There's an extremely open market in the women's Australian Open tournament, and after Friday's draw, our tennis columnist, Dan Weston, looks at the potential outright value...
"The American is a real hard court specialist, and her numbers in the last six months on her preferred surface, in excess of 110% combined service/return points won, are truly outstanding."
Sabalenka joins Halep in quarter four
In my pre-draw preview earlier this week, I mentioned a number of players who I was keen to keep an eye on in advance of the draw. These were Aryna Sabalenka, Elise Mertens, Jennifer Brady, Ekaterina Alexandrova and Marta Kostyuk, so it seems a pretty good starting point here to look at the draw for this quintet and see if they offer any outright value.
The shortest priced player of this group is Sabalenka, who has drifted from 12.5 pre-draw to a current 15.5 at the time of writing. She's in the fourth quarter, and should have a relatively straightforward start to her tournament with likely matches against Viktoria Kuzmova, Daria Kasatkina and the shock finalist of the Grampians tournament this week, Ann Li.
Other major players in quarter four include Simona Halep, Serena Williams and French Open winner Iga Swiatek, with high potential young prospects in the bracket also including the aforementioned Kostyuk, plus Elena Rybakina. Halep, Williams and Swiatek are open to be taken on, in my view, with Halep's hard court numbers not at the top level compared to others in the field, Williams showing data since the tour resumed which looks like being a drop-off compared to prior to it, and Swiatek still with much to prove on hard court - at this stage of her career she looks more like a clay courter.
However, I'm not particularly keen considering the general strength of this bracket given the presence of a few young players with high upside, and I'm unconvinced Sabalenka offers a value price even after this slight drift.
Kostyuk has also drifted to 220.0219/1 after the draw and a heavy loss to Jennifer Brady this week in that Grampians warm-up event. She remains a player of extremely high potential though, and a possible third-round clash with Halep certainly would be a good marker of where she's at currently.
Barty the favourite in the top quarter
Mertens, at 44.043/1, is a similar price to pre-draw, and the Belgian has been placed in bracket one of the draw. She has very strong hard court data, and won the Gippsland warm-up event this week but has been drawn with top ten players Ash Barty and Karolina Pliskova. Even after Barty missed all of the tour after it paused in March, she came back strongly in the Yarra Valley Classic this week, beating Garbine Muguruza in the final.
She looks one of the players to beat in the draw, and is the market favourite at 6.611/2. However, I also think Mertens is currently the second best player in the top quarter, with an edge over Pliskova who - with the final of Rome apart - has been playing at an uninspiring level since the tour resumed, and has underwhelmed in Grand Slams generally.
Ekaterina Alexandrova did well in Gippsland, beating both Halep and Swiatek, but got a tough draw with Barty her scheduled round three opponent. She retains strong ability in quicker conditions though, and is one to keep an eye on in selected tournaments in the future.
Brady with very strong hard court numbers
This leaves Jennifer Brady. The American is a real hard court specialist, and her numbers in the last six months on her preferred surface, in excess of 110% combined service/return points won, are truly outstanding. She lost a final set tiebreak to Li in the Grampians event in the semi-finals, but benefits from being in quarter two, which features the likes of Victoria Azarenka and last year's winner, Sofia Kenin.
Azarenka withdrew this week from Grampians after just about defeating Yulia Putintseva in her opening match, and she joins Kenin with question marks over her. The American, Kenin, was easily beaten by Garbine Muguruza this week, winning just 41% of points in their match and started the match not far from being a 3.02/1 underdog, illustrating the lack of faith in her from the market.
Given this, Brady, who starts off likely to be a strong favourite in her opening couple of matches against Aliona Bolsova and probably Madison Brengle, looks in a pretty decent position to win quarter two at the 6.4011/2 mark.
Osaka the player to beat in tough quarter three
Finally, the tournament favourite Naomi Osaka 7.06/1 looks the player to beat quarter three, which also features Bianca Andreescu, Petra Kvitova and Garbine Muguruza - probably the most stacked quarter. Andreescu has huge fitness doubts having not played for over a year, and if conditions are as quick as the last few years, it wouldn't be a surprise if Kvitova was Osaka's main threat in this bracket.
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