By John Huston
1. VIKA AND SLOANE: PART III
The 2014 Aussie Open champion, newly retired (and possibly pregnant) Li Na was on hand for this year’s draw. Her impish humor suited at least one first-round pairing: two-time champion Vika Azarenka vs. Sloane Stephens. In 2013, when Vika and Sloane squared off in the semis, victorious Vika’s 10-minute timeout sparked controversy. In 2014, the duo met again in the fourth round: Sloane pegged Vika in the crotch with a backhand, then barely dodged a Vika volley aimed at her head. This year, both players are unseeded, and someone’s going to get booted early like a disrespectful guest.
2. THE CRAZY QUADRANT
The women’s draw contains a second surprise—Vika and Sloane are just two of four players within the craziest Grand Slam first-round quadrant in years. The winner of their match faces the victor of Caroline Wozniacki vs. Taylor Townsend. This means the potential second-round matchups (in descending order of likelihood) include: Vika vs. Caro, Sloane vs. Caro (who embarrassed her in Miami last year), or Sloane vs. Taylor. Of the tournament’s top seeds, No. 8 Caro has a particularly mean lineup in front of her. Icing on the cake—all of these players are in Serena’s quarter.
3. THE SERENA SHOW
For a long-dominant No. 1, Serena sure knows how to enter a major surrounded by question marks and drama. She was lethargic at Hopman Cup, suffering losses to Eugenie Bouchard and Agnieszka Radwanska and requiring a mid-match espresso to defeat Flavia Pennetta. More worrisome, her hitting partner and bestie Sascha Bajin won’t be on hand in Melbourne this year. Needless to say, for Serena fans, speculation is in overdrive.
4. CZECH PLEASE
The sisterhood of the Czech Republic grows ever stronger. Unpredictable Petra Kvitova is in perhaps the best physical shape of her career, fresh off a winning run in Sydney. Big-serving Karolina Pliskova is the tournament’s top new force to watch—she beat Vika Azarenka in her first match of 2015, and recently demolished top 10 fixture Angelique Kerber. Then there’s Lucie Safarova, who had match point against eventual champ Li Na here last year. At a career-high No. 25, entertainingly hot-tempered net-charger Barbora Zahlavova Strycova is also up in the mix.
5. SHARAPOVA SHARP
Maria Sharapova began 2015 in sharp form. She took the title in Brisbane, losing just nine games en route to the final, where she defeated sometime nemesis Ana Ivanovic—Veronica to her Betty?—in three sets. Her Aussie Open draw leads off with a qualifier and looks tame until the fourth round, where she could meet Safarova, who gave her a pair of epic battles in 2014.
6. SI SI SIMONA, GEE GENIE
The majority of all-surface hotshot Simona Halep‘s nine WTA titles are on hard courts, but in Slams she’s fared better on clay and grass. Still, she just won a warmup in Shenzhen, and her draw in Melbourne doesn’t look bad. Halep’s fellow heir apparent, media darling Genie Bouchard, has struggled since last summer’s Wimbledon final, and there’ve been changes in her entourage: a split with coach Nick Saviano and a new contract with IMG. Sophomore slump or success? Jury’s out—but her draw looks unsurprisingly soft.
7. THE STOSUR CURSE
By now, Sam Stosur‘s flop-sweat performances Down Under have almost become a matter of course for Aussie fans and commentators. Fortunately for her, there are no “ovas” in her immediate path. So who could be this year’s Sam spoilsport? First-round opponent Monica Niculescu is 0-2 against Sam and in poor form. But in the second round, Coco Vandeweghe is the type of player—tall, blond and powerful—known to be Sam’s Kryptonite. Coco’s record to date against Stosur: 1-0. Uh oh.
8.VENUS: SHE’S GOT IT
The Australian Open has never been Venus Williams‘ standout Slam, and for over a decade, she’s tripped up early in Melbourne. But she comes into this year’s tournament fresh off a victory over Caroline Wozniacki in the Auckland final, and at age 34, her form is trending upward. A potential second-round encounter with Aleksandra Krunic could offer a fun clash of styles.
9. A TALE OF TWO MADISONS
Madison Keys hired Lindsay Davenport as her coach during offseason, a move that could yield paydirt on the grass. She’s been characteristically hit-and-miss leading up to the Aussie Open, though, and her mid-match retirement in Sydney with a sore shoulder could signal trouble. Keys isn’t the only American named Madison in the draw—Madison Brengle just reached the final in Hobart.
10. NEW WAVE, BIG SPLASH
The start of a new season brings breakthroughs by young upstarts and recharged, amped-up veterans. Last year, Dominika Cibulkova unexpectedly pocket-rocketed her way to the final. Who will shake things up this time? Amongst the young guns, keep an eye out for Karolina Pliskova. As for the vets: Vera Zvonareva is early on the comeback trail (and could meet Serena in the second round), and Agnieszka Radwanska will be playing her first Slam with Martina Navratilova as coach.