Australian Open 2013, women's draw preview: Can anybody take out the top 4?

Matthew Stockman

Women's tennis has its own Big Four now; who is capable of disrupting the paths of Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska?

A year ago, the women's game was still a bit aimless, with collapses as frequent as breakthroughs and one woman after another winning a slam and then falling apart at another. But beginning with the 2012 Australian Open, things began to crystallize. Victoria Azarenka broke through with her first slam title, Maria Sharapova stole her thunder at the French, and then Serena Williams returned to form, laying waste to most of the universe. Now we've got a clear Top Four (these three and Agnieszka Radwanska, who almost took out Williams in the Wimbledon finals) and a lot of interesting candidates ready to pull upsets. Let's preview a fascinating field.

Azarenka Region

Seeds
No. 1 Victoria Azarenka
No. 7 Sara Errani
No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki
No. 16 Roberta Vinci
No. 21 Varvara Lepchenko
No. 24 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
No. 26 Su-Wei Hsieh
No. 31 Urszula Radwanska

You have to respect Victoria Azarenka for aiming high. She carries herself like a No. 1, and she has developed a No. 1 player's level of consistency. She has also played enough to take the No. 1 ranking into 2013. She just happens to have lost 11 of 12 matches to the woman who is actually the best player in the world, Serena Williams. Unlike most of the women on tour, however, she doesn't back down from Serena. As 2012 unfolded, she was the only player capable of putting up a fight. She took Williams to three sets and all but finished her off late in the match, but Williams rallied to take the title in epic fashion. Now Azarenka faces a region that is interesting -- Errani made the French Open finals, and Caroline Wozniacki was an Aussie semifinalist in 2011 -- but beatable. On a hard court, Azarenka rarely slips up at this point. It would be a shock if she and Williams didn't meet in the semis. And as the defending champion, it would be a shock if Azarenka didn't put up one hell of a fight in said semi.

Americans

(First potential match versus seeded player, or higher-seeded player listed in parentheses.)

Lepchenko (third round v. Vinci)
Christina McHale (second round v. Errani)
Jamie Hampton (first round v. Radwanska)
Lauren Davis (second round v. Pavyluchenkova)

Lepchenko, a Pennsylvanian by way of Uzbekistan, had herself a lovely 2012. She reached the French Open fourth round, then made it to the third round at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. She is now a Top 25 player, and her draw isn't awful. Her second-round matchup with Elena Vesnina, however, could be tricky. Vesnina has long been considered a potential star, but while she ranks just 47th in the world, she just won her first career title. Lepchenko could cruise to a fourth-round battle versus Azarenka, but she could slip up against Vesnina or Vinci along the way.

Unseeded Grenade Thrower

Christina McHale. A tennis draw is full of major hazards. The top 32 seeds are distributed evenly throughout the bracket, but the No. 33 player could land absolutely anywhere. McHale, a 21-year old from New Jersey, was threatening to break into the Top 20 and spent most of 2012 as a seeded player but slumped a bit and fell to 35th. She could face Errani, the second-ranked player in the "region" in the second round. While Errani is 3-0 versus McHale, every match has been quite close. Errani took McHale down, 9-7 in the third set, in their most recent meeting (the 2011 French Open). If McHale can advance in that one, the bottom half of the region becomes a free-for-all.

Most Interesting Early-Round Matchup

First Round: Wozniacki v. Sabine Lisicki. With each disappointing slam result, Wozniacki sees a few more Anna Kournikova comparisons. That's unfair -- Wozniacki does rank 10th in the world and is still one of tennis' best defenders -- but a nice run in Melbourne, where she has seen past success, would certainly fend off some demons for the former World No. 1. She faces a terrible early draw, however. Her first opponent is Lisicki, another potential Unseeded Grenade Thrower who has beaten Wozniacki in two of three meetings (though they haven't actually played since 2009). At 23 years old and 36th in the world, Lisicki has a ton of potential; Wozniacki will have to prove herself from the opening serve of the tournament. Can she?

Most Likely Quarterfinal

Azarenka v. Wozniacki. There really is no "likely" winner from the bottom half of the region. Errani's best surface is clay (though she did make the U.S. Open semis -- she's no slouch on hard courts), Wozniacki hasn't won a huge match in a while, and other seeded players like Pavyluchenkova and Hsieh have not proven themselves to be major threats (though Pavlyuchenkova in particular has a world of potential). So we'll go with Wozniacki, who has at least won major matches in Melbourne before.

Williams Region

Seeds
No. 3 Serena Williams
No. 8 Petra Kvitova
No. 12 Nadia Petrova
No. 14 Maria Kirilenko
No. 17 Lucie Safarova
No. 20 Yanina Wickmayer
No. 28 Yaroslava Shvedova
No. 29 Sloane Stephens

Americans

(First potential match versus seeded player, or higher-seeded player listed in parentheses.)

Williams (SF v. Azarenka)
Stephens (third round v. Kvitova)
Vania King (first round v. Kirilenko)
Melanie Oudin (second round v. Kvitova)

This is another region laden with Americans, though the top two obviously stand out. First, you've got Williams, who since losing to Virginie Razzano in the first round of the French Open, has lost once. She found her form in the second week at Wimbledon, laid waste to the field in the London Olympics, and lost more than four games in a set just twice in the U.S. Open (both to Azarenka in the finals). She was barely challenged in the WTA Championships in October, and the only reason she's not No. 1 is that she doesn't play enough.

Be on the lookout for Stephens, however. The toolsy Floridian is still just 19 years old, and while she is a bit inconsistent, she compiled quite a few impressive results in 2012. She reached the fourth round at the French Open and beat seeded players at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Her draw isn't impossible, though Petra Kvitova might have too much for her in the third round. That is, if Kvitova is at the top of her game; she often is not.

Unseeded Grenade Thrower

Laura Robson. Stephens is an exciting teenager, but Robson was perhaps the game's most exciting teenager late in 2012. Robson took out both Kim Clijsters (in Clijsters' final slam) and Na Li at the U.S. Open, and she was quite competitive in tight losses to players like Maria Sharapova (at the Olympics) and Sam Stosur (at the U.S. Open). Stephens took her down earlier in January, but they could battle again in the third round if Robson is able to defeat Kvitova in the second round.

Most Interesting Potential Early-Round Matchup

Second Round: Kvitova v. Robson. These two big, strong lefties could put together one of the week's most interesting battles. Kvitova is more experienced, and she tends to handle an opponent's power game pretty well, but this will be an excellent "How far along is Robson?" gauge.

Most Likely Quarterfinal

Williams v. Kvitova. Poor Kvitova got a brutal draw. She faces former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone in the first round and could get Robson in the second and Stephens in the third. But she's still probably the most reliable option on her side of the bracket.

Radwanska Region

Seeds
No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska
No. 6 Na Li
No. 9 Sam Stosur
No. 13 Ana Ivanovic
No. 18 Julia Goerges
No. 22 Jelena Jankovic
No. 27 Sorana Cirstea
No. 32 Mona Barthel

Agnieszka Radwanska is perhaps tennis' most accurate, consistent hitter; that she drew two big-hitting, massively inconsistent opponents in Na Li and Sam Stosur in her region is probably good news for her. Li is hot, though, having won eight of nine matches thus far in 2013. Her lone loss: a 6-3, 6-4 defeat to Radwanska in the Sydney semifinals. She's good, but Radwanska is still better right now.

Americans

(First potential match versus seeded player, or higher-seeded player listed in parentheses.)

Coco Vandeweghe (second round v. Cirstea)

The 21-year old Vandeweghe has cracked the Top 100, and her draw wasn't awful. But she isn't ready to make noise at a slam just yet, and she fell in straight sets to Cirstea early on Monday.

Unseeded Grenade Thrower

Jie Zheng. It was going to be Tsvetana Pironkova, the 25-year old Bulgarian who made the fourth round of the U.S. Open and has risen to 39th in the world, but she fell to Switzerland's Romina Oprandi in three sets on Monday. So instead we'll go with Jie Zheng, who faces No. 9 Stosur in the second round and beat Stosur just a week ago. Zheng was very recently a Top 30 player and is good enough to take out both Stosur in the second round and No. 18 Goerges in the third round.

Most Interesting Potential Early-Round Matchup

Second Round: Stosur v. Jie Zheng. Stosur, an Aussie, is one of the strongest players in the women's game, and her decimation of Serena Williams in the 2011 U.S. Open finals showed that her ceiling is awfully high. But she struggles in her home country, and is 0-2 so far in 2013. She lost to Sofia Arvidsson in the Round of 32 in Brisbane, and she lost to Zheng just a week ago in Sydney. Yes, both of these matches were close -- Zheng won, 6-4, in the third -- but the burden of proof is very much on Stosur in this one. When she's on, she's incredible. And when she's off, it's painful to watch.

Most Likely Quarterfinal

Radwanska v. Who The Hell Knows. As you can tell, I don't really trust anybody outside of the Top Four. Either Stosur or Li could reach the quarters without dropping a set, then pummel Radwanska on the way to the semis. And either could lose in the first round. A player like Goerges, Cirstea, Zheng or Pironkova could cruise or disappear as well. Hell, even Radwanska could face trouble in the second round against Irina-Camelia Begu. But the odds are very, very much on Radwanska's side in this "region."

Sharapova Region

Seeds
No. 2 Maria Sharapova
No. 5 Angelique Kerber
No. 11 Marion Bartoli
No. 15 Dominika Cibulkova
No. 19 Ekaterina Makarova
No. 23 Klara Zakopalova
No. 25 Venus Williams
No. 30 Tamira Paszek

As with Roger Federer, women's No. 2 seed Sharapova faces a semi-brutal path to the semifinals. Not only might she have to take on steely Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals, but she might have to get past Petra Martic (a 21-year old Croation who made the fourth round of the French Open) in the second round and Venus Williams in the third round just to get there. If Sharapova reaches her fifth Aussie semifinal, she'll have earned it.

Americans

(First potential match versus seeded player, or higher-seeded player listed in parentheses.)

Williams (third round v. Sharapova)
Madison Keys (second round v. Paszek)

When Venus Williams was reaching the finals of the 1997 U.S. Open, Madison Keys was two years old. Venus has regained a semi-consistent form in recent months, while Keys came out of nowhere to reach the Sydney quarterfinals last week. She took out three Top 100 opponents just to qualify for the Sydney field, took out world No. 17 Lucie Safarova, 6-2, 6-1, in the Round of 32, then knocked out No. 42 Jie Zheng, 6-0, 6-4, in the Round of 16. Na Li finally took her out but needed three sets to do it. Keys has leaped to No. 105 in the world, and at 17 years old, she has come a long way rather quickly. She already took out Casey Dellacqua, Australia's highest-ranked player, in the first round, and she gets Tamira Paszek in the second with a potential shot at Angelique Kerber on the horizon. Keep an eye on her.

Unseeded Grenade Thrower

Kirsten Flipkens. It was going to be 21-year old Petra Martic, who beat quite a few Top 30 players in 2012; but she went out and lost to Japan's Misaki Doi in the first round. It could be Keys, but she might be a little too young. So we'll go with Flipkens, a late bloomer of sorts who is playing the best ball of her career at 27 years old. Flipkens won her first WTA title in September and has risen to 43rd in the world, and she looked strong in taking out Russia's Nina Bratchikova in the first round. She drew Zakopalova, the No. 23 seed, in the second round, but she is 2-0 all-time versus the 30-year old Czech.

Most Interesting Potential Early-Round Matchup

Third Round: Sharapova v. Venus Williams. If both can survive early tests, this matchup, which would happen late in the first week of the tournament, could be the first true marquee matchup of the fortnight. Sharapova has won each slam at least once, while Venus has won five Wimbledons and two U.S. Opens. At 32, Williams is past her prime, but the upside is still there even if the consistency is not.

Most Likely Quarterfinal

Sharapova v. Kerber. Sharapova has made the semifinals in five of the last seven slams, while Kerber grinded out a quarterfinal appearance at the French Open and made the semis at Wimbledon in 2012. Kerber began 2012 ranked 34th and finished fifth; she has not begun 2013 on fire -- she lost to No. 24 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Brisbane and No. 15 Dominka Cibulkova in Sydney -- but she is still the safest bet on her side of the bracket.

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