dark horses

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WTA Australian Open Visions: Predictions, Matchups and Winners

2012 Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka

January 12, 2013 — The tennis is kicking off it’s first Slam at the Australian Open on Monday, and we have your one-stop analysis on the women’s draw. Our dedicated panel of Tennis Grandstand writers have addressed hot topics, including dark horses, seeded players crashing out early, first round upsets, and potential semifinalists and champion for the women’s tour.

Also, make sure to check out our Australian Open men’s draw preview here!

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Dark Horse

Melissa BoydAgnieszka Radwanska. I am not sure if a Top 4 seed can be considered a dark horse, but Radwanska is my pick. With all of the title talk focused on the WTA’s big three of Azarenka, Sharapova, and Williams, Radwanska is the forgotten one. She arrives in Melbourne undefeated on the season, winning a pair of titles in Auckland and Sydney without dropping a set. She also finds herself on the opposite half of the draw from Azarenka and Williams. Can Aga be the new Vika of the 2013 Australian Open summer and potentially shock everyone en route to her first Grand Slam title?

Victoria ChiesaMona Barthel. The German won her first career title in Hobart last year coming into Melbourne, and while unseeded, she made the third round before losing to Azarenka. Barthel’s a tricky case because she has all the talent in the world, perhaps the most talent of all the German players, but hasn’t seemed to realize that she has it. She had solid results at the beginning of 2012 before flaming out, and her bandwagon slowed down with her. She’s seeded this year so she’d be set for a showdown with Agniezska Radwanska in the third round. She had match point against Radwanska in Montreal last year and lost, but she might be ready to turn that result around this time. However, I could also see her flaming out to Ksenia Pervak in her opener.

David KaneSvetlana Kuznetsova. That “Can’t bet against her, can’t bet on her either” mentality often attributed to Serena Williams applies double for the Russian, who is not only the last teenager to win a Grand Slam at the 2004 US Open, but also the first defending champion to lose in the first round a year later. Forced to play qualifying in Sydney after a 2012 filled with injuries, Sveta proved she could do some real damage with a couple of winnable matches under her belt. Her draw in Melbourne allows for the same scenario, with Su-Wei Hsieh her first potential seed. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the resilient Russian in the second week.

Andrea LubinskySloane Stephens. It’s just a matter of time before the young American has a breakthrough at a Slam, and the Australian is notorious for surprises. The 29th seed should have no troubles in her first two matches, but things could get tricking in Round 3 where she’s slated to meet Petra Kvitova, or possibly Laura Robson if she pulls off the upset. If she makes it through that, she could potentially fight her way into the quarterfinals.

Jesse PentecostAna Ivanovic. Wealthier people than me have gone broke gambling on Ivanovic, but I can’t see that certain penury is any reason to lose faith. It helps that she was in fine form in Perth last week, and has wisely landed in a relatively benign section of the draw.

Chris Skelton:  Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.  The Brisbane finalist knocked off two top-eight opponents to start the new year, a dramatic break from her struggles last season.  She cannot face a contender more plausible than Wozniacki or Errani until the quarterfinals, which in itself would mark an overachievement for a 24th seed.  And she has won sets from Azarenka on hard courts before, so who knows how far she can go if her confidence builds through the fortnight?

Maud WatsonVenus Williams. The No. 25 seed seems to be playing with renewed hunger, and after a successful stint in Hopman Cup, she’s primed to make a good run in Melbourne.  The most fearsome opposition in her quarter is a Maria Sharapova who is coming in cold off an injury.  If the American can find a way to sneak through to the semis, her experience as a 7-time major champion might just carry her to her first title Down Under.

Seeded Player Crashing Out Early

BoydPetra Kvitova. Kvitova’s preparation for Melbourne wasn’t great and she appeared to struggle with the heat in her lead-up tournaments. After playing lights out tennis heading into the U.S. Open last year, it appears that the Czech’s game has deserted her again and the draw gods in Melbourne did her no favours. She is slated to face Francesca Schiavone in the first round in a battle of struggling former Grand Slam champions.

ChiesaCaroline Wozniacki, Samantha Stosur or both. Wozniacki’s got a brutal opening round draw against Sabine Lisicki, but Stosur crashing out early can almost be considered a sure bet at this point. She had surgery to remove a bone spur in her right ankle prior to the start of the year, and dropped both her matches in warmup events to Sofia Arvidsson and Zheng Jie. She’ll open against Kai-Chen Chang which seems harmless enough, but Chang defeated Stosur in a third-set tiebreak in Osaka at the end of 2012. Even if Stosur gets past Chang, she could have Zheng awaiting once again in round two. She hasn’t defeated a top 50 player at the Australian Open since 2006. Also, Angelique Kerber should keep an eye out for a potential looming second round against Lucie Hradecka. If she’s on her game, while that’s a big if, the Czech is capable of cracking the ball harder than anyone on the WTA and can snatch proceedings right out of the German’s hands.

KanePetra Kvitova. No, Francesca Schiavone will probably not beat the struggling Czech in the first round. But talented youngsters Laura Robson or Sloane Stephens are more than capable of pulling off the upset over Kvitova, whose draw only gets tougher with potential fourth round clashes with Nadia Petrova and Serena seeded (and looming) in the quarters. Kvitova could click and run the table as she has done in the past, but a 6-1, 6-1 loss to Dominika Cibulkova in Sydney, one that saw “The” Petra hit 35 errors, leaves the scent of blood in the water for the rest of the competition.

PentecostSamantha Stosur. There are few outcomes more wearyingly certain than Stosur falling early at the Australian Open, done in by a lethal cocktail of overwhelming crowd support and an opponent in rare form. In the second round she’ll likely meet Jie Zhang, to whom she just lost in Sydney.

SkeltonSamantha Stosur.  The Aussie simply can’t handle the pressure of playing on home soil, where she has lost six of her last seven matches and both matches this year.  Her recovery from a bone spur in her ankle may hamper her already indifferent mobility.  I nearly chose Petra Kvitova, though, who has lost seven of her last ten matches overall, tends to wilt in the heat, and struggled to find the court for long stretches in her woeful losses at Brisbane and Sydney.

First Round and Potential Second Round Matches to Watch For

BoydSabine Lisicki vs. Caroline Wozniacki. This match up jumped off the page when I was going through the draw. I didn’t think this could be a possible first rounder until I realized that Lisicki isn’t seeded, which is another shocker. These are two players at a crossroads in their career and have a lot to prove to themselves and the tennis faithful. A win for either would be just what the doctor ordered while a loss will sink one of them even further into their slump.

It should be a great first week of matches on the ladies, especially if the potential Venus Williams – Sharapova and Ivanovic-Jankovic third round encounters materialize. Get out your popcorn, need I say more?

ChiesaYanina Wickmayer vs. Jarmila Gajdosova. I wrote about Gajdosova’s road to redemption after a brutal 2012 last week, and she was dealt a tough opening round test. 20th-seed Wickmayer is in good form in the early season and proclaims herself healthy after dealing with back issues for the past 18 months. These two faced off in a night match in the same round on Rod Laver Arena in 2011 where Wickmayer prevailed, 63 26 64. The Belgian leads 3-1 in the head-to-head, but all three of the pair’s meetings on hard courts have gone three sets; Gajdosova’s lone win was a three-setter in Indian Wells last year.

KaneYulia Putintseva vs. Christina McHale. The two have never played before and the winner would likely play No. 7 seed Sara Errani in the second round, but best believe that this will be a cracking start to the year’s first Slam. Spitfire Putintseva gets the best of both worlds for her main draw debut: facing an American, she will likely get the ESPN treatment (fingers crossed for a courtside Pam Shriver), but facing an unseeded American means an outer court that Putintseva will turn into a Greek amphitheater, complete with special effects and multilingual affirmatives. Regardless of the result, high-octane entertainment is guaranteed.

PentecostCaroline Wozniacki vs. Sabine Lisicki. Lisicki was the floater the seeds least wanted to encounter. Conversely the German doubtless hoped for a kinder initial opponent than Wozniacki, for that she is now making eager sounds. Let’s just say that neither of them will be truly pleased to see the other, and that their combined outrage should guarantee a first-rate first round match.

Skelton: Melanie Oudin vs. Laura Robson.  A former prodigy from one Slam nation faces a current prodigy from another Slam nation in a battle of Oudin’s counterpunching against Robson’s lefty firepower.  Curiously, both upstarts broke onto the international scene with quarterfinal appearances at the US Open (2009, 2012) highlighted by first-week upsets over a former US Open champion (Sharapova, Clijsters).

First Round Upset Special

BoydKimiko Date-Krumm over Nadia Petrova. It is impossible not to root for Date-Krumm as she continues to defy father time on the tennis court. Even though Petrova finished 2012 playing some of the best tennis of her career, she is always susceptible to an upset and Date-Krumm’s style of play is not the best match up for the Russian. Not to mention that it will be entertaining to watch these two veterans battle it out regardless of the result.

Chiesa: The obvious choice is Sabine Lisicki d. Caroline Wozniacki, but I’ve gone a different route. While everyone’s looking forward to a potential third-round clash between Sharapova and Venus Williams, she could have her hands full with Galina Voskoboeva in the first round. The Kazakh reached the third round last year and her propensity to use the big serve, drop shot combination could pose some difficulties for Venus on a hot day Down Under.

KaneElina Svitolina d. Angelique Kerber. Rumor has it that Kerber is coming down from the dizzying heights she reached in 2012. Her middling results at Brisbane and Sydney would appear to confirm such a rumor. Meanwhile, Svitolina is quick on the ascent, capping her season with a WTA125 title. Another member of Generation Spitfire (one that includes Putintseva and Irina Khromacheva), Svitolina isn’t as undersized as her contemporaries, but matches their heart and determination. Clutch in tight moments, Svitolina was impressive at the US Open, winning three tough qualifying matches and playing Ana Ivanovic tough in her main draw debut. This would be her biggest win to date and Kerber’s consistency is unmatched, but if it gets to a third set, don’t underestimate Svitolina in a shootout.

PentecostFrancesca Schiavone d. Petra Kvitova. Kvitova’s first round loss in Sydney was so comprehensive that no positives emerged intact, and she was barely better in Brisbane. She is notoriously unsteady in the heat, while Schiavone relishes nothing more than an extended set-to in a broiling stadium.

Skelton: Sabine Lisicki d. Caroline Wozniacki.  The former #1 emitted next to no confidence or tactical clarity in early losses at both Brisbane and Sydney that recalled her dismal 2012.  And the pressure of defending quarterfinal points won’t help her cause in a first-round match against Sabine Lisicki, whose booming serves have stifled the Dane’s retrieving before.

Watson: Kimiko Date-Krumm def. Nadia Petrova. The Russian may have had a good end to 2012, but she got dumped out of her opening match in Sydney last week.  She’s always been a head case, so if Date-Krumm can mix it up with some consistency, Petrova might just self-destruct.

Semifinalists

Boyd: Azarenka vs Williams and Na Li vs. Sharapova – I don’t see anyone knocking out the top 3 before the semifinals even though Sharapova comes in nursing collar bone injury and without any match play. Azarenka has a tricky first rounder against Niculescu, but it should be smooth sailing after that until she gets to Serena who has few obstacles in her section. Li is a former Australian Open finalist and a quarter-final against Radwanska would be awesome theatre.

Chiesa: I expect the top half to go with seeding, meaning we’ll get yet another meeting between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka in Australia. The bottom half is tougher to call. There are question marks surrounding Sharapova coming off of injury. Radwanska’s in hot form, having taken both warmup titles in Auckland and Sydney, but I’m concerned she overplayed coming into Melbourne. I’m going with Li and Kerber on the bottom half.

Kane: Azarenka/Williams. In the last year, the WTA suddenly became able to pair its always-entertaining first week chaos with quality second week match-ups and unsurprising champions. Serena’s draw is tougher than Azarenka’s, but Serena proved in Brisbane that she’s ready to play and unless Azarenka runs into a streaking Kuznetsova, a rematch of the US Open final is looking more than likely. Once there, look for Serena to punctuate her ascendency to the top spot with a decisive win over the Belorussian. Azarenka pushed Serena in Flushing, but the American never looked in danger in any of their other match-ups in 2012. Li/Sharapova. The Russian No. 2 has a potential third round match-up with Venus Williams, but no Serena, Azarenka or Kvitova in sight until the final, which bodes well for her chances. Meanwhile, Radwanska beat Li in Sydney only days ago, but the Chinesewoman has been in fine form with a Shenzhen title and much more experience in the later rounds of a Slam than the Pole. Sharapova still hasn’t played a match in 2013 no thanks to a collarbone injury, but her only matchplay a year ago was an exhibition loss to Elena Vesnina that led to a run to the final.

Watson: Azarenka vs. S. Williams; A. Radwanska vs. V. Williams. It’s hard to envision anyone stopping Azarenka and Serena from colliding in the semis.  The bottom half is harder to predict, but I’ll stick to my dark horse pick, Venus, facing off against Aga, who’s a perfect 9-0 in 2013.

And the Winner is …

BoydSerena Williams. I was going to pick someone else just to be different, but is impossible not to heavily favour Williams as she goes after another ‘Serena Slam’. It is hard to fathom that she has lost just one match since her shocking first round exit at the French Open last spring. Williams is on another one of her dominant runs, and the question should be how many games, not sets, or matches, will her opponents be able to win during this fortnight? Not many would be my guess.

Chiesa: Do you ever bet against a healthy, motivated Serena? Nah. Serena Williams d. Li Na in three sets.

KaneSerena Williams. There was once a time where the younger Williams sister was a volatile stock. Not anymore; after a traumatic loss to Virginie Razzano at Roland Garros, Serena hasn’t looked back and is not only looking to obtain the No. 1 ranking that many believe she already deserves, but is also in hot pursuit of a potential second Serena Slam, which she could clinch at the sight of her emotional nadir. A trio of tricky Russians awaits Williams in the second week (Shvedova, Kirilenko and Petrova) but during Week 1, a time when the American is traditionally the most vulnerable, few look capable of mounting a serious campaign. Such a narrative will likely continue until Serena lands her sixth(!) title Down Under.

LubinskySerena Williams. There’s no more dominant force in women’s tennis. When Serena Williams is healthy, she’s the one to beat, regardless of ranking. Ranked No. 3, she’s got her own section of the draw and a combined 25-3 head to head against the other projected semifinalists, not to mention she’s won this title five times.

PentecostSerena Williams. I admit picking the most accomplished player in the world to win a tournament she’s won several times before does not constitute a bold prediction, but you pick against Serena at your peril, especially if she’s in a vengeful mood. As far as I can see, every time she loses it’s an upset, even to those ranked above her.

SkeltonSerena Williams.  When did she last lose at an important tournament?  Clay aside, one would have to go all the way back to Miami, since when Serena has claimed titles at Wimbledon, the Olympics, the US Open, and the year-end championships.  She looked surprisingly hungry in winning Brisbane to start 2013, and she holds massive winning streaks in her rivalries against the other two leading title threats:  Azarenka and Sharapova.

WatsonSerena Williams. She was a virtually unstoppable machine the second half of 2012 and with a win in Brisbane, looks much the same in 2013.  Few players can hang with Serena as it is, and if she’s playing her best, nobody in the field is going to stop her from hoisting that trophy.

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And there you have it, 7 of 7 Tennis Grandstand writers pick Serena Williams as the overwhelming favorite for the 2013 Australian Open.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN MEN’S PREVIEW

The first Grand Slam of 2010 is about to get started in Melbourne and with the draw announced we can now start to debate who will be crowned champion in two weeks time. Will it be someone from the usual suspects – a Federer or Nadal perhaps? Or will someone new like Fernando Verdasco or Andy Murray breakthrough and claim their first major? Let’s take a look at who has a strong shot at the title and some of the potential dark-horses as well.

The Favorites:

Every Grand Slam begins by looking at world number one, Roger Federer, and rightly so. Having “only” won the Aussie Open three times, Federer has not had as much success at the start of the year as you might imagine. He is three years removed from his last victory in Melbourne and with the draw he has in 2010 I wouldn’t expect Federer to be the last man standing. In fact, I think this is the Slam where his record of twenty-two straight Grand Slam semi-finals may finally come to an end. It has to at some point, right?

Who is the most likely man to take Federer out? Igor Andreev is hoping it might be him in the opening round, and Andreev is a tricky player who just might be up for to the task. The pair have only met twice before, but Andreev gave Federer a rough-go at the 2008 U.S. Open where he pushed him to five sets before losing 6-7(5), 7-6(5), 6-3, 3-6, 6-3. Andreev is as inconsistent as they come, but has come up big in the past during high-stakes matches as he displayed in ending Rafael Nadal’s streak on clay back in 2005. This is not a guy that Roger wants to face in his opening match.

Federer may also have to face either Marcos Baghdatis or Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth round, and potentially Fernando Verdasco or Nikolay Davydenko (who defeated him in Qatar two weeks ago) in the quarter-finals. Sure, Roger is still favored to make it deep in this tournament – but the potential for upset grows stronger each year.

Also in the top-half of the draw is third-seeded Novak Djokovic who has a nice section at this year’s edition. The first seeded player he may face is little-known Jeremy Chardy of France in round three and the only true opposition I can foresee would be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals. Tsonga actually leads their career head-to-head by a 4-2 margin, but Djokovic won their last encounter on hard courts easily in 2009.

Djokovic has not chosen to play any ATP tournaments thus far in 2010 which is puzzling. Instead he showed up at the Kooyong Classic exhibition tournament where he beat an aging Tommy Haas and then went down to Verdasco 6-1, 6-2 in an apparently meek effort. To make the start of his season even more troubling, Djokovic then played a friendly match against Australian Bernard Tomic and was beaten 6-4, 3-6, 7-5. These are not your typical Djokovic results but makes one question his off-season preparation.

Despite these early upsets and the fact that Djokovic’s frail physique is not meant for the brutal Aussie heat, he does have a good path in front of him to succeed. A couple of easy wins could boost his confidence and make him tap into the success he had here when he won his first and only Slam in 2008.

Fernando Veradsco is a player to watch and just came off a victory at Kooyong over Tsonga in the finals. Verdasco pushed Nadal to his limits at the Aussie Open in 2009 and came ever so close to defeating him before falling in the fifth set. His problem is that he usually does not trouble the top-fve and lost to all his matches at the season-ending championships in London to Federer, Del Potro and Murray in November.

The bottom-half of the draw contains some serious fire power with Andy Roddick, Juan Martin Del Potro, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal all lumped together. Picking one of those four players to make it to the finals is easier said than done – although it will without a doubt come from this talented pack of four. I would be shocked if anyone but these four made it to the quarter-finals in the bottom of the draw. I will be glued to my television for the expected Roddick/Del Potro and Murray/Nadal matches.

Roddick already won his first tournament of 2010 by defeating Radek Stepanek in Brisbane. Looks like he is healthy and should breeze through the early round matches.

Del Potro has broken through the Grand Slam barrier with his win over Federer in New York last year. His confidence should be high, but it remains to be seen if he is prepared to challenge at the Slams on a regular basis. Success can affect people in different ways, so Del Potro will want to start the year off strong so that everyone knows he is for real.

Andy Murray is aware that it’s time to show the world he is capable of winning a major. He set high hopes after making the finals at the U.S. Open in 2008, but his results at the Slams in 2009 left a lot to be desired. The talent is there with Murray, but we’ve yet to see the mental consistency on the big stage.

Finally, defending champion Rafael Nadal must also be mentioned – I mean, he did win the thing a year ago! With no titles in the past nine months and injuries that derailed his season in 2009, it is easy to forget about Nadal’s potential impact on the game in Australia. Due to last year’s circumstances, the pressure will not be very high for Nadal in Melbourne and he is a strong possibility to repeat as champion.

Anticipated First-Round Matches:

Mikhail Youzhny vs Richard Gasquet: These two have only met three times before, and you can ignore the results in that series. Youzhny defeated a sixteen year old Gasquet at this tournament in 2003, Gasquet won on hard-courts in 2005, and then Youzhny won a tight five-setter in 2007 on clay. Youzhny is the 20th seed, while Gasquet should be ranked higher if not for his suspension last year. A coin-toss that I’d give the edge to Gasquet based on recent results and a heck of a first round match to watch.

Marin Cilic vs Fabrice Santoro: Just when you thought the magician had retired he is coaxed back onto the court to become the only player to appear in four decades as a professional tennis player. This will also mark Santoro’s 70th career Grand Slam. The 37 year old has been training hard in order to make this a competitive appearance, but don’t expect him to defeat the 14th seeded Cilic. It will be their first career meeting and I’m sure the veteran will have some tricks up his sleeve that the young Croat has likely never seen before.

Radek Stepanek vs Ivo Karlovic: The 13th seeded Stepanek surely hoped for an easier starting match than big-serving Ivo Karlovic. This match will feature two completely-opposite styles of play and probably not too many lengthy rallies.

Darkhorses:

As I mentioned before, beware of Igor Andreev to give Federer a stern test in the first round. Qualifier Xavier Malisse could push through a few rounds and upset Nicolas Almagro in the opener as well.

Overall though, this does not look like a tournament where someone is going to surprise us and come from nowhere to make headlines. It is a strong field with a small cluster of top quality hard-court players. One of the regulars should be hoisting the trophy when the final Sunday comes around.

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