here. Upsets of other top seeds – like Angelique Kerber, who has now been uprooted as Number 1 courtesy of Serena’s victory here, as well as Garbine Muguruza, and Karolina Pliskova, opened up the draw even further for Venus. But Venus won her matches, and she made it here. It’s a remarkable achievement, given the adversity she has had to face in the latter stages of her career.

Serena was a much heavier favourite for the final, but even then there were doubts. Vulnerabilities have crept into Serena’s game in recent seasons, and she’s no longer the lock she has seemed in recent history. She started the tournament slowly, but stepped it up when she needed to – dismantling the on-fire Johanna Konta in the quarter finals, and since then looking pretty much unstoppable. The old adage remains true – never count Serena out.

Much has been made of the resistance from the older generation this tournament – on the men’s side, early upsets suffered by Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic opened up the draw for Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer to meet in tomorrow’s final; another momentous piece of history. The talk of the tournament before play began, nearly two weeks ago, was of the younger generation breaking through. This has come to some fruition in the form of Grigor Dimitrov, who reached his second Grand Slam semi-final, pushing Nadal to an incredible 5 sets on Friday. But Grigor has been a false dawn before, and the renaissance tennis has experienced this fortnight shows there is still some life in the old dogs yet – three out of the four of the semi-finalists in both the men’s and women’s tournament were over the age of 30. Taking place in January, the Australian Open falls mid-winter on UK shores, at the height of summer in Melbourne, but this tournament has had a strongly autumnal feel, bringing what could be the some of the last sunshine days in the careers of so many legends of the sport.

One of those semi-finalists was markedly more unexpected than the rest, in the form of the remarkable story of 79-ranked Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who upset third seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the second round. Lucic-Baroni also upset Karolina Pliskova on her way to her second Grand Slam semi-final, 18 years after her first. She was one of the shockwaves, and fairytales, of the tournament. At the age of 34, Lucic-Baroni has overcome  huge adversity in the form of financial difficulties, and an abusive relationship with her now estranged father . The tennis world was delighted for her, an unfancied veteran enjoying a true career highlight.

The sense of the “unknown” that pervades women’s draws at major tournaments is one of the things I love about the women’s game. It brings a lot of excitement – on the eve of the tournament, many struggled to be confident in their predictions for the fortnight. Certainly, nobody predicted this. Those upsets of Djokovic and Murray in the men’s tournament meant a lot of men’s tennis fans have experienced what is often so familiar to followers of the WTA – wide-open draws, titles with so many contenders. It’s great, isn’t it?

I recognise the irony in describing a tournament won by Serena Williams as unpredictable (and of course, she was the betting favourite). Serena’s form coming into this year was an unknown however, following a truncated end to last season. With names like Kerber, Muguruza, Pliskova and Konta making major moves in 2016, and the start of this year, a victory for Serena was far from a guarantee.

The match itself wasn’t a classic. The first set in particular was littered with breaks of serve, both women seeming to feel the weight of emotion that this match carried. There were highlights, though, glimpses of true class. Serena and Venus’s matches aren’t usually blessed by high quality – playing your sister carries with it a particular pressure. Serena was just about able to bring the quality when she needed it, and prevailed in two sets, 6-4 6-4. A relatively routine-looking score line, but far from routine match.

I blogged before the tournament began about how the Australian Open sets the narrative tone for the season – the stories that emerge from this fortnight are those that we look forward to following throughout the rest of the year. The major storyline now will be whether Serena can win Number 24, and 25. She’s reclaimed the No. 1 ranking, and looks set to rule the sport again. Had she lost early here, and one of the young guns – Muguruza, or Pliskova perhaps – won the title, then the story would be very much changed. One of a fading champion perhaps, uprooted by the young up and comers. Not yet.

How the younger generation will respond to this twist in the tale remains to be seen. Muguruza is defending her title at the French Open this spring, and a lot of tennis is to be played before then. And what of Kerber? She was disappointing here, seemingly crumbling under the pressure of her ranking, and of being the defending champion. Will she be able to back up her career year, or will she slip back into her former self – a consistent top 10 player, capable of good victories and title runs, but at Grand Slams, a semi-finalist at best.

More big headlines will come. Maria Sharapova will return to the game in April following her doping ban, shortly after her 30th birthday. Regardless of the impact she has in draws, such is her stardom and the controversy associated with her suspension, her return will make waves.

As a re-introduction to the world of women’s tennis, the 2017 Australian Open has been superb – blending old and new, and rippling in intrigue. The rest of the 2017 season awaits. A lot of tentative conclusions can be gleaned from the action and drama we have seen play out this past fortnight, but the most concrete of those is the reminder of the game’s unpredictability, and capacity to spring surprises, just when you thought you had it all figured out.

That unpredictability, along with the fascination attached to watching someone pursue – and obtain – greatness, as Serena has done today – these are what draw us again and again back to the sport. It’s what has drawn me back after my absence from the fold, and it is what has truly grabbed me once again. Given what we’ve witnessed at this year’s Australian Open, I doubt tennis will be loosening its grip on me any time soon.

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.

Feast after famine

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.

2017 Australian Open – top 10 seeds preview, women’s draw

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

PREDICTIONS:

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.