Australian Open 2020: Seven-time winner Williams and defending champion Osaka in same quarter
Serena Williams targets 24th Major; Osaka and No1 Barty spearhead young challengers
When Serena Williams launched her 2020 season with her first title in three years, in Auckland, her first victory since she won the Australian Open in 2017 while two months pregnant, she also turned herself into the favourite to win her eighth title in Melbourne.
That she has won the title seven times before—she is 85-11 in the tournament—only adds to the great American’s lustre. So much so that the odds in the aftermath of the draw were half those of defending champion Naomi Osaka and world No1 Ashleigh Barty.
Indeed, no-one comes close as far as the punters are concerned—a remarkable scenario given Williams’ three-year hiatus, during which she faced life-threatening illness following the birth of her daughter, and that she will turn 39 later this year.
Yet a quick appraisal of her results in Major tournaments since she returned from maternity leave in the spring of 2018 speaks volumes for her aura, her power, her work ethic and determination. She managed that year to play only seven tournaments, yet made the finals at Wimbledon and the US Open.
In 2019, she played only four tournaments on top of the four Majors, yet again she made the finals at Wimbledon and the US Open, plus the quarters at the Australian Open and the final of the Rogers Cup.
Williams is dominant presence, but young challengers threaten
And in the interim, during those three years, no-one has dominated the scene like Williams: There have been seven first-time Major champions, and seven different No1s. Yet there is no denying that a clutch of young, ambitious, talented women have been eating up many of the prizes. So will youth have its day—and three of last year’s Major champions, Barty, Osaka, and Bianca Andreescu, are 23 or under—or will the 38-year-old Serena Williams finally lay her hands on a record-equalling 24th Major?
If Williams is to make it to the podium, she will have to do it the hard way. Hers is a stacked quarter shared with Osaka, who beat Williams in the US Open final in 2018 and went on to win in Melbourne 12 months ago.
Stacked half for Williams, Osaka and Barty
Buried in Williams’ eighth is Johanna Konta, returning for the first time since a knee injury halted her season after last year’s US Open, and former champion Caroline Wozniacki, who is playing her last tournament before retirement.
In addition, Osaka has a truly formidable first few matches in her eighth, with Saisai Zheng in Round 2, and the prospect of either 39-year-old Venus Williams or 15-year-old prodigy Coco Gauff in the third. The Williams/Gauff clash is a repeat of their meeting at Wimbledon, which Gauff won in straight sets.
Osaka could then face 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens—and all before the chance to take on Serena.
The winner of their quarter is slated to meet the world No1 and home favourite Barty in the semis, with the home favourite bidding to become the first Australian winner since Chris O’Neil in 1978. Barty though, has Elena Rybakina as her first seed, who was runner-up in Shenzhen and plays the final in Hobart this weekend. Beyond that, she could face No18 seed Alison Riske, in a repeat of their Wimbledon meeting—won by Riske—with unseeded Julia Goerges lurking in the same segment.
In the quarters, Barty is scheduled to see No7 seed Petra Kvitova, the runner-up in Melbourne last year, though the popular Czech, twice a Wimbledon champion, has her work cut out from the first round, where she meets Katerina Siniakova. And her first seed is this month’s Shenzhen champion, Ekaterina Alexandrova, while her fourth-round opponent may be Brisbane runner-up, No10 seed Madison Keys.
Who will emerge from the bottom half?
It is not only Kvitova who has a tough opener. The No2 seed Karolina Pliskova will be tested by Kristina Mladenovic in her first match, though the former No1 and finalist at the US Open showed strong early form and not a little fitness in winning the Brisbane Premier on her way to Melbourne. Pliskova beat both Osaka, Riske, and Keys to claim the title.
Round 4 may also be a challenge: French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova, who plays former Major champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the first round, will take on former Australian champion Angelique Kerber in the third—if the German has recovered from the leg injury she sustained in Adelaide. The winner will likely face Pliskova.
And heading to the quarters, the woman to come through is scheduled to play No6 seed Elina Svitolina, who has made the quarter-finals at the Australian Open in the last two years. But Svitolina may have to beat one of the four unseeded former Major champions in this half, Garbine Muguruza, in the third round—though the Spaniard withdrew from the semis in Hobart with a viral illness.
The other bottom quarter is led by another former No1 and the reigning Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, surely one of the most fit and resilient women in the draw, and a finalist in Melbourne in 2018.
The popular Romanian, the WTA Fans’ Favourite for the last three years, may ultimately take on No6 seed Belinda Bencic, who won last year’s WTA Comeback award, in the quarter-finals.
The Swiss, still only 22 years old, worked her way back from injury and a ranking of 55 this time last year to reach her first Major semi at last year’s US Open, having won the Dubai Premier via four top-10 players—including Halep, and the woman she could face in the fourth round in Melbourne, No11 seed Aryna Sabalenka.
But Bencic is in a dangerous eighth that could bring the unseeded former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in the second round, and then, rather than Sabalenka, the unseeded former champion, Maria Sharapova, who takes on No19 seed Donna Vekic in one of the stand-out first-round contests.
From top to bottom, then, the draw is full of intrigue, packed with former unseeded champions, and full of youthful promise. With a home-grown woman as world No1, and already a French Open champion, emotions are sure to run high whenever Barty appears, but the goodwill behind Serena Williams will be palpable as she tries to turn that run of Major finals into gold and equal the famous record of Aussie veteran Margaret Court.
Britons in main draw
· Konta (No12 seed) plays Ons Jabeur
· Katie Boulter (protected ranking 85) plays Svitolina (No5 seed)
· Heather Watson (No101) plays Kristyna Pliskova (No62)
· Harriet Dart (No169, via qualifying) vs TBA
Who’s in, who’s out?
Defending champion: Osaka
Most titles: Margaret Court (11)
Former champs in draw: Osaka (one), Wozniacki (one), Serena Williams (seven), Kerber (one), Sharapova (one)
Former finalists in draw: Halep, Kvitova, Venus Williams
Additional Major champs in draw: Venus Williams, Kuznetsova, Kvitova, Muguruza, Ostapenko, Stephens, Halep, Barty
New career-high ranks this week: Petra Martic (No14), Alexandrova (No26), Rybakina (No30), Jennifer Brady (No49).
Withdrawals: Andreescu, Victoria Azarenka, Andrea Petkovic, Monica Puig, Vera Zvonareva
 Barty vs  Kvitova
 Osaka vs  Serena Williams
 Halep vs  Bencic
 Karolina Pliskova vs  Svitolina
NB Top half of women’s draw begins Monday, ie Barty/Osaka half.
For a general preview of this year’s Australian Open, see:
Australian Open 2020 preview: Nadal tops seeds, but Djokovic favourite for record eighth; Aussie Ash Barty is No1; Naomi Osaka defends; Serena Williams goes for 24