Sunday, January 27, 2019

My Australian Open top 10

Following, in ascending order, are my top 10 Australian Open occurrences:

10. Czechapalooza!:  Players from the Czech Republic were all over the quarterfinals. Both Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova played in singles competition. And in doubles, there were two teams--top seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, and Barbora Strycova and Marketa Vondrousova.

9. Now you see her, now you don't: Maria Sharapova's defeat of defending champion Caroline Wozniacki was quite a thing to behold. The Russian star performed like vintage Sharapova, controllling the rallies, blistering the groundstrokes, and serving more than efficiently. "She's back!" I thought, but then, in her next round, Sharapova fell apart. Most significantly, her serve fell apart, and she lost to Ash Barty in the round of 16.

8. De Great still great: Defending wheelchair singles champion Diede De Groot picked up her sixth major singles trophy in Melbourne, defeating Yui Kamiji 6-0, 6-2 in the final. De Groot and partner Aniek Van Koot also won the doubles title, defeating Marjolein Buis and Sabine Ellerbrock 5-7, 7-6, 10-8 in the final.

7. When German engineering fails: Before the tournament began, I had a list of four players I thought could win it, and of the four, I gave Angelique Kerber a very slight edge over the others. What do I know? The mighty German, seeded 2nd, got blown off the court in the round of 16 by Danielle Collins, who upset the 2016 champion 6-0, 6-2. Of all the things I saw at this Australian Open, that one was the strangest.

6. When you get a second chance, take it: Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, the world's top doubles team, were upset in the quarterfinals by eventual champions Stosur and Zhang (who also took out the other Czech team). But Krejcikova, with partner Rajeev Ram, went on to win the mixed doubles title. Krejcikova and Ram, seeded 3rd, defeated Australian wild cards Astra Sharma and John-Patrick Smith in the final.

5. Facing Houdini: Already known as a cool customer, Karolina Pliskova took that reputation to a new level when she went from 1-5 down in the third set to win her quarterfinal match against Serena Williams. The match contained as much drama as one could imagine--an injury, a foot fault at match point, and some nerves of steel from Pliskova.

4. Oh yes she did!: Danielle Collins, a former collegiate champion, has played on the tour only a few years. Until this Australian Open, she had never won a main draw match at a major, so it was quite a sneak attack she made, going on a tear and making it all the way to the semifinals. Collins began her campaign by taking out 14th seed Julia Goerges. That certainly got my attention. In the second round, Collins beat Sachia Vickery, then--in the third round--she upset 19th seed Caroline Garcia. This was becoming some serious run.

But it was in the round of 16 that Collins got everyone's attention. She allowed 2nd seed and 2016 champion to win only two games. Then, in the quarterfinals, she beat a suddenly-hot Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Collins' run came to an end when she played Petra Kvitova. Kvitova won the second set 6-0, but in the first, Collins fought her all the way to a tiebreak. It was an amazing run.

3. Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!: Sam Stosur and Australia mix well--except on a tennis court. The Australian veteran has experienced a career's worth of disappointment in her home country, but all that turned around at this Australian Open. Stosur and her partner, Zhang Shuai (for whom I'll shout out an honorary Oi! Oi! Oi!), unseeded, upset defending champions and 2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Moadenovic in the final. Stosur is, at last, an Australian Open champion. And Zhang--who almost retired a few years ago, but instead, went on a singles tear in Melbourne--also, at age 30, gets the distinction of winning a major.

2. The Rock returns: Petra Kvitoa has been winning one tournament after another, so she was already back, so to speak. But returning to a major final was kind of an exclamation point placed on a hefty, run-on sentence. She didn't win the tournament (it always seemed that the Australian trophy could be hers at some point, and it still seems that way), but she played wonderfully, even in the final that she lost. The story of Petra Kvitova is still in the making, but even at this point in its arc, it's one of strength, inspiration and marvelous tennis.

1. Meet the new boss: She won the 2018 U.S. Open. For her next act, she began 2019 by winning the Australian Open. Naomi Osaka had to do it the hard way. She was challenged throughout the tournament, and especially in the final, by two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova. It was a tense, thrilling final that ended with a victory for the 21-year-old Japanese star. Osaka, for all her talent, has much more that she can add to her game, so we can only guess how long her shadow will eventually stretch over the tour. In the meantime, she's the 2019 Australian Open singles champion, and on her way to being a household name.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Naomi Osaka wins Australian Open in a match for the ages

I suggested on Thursday that the women's final would be a thriller, and I was on to something. Naomi Osaka and Petra Kvitova delivered big strikes, sharp angles and repeated tests of will in the two and a half-hour momentum-shifting battle of big hitters. I made copious notes on the match, but I've decided to leave it to others to perform the point-by-point deconstruction. What stood out more, for me, was the essence of the match, which was--to a great extent--formed by the shifting mentality of the players.

Osaka's winning the first set surprised me. Kvitova began brilliantly, finding her wicked angles and serving like a Wimbledon boss. The fact that Osaka was able to run away with the tiebreak was a hint of what was to come (and a reminder of what had occurred throughout Osaka's Australian Open run). Each player experienced letdowns, and they were predictable letdowns. Osaka became sullen when things didn't go her way; Kvitova had patches of making unforced errors. Both were able to will themselves out of these bad places.

One of the most memorable moments in the championship match occurred when Osaka and Kvitova engaged in a long, exciting rally (not something either player especially likes) at 5-all in the first set. The rally required both players to run to extreme corners outside the court, and the crowd was thrilled. Kvitova won the rally with a bit of net cord help, but Osaka held her serve.

Prior to advancing to the first set tiebreak, Kvitova saved two set points on her own serve. This was a taste of the thrills that were to come later in the match, when the stakes were to become very high indeed.

Kvitova played from behind for almost the entire second set. It didn't look good at all for the Barking Czech, who then proceeded to perform a kind of tennis miracle (seems to be a Czech thing lately). Serving at 3-5, 0-40, Kvitova saved three championship points, held her serve, then broke Osaka. The Czech star then saved a break point on her next serve, and followed that by breaking Osaka at love (Osaka double-faulted on the final point).

With a 7-5 win in the second set, Kvitova looked poised to turn the match around. Kvitova's record in finals is superb, so there was every reason to believe that she was realistically close to holding the trophy. However, Osaka had a record of her own--she had won the last 59 3-set matches in which she had won the first set. The histories of these players added even more tension to the contest, especially when we consider that Osaka and Kviotva had never before competed against one another. And to increase that tension even more--the winner of the final would become number 1 in the world.

Osaka went up 3-1 rather easily. Suddenly, Kvitova was serving at 2-4, 0-40, and--once again--it appeared that all of her chances had disappeared. But she held serve, topping the hold off with an ace. Osaka then held, and Kvitova held for 4-5.

Could the Czech wonder do it again? She had done it over and over. Osaka, however, held at 15, and on her fourth championship point, she became the 2019 Australian Open singles champion.

Throughout the tournament, Osaka had to go three sets on three occasions before she reached the final--against Hsieh Su-Wei, Anastasija Sevastova and Karolina Pliskova. In each of those matches, she figured out how to solve the problem at hand, just as she eventually figured out how to cope with Kvitova's serving (of course, she had some help from Kviotva, herself, whose service game took some dips in the latter part of the match).

Not since Jennifer Capriati's successive wins at the Australian Open and the French Open in 2001 has a player followed a debut major win with a consecutive major win. In addition to being the first player in 18 years to repeat Capriati's feat, Osaka is also the first Asian player to win the Australian Open. And now, she's the first Asian player to be ranked number 1 in the world (Li Na's highest ranking was number 2 in the world, which--so far--is also Kvitova's highest ranking).

Li Na was on hand to present the trophy, and her presence was probably a comfort to her dear friend Petra Kvitova. The crowd was wonderfully receptive of both players, and--at one point, when Kvitova talked about the fact that, after she was attacked, there was thought that she might not ever play again--there was very long applause.

One gets the rather certain feeling that both of these players will be holding more big trophies. Kvitova, despite losing this tournament, appears to be at her peak. As for Osaka--she has more skills to add to her game. Just imagine, when she does add them (as other big hitters such as Kvitova and Maria Sharapova have done), what a huge impact she'll have on the tour.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

We have reached the finals!

As outrageously as the draw unfolded in Melbourne, in the end, we come down to the final two players, and they are two women who are certainly at home in big finals. Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and 2018 U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka will play to determine not only who is the 2019 Australian Open champion, but also who will become number 1 in the world.

The Czech star, for all her achievements, has never held the number 1 ranking. And while she has traditionally done well in the Australian Open warmup tournaments and has always looked like a title contender, she has never won the title. The last time she was in a semifinal in Melbourne was 2012, and she lost that match to Maria Sharapova.

Osaka, who began playing at the Open in 2016, reached the round of 16 last year, and was defeated in that match by Simona Halep,

There will big serving and big hitting in the women's final. Both players play aggressively and like to take charge of the rallies. It's not wishful thinking to believe that this last match of the tournament could be a thriller.

Paths to the final:

round 1--def. Magda Linette
round 2--def. Tamara Zidansek
round 3--def. Hsieh Su-Wei (28)
round of 16--def. Anastasija Sevastova (13)
quarterfinals--def. Elina Svitolina (6)
semifinals--def. Karolina Pkiskova (7)

round 1--Magdalena Rybarikova
round 2--Irina-Camelia Begu
round 3--def. Belinda Bencic
round of 16--def. Amanda Anisimova
quarterfinals--def. Ash Barty (15)
semifinals--def. Danielle Collins

On the one hand, it's notable that Osaka had to knock out four seeded players to get to the final, while Kvitova faced only one. However, Bencic, Anisimova and Collins were all very dangerous players in this draw; Kvitova's draw, in other words, was tougher than it looks on paper.

In doubles, defending champions and 2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic will face the unseeded team of Sam Stosur and Zhang Shuai in the final. Of course, the team of Stosur and Shuai is hardly an obscure entity; Stosur is a former doubles world number 1. Stosur and Shuai knocked out the top seeds, Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals, they took care of the other Czech team, Barbora Strycova and Marketa Vondrousova.

Mladenovic, in addition to winning the 2018 title with Babos, also won the 2016 French Open, with Caroline Garcia. The Frenchwoman was a finalist at Wimbledon in 2014, and she was a finalist at the U.S. Open in 2016 and 2018.

Stosur, with Lisa Raymond, won the U.S. Open in 2005. In 2006, Raymond and Stosur won the French Open. Stosur was a finalist in Melbourne in 2006, and was a finalist at Wimbledon in 2008, 2009 and 2011.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Petra crashes the Barty Party, Danielle Collins blows up the whole show, and Pliskova perfoms a magic trick

It had been seven years since Petra Kvitova had reached the semifinals of the Australian Open, and five years since she'd reached the semifinals of any major. Meanwhile, Ash Barty, with her inventive play and crack serve, has been entertaining the home crowd for over a week. But Barty's glorious run came to an end yesterday when she came face to face with Scary Petra.

Kvitova's straight set win over Barty was no surprise, considering how the Barking Czech has been playing in Melbourne (well, in Australia--she won the Sydney title). On the other hand, Kvitova is nothing if not unpredictable, and we never know when she's going to be done in by the weather, by illness, or by whatever goes on in her head sometimes. But, so far, so good. Really good.

Kvitova's first and second serve win percentages were 74 and 50, she won 71% of her net attempts, and converted three of five break points (Barty converted zero of three). The Czech star's reaction to winning such a huge match was emotionally driven, as one might expect, given her history. Her next opponent will be, of all people, Danielle Collins.

Collins, it's safe to say, has had the most unexpected run of anyone at the Australian Open. Prior to arriving in Melbourne, she had yet to win a main draw match at a major. In the opening round, she beat 14th seed Julia Goerges (a reality with which I'm still trying to come to terms). In the next round, she defeated Sachia Vickery, and in the third round, she took out 19th seed Caroline Garcia. But it was in the round of 16 that everyone was forced to pay attention, when the 25-year-old USA player totally dismantled the game of 2nd seed and 2016 champion Angie Kerber.

You can go back and re-watch that fourth round match and still not totally comprehend what happened. We're talking about Kerber, who runs down every ball, finds angles unknown to mere humans, and has a mean transition game. But against Collins, she never had a chance.

These things do happen from time to time, and it would be only routine to expect Collins to fall apart in her next match. And for the first set, she did. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova made easy work of Collins in the opening set, winning it 6-2. But even as I waited for the match to continue, there were thoughts lurking in my head. Thoughts like, "Collins isn't going to go down like a loser." And "Pavlyuchenkova can fade away faster than you can say 'Petra Kvitova,' and Collins knows it."

And sure enough, Collins made a steady comeback in the second set, winning it 7-5. Then she had momentum, and then, the Russian player went all Pavlyuchenkova and sort of disappeared. And that was that, as Collins won the set 6-1.

Thank goodness for Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who came onto the ESPN set to interpret Collins for the commentary gang. Mattek-Sands explained that Collins, who was a champion collegiate player (winning two NCAA singles titles and finishing 2016 as the top-ranked player in the nation), was doing the college tennis thing--yelling and fist-pumping and emoting all over the place. "I may not be for everyone," Collins had told Mattek-Sands, whose reply was "You're just getting this?!"

Collins, I'll note, has an undergraduate degree in business and a master's degree in media studies from the University of Virginia. She was the first UVA woman to win an NCAA singles title.

Quarterfinal play continued today as U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka took on Elina Svitolina. Osaka took the first set 6-4, then began the second set with a 3-0 lead. Svitolina, who had problems with her neck in an earlier match, underwent medical treatment for it again in the second set.

The Ukrainian star, known for her fast legs and her clever defense, just couldn't get to many of the balls coming off of Osaka's racket. In the second set, she appeared sluggish, which--I assume--was related to her ongoing physical woes. Osaka won the match (she made it look easy)--which should have been quite competitive--6-2, 6-1.

Finally, seven-time champion Serena Williams played Karolina Pliskova for the last semifinal position. The Czech player made only five unforced errors in the first set, and had a first serve win percentage of 81. Breaking Williams once, Pliskova won that set 6-4. The second set went better for Williams. Serving at 4-5, Pliskova had multiple game points, all erased by Williams, who took the set 6-4 on her first set point.

Then Williams turned up the dial--the way she has so many times--and went up 5-1, only to be broken. She twisted her ankle, trying to get to a ball, and she committed a foot fault on a match point in the seventh game (and yes, Pam Shriver and the rest of you who want to make the rules "convenient"--a fault is a fault, regardless of when it's committed).

It should be noted that Pliskova continued to make very few errors throughout the third set. She won her next game, after breaking her opponent, so Williams served for the match again at 5-3, but was broken at love. Pliskova then saved three match points on her own serve, and held for 5-all, in what was a very gutsy performance. At that point, the usually stoic Czech bent over and let out a huge yell. She then followed that feat by breaking Williams at love.

Pliskova then served for the match and went up 40-0, only to have Williams bring the score to 30-40. But when Pliskova served on her third match point, she was able to convert it.

Williams wasn't the same after she twisted her ankle, though she didn't call for the trainer, which makes it hard to determine exactly what happened.

Being down 1-5 in the third set of a big match and then winning is dramatic. Being down 1-5 in a big match against Serena Williams and then winning is kind of hard to describe. Pliskova, discussing her third set, said "My mind was in the locker room--but I was still here."

Pliskova will play Osaka in the semifinals.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Australian Open quarterfinals set

The 2019 Australian Open quarterfinals will commence today when two surprise (and unseeded) quarterfinalists compete in Rod Laver Arena. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Danielle Collins very likely not the names we had listed as "possible quarterfinalists," but here they are. Pavlyuchenkova has chosen this tournament to show off the potential we've always known she has, while Collins has emerged more like a tennis bat out of hell (and I mean that in a good way), with her hard, flat hitting and her aggressive attitude.

I don't expect Collins to fade away because of the occasion, and at this point, I'm not even sure that Pavlyuchenkova will fade away. If they both bring their best games, it should be interesting. Collins bossed Angie Kerber around by not letting her in at all. Her Russian opponent, however, is likely to go for making Collins uncomfortable by not getting into rocket exchanges with her.

The night match (which, very sadly, I won't be able to watch) has the potential to be the match of the tournament. 8th seed Petra Kvitova will have her hands full with Ash Barty, who is showing herself to be something of a wonder, with her thoughtful tactics, impressive variety and superb serving. Kvitova can't "go off" in this one--at least, not for long. So far, the two-time Wimbledon champion has been deadly, but we all know that there is more than one Petra. Having a night match will help her because of the drop in temperature.

Tomorrow, the quarterfinals will feature 16th seed and seven-time champion Serena Williams taking on 7th seed Karolina Pliskova. The Long Tall One (or perhaps, the Tall Cool One) was deadly in her round of 16 match against Garbine Muguruza. She will have to bring that same deadliness against Williams, who defeated world number 1 Simona Halep yesterday. I think it's safe to say that this will be a match worth watching.

Finally, 4th seed Naomi Osaka will face off against 6th seed Elina Svitolina. Osaka now plays like a champion, finding ways to get back in when she's down, and doing it with finesse. Svitolina, on the other hand, is a woman on a mission, which makes her a bit scary. Again, this has the potential to be an excellent quarterfinal.

In doubles, top seeds and world number 1 doubles team Barbora Krcjcikova and Katerina Siniakova will play former doubles world number 1 Sam Stosur and Zhang Shuai in today's action. In today's other quarterfinal, Barbora Strycova and Marketa Vondrousova compete against 5th seeds Andreja Klepac and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez.

Tomorrow, 7th seeds Chan Hao-Ching and Latisha Chan will play Jennifer Brady and Alison Riske, and Raquel Atawo and Katarina Srebotnik take on 2nd seeds Timea Babos and Kiki Mladenovic.

There are a lot of Czechs in the quarterfinals!

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Curiouser and curiouser......

 Off with their heads!

As WTA fans, we're used to upsets, especially at majors. But sometimes, things become so topsy-turvy, we have to stop, take a deep breath, and say "what was that?" The 2019 Australian Open is one of those times.

Why, sometimes, I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

Last night, I took a short break from watching the Open so that I could relax with some hot suds. When I emerged, less than an hour later, 2nd seed and 2016 champion Angie Kerber had been blown out of the tournament by Danielle Collins. I had to look at the scoreboard several times. I suspected an illness or an injury. And then I learned what really happened--Collins simply walked onto the court with the full intention of obliterating the mighty Kerber. And then she did it--just like that. 

I watched the match this morning so that I could see for myself what happened. Interestingly, commentator Louise Pleming immediately gave a nod to Collins and hinted at a possible upset. In a word, Collins was--scary. She hit so flat, and she performed such seamless transitions, it's a wonder Kerber's head didn't spin.

It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards….

When I woke up this morning, I looked at the scoreboard and saw that Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was serving for the match against 5th seed Sloane Stephens. Yesterday, I wrote "We're accustomed to seeing Pavlyuchenkova pull off a big win, but not two in a row. The Russian's next opponent will be 5th seed Sloane Stephens; can she do it again?"

Theoretically, I thought she could, given Stephens' tendency to do "Sloaney" things at majors. But Pavlyuchenkova, the Queen of Inconsistency, pulling off a series of big wins in a single tournament? It didn't seem possible. But she did it, 6-7, 6-3, 6-3. The Russian, who was a teen star, has never been short on talent, but she has never had the kind of mental toughness and resolve that could make her an elite player. Now, at the age of 27--at least for now--Pavlyuchenkova looks like a real threat.

 You used to be much more…muchier. You’ve lost your muchness.

Ash Barty's defeat of Maria Sharapova wasn't an upset. An upset would have taken place if Sharapova had won. But a match is about more than seeding and ranking. What made Sharapova's loss especially painful was the fact that--in her third round victory over defending champion Caroline Wozniacki--she had looked like herself. She was the powerful, determined Maria who dictates almost every part of the match, but who also knows how to work the net. 

In the round of 16, that all fell apart. Sharapova's service woes returned to haunt her, and she experienced something of a meltdown after winning the first set. Barty easily won the second set, and dominated the first half of the third set, but then Maria the fighter showed up, changing the scoreline from 0-4 to 4-all. The set became very tense, and--against a different opponent--Sharapova could well have emerged the winner. But Barty--whose game is a marvelous combination of what I call "real" tennis and crack serving--was too tough in the end. 

I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.

It's easy to say that fans fell for the "hype" about Amanda Anisimova (I've already seen that on Twitter), but it isn't hype. Anisimova is the real thing if any young player is. She not only has exquisite tennis skills--she has poise one wouldn't expect from a 17-year-old. But when Good Petra (whom I prefer to call Real Petra) is in the house, no one stands a chance. And so far--fingers crossed--Real Petra Kvitova has been showing up with a vengeance in Melbourne. 

The Barking Czech hasn't dropped a set, and she's lost only 17 games in four rounds. She beat Anisimova 6-2, 6-1, which was undoubtedly quite a comedown for the teenager, but not a disaster. And not a surprise.

All quotations are from the works of Lewis Carroll.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Australian Open round of 16 looks tasty indeed

A quick demographic breakdown of the 2019 Australian Open round of 16:

  • The final 16 hold a total of 38 major singles titles (and yes, Serena holds 23 of those).
  • Five players--almost a third of the field--represent the USA.
  • Two other countries, the Czech Republic and Russia, have two players in the draw.
  • The age gap between the youngest player (Amanda Anisimova) and the oldest (Serena Williams) is 20 years.
  • Anisimova is the first player born in the 2000s to reach the fourth round of a major.

There are a couple of interesting phenomena in the round of 16 draw that are worth mentioning:

One, of course, is the appearance of Amanda Anisimova. In addition to being the youngest player in the top 100, and being the first player of her birth generation to go this far in a major, The very poised Anisimova has reached the round of 16 in a way that could hardly be called "easy."

In the first round, she defeated trickster Monica Niculescu (who has done some giant-killing in her day). In the second round, she upset 24th seed Lesia Tsurenko, who recently reached the Brisbane final. And for her next trick, Anisimova knocked off 11th seed Arnya Sabalenka with such ease and finesse that she made the highly-touted Belarusian look like a confused journeywoman.

Anisimova's next opponent is Petra Kvitova. If the Barking Czech continues to play the way she's been playing, the 17-year-old's Australian Open experience will be over, though Anisimova could certainly drag Kvitova into three sets. However, Kvitova--who always looks so good in Melbourne, and always gets our  hopes up--has made it past the third round for the first time in four years (she was absent in 2017), and it's been seven years since she's reached the semifinals. If "Bad Petra" shows up on court, Anisimova would certainly have the nerve to send her home.

Another phenomenon of the draw is the appearance of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, a gifted player who occasionally pops up to remind us that--well, that she's a gifted player. Even more noteworthy is that the Russian had to win two rather difficult matches--against 9th seed Kiki Bertens and the dangerous Aliaksandra Sasnovich--in order to reach the round of 16. We're accustomed to seeing Pavlyuchenkova pull off a big win, but not two in a row. The Russian's next opponent will be 5th seed Sloane Stephens; can she do it again?

For those who like more poetic pairings--world number 1 Simona Halep will face seven-time champion Serena Williams in the round of 16. 

Two-time major winner Garbine Muguruza will face Karolina Pliskova in an "anything can happen" match. Pliskova has been looking pretty solid, while Muguruza tends to be about as predictable as Kviotva--just when you think she's on a roll, she crashes. But--sometimes, when you think she's about to crash--she crushes.

I'm looking forward to watching the clever, adaptable Ash Barty compete against Maria Sharapova. Sharapova found her mojo at this tournament, which is a joy to see, but she'll have her hands full with Barty. Naomi Osaka will take on Anastasija Sevastova, who is pretty clever in her own right. Danielle Collins faces off against 2016 champion Angie Kerber (who is operating so oddly under the radar), and Madison Keys will play Elina Svitolina.

Svitolina, despite suffering with a neck problem throughout her difficult three-hour third round match, gutted her way to the round of 16. It was an impressive win against a very good opponent, but the 6th seed's fortunes hang on whether she can get sufficident treatment for her neck injury.

Here is the round of 16 draw:

Simona Helep (1) vs. Serena Williams (16)
Garbine Muguruza (18) vs. Karolina Pliskova (7)
Naomi Osaka (4) vs. Anastasija Sevastova (13)
Madison Keys (17) vs. Elina Svitolina (6)
Petra Kvitova (8) vs. Amanda Anisimova
Ashleigh Barty (15) vs. Maria Sharapova (30)
Sloane Stephens (5) vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Danielle Collins vs. Angelique Kerber (2)

Monday, January 7, 2019

Who will win the Australian Open? Some have a better chance than others (I think)

The first major of the year may be the hardest for which we can attempt to predict a champion. There are all those holdover injuries and slumps, but also all of those holdover good feelings and gains in confidence. The WTA tour is nothing if not unpredictable, though, and she who was slumping could end up doing well, while she who was winning may be struck with the fear of both expectation and success.

There are, of course, a few women who "should" win the Autralian Open, but who are probably more contenders on paper rather than in reality. That list includes (sadly) Petra Kvitova and defending champion Caroline Wozniacki.

Some might put 2018 runner-up Simona Halep on the list, but I think of her more as a real contender. Despite having no coach, Halep has her game plus some new confidence that she'll bring to the season's first major. The world number 1 has reportedly recovered from a back injury that took her out of the 2018 WTA Finals. Assuming that recovery is authentic, I like the Romanian's chances to make a deep run.

I also like Karolina Pliskova's chances. The Brisbane champion, coached by Aussie Rennae Stubbs (who will radiate all kinds of Aussie good vibes for the Long Tall One), didn't come through with the big title that many thought she would grab last season, but there's every reason to believe that she's close to doing just that.

It goes without saying that one should never, ever count out Serena Williams, and--considering that she's still a woman on a mission--there's every reason to believe that Williams can lift her eighth (!) Australian Open trophy.

I'm also looking at 2016 champion Angie Kerber, who did some very fancy playing at this year's Hopman Cup. It's going to be very hard to beat Kerber in Melbourne, and her draw interests me possibly more than anyone's.

Elina Svitolina is also poised to do something big. Yes, she (as top seed and defending champion) went out in the second round in Brisbane, but it wasn't exactly a routine loss; her opponent came at her gangbusters style. Svitlolina, in her careful, plodding way, may get to just semis at majors this year, but she could also win one, and why not the Australian Open?

And finally, as irrational as it may sound, I toss in the name Garbine Muguruza. We all know that the mercurial Spaniard could go out in he first round. She could also win the whole thing--such is the "success range" of the tour's official Mystery Woman. Muguruza sometimes has a hard time "feeling it," but when she does feel it, she plays some of the most beautifully fluid tennis you'll see anywhere, any time. Like Petra Kvitova, the world number 18 (!) has everything it takes to win everything there is, but she often just isn't up to the task.

Expect multiple upsets. That's because the tour is now brimming over with young players (and a few suddenly-dangerous veterans) who can make life miserable for higher-ranked, and even elite, players. I won't name them--the list is too long--but they will shape the draw in Melbourne, and heads will roll.

Players who could make a deep run include Auckland champion Julia Goerges, Arnya Sabalenka, Naomi Osaka, Ash Barty, maybe Kiki Bertens, and a few of those red-hot younger players and veterans who may be able to pull multiple upsets. (Sabalenka is one of those younger players, but I put her in a more "certain" category because of her court mentality.)

The doubles draw should be equally unpredictable, as new teams emerge as elite, and as team members are shuffled around.