I am a fan of so many of the great athletes on the WTA that just about every tournament winner gives me reason to celebrate. But I do have what I call my Mount Rushmore favorites, my top 4 current faves. Unfortunately, 3 of those 4 will be absent at the 2017 Australian Open. Maria Sharapova won’t be back from her suspension until April 26th in Stuttgart, at the 2017 Porsche Tennis Grand Prix. Madison Keys is recovering from wrist surgery. Petra Kvitova’s future tennis career could be in doubt after sustaining serious injuries to her left hand fighting off a home invader. Still wishing her the best no matter if she returns or not. I know she says she will, but in the end nobody really knows how her hand will function with all the grip changes required to play tennis. That leaves only Simona Halep from my Mount Rushmore. With that in mind, I’ll just comment on what I’m watching in each quarter of the women’s singles draw.
Top seeds: 1 Angelique Kerber, 15 Roberta Vinci, 23 Daria Kasatkina, Irina-Camelia Begu
The top seed and defending champion Angelique Kerber has not looked particularly sharp to start the year. On paper she is the heavy favorite to get out of this quarter, but lurking is 23rd seed Daria Kasatkina, who has already beaten Angie this year in Sydney at the Apia International. Kasatkina is a future Major winner barring injury or burnout. You can count on that. I just don’t know if it will be this year. Also in this quarter is a rejuvenated Eugenie Bouchard, who has looked good early this year beating WTA Finals winner Dominika Cibulkova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Top seeds: 7 Garbine Muguruza, 10 Carla Suarez Navarro, 20 Shuai Zhang, 32 Anastasija Sevastova
For me, there are a few interesting subplots in this section. First of all, it pains me to see 4 young Americans all grouped together. Even if they can upset some other players, the problem of playing each other still exists. For example, Lauren Davis, who just won her first WTA singles title at the ASB Classic in Auckland, takes on fellow American Samantha Crawford in the first round. If that were not bad enough, Americans Alison Riske, runner up this year at Shenzhen, and Madison Brengle, who upset Serena Williams at Auckland earlier this month, also face each other in round 1. So while 2 Americans are guaranteed to advance, it’s also guaranteed that half the Americans in this section will be gone by round 2. On a more positive note, it’s great to see Shuai Zhang, who was considering retirement last year until an improbable run at the Aussie Open, coming in this year seeded 20th. She could be a big problem for anybody in this section. But the big gun, if she plays the way she is capable of playing, is Garbine Muguruza. The reigning Roland Garros champion should be the class of this section. However, you just never know about Mugu. Looks unbeatable one day, can’t find the court the next day. If she holds form throughout, she can win in Melbourne.
Top seeds: 4 Simona Halep, 13 Venus Williams, 19 Kiki Bertens, 29 Monica Puig
The Olympic Gold Medalist Monica Puig is in this section. I watched her lose a match earlier this season. She has every shot. When she gets it rolling she is as good as anybody. It’s just those stretches of unforced errors that kill her. If she ever finds consistency in her game, like she did in Rio, she would be a Major winner pick. As it is, she does have a chance. Simona Halep, one of my Mount Rushmore faves, should be the ace in this section. However, she has potential problems in the very first round against rising American Shelby Rogers. Puig could face Halep or Rogers in round 3. Puig has the ability to win against either of those players. She could also beat Venus Williams at this point in the future Hall of Famer’s career. Puig could also be out in round one.
Top seeds: 8 Svetlana Kuznetsova, 11 Elina Svitolina, 24 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 26 Laura Siegemund
Elina Svitolina is another one of those who has a victory in recent years over Serena Williams, defeating her at the Rio Olympics. Look out for the 11th seed. I don’t underestimate the veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova, but if you ask me my honest opinion, despite being seeded lower I look at Svitolina as the player to beat in this quarter. If there is a dark horse lurking in this quarter, it could be Katerina Siniakova. The 20-year old won her first WTA singles title a few weeks ago at the Shenzhen Open. I don’t know if she is ready for the pressure of making the second week of a Major. If she is, Katya could upset the bigger seeds in this section.
Top seeds: 5 Karolina Pliskova, 12 Timea Bacsinszky, 22 Daria Gavrilova, 31 Yulia Putintseva
For those not picking Serena Williams or Angelique Kerber to win the 2017 Australian Open, the trendy pick seems to be Karolina Pliskova. She beat Serena at the 2016 US Open. She won Brisbane a couple of weeks ago, thrashing Alize Cornet in the final. You know something? I’ll go with the trendy pick and say Karolina Pliskova wins her first Major this year in Melbourne. With all due respect, I see nobody in her quarter who should trouble her. If Karolina doesn’t at least make the quarterfinals here, it’s a letdown.
Top seeds: 3 Agnieszka Radwanska, 14 Elena Vesnina, 18 Samantha Stosur, 28 Alize Cornet
Agnieszka Radwanska is still searching for that elusive first Major. This quarter sets up nicely for her if she’s in form. She is coming in off a runner-up in Sydney at the Apia International. I always worry that Aga plays too many tournaments, that despite her great fitness it is too tough to play so many weeks right before a Major. She should take this section, although Alize Cornet often finds a way to play the spoiler. Also in this section is Samantha Stosur, who carries the burden of playing in front of her home country. It often has not been a burden that she has carried well. Hopefully, she can have a good 2017 Australian Open.
Top seeds: 6 Dominika Cubulkova, 9 Johanna Konta, 17 Caroline Wozniacki, 30 Ekaterina Makarova
The top seed in this quarter is 2016 WTA Finals winner Dominika Cibulkova, and she is truly a threat every time she takes the court. But the player I am watching most closely is Great Britain’s Johanna Konta. She comes in after winning Sydney in impressive fashion. I went with the trendy outside pick of Karolina Pliskova, and I will stick with that. However, outside of Serena and Angie…and Karolina…maybe I’d go with Jo Konta as a potential winner. Also lurking here is former world #1 Caroline Wozniacki. She has shown some flashes of the old Sunshine. I need to see more before I call her a threat to win a Major, but something tells me she will not retire without winning at least one.
Top seeds: 2 Serena Williams, 16 Barbora Strycova, 21 Caroline Garcia, 25 Timea Babos
The toughest match for Serena Williams in her quarter might be her first one. Belinda Bencic has beaten Serena before. Because of injuries, Bencic’s ranking has slipped to the point where she isn’t seeded. But make no mistake, she has top 15, maybe even top 10 ability. The problem is I am not sure where Belinda’s game is right now. Is it sharp or is she still working herself into form? She will need to be sharp to win…unless, of course, the same Serena that lost to Madison Brengle in the windy conditions at Auckland shows up. Don’t count on it. Bencic says she looks forward to playing Williams in the first round. Be careful what you wish for.