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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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.