Australian Open 2019: Serena Williams, Halep headline packed top half, but stronger contenders could be lurking elsewhere

Musab Abid
Here's the full script of Episode 126 of Spodcast where we discuss Serena Williams' imperious form at the Australian Open 2019, Indian cricketer Prithvi Shaw's possible return, results from the AFC Asian Cup and more.

The women's tour has been producing more intriguing storylines and results than the men's lately, and nowhere is that more evident than in the year's first Grand Slam. Last year at the Australian Open, Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber stole the show from right under the men's noses to produce the most collectively compelling tennis of the year. And the year before that Serena Williams made headlines by defeating her sister in the final, while eight weeks pregnant.

Is 2019 going to be more of the same? The women's draw at the Australian Open this year looks as stacked as ever, so it's easy to answer that with an emphatic 'yes'.

Here's a look at how the four quarters might unfold:

First quarter: Halep's hunt for dominance resumes

In many ways, Simona Halep is the pre-eminent female player in the world today. But every time you expect her to stamp her dominance on the field, she goes out and suffers an early Slam loss. The last time she played in a Major, she was blown off the court in the first round by Kaia Kanepi.

Is the 2019 Australian Open going to be the tournament where Halep corrects that for good, and becomes the dominant champion we all expect her to be? Whether that happens or not there will be a fair share of fate-related jokes in the process, because her first round opponent is€¦Kanepi again.

And that's just the start of her landmine-filled path. Sofia Kenin could await in the second round, followed by Alize Cornet or Venus Williams (who is somehow unseeded) in the third, after which there could be the terrifying prospect of none other than Serena Williams herself. So much for a quest for dominance.

Karolina Pliskova headlines the bottom of this quarter, but there are a couple of other notable names too €" the skidding Garbine Muguruza and the surging Daria Kasatkina. Having experienced sharply contrasting seasons in 2018, the two will be looking to get their 2019 off to a positive start by making inroads in Melbourne.

Serena, of course, remains the all-pervading wildcard. Is she in Slam-winning shape yet? More importantly, is she itching to wipe away the ugly memories of US Open 2018 and remind people what made her such an icon in the first place? A potential second-round encounter against Genie Bouchard should get her in the mood alright.

Quarter-final prediction: Serena Williams def. Daria Kasatkina

Dark horse: Garbine Muguruza

1st round match to watch: Venus Williams vs Mihaela Buzarnescu

Second quarter: Is it Osaka's time to shine, or Svitolina's?

Naomi Osaka has put up enough good results over the last year to get a quarter of her own. But whether she has recovered sufficiently from her loss to Lesia Tsurenko in the Brisbane semi-final, where by her own admission she was 'childish' and displayed the 'worst attitude', is up for debate.

Osaka could face home hope Daria Gavrilova in the second round, Victoria Azarenka or Su-Wei Hsieh in the third, and Anastasija Sevastova in the fourth. That's not a lineup anyone would want to face with a bad attitude.

Elina Svitolina finds herself at the other end of this quarter, and her draw doesn't present any immediate threats. Domininika Cibulkova could await in the third round, and either Madison Keys or last year's breakout star Elise Mertens in the fourth, and none of those players seems in good enough shape to get past the Svitolina we saw at the WTA Finals.

But will we see that Svitolina in Melbourne, or will the usual Slam-shrinking, underperforming version show up instead? I'll stick my neck out and vote for the former.

Quarter-final prediction: Elina Svitolina def. Naomi Osaka

Dark horse: Victoria Azarenka

1st round match to watch: Destanee Aiva vs Madison Keys

Third quarter: Veterans Wozniacki and Kvitova trying to keep the youngsters at bay

Was it just last year that Caroline Wozniacki was putting the finishing touches on her career breakthrough, grinding Simona Halep down in the final? Her maiden Grand Slam win seems like a generation ago, probably because she hasn't done much of note since then.

Now, she comes in as not only the defending champion, but also as the flag-bearer of the veterans who are trying to keep the hard-charging Next Gen at bay. She is joined in this pursuit by Petra Kvitova and Maria Sharapova, but all of them will likely have their hands full with the youngsters they've been saddled with.

Aryna Sabalenka has been giving loud (both literally and figuratively) signals of her potential for nearly a year now, and Melbourne is her opportunity to announce herself in a big way. She starts against a qualifier and doesn't seem to have many tough obstacles until the fourth round, where she will likely face off against fellow atomic hitter Kvitova.

Meanwhile, Australia's Ashleigh Barty lurks in the bottom of this quarter, and could potentially face Jelena Ostapenko in the third round and Wozniacki or Sharapova in the fourth.

Barty, with her deft volleying and intelligent changes of pace, is as different from the power-wielding Sabalenka as you could possibly get €" both in her style of play and her demeanor. A Sabalenka vs Barty quarter-final sounds far more interesting than the seed-ordained Wozniacki vs Kvitova matchup, and luckily enough it seems more likely too.

Quarterfinal prediction: Aryna Sabalenka def. Ashleigh Barty

Dark horse: Jelena Ostapenko

1st round match to watch: Petra Kvitova vs Magdalena Rybarikova

Fourth quarter: Counterpunching heaven

Many thought Angelique Kerber had the worst possible draw at the 2018 Australian Open, and that the final champion may well have been different if the German had taken her opportunities against Halep in the semi-final. She now has a chance to make amends in 2019, because she couldn't have asked for a draw more conducive to her strengths.

She starts against Polona Hercog and doesn't seem to have too many threats up to the fourth round, where she could meet Julia Goerges or Caroline Garcia. Both Goerges and Garcia have the shot-making skills to go far in any draw, but not necessarily the patience to hit past a counterpuncher extraordinaire like Kerber.

Kerber is not alone when it comes to retrieving skills in this quarter though. Sloane Stephens is the highest seed in the other section, which also has the suddenly-super-solid Kiki Bertens.

No matter what happens in this quarter, we know there will be a LOT of running. It is up to the big hitters here €" the Donna Vekics, Anett Kontaveits and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkovas, to find a solution to that.

Quarter-final prediction: Angelique Kerber def. Kiki Bertens

Dark horse: Anett Kontaveit

1st round match to watch: Donna Vekic vs Kristina Mladenovic

Semifinal predictions: Serena Williams def. Elina Svitolina, Angelique Kerber def. Aryna Sabalenka

Final prediction: Angelique Kerber def. Serena Williams

Also See: Australian Open 2019: Roger Federer, Angelique Kerber cautiously welcome new tie-break rules for deciding set

Australian Open 2019: World number ones Novak Djokovic, Simona Halep named top seeds; Serena Williams seeded 16

Australia Open 2019: Serena Williams handed challenging draw; World No 1 Simona Halep faces Kaia Kanepi in first round

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