The draw for the 2021 Australian Open is out, and once again it highlights the unprecedented depth on the WTA Tour.
From Ashleigh Barty's chances of ending Australia's title drought, to the loaded bottom half of the draw that will see Serena Williams' quest for No.24 run up against Naomi Osaka's Grand Slam streak, Garbiñe Muguruza's run of form, Bianca Andreescu's return and Simona Halep's quest for a hardcourt Slam, the 2021 Australian Open has something for everyone.
Click here to see the full draw.
Top 16 seeds: 1. Ashleigh Barty, No.2 Simona Halep, No.3 Naomi Osaka, No.4 Sofia Kenin, No.5 Elina Svitolina, No.6 Karolina Pliskova, No.7 Aryna Sabalenka, No.8 Bianca Andreescu, No.9 Petra Kvitova, No.10 Serena Williams, No.11 Belinda Bencic, No.12 Victoria Azarenka, No.13 Johanna Konta, No.14 Garbiñe Muguruza, No.15 Iga Swiatek, No.16 Petra Martic.
Top seeds, first half: Barty, Kenin, Svitolina, Pliskova
Top seeds, bottom half: Halep, Osaka, Sabalenka, Andreescu
Projected Round of 16 by seed: Barty-Martic, Bencic-Pliskova, Kenin-Konta, Azarenka-Svitolina, Andreescu-Kvitova, Muguruza-Osaka, Sabalenka-Serena, Swiatek-Halep.
Last Year's Final: Sofia Kenin d. Garbiñe Muguruza, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.
Naomi Osaka's loaded quarter paves a tough road to Championship Saturday
The bottom half of the draw features nine major champions, and it's No.3 seed Naomi Osaka's quarter that was the most discussed after the draw was revealed. Along with Osaka, the third quarter includes 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, who is set to make her competitive return for the first time in more than a year. It also includes last year's runner-up, No.14 seed Garbiñe Muguruza, 2019 runner-up, No.9 seed Petra Kvitova and 2016 champion Angelique Kerber.
Of the Top 8 seeds, Osaka's path to the title is, on paper, the most fraught. She will open against the dangerous Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and could face Caroline Garcia in the second round. The first seed she could see is No.27 Ons Jabeur in the third round, with either Muguruza or Kerber a potential Round of 16 foe.
Looming as potential quarterfinal opponents are Andreescu or Kvitova - or unseeded dangers Tsevetana Pironkova and Venus Williams - with Halep, Serena Williams, Swiatek or Sabalenka lurking as potential semifinal opponents.
"I saw the projected draw and I actually, I'm kind of excited," Osaka said. "I like playing tough people, especially in Slams.
"Honestly I've never seen a projected draw come true, so I guess it will be interesting for all of us."
If her draw holds up, that's a tough gauntlet to run for the three-time champion, but Osaka is also coming into the Australian Open as one of the tour's hot hands. As of this writing, she is taking her 14-match winning streak - she has not lost since the tour restarted last summer - into the semifinals of the Gippsland Trophy, where she has looked remarkably relaxed and sharp.
Osaka has already doubled up at the US Open. Is the Australian Open next?
Serena Williams' perfect preparation sets up path to No.24
Are the stars lining up for Serena to capture Slam No.24 in Melbourne? The American looked fantastic in her three matches at the Yarra Valley Classic, where she advanced to the semifinals before withdrawing, citing a right shoulder injury. The event was Serena's first since an Achilles injury forced her withdrawal from Roland Garros after the first round last fall. Last week, she revealed that if the Australian Open had not been pushed back to February, she may not have been fit enough to play.
"I don't think I would have been here if it was during the regular season," Serena said in Melbourne. "So whew, that was an unwanted blessing, I would say, but it was much needed for me. I definitely took that time to recover and to just do the best that I can, and so now it's a lot better."
Serena showed no signs of concern in her movement during the Yarra Valley Classic, where she tallied wins over Daria Gavrilova, Pironkova and Danielle Collins.
Drawn into the loaded bottom half of the draw, Serena anchors the fourth quarter along with No.2 Halep, No.7 Sabalenka and No.15 Swiatek. Serena opens against German veteran Laura Siegemund, and the first seed she could face is No.24 Alison Riske. The big match to circle for the American is a potential Round of 16 clash with Sabalenka, who is in top form and bidding to make her first Slam quarterfinal.
Ashleigh Barty bids to end the Aussie drought
Can Ash Barty end the 43-year drought for the home side and become the first Australian woman to win the singles title since Chris O'Neil in 1978?
The top seed has made a strong return to competition at the Yarra Valley Classic, where she is into Sunday's final after Serena's withdrawal. Last year, Barty was able to build on a title run in Adelaide to make her first Australian Open semifinal, so playing deep the week before the Open is no hindrance for the World No.1.
Barty opens her tournament against Danka Kovinic and the first seed she could face is No.29 Ekaterina Alexandrova. The rising Russian has had a strong week at the Gippsland Trophy, where she dominated Swiatek and Halep in back-to-back matches to advance to the semifinals.
The seeds waiting for Barty in the Round of 16 could be either No.16 Petra Martic or No.21 Anett Kontaveit, with a dangerous Shelby Rogers also looming in her section. The quarterfinals could see an intriguing clash against No.18 seed Elise Mertens, No.6 seed Karolina Pliskova, or an unseeded Collins. The American was a semifinalist in 2019 and looked dangerous at the Yarra Valley Classic, where she outserved Pliskova and took a set off Serena.
Don't panic, people. Bianca Andreescu is ready to go. The Canadian phenom withdrew from the Grampians Trophy to focus on training after landing in hard quarantine, but she told reporters Friday that she's healthy and ready to play her first tournament since a meniscus tear forced her out of the 2019 Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen.
Seeded No.8, Andreescu will play her first match against Romanian lucky loser Mihaela Buzarnescu. She could face either US Open quarterfinalist Tsvetana Pironkova or the always crafty Hsieh Su-Wei in the second round, with a potential third-round match against Wang Qiang or an unseeded Venus Williams looming. It's not a draw that will allow Andreescu some leeway to play herself into form, but Andreescu isn't too concerned with playing up to her seeding in Melbourne. She's just happy to be playing, period.
"I know I'm going to be sore as hell after my first match," Andreescu said. "That's for sure. I'm not looking forward to it. When I played my first practice set, not match, I was so sore the next day.
"But with all the emotions, all the adrenaline, it's going to be a bit more emphasized, I feel like. I think that's the main part. Obviously not playing for a long time, I don't know how I'm going to feel. I'll probably be really, really nervous, more nervous than usual.
"I don't feel like I have too much pressure on my shoulders. Yes, I'm seeded, but I haven't played in so long. I just want to go out there and play where I have the mindset I'm so goddamn grateful to be on the court."
It’s nice to be finally back in Melbourne and playing in front of the fans 🇦🇺😁 pic.twitter.com/xP1kzrr9J5— Sofia Kenin (@SofiaKenin) February 2, 2021
Sofia Kenin's title defense is on
The 22-year-old American is bidding to be the first woman to successfully defend an Australian Open title since Victoria Azarenka won her back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.
Drawn into the top half, Kenin anchors the second quarter along with No.5 Elina Svitolina, No.12 Victoria Azarenka, and No.13 Johanna Konta. Kenin opens against Australian wildcard Maddison Inglis and could have a tough second round against Kaia Kanepi, who ended Sabalenka's 15-match winning streak at the Gippsland Trophy and has a well-documented history of breaking Slam brackets.
The Round of 16 could feature a tough All-American clash with US Open semifinalist Jennifer Brady, with Svitolina, Azarenka, No.20 Maria Sakkari and No.26 Yulia Putintseva the seeds that could be looming in the quarterfinals.
Ones to watch
Aryna Sabalenka: The best player to not make a Slam quarterfinal, Sabalenka looks primed to do damage in Melbourne. Armed with a more zen approach to her career and a successful partnership with new coach Anton Dubrov, Sabalenka strung together 15 consecutive wins across three title runs, and while that streak ended last week at the Gippsland Trophy, there is every reason to highlight Sabalenka as a deep threat.
Iga Swiatek: The Roland Garros champion made the Round of 16 last year, finding good success at Melbourne Park. She opens against Arantxa Rus and could face Rybakina in the third round and Halep in the Round of 16. The tough draw could ease some of the pressure for the 19-year-old, who is still getting used to her transition from being the underdog to being the hunted.
Jennifer Brady: Can the American back up her semifinal run at the US Open? She has continued to post quality results after New York, making the semifinals of Ostrava to end her season and dominating this week at the Grampians Trophy, where she has lost eight games in two matches. Seeded No.22, Brady is in Kenin's quarter and opens against Aliona Bolsova.
Victoria Azarenka: The two-time Australian Open champion loves the courts at Melbourne Park, but the question is whether she will have enough matches to play herself into form. Azarenka was part of the group of players who had to do 14 days of "hard quarantine," so her tournament preparation was not ideal. But once out of quarantine she proceeded to save match points to upend Yulia Putintseva at the Grampians Trophy. Azarenka's competitive instincts never fall out of shape. Drawn into Kenin's quarter, her first-round match against Jessica Pegula is one to watch.
Maria Sakkari: The Greek star has shown great improvement in her game since the tour restarted. Her serve has become a weapon and while her defensive instincts remain top-notch, it's her improved aggression and power that has been most notable. Sakkari's potential clash with Azarenka could be the most consequential third-rounder of the tournament. There is a lot to like about how Maria Sakkari is approaching her tennis these days.
Elena Rybakina: The 21-year-old was a breakthrough star in 2020, but she has been chasing that scintillating form since the tour restarted last summer. The No.17 seed is still looking to make her mark at the Slams - her best Slam result came in the third round of the Australian Open last year - but her path in Melbourne could be tricky. She opens against former No.2 Vera Zvonareva, could face Fiona Ferro in the second round, with Swiatek looming as a third-round test.
Notable first-round matches
Karolina Muchova vs. Jelena Ostapenko, Victoria Azarenka vs. Jessica Pegula, Kristina Mladenovic vs. Maria Sakkari, Yulia Putintseva vs. Sloane Stephens, Coco Gauff vs. Jil Teichmann, Marie Bouzkova vs. Elina Svitolina, Bianca Andreescu vs. Mihaela Buzarnescu, Hsieh Su-Wei vs. Tsvetana Pironkova, Ons Jabeur vs. Andrea Petkovic, Naomi Osaka vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Serena Williams vs. Laura Siegemund, Vera Zvonareva vs. Elena Rybakina, Veronika Kudermetova vs. Marta Kostyuk, Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Barbora Strycova.