Is Swiatek an inevitable winner or is Melbourne a land of opportunity?

January 15, 2023

Is Swiatek an inevitable winner or is Melbourne a land of opportunity?

Between the retirements of Ash Barty and Serena Williams, and Naomi Osaka's announcement of her pregnancy, the Australian Open women's draw has lost a lot of Slam-winning power. Of the 128 players in the field, only Iga Swiatek, GarbiƱe Muguruza, Victoria Azarenka, and Petra Kvitova have more than one, and only Swiatek has more than two.

Does that mean this tournament is a land of opportunity for first-time major seekers? Or does it mean that the top seed, Swiatek, is the overwhelming favorite to win No. 3? Let's take a look at the draw and see which scenario seems more likely.

First Quarter

Swiatek didn't begin her 2022 winning streak until February, but her improvement was already in evidence at last year's Australian Open, where she reached the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Barty. With Barty gone, there's theoretically nothing that should stand between Iga and the title. One wild card, though, could be the surface. The speed of the hard courts at Melbourne Park has varied over the years; Swiatek, the current queen of clay, may prefer them on the slower side.

Swiatek also has an intriguing first-round match, against Julie Niemeier. Their only meeting came at last year's US Open; Niemeier had her on the ropes for a set and a half, before Swiatek's timing finally clicked in again and she ran way with the third. If she beats Niemeier again, Swiatek could face either Bianca Andreescu or Marie Bouzkova in the third round; 2022 runner-up Danielle Collins in the fourth round; and No. 7 seed Coco Gauff in the quarterfinals. Gauff already has a title in 2023, in Auckland, but she has struggled just to win games, let alone sets, against Swiatek.

First-round matches to watch:

Swiatek vs. Niemeier

Andreescu vs. Bouzkova

Jelena Ostapenko vs. Dayana Yastremska

Semifinalist: Swiatek

Second Quarter

Swiatek is obviously the favorite, but expectations for Jessica Pegula are as high as they've ever been. She's the third seed, she's been to two Australian Open quarterfinals, and she just tuned up Swiatek, 6-2, 6-2, in United Cup. A Slam breakthrough, to the semis or beyond, would seem to be in order for the quietly ascending American.

Nothing is easy at a Slam, of course, and Pegula will have her share of obstacles, starting with 24-year-old Romanian Jacqueline Christian, and potentially continuing with Amanda Anisimova and Petra Kvitova in the third and fourth rounds, respectively.

Then there's the other half of this section. At first glance, it looks like the top two seeds, No. 6 Maria Sakkari and No. 10 Madison Keys, could be on a collision course for a fourth-round encounter. If they do meet, Sakkari will bring a 3-0 record in against the American. The Greek is also 4-2 against Pegula, if they were to face off in the quarters.

Unseeded but possibly looming: Ajla Tomljanovic. She's reached the quarterfinals at the last two majors, but she's never been comfortable at her home Slam; she's just 4-8 at Melbourne Park.

First-round match between former AO champs: Victoria Azarenka vs. Sofia Kenin

Semifinalist: Pegula

Third Quarter

Caroline Garcia begins the year in an intriguing place. She's coming off the best extended run of play of her career, which took her to her first Grand Slam semifinal, at the US Open, and her biggest title, at the WTA Finals. Still, we've seen this talented Frenchwoman in the top five before, back in 2017, and she didn't stay there long. At 29, can the No. 4 seed sustain her sky-high level into a new season?

Something similar, if not quite as dramatic, might be said about the second-highest seed in this section, No. 8 Daria Kasatkina. The Russian is also coming off a career-best year that saw her make her first Slam semi, in Paris. But she's never been past the third round in Melbourne.

Also here: 30th-seeded Karolina Pliskova, who has been to the quarters or better three times in Melbourne. A faster surface could help the 30-year-old turn back the clock and get back there again.

Semifinalist: Pliskova

Fourth Quarter

When it comes to players who are due for a first Slam title, Ons Jabeur and Aryna Sabalenka are at the top of the list. Jabeur made two major finals in 2022, and Sabalenka has been to three semis over the last two years.

Now they're the top two seeds in the bottom quarter. Jabeur has the higher ranking, but Sabalenka has been a little more in form. She beat Swiatek and was runner-up at the WTA Finals at the end of 2022, and she won a title last week in Adelaide. That doesn't necessarily mean anything with the hot-and-cold Sabalenka, but she has gradually reclaimed her confidence over the last six months. The Slam-winning power has always been there.

Players to Watch:

Belinda Bencic. She just beat Garcia in Adelaide.

Kaia Kanepi. She's 37, but she's also a seven-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist.

Semifinalist: Sabalenka

Semifinals: Swiatek d. Pegula; Sabalenka d. Pliskova

Final: Sabalenka d. Swiatek.

Is Swiatek an inevitable winner or is Melbourne a land of opportunity?