"I think she's personally in a good frame of mind." -@ChrissieEvert on @Simona_Halep's chances to win her first @AustralianOpen.— WTA (@WTA) January 11, 2018
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It's always sad when a defending champion cannot be at a major, but such is this case with the Australian Open and the unfortunate absence of Serena Williams. It's also quite sad that two-time champion Vika Azarenka cannot be there. However, there are still a lot of stories to be played out in the Australian heat.
World number 1 Simona Halep has undergone a kind of Melbourne curse the last couple of years, so all eyes will be on her from the moment she steps onto a court for first round competition. Halep was defeated in straight sets in the opening round last year by Shelby Rogers, and in 2016, she was taken out in the first round, also in straight sets, by Zhang Shuai. That turned out to be a career-defining moment for Zhang, but it must have been a real drag for Halep.
In this year's first round, Halep plays young Australian wild card Destanee Aiava. Aiava is talented, and she'll have the crowd behind her, so it won't be a walk in the park for Halep. However, at this point, probably no Melbourne first round would be a walk in the park for the Romanian. If she sticks around, she could be headed toward a quarterfinal clash with Karolina Pliskova, who can also be considered a contender for the title, despite the fact that she has yet to win a major.
Speaking of first rounds--the one that's getting all the buzz is the one that will be played by Venus Williams and Belinda Bencic. Bencic is back and looking like her "old" self, and Williams couldn't have asked for much worse in a first round draw.
The first round that's also a "must watch" (meaning--if it isn't in the middle of the night) for me is the one that features Aleks Krunic and Anett Kontaveit I'm also very interested in the contest between Ash Barty and Aryna Sabalenka. The crowd will, of course, go crazy for Barty--as well they should--but if anyone won't make it easy for her, it's the young Belarusian.
But I digress. Who else besides Halep and Pliskova will try to put together a big story at the Australian Open? How about 2016 champion Angie Kerber, who--since the beginning of this season--has looked more like herself than she did throughout 2017? Or Garbine Muguruza, who has already retired from two events in 2018?
Those retirements (one was a walkover, to be accurate), in my opinion, don't fare well for Muguruza's success in the brutal conditions that generally accompany the Australian Open, especially considering that cramping was a reason for one of them. Also, she's likely to meet Kerber in the round of 16, and that could be the end of her run. On the other hand, no one is more apt to smoothly crush a series of opponents when we least expect her to than the Spaniard.
Caroline Wozniacki could have a deep run, and could meet Alona Ostapenko in the quarterfinals. Ostapenko's game has been filled with errors and double faults so far, but far be it from me to predict the fate of the player Todd Spiker has so aptly named Latvian Thunder. She could go out in the first round, she could win the Australian Open. So far, though, she isn't looking that sharp.
These days, Venus Williams is always a potential quarterfinalist or beyond, but again, she has that tricky first round against Bencic. Jo Konta is again a contender, and Caroline Garcia--if she's healthy after her bout with the heat a couple of weeks ago--could go very deep into the tournament. The same can be said of Julia Goerges (who knew I'd be saying that?--but it sounds really good).
And then there's the question: Is this Elina Svitolina's time? I wouldn't be surprised to see the Ukrainian reach the final. I also wouldn't be surprised to see CoCo Vandeweghe reach the final. Vandeweghe's fitness (there was a time when I would never, ever say that), combined with her newly finessed game and big hitting set her up to be a genuine threat in Melbourne.
The ability to withstand the heat and all that it entails is a major factor in determining who can get through seven matches at the Australian Open. Before the tournament directors replaced the rebound ace surface, it was anyone's guess who would be taken out with an ankle injury, but that worry is behind us now.
Other players to watch: Madison Keys, Anastasija Sevastova, 2006 champion Maria Sharapova, former semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova, Shelby Rogers, Aliaksandra Sasnovich.