Women's Look Forward: Australian Open - Bob Larson
Women's Look Forward: Australian Open
This week will mark the single largest percentage increase in total point "in the system" in recent WTA history. Good News? Bad? It depends on who you are. If you're Justine Henin-Hardenne, and skipping the year's first Slam for personal reasons, it's bad news; she is practically certain to lose the #1 ranking. For whoever does win the Australian Open, it's great news, because she will gain a big haul of inflated points, giving her a slightly undeserved ranking boost.
It's more interesting than usual to try to guess who might win this year. Henin-Hardenne's absence, if anything, opens thing up, because there are fewer really strong contenders.
Henin-Hardenne's absence leaves Maria Sharapova the #1 seed. Sharapova is amazingly consistent in her ability to reach semifinals -- of her 15 events last year, she reached the semifinal or better at 13. But slow surfaces remain her weak point. The court has been speeded up this year; Lleyton Hewitt's complaints have had their effect. But have they been speeded enough? And while Sharapova has worked hard on her footwork, she still lumbers around a lot. What happens when the courts get hot and sticky? She may be more at risk of ankle injuries than most. And her only warmup was an exhibition, in rather different conditions. That's not to say she has no chance; she is surely one of the two or three top contenders. But she's less of a contender here than at the faster Slams. She does have the advantage of a nice draw: Two easy rounds, then #30 seed Tathiana Garbin; her first serious challenge would be from #13 Ana Ivanovic (or Vera Zvonareva). And the other high seed in her q! uarter is #8 Patty Schnyder, the weakest of the top eight seeds.
#2 Amelie Mauresmo is the defending champion, and she also made the final in 1999, so Rebound Ace is fine with her. On the other hand, she lost too soon at Sydney, and isn't nearly as consistent as Sharapova (despite being one of the top four seeds at every event she played in 2006, she lost before the semifinal in seven of 17 events). Plus her draw is much tougher: First Shenay Perry, who stands fairly high among unseeded players, then Olga Poutchkova, who stands even higher and is rising fast. Her first seeded opponent would be Zheng Jie, then perhaps Francesca Schiavone, then Elena Dementieva.
#3 Svetlana Kuznetsova is, on the whole, the least experienced of the top seeds, though she does have one Slam in her history (plus a doubles Slam, which Sharapova will almost certainly never have). And this is probably her worst Slam; she has won the U. S. Open, and made the final at Roland Garros, and has two Wimbledon quarterfinals in four tries, but her Australian Open record is a relatively poor 10-5 with only one quarterfinal in five visits. And she was sick at Sydney and didn't get any real practice in. Her draw is nice: A wildcard, then maybe the still-struggling Iroda Tulyaganova, then Maria Kirilenko. The first real test would be Shahar Peer in the fourth round. Then comes Nadia Petrova or Jelena Jankovic, then Mauresmo.
#4 Kim Clijsters has made the semifinal here the last four times she has played. And has only once made the final (2004), and never won the title. And she will come in very tired after a long week at Sydney, plus exhibition matches the week before. And it's the first Slam of her last year on the tour. That's a lot of baggage she's carrying. She'll also be facing lots of young talent: Vasilisa Bardina, then perhaps Tsvetana Pironkova, then #29 Alona Bondarenko. A fourth round meeting with Daniela Hantuchova would lead to a rematch with Martina Hingis, whom she beat here last year, also in the quarterfinal. Then comes Sharapova.
#5 Nadia Petrova was hurt last week, and a little bird tells us that she was looking out-of-shape. She is the highest seed never to have won a Slam, and we know how much she struggled to win her first title. Nor has Rebound Ace been good for her. Her draw is nice in the early rounds; the first seed she would face is Mara Santangelo (unless Serena Williams or Michaella Krajicek, both of whom are in Santangelo's section, can pull off an upset). But then she could face Jelena Jankovic, then Kuznetsova.
#6 Martina Hingis has the best Australian record of anyone here, including unseeded Serena Williams. On the other hand, she hasn't been all that impressive in the last six months. And the courts here have been speeded up, which may hurt her. It's hard to know what to expect. She opens against Nathalie Dechy, which would have sounded like very bad luck two or three years ago. As it is, it's not too bad a draw. And Hingis faces #32 seed Eleni Daniilidou (or maybe Sania Mirza) in the third round. But then comes Dinara Safina, who beat her at Gold Coast, then Clijsters. With some luck, she could go very deep. Without luck, she could well lose in the Round of Sixteen.
#7 Elena Dementieva is, after Petrova, the highest seed here without a Slam, and she has a demonstrated history of collapse in Slam finals. She hasn't won many titles, either. Her draw is pretty good; her first seeded opponent is Anabel Medina Garrigues, then Nicole Vaidisova. Her odds of reaching the quarterfinal against Mauresmo look good. Her odds of going beyond that don't look nearly so good.
#8 Patty Schnyder is the weakest of the top eight seeds -- in rankings, in slam results, in significant titles won. She is the only one of the top seeds who probably won't be a factor -- we'd certainly say Jankovic and Chakvetadze and Safina have better chances to win. Even Shahar Peer feels like a better bet from here. The flip side is, she has an easy draw: Two easy early rounds, then struggling #28 seed Flavia Pennetta. But then comes Chakvetadze, then Sharapova.
If we had to bet, we can't even say how we would bet, except that we'd expect the winner to be one of the players listed -- Sharapova, Mauresmo, Kuznetsova, Clijsters, Hingis, Dementieva, Safina, Jankovic, Chakvetadze, and maybe Peer. Beyond that, what we would wager on probably depends on the odds you give us.
Skipping more briefly through the lower seeds, Dinara Safina is #9, and has to open against upset artist Elena Bychkova in the first round (which is the only round in which Bychkova produces upsets). She would face the very tough Li Na in the third round, then Hingis. #10 Nicole Vaidisova, who just managed yet another loss in a Tier II semifinal, shouldn't be challenged until she faces #21 Katarina Srebotnik, after which she could face Dementieva. #11 Jelena Jankovic is the hottest player on the Tour right now, though she is also the tiredest. Her draw is a help; the first seed she would face is Marion Bartoli, then Nadia Petrova. If she doesn't fall apart under the strain, a quarterfinal against Kuznetsova is a real possibility. #12 Anna Chakvetadze also comes in tired but playing well. The other side is, she has to face Australia's #1 Samantha Stosur in the third round. Then comes Schnyder, then Sharapova. And she is said to have suffered a stomach strain in the Hobart ! final.
#13 Ana Ivanovic is skilled, but she is anything but consistent, and she faces rising Vania King, then rising Agnieska Radwanska, then Vera Zvonareva, then Sharapova. #14 Francesca Schiavone has struggled to come back from injury; she would face #23 Ai Sugiyama in the third round, then Mauresmo. #15 Daniela Hantuchova will have to face the tricky Aravane Rezai or Emilie Loit in the second round, but her first seeded opponent is the messed-up Anna-Lena Groenfeld, followed by Clijsters. #16 Shahar Peer opens against the somewhat dangerous Romina Oprandi; her first seeded opponent would be Tatiana Golovin, then Kuznetsova.
#17 Groenefeld has probably the shortest life expectancy of any seed, given current form; she would face Hantuchova in the third round. #18 Marion Bartoli has been slipping, and faces Jankovic in the third. #19 Li Na is again rising; she has to open against Elena Bovina, but Bovina is a mess; her first seeded opponent would be Safina. #20 Tatiana Golovin opens against Anna Smashnova, playing what will probably be her last Australian Open; the winner of that could go on to face Peer (an interesting meeting if Smashnova wins). #21 Katarina Srebotnik, who is turning into a tough opponent for almost everyone, would go against Vaidisova in the third round. #22 Vera Zvonareva, who is definitely playing above her ranking, would face Ana Ivanovic. #23 Ai Sugiyama has been struggling badly in singles lately, but may not be challenged until she has to take on #14 Francesca Schaivone. #24 Samantha Stosur's first seeded opponent would be Chakvetadze.
#25 Anabel Medina Garrigues opens against Elena Vesnina, who has a lot to defend but whom she beat easily at Hobart; her first seeded opponent would be Dementieva. #26 Maria Kirilenko opens against long-struggling but hard-hitting Karolina Sprem, then veteran Elena Likhovtseva, then Kuznetsova. #27 Mara Santangelo has perhaps the worst-looking draw of any seed: Serena Williams, then Michaella Krajicek, then Nadia Petrova -- though, based on current form, that's a lot easier than it looks. Struggling #28 Flavia Pennetta could face struggling-but-improving Alicia Molik in the second round, then Schnyder. #29 Alona Bondarenko's third round opponent is Clijsters. #30 Tathiana Garbin's is Sharapova. #31 Zheng Jie's is Mauresmo. And #32 Eleni Daniilidou's is Hingis.
If you think predicting who will win this thing is tough, try predicting who will be #1! Given the fact mentioned above, that 40% more points are coming on than going off, and it becomes a very wide-open thing. The list below shows our first cut on the top twenty in safe points:
1..(1) Henin-Hardenne .....3311
2..(2) SHARAPOVA ......... 3220
3..(3) MAURESMO ...........2762
4..(4) KUZNETSOVA .........2416
5..(5) CLIJSTERS ......... 2129
6..(6) PETROVA ........... 1969
7..(7) HINGIS .............1891
8..(8) DEMENTIEVA .........1875
9.(10) SAFINA .............1439
10.(11) JANKOVIC ...........1420
11..(9) SCHNYDER ...........1406
12.(12) VAIDISOVA ......... 1334
13.(13) CHAKVETADZE ....... 1222
14.(14) IVANOVIC ...........1072
15.(16) LI NA ...............968
16.(17) PEER ............... 961
17.(15) Myskina .............904
18.(19) GROENEFELD ......... 886
19.(23) GOLOVIN .............862
20.(18) HANTUCHOVA ......... 850
Thus we see that, in theory at least, we have a four-way contest for #1, with Henin-Hardenne still in the lead in safe points, but Sharapova needing only a Round of Sixteen to pass her, Mauresmo able to pass her with a final, and Kuznetsova able to pass her with a title. In practice, the struggle for #1 is probably a contest between Sharapova and Mauresmo -- that's not to say Kuznetsova can't win, but even if she does win, Sharapova has to lose before the quarterfinal, and Mauresmo before the final, for the Russian to take #1.
As between Sharapova and Mauresmo, it's simple: If Mauresmo reaches the final and Sharapova loses by the Round of Sixteen, or if Mauresmo wins the Australian and Sharapova loses in the semifinal or earlier, she is #1. Otherwise, Sharapova is #1.
Kim Clijsters can't make #1, but she could go as high as #3 with a title.
It's nearly certain that Henin-Hardenne, Sharapova, Mauresmo, and Kuznetsova will be Top Five when this is over. The fifth Top Five spot will be contested probably by Clijsters, Petrova, Hingis, and Dementieva, with Clijsters having the inside track. As between Petrova, Hingis, and Dementieva, they're so close that they could end up in any order; in the case of Hingis and Dementieva, in particular, they're so close that whoever lasts longer will be ranked higher.
That leaves two Top Ten spots. Right now, they belong to Patty Schnyder and Dinara Safina. But Schnyder has quarterfinal points to defend, and Safina and Jankovic less. They are now effectively tied; the two who last longest will probably be Top Ten, though Nicole Vaidisova and Anna Chakvetadze will have their chances too.
Below the Top Ten, the points-inflated nature of the Australian looms so large that we really can't say much as of this point. We can guarantee, of course, that Anastasia Myskina will fall out of the Top Fifteen; our guess would be she'll end up between #20 and #22. Francesca Schiavone is likely to fall out of the Top Twenty. Lindsay Davenport is out of the Top Thirty; we'd guess a ranking around #35. Not that it matters to her. Mara Santangelo could easily fall to the #40 range.
Lower-ranked players with a lot to defend are Elena Vesnina (96 points, and in some danger of falling out of the Top Fifty), Virginia Ruano Pascual (96 points); Ashley Harkleroad (69 points), Olga Savchuk (93 points), Yuan Meng (69 point), and Olga Savchuck (93 point).