15 January, 2012

2012 Australian Open Predictions: The Women

It's hard to believe that it's already been a year since Kim Clijsters solidified her hardcourt bonafides with her fourth major title, as the 2011 Australian Open champion.  "Aussie Kim," the Belgian with an American husband, will contend for her fifth major when the Australian Open kicks off on Monday.  To win, Clijsters will have to face down the usual top tier foes like 2008 champ Maria Sharapova, 5-time Aussie winner Serena Williams and home favorite Samantha Stosur.  Not to mention the young gunnettes of generation next who are threatening to make their move in 2012, namely Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, embattled WTA No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and longtime next big thing Victoria Azarenka. Which of the women will clutch the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Trophy two Sundays from now?   Here's your 2012 Australian Open Women's Bracket Breakdown.

First Quarter

Top ranked and seeded Caroline Wozniacki sits atop this section of the draw and no matter how many epithets are thrown her way, she's No. 1 until someone has the game to prove otherwise.  For 67 weeks, Wozniacki has sat atop the WTA rankings and people have huffed and puffed, but they've yet to blow her ranking down.  For her travails, Wozniacki faces rather easy opening tilts versus Anastasia Rodionova and then likely Anna Tatishvili of Georgia (the country).  The first seed the Woz is likely to face is Romania's powder-puff serving 31 seed Monica Niculescu.  No, seriously, at the 2011 US Open, Niculescu's FIRST serve averaged around 70 MPH.  Finally Wozniacki will play a match where she looks like the power hitter on the court.  The Woz will cruise until at least the fourth round where she could face the winner of an upset-ripe section of the bracket headlined by Lucie Safarova and Jelena Jankovic.   Christina McHale, Petra Martic, here's your chance...

On the other side of this quarter the boldfaced name is Na Li/Li Na whose results are about as predictable as a two year old's temper tantrums.  Li made it to the final of this week's stacked event in Sydney, winning a 6-1 second set before capitulating to Azarenka in the third.  In about as cruel a draw as you can get in the first round of a major these days, last year's losing finalist, Li, gets a chance to be bundled out of the Open by 40th ranked newly minted Kazakh Ksenia Pervak.  Pervak had a breakthrough run to the fourth round of Wimbledon last year.  The good news for Li is that Pervak is 0-2 thus far on the Aussie swing and may not be ready to regularly contend on the biggest stages just yet.  After an early round nailbiter, expect Li's biggest challenge to come from 11th seeded defending champion Clijsters.  If she's healthy and ready, Clijsters should have little issue navigating her draw, but without consistent matchplay in her second career, the Belgian has been wildly erratic, looking like a world beater one day and being bageled the next.  If she falls early, it'll be in her third round date with the seemingly ageless Daniela Hantuchova, who's been a Top 30 player since Jennifer Capriati was the World No. 1.

Super Fan Special (Best 1st Rounder): (24) Lucie Safarova vs. Christina McHale
Popcorn Match: (11) Kim Clijsters vs. (20) Daniela Hantuchova, 3rd round
Dark Horse: Christina McHale
Semifinalist: Caroline Wozniacki

Second Quarter

Victoria Azarenka seems ready to make noise in Melbourne.  She comes to the Happy Slam with the Sydney title in her carry-on and an opportunity (along with five other women) to leave as World No. 1.  She opens her campaign against 19 year old British hope Heather Watson who has had a fair number of solid scorelines of late, but seems a step shy of a breakout result.  Next up is likely to be Serbia's Bojana Jovanovski who took a step backward in her ranking and career development last year after some solid results.  The first seed Azarenka could face is a Czech player who had a breakout Wimbledon...another Petra,  Petra Cetkovska; however, my money would be on the hot hand, 6'1" German Mona Barthel who came through qualifying to win her first title at Hobart this week.  Barthel, who didn't crack the top 100 until last year's US Open and now is ranked No. 44, didnt face a murderer's row to win in Tasmania.  That said, she played well enough for me to tip her to face Azarenka in the third round.  Shuai Peng, Iveta Benesova and Flavia Pennetta are the leading lights of the other section, but Azarenka should see off whichever challenger, probably Pennetta, that takes the other side of the court in the fourth round.

The other half of the Azarenka quarter is headlined by Agnieszka Radwanska who is fashioning herself as a  latter day Hingis of late, using her court sense and deft touch to make up for a severe power deficit against the "Big Babes" of the WTA.  Radwanska excited tour watchers with her back-to-back Premier (think WTA Masters) titles in Tokyo and Beijing at the end of last season before sinking at the tail end of 2011.  She finished on a 1-3 streak in Moscow and the WTA Championships at Istanbul.  Radwanska gets a tough opener against Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the American who limped through the end of 2011 with shoulder injury that likely kept her from being seeded here.  Mattek-Sands doesn't figure to be match tough after her early exit from Hobart which will likely cost her a solid shot at Radwanska.  It doesn't get much easier from there as Simona Halep, Tsvetana Pironkova, Galina Voskoboeva and Yanina Wickmayer all linger in this quietly tough section of the draw.  On the other side, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Francesca Schiavone waits.  Schiavone was smacking the ball with a little calore against Samantha Stosur in Sydney before falling to Hantuchova and is just the kind of mobile, inventive, powerful player who should give Radwanska fits, and used to, Schiavone won their first four meetings; Radwanska their last three and handily.

Super Fan Special (Best 1st Rounder): (22) Julie Goerges vs. Polona Hercog
Popcorn Match: (10) Francesca Schiavone vs. (22) Julia Goerges, 3rd round
Dark Horse: Flavia Pennetta
Semifinalist: Victoria Azarenka

Third Quarter

Can you say loaded?  Eighteen major titles reside in this section, not to mention two bad superstar ankles, starting with the three owned by 4th seed Maria Sharapova in the bottom half.  We don't know what to expect from Sharapova given her lingering ankle injury, but considering she was a non starter in Brisbane and turned down a Hobart wild card, I'd venture to guess it won't be good.  The Siberian siren won't have a ton of time to work her way into the tournament either against slumping (1-6 since Roland Garros), but still presumably dangerous Argentine Gisela Dulko in perhaps the hottest match ever to grace the court in always steamy Melbourne.  Assuming she gets through that match and her (easy on paper) second rounder, she's set to face Germany's 23 year old Angelique Kerber who made it all the way to the semis at the US Open a few months back (further than Sharapova has been in New York since she won the title in 2006).  If Kerber doesn't upend Sharapova , then the winner between resurgent two-time major champ Svetlana Kuznetsova and comeback kid Sabine Lisicki (if she's healthy) should feast on the presumably off-form Sharapova.  Then again, Kerber could be a fortnight wonder, Kuznetsova could do that thing she does (y'know losing winnable matches) and Lisicki might not be healthy enough to give it a real go and Sharapova might actually be healthy enough (and keep her serve on the rails long enough) to make the Round of 16.

If that's not enough star power, ex-World No. 2 Vera Zvonareva headlines the top half of the quarter.  Considering she was throttled in her first match of the year by Kuznetsova, 6-1, 6-2 in Sydney.  It's hard to predict a deep run for the volatile Russian.  A win over Zvonareva by 1st round opponent Alexandra Dulgheru or likely 2nd rounder Lucie Hradecka wouldn't surprise us in the least.  Then there's Brisbane champ Kaia Kanepi looming in the third round.  There's also an American player people are talking about in this section, Serena Williams.  The 12th seeded American opens against ex-Next Big Thing Tamira Paszek; then will play against Barbora Zahlavova Strycova in the 2nd round (oddly enough, Venus Williams and Barbora's cousin Sandra Zahlavova played at the same stage last year).  If Williams has recovered from that ankle injury in Brisbane, and reports are that she's not 100%, her first seeded competitor will be Dominika Cibulkova in the third round.  From there things could get tough with either Zvonareva or an in-form Kanepi waiting.

Super Fan Special (Best 1st Rounder): (4) Maria Sharapova vs. Gisela Dulko (if you're not strictly looking to stare at Maria and Gisela, then: (12) Serena Williams vs. Tamira Paszek)
Popcorn Match: (12) Serena Williams vs. (25) Kaia Kanepi, 4th round
Dark Horse: Svetlana Kuznetsova
Semifinalist: Kaia Kanepi

Fourth Quarter

Petra Kvitova, presumed to be savior of the post-Williams WTA (what, too much?)  headlines the fourth and final quarter of the draw.  The big-hitting Czech disappointed some when she didn't snatch the No. 1 ranking last week by winning in Sydney.  Whereas I look and say?  Her focus is where it needs to be...winning the big ones (no offense Caro).  Kvitova will face the recognizable, but hardly threatening Vera Dushevina in the first round and probably Carla Suarez Navarro after that.  Long injured Canadian Aleksandra Wozniak or the other Maria, Maria Kirilenko will be Kvitova's first real test in the third round.  Ana Ivanovic who seems to have settled into being a borderline Top 20 player and big-hitting Anastasia Pavlyuchnkova are the likely fourth round opponents for either Kvitova or Kirilenko (if the Czech throws in a stinker early).

Homeland hope Samantha Stosur inspired me to play a parlor game with my Twitter followers the other night, asking how far Stosur could make it in Melbourne.  She's 1-2 on the 2012 season and has been known to wilt under the merciless pressure of her home nation's support.  She may have abs of steel, but her head seems made of far less sturdy stuff, even after beating Serena to win the US Open (she's 6-7 since then).  Then you look at her draw, and yeah, Sorana Cirstea is dangerous; an Alison Riske win would be a great story here in the States, but it's highly unlikely.  I like the steady Sara Errani if she gets through, but I wouldn't necessarily put my chips down on Nadia Petrova to beat Stosur at this stage in her career, which leads you to the other half of the section which includes young American Madison Keys, two nervy competitors in still-Aussie Jelena Dokic and still-shaken Anna Chakvetadze and the tour's resident brainiac Marion Bartoli.  After a year that saw Stosur, Kvitova and Li Na/Na Li break through for major titles, why not Bartoli?  If Kvitova doesn't assert herself this loose section of the draw, we may not be asking that question much longer.

Super Fan Special (Best 1st Rounder): Jelena Dokic vs. Anna Chakvetadze
Popcorn Match: (15) Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova vs. (21) Ana Ivanovic, 3rd round
Dark Horse: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Semifinalist: Petra Kvitova

Semifinals: Azarenka d. Wozniacki; Kvitova d. Kanepi

Finals: For the last year and a half with Serena hobbled, Maria hindered and major championships seemingly being handed out for the good of the game, the WTA's biggest rivalry has been the press versus Caroline Wozniacki.  What's nice is that unlike some of her slam-less No. 1 predecessors, she hasn't allowed the press to win.  All the credit in the world to her for not succumbing to the pressure and keeping herself in the mix day-in, day-out.  However, the time has come for a rivalry to actually play out ON the court, with racquets and running and grunting and everything.  Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova have already played six times.  Azarenka winning their first two matchups; Kvitova, the last four, including their inch-tight encounter at the WTA Championships in October.  Behind that stat is that the two have split their two hardcourt meetings.

While Kvitova's risen like a rocket seemingly out of nowhere, Azarenka has steady moved forward advancing methodically toward the top of the tour.  Both players can be mercurial, Azarenka's received plaudits of late for her calm in a career that had previously been full of fiery moments.  Kvitova, though on a seeming trajectory toward greatness, manages to stink up the court every now and then.  There's not quite the consistency of the very best players yet for the Czech, but will that matter two Sundays from now?  Yeah, it just might.

Final: Azarenka d. Kvitova

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