The 2021 Australian Open on the women's side is especially tough to predict this season, considering that some of the top contenders haven't played much lately or otherwise don't appear to be in top form or healthy amid the ongoing pandemic. With that in mind, let's run through some of the top contenders.
No. 3 seed Naomi Osaka, the 2019 champion, is probably the favorite based on form at this year's Australian Open considering that she's coming off the US Open title last season and has looked to be on her game to start the year at the Gippsland Trophy event. However, even she has some question marks, since she had to pull out of the 2020 French Open to the end the season following her US Open title due to hamstring issues.
Top seed and home favorite Ashleigh Barty reached the semifinals last season and has looked good this week in her first tournament since February 2020 at the Yarra Valley Classic tune-up event. Her lone major title came at the 2019 French Open and she hasn't been to another final outside of that. Considering that she doesn't have many matches under her belt of late, it's difficult to imagine a breezy run to another slam title for the No. 1 seed.
Defending champion and fourth seed Sofia Kenin also reached the French Open final in 2020, as she established herself as one of the most consistent players in the women's game. If she wants to reach the semifinals this season, she could have a tough road through the likes of No. 22 seed Jennifer Brady (2-0 against), No. 13 seed Johanna Konta (0-1 against), No. 12 Victoria Azarenka (1-1 against) and No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina (2-3 against).
No. 2 seed Simona Halep got walloped by Ekaterina Alexandrova in her first event of 2021, but has a semifinal and final showing at the Australian Open across the last three seasons. Her draw looks to be fairly favorable, though she could meet No. 16 seed and 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek in the fourth round, who demolished her at that event.
No. 10 seed Serena Williams is still looking to tie Margaret Court for the most Grand Slam titles ever at 24 – a pursuit that dates back to 2017 when she won her 23rd slam crown at the Australian Open. Health and age are a concern for the 39-year-old American, given that she had to withdraw from last fall's French Open due to an Achilles injury and also had to withdraw from the tune-up event at the Yarra Valley Classic due to a shoulder injury.
Williams could face No. 7 seed Aryna Sabalenka in the fourth round, who is one of the hottest players on the women's tour. Sabalenka ended 2020 and started 2021 by winning three titles in a row, but she's struggled at the major level, never making it past the fourth round at any event.
No. 8 seed Bianca Andreescu will be playing in her first tournament since 2019 after she took the tour by storm in rushing to the US Open title at just 19 years old. A lingering injury kept her away from the tour in 2020, but if she's finally healthy, she could plausibly make a run to another Grand Slam title based on her massive talent.
Other contenders include No. 12 seed Victoria Azarenka, who enjoyed a resurgence during the pandemic which culminated in a run to the US Open final. No. 14 seed Garbine Muguruza was the runner-up at the Aussie Open last season and has started the 2021 season hot at the Yarra Valley Classic.
Some of these top contenders have intriguing Round 1 encounters which could end their Australian Open runs much more quickly than expected.
Round 1 matchups to watch
Osaka has a brutal first round draw as she'll take on the veteran Russian who has reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open in each of the last two seasons. The No. 39-ranked Pavlyuchenkova was only a few ranking spots away from being seeded, so this is virtually the worst-case scenario for Osaka in terms of Round 1 draws. The two have split their two-career meetings, with Osaka winning the most recent matchup in straight sets.
Svitolina and Bouzkova last met in the 2020 Monterrey final, which the No. 5-seeded Ukrainian was able to win in a tough three-setter. Bouzkova, ranked No. 52, is a tough customer, as she also took Ashleigh Barty to three sets at the Yarra Valley Classic this week. Svitolina has two previous Australian Open quarterfinal showings on her resume, but she'll need to be sharp to get through this Round 1 match.
Mertens had her best-ever major result in 2018 when she reached the semifinals at the Australian Open, but this first-round encounter with the rising young Canadian could be tricky. The 18-year-old Fernandez reached the second and third rounds at the US Open and French Open, respectively, in 2020 – so she is showing progress with her ranking up to No. 89. Fernandez will have to get past a battle-tested veteran to secure her first Aussie Open win.
Muchova's status for the year's first major is in doubt as she's dealing with an abdominal injury that forced her to pull out of the quarterfinals at the Gippsland Trophy tune-up event. But if she's able to get healthy and compete, this looks like a potential three-set battle in store for Round 1. Ostapenko, ranked No. 45, appears to be in solid form as she took Elina Svitolina to three sets at the Gippsland Trophy in Melbourne. Muchova has never advanced past the second round at the Australian Open, but her ranking has been steadily rising the last few seasons so she's due for a deeper run.
Quarterfinals: Barty d. Mertens, Azarenka d. Brady, Andreescu d. Osaka, Sabalenka d. Halep
Semifinals: Barty d. Azarenka, Andreescu d. Sabalenka
Final: Andreescu d. Barty