The draw for the 2016 Australian Open was completed on Friday morning in Melbourne with main draw action set to get underway on Monday. For this draw, a cloud of uncertainty looms over many of the world’s top ten including the defending champion, Serena Williams. This post is my preview of the draw looking at the top 16 seeds across the four quarters. The Australian Open is the toughest tournament for me to follow but I will be trying my best to keep up with all the action over the next two weeks…
*Note – This post has been edited to include the placement of the qualifiers*
Top four seeds
Serena Williams (1)
Overview: The world number one is set to play her first competitive match since the US Open when she was ousted by Roberta Vinci in quite astonishing circumstances. Serena played just one completed set at the Hopman Cup before pulling the ripcord because of a knee injury. In a recent piece for the New York Times, Patrick Mouratoglou revealed Serena’s knee responded badly to some treatment. This has apparently now cleared up and Serena has been practising as normal in Melbourne this past week. While Serena triumphed in Melbourne in 2015 after a turbulent week at the Hopman Cup where she lost two of her singles matches, the challenges will be far greater this year.
Draw projections: Serena’s title defence will begin against Camila Giorgi in the first round; this is a tough draw on paper… in fact, it’s the toughest possible draw she could have had based on rankings with Giorgi the first player to miss out on seeding. Considering she hasn’t played a completed match since September, Giorgi, fast paced and providing little to no rhythm, is not the kind of player you want to see across the net! In the second round, Serena would play either Jelena Ostapenko or Su-Wei Hsieh; Ostapenko could be a dangerous player based on the unknown quantity factor.
Maria Sharapova (5)
Overview: While many of the world’s top ten have been struggling with ailments, Sharapova is the only one in the draw who has yet to take to the court at all in 2016. Her attempts at defending the Brisbane International title she won in 2015 were halted by a left forearm injury, the same one that flared up in Wuhan and forced her to withdraw there too. It will have come as a bitter pill to swallow after such an encouraging end to 2015 where she won five matches against top 11 players in Singapore and at the Fed Cup final.
Draw Projections: The early rounds for Sharapova look relatively routine on paper. In the first round, she will play Nao Hibino; while talented and constantly improving, the Japanese player is unlikely to be a threat. From the third round though things look like they could get dicey with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova a projected opponent. Pavs has been in solid form over the past six months and has beaten Sharapova on one previous occasion in Paris.
Belinda Bencic (12)
Overview: This time last year, Bencic headed into the Australian Open with no match wins. While her form has been patchy at times again at the start of 2016, Bencic has won four matches and been slowly playing her way into form. Victories over Sara Errani (6-1 6-2, Brisbane R1) and Ekaterina Makarova (6-0 2-6 6-4, Sydney, R2) were both excellent wins, but a gastrointestinal illness ended her run in Sydney at the semi-final stage as she was forced to retire down 0-6 to Monica Puig. Defending no ranking points at the Australian Open, like many of the top 16 seeds, Bencic has an opportunity to push closer to the world’s top ten.
Draw Projections: Bencic opens against Alison Riske; in their only previous encounter, Riske won the title match in Tianjin to win her first WTA title back in 2014. While Bencic has been in respectable form, Riske will be a tricky opponent having reached the final in Shenzhen last week. If Bencic progresses past Riske, she will play Heather Watson or Timea Babos in the second round with the Sydney champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, a potential third round opponent.
Caroline Wozniacki (16)
Overview: After a dire 2015 season that was plagued by injuries, the Dane showed some encouraging signs in the early rounds of Auckland before falling in the semi-finals to Sloane Stephens, 2-6 6-7(3). Expectation was particularly high this time last year for Wozniacki who had played some of her most forceful and aggressive tennis at the back end of 2014. Scheduling will be key for Wozniacki in 2016 and not entering a tournament the week before a Slam was an interesting move.
Draw Projections: Wozniacki plays Yulia Putintseva in the first round, which should be a fun one. The first seed she could meet is Sara Errani, who she has a 3-1 head-to-head record against. Up to a potential fourth round match against Serena, Wozniacki’s draw looks favourable.
Best of the rest in the first quarter: Of all the seeds in the first quarter, Anna Karolina Schmiedlova is perhaps the most vulnerable. She plays Daria Kasatkina, who reached the third round of last year’s US Open and defeated Venus Williams in Auckland earlier this month. Schmiedlova has been wildly erratic so far this year, particularly on serve, and has never made it past the third round at a Slam. Sara Errani’s first match against Margarita Gasparyan will also be intriguing. Many eyes will be fixed on Svetlana Kuznetsova, who played a flawless final match in Sydney. While confidence will be high, you never know what to expect with Sveta and a first round loss to Daniela Hantuchova would not surprise me in the slightest!
Top four seeds
Agnieszka Radwanska (4)
Overview: Currently on an eight match winning streak, Radwanska has teed herself up well for the first Grand Slam of 2016. While she didn’t play anyone ranked inside the world’s top 90, Radwanska won her first title of the year in Shenzhen without dropping a set. She then pulled out of Sydney with a left leg injury, which looked to be a smart move, considering she has ran out of gas at the Slams before.
Draw Projections: One of the dangerous floaters in this draw, Eugenie Bouchard, could be a potential second round opponent for Radwanska. In their only previous match, Radwanska won in straight sets in Madrid in 2014. Bouchard though has looked in great shape, reaching the quarter-finals in Shenzhen and the final in Hobart. Firstly, Radwanska will have to overcome Christina McHale. The first seed she could meet is Sam Stosur in the third round.
Petra Kvitova (6)
Overview: Two weeks in and Kvitova is yet to play a completed match after a gastrointestinal illness ended her title plights in Shenzhen and Sydney. Kvitova played a set in China against Saisai Zheng but was unable to continue after dropping the first set, 2-6. While most will be selling their stocks in Petra for this Slam, she’s always capable of venturing on a whirlwind run out of nowhere… I keep telling myself to be aware of the Petra this year when you’re not expecting much! However, the forecasts are unlikely to be Petra’s friend.
Draw Projections: Kvitova plays Luksika Kumkhum in the first round, who knocked her out of the Australian Open at the same stage in 2014. When I saw Kumkhum had qualified, I knew it had to be… this would be followed by a second round tie against Daria Gavrilova or Lucie Hradecka. Gavrilova, who had a couple of stirring wins at the Hopman Cup, would be a dangerous opponent and the pair played in Wuhan last year where Gavrilova served for an upset win before Kvitova mounted a winning comeback. The first seed Kvitova could play is Kristina Mladenovic in the third round.
Carla Suárez Navarro (10)
Overview: After a miserable end to 2015, Suárez Navarro had an encouraging first week in Brisbane. The Spaniard won three matches, including two three setters, to reach the semi-finals. Suárez Navarro will be seeking a buffer over the next fortnight as she lost first round in 2015, but will be defending a huge chunk of her ranking points between February and May.
Draw Projections: As draws go, Suárez Navarro is one of the winners. Her first two matches will be against qualifiers, opening aganst Viktorija Golubic, followed by either Maria Sakkari or Yafan Wang in the second round. The first seed she could play is Andrea Petkovic, who she defeated 6-0 6-0 in Zhuhai last year in a match where Petko was seriously hampered by a knee injury.
Roberta Vinci (13)
Overview: Playing her final Australian Open, Vinci has plenty of ground to make up and opportunities to crack the top ten considering she lost in the second round last year. The Italian player lost her first match in Sydney, a tight three setter to Sam Stosur, but played some wonderful tennis in Brisbane where she defeated Jelena Jankovic and Dominika Cibulkova before losing out to the eventual champion, Victoria Azarenka in the quarter-finals.
Draw Projections: The first round could present a problem for Vinci against Tamira Paszek, who reached the semi-finals in Auckland and successfully came through three rounds of AO qualifying. Vinci would then play an American player, either Irina Falconi or Anna Tatishvili. A projected third round match against the Auckland champion, Sloane Stephens would be a fascinating first career match-up… I really hope we get to see that one!
Best of the rest in the second quarter: There could be a Sydney rematch between Sam Stosur and Monica Puig in the second round. While Puig earnt her first win over Stosur in five meetings, different conditions could change things there. Puig served astonishingly well in Sydney so Stosur may fancy her chances of gaining revenge if Puig’s levels drop. As first round matches go, you couldn’t get much tougher than Kristina Mladenovic against Dominika Cibulkova. Mladenovic, the seed, has had rough draws in all three tournaments she has played and is seeking her first win of the year, while Cibulkova, a former finalist and quarter-finalist at the Australian Open in 2015, has not been playing her best, but scrapping through matches. She reached the semi-finals in Hobart, losing out to Eugenie Bouchard in three sets.
Top four seeds
Garbiñe Muguruza (3)
Overview: Playing her first Grand Slam as a top four seed, Muguruza hasn’t had the most straightforward of preparations for Melbourne. Struggling with a foot injury, the Spaniard played just one set in Brisbane before retiring down 6-7(9) 0-1 to Varvara Lepchenko. Muguruza stated in her press match conference that this was an injury that she had felt during the off-season.
Draw Projections: Muguruza’s first match of the tournament will be against Anett Kontaveit; the 20-year-old has displayed some encouraging form, reaching the quarter-finals of Shenzhen. She also reached the second week of the US Open last year and could have a real shot against an under-prepared, Muguruza. If the Spaniard gets through that, there are big hitters aplenty in her section with the likes of Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, Caroline Garcia and Mona Barthel all potential opponents through the first three rounds.
Angelique Kerber (7)
Overview: While most of the top ten were perched on the sidelines, Kerber was merrily dancing her way through the Brisbane draw during the first week. Kerber looked strong, winning four matches before losing out to Azarenka in the final, 3-6 1-6. However, the injury/illness cloud soon struck the German player as after toughing out (in admirable fashion) a first round win in Sydney, she was forced to pull out of the tournament with a gastrointestinal illness. The Slams are huge for Angie this year but particularly Melbourne where she is not defending any points following a first round exit last year.
Draw Projections: Kerber should be content with this draw… A first round match against Misaki Doi would be swiftly followed by a second round match against Alexandra Dulgheru or Storm Sanders. The first seed she could play is Irina-Camelia Begu; while the Romanian player won two of their three encounters in 2015, including that first round upset win at the Australian Open, Kerber’s early season form has been impressive.
Timea Bacsinszky (11)
Overview: Just two weeks in to the new season, Bacsinszky is already facing a mounting challenge to back up her exploits from a majestic 2015 season that saw her crowned as the “Most Improved Player” in the WTA Awards. Losses to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (1-6 2-6, Brisbane R1) and Anna Karolina Schmiedlova (6-1 1-6 3-6, Sydney, R1) mean that Bacsinszky is yet to record a win in 2016. Bacsinszky pulled up in Luxembourg, her last tournament of 2015, with a knee injury and it would seem that she is not fully over this just yet.
Draw Projections: First up for Bacsinszky is Katerina Siniakova, who reached the quarter-finals in Shenzhen. In the second round, she could play Annika Beck or Priscilla Hon, before a potential third round match against the player she took on in the first round in 2015, Jelena Jankovic. While it’s a great draw, it won’t mean much unless Bacsinszky is fit and healthy to compete.
Victoria Azarenka (14)
Overview: In a first week that saw four of the world’s top five sidelined by injury, Azarenka’s first title since 2013 suddenly became even more prominent. Winning the Brisbane International for the loss of just 17 games, the two-time Australian Open champion was promptly installed as the second favourite with the bookmakers to win in Melbourne. Azarenka, looking fitter than she has done for many years, earnt a top 16 seed for the Australian Open; however, this still meant she would be projected to meet a top four seed in the fourth round, in this case, Muguruza.
Draw Projections: After drawing the short straw so many times in 2015, this draw is rather peachy for Vika. The Belarusian opens against Alison Van Uytvanck; the Belgian player has a wonderful game to watch, but is unlikely to pose the sustained resistance to threaten Azarenka. A Brisbane semi-final rematch with Samantha Crawford could be on the cards in the second round with Elina Svitolina a projected third round opponent for Azarenka…. a rough draw for Elina.
Best of the rest in the third quarter: Another cracking first round match (to be previewed in due course) will see Caroline Garcia take on Barbora Strycova in what should be a feisty affair. The winner could play Mona Barthel or Vania King in the second round; the former, has been playing better of late but still can’t seem to shake off the injury and illness concerns with retirements from her first two tournaments of the year. Another first rounder to watch out for features two American players, Madison Brengle and CoCo Vandeweghe; tied at 2-2 in their head-to-head, the pair played in the third round of the Australian Open last year. CoCo will be seeking her first win of 2016.
Top four seeds
Simona Halep (2)
Overview: After pulling out of her first match in Brisbane, Halep showed up in Sydney where she reached the semi-finals, losing out to Svetlana Kuznetsova in three sets. It was a strange week for the Romanian player who required a medical time-out in her first match against Garcia for the worryingly persistent achilles injury. She managed to power through, playing some decent ball to win that match and then to defeat Karolina Pliskova in the quarter-finals. From interviews, it sounds like the pain is on-off and not consistent. The coaching partnership with Darren Cahill is already looking fruitful and having matches before Melbourne was crucial for Halep, often a slow starter in tournaments.
Draw Projections: Halep opens against the qualifier, Shuai Zhang, before a second round match against Alizé Cornet or Bojana Jovanovski; a finalist in Hobart, Cornet has started the year in much more convincing form than in 2015. She also defeated Halep in Madrid last year. Halep’s projected third round opponent is Lesia Tsurenko.
Venus Williams (8)
Overview: While she wasn’t struck down by illness or injury, Venus’s preparations for Melbourne didn’t exactly go to plan. In her title defence of Auckland, Venus suffered a first round loss at the hands of the 18-year-old, Daria Kasatkina, 7-6(4) 3-6 3-6. It was a disappointing performance from Venus who committed a river of unforced errors. However, the American player ended the 2015 season in buoyant fashion, claiming back her place in the world’s top ten by virtue of winning the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai, and therefore, bagging a lucrative top eight seeding in Melbourne.
Draw Projections: In the first round, Venus will play Johanna Konta. While Konta has lost her first two matches of the season (this includes letting slip five set points in the first set of her match against Cibulkova in Hobart), she pushed Venus hard in a terrific match in Wuhan last year. Venus is projected to play Carina Witthoeft or Saisai Zheng in the second round with Sabine Lisicki potentially on the horizon in the third round.
Karolina Pliskova (9):
Overview: Pliskova will be seeking to reach the second week of a Grand Slam for the first time in her career. Despite an excellent all-round 2015 season, Pliskova never managed to peak at the Slams where a third round appearance at the Australian Open was her best showing of the year. Her scheduling continues to raise eyebrows; two singles wins in Hopman Cup action and a quarter-final appearance in Sydney demonstrated a respectable start to the season. In Sydney, she played superb tennis to defeat Ana Ivanovic and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in straight sets, but didn’t get up for a quarter-final clash against a vulnerable Simona Halep where she lost in straight sets.
Draw Projections: The Australian wildcard, Kimberly Birrell is first up for Pliskova. While this should be a routine match for Pliskova, her second round will be far from it as she will play either Julia Goerges or Andreea Mitu. Goerges reached the final of Auckland and did well in Melbourne last year, reaching the second week, while Mitu beat Pliskova at Roland Garros last year. If Pliskova reaches the third round, she is seeded to meet Makarova, who she lost to at the same stage in 2015.
Madison Keys (15)
Overview: Defending semi-final points at the Australian Open, Keys heads into Melbourne with no matches under her belt. She was forced to pull out of Sydney due to a left forearm injury. Changes were aplenty in the off-season as she installed, Jesse Levine, as her full-time coach for the season ahead. While there were plenty of high points in 2015, Keys struggled for consistency away from the Slams where she played her best tennis.
Draw Projections: While Keys’s draw on paper looks fair, you never quite know what the American player will deliver, particularly having played no matches yet in 2016. In the first round, she takes on Zarina Diyas, potentially followed by either Tsvetana Pironkova or Yaroslava Shvedova. Keys could play Ana Ivanovic in the third round, which would be an exciting match-up, but not necessarily high quality(!) with Ivanovic struggling for form in 2016 so far.
Best of the rest in the fourth quarter: Lisicki’s mini-quartet is certainly one to watch out for; she plays Petra Cetkovska in the first round. While injuries continue to halt her progress, Cetkovska did have a fairytale win at the US Open against Wozniacki, playing a stunning match. If she’s injury-free, Cetkovska has the game to upset Lisicki. The winner of that match will play either Bethanie Mattek-Sands or Denisa Allertova. Both players have big games, but are yet to record a victory in 2016. In terms of upsets, Lesia Tsurenko could be vulnerable up against the Brisbane quarter-finalist, Varvara Lepchenko. The American player has a 3-1 head-to-head record and won their last match-up at the US Open.
Australian Open tweets and videos
Choosing a winner…
While uncertainty looms over Serena, I think that if she gets through the first two rounds unscathed, then she can build momentum from them on. Her injury concerns don’t sound too serious and underestimating Serena, despite not playing a match in so long, is a dangerous thing to do. While Azarenka’s draw in Brisbane wasn’t the most challenging, the way she played and competed on court was a gentle reminder that she is a fearsome force when fit and healthy. She has a dream draw in Melbourne and arrives following perfect preparations, almost too perfect.
If the pair had been projected to play in the fourth round then I would have gone for Azarenka as my champ. However (after some deliberation), i’ve gone for Serena to win the 2016 Australian Open with her prowess at raising her game at the latter stages of Slams. I’m still deciding on the rest of my picks but these will go up before Monday in the usual place.