2022 Australian Open women's preview
Osaka and Jennifer Brady during last year's trophy ceremony (Andy Cheung/Getty Images)

The first major of the year is upon us, and there are plenty of talking points with the draw in Melbourne. The top quarter is loaded with talent, starring the likes of Naomi Osaka, Ash Barty, Amanda Anisimova, and Maria Sakkari as the headliners.

After the opening two weeks into the season, it will be key to keep an eye on those form players who made deep runs to end last season and to start this year. This time around, the preview will take on a different look. Rather than a draw breakdown, we'll be taking a look at favorites, dark horses/sleepers, early exits, and first-round matches to watch for.

Favorites

Ash Barty: The home favorite took time off after the US Open and looked like she hasn't missed a beat. After a tricky opener against Coco Gauff in Adelaide, she steamrolled the rest of the competition with wins over Sofia Kenin, Iga Swiatek, and Elena Rybakina. For good measure, she added a doubles title on top of that.

Opening round opponent Lesia Tsurenko is no pushover, but the Aussie owns a 3-0 head-to-head record which includes a win in Melbourne two years ago.

Naomi Osaka: In some ways, it's a shame that the two tournament favorites are in the same quarter. In other ways, it will give us compelling drama early to kick off week two. Like Barty, Osaka finished her season at the US Open and returned to action two weeks ago.

You could tell the rust wasn't fully off yet in her three-set win over Alize Cornet, but she back fully firing, with wins over Maryna Zanevska and Andrea Petkovic before withdrawing from the Melbourne warm-up.

Iga Swiatek: The third favorite according to the books, the Pole is in the bottom half of the draw away from the two mentioned above. Her section is wide open, with second-seeded Aryna Sabalenka struggling to find any semblance of her serve and her form at the moment. If Sabalenka is on high-alert for an early upset, look for Swiatek to take advantage of it.

Paula Badosa: The newly-crowned Sydney champion has put everyone on notice. She had a slew of quality wins, starting from her opening match against Jelena Ostapenko and finishing it off against Barbora Krejcikova in the final. Similarly to Osaka and Barty, she's also in the top half of the draw but in the opposite quarter of the two aforementioned athletes.

The Adelaide champion looks to add one more trophy from the Australian Summer to her cabinet (Mark Brake/Getty Images)
The Adelaide champion looks to add one more trophy from the Australian Summer to her cabinet (Mark Brake/Getty Images)

Sleepers

Simona Halep: Usually a threat to win it all on any surface, the Romanian has gone under the radar somewhat with the new names rising and the top-two favorites soaking in the spotlight. She returned from injury in the middle of last season and got to a US Open fourth round without too much match fitness.

The winner of the Melbourne warm-up event is in the bottom half of the draw and has potential clashes against Emma Raducanu, Garbine Muguruza, and Elena Rybakina/Anett Kontaveit in the deep rounds should she want to make some noise.

Elena Rybakina: The Kazakh has never made it to the second week Down Under, but this is her best shot to crack the code. An impressive week in Adelaide saw her finish runner-up only behind Barty and won her only match in Sydney against Raducanu before withdrawing to prioritize her health before the first Slam of the season.

Madison Keys: Injuries and poor form saw the American tumble down the rankings, but she is back on court and enjoying herself. After losing out to Daria Kasatkina in Melbourne, she went on to claim the title in Adelaide with wins over three-seeded players including Elina Svitolina and countrywoman Coco Gauff.

Madison Keys is back healthy and is a threat to win the title (Peter Mundy/Getty Images
Madison Keys is back healthy and is a threat to win the title (Peter Mundy/Getty Images

Potential Early Exits

Aryna Sabalenka: Since the WTA Finals, the Belarussian has been shaky on her serve, hitting double-digit double-faults in her last four matches. The 0-2 start to the season is cause for concern, but the struggle on her horrible serving struggles is something no one really foresaw coming. She plays Australia's Storm Sanders in round one, a match I think she wins. However, my prediction is the second seed going out to in-form American Ann Li in round two.

Elina Svitolina: Another player lacking form coming in, starting the season 0-2 as well with losses to Madison Keys and Anastasia Gasanova. The Ukrainian was outclassed by Keys, whose power dominates from the back of the court and had no answer for it. Fiona Ferro is no pushover of a first-round opponent, but she should win that. My prediction is her going out to Yulia Putintseva in round two.

Emma Raducanu: Surely this was one you all saw coming. After the dream run to a US Open title last year, Raducanu struggled with the constant grind of the tour. Her first match of the season against Rybakina can and cannot be written off.

Yes, it was her first match in months plus Rybakina was coming into the tournament in great form. However, that's the life of someone on tour, you have to take what's dealt to you all the time. Sloane Stephens, a former US Open champion herself, is by no means a straightforward first match. Stephens' experience will edge this out in three sets.

Can Svitolina get her season back on track with a strong showing in Australia? (Andy Cheung/Getty Images)
Can Svitolina get her season back on track with a strong showing in Australia? (Andy Cheung/Getty Images)

First Round Matches To Watch For

Some obvious ones will be left off to save redundancy (see: Raducanu-Stephens). But even then, there will be plenty of popcorn for the remaining matches on the list.

Angelique Kerber vs Kaia Kanepi: If a seeded player gets drawn with Kaia Kanepi in the early rounds of a major, trouble will be on the horizon. The Estonian has gotten some big wins in the majors with the likes of Osaka, Kenin, and Halep all falling at the hands of the Estonian in majors over these last few years.

Alja Tomljanovic vs Paula Badosa: A rematch of their meeting last week in Sydney that Badosa won, how will Tomljanovic fare now with the full backing of the fans in Melbourne. Expect this match to be a highly competitive two set match or even a third if the Aussie can up her level.

Sofia Kenin vs Madison Keys: An all-American affair Down Under with both players trending in the opposite directions. Kenin still hasn't fully discovered her form from 2020 which saw her reach two major finals (winning the Australian Open). Keys on the other hand, as mentioned before, just won in Adelaide, and is looking to lay the groundwork for the foundation of a strong year. The slight edge for me will go to Keys.

Predictions

Round of 16

Barty-Osaka

Jabeur-Sakarri

Krejcikova-Azarenka

Keys-Badosa

Kontaveit-Rybakina

Halep-Muguruza

Swiatek-Pavlyuchenkova

Fernandez-Li

Quarterfinals

Barty-Sakkari

Krejcikova-Badosa

Rybakina-Halep

Swiatek-Fernandez

Semifinals

Barty-Badosa

Rybakina-Swiatek

Finals

Barty def. Swiatek

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