Australian Open preview: Williams, Sharapova target title and No1

Marianne Bevis take a look ahead to the women's draw at the Australian Open, which gets under way on Monday

Even putting to one side the fortunes of the top two seeds, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, the women’s draw for this year’s Australian Open is packed with questions.

Can Wimbledon champion and No4 seed Petra Kvitova, fresh from winning the Sydney title, power her way beyond her solitary semi finish in Melbourne to claim a different Major?

Will new coach Martina Navratilova prove to be the magic potion that takes Agnieszka Radwanka that extra step to a first Major, having reached just one final?

Can Eugenie Bouchard, whose breakthrough to the elite rankings began with a semi run in Melbourne last year, make even more waves this year?

Then there is Karolina Pliskova, who rose from No71 at the start of last year to a current 22 via two WTA titles from five finals: She has just lost in two close tie-breaks to Kvitova in the Sydney final.

Will impressive teenagers Belinda Bencic, seeded 32, and Madison Keys, ranked 33, cause upsets, or will it be 30-somethings such as Mirjana Lucic-Baroni or Daniela Hantuchova who upset the applecart?

Venus Williams, who beat Caroline Wozniacki to win the Auckland title, is at her highest ranking in almost four years, but does she have the stamina to go deep in a Major?

As for Wozniacki and Ana Ivanovic, will their 2014 surges in form and confidence back into the top 10 continue? Both have already made final finishes this year.

But the biggest question when defending champion, now retired, Li Na made the draw was, who would fall into Victoria Azarenka’s quarter?

As is the practice these days, all but the seed 32 slots were already on full view—and there was two-time former champion Azarenka in the top quarter. Since losing in the quarters last year, persistent injury had taken Azarenka to a current No41, so there she fell—in Williams’ quarter.

And so to Williams and Sharapova, the only other women in the field to have won in Melbourne before.

Williams, playing the Australian Open for a 15th time, has won five times and reached the quarters on four other occasions. Sharapova is playing her 12th Open and has reached at least the semi-finals six times. She has played three finals, winning the title in 2008.

Together, they provide perhaps the biggest question. If the draw plays out according to seedings, they will play one another for the title—and also the No1 ranking. Could these old adversaries produce such a fine denouement?

Serena Williams quarter

While Williams’ opener should cause no problems, she is in tough quarter, one of four former No1s from the seven in the draw. She may hope her friend, No8 seed Wozniacki, can do some damage to the rest of the opposition before it reaches Williams. But in her path to a possible quarter-final against the Dane are Vera Zvonareva, Elina Svitolina and either Jelena Jankovic or Garbine Muguruza, who beat her at the French Open.

Wozniacki has a tricky opener against Taylor Townsend, who she beat last week in Auckland before picking up a wrist problem—which makes crashing into Azarenka in the second round far from ideal. However, one of the stand-outs of the first round is Azarenka against her 2013 semi-final opponent Sloane Stephens. Their only other meeting was also in Melbourne, last year: Azarenka won both.

Also in this section is Heather Watson, riding a wave of form with a final run in Hobart and avoiding a seed in her opener, though she has an even head-to-head with Tsvetana Pironkova. Watson could then face last year’s finalist, No11 seed Dominika Cibulkova.

Matches to catch: Azarenka vs Stephens, R1; Wozniacki vs Townsend R1; Watson vs Cibulkova, R2; Wozniacki vs Azarenka, R2; Muguruza vs Jankovic, R3

Quarter-final: Williams vs Azarenka

Petra Kvitova quarter

Kvitova comes into Melbourne with a strong win in Sydney, and she has a decent chance of reaching the quarters, and probably the semis, too. If she should win the title, she could even reach No1 for the first time.

She starts against a qualifier, her first seed is No29 Casey Dellacqua—though Keys could come through instead—followed by either Sam Stosur or, more likely, the resurgent Andrea Petkovic. Other unseeded players to watch here are Kaia Kanepi and Coco Vandeweghe.

In the other eighth, headed by No6 seed Radwanska, Flavia Pennetta has a tricky route via the likes of Camila Giorgi and Lucic-Baroni to No18 seed Venus Williams. The seven-time Grand Slam champion’s best run in Australia was a final finish in 2003, but she arrives in her best shape in years. She last faced Radwanska in the Montreal final and lost in straights: This one may be closer.

Matches to catch: Pennetta vs Giorgi, R1; Keys vs Dellacqua, R2; Kanepi vs Petkovic, R2; Williams vs Radwanska, R4

Quarter-final: Kvitova vs Radwanska

Simona Halep quarter

The No3 seed’s quarter is probably the most open. Halep burst through the ranks with six WTA titles in 2013, and consolidated last year with her best Grand Slam results to date, a quarter run in Melbourne, the final in Paris and the semis in Wimbledon. And she has already won a title this year in Shenzhen—though did not play a top-50 woman. Like Kvitova, she could also claim the No1 ranking with the title, depending on the results of rivals.

She seems to have a decent run to the quarters, though Sabine Lisicki in the third round can always pose a threat, as can the big-hitting Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who is in Sara Errani’s section.

The other eighth is topped by Ivanovic, former No1 and French Open winner. On recent results, she has looked ready to go deep in a Major again: She beat Williams, Halep, Wozniacki and Sharapova last season. But she has some interesting names in the early stages, not least Bencic and Pliskova.

Matches to catch: Gajdosova vs Dulgheru, R1; Bencic vs Goerges, R1; Pliskova vs Makarova, R3; Halep vs Lisicki, R3

Quarter-final: Ivanovic vs Halep

Maria Sharapova quarter

The first week for Sharapova, already a winner in Brisbane this year, looks relatively trouble-free. She opens against one of three qualifiers in her eight-woman segment, and her first seed is No31 Zarina Diyas.

Round four brings Shuai Peng or Lucie Safarova, but the quarters hold the prospect of a first Sharapova-Bouchard contest since their semi-final three-setter at the French Open last year.

Alternatives to Bouchard are Svetlana Kuznetsova and Angelique Kerber, with some useful unseeded players in Caroline Garcia, Irina-Camelia Begu and Christina McHale thrown in.

Matches to catch: Kuznetsova vs Garcia, R1; Safarova vs Shvedova, R1; Bouchard vs Kerber, R4

Quarter-final: Bouchard vs Sharapova

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