Australian Open 2016 women's draw analysis: Once again, it's Serena Williams and the rest
While the men have been sprinting towards the year's first Grand Slam with hope in their hearts and strength in their arms, the women have been stumbling and tottering their way to the start line. Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova, Garbine Muguruza, Agnieszka Radwanska and Angelique Kerber – that's seven of the top 10 players in the world – have all pulled out of at least one tournament leading up to the Australian Open, due to injury or illness.
Some have brushed off these withdrawals as mere precautionary measures by the top women, but there is certainly a little cause for concern about whether the field in Melbourne will be in the best competitive shape. On that sombre note, here's a look at how the draw has been stacked this year, and if anyone other than Serena Williams has a prayer of a chance Down Under:
First quarter: Serena's battle with boredom
After her thrill-a-minute 2015 season that briefly threatened to put tennis on the global map as THE sport to follow, Serena Williams is due for a let-down – or so most experts would have you believe. How much motivation will the World No. 1 have to keep producing her best, especially since her Calendar Slam dreams were snapped so cruelly in New York?
The battle with boredom can certainly get tedious, especially when there's no one on the horizon that resembles anything close to a worthy challenger. That probably makes this year's Australian Open even more significant for Serena – if she can keep up her energy levels till the end of this tournament, it would be the harbinger of continued dominance from her in the foreseeable future.
Knowing her, however, she'll have a tough time remaining dialed-in given the straightforward draw she’s been handed. All of her closest competitors are far away from her, which has traditionally led to uninspired play from the American.
Serena starts against Italy's pint-sized big-hitter Camila Giorgi, who is capable of upsetting anyone, but can also flame out in a hail of errors. The top seed could then face one of two talented teenagers – Ana Konjuh or Daria Kasatkina – in the third round, before running into her favourite punching bag Sara Errani or good friend Caroline Wozniacki in the fourth.
These are all formidable players in their own right, but well below Serena's skill level. In other words, these are exactly the kind of opponents who Serena could lose to.
Maria Sharapova headlines the bottom half of this quarter, and on paper she should have little trouble reaching the quarterfinals. Belinda Bencic or Sydney champion Svetlana Kuznetsova could pose a question or two to the Russian in the fourth round, but there are obvious caveats here – Bencic is coming off an injury, and Kuznetsova has always struggled to come out of her countrywoman's shadow.
If Sharapova does come through unscathed, she would be praying that Serena is felled by someone before the quarters. Because as we all know, there can only be one outcome if these two stars cross swords in the Round of 8.
Prediction: Serena def. Sharapova
Dark horse: Svetlana Kuznetsova
Second quarter: Radwanska looks to prove she belongs
Agnieszka Radwanska has for years been known as the Queen of the Mid-level. She beats up on lower-ranked players like it's nobody's business but struggles against the power strikers at the top, which has led to a cabinet filled with trophies from the second and third tier tournaments.
That perception changed slightly when the Pole won the WTA Finals last season, and her strong run in the IPTL followed by a title march in Shenzhen to start 2016 have suddenly made her one of the favourites in Melbourne. She has confounded opponent after opponent with her magic touch lately, but has she solved her power player problem?
We may not get the answer to that before the quarterfinals, as the only big hitters Radwanska is likely to face up to that point are Samantha Stosur and Sloane Stephens. But Stosur has historically struggled in her home Slam while Stephens is not reliable enough yet to be guaranteed of a fourth round spot. And while Eugenie Bouchard could provide a test to the World No. 4 in the second round, there's little to suggest the Canadian has banished her 2015 blues completely.
At the other end lies the ever-frustrating Petra Kvitova, who hasn't played a match this year due to a mysterious illness. A bit like Serena at the top, Kvitova is just as likely to lose to a qualifier as she is to storm her way to the final. But Melbourne's heat has never been kind to her allergies, and it will be a bit of a miracle if she manages to make her date against Radwanska in the quarters.
If not Kvitova, then who? Kristina Mladenovic, Andrea Petkovic and Carla Suarez Navarro are all in with a shot, but I'd keep an eye out for Dominika Cibulkova, who has traditionally played the best tennis of her career in Melbourne.
Prediction: Radwanska def. Cibulkova
Dark horse: Sloane Stephens
Third quarter: Azarenka finally strikes some luck
2015 was a year of epic battles and near-misses for Victoria Azarenka, caused in no small part due to her terrible luck with draws. But just as she's got into the winners’ circle again – her Brisbane victory to start the year was her first title since 2013 – her fortunes have started improving too.
Despite being seeded as low as No. 14, Azarenka is ensconced safely away from all the top contenders until at least the fourth round, where she could meet World No. 3 Gargine Muguruza. But Muguruza will likely have her hands full with Caroline Garcia in the third round, and even if she gets past the Frenchwoman, you'd have to favour Azarenka in their potential Round of 16 clash.
In the top half of this quarter Angelique Kerber looks to make a big-tournament statement, not unlike Radwanska, and she has a fairly manageable draw to help her along. Jelena Jankovic or Timea Bacsinszky could prove to be a tough out in the fourth round, but the more immediate worry would probably be the big-hitting Coco Vandeweghe, who Kerber will likely face in the Round of 32.
That said, it'd be a surprise if we don't get an Azarenka vs Kerber clash in the quarters, and that would be a delight alright – the two counterpunchers have produced several exhilarating marathons in the past.
Prediction: Azarenka def. Kerber
Dark horse: Coco Vandeweghe
Fourth quarter: Halep and her hiccups
Simona Halep has spent the better part of two years trying to go toe-to-toe with opponents twice her size, and she has a World No. 2 ranking to show for her diligence. The Romanian's effortless shot-making and smooth movement are always pleasing to watch, but whether she can make her body last long enough to outlast the big hitters on the big stages is still up for debate.
Fortunately for Halep, there seems little to trouble her up to the fourth round, where she could face Ana Ivanovic or Madison Keys – both of whom are struggling. Alize Cornet or Bojana Jovanovski could incite a few doubts in Halep's mind in the second round, but neither is likely to pull off the upset.
The big surprise here, of course, is that Venus Williams is slated to be Halep's quarterfinal opponent. Having fought her way back into the top 10, the elder Williams has in recent months brought back memories of her old self, rediscovering her consistency off the ground. But Melbourne has never been kind to Venus, and her draw does her few favours – she will likely face Karolina Pliskova in the fourth round, who can hit anyone off the court on her day.
Pliskova has been known to underperform at the Slams, but the stellar role she played in Czech Republic's Fed Cup win last year could well prove to be the boost that she's been searching for.
Prediction: Halep def. Pliskova
Dark horse: Madison Keys