Poor, poor Caroline Wozniacki. So she loses to Kim Clijsters in a Thailand exhibition, falling in a tight match tie-break. “At least it was close!” everyone said, faking a smile. Then comes the nightmare in Hong Kong, where an impressive straight-set victory over Li Na is forgotten after Vera Zvonareva goes into demolition mode – handing the world No. 1 just one game. “At least it wasn’t a double bagel...” everyone said, rolling their eyes as she took turns crying on shoulders. Then in Woz’s opening match in Sydney, she goes down handily to Dominika Cibulkova, who she previously had a 5-1 record against. “Well... at least you’re.... taller?” everyone said, watching as the Dane ripped up newly-printed Tennis World Number One!! business cards. Bad investment, girl.
Especially since she was handed the draw from hell. Singles No. 1 goes up against doubles No. 1 in round one when Woz takes on Gisela Dulko. Ironically, the Argentine world No. 48 (in singles) has been known as of late for her upsets at the majors – Ivanovic here last year, Azarenka at oh-ten Roland Garros, Sharapova at ’09 Wimbledon. I actually am not banking on Dulko upending Wozniacki here – unlike those other three, the Dane isn’t going to implode with unforced errors.
Instead, trouble lies further up the road for the top seed. Cibulkova, her Sydney slayer, is a potential third round opponent. After that, No. 15 Marion Bartoli or No. 21 Yanina Wickmayer could await in the round of sixteen. Both women, unlike a Cibulkova or a Dulko, possess much more lethal groundstrokes that go up well against the Dane’s loopier strokes. Bartoli’s won her last two encounters with Top Woz, most recently a comprehensive 64 61 smackdown last summer. When on, like she was in the first few rounds of Brisbane and Hobart, she’s too dangerous to stop. Same goes for Wickmayer – she played well to reach the final in Auckland, and nearly took down Justine Henin in last year’s Aussie Open fourth round. The key for the young Belgian will be keeping it together mentally – she’s one of the tour’s biggest hotheads, and her temper can either be her biggest friend or worst enemy. In the Auckland finals against Greta Arn, it was the latter. Wickmayer drew a very tough first round opponent in Jarmila Groth, however – the adopted Aussie also possesses a cannon-like baseline game and has had a very good tune-up campaign. She’s currently in the finals of washed-out Hobart, which makes me wonder if fatigue will be a factor going up against the Belgian.
Speaking of Henin, she’s also in this quarter – and received the ultimate draw to get through to the last eight. She opens against a qualifier and her potential third round opponent is No. 23 Svetlana Kuznetsova, who’s coming off an incredibly disappointing season. The Belgian sports a dominant 16-2 record over the Russian, and Kuznetsova’s hangover from last season has clearly carried over into the start of 2011 – losing a couple tight three-setters to the Chinese duo Peng and Li early on in her Aussie tune-up events. I had high hopes from Kuznetsova at both Auckland and Sydney, but I’m not counting on anything special in Melbourne.
And rounding out this section of the draw is world No. 6 and feel-good story of last season, Francesca Schiavone. The Italian has a long season in front of her – like most, I’m not expecting her to back up the magical success she had in 2010 – but she’s got an extremely comfortable path to a fourth round showing in Melbourne. In fact, I’m shocked most of the women in her little round-of-32 group even got into the main draw – Junri Namigata, Monica Niculescu, Pauline Parmentier, Rebecca Marino. Really? They all bypassed qualifying somehow? Lucky for the Italian, she also drew the last possible seed as a potential third round opponent, No. 32 Tzvetana Pironkova – whose ranking is already highly, highly inflated thanks to a stunning run to the Wimby semis.
Through to the quarters: (15) Bartoli and (11) Henin
First rounds to watch: (1) Wozniacki vs. Dulko, (11) Henin vs. Qualifier, (21) Wickmayer vs. Groth, (23) Kuznetsova vs. Riske, (29) Cibulkova vs. Kerber, Hercog vs. Sevastova