Australian Open women’s preview: Will it be chalk, or shock, Down Under?

January 14, 2024

Australian Open women’s preview: Will it be chalk, or shock, Down Under?

Top-down dominance and Cinderella surprise: The WTA tour was balanced between those two poles last season. The No. 1 and No. 2 players, Iga Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka, won the first two Grand Slams. Then, at the last two, Marketa Vondrousova and Coco Gauff rose up to claim their maiden major titles.

Which side will win out to start the 2024 Slam season at the Australian Open? Will the draw go to form, or will we have insubordination among the ranks? I try to answer that question and four others in our women’s Aussie Open draw preview.

What are the first-round matches to watch?

Iga Swiatek vs. Sofia Kenin

It’s the 38th-ranked Kenin, rather than the No. 1 Swiatek, who has an Australian Open title. But this fact may just mean Swiatek wants this match, and the next six, that much more.

Angelique Kerber vs. Danielle Collins

At 35, Kerber, the 2016 AO champion, joins the ranks of returning moms. She’ll face Collins, the 2022 finalist. Five years ago here, the American pummeled the German with a backhand barrage, 6-0, 6-2.

Elena Rybakina vs. Karolina Pliskova

It’s jarring to see a first-rounder between a former No. 1 and a Wimbledon champion. Big serves will rule the day, and Rybakina will likely win. She’s 3-0 against Pliskova, and looked very in-form last week.

Caroline Garcia vs. Naomi Osaka

The most-watched first-round match may be the least predictable. Garcia is famously up and down, and Osaka is coming back after more than a year away. Osaka won their only previous match.

Emma Raducanu vs. Shelby Rogers

Raducanu has played two times since May; Rogers hasn’t played at all since July. The American likes this tournament, but the Brit won their only meeting, during her miracle US Open title run of 2021.

Who has an easy road, and who has a tough one?

Swiatek’s quarter includes a land mine or two. Her first two matches, against Kenin and either Kerber or Collins, will come against players who have had more success than she has in Australia. Later, she could play Elina Svitolina and Jelena Ostapenko; the former beat her at Wimbledon, the latter at the US Open.

Rybakina will face a test right away in Pliskova, and another, possibly, in the quarters, from either Jessica Pegula or Zheng Qinwen.

The fourth-seeded Gauff has a smooth-looking road to start, but two-time AO champ Osaka is in her quarter, along with Maria Sakkari and Garcia.

On paper, No. 2 Sabalenka would seem to have little to worry about in the early stages of her title defense. No. 13 Liudmila Samsonova may be her fourth-round opponent, and No. 6 Ons Jabeur may see her in the quarterfinals.

Who might wear a glass slipper?

On the men’s side, the Australian Open often has room for a surprise semifinalist. On the women’s, the tournament has recently gone better and reserved space for a Cinderella finalist, or even a winner. Kenin won the title in 2020, and Jen Brady and Collins made the finals in 2021 and 2022.

If there’s someone who can keep that American tradition alive, it’s probably fifth-seeded Jessica Pegula, who has made the quarterfinals three years running.

But two bigger hitters also seem due for a Slam breakthrough: Samsonova and Zheng. Samsonova will start against Amanda Anisimova, and is slated to play Sabalenka in the fourth round. Zheng will start against American Ashlyn Krueger, and could play Pegula in the fourth round.

Then there’s 16-year-old Mirra Andreeva. A Slam title or more would seem to be in her future, but how fast will that future arrive? She might play Jabeur in the second round.

Who’s returning, and who’s not?

It’s a banner year for WTA comebacks in Australia. Osaka is the highest-profile of them, followed by Kerber, Raducanu, Caroline Wozniacki and Paula Badosa.

Osaka looked fit in her debut in Brisbane, where she won a match and lost one. Garcia will be a tough opener for her, but there’s no one in the draw she can’t beat on the right day. More important, she should be motivated in a way that she hasn’t been for the last two years.

And don’t dismiss Wozniacki’s chances. The 2018 champ, who is still just 33, looked much the same as ever in her return last summer, and she opens against 20th-seeded Magda Linette.

One former finalist who isn’t back in Oz is Jen Brady. The knee problem that kept her out for two years is keeping her out again.

Who’s going to win?

So, will it be chalk, or shock?

Despite her fairly tough draw, I like the top-seeded Swiatek’s chances. She seemed to solve some problems late last year, she started well in United Cup, she should play well on these courts, and she should also badly want to win her first title here.

But I also liked what I saw from Rybakina during her Brisbane title run, where she rolled past Sabalenka in the final. She also beat Swiatek here last year, and again on hard courts at Indian Wells.

As for Gauff, she looked sharp winning in Auckland, and she has a good early draw. But she’s still prone to late-match nerves, and two straight Slam titles for the 19-year-old may be a little too much to ask — she still has some shoring up to do. Sabalenka is also unlikely to donate another match to her the way she did in the US Open final.

How about Sabalenka herself? The defending champ is typically lights out in the early rounds at Slams, but she stumbles as she approaches the finish line. It won’t be easy for her to close if she faces either Swiatek or Rybakina in the final.

Semifinals: Rybakina d. Swiatek; Sabalenka d. Gauff

Final: Rybakina d. Sabalenka. —

Australian Open women’s preview: Will it be chalk, or shock, Down Under?