With the draw for the 2021 Australian Open scheduled to take place tomorrow, our tennis columnist, Dan Weston, returns to give his thoughts on the women's singles field...
"Since the tour resumed, Mertens has shown a top-ten level (almost 107% combined service/return points won, winning almost 80% of matches) and I’m surprised to see her priced at this level before the draw."
Many players with chances in competitive tournament
Over the last few years, the women's Grand Slam tournaments have been extremely open and competitive compared to the men's tournaments, which have a heavy implied win percentage distributed towards the elite players in that field. Conversely, as I've written about previously, there are probably around 30 WTA players who go into next week's Australian Open at Melbourne Park who will feel legitimately confident of their chances of making the latter stages.
Osaka justified as favourite after hard court Slam success
The open nature of the upcoming tournament is illustrated by the current outright market on the Exchange. Just one player - Naomi Osaka - is at single digit pricing, with the 2019 winner here and current US Open champion priced at 6.411/2 at the time of writing.
All three of Osaka's Grand Slam titles have been on hard court, and from her first Grand Slam title onwards (August 2018, US Open), she's won three of the hard court Grand Slams.
Considering this, it's quite difficult to dispute Osaka's status at the top of the market, despite the fact that when looking at combined service/return points won percentages, both via 2020 (all surfaces) and 18 months (hard court), there are a few players with similar numbers to her.
Andreescu could get quick market support
So, who could provide some value at bigger prices? In truth, at this point in time, it's difficult to state with a great deal of confidence. We don't really have much to go on with regards to form lines, with there not being the traditional couple of weeks of warm-up events this year due to the quarantine regulations.
The likes of Ashleigh Barty, who is 10.09/1 second favourite, and Bianca Andreescu 21.020/1, did not play after the tour stopped initially in March last year. Both have strong hard court numbers but we are forced to look at longer-term data for those two.
Given Andreescu's hard court numbers in 2019, before her long-term injury, it is quite reasonable to think that if she gets a kind draw - let's say she wins her opening two matches in a row easily where she's 1.201/5 to win each - then that price will tumble in my opinion. But of course, that's very draw-dependent.
Sabalenka and Mertens taking strong form into the event
Other players who look to be playing at strong levels include Aryna Sabalenka 12.5, who was 15 unbeaten, winning three titles in a row, before losing a three-setter to Kaia Kanepi earlier this week in the Gippsland Trophy warm-up event.
Elise Mertens, at a bigger 75.074/1, did well post-lockdown with consistent quarter-final+ tournaments, with most of her losses coming as underdog against top players.
Since the tour resumed, Mertens has shown a top-ten level (almost 107% combined service/return points won, winning almost 80% of matches) and I'm surprised to see her priced at this level before the draw.
Brady with strong surface upside
Another player at the same price as Mertens is Jennifer Brady, who is a real hard court specialist. Brady made the semi-final of the US Open (lost to eventual winner Osaka) and she's running at 110% on hard courts since the tour resumed - an extremely high level indeed. She also demolished Svetlana Kuznetsova in the Grampians Trophy this week, 6-3 6-0.
Alexandrova and Kostyuk potential options at bigger prices
At a bigger price, I'm keen to keep an eye on Ekaterina Alexandrova as a potential back-to-lay at 140.0139/1. The Russian is very strong in quicker conditions, which are often in evidence at Melbourne Park. There's a slight question mark as to whether the cooler weather in mid-February this year will have an impact on court speed, but that's an intangible at this point in time.
Marta Kostyuk, at 85.084/1, is another player who I have high hopes for in the long-term, and while this tournament may be too soon for her in terms of reaching the real business end of Grand Slams, she's got huge future potential in my view - she could potentially offer some value in the match-by-match betting as the tournament progresses, and would be very capable of upsetting big names.
Those are some names who I am definitely keeping an eye on in advance of the draw, but it will be fascinating to see the pathways of numerous players to reach the quarter-finals or later. No doubt one quarter in particular will be extremely stacked with numerous talented players, and I'll be returning later this week to discuss the draw in detail and finalise any outright selections.
Follow Dan on Twitter @TennisRatings