A VERY open women’s singles event at the 2018 Australian Open gets underway on Monday, with no Serena Williams heading the field and plenty in with chances in the first major of the season.
Simona Halep, Karolina Pliskova and Elina Svitolina lead the market at around the 7-1 mark, but there are lots more in this field that could emulate Sloane Stephens and Jelena Ostapenko by landing a major at a big price.
The quick conditions on this Plexipave outdoor hard court can favour the big servers and those who’ve held serve the most on outdoor hard at main level in the past year are Pliskova, Madison Keys, Johanna Konta and Coco Vandeweghe.
Draw (top half)
The top quarter of the draw sees Halep as number one seed take on Konta, Petra Kvitova, Ash Barty, and Pliskova, as well as the likes of Camila Giorgi, Elena Vesnina and Lucie Safarova, so that’s a tough quarter.
Halep has plenty of chances to win a major, but she still hasn’t proven me wrong in that she lacks the bottle on the biggest stage, as she showed yet again at the French Open last season and on numerous other occasions.
Pliskova and Konta look the ones for my shortlist in this section of the draw, but Konta is an injury concern after incurring a hip problem in Brisbane and losing to Aga Radwanska in Sydney last week, but she insists she’s fine (where have we heard that before?)
What happened in Brisbane, that actually got better quite quickly, a lot quicker than I thought,” Konta said. “It felt fine in my match in Sydney as well. Since then, just looking after the body as usual. So far so good.”
The Brit is now working with Maria Sharapova’s old coach Michael Joyce and of course he thinks that she can win the Australian Open, but similarly to Halep, I’m entertaining doubts about her when it comes to the crunch in a major semi or final.
As far as the service hold/break numbers are concerned in this section it’s Halep and Pliskova that lead the way on 115.6 and 114.5 respectively, with Konta on 110.9 and Barty on 109.8.
Home hope Barty has been in excellent form lately, as those numbers suggest, but her record in Melbourne so far isn’t good and she doesn’t look quite up to winning a major just yet.
In the adjacent section I’m happy to take a chance on the powerful, yet occasionally erratic game of Madison Keys at tempting 20-1, with the American seemingly over a wrist problem that’s hampered her progress since she made the US Open final last season.
Keys looked in good shape and played pretty well against Konta in Brisbane in her first match since last September and she’s played well here in Melbourne before, losing in the semis to Serena Williams back in 2015.
The American has only been back once since then and with the high seed in her quarter of the draw, Garbiñe Muguruza, struggling with a thigh injury and Caroline Garcia also a doubt with a back injury, Keys’ draw looks decent.
Perhaps the biggest threats to Keys in that section could turn out to be the back-to-form Angelique Kerber or Anastasija Sevastova, who I backed at 100-1 outright a little while ago.
Sevastova’s return-oriented stats don’t really fit the mould of a winner of the Australian Open, but the price was good, although she’s now drawn Varvara Lepchenko and Maria Sharapova first up and Kerber after that.
Sharapova doesn’t look in the sort of form needed for a title fortnight, but Kerber’s confidence seems restored and the German is the main obstacle in Keys’ way.
Draw (bottom half)
My main wager in the bottom half is a really risky one, with Belinda Bencic having been handed a very tough round one draw against Venus Williams, but if the Swiss wins that even money match the draw looks kind up until the quarter finals.
Bencic is another that’s come back well from injury and having just won the Hopman Cup for Switzerland with Roger Federer and the Kooyong Classic the 20-year-old will be in great spirits heading to Melbourne Park.
The former world number seven was out for five months after wrist surgery last season, but she’s been in great form since she returned and if she can beat Williams her draw includes the likes of Ekaterina Makarova, Daria Gavrilova, Julia Goerges, Sloane Stephens, Daria Kasatkina, Peng Shuai and the tournament favourite Svitolina.
Clearly, Svitolina is the biggest hurdle to overcome on paper, but the Ukrainian is yet to better the last-32 in Melbourne and she’s yet to really show what she can do at Grand Slam level.
This could easily be the year that she does and she has the best hold/break total of anyone in the tournament, but I can’t back her at a price like 7-1 this fortnight.
There are plenty in with chances in this quarter, with Goerges showing her best form for many a year of late, but she’s never been past the last-16 at a hard court major and her defence hasn’t been good enough when she’s had to use that side of her game against the better opponents.
That said, lately she’s been a different player – fitter and sharper and taking the ball earlier, which she needed to do with her long back swings.
If she carries on in this current vein then she’s right in there with a chance to have the best Slam of her career, but I’m still not sure about her mentally.
Stephens has looked well off the pace since surprisingly winning in New York and there are quite a few big-priced runners in this quarter that could go deep if they find their best form.
Bencic though at 40-1 is my bet here and while it could fall at the first she could also be a real threat this fortnight.
The final quarter is headed by Caroline Wozniacki, who’s back up to world number two and who boasts the second best hold/break stats in the tournament behind Svitolina.
She hasn’t got the easiest round one draw against the in-form Mihaela Buzarnescu, but overall this quarter doesn’t look the strongest and if Caro does her usual and fails to produce at a major we could have a big-priced runner going deep.
Jelena Ostapenko is too hit and miss for my liking and her hard courts stats are a good 10 points behind the leading contenders, so the likes of Kaia Kanepi, Nastia Pavlyuchenkova, Coco Vandeweghe and Domi Cibulkova all enter the thinking.
Cibulkova has played well in Melbourne over the years, but has a tough one first up against Kanepi and I always feel that one of the big hitters will get the better of Wozniacki at some point in the tournament.
It was Vandeweghe at Wimbledon last year, Ostapenko at the French and Konta in Melbourne and I couldn’t back Woz to win a major at a price as short as 10-1, it seems no value at all.
None of the others in that section really stand out, with Annett Kontaveit having bottled it against Woz at Wimbledon last year horribly, so I’ll leave that section more or less alone.
Pavs has very decent hold/break numbers for a 150-1 shot of 110 and of the really big prices she’s worth half a point, but I suspect she’ll have to hope someone else beats Wozniacki, as the Dane has beaten the often-erratic Russian seven times.
In the top half then, Keys looks good value at 20-1, and I’m happy to take on a risky one with Bencic at 40-1, while the real long shot is Pavlyuchenkova in the very open fourth quarter at 150s.