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By Richard Pagliaro | Thursday, January 13, 2022

 
AShleigh Barty

Ash Barty faces a potential blockbuster Australian Open clash vs. defending champion Naomi Osaka—one of five fascinating storylines we spotlight.

Photo credit: Fila

The Melbourne sign painted behind the baseline of Rod Laver Arena sends major mixed signals.

Its served as starting block for Naomi Osaka and dead end for Ash Barty.

Gilbert: If Djokovic Remains Unvaccinated, He's Out of Tournaments By 2023

The versatile Barty displaced the explosive Osaka as world No. 1 twice. Now the two Grand Slam champions are poised for a potential blockbuster fourth round showdown at the Australian Open.

The Australian Open women's draw was conducted after a suspenseful 75-minute delay on Thursday and the prospect of Wimbledon winner Barty vs. reigning Australian Open champion Osaka pops from the page like fireworks lighting up the sky on Australia Day.

"I think [Ash Barty's] got a huge chance to win here, and unlike Sam Stosur who had won the US Open and who could not perform with any kind of any form, got so nervous, she doesn't play in her home country's Grand Slam, Ash Barty has the last few years won a lot of matches down there," ESPN analyst Pam Shriver told Tennis Now in a Zoom call yesterday to promote the network's exclusive Australian Open coverage. "She should have beaten Muchova last year in the quarters.

"Muchova took one of those illness breaks that kind of threw off Barty, not to use it as an excuse, but I thought she could have won last year, and she showed at Wimbledon the kind of pressure -- to win Wimbledon as an Australian is almost as big as winning the Australian Open."

The 110th AO begins on Monday, January 17th—American viewers can tune into ESPN's exclusive coverage starting at 7 p.m. Sunday on ESPN—and we celebrate with our five focal points from the women's draw ahead of potential magic, majesty and mayhem in Melbourne.

Big Names Meet Major Challenges

World No. 1 Ash Barty could face dangerous giant killer Camila Giorgi in the third round followed by a potential clash vs. Naomi Osaka in a round four shootout between two of the premier servers in the sport.


Reigning Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova is swimming in a sea of sharks: she's one of four seeded former Grand Slam champions in the second quarter along with Victoria Azarenka, Sofia Kenin and Jelena Ostapenko. Krejcikova opens against Andrea Petkovic and could face Ostapenko in round three.

World No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka's confidence was shattered and her serve in tatters after a mind-blowing 39 double faults in two losses this season. How bad were Sabalenka's serving struggles? If tennis had a Richter Scale, Sabalenk's serve would have registered horrific as she committed 21 double faults and was serving underhanded in her last loss. Sabalenka partnered Elise Mertens to the 2021 AO doubles title and reached the Wimbledon singles semifinal last summer but enters Melbourne on her bleakest streak in recent memory.

Lefty Land

No. 2 seed Sabalenka is the highest seed in the fourth quarter of the field, but she’s struggled with her emotions and that spasmodic serve so far this year and faces a tricky opener vs. Aussie lefty Storm Sanders.

Dig deeper into that fourth quarter of the draw and see if you agree on conditions ripe for a left-hander's deep run.

We see a left-handed contender—either US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez, two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, three-time Slam champion Angelique Kerber who beat Serena Williams to win the 2016 AO championship or former Roland Garros runner-up Marketa Vondrousova—doing damage and emerging from this bottom quarter of the draw. Kerber should be highly motivated coming off a 2021 AO loss; prior to that defeat the former world No. 1 was a 2018 semifinalist and registered three fourth-round finishes since her title run.

If court conditions are quick in Melbourne look for Fernandez, who opens vs. Aussie wild card Maddison Inglis and could face Kerber in round three, to excel because she's so sharp straddling the baseline, taking the ball on the rise and boomeranging opponents' pace right back at them.

Tennis Express

Possible Fourth Round Showdown: Ash Barty vs. Naomi Osaka

Oz could see star wars erupt on Rod Laver Arena with Wimbledon winner Barty facing defending AO champ Osaka in the fourth round—if seeds hold true to form.

The current and former world No. 1 champs are both superb shotmakers who have split four prior meetings.

The 25-year-old Barty is aiming to end a 44-year Aussie title drought in women’s singles and become the first home champion to raise the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup since Chris O'Neil in 1978. While Osaka is playing to extend her streak of four straight years winning a Grand Slam title and reassert her authority as the premier hard-court player in the world.

The top-seeded Barty tuned up for Oz sweeping singles and doubles crowns in Adelaide. Osaka scored three straight wins in the Melbourne tune-up tournament but conceded a walkover in the semis due to an apparent strained abdominal.



This is potentially the premier major WTA rivalry—if both ladies can stay healthy—so if this match comes off it would not only captivate the tennis world it could compel the sports world. Interestingly, only one of their prior four matches has gone the three-set distance and that was their last meeting which Osaka won in the 2019 Beijing final.

Osaka, who beat Barty at the 2018 AO, has been candid about her battle with mental health issues during a rough 2021, but says she’s in a positive place these days and vows no more tears at pressers. Barty says her goal is to win her home Slam and if she does it she’ll own three of the four majors on three different surfaces.

The fourth round is crucial for Osaka: All four times she's reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal she's gone on to win the title.

Maiden Major Champ or Return Ruler?

Welcome to the age of possibility on the WTA Tour.

Did you know 14 different women have won the last 19 Grand Slam titles? And 10 of the last 16 women's Grand Slam title holders have been first-time major winners.

Scanning this AO draw you can make a srong case for another maiden major champion in Oz. Will we see Coco Gauff, Paula Badosa, Belinda Bencic, Maria Sakkari or Anett Kontaveit contend and potentially break through to win Melbourne?

While you can argue the winner of the potential Barty vs. Osaka match would be the major favorite, several other former Grand Slam champions—Garbine Muguruza, Simona Halep, Victoria Azarenka and  Angelique Kerber among them
—should all be highly motivated knowing several former champions, including Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Bianca Andreescu, withdrew and leading favorites Barty and Osaka are on a collission course.



We asked ESPN analysts Pam Shriver and Brad Gilbert before the draw was conducted if a Barty victory or a maiden major champion win was more likely this month?

Hall of Famer Shriver backs Barty as the favorite calling the 5-foot-6 Aussie “the best server inch for inch on either tour.”

Former world No. 4 Brad Gilbert told Tennis Now: “I will put Barty as the favorite, but I'm going to say we are not going to have a first-time winner.

“I'm expecting somebody that's won a major to win this year's Aussie Open.” 

First-Class First Rounders

(11) Sofia Kenin (USA) vs. Madison Keys (USA)
Head-to-head: Keys leads 2-1

The 2020 AO champion Kenin tries to regain the confidence and pinpoint aggression that propelled her to two major finals and WTA player of the year honors just two years ago. Keys owns the firepower to hit any woman on the planet off the court though suspection shot selection can cause her to hit herself into oblivion. Tactically, how will Kenin, one of the sharpest returners, handle Keys' crackling flat serve and confounding kick serve? A pressure match anytime you face a compatriot in a Grand Slam confounded by the fact both of these women have the skills to win Slams but expect nerves come into play.

Emma Raducanu
(17) Emma Raducanu (GBR) vs. Sloane Stephens (USA)
Head-to-head: First Meeting

An interesting match of reigning US Open champion Raducanu vs. 2017 US Open winner Stephens, who will both understandably likely be underprepared after celebrating life changing events. Stephens wed long-time partner and soccer star Jozy Alitdore on New Year's Day in Miami. The 19-year-old Raducanu made history as the first qualifier, male or female, to win a Grand Slam title at the US Open and did so with flair and conviction refusing to surrender a set in 10 match wins. Since then, Raducanu has been through a whirlwhind, including signing several lucrative sponsorship deals, a bout with Coronavirus last month and her partnership with new coach Torben Beltz. Raducanu has posted a 2-4 record since her Flushing Meadows magic, including managing just one game vs. Elena Rybakina in her 2022 debut. A 2013 AO semifinalist, Stephens has failed to clear the first hurdle in Oz in five of her last six appearances.


(8) Paula Badosa (ESP) vs. Ajla Tomljanovic (AUS)
Head-to-head: Badosa leads 1-0

Two talentend big hitters coming off career years square off for the second time this month. Badosa beat Tomljanovic in straight sets in the Sydney Tennis Classic round of 16. Both are willing to take the big strike down the line. Though Indian Wells champion Badosa owns the more damaging and versatile forehand, Tomljanovic will have massive home crowd support and has been heroic on home soil in Fed Cup though she's yet to surpass the second round in Melbourne.



 

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