Will the 2017 Australian Open final see a rematch between all-time great Serena Williams and new world no. 1 Angelique Kerber?
Starting on Monday 16 January with just two weeks of warm-up events for the players to get in shape for the first Grand Slam of the year, the 2017 Australian Open promises an intense battle on the women’s side with legacies on the line at a transitional moment for the WTA.
The match which ended the 2016 Australian Open, pitting six-time champion Serena Williams against first-time Grand Slam finalist Angelique Kerber, set the tone for the rest of the season when Kerber triumphed in three sets over the queen of women’s tennis to claim her maiden Slam title. Williams won Wimbledon where the two faced off in the final once more, but Kerber’s consistent excellence through the season saw her secure and then seal the world no. 1 ranking when she won the US Open, ending Williams’s lengthy reign at the top.
It all started in Melbourne with a battle for the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup – could the Rod Laver Arena witness the beginning of Williams reclaiming her throne? Currently tied with Steffi Graf on 22 Grand Slam titles, Williams could become the first woman in the Open Era to win 23 if she takes a seventh Australian Open title and despite a 2016 season that was subpar by her astronomical standards (only two titles!) you would still back the American against most if not all of the other players in the field – especially in the absence of Victoria Azarenka, the two-time Australian Open champion and the closest thing Williams has to a rival, who will miss much of the 2017 season due to pregnancy.
Williams hasn’t played since defeat in the US Open semifinals at the hands of Karolina Pliskova, but she is scheduled to play a warm-up event, unlike last year – the ASB Classic in Auckland on 2-8 January. If she’s injury-free and healthy – and we do have to keep asking the question about the 35-year-old Williams – she should arrive in Melbourne with some matches, and wins, under her belt, which could make the world of difference to her fortunes at the Australian Open.
That could spell disaster for the top seed and defending champion Angelique Kerber, the German left-hander who blossomed unexpectedly in 2016. Kerber hadn’t made a Grand Slam semifinal in four years, but she came into last season with an improved physique that elevated her defense from the intimidating to the impenetrable and an added willingness to take the initiative in rallies, something she does with placement and angles rather than outright power. Beating Azarenka in the quarterfinals and Williams in the final, Kerber was aided then by a sense of being the underdog – she won’t be able to draw on the same feeling for psychic fuel (or relief from anxiety) as the defending champion when the 2017 Australian Open starts on Monday 16 January.
The fact that Kerber isn’t possessed of devastating weapons boosts her consistency but does leave her vulnerable to bigger hitters having an inspired day. Could one of those women step up and claim a first Australian Open title?
Garbine Muguruza, currently ranked world no. 7, is in many ways the forgotten Grand Slam champion of 2016 because she played so poorly before and after winning her maiden Slam title at Roland Garros. But the 2015 Wimbledon runner-up is a sensational player, has had some solid results in Melbourne before and her seeding should be high enough to give her a real opportunity to bounce back from a post-Slam slump. The 2017 season is going to tell us a lot about whether Muguruza is a serious contender for multiple Slam titles or an inconsistent talent – and that starts in Melbourne. Last year’s US Open runner-up, world no. 6 Karolina Pliskova, finds herself in a less pressured version of the same position as she tries to back up that breakthrough – and after yet another coaching change, is this the moment that world no. 8 Madison Keys, who made the round of 16 at all four Slams in 2016, repeats or even betters her 2015 semifinal run in Melbourne?
Australian Open 2017 live stream: How to watch and bet on tennis live from Melbourne
Speaking of inconsistent talents: Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova had a really terrible 2016 season, but it started to pick up towards the end with titles for the Olympic bronze medalist in Wuhan and Zhuhai. A semifinalist at the Australian Open all the way back in 2012, Kvitova hasn’t made it past the third round since and has started to become a reliable pick for an early upset, but with a new coach in her corner and a game that’s lethal when she’s feeling good, a fit Kvitova could storm back into the top 10 by making inroads in the Australian Open draw. Veterans Venus Williams, a former Australian Open finalist, and Svetlana Kuznetsova have the experience and the game to carve a path through the draw if they stay fit.
There’s plenty of opportunity for someone to make a big splash in Melbourne and get to the later stages, as world no. 10 Johanna Konta did so surprisingly in 2016 when she made the semifinals. Don’t take your eyes off 2014 Australian Open runner-up Dominika Cibulkova, who had a sensational 2016 season with an improved serve and could come into Melbourne still riding high from triumph at the WTA Finals Singapore. While many have given up on her winning a Slam, world no. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska has made the semifinals in Melbourne twice and the quarterfinals four times and while she needs a hefty helping of luck because of her underpowered game, the ‘Ninja’ is capable of taking advantage if her rivals falter. World no. 4 Simona Halep has developed rather a habit of underperforming in Grand Slams and her nerve and mentality in big matches is starting to become a significant source of doubt – but she’s made a Slam final before and certainly should improve on last year’s first-round exit which was partly rooted in a poor, illness-affected off-season.
Then there are those, like Sloane Stephens, Caroline Wozniacki and Belinda Bencic, whose 2016 seasons were blighted by injury or illness and who therefore enter the 2017 Australian Open seeded lower, or not seeded at all, and a host of dangerous dark horses like former Grand Slam champions or finalists Lucie Safarova, Ana Ivanovic and Eugenie Bouchard. Then there’s the rising young stars – Naomi Osaka, Daria Kasatkina, Ana Konjuh – any of them capable of putting together a deep run.
The 2017 Australian Open women’s field bristles with talent and possibilities, from the potential of a titanic re-match between Serena Williams and the woman who dethroned her in the final to the plethora of dark horses and dangerous floaters who could stun the top seeds – and yet it’s still distinctly plausible that the latter stages will see the presence of women we’ve not even mentioned here. About the only thing that’s safe to say is that from the start of play on Monday 16 January to the end of the women’s final on Saturday 28 January, you’d better not take your eyes off the women’s field at the 2017 Australian Open.