Australian Open predictions: The women

The 2014 Grand Slam season has officially arrived as the Australian Open is set to begin next Monday. Who are the favorites? Underdogs? And who are we most looking forward to watch next week? Courtney Nguyen (SI Beyond the Baseline), Amy Fetherolf (The Changeover), Ben Rothenberg (New York Times) and Svenja Mastroberardino (Let’s Talk Tennis) weigh in on the WTA draw.

THE FAVORITE:

Courtney:
Serena Williams.
How can you bet against the most dominant woman in the game? If she plays her best no one in the draw will stop her, not even two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka. Despite her fantastic 2013 season, in which she won a career-best 11 titles, Serena was disappointed she only won two Slams. Her coach Patrick Mouratoglou has already thrown down the gauntlet, saying she could win the Grand Slam this year. Motivation isn’t an issue for her.

Amy:
Serena Williams.
Nobody can compare, as long as she avoids injuries and mental breakdowns.

Ben:
Serena Williams. 
The only one who can stop Serena is herself. She just might stop herself, but hard to see anyone else doing it.

Svenja:
Serena Williams.
She is the overwhelming favorite and anything but a tournament win for the American would be a huge surprise. The 32-year-old has some unfinished business in Melbourne as she went out in the quarters last year which should make her even more dangerous.

THE DISAPPOINTMENT:

Courtney:
Li Na.
Li’s early draw looked easy when it looked like she might play two qualifiers in the first two rounds. But the two she ended up drawing, Ana Konjuh and Belinda Bencic, just so happen to be the two most talented young teenagers. Bencic, the current No. 1 junior, didn’t drop a set through qualifying, while Konjuh, the No. 2 junior and reigning junior Australian Open champion, breezed through as well. Li is far and away a better player, but she won’t know much about either player and can get rattled easily.

Amy:
Sloane Stephens.
I don’t see her coming close to defending her semifinal from last year.

Ben:
Sloane Stephens.
Last year’s semifinalist, has a very tough draw. Shvedova, Tomljanovic, and Kuznetsova could all take her out. But if she plays well enough to beat those three, who knows, she could beat Azarenka.

Svenja:
Petra Kvitova:
Whenever you think she’s pulled herself together, she plays a bad match out of nowhere. It’s been the story with Petra for a few years now and I don’t think this will change in Melbourne. The heat could also affect her; she’s had breathing problems in hot conditions in the past.

THE UNDERDOG: 

Courtney:
Maria Sharapova.
I had my doubts about Sharapova given her injury concerns but she started her year with a run to the semifinals at the Brisbane International and she says she’s playing pain-free. Drawn into Azarenka’s half, she’s more than capable of making the final. Now whether she could beat Serena if she gets there is a different question.

Amy:
Victoria Azarenka.
It’s odd to classify someone who’s won in Melbourne twice as an underdog, but unless Serena is out of the draw, it’s an uphill battle for anyone, including the defending champion.

Ben:
Genie Bouchard.
I think Genie’s draw is great. Errani hasn’t started the year well, and I think Genie has a real shot at quarterfinals.

Svenja:
Monica Puig.
She’s not a complete player yet but has everything to become one. She can be a threat to (almost) anyone on a good day and has a pretty decent draw. It wouldn’t surprise me to see her reach the 4th round.

FAVORITE PLAYER TO WATCH:

Courtney:
Sloane Stephens.
With all do respect to Stephens, her breakout run to the semifinals last year was a product of a very easy draw through the first four rounds — she didn’t have to beat anyone in the Top 40 — and Serena was clearly struggling with injury problems in the quarterfinals. Then she got blown off the court by Azarenka in the semifinals, which is easy to forget given the controversial way that match ended. This year she has a very tough draw and could face Azarenka in the fourth round. I want to see how she handles the expectation.

Amy:
Garbiñe Muguruza and Madison Keys.
Two youngsters well worth watching.

Ben:
Vera Zvonareva.
Will be great to see her back, and her draw could be worse. She played well in Shenzen.

Svenja:
Andrea Petkovic.
She looks scarily fit (those abs!) and ready to cause some damage. Petko always has a special energy about her on court and her fighting-spirit is undisputed. If she overcomes her first opponent Rybarikova (in one piece), the sky is the limit.

Australian Open predictions: The men

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