For as lopsided as the head-to-head record is between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka (17-3 Williams), the WTA is far more fascinating with the Belarusian around. In 2012 and 2013, Azarenka made all four finals at the hard court Grand Slams, winning both Australian Opens and pushing Serena to three sets in the U.S. Opens. After an injury-plagued 2014, fans and pundits jumped at any chance to pronounce Vika back last year, but it was never really true, despite some thrilling battles against the younger Williams sister.
Now though? She really does appear all the way back after demolishing the field in Sydney. With the uncertainty regarding Serena’s knee, Vika has quickly become the co-favorite down under. That feels a bit much considering she hasn’t even made a Slam semifinal since that 2013 U.S. Open, although it’s hard to present alternate evidence. Simona Halep, Garbine Muguruza, and Maria Sharapova all come in with injuries as well, making this the most wide open women’s major in some time.
#1 Serena Williams’ Quarter
Seeds: Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Belinda Bencic, Caroline Wozniacki, Sara Errani, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Anastasia Pavyluchenkova, Anna Schmiedlova
Notable Floaters: Camila Giorgi, Daria Kasatkina, Heather Watson
Forecast: Serena’s first match against Camila Giorgi has analysts putting the defending champion on upset alert, but if Serena is healthy, Giorgi is too erratic to beat her. While a fun popcorn match, Giorgi’s propensity for double faults will cost the pint-sized powerhouse too many points. This is the most loaded quarter, with the potential Sharapova-Bencic showdown in the fourth round as the crown jewel. Sharapova’s arm injury cost her dearly, as she lost her #4 ranking to Radwanska and the 25% chance she had of landing in Serena’s quarter came to fruition. Bencic beat Williams in Toronto last year, and, barring a hot streak from Kuznetsova, is probably the only player in this quarter that can beat a healthy Serena.
#4 Aga Radwanska’s Quarter
Seeds: Aga Radwanska, Petra Kvitova, Carla Suarez Navarro, Roberta Vinci, Andrea Petkovic, Sloane Stephens, Sam Stosur, Kiki Mladenovic
Notable floaters: Genie Bouchard, Monica Puig, Dominika Cibulkova, Daria Gavrilova
Forecast: Although this quarter lacks a front-end contender, it makes up for it with a good 10-12 women who could legitimately emerge from it. Radwanska has had success in Australia, but can be overpowered and often falters when she’s the favorite. Suarez Navarro and Stosur struggle under pressure. Kvitova is maybe the biggest wild card in sports, with the cooler weather in the first week possibly being the key as to whether she can make a run. Stephens just won her second career title and Bouchard made the final in Hobart to start what she hopes is a bounce back season.
#3 Garbine Muguruza’s Quarter
Seeds: Garbine Muguruza, Angelique Kerber, Timea Bacsinszky, Victoria Azarenka, Elina Svitolina, Jelena Jankovic, Irina-Camelia Begu, Caroline Garcia
Notable floaters: Misaki Doi, Coco Vandeweghe, Barbora Strycova
Forecast: Muguruza might have been a smart semi-dark horse pick to win it all, except for a foot ailment. She’s downplayed it, but even if she’s healthy, Azarenka is a tough draw and will be the favorite should they meet. Unfortunately for the new-and-improved Angie Kerber, she has a tough opening match against Doi and has to hope someone beats Vika for her before the quarterfinals. Bacsinszky has faltered since returning to the sport and becoming one of 2015’s best sports stories. Though Svitolina is one of only four under-22 players in the top 35, the upside just isn’t there for a deep run, at least not yet. She went just 13-20 last year against top 50 players (28-5 against non-top 50).
#2 Simona Halep’s Quarter
Seeds: Simona Halep, Venus Williams, Karolina Pliskova, Madison Keys, Ana Ivanovic, Ekaterina Makarova, Sabine Lisicki, Lesia Tsurenko
Notable floaters: Johanna Konta, Petra Cetkovska, Julia Goerges, Alize Cornet
Forecast: The thinnest quarter presents an opportunity for Halep to reach the semifinals without exhausting her smaller, somewhat injury-prone frame, as long as she’s fit to play. A nagging Achilles injury kept her out of Brisbane, and her grinding, baseline style requires her to firing on all cylinders to have a chance. Her section is filled with erratic seeds and it’s not crazy to think she could avoid most of them. Venus Williams and Madison Keys made big runs in Melbourne last year, though their chances are compromised by age (Williams) and injury (Keys).
Quarterfinals: Bencic def Williams, Radwanska def Gavrilova, Azarenka def Kerber, Halep def Makarova
Semifinals: Radwanska def Bencic, Azarenka def Halep
Final: Azarenka def Radwanska