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2011 Australian Open Women's Breakdown: Belgian Battle Looming

David ReplogleContributor IIIJanuary 14, 2011

2011 Australian Open Women's Breakdown: Belgian Battle Looming

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    Poor, poor Serena Williams. Sidelined with a gimpy foot, steaming at her lost chance to snag yet another slam. Hell, she should have entered herself anyway. What odds would you have put on a one-legged Serena? Quarters, semis? 

    Without the younger Williams sister here to trample the field, opportunity is knocking more loudly than a Seles-Sharapova grunt-off. Considering the mass exodus of women's stars that is fast approaching, it'd be great to see a young gun or new face take the trophy. But Caroline Wozniacki got handed too tough a draw. Vera Zvonareva still doesn't have it together mentally, and Sam Stosur still isn't confident in her newfound elite status. And Victoria Azarenka has yet to reign in her high temper and lethal groundstrokes.

    So who's left but a couple of part-time Belgians, more than ready to leapfrog their mentally weak pack and snag yet another Grand Slam trophy. Henin, barring her elbow injury doesn't flare back up, has a comfortable draw to follow up on her enormous success Down Under. Trendy pick Kim Clijsters also lucked out with a great path to the finals, and you can be sure she wants to erase all memories of that horrific display against Nadia Petrova in last year's third round. I'm picking Clijsters to take major No. 4, but there could be several twists and turns in sight.

    Just what are they? Take a look as I delve into the mysterious abyss known as the top-heavy 2011 Aussie Open women's draw – perhaps the most wide-open Grand Slam field the sport has ever seen.

First Quarter: Henin Steadily Progresses

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    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 

Second Quarter: Fully Loaded

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    And the unevenly weighted draw commences...

    So the top quarter was pretty rough, especially for first-time major hopeful Wozniacki – who, if she even somehow manages to get through it, will find herself in a world of hurt in the semis. Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, Sydney winner Na Li, Brisbane finalist Andrea Petkovic, two-time Slam quarterfinalist Kaia Kanepi and a handful of dangerous floaters all landed in this blockbuster second quarter. And while I’m not picking any of these women to hoist the championship trophy, their chances all got a whole lot slimmer when they all landed back-to-back in the same section.

    Venus, lucky to snag a top four seed after her sister withdrew, should be fine in her first couple rounds of the Aussie despite a severe lack of match play. The American fell in straights to both Zvonareva and Li in Hong Kong, but 1) both of those women are in good form and 2) it was an exhibition event, free of all the pressures a Grand Slam carries. But Venus has Petkovic potentially waiting in the wings for a tough third round encounter. Over the past few years, the seven-time major champion’s hopes of adding to her Slam tally have been slashed by the likes of Flavia Pennetta, Carla Suarez Navarro, Agnes Szavay and the aforementioned Pironkova. The gangly German, seeded 30th, reached the final of Brisbane by striking the ball beautifully – who’s to discount Petkovic’s chances against Venus?

    Maria Sharapova is a fraction of the player who stormed to this very title three years ago – a once-confident serve has gone wayward, groundstrokes aren’t as penetrating or consistent and shaky movement continues to remain an issue. She’s got an easy opener against 33-year-old Tamarine Tanasugarn, so a consecutive nightmarish first round exit shouldn’t be in the cards... although she did just lose to ancient Greta Arn in Auckland. Whatever transpires against the Thai, Pova could run into more serious trouble as soon as the second round against either Virginie Razzano or Elena Vesnina. Razzano, who has struggled with injuries in the past year-and-a-half, nearly took out eventual champ Li Na in Sydney; Vesnina disposed of Sharapova in a dismal two-setter at the end of 2010. Then Kaia Kanepi, Venus and Petkovic lie on the horizon. Not a great draw for the 14th seed, looking to recapture some intimidating form.

    Rounding out this quarter are No. 8 Victoria Azarenka and No. 9 Li – who just won her fourth career title over Kim Clijsters in an impressive yet error-ridden performance. Both of these women have somewhat tricky third round seeds in Daniela Hantuchova (for the Belarussian) and Aravane Rezai (for the Chinese). But if playing well, neither one should be a problem.

    Ahh, if it weren't for that hypothetical if. Ain’t it a pesky word. If playing at the top of their games, both Li and Azarenka could absolutely sweep this slam title. Besides Serena and Rezai, these two possess the biggest baseline games in women’s tennis right now. They'll both roll to a tantalizing fourth round meeting, where I’m predicting Azarenka will edge out an exhausted Li. I think this AO could be a huge tournament for the Belarussian. Granted, she didn’t have the most sparkling of warm-ups in Sydney – but if she had taken down Serena either of the last two years in Melbourne, the title definitely was in her grasp.

    Through to the quarters: (30) Petkovic and (8) Azarenka

    First rounds to watch: (4) V. Williams vs. Errani, (17) Rezai vs. Zahlavova Strycova, (28) Hantuchova vs. Kulikova, Dokic vs. Ondraskova

Third Quarter: Clijsters Cruise Control

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    I’m not reading too much into Kim Clijsters’ loss to Li in Sydney. She had a marathon match against Alisa Kleybanova in the semis the day before, and after losing that first set in a tiebreak it was obvious she wasn’t going to fight too hard to bring the championship to three. She was visibly frustrated, a rarity, but her goal is to peak for the Aussie.

    And if the Belgian came in as a pre-tournament favorite, the odds for her taking the trophy shot out the Rod Laver Arena roof after she was dealt an incredibly forgiving draw. Her potential quarterfinal seed is No. 7 Jelena Jankovic, whose impending fall from grace should hit right around Indian Wells. Also lurking in her quarter are No. 12 Agnieszka Radwanska, who many thought wasn’t even going to play the Australian after foot surgery at the end of last year; No. 13 Nadia Petrova, who looked downright abysmal in both of her tune-ups for the major; No. 19 Ana Ivanovic, whose tear at the end of the ’10 season seemed to me like a giant fluke; and No. 24 Kleybanova who, although testing Clijsters mightily in Sydney, has underperformed at the majors so far in her young career.

    While this quarter doesn’t pose much of a challenge to Clijsters, it does contain a lot of intriguing first round match-ups. Radwanska goes against Japanese robot Kimiko Date-Krumm – the 40-year-old took down Safina at last year’s French, so she has potential to beat high seeds at majors. Surprise Auckland winner Greta Arn takes on flashy Spaniard, No. 26 Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, in a battle of two veteran overachievers. Comeback kid and home favorite Alicia Molik plays the small sparkplug Italian Roberta Vinci, who always seems to rack up a couple quality wins at a major every now and then. And Shuai Peng, who reached back-to-back semifinals leading up to the year’s first Slam, will have a tough one against Ukranian Kateryna Bondarenko – the winner of whom will probably play Jankovic.

    And what about poor, poor Dinara Safina? Losing out second-seed Yanina Wickmayer in the first round of Auckland, getting thrashed by top seed Marion Bartoli in her opening match in Hobart – then drawing Kim Clijsters in the first round of the Australian, a tournament she reached the final at a mere two years ago? It’s a dire twist for the Russian, because she actually tried to play a couple low-level tournaments and get some confidence and match play before Melbourne, but just had awful luck. Judging by her final set against the Belgian and the sloppy tennis she exhibited against the Frenchwoman, I don’t think she’ll test Clijsters too hard.

    Through to the quarters: [Qualifier] and (3) Clijsters

    First rounds to watch: All of those I listed above

Fourth Quarter: Zvonareva...I Guess?

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    And we finally stumble upon the weakest section of the draw: a couple of headcase top seeds, youngsters who haven’t lived up to the hype and players who consistently disappoint on the big stages. It’s anyone’s guess who will emerge here.

    No. 2 Vera Zvonareva and No. 5 Sam Stosur had career years in 2010, and while I’m not completely discounting them from contention, I do think they’ll have to conquer some serious nightmares to go far here. Zvonareva’s had great Aussie runs before – she played fantastic tennis to reach the semis in ’09 – but I feel like now that it’s a year where everyone’s expecting more from her, she’ll buckle under the pressure. A potential second round against Sydney semifinalist, 19-year-old Bojana Jovanovski of Serbia, could be a test – Jovanovski absolutely belts the ball, and in Sydney she took down Zvonareva’s conquerer Pennetta in straight sets. A couple of tough compatriots also loom in the fourth round for Vera Z. – No. 16 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and No. 18 Maria Kirilenko. Teenager Pavly is being touted as one of the “next big things” on the tour, but I think before she really breaks through her shape needs to improve drastically. Kirilenko, meanwhile, finished last year in fine fashion – but has looked lackluster so far this year.

    At the top of this quarter is world No. 5 Stosur, who has never advanced to the quarters in eight attempts at her home slam – last year got absolutely rocked by Serena in the fourth round. This go around, with her seeding much higher and her draw much easier, she’s in a newfound position to make a deep run at a tournament she holds dear to her heart. Plus, the slow grittiness Plexicushion kicks up Stosur’s second serve beautifully and allows her to more easily dictate by running around her weaker backhand side. The seeds in Stosur’s sixteenth – Kvitova, Pennetta and Peer – could all present some serious challenges to the Australian’s campaign. Though Kvitova won Brisbane, she’s still way too inconsistent a player to back up that semifinal run at Wimbledon. I think Peer and Pennetta are on a crash course for a third round meeting, with the winner taking out Stosur in the next round. They’re both more than capable of matching Stosur from the baseline (as Pennetta’s proven several times over), and can goad a nervous Stosur into more errors from the baseline than normal.

    Like the fourth quarter of the men’s draw, this section of the women’s tourney also came down with “syllabus syndrome” – Amanmuradova, Dominguez Lino, Chakvetadze, Zakopalova. Not the most exciting group of fillers. And, like the first quarter I previewed, this section also features several players whose rankings just allowed them into the main draw – Maria Elena Camerin, Mirjana Lucic, Mathilde Johansson, “Kelly” Chang and Romina Oprandi, to name a few.

    Through to the quarters: (10) Peer and (2) Zvonareva

    First rounds to watch: (5) Stosur vs. (WC) Davis, (22) Pennetta vs. Rodionova, (25) Kvitova vs. (WC) Peers, Oudin vs. Zakopalova

Latter Stages

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    Quarterfinals

    (11) Henin d. (15) Bartoli : The Belgian has too much game for the Frenchwoman, as well as a big advantage fitness-wise in the oppressing Aussie heat 

    (8) Azarenka d. (30) Petkovic : It's about time Azarenka broke through to a major semifinal. Couldn't ask for a better opportunity here. 

    (3) Clijsters d. [Qualifier] : I took a risk choosing a qualifier over more established players in that part of the draw, but no matter who comes through – Clijsters should roll.

    (2) Zvonareva d. (10) Peer : If Vera hadn't been so solid at the Australian beforehand, I'd question her chops Down Under. I think she'll get through this section handily if her mind holds up. 


    Semifinals

    (11) Henin d. (8) Azarenka : These two have never met – if they made it happen here, I think we could be in for a good fight. But I give Henin the edge, especially since she can handle the Belarussian's big ball.

    (3) Clijsters d. (2) Zvonareva : Could be a re-hash of last season's abysmal U.S. Open final, when the enormity of the situation hit Zvonareva hard.

    Championship:

    (3) Clijsters d. (11) Henin : I'm very reluctant to pick Clijsters to go this far, let alone win the tournament. Especially when many others, including myself, did the same thing last year. She's a popular pick, but like I said in my intro.... who else is there?

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