The Australian Open starts tonight! In case you missed it, my preview for the women’s AO draw is already up and you can check it out HERE. Thanks for all the votes in the poll; After nearly 200 votes, Maria Sharapova currently leads the way with 26% of your votes, followed by Simona Halep (16%), Serena Williams (14%), Ana Ivanovic (13%) and Caroline Wozniacki (10%). I’ve just bought a subscription to the Eurosport Player for this month, which normally has access to all the courts. If you have a solid internet connection, i’d definitely recommend it! The day before a Slam is often a little empty waiting for play to get underway so I thought i’d fill the void with more detailed previews of my top five first round matches on the women’s side.
Fantasy tennis games: You can join the Moo’s Tennis Blog leagues for the TFF DreamTeam (details here) and Racquet Rally (link HERE and select Moo’s Tennis Blog from the dropdown list) for some friendly competition during the Australian Open!
1. Victoria Azarenka v Sloane Stephens (Tuesday)
Photo by Omar Boraby
In the most anticipated of the women’s first round matches, Victoria Azarenka and Sloane Stephens will meet at the Australian Open for the third consecutive year. Much of the pre-draw excitement had centered around Azarenka’s placement in the draw and the draw gods didn’t disappear. A succession of injuries derailed Vika’s 2014 season and an early exit in Brisbane in the first week of 2015 pushed her out of the seedings. In Azarenka’s only match of the year so far, she lost to Karolina Pliskova in an epic three setter, 4-6 7-6(7) 6-4 lasting three hours and 13 minutes. The match demonstrated that Azarenka’s level was solid, but the lack of competitive matches definitely showed towards the end of the match.
Stephens dropped 25 places in the rankings during the 2014 season, but still remains a threat. She has proven before with deep runs at the Slams what she is capable of, but continues to frustrate with her inability to commit at times. She recorded encouraging first round wins in both Auckland and Hobart, only to fall at the next hurdle in rather disappointing fashion. Both previous matches between Vika and Sloane came in the second week of the Australian Open with Azarenka winning in straight sets. Last year, they met in the fourth round and Azarenka prevailed, 6-3 6-2. This will most likely be a night match and it should be an entertaining one. Despite the lack of matches, i’d expect Azarenka’s level to be at a high enough level to defeat Stephens.
Prediction: Azarenka d. Stephens in 2 tight sets
2. Svetlana Kuznetsova v Caroline Garcia (Monday, 2nd up on Show Court 2)
Svetlana Kuznetsova hasn’t won a match in 2015 and she faces a tough first rounder in Melbourne against the world number 36, Caroline Garcia. Kuznetsova suffered first round losses to Lucie Hradecka in Auckland and Madison Keys in Sydney. In the past couple of years, she has been a slow starter after a long break from the tour. Equally, Garcia is winless in 2015, but did put in an encouraging performance against Angelique Kerber in Brisbane. Kerber won that match, 6-4 6-3, but it was a high quality encounter. Kuznetsova and Garcia have never played each other before on the WTA tour. Both are very watchable, WHEN they’re playing well. I could see this being a messy match with many changes in momentum. I think it will go deep into a third set and i’m backing Garcia to be the one to hold her nerve.
Prediction: Garcia d. Kuznetsova in 3 sets
3. Flavia Pennetta v Camila Giorgi (Tuesday)
Another seed who could be in trouble early on is Flavia Pennetta. Defending quarter-final points from 2014, Pennetta will be all to aware of the threat that Camila Giorgi poses in the first round. In their last match-up at the end of 2014 in Moscow, Giorgi edged Pennetta, 7-6(4) 6-4 in what was an excellent match. Pennetta began the year at the Hopman Cup, losing all three of her singles matches. In Sydney, she was unlucky to draw Tsvetana Pironkova in the first round. Giorgi has one match win to her name, overcoming a barrage of double faults to defeat Storm Sanders in a third set tiebreak in Hobart. Giorgi loves an upset and always seems to thrive as the underdog. Pennetta has peaked at the Grand Slams in the last two years, but this is a mean first rounder and her recent form has been disappointing.
Prediction: Giorgi d. Pennetta in 3 sets
4. Julia Goerges v Belinda Bencic (Monday, 1st up on Hisense Arena)
First up on the Hisense Arena on Monday, Belinda Bencic opens her tournament against Julia Goerges. This is the first time that Bencic has earnt a seeding at the Grand Slams and she pipped Madison Keys to the number 32 spot. It hasn’t helped her out greatly as Goerges is a tough first rounder. The German world number 73 began the year with two solid straight set wins in Auckland before falling in straight sets to the number one seed, Caroline Wozniacki. Goerges upset Sara Errani in the first round at the Australian Open and has some big strokes which when they find the court, are pretty brutal. Bencic meanwhile, started the year with a very disappointing first round loss to Daria Gavrilova in Sydney. Despite being in Sydney for a week before the tournament, she struggled to find any rhythm on her strokes as Gavrilova powered to a 6-3 6-0 victory. I’d expect Bencic to be much more match tight in this one. I think Goerges will start out strong, but Bencic’s consistency will win through in the end.
Prediction: Bencic d. Goerges in 3 sets
5. Yanina Wickmayer v Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (Tuesday, 2nd up on Show Court 3)
One match that caught my eye was the first rounder featuring Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Yanina Wickmayer. A couple of years ago, both players would have been seeded for a Grand Slam, but Wickmayer has suffered a decline in form over that time. During the off-season, Wickmayer revealed that she had been playing with Lyme disease. Thankfully, Wickmayer is fit and healthy again, but it did help to explain some of her disappointing results at the back end of 2014. Her start to the season hasn’t been great with three set losses to Taylor Townsend (Auckland, R1) and Timea Babos (Sydney, QR1). Pavs is also yet to get off the board in 2015 as she let slip a set and a break lead over Peng Shuai in their first rounder in Sydney… It sounds all too familiar. Wickmayer and Pavlyuchenkova are tied at 1-1 in their head-to-head with both previous matches going the distance. I think neither player has reached their full potential; Pavs is one of the cleanest ball strikers and she has proven her capabilities against some of the best players on tour. Her mental lapses continue to hold her back. This promises to be a close match, but I have a feeling that Wickmayer, who pops up every now and then with a good result, might nick this one.
Prediction: Wickmayer d. Pavlyuchenkova in 3 tight sets