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TTI Talks: State of the WTA (Australian Open 2016 Edition)

On the back of Part I of our 2016 Australian Open picks for the men’s tournament, check out Part II of our super-sized roundtable, where we wade our way through an exciting women’s field. As always, check out our full picks compiled into an easy-to-follow grid at the bottom.

Of the WTA, who is/has:

1. The Biggest Darkhorse?

RENÉ

I’ll start 2016 where I left off in 2015 — is Victoria Azarenka a dark horse? A two-time champion here in Melbourne and recent Brisbane winner, I’m inclined to say no. She isn’t a darkhorse, she’s one of the top five contenders to win this event.

At the Australian Open, there can be only one option — noted “-bourne” specialist Ekaterina Makarova. The Russian landed in a relatively favorable section of the draw and although she was plagued by a leg injury in the second half of 2015, don’t be surprised if last year’s semifinalist quietly sneaks through the draw.

JEFF

Sloane Stephens is in a kind section of the draw and her early season form was quite remarkable in Auckland, so I’m going with her among a million other possible candidates (127, actually — anyone not named Serena).

Although much lower ranked than some of the other options (Angelique Kerber or obvious-pick Victoria Azarenka, for example), Stephens seemed to be recovering from her sophomore slump at the end of 2015 and took that momentum into this new season, besting an aggressive Wozniacki in the semifinals of the New Zealand tournament before beating an also-resurgent Julia Goerges in the final on the same day.

Her speed, shot selection, and pace-injected backhand all look well improved and coupled with her already dynamite forehand, she could be one to watch in a softer part of the draw.

SAM

Her moment in the spotlight was ending Serena’s bid for the Grand Slam last year, but Roberta Vinci has quietly continued to play very solid tennis since her mystical run to the US Open final. She’s certainly capable of being out-hit and flaming out early at tournaments, but the draw has been kind to the Italian early, and her first big test should be against Stephens in the third round. The winner of this one will have a great chance to make the semis, and I’ll give the edge to Vinci.

Wouldn’t a deep run in Vinci’s last Aussie Open be a nice story?

NICK

Svetlana Kuznetsova is coming up a big title win in Sydney which involved her beating Simona Halep in the semifinals. The other higher seeded players in her section are Belinda Bencic and Maria Sharapova. Bencic has not had a rousing start to the season and Sharapova has yet to hit the court in 2016. This could set up a nice path for the always-dangerous Russian to make a deep run in Melbourne.

VIKA

I was pleasantly surprised with the tennis Makarova showed in Sydney — and to a lesser extent, Brisbane — because the Russian’s health was such an unknown quantity at the end of last season. A confidence player, the Russian will love coming back to a place that she’s had immense career success at, and she’s in a bottom quarter of the draw where anything can happen.

2. The Early Exit?

RENÉ

I’m currently trusting in Simona Halep, as far as she can walk without presumably noticing her Achilles inflammation. Having said that the World No. 2 finds herself surrounded by a slew of unpredictable players, so unless Varvara Lepchenko summons up her best tennis, the Romanian should at least make the second week.

The problem with the Top 8 is the incredible sparse dataset due to injuries, withdrawals and early losses. Venus Williams doesn’t have the easiest of first rounds against surging Brit Johanna Konta and Agnieszka Radwanska could run into a resurgent Eugenie Bouchard in the second round.

Somewhat conservatively, my pick for an early exit is one of the — how do I put this — more consistently unreliable players on the women’s side, namely Petra Kvitova. At her best, the Czech plays lights out but when she’s subpar, someone like Daria Gavrilova could draw error after error out of the No. 6 seed.

JEFF

Petra Kvitova hasn’t played an official completed match on tour yet this year and isn’t exactly coming off the greatest form of her life in 2015. Despite making the finals of Singapore, her late-season last year was marred by illness, injury and her innate inconsistency. Thus, I don’t see her making it too far in the blazing Australian heat.

In the past few years, she’s lost to an array of lower ranked players and the Gavrilova/Hradecka/Cibulkova/Mladenovic party in her first few rounds looks prime for an early shattering of Kvitova’s glass-cannon game.

Before them? She’ll have to get through Thai qualifier Luksika Kumkhum, who’s already beaten her here.

SAM

Petra Kvitova has played only one set of tennis so far in 2016, retiring after dropping the first to Zheng Saisai in Shenzhen. I don’t think Kvitova — with no complete matches under her belt — will be ready to deal with the draw given to her. Any qualifier will have played and won multiple matches already, and if she gets past her first round, things don’t get any easier with a likely meeting with Daria Gavrilova in the second round.

NICK

Agnieszka Radwanska plays Christina McHale in the first round in a match that could be tough, but one she should win. She will likely face Eugenie Bouchard in the second round. If she gets through that, she’ll likely face Sam Stosur or Sydney finalist Monica Puig in the third round — I use the word likely very loosely taking into mind Stosur’s struggles Down Under.

VIKA

At the risk of sounding repetitive, it’s difficult for me to pick anyone but Kvitova here. Out of all the question marks we’ve assigned to the WTA’s Top 10, Kvitova’s was by far the biggest. Couple that with the fact that she hasn’t made the second week here since reaching the semifinals in 2012, and she’s ripe for another early departure Down Under.

(She’ll probably win the thing now.)

3. The Toughest Draw?

RENÉ

My pick here is Agnieszka Radwanska. Serena Williams might have the tricky opener against noted sniper Camila Giorgi but with that out of the way, I’m quite sure she’ll cruise into the second week — any potential injuries notwithstanding.

Radwanska’s opening round against Christina McHale should be fairly smooth sailing but Bouchard is starting to regain some of the confidence that helped her lunge into groundstrokes in 2014 and shine at the Grand Slams. If Radwanska’s finesse and guile prevails she could run into Samantha Stosur — yes, on Australian soil, the 30 year-old’s name might be as frightening as a Corgi puppy but it’s a match-up issue for the Pole. Stosur’s won three of their four previous meetings.

JEFF

The big names in women’s tennis all have fairly similar routes to the second week: one large obstacle and two minor ones. I’m going to go with Serena Williams here, solely because she has to face another obstacle — herself. She hasn’t played a full match this year either and questions about her knee remain, despite her and coach Patrick Mouratoglou’s words to the contrary. 2014 taught us that Williams is most vulnerable at the early stages of a Grand Slam, and 2015 mirrored that sentiment just with different result.

She faces one of the highest ranked unseeded players in the first round, Camila Giorgi, a player who might catch fire and make it difficult for Serena to find rhythm. A handful of talented young players lie in the remaining rounds and if they’re not intimidated by the opponent, as Daria Kasatkina wasn’t in Auckland, then Serena will have her work cut out for her.

SAM

I’ve heard a lot of people mentioning Venus Williams as a draw “winner” but I don’t see it that way at all. Venus will have to be much better than she was in Auckland — where she lost her opener to Daria Kasatkina and sprayed 70+ unforced errors — from the get-go with Johanna Konta in the first round.

Her section is loaded with potentially tricky opponents: Zheng Saisai or Carina Witthoeft in the second round and one of Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Petra Cetkovska, Denisa Allertova or Sabine Lisicki lying in wait if she makes it to third round. None of these are gimmes unless Venus comes out firing on all cylinders.

NICK

As I mentioned earlier, I really don’t feel that Radwanska will get through the three tough early rounds she’s been drawn. They’re three potentially tough matches right off the bat, and are all matches that I wouldn’t be stunned to see the 2015 WTA Finals champion lose.

VIKA

Out of the Top 8 seeds, I feel like not enough is being made about Garbiñe Muguruza‘s absolutely brutal first-week draw.

She opens against talented Estonian Anett Kontaveit, who made the fourth round of the US Open out of qualifying — lest we forget — in a match that could be quite fun. After that, a match with Kristen Flipkens or Mirjana Lucic-Baroni could be on the cards — two contrasting styles if there ever were. Finally, looming in the third round could be any one of Caroline Garcia, Barbora Strycova or Mona Barthel….and that’s just to get to Azarenka.

 4. The Most Exciting 1R?

RENÉ

There are so many, I don’t even know where to begin — but the obvious choice has to be Yulia Putintseva vs Caroline Wozniacki. I just hope whomever gets to umpire that match went to school.

Caroline Garcia vs. Barbora Strycova is a close second.

JEFF

There are plenty of great first round matches in the women’s draw this year. Serena/Giorgi stands out for obvious reasons, however, I’m looking forward to Caroline Wozniacki vs. Yulia Putintseva. If Wozniacki isn’t in the punishing form that saw her dismantle opponents in Auckland, then we could be in for a wacky carnival ride with Putintseva’s hot and cold personality game.

SAM

This draw is absolutely loaded with fun in the first round, but I think I’ll give my pick to Dominika Cibulkova vs. Kristina Mladenovic. Cibulkova may lead the head-to-head 5-0, but their last match was a doozy (2-6, 7-6, 7-5 to the Slovak in New Haven), and I’d expect a similar scoreline here.

Plus, there are the stakes of Cibulkova defending quarterfinal points from last year and Mladenovic looking to avoid an 0-3 start to 2016. 18-16 in the third, please!

Oh, and keep an eye on Tsvetana Pironkova vs. Yaroslava Shvedova and Lisicki vs. Cetkovska, too.

NICK

If Camila Giorgi shows up to her first-round meeting with Serena, this could be ridiculous. Very few players can hang with the World No. 1 and match her power from the baseline, but when she’s on, Giorgi is one of them.

It is worth noting that Serena’s last Grand Slam match came against an Italian and did not end as planned.

VIKA

If I could pick everything, I would. This women’s draw is one of the most balanced I’ve seen in a while right from first ball, beginning with the match between Garcia and Strycova. This match could have it all, both tennis-wise and otherwise.

The good news is, we’re getting plenty of TV courts in Melbourne this year, so it’s likely we’ll get to see all these above, and Petkovic vs. Kulichkova, Errani vs. Gasparyan, Tsurenko vs. Lepchenko, and Osaka vs. Vekic too.

5. The Unheralded Opposition?

RENÉ

Dominika Cibulkova has to be a sensible pick here. The Slovak sat out much of 2015 after surgery on her own troublesome Achilles and has done well on the slower, bouncier courts in Melbourne in the past two years. The 2014 Australian Open finalist’s first opponent is Kristina Mladenovic, who started the year with two tough first round losses, so the Frenchwoman might not necessarily be all that high on confidence.

Cibulkova has quarterfinal points to defend, but don’t be surprised if she manages to make another deep run here.

JEFF

If she isn’t too tired from her efforts in Hobart, Eugenie Bouchard has a chance to make some noise in Melbourne. Beyond the fact that she had an absolutely disastrous 2015, the Canadian actually plays well in Australia. Her only quarterfinal last year came at the Australian Open and it was the site of her initial breakthrough two years ago.

Her first round draw is kind enough — 2014 US Open wunderkid Aleksandra Krunic — although she’s slated to play fan favorite and Top 4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the round following. Of all the top four seeds to draw in the second round, this would be Bouchard’s first choice though, as she has traditionally excelled against players with counterpunching tendencies and weaker serves.

SAM

To me, the obvious answer here is young Aussie Daria Gavrilova, who’s coming off a few very strong singles performances in her Hopman Cup victory with Nick Kyrgios. On top of her already good form, the draw gods gave Gavrilova an extremely manageable path (assuming Kvitova doesn’t go all GOATra on us) to the fourth round and perhaps beyond.

Another unseeded player to watch is Cibulkova, who happens to be in this same section and could definitely conjure up some of her Melbourne magic of the last two years and take the place of Gavrilova in this scenario.

NICK

If Bouchard is able to take out Radwanska in a potential second round match, it would signal the return of the Canadian after a pretty disastrous 2015 that ended with her leaving the US Open concussed and unable to play eventual finalist Vinci in the fourth round.

VIKA

I feel like a handful of unseeded players could make some noise in this draw, beginning with young Russian Margarita Gasparyan. Gasparyan had a breakthrough year in 2015, and she’s on the shortlist of players that I look to cement their place on the WTA this season. Sara Errani is often a tough matchup for young players, but I think Gasparyan possesses enough variety with her pretty one-handed backhand to match her, and has a comfort level at the net most young players don’t.

Hot take: A potential second round meeting with flashy French teen Oceane Dodin is the best hypothetical match of this tournament.

6. The Semifinalists?

RENÉ

Serena Williams. Is there anyone in the top quarter than can endanger the defending champion? Australia is serving up some rocky road for Williams in the first round with Giorgi but beyond that..? Wozniacki always plays her BFF tough but the Dane isn’t in her fall of 2014 form. The one ominous thing that I can say is that the two times that Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams have been in the same quarter in 2014, they never met.

Agnieszka Radwanska….maybe? I have no idea who’s going to come through this: Radwanska is an absolutely tentative guess because this could blow wide open as early as on the third day of the tournament. For a second I wondered whether I wanted to put Cibulkova here, then I pondered Stephens. For a split second, I even thought about Stosur but suddenly regained at least some clarity. So Radwanska it is. But who knows, really.

In the bottom half, the biggest question is: how serious is Muguruza’s foot issue? It’s forced her to take an emergency MTO in Wuhan against Kerber last year, remained throughout the off-season and then saw her pull out after one set against Lepchenko. In a potential fourth round blockbuster between the Spaniard and Azarenka, I’d go with the Brisbane champion.

Angelique Kerber has a decent draw to finally make it back into the second week of a Grand Slam but I don’t see her progressing further than a quarterfinal. Hence, I’ll let the recency bias sway me and pick Azarenka for the semifinals.

Finally, as I said previously, I don’t see Halep play up to her seeding. She has had some pretty tough losses in Melbourne in the last two years and I’m surprised if she’s been able to cast those memories off, particularly considering how much of a catalyst last year’s Makarova match proved to be. No one knows when Halep’s Achilles is going to flare up again and while she fought well in Sydney, her tennis wasn’t at the level she probably wants it to be.

So I’ll go with my left(y)-field pick: Makarova to make the semifinals. But if Venus Williams gets through the first two or three rounds — who knows? There are almost as many possibilities in this section as in the second quarter. Almost.

JEFF

I’m going with Maria Sharapova in the first quarter, not because I think she’s beating Serena in the quarterfinals, but because I have this sneaking suspicion that Serena is not going to get that far. Sloane Stephens could emerge dramatically from her lighter part of the draw in a repeat of her 2013 run.

On the other half of the draw, Victoria Azarenka is probably the favorite to make it through, although it’s Garbiñe Muguruza who is seeded No.3 and the Belorussian who is at No.14. While their projected fourth round encounter could be a blockbuster, I have more faith in Azarenka’s early-slam competency than I do Muguruza’s… yet.

Rounding off the semifinalists almost begs for a flukey unseeded run from someone — but I’m going to go with the next best thing, Karolina Pliskova, who has never made it two the second week of a Grand Slam.

And she’s the No. 9 seed.

SAM

In the top half, I’m going with a rematch of what many consider the greatest upset in tennis history: Serena Williams vs. Roberta Vinci. Serena’s path isn’t the easiest (there are far easier paths to the second week than her potential road of Giorgi-Ostapenko-Kasatkina) but ultimately, I can’t see anyone in her quarter finishing the job. I’m betting on Vinci edging out Stephens in the third round and taking advantage of a slew of upsets in her quarter (Bouchard over Radwanska, maybe?) to make her second straight major semifinal.

In the bottom half, I somehow ended up with Victoria Azarenka vs. Ana Ivanovic. The first half of that seems close to given at this point; Azarenka was nearly peaking in Brisbane and landed in a a soft section. As for the Halep quarter…it’s difficult to make a pick at all. If Ekaterina Makanrova were 100% healthy, she would be an easy pick to defend her semifinal points from last year. I have doubts about her current status, so I’m picking Ivanovic to have a very similar run to last year at Roland Garros and reach the semifinal.

NICK

Serena is always way more motivated than how she comes across, and I believe she will have little trouble navigating her way through to the semifinals. We could get a rematch of the WTA Finals in the quarterfinals of the Kvitova-Radwanska section. Bouchard or even Sloane Stephens could crash that party, but I’ll go with Kvitova here.

Azarenka looked incredible in Brisbane, and she will be very tough to beat in Melbourne. Anticipating a potential final with Serena, it’s worth noting she had the World No. 1 on the ropes at Wimbledon and Roland Garros last year.

Taking a risk in the final quarter, but Ekaterina Makarova is a dangerous player and is always very consistent at the slams. Halep and Venus are in her quarter, making it a very winnable quarter for the Russian.

VIKA

I think Serena is a lock from the top quarter, but I am eager to see how the young players that inhabit that section deal with facing her. Hsieh Su-wei is the only player in the World No. 1’s little bracket that is over the age of 25, and three teenagers (Jelena Ostapenko, Ana Konjuh and/or Daria Kasatkina have a legitimate shot to show their stuff vs. the World No. 1 in rounds two and three.

As far as her opponent? I think the second quarter will feature a fair bit of carnage and the winner of a Vinci/Stephens third round will reach the final four. Although Stephens has a claimed to the “dark horse” moniker this year than in other years, Vinci is my pick to come through that meeting and meet Serena in the semis. #NARRATIVES, right?

Based on what she showed in Brisbane, I think Azarenka comes through the third quarter relatively unscathed before and after a blockbusters with Muguruza, and in an upset-riddled fourth quarter, I think Karolina Pliskova finally makes a breakthrough — beginning with wins over Makarova to make week two, and Venus Williams in a fun fourth round clash.

7. The Champion?

RENÉ

Boring is what you’ll say, but relying on Serena Williams‘ ability to play herself into a tournaments and be an almost unstoppable force in the closing stages of a Grand Slam is what I say. The World No. 1 has never lost a semifinal or final in Melbourne and that’s just one of the things I am banking on.

Unless Williams comes down with the flu once again or is troubled by any further ailments, she’ll capture No. 22 here. The field feels like a more palpable pick this year than last year but that’s not because Serena has gotten worse or because the field has gotten closer, but due to her last match being the Vinci loss in New York and the little data we have coming into Melbourne.

JEFF

Victoria Azarenka. She’s on a mission to start this year and I thoroughly believe the last two years have humbled her mindset and have lead her to make major improvements in her game during the offseason. Even in her patchy areas of play in Brisbane, she fought through and delivered convincing scores to upend some quality players. She’s also a two-time champion here and clearly enjoys the courts, atmosphere and freshness of a season just beginning.

Will she finally be #back!!!111? Perhaps finally she will.

SAM

Calendar Year Golden Slam, Part II hype for at least a few months? If Serena Williams nabs her 22nd major title as I suppose she will, that will be the talk. Look, I understand that we have no idea where Serena is mentally or physically, but it’s very difficult to pick against her on paper, especially with the draw she’s been given. I suspect Azarenka will be the hot pick to take the title, but I don’t see her beating Williams if they go head-to-head here. The World No. 1 will be keyed-in by the time the final rolls around, and I expect her to defend her title with relative ease.

NICK

Azarenka was so good in Brisbane that she convinced me to pick her to win this title. Picking against Serena isn’t something I would do with actual money, but nobody is holding me accountable for these picks, so Azarenka it is.

VIKA

While I think a final between Serena and Azarenka is on the cards, I still think the World No. 1 is the favorite should they meet in the championship. The good thing if you’re Azarenka is she’ll now meet Serena later in the tournament as her ranking continues to rise again. The bad thing? The World No. 1 gets all the more difficult to beat at those stages. I think we’ll get a three-set tussle, but Serena comes away with No. 22 by the slimmest of margins.

#DaGrid

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Who are your WTA picks? Sound off in the comments!

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