Breaking Down the Women’s Draw

By Ajay Singh, January 17th, 2009

The suspense is over. Now the show can begin.

The draws for the 2009 Australian Open were announced on Friday in Melbourne. Here’s a look at the field of 128:

Best First-Round Matchup: (19) Daniela Hantuchova vs. Casey Dellacqua. Hantuchova possesses considerable talent but has historically lacked mental toughness, to put things mildly. Last year, the Slovak made a bold run to the semifinals before bowing to Ana Ivanovic in a wrenching three-setter. This year, Hantuchova didn’t receive any favors in her first-round draw, because she’ll be playing Dellacqua, an Australian who reached the fourth round of this event in 2008. A home-crowd advantage, plus the knowledge that she’s already been able to reach the second week of this tournament, should give Dellacqua a slight edge. Win or lose, however, this rates as an extremely attractive opening-round match in Melbourne Park.

Best potential second-round matchup: (10) Nadia Petrova vs. Sania Mirza. Petrova reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals last year and is always dangerous. “If only” are the words frequently attached to the Russian veteran, who simply needs to get out of her own way and not tighten up when a few points don’t go her way. If Petrova can get through her first-round match, she is likely to face Mirza, the Indian who endured a tough 2008 due to a nagging wrist injury. If her health improves, Mirza-who attained a top-30 singles ranking in the summer of 2007-has the game to become a formidable floater at slam events. The smart money, however, should rest with Petrova in the first Grand Slam tournament of the year.

Best potential third-round matchup: (22) Zheng Jie vs. (9) Agnieszka Radwanska. The third round of the women’s draw offers many enticing possibilities. One could just as easily choose a top-20 battle between Victoria Azarenka and Amelie Mauresmo, or a similarly high-powered confrontation between 11th-seeded Caroline Wozniacki and No. 17 Anna Chakvetadze, but the feeling here is that a China-Poland pairing could create the most fireworks in the round of 32.

Mauresmo is a big name in women’s tennis, but the Frenchwoman needs to develop a little consistency before she can be seen as a legitimate threat. Chakvetadze, who endured a robbery of her home in 2008, was understandably unable to sustain the form that lifted her to a top-5 ranking in September of 2007. For these reasons, the best third-rounder on the big board is likely to come from Zheng and Radwanska, two players who could truly do damage in their section of the bracket.

Zheng stunned the women’s tennis world last season by reaching the Wimbledon semifinals and pushing Serena Williams in the second set of a 6-2, 7-6 (5) loss. Powerful baseline hitting and high-level court coverage earned Zheng a set point against the younger Williams sister, but the legend on the other side of the net was able to survive. Any doubts about this 25-year-old’s abilities should have been dispelled by that match. Zheng will be a tough out for any opponent in Australia.

If form holds in the first two rounds, Zheng should encounter a foe with the skills needed to take her out. Radwanska, though not yet 19 years of age, can already say that she’s reached the fourth round or better in all four Grand Slam events. Dating back to the 2007 U.S. Open, the clearly ascendant professional has reached the round of 16 in five straight slams, including a quarterfinal appearance at last year’s Australian Open. Other women’s matches might have bigger names or stars who have risen to greater heights, but a Zheng-Radwanska matchup promises the highest level of shotmaking and overall quality. Give a slight edge to Radwanska only because of her Grand Slam consistency.

The Fourth Round and Onward: Stacking Up the Seeds

To simplify matters for those who might have to look at the four different quarters of the draw, here are the highest seeds in each section, creating the template for the round of 16:

Top half of the draw, first quarter: (1) Jelena Jankovic and (16) Marion Bartoli; (10) Nadia Petrova and (7) Vera Zvonareva. If form holds here, Jankovic-even with her stomach ailments-should face Zvonareva, currently enjoying the highest singles ranking of her career. Bartoli’s physical fragility and Petrova’s mental frailty make it unlikely that an upset would occur in the top quarter of the bracket.

Top half, second quarter: (3) Dinara Safina and (15) Alize Cornet; (11) Caroline Wozniacki and (5) Ana Ivanovic. Safina, after her breakthrough last season, is the most formidable title contender other than the Williams sisters. In the other section of this quarter looms the most interesting fourth-round matchup. Wozniacki, a rapidly-improving Danish teenager who reached the fourth round of this tournament last year, will give an uncertain Ivanovic a stern test, and stands a very good chance of pulling off an upset, at least if the seedings are any indication. Expect Safina to meet Wozniacki in the second of the four women’s quarterfinals.

Bottom half, first quarter: (6) Venus Williams and (12) Flavia Pennetta; (14) Patty Schnyder and (4) Elena Dementieva. Venus should meet absolutely no resistance until the quarterfinals, when she’ll likely face Dementieva, a relentless defender who has consistently played into the middle of the second week at recent slam tournaments. Schynder might be the highest seed in her immediate section, but the Swiss figures to lose a third-round match against No. 18 Dominika Cibulkova, who is coming off a strong summer hardcourt season that lifted her into the top 20.

Bottom half, second quarter: (8) Svetlana Kuznetsova and (9) Agnieszka Radwanska; (13) Victoria Azarenka and (2) Serena Williams. Drama doesn’t figure to enter into this part of the puzzle Down Under. Kuznetsova has never fared well in Australia, meaning that Radwanska should face Serena in the quarters.

The Final Verdicts

Projected Semifinal Matchups: Jankovic-Safina (top half); Venus-Serena (bottom half).

Semifinal Winners: Safina and Serena. Jankovic doesn’t seem fit enough, while Serena should be confident after saving all 10 set points against her sister in last September’s U.S. Open.

Women’s Final: Serena over Safina. Coming off a semifinal win over her older sibling, Serena should take care of business and win her 10th Grand Slam singles title.


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