The women’s draw for the first Grand Slam of the year has pulled up some intriguing match-ups in round one in Melbourne next week.
I can’t believe it’s been a year already – it’s awesome to be back, Caroline Wozniacki
World No1 Simona Halep faces a familiar foe in her opening match of the 2019 Australian Open, having drawn Kaia Kanepi in the first round for the second major in succession.
The top seed, who reached last year’s final before falling against Caroline Wozniacki, lost to Kanepi in New York shortly before calling time on her season prior to the WTA Finals to recover from a back injury.
Should Halep prevail, things are unlikely to get easier.
The Romanian has been drawn in the same section seven-time champion and No 16 seed Serena Williams, with the duo slated to face off in the last 16, while unseeded Venus Williams is a potential third-round opponent.
Serena’s draw isn’t doing her any favours either as, after Halep, she could meet Naomi Osaka in the semi-finals in what would be the first time she faces the Japanese since their controversial and emotional US Open final last year.
In that match, Serena infamously got into a verbal argument with umpire Carlos Ramos while Osaka, the eventual champion, was booed and reduced to tears at the podium when she accepted the title.
The 37-year-old Serena is in pursuit for her record-tying 24th Grand Slam Championship and, while her opener against unseeded German Tatjana Maria should be straightforward enough, the road gets progressively trickier if she moves on.
The seven-time Australian Open champion hasn’t played the Australian Open since 2017 when she beat her sister Venus in the finals while playing pregnant for her 23rd Grand Slam championship.
She later gave birth to her daughter that year and skipped Melbourne while recovering from complications during birth.
In one of the toughest of draws, Serena’s potential quarter-final matchups against No 7 seeded Karolina Pliskova, 10th seeded upstart Daria Kasatkina or two-time Grand Slam winner Garbiñe Muguruza could prove fateful in her quest just one more Grand Slam title to sit tied with Margaret Court.
No 3 seed Wozniacki will launch her title defence against Belgium’s Alison Van Uytvanck, having been drawn in the bottom half of the draw with No 2 seed Angelique Kerber.
“I can’t believe it’s been a year already – it’s awesome to be back,” Wozniacki, the defending champion, said during her appearance at the draw ceremony before reflecting on her 2018 triumph.
“It means so much to me. It’s something I’ve wanted my whole career, and something I waited for for a long time. To finally get that here was very special – it’s the Happy Slam, it’s the first slam of the year, and it just made my year so much more enjoyable.
The 28-year-old beat a hasty retreat before the draw was announced, in line with her habit of not checking the bracket beyond the next opponent.
“When I was a junior, a long time ago, I used to look, but most of the time I used to lose and realise it doesn’t matter,” she explained.
“So then I stopped looking at the draws, and I started winning, so I figured I may as well keep going. For me, it’s so important to stay in the moment.
Wozniacki, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, could find herself on a collision course with fellow former champion Maria Sharapova, with the duo projected to meet in the third round.
The shock diagnosis came after the Dane had returned to number one and taken her WTA tour title tally to 30 with victories not only in Melbourne, but also Eastbourne and Beijing.
She believes she can control her condition, saying: “I’ve been feeling well. I’ve learned to cope after matches.”
Russia’s Sharapova, seeded No 30, begins her campaign against a qualifier, as will No 6 seed Elina Svitolina and No 7 seed Pliskova.
There are a queue of players waiting to push the Top 10 off their respective perches, demonstrating the depth of the women’s game these days, and some are already making quite a noise in the early part of the season.
It all makes for an exciting start to the championships.
The Australian No 1 Ashleigh Barty, who faces Thailand’s Luksika Kumkhum in the first round, is in sizzling form and embracing the pressure as a home favourite.
She has surged through the Sydney draw without dropping a set at the time of writing, taking out Jelena Ostapenko, Halep and Elise Mertens on her way and recording just one loss this year, to World No 2 Kerber in last week’s Hopman Cup.
The Aussie has said: “I certainly fear no one, and I feel like I can go out there and match it with the world’s best.
“The first time I played a World No 1 was Serena at the Australian Open. You don’t get much of a bigger occasion than that for a young Aussie.
“I have certainly learned over time how to deal with big matches better. Obviously playing on bigger courts more often, you get used to it.
“For me now it’s about going out there and just trying to play the other person on the net and not their reputation.”
Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka got a major confidence boost by winning the Shenzhen Open a couple of weeks back but got taken out early in Sydney by Kvitova in the contrasting conditions.
“To start the season with a title, it gives you more belief in yourself, and hopefully I can do well at the Australian Open,” Sabalenka said.
Kvitova is seeded 8th in Melbourne and takes on Slovakia’s Magdalena Rybarikova in her first round match.
Anett Kontaveit from Estonia is another challenger worth keeping an eye on, who came into Brisbane looking to continue the positive momentum from 2018 that saw her reach career-high ranking of World No 20 and took out Kvitova in the process.
She takes on the Spaniard Sara Saribes Torno in her opener.
Perhaps the pick of the first round matches is the encounter between Greece’s Maria Sakkari and the No 22 seed, Latvia’s Ostapenko, who has been ranked as high as No 5.
Sakkari, who is the daughter of former top 50 player Angelikí Kanellopoúlou, showed some sparkling form at the recent Hopman Cup.
World No 2 Kerber also looked sharp in her singles displays at the Hopman Cup and this week in Sydney, despite her loss to Kvitova in the quarters.
It took a monumental effort from Halep last year to stop Kerber’s stunning January run, and the German looks poised for a similar charge towards her fourth major title.
She opens against Polona Hercog and could face Donna Vekic, Julia Goerges, and Stephens en route to the semi-finals, where Wozniacki could be looming.
Things are set up well for the German in Melbourne, where she was a champion in 2016, defeating Serena Williams in the final.
A semi-finalist in 2013, Stephens has not had the ideal lead-up to Melbourne, but the American has proven time again that she can generate momentum out of nowhere.
She opens against fellow American Taylor Townsend and could face either Ons Jabeur or Timea Babos in the second round, with Kiki Bertens or Kontaveitt in the Round of 16.
In addition to Venus Williams, there is another dangerous floater in the draw, Victoria Azarenka, also a former World No 1.
The two met in the opening round at the ASB Classic in Auckland when Venus rallied from a break down in the third set to beat the Belarusian in three sets in what she described as one of the toughest first-round matches of her career.
Azarenka, whose son Leo is now two years old, has been battling custody in both the USA and Belarus and been a key driver behind the scenes in what has been described as one of the most significant developments in women’s tennis in decades.
The WTA introduced new rules which effectively give new mothers a three-year window to return to the tour and use a protected ranking.
“I’m very proud of the [new] rules,” said Azarenka. “I’ve been in those rooms when all those decisions were happening.
“We worked really hard the whole of last year to develop those rules to find the solutions and I am very proud that we are being the pioneer in sports, especially in women’s sports, [in] taking the stance and making big progress in that area.”
But the 29-year-old hopes changes can go further because aside from the Grand Slams, which offer day care facilities, none of the other WTA tournaments yet have babysitter or crèche services for competing parents.
The road back has not been easy for Azarenka, with a run to the semi-finals in Miami the highlight of an otherwise underwhelming 2018 season that left her ranked No 51 but a committed training block in the off-season to get in better shape than last year physically could well produce dividends.
She opens against Germany’s Laura Siegemund
British interest focuses on Johanna Konta, Heather Watson and Katie Boulter.
Konta, the World No 38, faces Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic in a rematch of their second-round clash in Brisbane which the World No 45 won.
The British No 1 began the season with a new coach, Stan Wawrinka’s former mentor Dimitri Zavialoff, after splitting from Michael Joyce, but the Australian-born Konta could well shine as she has fond memories of Melbourne Park, having reached the semi-finals three years ago and the last eight in 2017.
Unfortunately Konta is in a loaded top quarter of the draw that also includes World No 1 Halep, Muguruza, Pliskova and both Williams sisters.
She has also had a troublesome start to the new year, pulling out of the Sydney twice in two days after being scheduled to play Kiki Bertens as a lucky loser in the first round, having retired from her second-round qualifying match with a neck injury on Sunday.
British No 2 Watson takes on 31st-seed Petra Martic from Croatia, while Boulter, playing in her first Slam main draw outside of Wimbledon, meets the experienced Russian Ekaterina Makarova.
Watson qualified for the main draw at the Hobart International but made a swift exit after suffering a first-round defeat by Romania’s Irina-Camelia Begu.
Boulter gave a good account of herself alongside Cameron Norrie in Perth where Great Britain finished their Group B campaign with two wins, against Greece and the USA, and a loss to Switzerland.
Meanwhile Konta and Watson have been selected along with Katie Swan, Boulter and debutant Harriet Dart for the Fed Cup tie at Bath in February when Great Britain will be hosts for the first time in more than 25 years.