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By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, January 17, 2020

Venus Williams

In a sequel to their Wimbledon battle of the ages, 39-year-old Venus Williams square off against 15-year-old Coco Gauff in what could be an Australian Open thriller.

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

On the surface, this Australian Open draw is all about comings and goings.

Ultimately, staying power will be a prerequisite for Melbourne success.

More: Six Takes on AO Draw

Continuing her quest to match Margaret Court’s all-time record by winning her 24th Grand Slam crown, Serena Williams warmed up for Oz winning her 73rd career title in Auckland.

It was the 38-year-old Williams’ first title as a mom and a declaration of her deep desire to earn a share of the ultimate record after four straight Grand Slam final losses.

If the seeds hold true to form, the eighth-seeded Serena will play defending champion Naomi Osaka in the quarterfinals.

Osaka, who captioned a photo of the pair sitting side-by-side at Rally For Relief as “me and my mom”  swept Williams in the 2018 US Open final.

The Happy Slam will see the return of Court on the 50th anniversary of her 1970 Grand Slam season—and is the farewell tournament for 2018 champion Caroline Wozniacki, who may well be serenaded by Aussie fans singing “Sweet Caroline” as they did celebrating her gripping final win over Simona Halep.

Here are our choices for five must-see AO women’s openers.

(2) Karolina Pliskova vs. Kristina Mladenovic
Head-to-head: Even, 2-2

A blockbuster match between two big-hitters should come down to first-serve, first-strike proficiency.

Arguably the best woman yet to win a Grand Slam singles title, Pliskova rallied past Serena Williams to reach the 2019 AO semifinals. The world No. 2 tuned up for Melbourne defeating Osaka and Madison Keys in succession to collect her 16th career title in Brisbane. The 2019 Tour ace leader can dictate play on serve and is aiming to become the first woman to win Brisbane and Melbourne back to back.

While Mladenovic doesn’t serve as big as Pliskova—few do—she’s more adept closing at net and has a history of success down under. The 6’ Mladenovic won the 2018 AO doubles crown with Timea Babos and beat world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty in a three-set thriller lifting France to the Fed Cup championship over Australia in Perth a couple months ago.

Mladenovic got a look at Pliskova’s sting serve last week partnering Ajla Tomljanovic to beat Pliskova and Donna Vekic in Brisbane doubles and should be pumped for this rematch.

(4) Simona Halep vs. Jennifer Brady
Head-to-head: Halep leads 1-0

The 49th-ranked Brady burst out of the blocks in Brisbane brilliantly edging five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova before surprising world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty to signal her status as a disruptive force.

Here’s why Brady is so dangerous: her heavy serve and twisting topspin forehand empower her to take the offensive against most opponents on hard courts, she’s already played six matches this season after qualifying in Brisbane where she won every tie break she played and in her lone prior meeting with Halep she pushed the former No. 1 to 7-6 in the third set loss in Toronto last summer.

Reuniting with coach Darren Cahill, Halep arrived in Australia early to train and knows this will be a battle. Arguably the best mover on the circuit, the Wimbledon champ must create running rallies, stretch Brady on the backhand and hit her own two-hander down the line with conviction. Halep was Australian Open runner-up in 2018 but before that she suffered successive opening-round exits and has failed to survive the first round in four of nine AO appearances.

(19) Donna Vekic vs. (WC) Maria Sharapova
Head-to-head: Sharapova leads 1-0

Two power players whose careers are going in different directions will try to control the middle ground.

Both women are at their best controlling the center of the court, cracking drives into the corner and forcing opponents to defend. Typically, Vekic is the sharper server, while Sharapova can be a volatile return ripping screaming drives down the line.

Sharapova has been working with coach Riccardo Piatti to streamline her serve and alleviate stress on her surgically-repaired shoulder, but concedes she needs more reps. Since suffering a 6-1, 6-1 thrashing to Serena Williams at the US Open last summer, Sharapova has played one WTA match clanking 11 double faults but showing her trademark gritty spirit bowing to American qualifier Jennifer Brady in a third-set breaker in Brisbane.

The 20th-ranked Vekic is ranked 125 spots above Sharapova and will need to impose her serve and attack the five-time Grand Slam champion’s forehand to reach the second round for third year in a row.

Venus Williams vs. Coco Gauff
Head-to-Head: Gauff leads 1-0

Oz celebrates the sequel to the match for the ages.

Sixth months after 15-year-old qualifier Gauff stunned the 39-year-old Williams 6-4, 6-4 en route to the Wimbledon fourth round they meet again in another major opener. Playing her first Wimbledon main-draw match against one of her idols, the then 313th-ranked Coco played with poise and power even cranking a 108 mph second serve in taking down Venus in fantastic fashion.

First-serve is crucial for Venus, who won’t want to encourage running rallies against an opponent 24 years younger who’s already one of the fastest women on tour. The former world No. 1 lost three of her last four matches to finish 2019 with a 19-15, but three of those four were tight three-setters showing Venus still has the appetite for the fight.

If you’re one of the skeptics claiming Coco has been over-hyped by media and fans eager for a new young star, you need a reality-check says 18-time Grand Slam champion Chrissie Evert.

“Anybody who doesn't think Coco’s going to win a Grand Slam has to have their head examined,” Hall of Famer Chrissie Evert said. “She's got it all, and she's got the power and she moves so beautifully, and she's going to cause some upsets for sure this tournament, the Australian Open, I predict.”

(11) Aryna Sabalenka vs. Carla Suarez Navarro
Head-to-head: Sabalenka leads 3-0

An emotional opener pitting the gritty Suarez Navarro vs. the grieving Sabalenka.

Spare a thought for Sabalenka, who has been playing with a heavy heart following the sudden passing of her 44-year-old dad, Sergey, in November.

The bond between father and daughter was strong—former hockey player Sergey introduced Aryna to tennis on an impulse.

“One day, my dad was just driving me somewhere in the car, and on the way, he saw tennis courts. So he took me to the courts,” said Aryna.

One of the game’s hardest hitters, Sabalenka swept former No. 1  Halep to reach the Adelaide semifinals and has a major power edge over the 5’4” Spaniard.

Suarez Navarro announced this is her final season on the WTA. Look for the former world No. 6 to use her wondrous one-handed backhand to try to shift spins and speeds in an effort to unsettle Sabalenka's timing.


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