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By Richard Pagliaro | @Tennis_Now | Thursday, January 11, 2024


Aryna Sabalenka is bidding to become the first woman since compatriot Victoria Azarenka to defend the Australian Open.

Photo credit: Robert Prange/Getty

Familiar faces return to celebrate the 2024 Australian Open's fast start.

The Melbourne major begins with its first Sunday start this weekend.

McEnroe: Dimitrov Top Dark Horse For Australian Open

The Australian Open women's draws were conducted today and provide plenty of compelling collisions down under.

View the full Australian Open women’s singles draw below:

The Australian Open women’s singles final is set for Saturday, January 27th at 7:30 p.m. local time.

It’s been 11 years since Victoria Azarenka rallied past Li Na in the 2013 AO final to capture her second consecutive Melbourne title. No woman since Azarenka has successfully defended the Australian Open.

Reigning champion Aryna Sabalenka, Azarenka's Belarusian compatriot, will try to repeat as champion this month.

Here’s our Top 5 Takeaways from the 2024 Australian Open women’s draw.

Best Draws

Last year, the Australian Open was proving ground for Aryna Sabalenka, who showed the world she could win a Grand Slam.

A fierce Sabalenka subdued Wimbledon winner Elena Rybakina 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 to capture her maiden major title in Melbourne. 

This month, Rod Laver Arena will be the confirmation court.

Can Sabalenka do what many champions say is the toughest task in tennis: Defend a major championship?

The second-seeded Sabalenka has the kindest draw of high seeds.

Anchoring the bottom quarter, Sabalenka opens against a qualifier, could possibly play another qualifier in round two with her first potential seed No. 28-seeded Lesia Tsurenko in round three.

No. 6-seeded Ons Jabeur is the second-highest seed in Sabalenka’s quarter with No. 9-seeded Barbora Krejcikova the only other Grand Slam singles champion in that bottom quarter.

The last three women to defeat Sabalenka—No. 1 Iga Swiatek, No. 3 Elena Rybakina and No. 5 Jessica Pegula—all reside in the top half of the draw, which means Sabalenka can’t face any of her conquerors until a possible final.

The explosive Sabalenka has reached semifinals or better in five consecutive Grand Slam appearances and was one set from winning the US Open last September. This draw presents Sabalenka opportunity to go deep again.

Coco Gauff rallied past Sabalenka to win her maiden major at the 2023 US Open.

The fourth-ranked Gauff opened the season dropping just one set in defending her Auckland title.

Gauff is in good form and has room to move in Melbourne. She opens against veteran Anna Karolina Schmiedlova with the winner facing either American Caroline Dolehideor a qualifier in round two. Gauff’s first possible seeded opponent is 2021 US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez in what would be their first encounter in round three.

Things get very interesting if Gauff gets to the second week. In the fourth round, Gauff could face No. 27 Anastasia Potapova, who beat Gauff in both meetings last year, including in front of her home fans at the 2023 Miami Open, or two-time AO champion Naomi Osaka or 16th-seeded Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia, who has beaten Gauff twice in a row at the 2022 US Open and 2022 WTA Finals.

Still, if you’re on Team Coco, this is a very solid draw that places Gauff on the bottom half away from her personal kryptonite, Iga Swiatek.

Worst Draws

Life won’t be lonely at the top for world No. 1 Iga Swiatek.

The four-time Grand Slam champion Swiatek opens against 2020 AO champion Sofia Kenin in a rematch of the 2020 Roland Garros final, which the Pole pound out a 6-4, 6-1 victory.

"It kind of strikes me sometimes that we played my first Grand Slam final was against Sofia and now we're playing in the first round," Swiatek said. "It's pretty weird. That's how our life journeys kind of went apart.

"I know she's been playing some solid tennis. She was playing in Abu Dhabi. It's not going to be easy."

Round two would pit Swiatek against either former world No. 1 Angelique Kerber, whom the Roland Garros champion crushed 6-3, 6-0 in the United Cup final last week, or feisty American Danielle Collins, who shocked Swiatek 6-4, 6-1 in the 2022 AO semifinals. Since that loss, Swiatek has beaten Collins three times in a row.

A fourth-round match could pit Swiatek against Elina Svitolina, who knocked her out of the Wimbledon quarterfinals last summer. Swiatek has failed to survive the fourth round in three of her last four AO appearances.

Former Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko, who is 4-0 lifetime vs. Swiatek, including a 2023 US Open victory, could meet the top seed in the quarters.

If Swiatek, the undefeated MVP of the United Cup, reaches her second AO semifinal her toughest test—No. 3 Elena Rybakina—may well be waiting. That is assuming Rybakina navigates her own minefield that starts with former No. 1 Karolina Pliskova. Rybakina has swept all six sets vs. Pliskova.

Two years ago, Caroline Garcia reached her first Grand Slam singles semifinal at the US Open and went on to win her biggest singles title at the WTA Finals.

In her AO opener, the 16th-seeded Garcia faces two-time former AO champion Naomi Osaka in a rematch of the 2021 AO third round, which Osaka swept 6-2, 6-3.

Former No. 1 Osaka looked good shaking off the rust in Brisbane, her first pro-level tournament in 15 months, after giving birth to daughter, Shai, last July. Garcia tends to stubbornly stick to her uber-aggressive return positioning sometimes several feet inside the court. If Osaka is landing her first serve that can be a recipe for disaster because you open up angles for her and of course can be fodder for the body serve.

New mom Angelique Kerber made her highly-anticipated return at United Cup last week showing grit and guts out-dueling Ajla Tomljanovic in the semifinals.

Eight years removed from her 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 win over Serena Williams in the 2016 AO final, Kerber has a hard road in her return. The left-handed German opens against 2022 finalist Danielle Collins with the winner likely facing No. 1 Iga Swiatek, who won nine straight games dismissing Kerber in the United Cup final 6-3, 6-0.

Major Comebacks, Big Challenges

Three-time Grand Slam champion Angelique Kerber isn’t the only comeback star facing a deep challenge in the draw.

As mentioned, Naomi Osaka, who will play her first Grand Slam match win since she beat Madison Brengle at the 2022 AO, will need to be sharp from the first ball facing 16th-seeded Garcia.

If Osaka can defeat Garcia and find a way through opening week that could include a third-round match vs. 23rd-seeded Anastasia Potapova and a potential fourth-rounder vs. US Open champion Coco Gauff, she can get even more dangerous as she earns more match play and the confidence that comes from winning.

“In regards to Naomi, I always say you never underestimate a champion. She’s won the Australian Open a couple times,” ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez told the media in a Zoom call to promote ESPN’s coverage starting on Saturday night. “I watched her play last week, as well. I thought she was striking the ball very well after a long time away. Actually thought she was moving pretty well.

“If she can find a way to get through the first few rounds, she always becomes a threat. She has major weapons with her serves and groundstrokes.”

Hall of Famer John McEnroe, pointing to Osaka’s off-court battle with depression and mental health issues, said a key will be seeing how she responds to the pressure of the Slam spotlight—and how she will cope with adversity when it comes.

“I would add that Osaka, because of all the talk about mental health, getting away from the game, you can’t help but take a look at her when you see her,” McEnroe told the media in an ESPN Zoom call. “Obviously in our sport or any sport pretty much, you need to be fit. That goes without saying.

“Then you have to take a close look at where her head’s at as far as going out and competing. This sport, you win and you lose. She’s got to be able to accept that and be able to handle that and enjoy the process that it takes to even get out on a court and compete for a major. I hope she can.”

AO fans serenaded Caroline Wozniacki with Neil Diamond’s classic Sweet Caroline after she defeated Simona Halep to win her first major at the 2018 Australian Open.

Wozniacki pushed eventual-champion Coco Gauff to three sets at the US Open in September and will open this Australian Open against 20th-seeded Pole Magda Linette.

The 2021 US Open champion Emma Raducanu out-dueled Elena-Gabriela Ruse in three sets to win her Auckland comeback match last week. Raducanu, who pulled the plug on her 2023 after undergoing surgeries to both wrists and her ankle, returns to the AO with a tough first-round assignment facing American Shelby Rogers.

Dark Horses to Watch

We’re defining dark horses as players outside the Top 10 seeds.

(12) Zheng Qinwen

True, the 21-year-old Chinese currently lacks the required firepower to topple the top favorites: Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina.

However, Zheng has beaten three Grand Slam champions—Barbora Krecjikova, Jelena Ostapenko and Marketa Vondrousova—in her last three tournaments. Zheng has won 10 of her last 12 matches entering this week with her lone losses in that span coming to Swiatek and Brazilian lefty Beatriz Haddad Maia. Zheng opens the AO against American Ashlyn Krueger and resides in the second quarter of the draw along with the third-seeded Rybakina and fifth-seeded Jessica Pegula.

Mirra Andreeva

A first-round match against American Bernarda Pera is not an easy assignment for Andreeva.

Still, the 16-year-old Andreeva is quick around the court, is a clean, compact ball striker, serves bigger than her 5’7” size suggests. Andreeva is a smart competitor who relishes the Grand Slam stage. She played through qualifying last May to reach the Roland Garros main draw pushing Coco Gauff to three sets before bowing in the third round. 

At Wimbledon, Andreeva again played through qualifying, knocked off former French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova and reached the round of 16 where she nearly beat Madison Keys before losing in three tight sets. The 47th-ranked Andreeva earned her main draw spot in Melbourne and can do damage. Andreeva tuned up for Melbourne reaching the Brisbane quarterfinals where she lost to Linda Noskova.

First-Round Showdowns to Watch

1 Iga Swiatek vs. Sofia Kenin

Swiatek leads 1-0

This is a rematch of the October 10th, 2020 Roland Garros final that saw Swiatek storm through six straight games steamrolling Kenin 6-4, 6-1. A then 19-year-old Swiatek made history as the first Polish player—male or female—to win a Grand slam singles crown.

Swiatek showcased her new abbreviated service motion during United Cup and it was effective as she went undefeated earning MVP honors. Kenin has lifted her level, her two-handed backhand remains a versatile and penetrating weapon, but can she combat Swiatek’s crackling topspin forehand as well as her smooth movement around the court and willingness to step inside the baseline and rush opponents.

(16) Caroline Garcia vs. Naomi Osaka
Osaka leads 1-0

If you’re a fan of first-strike tennis this is a match you’ll want to see. How will Osaka, seeking her first major win in two years, respond in just her second tournament back after a 15-month break from the sport? W

ill Garcia be more flexible on her return position and show Osaka more likes? Or will she try to stand inside the baseline and test one of the best serves in the sport, perhaps rushing herself out of points in the process if Osaka is landing.

(3) Elena Rybakina vs. Karolina Pliskova
Rybakina leads 3-0

The Wimbledon winner has swept all six sets they’ve played because of her imposing serve and her skill swatting her two-handed backhand down the line to expose Pliskova’s preference of hitting her forehand from the backhand corner. Pliskova served exceptionally well cranking 16 aces in out-during Naomi Osaka in Brisbane and if she’s connecting on her first she will be tough.

The 2023 runner-up Rybakina has all the weapons to make another deep Melbourne run.

(13) Liudmila Samsonova vs. Amanda Anisimova
Anisimova leads 1-0

Two powerful and pure ball strikers square off for the second time down under. Samsonova is a quiet person who frequently flies under the radar at majors, but her forehand is one of the biggest in the sport when it’s landing.

Samsonova’s screaming shots and her ability to control the center of the court helped her knock off Zheng, Sabalenka, Belinda Bencic and Rybakina en route to the Montreal final last summer where she lost to Jessica Pegula after a draining day.

Anisimova defeated Samsonova 7-5, 6-4 in Adelaide last year. Anisimova, who took a sabbatical from the sport for her mental health and to pursue her love of art, she’s a painter, came back in Auckland beating former French Open finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. She seemed to suffer a shoulder strain and was blown out in round two by Marie Bouzkova.

Remember, Anisimova is a former Roland Garros semifinalist, who owns Grand Slam wins over Naomi Osaka (2022 AO and 2022 Roland Garros), Olympic gold-medal champion Belinda Bencic (2022 AO), US Open champion Coco Gauff (2022 Wimbledon) and Roland Garros runner-up Karolina Muchova (2022 Roland Garros). Obviously, still very early in her comeback and the aches and pains that come with a pro return could slow her, but if Anisimova is healthy she is a threat here and beyond.


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