It’s time for the first Grand Slam of the year and the Australian Open promises to be filled of intrigue and excitement in a very exciting women’s draw. The action in Melbourne begins in Monday so we shall dive into the draw immediately…
Simona Halep’s coming into the Australian Open off a five-match losing streak after suffering a 4-6 4-6 loss to Ashleigh Barty in her first match of 2019. Halep was understandably rusty during the course of the match but her solid groundstrokes and quick footspeed around the court was still on show. Halep also said that she isn’t feeling any pain with the back which is great news. Unfortunately for Halep, the bad news is that she plays Kaia Kanepi in the first round – the player who beat her at the first round of the US Open last year. Even though Kanepi hasn’t played a match this year, on her day her hard-hitting groundstrokes are always a tough nut to crack for the more defensively-minded players. The winner of Halep-Kanepi will not have it easy in the next round either if Sofia Kenin makes it past a qualifier in her opener. Kenin has been making waves on the tour, and has started the season on a high with a doubles title in Auckland and a semifinal run (as of writing) in Hobart.
Halep is seeded to play fellow Romanian Mihaela Buzarnescu in the round of 32. Buzarnescu hasn’t been able to reach her heights from the first half of the 2018 season ever since her huge fall in Montreal. Buzarnescu is on a six-match losing streak and won’t be happy to see her draw as she faces Venus Williams in the first round. The seven-time Grand Slam champion ended her Auckland campaign a week ago to 18-year-old Bianca Andreescu in a terribly messy performance, but she’ll fancy her chances in this one against a low-in-confidence opponent. Another Hobart semifinalist is in this section – Alize Cornet, the dramatic Frenchwoman will play Lara Arruabarrena first before Venus or Buzarnescu in round two.
Carla Suarez Navarro is probably another low-in-confidence player after failing to win a set in her two matches in Brisbane and Sydney, and will be facing an uphill task to defend her quarterfinal points from Melbourne last year. Carla will likely play Serena Williams in the third round – the 23-time Grand Slam champion looked really good in Hopman Cup action though it must be said that she didn’t need to play a single top-40 opponent in Perth. First up for the American is the slice-and-dice Tatjana Maria, before Eugenie Bouchard or Peng Shuai in the second round. It’s a very good draw for Serena to get settled in before she faces tougher opposition in the second week.
Second section: Headlined by  Karolina Pliskova
Just like last year, Karolina Pliskova is again in Simona’s quarter in the Australian Open, but unlike Halep she comes in on a winning streak having claimed her second Brisbane International title over Lesia Tsurenko. By no means did she play her best in the final, or throughout the week, but the victory will definitely give a major confidence boost to the Czech. Pliskova should be able to get through her first two rounds comfortably but her third round opponent could be a tough one – the enigmatic Camila Giorgi, who is one of the few players that can serve and hit harder than Pliskova. Giorgi has a great draw to the third round but with the Italian, you never know what kind of Giorgi will appear in each match.
By seeding, Pliskova is projected to face Daria Kasatkina in the fourth round but with the latter’s poor form, it seems a bit unlikely. Kasatkina was knocked out in the first rounds in both Brisbane and Sydney but does stand a chance to win her first match of the year in Melbourne – Timea Bacsinszky, Kasatkina’s first opponent of the week looked hampered in her quarterfinal loss in Sydney and is still on the comeback trail after a series of injuries since 2017.
The first seed Kasatkina could meet is two-time Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza. Muguruza has once again been hampered by injuries to begin the season, withdrawing from her final doubles match in Hopman Cup, then the Sydney International after winning one match against Suarez Navarro there. It is unknown whether the withdrawal was just precautionary but nevertheless, Muguruza will always be one to watch at a Grand Slam. Muguruza plays Zheng Saisai in round one before the winner of a Brisbane rematch, Johanna Konta or Alja Tomljanovic.
Third section: Headlined by  Naomi Osaka
All eyes are on Naomi Osaka as the Japanese player will be playing her first Grand Slam since famously capturing the title at the US Open last year. Osaka has started the year decently, winning matches against Destanee Aiava and Anastasija Sevastova in Brisbane before falling to Lesia Tsurenko in the semifinals. The court conditions in Australia do suit Osaka’s game and I wouldn’t be surprised if Naomi makes a deep run this fortnight. A caveat for Osaka in the draw is her projected third round opponent – Hsieh Su-Wei, the tricky magician whose career resurgence all began at the Australian Open last year. The Taiwanese player beat Muguruza and Agnieszka Radwanska to reach the fourth round, before pushing Angelique Kerber all the way in a bruising encounter. Stefanie Voegele in the first round shouldn’t cause too many issues for Hsieh, but perhaps Victoria Azarenka or Laura Siegemund will in a delicious first rounder that the draw has come up with. Neither Azarenka or Siegemund has been in great form though, so an Osaka-Hsieh third rounder seems very possible at the moment.
It’s all about the Asian players in this section of the draw as Wang Qiang is seeded in a Grand Slam draw for the first time in her career, after performing so well during the Asian tournaments last year. Wang made the semifinals of Hiroshima, Wuhan and Beijing, finals in Zhuhai and Hong Kong, and collected two titles in Guangzhou and Nanchang. While she has started the season on a low with a 3-6 3-6 loss to Alison Riske in Shenzhen, she is definitely still one to look out for in Melbourne. Wang has a very doable draw to get to the third round where she will likely play No.13 seed Anastasija Sevastova. When Sevastova is having a good day she is so tough to outmaneuver, but she always throws in those occasional bizarre performances, especially at the Slams outside of the US Open. Thus, Mona Barthel in the first round for Sevastova could be a slight upset alert for the Latvian.
Fourth section: Headlined by  Elina Svitolina
Elina Svitolina started the new year with a three-set loss to Aliaksandra Sasnovich in a 2018 Brisbane final rematch and while she looked stronger on the first serve, other aspects of her game seemed to be a little lacking – perhaps it was just first match rust and we shall see how she gets on in Melbourne as she should be able to get past her first two opponents relatively comfortably. From then on, the draw looks a little dicey – the first seed the Ukrainian could meet is Dominika Cibulkova, then Madison Keys in the fourth round – both players that can blow Svitolina off the court. However, both Cibulkova and Keys will need to shake off the rust early on – Cibulkova suffered a three-set loss to Samantha Stosur, while Keys hasn’t even played a match in 2019.
The other highest seed in this section is Belgian, Elise Mertens. The No.12 seed has performed just so-so in the last two weeks, going 2-2 in the first two weeks of the season. Mertens has a very good draw to play herself into form considering Keys’ lack of match play (they’re projected to meet in round 3), but she herself will face difficulties too in the form of the pressure of defending her points from last year. Mertens made her big breakthrough at the Aussie Open in 2018, reaching the semifinals, and a loss before the second week will guarantee a big decline down the rankings for the Belgian. With all this, it’s probably a golden opportunity for Svitolina to make it to the quarterfinals here – question is, can she control the big match nerves and capitalise on this opportunity?
Fifth section: Headlined by  Petra Kvitova
Petra Kvitova and Aryna Sabalenka faced off in the first round at Sydney where the former came through 6-1 7-5, and the pair are projected to meet; this time in the fourth round in Melbourne. Kvitova has had a typically Petra start to 2019 – she crashed out in the second round in Brisbane to Anett Kontaveit, but produced three good performances in Sydney to make it to the semifinals (as of writing). Since making it to the semifinals at the AO back in 2012, Kvitova has never made it past the third round here with the soaring temperatures in Melbourne always disturbing her campaigns. It’s not only the weather this time round, it’s the draw too as Kvitova is in a really tough yet fun section of the draw. The World No.8 faces the tricky Magdalena Rybarikova in her first match of the week, before potentially the person who kicked her out of last year’s AO, Andrea Petkovic in the second round.
Kvitova is seeded to play Barbora Strycova in the last 32 but there is a huge chance that that will not come to fruition. Strycova has not won three matches in a row since Birmingham and has a dicey draw in the form of Yulia Putintseva in her opener. Grab the popcorn for that one, and the other match-up in this section that has not been mentioned – Katerina Siniakova vs Belinda Bencic.
Sabalenka simply just seems to love playing in Asia and after winning the biggest title of her career in Wuhan last year, she claimed her third WTA title over Alison Riske in Shenzhen in one of my favourite matches of 2019 season so far. The level she can produce when she’s playing at her best is simply ridiculous and it just feels that it’s about time that she makes a breakthrough at a Slam soon. Sabalenka starts off her Australian Open campaign against a qualifier, and could play the Melbourne-loving Ekaterina Makarova in the second round. Brisbane finalist Lesia Tsurenko is also here and plays hard-hitting Ekaterina Alexandrova in the first round.
Sixth section: Headlined by  Caroline Wozniacki
The main talking point about this section of the draw is a potential Caroline Wozniacki-Maria Sharapova third round affair. Both former World No.1s have been struggling with health issues since last year – Wozniacki’s had the rheumatoid arthritis and Sharapova’s been struggling with various injuries and had to retire in her quarterfinal match in Shenzhen a week ago. However, it seems possible that it’ll still happen with none of the other players likely to cause trouble for the seeded players.
This section also features a potential rematch from this year’s Sydney International – a third round match between Ashleigh Barty and Jelena Ostapenko is on the cards. Barty has been making waves in the first two weeks of the season and as of writing, is currently in the Sydney semifinals. Barty has all the weapons to cause top players troubles, but it has been her belief that has been stopping her from doing so. The win over No.1 Halep would have given her a huge confidence boost, so it’ll be interesting to see if she can get that big breakthrough at a Slam.
While Barty has been making the waves, Ostapenko has been too – for all the wrong reasons, unfortunately. Ostapenko was completely humiliated in an 0-6 2-6 loss to Monica Niculescu in Shenzhen, and while she produced a slightly improved display against Barty, she still lost 3-6 3-6. That serve seems to have taken a battering and believe it or not, it seems even worse than it was last year. Ostapenko’s first opponent of the week will be Maria Sakkari and with the Greek player’s heavy topspin groundstrokes and relentless defensive skills, I think that this one will end up in an upset.
Seventh section: Headlined by  Sloane Stephens
This section of the draw is one of the weakest and it won’t be surprising to see a surprise quarterfinalist come out of this eighth. The eighth is headlined by Sloane Stephens, who is continuing to struggle to win matches in the Asia Pacific. Stephens was kicked out by Johanna Konta in straights in Brisbane, and faced a complete meltdown in a third set bagel loss to Yulia Putintseva in Sydney. I don’t think it’s a worrying loss for Stephens but she seriously needs to show more emotion on the court, that she really wants to win and really wants it. She has a tricky first rounder in the form of Taylor Townsend – Townsend’s game is still quite a mess but the American’s wacky play could definitely cause her compatriot quite a lot of issues. That match will definitely be one to look out for on Monday.
It still is surprising to see the number ‘9’ next to Kiki Bertens’ name – just a few months ago, she was struggling to win matches on surfaces other than on clay, and seemed to struggle with the belief that she could do so much better. Few months later and now Bertens is a top ten player, and has become one of the most reliable players in beating players she is expected to win against. Bertens however is one of the draw losers in this draw – she kicks off against Shenzhen finalist, before a hard-hitter in Monica Puig or Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Look out for No.20 seed Anett Kontaveit too – she could make some waves in this draw but it’s not going to be easy for her to progress through this draw. The slice and dice Kirsten Flipkens or the Australia-lover Aliaksandra Sasnovich could spring an upset on Kontaveit in the second round if the Estonian is not playing at her highest level.
Eighth section: Headlined by  Angelique Kerber
The major consensus on social media is that Angelique Kerber has a great path to advance the further stages of the tournament, and it is true as the draws have definitely done the German a great favour. Other than the serving aspect of her game, Kerber has started 2019 in great form and is definitely one of the contenders to lift the trophy at the end of the fortnight. She starts off against Polona Hercog, and potentially No.29 seed Donna Vekic in the third round, who looked good in Brisbane but has never beaten Kerber in two previous attempts.
Fellow German Julia Goerges could meet Kerber in the fourth round and similarly has started the season on a high by defending her Auckland title over Bianca Andreescu. Goerges has a great opportunity to make it to the second week in Melbourne considering her opponents in this section. The only player that could give troubles to Goerges is No.19 seed Caroline Garcia, but the Frenchwoman can’t seem to find any form to begin the year as she crashed out in the first rounds of both Shenzhen and Hobart. A Kerber-Goerges fourth round encounter could be an interesting one with the Germans having not met each other on the court since 2012.
Tentative Final Prediction: Angelique Kerber d. Naomi Osaka
Thanks for reading! Check out my Australian Open predictions here!