Preview of the 2018 Women’s Aussie Open

by Chris Scheeren
on September 25, 2017

With the WTA season winding down and all four Major Championships already competed, it is time to reflect 2017 and the candidates for WTA Player of the Year.  One could make an easy case for Garbine Muguruza. She won Wimbledon in dominating fashion, leads the money list for 2017 and has risen to the #1 World Ranking as of September 11th. She’d be an excellent choice. One could also make a compelling case for Simona Halep, currently ranked second in the World, though the lack of a Major Championship hurts her case slightly.

We know it will be someone new this year with the demise of 2016 WTA Player of the Year Angelique Kerber. How about a blast from the past, Venus Williams?  The 37-year phenom made two Major Finals and another Major Semifinal (US Open in an incredible match for the ages against Sloane Stephens).  Venus would be a worthy and fitting selection, though realistically, more sentimental than deserved.

But the TRUE MVP of the 2017 WTA season is indisputable. And here she is: Serena Williams’s Baby

Serena’s absence is the single biggest factor in what became a WILD 2017 season. Muguruza’s Wimbledon, Halep’s strong season, Svitolina and Pliskova’s rise, Venus’s return, the stunning Ostapenko French Open, the American Women of the US Open – Madison Keys, Coco, and Sloane – NONE of this is the likeliest storyline with just one added variable; SERENA.  Without the GOAT on the court this season, the field was wide open.

But bad news ladies, the GOAT will be back Down Under for the Aussie Open in 2018, where she will be looking to defend her 2017 Australian Open title and open the new season as the once-again commanding favorite; the vintage “Tiger vs. The Field” like champion whose mere presence in the same quarter or half of the bracket moves other contenders’ odds considerably.

Here’s a look at the early 2018 Women’s Australian Open Outrights.

2018 AUSTRALIAN OPEN ODDS:

  • Serena Williams +350
  • Garbine Muguruza +500
  • Maria Sharapova +800
  • Karolina Pliskova +900
  • Victoria Azarenka +1000
  • Madison Keys +1200
  • Simona Halep +1000
  • Petra Kvitova +1200
  • Elina Svitolina +1600
  • Johanna Konta +1600
  • Sloane Stephens +1600
  • Angelique Kerber +2500
  • Venus Williams +2800
  • Coco Vandeweghe +3300
  • Caroline Wozniacki +4000
  • Jelena Ostapenko +3000
  • Dominika Cibulkova +3500

The favorite is obvious. As is the case in any tournament she enters healthily, Serena Williams is a good bet to win.  But it won’t be easy for the seven-time Aussie Open Champ.  Extended time away from the game aside, the field has had a year to mature, get stronger, and gain some confidence. Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, and Garbine Muguruza are entering their primes, and the trio of young American’s gunning for the Williams sisters’ mantles of USA’s finest gained a TON of valuable experience at the scintillating 2017 US Open.

Here’s an early look at four great storylines to watch in the 2018 Australian Open.

#1. The Return of the Queen

Serena’s return is the most anticipated storyline heading into the 2018 WTA season.  Can she jump right back in and be the clear dominant force on Tour? Will she show any signs of rust or decline? Will motherhood and entering the back half of her 30’s diminish some of her fiery edge and intensity?

The last time we saw her in action, she was steamrolling her way through Sydney, dominating the field in capturing her Modern Era record-breaking 23rd Major Championship (Margaret Court has 24). She is on record as saying she has an “outrageous plan” to compete in the 2018 Aussie, and only her reneging on that plan would be just cause to significantly doubt her chances of winning.

But ‘doubting’ and ‘having a healthy respect for some emerging talent’ are two different things.  She has taken quite a layoff from the game for starters, and then there is the realistic and fair question of her being 36 at the beginning of the Tournament, well past the age when mere mortals begin to decline.  Obviously, Serena is not a mere mortal, but Father Time is undefeated… at some point, she has to decline, right?  Right??

In the meantime, let’s take a look at the G.O.A.T.’s Aussie track record.  She won in 2017 in dominating fashion. She won in 2015. She won in2005, 2007, 2009, and 2010.  She also won in 2003, sandwiched in between champions Jennifer Capriati and Justine Henin. CRAZY.

A 24th Major Championship shouldn’t surprise anyone. As long as she is healthy and fit and ready to go, the smart money will always be on Serena, especially at +350 to +400. It’s a decent value, as the odds will probably narrow a bit once betters start getting in on the action and see her healthy entrance.

#2. Return of American Tennis?

The Final Four of the 2017 US Open comprised of all American women. Was it a brief blip, or is United States tennis BACK?  Don’t bet on this crew regressing to mightily. Madison Keys unleashed Juan Martin Del Potro-like forehands with merciless fury on the hardcourts of New York.  She is only 24 and with one of the biggest serves to compliment her elite-level forehand, could be a legitimate emerging STAR in the world of tennis.  Ditto for Sloan Stephens. Her game may not be as big as Madison’s, but her athleticism is off the charts. I’m still slack-jawed from THESE POINTS against Venus Williams in the US Open semis

(the one near the net late in the 3rd is one of the best points I have ever seen in my life)  If Sloane can remain healthy, there aren’t many people on Earth who can do some of the things she can on a tennis court.

The wildcard, literally, is Coco Vandeweghe. She displayed her full boom-or-bust arsenal in the US Open, winning romping matches over Top Ten players (including #1 seed Svitolina) and then absolutely imploding a few days later against Maddie.  You never know what Coco you are going to get on any given day, but you know it’ll be really entertaining.

And lastly, don’t make the mistake SO MANY of us did this year, overlooking the ageless grace and skill of Venus Williams.  I’d make her the most likely of this quartet to be replaced by her sister, but the now-fifth ranked player in the world showed some incredible resiliency in 2017. PLus 2800 for a woman who made three of four semifinals in Majors this year, and earned close to $4.5 million, second only to Muguruza?? Not a bad value…

#3. Who’s Next?!?

2017, sans Serena, was supposed to be the year we finally answered this question.  But instead of a definitive singular answer, we got a glimpse at a different reality; that A LOT of people very well COULD be…

Any discussion of “who’s next” should probably start with World #1, Garbine Muguruza.  The 23-year old Venezuelan-born Spaniard captured the #1 ranking for the first time just recently (September 11th), and leads the 2017 money list with close to $5 million in prize money. She won Wimbledon by blowing Venus Williams off the court in the Final and is the only woman to have beaten both Venus AND Serena Williams at a Major Championship Final.

And she is JUST ENTERING her prime.

She has won 19 of her last 22 matches, including titles at Wimbledon and the tough Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati.  Her game is big and she is just getting started.

Another top player in her prime is World #2 Simona Halep.  She got a disastrously unfair draw at the US Open and ended up going out in the first round to wildcard entrant, Maria Sharapova. It’s hard to hold a first-round loss against the #2 seed with such a ridiculous draw.  Yes, you have to win the matches you are given, but that match should have been in the quarters or even semis…

Alas, Halep had an excellent 2017, despite the disappointing loss in the French Open final to Ostapenko. She has won 15 career titles and nearly 70% of her matches, but the Major still eludes her.  Will she grab one in 2017? If so, it may not be the Aussie. Halep has exited in the first round each of the past two years and has her worst winning percentage, just 58.8%, in the Australian Open.

Some other prime candidates include Elina Svitolina (23), Karolina Pliskova (25), Johanna Konta (26), and Jelena Ostapenko (20).  All four had some impressive tournaments this season, and all are healthy and in, or still approaching, the primes of their careers.

Svitolina might be the foremost challenger of the group.  She is a positively intriguing value at +1600.  She won four BIG tournaments this season on tour, though admittedly no Majors, beating opponents like Angelique Kerber (then ranked #1) and Caroline Wozniacki in Dubai, Pliskova, Muguruza and Halep back-to-back-to-back (WOW!) at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia, and beating Venus, Muguruza, Halep in Wozniacki en route to the recent win at the Rogers Cup.  It was a massively impressive year for a young player with a quietly compelling case for WTA Player of the Year.

Jelena Ostapenko is also worth keeping an eye on.  Will the French Open stunning comeback against Halep (down 3-0 and a set) end up being her career high, or is the twenty-year-old just getting started?

#4. Former #1’s Regaining Their Form?

There’s an impressive list of former World #1 ranked players who will be looking to start off 2018 on the road back to the mountaintop.  The splashiest and most interesting name is obviously Maria Sharapova. Maria returned from a nearly year and a half ban for with mixed results.  She had some injury troubles before putting things together for an impressive little run at the US Open. Assuming she gets fully healthy in the offseason, there is a reason she is the third-lowest odds on the board at +800.  Personally, I see better value in longer odds on Svitolina and Stephens and Keys, but Maria is a highly decorated champion and formidable force to consider. Just don’t look too hard at that with the last win coming back in 2004.

Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki are also both former World #1’s looking to regain form.  Both are still lurking in the Top 10, but their respective +2500 and +4000 odds feel about right.  Neither has fallen into obscurity by any means, but both feel well off the pace of the three up-and-comers listed above.

2018 OUTLOOK:

Bring on the Aussie SOON! The US Open was incredible, and with the return of Serena and Maria, the emergence of young stars and the breakthrough from the American youngsters in New York, this tournament feels like 15-20 people could win the title.  We should be treated to blockbuster matches as early as the third and fourth rounds.

The favorite is Serena, and at +400, she is worth a look. My favorite wager on the board is Elina Svitolina. Look at the people she has beaten in succession, recently and on hard courts, and +1600 is an absolute STEAL.

For some longer odds, give me a pair of American’s, Madison and Sloane. There is definitely the risk of some recency bias at play here, but both have the game to win Major titles, especially on the hardcourts in Sydney. And for real long value, Venus made the Final here last year and three of the four semifinals in 2017. She could be a nice hedge play, though an unlikely outright winner.

FAVORITE PLAY: Elina Svitolina +1600

MOST LIKELY TO WIN: Serena Williams +400

VALUE PICKS: Sloane Stephens +1600, Venus Williams +2800

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