After a month of uncertainty due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, the tennis world will continue in Melbourne for the first major of the year at the Australian Open.
All of the lead-in events were staged at Melbourne Park as players were forced to self-quarantine upon arrival with a full day's play of matches canceled after a hotel worker contracted the virus and the Grampians Trophy final being called off.
Top seed Ashleigh Barty leads a deep field with Simona Halep, Naomi Osaka, defending champion Sofia Kenin, Elina Svitolina, Aryna Sabalenka and Bianca Andreescu rounding out the top eight seeds.
Projected Q/F: (1) Ashleigh Barty vs (6) Karolina Pliskova
It couldn't have been a better return to action for the world number one as she captured the title at the Yarra Valley Classic in her first tournament in almost a year. A favorable draw sees only 21st seed Anett Kontaveit and 29th seed Ekaterina Alexandrova as possible roadblocks.
Pliskova is now under the guidance of Sascha Bajin, hired in the offseason, but doesn't have the easiest draw with 11th seed Belinda Bencic, 18th seed Elise Mertens, winner at the Gippsland Trophy and Jelena Ostapenko in her section. The Czech is sure to see challenges as she seeks her first major title.
Prediction: Barty def. Mertens
Projected Q/F: (4) Sofia Kenin vs (5) Elina Svitolina
It will be interesting to see how Kenin defends her title as her warmup for Melbourne included blowout losses to Maria Sakkari and Garbine Muguruza in a rematch of last year's final. 22nd seed Jennifer Brady and Kaia Kanepi, always dangerous at majors and finalist at the Gippsland Trophy, appear to be Kenin's biggest threats.
Svitolina has made quarterfinals in both of her lead-in events, but has many significant obstacles in her way to that elusive Slam championship, handed one of the toughest sections of the top seeds with 12th seed Victoria Azarenka, Sakkari and Cori Gauff all standing in her way.
Prediction: Azarenka def. Brady
Projected Q/F: (8) Bianca Andreescu vs (3) Naomi Osaka
It's a mystery as to what to expect from Andreescu as she hasn't played a match in 15 months. The former US Open champion can at least look at her draw and see a clear path to the fourth round where ninth seed Petra Kvitova will provide a stern test.
Osaka withdrew from the Gippsland Trophy semifinals against Mertens, but that was for precautionary reasons. The 2019 champion has a challenging draw with Muguruza, 27th seed Ons Jabeur and first round opponent Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova her biggest obstacles.
Prediction: Muguruza def. Kvitova
Projected Q/F: (7) Aryna Sabalenka vs (2) Simona Halep
Sabalenka won in Abu Dhabi, Kanepi stopping 15-match winning streak earlier this week. She's been disappointing in majors, but looks to have a draw that should take her to a round of 16 match with tenth seed Serena Williams.
Halep returned to tour action and got blown away by Alexandrova a couple of days ago. 15th seed Iga Swiatek, who blew away the Romanian at Roland Garros last year, 17th seed Elena Rybakina and 32nd seed Veronika Kudermetova, runner-up to Sabalenka in Abu Dhabi, stand in Halep's way.
Prediction: Williams def. Swiatek
Barty def. Azarenka
Muguruza def. Williams
Barty def. Muguruza