And hereeee we go again… The first main draw of the 2016 season was officially unveiled on Friday for the Brisbane International, the showcase WTA event for the upcoming first week. The curtain officially comes down with main draw action starting on Sunday; qualifying began on Friday with victories for the likes of Margarita Gasparyan, Kaia Kanepi and Naomi Osaka. The defending champion, Maria Sharapova joins a strong cast in Brisbane that includes nine top 20 players.
Talking points of the draw
1. It’s awwwwesome: Based on the calibre of the entry list it was always going to be a great draw and Brisbane hasn’t failed to deliver. A key indicator of the quality: last year’s Australian Open semi-final between Maria Sharapova and Ekaterina Makarova is a first round match-up in Brisbane.
2. Vika-Simona in R2? The most dangerous unseeded player in the draw was Victoria Azarenka so her placement was always going to be key. There was the possibility of Vika-Maria in R1 which would have been glorious. In reality, Azarenka was fortunate to draw a qualifier in the first round; however, she *could* play Simona Halep in the second round in what would be a blockbuster match to kick off the new season.
Simona Halep (1): As mentioned above, Halep’s maiden match of the year will be against Azarenka or a qualifier in the second round. The Romanian player, who lost her last two matches of the 2015 season in Singapore, has reportedly been struggling with a stomach complaint (Source: Digisport). Halep’s only previous appearance in Brisbane was a first round loss back in 2012 to Kim Clijsters.
Garbiñe Muguruza (2): After a bye in the first round, Muguruza will open her 2016 campaign against either Varvara Lepchenko or Anna Karolina Schmiedlova. The Spaniard begins the year as the world number three and with much more expectation surrounding her compared to 2015 after a superb season. Muguruza looked in great form in press and will be making her first ever appearance in Brisbane.
Maria Sharapova (3): The defending champion has a tricky opener against Ekaterina Makarova although she does have a favourable record against her fellow compatriot. Sharapova ended 2015 in excellent form with victories in Singapore and Fed Cup action, setting herself up perfectly for 2016. While the draw is tough, Sharapova has proven before that she is a quick starter. A projected quarter-final against Belinda Bencic would be riveting.
Angelique Kerber (4): First up for the German number four seed is Camila Giorgi. On a quick hard court surface, this could be a very fun match indeed. If Kerber gets through her first round match, she will play Madison Brengle or a qualifier in the second round. Kerber’s three previous appearances in Brisbane have all resulted in quarter-final showings; last year she lost a heartbreaker to Elina Svitolina, having been a set and a double break up before falling in three tight sets.
Timea Bacsinszky (5): In another brutal first round match, Bacsinszky opens against a former Brisbane finalist in Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. The Swiss player ended her year in Luxembourg where she was forced to retire with a knee injury; in contrast, Pavs ended the year in fine form, winning a title in Linz and reaching the final in Moscow. Bacsinszky is likely to be undercooked, more than most, and Pavlyuchenkova, a dab hand at producing upsets, will fancy her chances in this one.
Carla Suárez Navarro (6): Defending quarter-final points in Brisbane, the Spaniard plays Ajla Tomljanovic in the first round. While Suárez Navarro leads the head-to-head 2-0, an in-form Tomljanovic could cause some problems on a fast court if she maintain her consistency. While she fell in the first round at the Australian Open last year, Suárez Navarro faces a demanding first half to the year as she has to defend a shed load of ranking points.
Belinda Bencic (7): The 18-year-old failed to win a match down under in 2015 and will be seeking a brighter start to 2016 when she plays Sara Errani in the first round of Brisbane. Bencic featured heavily in the IPTL and this could work in her favour, acting as a jump start to her 2016 season. Bencic will be playing Brisbane for the first time in her career.
Roberta Vinci (8): Beginning her final WTA season in Brisbane, the Italian player takes on Jelena Jankovic in the first round. Vinci revealed in Zhuhai last year that she plans to retire at the end of 2016. She could comfortably break into the top ten with few points to defend in the first half of the year. While Vinci is the seed, she will likely go into this match as the underdog with JJ having had some solid results in Brisbane. The winner of Vinci-Jankovic will play the winner of a tempting first rounder between Yanina Wickmayer and Dominika Cibulkova.
Without any hesitation, the unseeded player to watch in this draw is Victoria Azarenka. If Azarenka v Halep does become an eventuality in the second round, it will be an excellent indicator for both players but especially Azarenka, who is still on the comeback trail in the sense of returning to her former top ten days. Halep defeated Azarenka at the US Open last year in what was one of Simona’s best wins of year. The Romanian player managed to maintain her aggression in the critical moments, not something that she has always been able to do. Azarenka is looking in great shape in practice and would be my pick to reach the semi-finals. Also, watch out for Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Jelena Jankovic, who both have fair shots at upsetting seeds in the first round and reaching the quarters.
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