AO Women’s Preview: Ash and Serena’s pathway to history

The AO21’s draws are finally done, and home favourite Ash Barty, the women’s World No 1, has a reasonable pathway, while Serena Williams, who is seeking her record-equalling 24th Grand Slam singles title, has a trickier passage.

I don't think I would have been here if it was during the regular season. So whew, that was an unwanted blessing, I would say, but it was much needed for me. I definitely took that time to recover and to just do the best that I can, and so now it's a lot better. Serena Williams

Williams is chasing Margaret Court’s all-time record has lost 4 Grand Slam finals, but insists she is used to the pressure.

“It’s definitely on my shoulders and on my mind,” she said. “”I think it’s good to be on my mind… I’m used to it now.”

The women’s field is one of unprecedented depth and competition, therefore, will be tough from the get-go, with Naomi Osaka having arguably the biggest hill to climb in the first Grand Slam of the season.

With 7 Grand Slam singles champions, 4 of them former No 1s, lurking in Williams’ half of the draw, the 39-year-old is placed on course to face Simona Halep, Naomi Osaka and Ashleigh Barty in succession, but she has to navigate past the dangerous German Laura Siegemund first up.

In her 11th campaign to tie the all-time majors haul, and her 20th AO, Williams has won here in Melbourne 7 times and could meet 7th seed Aryna Sabalenka in the 4th round, the only top 16 seed in the bottom half without a major singles trophy to her name.

Williams, however, was showing fine form and advanced to the Yarra Valley Classic semi-finals before withdrawing, citing a right shoulder injury.

The event was Serena’s first since an Achilles injury forced her withdrawal from Roland Garros after the first round last fall and, only last week, she revealed that if AO21 had not been pushed back to February, she may not have been fit enough to play.

“I don’t think I would have been here if it was during the regular season,” Serena said in Melbourne. “So whew, that was an unwanted blessing, I would say, but it was much needed for me.

“I definitely took that time to recover and to just do the best that I can, and so now it’s a lot better.”

Serena Williams is still chasing her elusive 24th Grand Slam singles title to equal Margaret Court's all-time record

© Graham Denholm/Getty Images

Barty, who is the top seed for the second year running and hoping to end Australia’s title drought, could meet the defending champion Sofia Kenin in a semi-final rematch from last year, but  she first opens against Montenegrin Danka Kovinic and then should meet her friend and compatriot Daria Gavrilova in the second round.

Should the seedings hold, the 24-year-old could meet 16th seed Petra Martic in the last 16, then Czech 6th seed Karolina Pliskova or Swiss 11th seed Belinda Bencic in the quarter-finals, before a possible semi-final rematch against defending champion and No 4 seed Kenin.

Two-time Australian Open champion and No 12 seed Victoria Azarenka or No 5 seed Elina Svitolina will be Kenin’s likely quarter-final hurdle.

The 22-year-old American is bidding to be the first woman to successfully defend an Australian Open title since Victoria Azarenka won her back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.

Drawn in the top half, Kenin anchors the second quarter along with Svitolina, Azarenka, and No 13 Johanna Konta.

She opens against Australian wildcard Maddison Inglis, and could have a tough second round against Kaia Kanepi, who ended Sabalenka’s 15-match winning streak at the Gippsland Trophy and has a well-documented history of breaking Grand Slam brackets.

The Round of 16 could feature a tough All-American clash for Kenin with US Open semi-finalist Jennifer Brady, and then with Svitolina, Azarenka, No 20 Maria Sakkari and No 26 Yulia Putintseva the seeds that could be looming in the quarters.

Simona Halep is looking for her first AO title but has a rough path ahead of her

© David Gray/AFP via Getty Images

The bottom half of the draw features 9 major champions, and it is No 3 seed Osaka’s quarter that is the toughest, which includes 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, who is set to make her competitive return for the first time in more than a year, last year’s runner-up and No 14 seed Garbiñe Muguruza, No 9 seed Petra Kvitova and the 2016 champion Angelique Kerber.

No 2 seed Halep, who lost the 2018 Australian Open final to Caroline Wozniacki and fell at the penultimate hurdle last year with a semi-final loss to Muguruza, meets Australian World No 140 Lisette Cabrera in her opening match.

Of the Top 8 seeds, Osaka’s path to the title is, on paper, the most fraught.

She opens against the dangerous Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and could face Caroline Garcia in round two.

The first seed she could see is No 27 Ons Jabeur in the 3rd round, with either Muguruza or Kerber a potential Round of 16 foe.

Looming as potential quarter-final opponents are Andreescu or Kvitova, or unseeded dangers Tsevetana Pironkova and Venus Williams, plus with Halep, Serena Williams, Swiatek or Sabalenka lurking as potential semi-final opponents, the Japanese will have her hands full.

“I saw the projected draw and I actually, I’m kind of excited,” Osaka said. “I like playing tough people, especially in Slams.

“Honestly I’ve never seen a projected draw come true, so I guess it will be interesting for all of us.”

Andreescu, the No 8 seed, plays her first match against Romanian lucky loser Mihaela Buzarnescu and then could face either US Open quarter-finalist Pironkova or the always crafty Hsieh Su-Wei in the second round, with a potential third-round match against Wang Qiang or an unseeded Venus Williams looming.

“I know I’m going to be sore as hell after my first match,” Andreescu said. “That’s for sure. I’m not looking forward to it. When I played my first practice set, not match, I was so sore the next day.

“But with all the emotions, all the adrenaline, it’s going to be a bit more emphasised, I feel like. I think that’s the main part.

“Obviously not playing for a long time, I don’t know how I’m going to feel. I’ll probably be really, really nervous, more nervous than usual.

“I don’t feel like I have too much pressure on my shoulders. Yes, I’m seeded, but I haven’t played in so long. I just want to go out there and play where I have the mindset I’m so goddamn grateful to be on the court.”

Venus Williams, 4 months shy of her 40th birthday, is one of several dangerous floaters in the draw and the 7-time major champion will face Belgian Kirsten Flipkens in the first round, and could meet 8th seed Andreescu in the round 3.

Following her surprise run to the Roland Garros semi-finals last September, Nadia Podoroska brought form to Melbourne, winning an epic against Kvitova en route to the Yarra Valley Classic quarter-finals and, potentially, the Argentine could take on No 28 seed Donna Vekic in the second round and Kenin in the third.

Czech 25th seed Karolina Muchova knows the havoc a free-swinging Jelena Ostapenko can cause, and will need to be on her game from the off against the 2017 French Open champion for their first-time meeting in the opening round.

Just as well Naomi Osaka relishes a challenge as she has landed in the toughest quarter of the AO draw

© Jack Thomas/Getty Images

Elsewhere, the British contingent also have their hands full, with Konta, Heather Watson and Francesca Jones all drawn in the top half, while Katie Boulter has landed in Halep’s 4th quarter.

Konta opens against Kaja Juvan, a 20-year old from Slovenia ranked 100, with a potential second round match against either France’s Chloe Paquet or Mayar Sherif from Egypt, in quarter 2.

Watson and Jones are both in the Barty’s quarter and could theoretically play each other in R3 if they can overcome stiff opposition, but Watson meets Kristyna Pliskova, the left-handed twin of seeded Karolina, in the first round, while Jones opens against an on-form Shelby Rogers.

Boulter, meanwhile, has a tricky start in Daria Kasatkina from Russia, with Aryna Sabalenka, the 7th seed in round 2.

Players to keep an eye on include Sabalenka, who looks primed to do damage in Melbourne after stringing together 15 consecutive wins across 3 title runs, and while that streak ended this week at the Gippsland Trophy, there is every reason to highlight the Belarusian as a deep threat.

Iga Swiatek, the Roland Garros champion who made the Round of 16 last year, opens against Arantxa Rus and could face Elena Rybakina in the third round, and Halep in the Round of 16.

Jennifer Brady, who made a semifinal run at the US Open and has posted quality results since, dominating this week at the Grampians Trophy, where she has lost 8 games in two matches, is seeded No 22, is in Kenin’s quarter, and opens against Aliona Bolsova.

The two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka loves the courts at Melbourne Park, but was part of the group of players who had to do 14 days of ‘hard quarantine’ so her tournament preparation was not ideal and she played just one match before withdrawing from the Grampians Trophy because of a lower back injury.

Drawn in Kenin’s quarter, her first-round match against Jessica Pegula is one to watch.

Maria Sakkari’s serve has become a real weapon and while her defensive instincts remain top-notch, it is her improved aggression and power that has been most notable.

Her potential clash with Azarenka could be the most consequential third-rounder of the tournament.

Notable first-round matches

Karolina Muchova v Jelena Ostapenko, Victoria Azarenka v Jessica Pegula, Kristina Mladenovic v Maria Sakkari, Yulia Putintseva v Sloane Stephens, Coco Gauff v Jil Teichmann, Marie Bouzkova v Elina Svitolina, Bianca Andreescu v Mihaela Buzarnescu, Hsieh Su-Wei v Tsvetana Pironkova, Ons Jabeur v Andrea Petkovic, Naomi Osaka v Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Serena Williams v Laura Siegemund, Vera Zvonareva v Elena Rybakina, Veronika Kudermetova v Marta Kostyuk, Svetlana Kuznetsova v Barbora Strycova.



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