1. Will Serena Williams be sharp from the start?
The World No.1 hasn’t played a completed match since her loss to Roberta Vinci at the US Open last September, and was forced to withdraw from Hopman Cup due to knee inflammation. But she’s been practicing at Melbourne Park this week and her camp sounds more than confident that she’ll be ready to go on Monday.
All the same, Serena won’t have the luxury of a couple of soft early rounds to find her rhythm. She’s drawn the highest-ranked unseeded player in the first round, the always dangerous Camila Giorgi. Serena is 2-0 against the flat-hitting Italian, but both matches came on clay, Giorgi’s worst surface. And as we’ve seen in the past, when Giorgi finds her rhythm — while simultaneously taking away her opponent’s — she can tough to beat.
From there, Serena’s path gets no easier. She leads the toughest quarter of the draw, which is anchored on the other side by No.5 seed Maria Sharapova. Also looming in her quarter are Caroline Wozniacki, Belinda Bencic, and Apia International Sydney champion Svetlana Kuznetsova.
In sum, Serena’s path to the final is projected to go through Giorgi, Jelena Ostapenko, Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, Wozniacki, Sharapova, and Radwanska. At her best, she’s the overwhelming favorite. But with no data points to start the season, it’s tough to assess her level until she steps on the court.
2. Is the Australian Open Victoria Azarenka’s to lose?
After a frustrating 2015 season, the former No.1 is the talk of the town. She’s a two-time champion in Melbourne and always plays her best tennis in Australia. Thanks to her dominant run to the Brisbane International title, there’s a lot of buzz on the grounds about Azarenka’s prospects.
In a top heavy draw, Azarenka finds herself in the wide-open bottom half of the draw, along with No.2 Simona Halep, No.3 Garbiñe Muguruza, No.6 Petra Kvitova, No.7 Angelique Kerber, and No.10 Venus Williams. With the injury concerns surrounding Halep, Muguruza, and Kvitova, as well has strong win over Kerber in the Brisbane final, Azarenka is the front-runner to get out of the bottom half. She opens her tournament against Belgium’s Alison Van Uytvanck.
In the event Azarenka faces Serena in the final and gets a chance to avenge her three rough losses to the American last year — all three went three sets and she had match points in Madrid — get ready to see these two stats:
Serena has won her last 15 tournament finals. The last time she lost? 2013 Cincinnati to…Azarenka.
3. Can Maria Sharapova play herself into form?
As with Serena, Sharapova comes into the Australian Open without any matches under her belt. The difference is she has a draw that should get her some straight-forward matches early. Her path to the quarterfinals begins with Nao Hibino and is projected to include Evgeniya Rodina, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and Belinda Bencic (or, if she holds her form, Svetlana Kuznetsova). She’s then projected to play Serena in the quarterfinals in a rematch of last year’s final.
If she were drawn in any other quarter she might have been a solid lock for the semifinals, assuming she’s recovered from her left forearm injury. Instead, with a possible quarterfinal match against Serena looming, we are left to ask: is this the tournament Sharapova snaps her streak against her top ranked nemesis?
Sharapova has not beaten Serena in over a decade, losing their last 17 encounters. But as Sharapova has often said, all she can ask of herself is to keep putting herself in the position to test herself against the game’s best.
4. Can Agnieszka Radwanska avoid an early exit?
Radwanska anchors the bottom quarter of the top half of the draw, and she has a very makable draw to the semifinals except for one thing: She may play a resurging Eugenie Bouchard in the second round. As of this writing, Bouchard is into the final of the Hobart International and has arguably been the most consistent player of the first two weeks of the season; she’s the only woman to make back-to-back quarterfinals to start the season. Meanwhile, Radwanska won the Shenzhen Open without having to play anyone ranked in the Top 90; this could be a massive test for her. Radwanska used a strong finish to 2015 capped by lifting the trophy at the WTA Finals in Singapore and has won 22 of her last 26 matches, all in the Asia-Pacific region.
Radwanska has her work cut out with a strong quarter: Kvitova, Sloane Stephens, Roberta Vinci, Carla Suárez Navarro, Andrea Petkovic, and Sam Stosur.
5. Which young gun will be this year’s breakout star?
The Australian Open has seen breakout star after breakout star in recent years. In 2013, it was Sloane Stephens beating Serena to make her first major semifinal. In 2014, it was Bouchard kicking off a monster year at the majors by making the first of three straight major semifinal in Melbourne. Last year, we saw Madison Keys barrel past Kvitova and Venus Williams to make her first final four at a Grand Slam tournament.
While Stephens, Bouchard, and Keys could all make the second week and score some upsets to repeat their feats, two young names pop out as possible semifinal debutantes. Karolina Pliskova rued her underperformance at the majors last year, but she’s as good a pick as any to get out of Simona Halep’s quarter.
Belinda Bencic is also a solid pick, but she’s been drawn into Serena’s quarter and may have to go through Kuznetsova and Sharapova just to get to the quarterfinals, where Serena could be waiting.
– Serena Williams: Is she fit enough for seven matches on hard courts? Has she put her US Open disappointment behind her? Can she handle the mounting pressure that will come with each win? There are so many questions swirling around Serena’s Melbourne campaign. But she could silence them quickly with an emphatic win on Monday.
– Victoria Azarenka: She’s going to be asked incessantly about her chances in Melbourne and to preview matches that may not even happen. Azarenka needs to stay focused on each match and go about her fortnight in a workmanlike manner. It will be very tempting to get swept up in all the hype.
– Agnieszka Radwanska: She may need the draw to break her way, but Radwanska seems ready for a run. Don’t look now but she’s won four titles in Asia since the US Open, compiling a 22-4 record since. This is the “Grand Slam of the Asia Pacific”. You do the math.
The Next Best Things:
– Maria Sharapova: Any section other than Serena’s and Sharapova would have a solid shot at the final. If the upsets start raining down early, she could take advantage.
– Angelique Kerber: Don’t be thrown off by her retirement in Sydney due to illness. Kerber will be fine for Melbourne. And if she can exact some revenge on either Azarenka or Muguruza in the quarterfinals, the German very well could make her first Slam final.
– Sloane Stephens: The ASB Classic champion looked sharp in Auckland and her straightforward win over Caroline Wozniacki there will be a big confidence booster. This could be the year Stephens pulls together all the elements of her athletic game.
– Carla Suárez Navarro: The Spaniard has a great draw. She’ll play a qualifier in the first two rounds. She’s then projected to play Petkovic (she’s four of their six matches) before getting either Kvitova, who has struggled with illness all month, or Kristina Mladenovic/Dominika Cibulkova. That’s a nice path to the quarterfinals.
– Daria Gavrilova: I’m not ready to crown the young Aussie the 2016 champion, but her first Slam quarterfinal is not out of the question. She loves a big stage and a big crowd, and she’ll surely get one if she plays Kvitova in the second round. Pull off that upset and she’s cleared a nice path to the quarters. That would be a massive result for the 21-year-old.
First week spoilers:
– Camila Giorgi (vs. Serena Williams, first round)
– Daria Kasatkina (vs. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, first round)
– Alison Riske (vs. Belinda Bencic, first round)
– Eugenie Bouchard (vs. Agnieszka Radwanska, second round)
– Alizé Cornet (vs. Simona Halep, second round)
– Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (vs. Garbiñe Muguruza, second round)
For more analysis on the draw, listen to the newest episode of the WTA Insider Podcast:
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.