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Qualies Corner: 2016 Australian Open (Part II, Women)

Welcome back to Qualies Corner: 2016 Australian Open edition, where Rene Denfeld and Victoria Chiesa give you an all-inclusive preview of the tournament-before-the-tournament at the year’s first Grand Slam. With our men’s picks having mixed fortunes on Day 1, we turn now to the women’s qualifying draw, where new faces and recognizable names abound:

Q1: The Cinderella Story

Victoria Chiesa: Jumping right in with the top section, top seed Wang Qiang — currently ranked No. 101 — would’ve been ranked high enough for the main draw here, had that ranking come a little earlier for her. While it’s not as egregious as some instances in years past — think of Magdalena Rybarikova winning in Washington, D.C. and then having to play US Open qualifying while ranked inside the Top 75 in 2012 — she’ll have to work to get back to the main draw here.

René Denfeld: To me, this one is all about Wang and Jovana Jaksic. Jaksic posted strong results in Canada last autumn, after sturrgling for the better part of a year, whereas the qualies’ top seed made the quarterfinals in Shenzhen, taking out Johanna Konta in the first round.

VC: I think that with a bit more seasoning, Wang is a legitimate bright spot for Chinese women’s tennis and can only get better with the famed coach Peter McNamara in her corner. A pair of French veterans loom in this section — Stephanie Foretz and Mathilde Johansson — but if I’m her, I wouldn’t look past the low seed here: Richel Hogenkamp.

Vika’s Pick: (23) Richel Hogenkamp (NED)

Hogenkamp had her best year on tour in 2015 and could play spoiler to Wang’s hopes.

René’s Pick: (1) Wang Qiang (CHN)

Wang will prevail but Jaksic won’t go down quietly.

Q2: The Stanford Star

RD: Well, this is an interesting little group, isn’t it?

VC: Indeed. Stanford’s finest, Nicole Gibbs, headlines this section, but it’s the two matches featuring the four unseeded players I’m most interested in here. I firmly believe that 19-year-old Croatian Jana Fett, who’s risen 400 spots in the rankings in less than two full years, is one to keep an eye on in 2016, and a cracking match could take place between her and 18-year-old Serbian Ivana Jorovic in the final round.

Those two face off against two Aussie whom you might be a little familiar with: Olivia Rogowska — whose ranking is currently sinking towards No. 300 and who hasn’t had to play qualifying here since her debut in 2008 (when she was a 17-year-old ranked No. 1047) due to many, many wildcards — and Sara Tomic, younger sister of Bernard.

RD: I’ve been pretty impressed with Gibbs over the course of the past few weeks. The American played well in Shenzhen and reached the Carlsbad Classic final at the end of 2015, losing to Yanina Wickmayer. The former junior World No. 1 Jorovic had a strong fall, winning the last big challenger of the year in Ankara, so this won’t be a walk in the park by any means.

VC: AND WELCOME BACK, KELLY CHANG! Missed you, girl. Granted, the 25-year-old was a wildcard into the main draw here last year while on the comeback trail from injury, but it’s very nice to see her progressing back towards the Top 100 on her own merit — a place I think she can back to this season.

René’s Pick: (2) Nicole Gibbs (USA)

The American’s looked solid to start the season, and why not mark her return to the top 100 in Australia?

Vika’s Pick: Jana Fett (CRO)

The Croatian is poised for a breakthrough in 2016, and it’ll start early.

Q3: The (Other) One Who Went Viral

RD: The third quarter is headed by one of 2016’s most prominent players — one half of the most dramatic match of the year so far. Grat Britain’s Naomi Broady had a banner week in Auckland, taking out Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Ostapenko before falling to eventual champion Sloane Stephens. Will she be able to serve her way into the main draw?

VC: I gained a new appreciation for Broady’s tennis in Auckland, more so because I was fascinated that her wonky technique could work for anybody. Yet, here she is — knocking on the door of the Top 100 at age 25 after years of toiling away in obscurity following her fallout with the LTA as a teenager. However, I thought Broady was a lock to make the main draw based on what I saw from her at US Open qualifying last year, and then Anett Kontaveit happened. I remain skeptical.

Also here is the incredibly unlucky Aleksandra Wozniak, who’s trying to work her way back from another injury layoff, and Tereza Smitkova, whose ranking has fallen by more than half since this time last year.

RD: Usually, I’d have given Wozniak a shot and Smitkova is certainly more than capable, but the young Czech has had a fairly lousy past few months and I’m not sure this is where she’ll rebound.

VC: Smitkova has had quite a tough time of things since that Wimbledon breakthrough in 2014, and I personally think veteran Ukrainian Olga Savchuk is the favorite in their opener, despite what the seedings say. She’s been here plenty of times before and can take advantage of a young, big hitter who’s off her rhythm. I think we’ll get another unseeded player coming out of this section.

René’s Pick: (3) Naomi Broady (GBR)

Going with all the top seeds will come back to haunt me, won’t it?

Vika’s Pick: Kristina Kucova (SVK)

The 25-year-old Slovak plays just the brand of tennis that will give the big-serving Broady fits in the final qualifying round.

Q4: The Bringers of Thunder

RD: Welcome to the most thunderous quarter of them all.

VC: That sound you hear is one hand clapping.

RD: Sesil Karatantcheva should be solid enough to make the final round of qualifying, but there’s just as much of a chance that she’ll lose to American Jessica Pegula in her opener. My gut instinct tells me to go with big-serving Naomi Osaka. The only question is how the young Japanese is going to deal with the quick changeover — having played played Mona Barthel in Tazmania less than 24 hours ago.

VC: Karatantcheva is back!!111!….playing for Bulgaria since 2015, that is — but the high seed here is certainly not assured of much. Neither is the low seed, Alexandra Panova, for that matter — especially after what happened at this very tournament last year.

The two actually faced off in qualifying here last year, with Panova winning, but Osaka — who brings thunder of her own on the court — seems the likely favorite to come through here. However, I have to give a shoutout to the feisty Marcela Zacarias, who was the darling of US Open qualifying last year — for one round, at least.

René’s Pick: Naomi Osaka (JPN)

Gut instinct prevails.

Vika’s Pick: Naomi Osaka (JPN)

Is this finally the time of ‘when’ not ‘if’ for the teenager?

Q5: The Returners

VC: G’day, Anastasija Sevastova — or something. The last time the Latvian was in the main draw Melbourne Park, she reached the second week. One retirement and one comeback later, she stands poised to return to the world’s Top 100.

RD: Sevastova was on the verge of fulfilling my prediction that she’d make the Top 100 again by October 2015, but then she suffered a shock loss at the hands of Maria Sakkari in US Open qualifying. This looks like it could be a tailor-made little section for the Latvian No. 2 to play her first Grand Slam main draw since her comeback — unless Maria Teresa Torro-Flor starts hitting her big forehand with the accuracy we’ve seen before.

VC: I give Paula Kania a shot to take out the oft-erratic Spaniard in the opening round, clearing the way for Mayo Hibi and her delightful one-handed backhand (and lady-versions of Stan Wawrinka’s shorts) to challenge for the main draw.

Hibi made the main draw at the US Open last year, before losing to Sara Errani. She beat a lot of Romanians in the process.

Also, hi, Vera Dushevina. Not sure how committed she is to a comeback in singles, but she’s seems to be giving it a go at least until her protected ranking runs out.

René’s Pick: (5) Anastasija Sevastova (LAT)

Vika’s Pick: (5) Anastasija Sevastova (LAT)

We welcome her back in a big way.

Q6: The #Narratives

RD: Whoa, can you say stacked?

From a promising junior struggling to break through (Irina Khromacheva), to a Serena-shocker (Virginie Razzano) to a Grand Slam champion (Francesca Schiavone), you really do have everything and more in this section. American Kristie Ahn just about made it into the qualifying draw after Alisa Kleybanova withdrew. I’m really struggling to pick a name here, Vika — you?

VC: Ahn gained more than a few fans on social media this week with a humorous take on her situation — and although her place comes at the unfortunate expense of Kleybanova — whom everyone would like to see fit and healthy — it’s a nice opportunity for the Stanford grad.

Schiavone is playing in the qualifying of a Grand Slam for the first time in 16 years — having last done so at Wimbledon in 2000 — but she should like her chances of coming through this section.

RD: I’ll go with Schiavone. She played pretty well against Tamira Paszek in Auckland and I really want to see her get to that consecutive Grand Slam main draw appearances record. A main draw here would tie her with Ai Sugyama (62).

René’s Pick: (6) Francesca Schaivone (ITA)

Vika’s Pick: (6) Francesca Schaivone (ITA)

If she’s not ready to say goodbye, neither are we.

Q7: The Giant Killer

VC: The Kristyna Pliskova/Shahar Peer QR1 is another one of my matches to watch, but that could prove to be all for naught as Belgian Ysaline Bonaventure is ripe to make some noise in the top section.

RD: Bonaventure looked decent against Victoria Azarenka in Brisbane and if Krystina Pliskova finds her (comparatively) bigger swings, she can do some damage here. So, the natural choice is to pick Charleston 2014 runner up, Jana Cepelova.

VC: A bout of pneumonia in Australia last year really threw Cepelova for a loop, and her season never really recovered from that and several injuries — even thought she scored a notable upset of Simona Halep at Wimbledon. However, I was really encouraged by what I saw from the Slovak in Brisbane, as she scored three good wins in qualifying and play a strong match against Samantha Stosur, and I’d expect her to be trending back towards the Top 100 sooner rather than later. She has an interesting little opener against Paraguayan Veronica Cepede Royg, who just played quite the dramatic match against Alizeé Cornet in Hobart.

I wouldn’t underestimate American Sachia Vickery either, but this section is really Cepelova’s to lose — and I think she won’t.

René’s Pick: Jana Cepelova (SVK)

The Slovak looked solid in Brisbane and played much better than her ranking these days suggests.

Vika’s Pick: Jana Cepelova (SVK)

What he said.

Q8: The One That’s Wide Open

RD: I’ll be at my diplomatic best here and say this is one of the sections that isn’t quite as strong as some of the others.

VC: It’s certainly anyone’s to take, that’s for sure. There’s no way to accurately describe the enigma that is Duan Ying-ying, but the talented young Swede Rebecca Peterson could be moving towards steady appearances at WTA level this season.

RD: If Petra Martic plays at her best, she’s going to roll through this section — but since that only happens once in a blue moon, this section is truly anyone’s game. It would be nice to see Alla Kudryavtseva back on the success track in singles — as her ranking has now dipped outside the Top 200 — but I’m doubtful it’ll happen in Melbourne. Who have you got, Vika?

VC: I still don’t know where it all went wrong for Martic. It’s unfortunate, as I truly believe she possesses a ton of natural talent, but hasn’t been able to string anything together for quite a few seasons now. A final qualifying round between Peterson and Stephanie Vogt could be a possible scenario here.

René’s Pick: Viktorija Golubic (SUI)

The returning Swiss won two titles on the ITF Circuit in November, and looks to be headed towards new heights.

Vika’s Pick: (23) Rebecca Peterson (SWE)

After Sofia Arvidsson’s recent retirement, the Swedish No. 2 could make headlines of her own by having some success Down Under.

Q9: The Firecracker

VC: Any section that features the fiery Frenchwoman Amandine Hesse automatically becomes must-see tennis. The big hitting Hesse is still looking for her first Grand Slam main draw outside of Roland Garros, and she could’ve gotten it in New York — had she not run into Yaroslava Shvedova, one of the toughest players to draw in qualifying in recent history. Her opening rounder against the ageless inspiration, Kimiko Date-Krumm, is one match I would for sure attend if the emergency escape pod to Melbourne wasn’t on the fritz.

RD: Just like the previous 1/12th, this one doesn’t feel like a foregone conclusion either. The high seed, Stefanie Voegele, had a solid WTA autumn in Linz and Luxembourg as she looks to get back to the level to which she’d become accustomed, but her subsequent results on the ITF level have been mixed. Her first round opponent, Tereza Mihalikova, is last year’s Australian Open girls’ champion and although she landed in an overall soft section of the draw, I’m not sure the 17-year-old is quite there just yet to break through at WTA level.

VC: I’m inclined to agree there, and the experienced Voegele is a tricky draw for the young Slovak.

RD: In all honesty, I have no idea who’ll make it through because barely anyone of the eight comes in with great results. It could be Hesse — it could just as well be Luksika Kumkhum.

VC: The latter’s upset of Petra Kvitova here seems like it happened a lifetime ago.

René’s Pick: Kimiko Date-Krumm (JPN)

One can hope?

Vika’s Pick: Alexa Glatch (USA) 

Don’t underestimate the big-serving American, who could take advantage of a comparatively open section.

Q10: Don’t Call it a Comeback

RD: This section is home to an interesting little group of players, particularly the bottom half. Michelle Larcher De Brito returns after sustaining a wrist injury during Wimbledon qualifying in Roehampton, Liu “the Axe” Fangzhou, and Marina Erakovic — who had a decent week in her home tournament in New Zealand.

VC: I’m eager to see what Larcher de Brito brings to the table after being sidelined for so long, and I have to say — it feels right that she’s back. US Open qualifying felt empty without her. However, Erakovic is a brutal draw — especially when you consider who else she could’ve played in her return.

RD: And then there’s Pauline Parmentier, who was at least half-responsible for one of the peak WTA scorelines of the year, right Vika?

VC: #blessed

While conventional wisdom dictates that Erakovic is the favorite in this section based on form, I just have a feeling that it won’t happen for her.

René’s Pick: (24) Marina Erakovic (NZL)

The Kiwi looked solid in Auckland, but I really want to see *and hear* Liu-Larcher De Brito.

Vika’s Pick: Maryna Zanevska (UKR)

That feeling speaks Ukrainian.

Q11: Fire and Infamy

VC: Well, hey there, Elena Vesnina. Most will focus on Schiavone’s drop into qualifying, but Vesnina hasn’t missed the main draw of a Grand Slam since the 2005 US Open.

RD: It is odd to see her outside the Top 100, but she’ll like her chances here. I’m pretty certain Vesnina is going to get through that top half unscathed….

VC: We’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about her first round opponent, though. Zhu Lin had a, how you say, infamous moment in 2015.

There could be fireworks in that match, as Vesnina’s had moments where her temper’s gotten the better of her on court.

RD: For sure. I’d be inclined to say that Vesnina will meet Cagla Buyukakcay in the final round of qualifying — even though the No. 19 seed has a slightly tricky opening round in fiery Maria Sakkari.

VC: Sakkari is definitely one of the more dangerous floaters in this qualifying draw, especially if she shows some of the tennis that got her to the US Open main draw and the semifinals of the WTA125 in Carlsbad to close out 2015. She and Buyukakcay both ended 2015 on high notes, and that match could be a lot of fun. I would like to see something from Spanish teenager Sara Sorribes Tormo, who’s also in this section, this year — but the 19-year-old has seemed more at home on clay thus far.

René’s Pick: (11) Elena Vesnina (RUS)

Because #marriageworks…. 

#cringe

Vika’s Pick: Maria Sakkari (GRE)

Sakkari surprised by qualifying for the main draw in New York last year, but doing it Down Under would raise many less eyebrows.

Q12: The One Who’s Back(?)

VC: This is a tricky section that’s pretty underrated, in my view.

RD: Maria José Martinez Sanchez in singles? Okay. #welcomeback 

I’d expect Tamira Paszek to take out Kateryna Kozlova and presumably Andrea Hlavackova — but that’s a tricky little qualifying section for the Austrian, who looked very solid last week in Auckland.

VC: Hlavackova is such a question in mark in singles these days, but I would be looking forward to that match with Martinez Sanchez if I could see it; the two are certainly comfortable around the net, and I think that has the potential to go deep into a final set.

Kozlova could be a tougher customer for Paszek than most people might expect, and for the high seed, Patricia Maria Tig is a sleeper pick here. The Romanian tore it up on the ITF Circuit in 2014, winning six titles, and had her WTA breakthrough in Baku last year — but I’m eager to see where she goes in 2016. Her opening round opponent, Barbora Krejcikova, is an interesting character who’s been coached by Jana Novotna, and it’s jarring to me to see a former Top 100 stalwart — Silvia Soler-Espinosa — languishing here unseeded.

René’s Pick: (14) Tamira Paszek (AUT)

The woman to beat in this 1/12th of the draw.

Vika’s Pick: (12) Patricia-Maria Tig (ROU)

#romaniaforever? #whoknows

Who are your picks for the ladies’ draw? Sound off in the comments!

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