TAMIRA PASZEK (AUT #37) vs.  VICTORIA AZARENKA (BLR #2) Azarenka leads 2-0
I like Vika to win this match and maybe the tournament. Off of clay, Vika has been the most consistent player on the WTA Tour this year.
 AGNIESZKA RADWANSKA (POL #3) vs.  MARIA KIRILENKO (RUS #19) Radwanska leads 5-2
Kirilenko’s error total will dictate who wins this match. Radwanska will likely advance and keep her opportunity to attain the number one ranking alive.
 SERENA WILLIAMS (USA #6) vs.  PETRA KVITOVA (CZE #4) Williams leads 2-0
This is the hardest match for me to pick. Both players have incredible grass court talent and know what it is like to win the title. I am picking Kvitova because I think Serena has become a bit less mentally tough as her career has advanced. She had a meltdown in Paris. I think as a player gets closer to retiring nerves can be harder to control. Serena is not alone, Roger Federer went off the grid in his 2011 US Open and 2012 French Open semifinal matches.
 SABINE LISICKI (GER #15) vs.  ANGELIQUE KERBER (GER #8) Kerber leads 4-0 (2-0 in tour level main draw matches)
Lisicki is ranked lower than Kerber and has a lousy head-to-head versus Kerber. She may have a letdown after pulling a huge upset. Berber clobbered Clijsters. I probably should pick Kerber, but I think Lisicki’s success at Wimbledon last year combined with her win over Sharapova mean she will advance at least one more round.
I wrote last year that 2011 was a good year for the WTA. I felt this way because Petra Kvitova looked like she would be a contender for multiple years, Na Li helped tennis expand into a market of over 1 billion people, Sam Stosur added a Grand Slam champion to the great Aussie tradition, and Maria Sharapova was once again back in the mix.
I have not written a ton about the WTA. Some could consider this to be me automatically liking men’s tennis better than women’s tennis. This is not the case. I have been following tennis consistently since 1985. I vividly remember Hana Mandlikova defeating Martina Navratilova at the 1985 US Open final. I became an immediate Steffi Graf fan watching her push Martina hard in the 1986 US Open semifinal round. The 1992 Monica Seles – Graf clash at the French Open that ended 6-2, 3-6, 10-8 in Seles’ favor was far better viewing for most fans than Jim Courier’s 7-5, 6-2, 6-1 thrashing of Petr Korda at the same event. My lack of coverage of the WTA over the past few years has a lot to do with how confusing and disjointed the women’s game has been at a time when men’s tennis is producing epic matches and all-time great players. I think order is being restored on the women’s side of the sport, and I could not be more pleased with this development.
2012: A Much Better Year
2012 has been an even better year for the WTA. Victoria Azarenka won her first Grand Slam title and joined Petra Kvitova as a contender for the foreseeable future. Azarenka claimed the #1 ranking and the Australian Open title. Azarenka went on an undefeated streak that did not quite live up to Nole’s from 2011, but it was a streak that had to be respected.
Maria Sharapova joined the party by winning her first French Open title and returning to #1. After years of players being ranked #1 without a Grand Slam title in the past 52 weeks or no Grand Slam titles period, Azarenka and Sharapova have created continuity between tennis’ top ranked players and the winners of tennis’ top events.
The old arrangement made top ranked players look like caretakers while part-time players collected the biggest prizes at tennis’ most visible events. In short, casual fans and even long-time tennis fans were often left scratching their head when looking at the WTA Tour.
Now, Sharapova and Azarenka are in a race to see who finishes 2012 ranked #1. Petra Kvitova has not played great at smaller events in 2012, but she is 10-2 in Grand Slam play this year. Petra is 1 slam away from creating another trivalry. The crowded summer of an Olympic year, held at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club no less, should give Azarenka, Sharapova and Kvitova a chance to prove who is #1 in a way that makes the ranking more meaningful than it has been in years.
My men’s predictions have been pretty accurate (14-4 or nearly 78% accurate)
My women’s predictions have been poor (1-3 or 25% accurate)
Projected winner in BOLD
5 Jo-Wilfriend Tsonga and 9Juan Martin del Potro were my picks yesterday, and I have to stick with those picks.
2 Rafael Nadal vs. 13 Juan Monaco – Monaco is the first opponent Rafa will face who is not already beaten before the match starts. Monaco is fit and tough. He has played well in 2012. He will fight Rafa. He will also likely be beaten in straight sets by Rafa. Nadal is a cyborg on clay.
4 Andy Murray vs. 17 Richard Gasquet – Based on what happened in Rome, I should pick Gasquet. However, I think Murray will advance. I have to say that Gasquet has played so well as of late that I am no longer picking against him as a matter of principle. I have always loved Gasquet’s game, but he seems to not come through in the big matches. I think he may be working past that issue and tennis fans will benefit from a more consistent Gasquet.
6 David Ferrer vs. 20 Marcel Granollers – I like Ferrer to win.
8 Janko Tipsarevic vs. 12 Nicolas Almagro – I think Almagro helps cement a great day for Spain.
I am taking the four seeded women to advance in an attempt to get back to .500 in my women’s predictions.
There is a slate of interesting matches for all three events. Here are my picks:
1 Rafael Nadal vs. 9 Fernando Verdasco – Rafa should win this match in a fairly straightforward manner. Verdasco did stage a classic with Nadal at the 2009 Australian Open, but I would be shocked if Verdasco offered that much resistance in 2012.
3 David Ferrer vs. 11 Milos Raonic – Milos’ serve is the biggest weapon possessed by the three semifinalists not named Rafa. It takes weapons to beat Rafa, and I would love to see that final (one in which I would pick Rafa to win), but I think Ferrer advances.
1 Victoria Azarenka vs. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska – I could say law of averages makes Aga due for a win vs. Vika, but I will stick with the world number one to advance.
2 Maria Sharapova vs. 3 Petra Kvitova – I think Petra is the more natural athlete and on clay that makes a big difference.
1 Gilles Simon vs. Matthias Bachinger – Simon continues his Monte Carlo form with a win.
Fabio Fognini vs. Attila Balazs – Fognini is a solid clay court player so I expect him to advance.
Novak Djokovic is indeed still the man in the world of tennis. His 60 Minutes interview helped introduce him to a broader audience. He does not have the win-loss record he had at this point in 2011, but Novak has won the biggest event of 2012 and won one of the two other big tournaments of the year. Also, Novak’s win over Andy Murray in Miami dispels any notions that Murray’s near miss in Australia and win in Dubai signal a change in the landscape of tennis.
Roger Federer is alive and kicking. Winning Indian Wells, Dubai and Rotterdam demonstrate that Roger can still string together great events. Indian Wells and Dubai are two of the four biggest events of the year to this point. Roger has to feel like he could win one of the next three slams.
Andy Murray is still not on par with the three people ahead of him. Near misses have to take a toll on Murray’s confidence. I am not sure how he can look at his play in Melbourne, Dubai and Miami and not feel frustrated. Still, I think Lendl is helping Murray. As a friend recently stated, Murray just needs to stay sharp and be ready. At some point, maybe a draw opens up or a player’s form dips. If Murray is ready to capitalize, he can win.
Nadal is a mystery. Rafa has played well enough in 2012 to expect him to continue to be Nole’s top rival, but withdrawing from Miami and dropping off of the ATP council just seem odd.
A legitimate fifth top tier contender has yet to emerge. Milos Raonic has two titles and had one runner-up finish in 2012, but he’s been banged up and not yet won against top competition. Juan Martin del Potro looks like a top 10 player, but his four losses to Federer and loss to fifth ranked David Ferrer tell me Delpo still needs to traverse a gulf to contend for slams again. David Ferrer has played well in 2012. He just lacks the weapons to be on the level of the top four. Finally, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga ended 2011 on an upward trend and won Qatar to start 2012. Since then, he’s been at best sadly uneven.
WTA – Vika’s Rise, Kvitova’s Malaise and Maria’s Near Misses
WTA Execs would like to see more of the above in 2012
Victoria Azarenka has banked a lot of momentum and computer points. I think Azarenka will finish 2012 number one and likely win a second major before the year ends.
Petra Kvitova has not maintained the level of play that led to her strong finish from 2011. The WTA needs Azarenka, Kvitova, and maybe Wozniacki to produce big stories in the next few years. WTA executives would feel better if these big stories started now and not in 2013 or 2014.
Maria Sharapova is struggling to close out events. In one sense, Maria has had a great 2012. She has been more consistent than anyone other than Victoria Azarenka. She has backed up her number two ranking. However, she has not come close to looking like anything other than second best. Even when she served well Sharapova lost the Sony Ericsson final in straight sets. Asking what could have been too many times is not good for a player’s mind.
I knew that Victroia Azarenka was playing well, but I picked against her thinking that the moment of a first Grand Slam final would be overwhelming. I was wrong and saw a player with steely nerves. Azarenka won her first Grand Slam title and claimed the #1 ranking. Her game is ideally suited to clay and she performed well at Wimbledon in 2011 so the Belarusian will have chances to win another Grand Slam title in short order if she handles her new status well.
Not a One Slam Wonder
I mention a second slam for a reason. Azarenka seems to have a mindset that will fuel her pursuit of more big titles. I should mention that Petra Kvitova will also pursue these titles. It is premature to say that Sam Stosur will not win another slam, but players such as Jana Novatna and pre-retirement Kim Clijsters seemed to lose their competitive edge after winning a Grand Slam title. I think Azarenka and Kvitova are driven. For this reason, women’s tennis should be happy. Hopefully Stosur and Na Li are also similarly driven. Azarenka’s reaction of pure joy tells me she will want that type of big win in the future.
Taking The Ball Early
Victoria Azarenka won in large part by stealing time from Maria Sharapova. She hugged the baseline and hit balls standing inside of the baseline. This forced Sharapova’s scrambling abilities to be the terms upon which the more experienced player would either win or lose the match. Sharapova is not good at scrambling. Azarenka won 6-3, 6-0 claiming 12 of the final 13 games of the match.
I will add that Novak Djokovic’s ability to take the ball earlier than Nadal is why I think Nole wins his 3rd Australian Open title. The introduction of new string materials and stringing techniques seemed to end the Agassi led days of players slugging away from inside the baseline. It will be interesting if we see players whose techniques have adapted to the new strings begin to creep back into the court and play rallies in a manner akin to how Jimmy Connors played. Tennis is cyclical. Roger Federer does often hug the baseline or play inside the court, but his one handed backhand allows for him to be pushed back. Novak Djokovic is harder to push back, and therefore he can dictate points.
The New Top 4
A major plus for Victoria Azarenka is that she is #1 without any of the nagging questions that were thrown at Jelena Jankovic, Dinara Safina and Caroline Wozniacki. Petra Kvitova is positioned at #2 and should make a push for #1 during the upcoming months. Maria Sharapova is deserving at #3 however two one-sided Grand Slam final losses in the past 52 weeks have to sting. Caroline Wozniacki is now #4 and may face less scrutiny as she aims toward a major title. In addition, Na Li, Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters and Sam Stosur can all plausibly win a major in 2012. This depth is good for the WTA and ITF so long as Azarenka and Kvitova lead the charge. I am betting that this will occur and women’s tennis will transition into a new era.
1 Novak Djokovic vs. 5 David Ferrer – Djokovic should win, but Ferrer is going to be tougher than Hewitt was. My guess is Nole raises his game and wins in 3 or 4 sets.
4 Andy Murray vs. 24 Kei Nishikori – I think Murray calmly makes another slam semifinal. Nishikori pulled a great upset over Tsonga, but Murray looks pretty solid to me. I pick Murray in 3 sets.
11 Juan Martin del Potro vs. 3 Roger Federer – This is the hardest match to predict. Federer benefits from the day time heat. I think that may be the difference. Delpo has played quite well since a sluggish first round. A win here would signal that Delpo is indeed fully back in the hunt. I originally picked Federer for the final four so I am sticking with that, but JMDP winning would not be even a small surprise. My pick is Federer in four.
7 Tomas Berdych vs. 2 Rafael Nadal – This could have been a close match. However, I think Berdych failing to shake Nicolas Almagro’s hand will make Spanish pride a factor. I think that unless Nadal pulls up injured he beats Berdych in 3 sets.
Women’s Picks (Winners in Bold)
1 Caroline Wozniacki vs. 11 Kim Clijsters – Clijsters’ ankle is a question mark, but I think this being her final Aussie Open will help Kim dig deep and dispatch the world #1 in 2 tough sets.
3 Victoria Azarenka vs. 6 Agnieszka Radwanska – Azarenka certainly could lose this match, but it will be decided on her terms. If she makes her shots, she wins. If she sprays too many errors, Radwanska wins. I think Azarenka is close to breaking through so I pick her in 2 sets.
Ekaterina Makarova vs. 4 Maria Sharapova – Makarova pulled a great upset, but Sharapova wins here pretty easily. Maria wants to get back into the winner’s circle.
Sara Errani vs. 2 Petra Kvitova – Kvitova will set up a Wimbledon rematch with Sharapova. I pick Kvitova in 2 sets.
Kim Clijsters vs. Li Na could be a great re-match in the round of 16.
Maria Sharapova could have a nice match with Serena Williams, but I don’t think Sharapova will get there without having a reliable serve. My gut says Sabine Lisicki clips Sharapova.
Final 8 Picks
1 Caroline Wozniacki vs. 11 Kim Clijsters (although 5 Li Na could make it this far)
3 Victoria Azarenka vs. 10 Francesca Schiovone
12 Serena Williams vs. 14 Sabine Lisicki
6 Sam Stosur vs. 2 Petra Kvitova
Final 4 Picks
11 Kim Clijsters vs. 3 Victoria Azarenka
12 Serena Williams vs. 2 Petra Kvitova
3 Victoria Azarenka vs. 12 Serena Williams
12 Serena Williams
Serena Williams looks fit and prepared. Having a day off between matches that are not any longer than regular WTA matches will help with her ankle injury. She has also had her greatest success down under, so I am picking Serena. I think this may be her last Grand Slam title because Kvitova is coming on strong, but Serena likely has one more big run. Since she is looking fit, I think she wins. As a fan, I think Kvitova winning a 2nd slam and taking over the tour is the best result for women’s tennis. However, many good stories can emerge in Melbourne so this should be a great event for the women’s game.