WTA Australian Open: Kuznetsova can take advantage of easy early rounds

Svetlana Kuznetsova can take advantage of a generous draw
Svetlana Kuznetsova can take advantage of a generous draw

We're just 36 hours away from the first Slam of the season and our tennis columnist Dan Weston has analysed the draw, and as well as being bullish about several players already on his pre-draw shortlist, has found another worthy of inclusion...

"Kuznetsova has received a gift opening two rounds, facing Columbian clay-courter Mariana Duque-Marino first up, before facing either Anna Tatishvili or wild-card Jaimee Fourlis, who has barely any main tour experience."

Compared to the men's event, where we profiled the main contenders for the trophy by looking at the potential latter five rounds of the tournament, the WTA Australian Open event has a much more open feel to it.

As I mentioned in the pre-draw preview, most WTA players can beat each other on a given day, while there are a number of players who can have a real threat to the tournament favourites in the first couple of rounds.

Furthermore, the best of three set format of the women's event means that an Australian Open match is the same duration as a normal tour match, as opposed to the ATP.

In the men's event, the longer best of five set format generally gives an advantage to favourites, but favourites in the WTA do not enjoy this benefit. Despite this, the market frequently prices favourites at much shorter prices than it would for the same match-up in a normal tour event.

Given the number of dangerous floaters in the WTA draw, I wanted to profile each quarter and some of these players who could cause a shock in the opening couple of rounds. Doing this also allows us to assess the early draw for the main contenders and establish which players are most vulnerable to a shock defeat before the latter stages.

Quarter One

Angelique Kerber 5.39/2
Daria Kasatkina 55.054/1
Garbine Muguruza 10.519/2

Defending champion and world number one Angelique Kerber begins her campaign against the potentially dangerous Lesia Tsurenko. The Ukrainian reached the Hobart warm-up event semi-final this week, and has a very strong combined 12 month hard court hold/break percentage of 109.9%, as well as winning 17 of 27 main tour events on the surface in that time period. Make no mistake, this is one of the most difficult opening draws that Kerber could have received.

The talented young German prospect Carina Witthoeft is a potential second round opponent, whilst the in-form big-serving Krystina Pliskova (Karolina's sister) possibly lies in wait in the third round. The lower-ranked Pliskova sister (103.1%) also has a better combined hold/break percentage on hard court in the last year, and to summarise, the likely opponents in the first three rounds are more difficult than average for Kerber, and the slight drift in her pre-draw odds makes logical sense.

In the pre-draw preview, Daria Kasatkina was identified as a young player of huge potential, and she could lie in wait for Kerber in the fourth round. Considering Kasatkina beat Kerber this week in Sydney, the young Russian will be far from overawed facing the world number one here.

To do this, Kasatkina must beat the veteran Shuai Peng, who is still recovering her level from a long-term injury, and then probably Eugenie Bouchard and either Coco Vandeweghe or Roberta Vinci.

Bouchard will have her supporters after reaching the semi-finals of Sydney, where she was schooled by Johanna Konta, but Kasatkina has a solid statistical edge on the Canadian, and either the big-serving Vandeweghe or the declining veteran Vinci. There are definitely worse draws that Kasatkina could have received.

Garbine Muguruza was identified as being over-rated in the early preview, and my opinion has not changed with the Spaniard's price barely moving despite a relatively easy draw, which sees her likely opponents in the opening three rounds being Marina Erakovic, Lauren Davis and either Anastasia Sevastova or Christina McHale.

Name-wise, those players will not strike fear into the heart of any top-ranked WTA player, but it is worth noting that the latter three have significantly improved their statistics over the last six months.

Quarter Two

Simona Halep 14.013/1
Svetlana Kuznetsova 65.064/1
Elina Svitolina 42.041/1

The Romanian, Simona Halep, is still fancied by many as a potential winner at Melbourne Park, with her post-draw odds similar to before the draw.

However, Halep's first three opponents could be considered tricky at best - Shelby Rogers, her opening round match-up, has improved dramatically on hard courts in the last few months (prior to this, my perception of her was that she was much more of a clay-courter) and the American has earned a number of good wins on the surface already this season.

If Halep was to get past Rogers, the young Australian Ashleigh Barty is likely to face her in the second round. Barty's story is worth discussing briefly - she was considered a young player who had a very bright future, before quitting tennis and playing professional T20 cricket in the women's Big Bash League.

She rejoined the tour last summer, and considering her absence, her results have been simply stunning, and indicate that her current level is at least top 50 - indicated as well by pushing world number one Kerber to three sets last week in Brisbane. Should Halep beat both Rogers and Barty, Olympic Champion Monica Puig is likely to lay in wait in the third round.

Both our pre-draw fancies Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elina Svitolina are in the bottom half of quarter two, and would fancy their chances against Halep - if she gets this far - in a quarter-final. Kuznetsova has received a gift opening two rounds, facing Columbian clay-courter Mariana Duque-Marino first up, before facing either Anna Tatishvili or wild-card Jaimee Fourlis, who has barely any main tour experience. Katerina Siniakova, who isn't a bad prospect at all, or the veteran (and declining) Jelena Jankovic are likely third-round match opponents.

Svitolina could barely have hand-picked a better draw either. She faces Galina Voskoboeva in the opening round, with the Kazakh using a protected ranking to enter the event following a long-term injury, and then is likely to take on Francesca Schiavone, with age making the Italian a shadow of her former self. Svitolina will then be a solid favourite in the third round against any of her potential opponents, with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova - whose stats have taken a bad hit in the last six months - the most likely.

Considering this, we can definitely keep both players on the shortlist - despite their odds contracting, they will have an excellent chance of reaching at least the fourth round.

Quarter Three

Karolina Pliskova 8.88/1
Agnieszka Radwanska 27.026/1

Quarter three looks to be a quarter low on quality, and the third favourite for the event, Karolina Pliskova, will definitely be happy with her opening match-up, against the weak-serving Spaniard, Sara Sorribes Tormo. However, Hobart finalist Monica Niculescu (12 month hard combined hold/break of 106.9%) is probably a tougher opponent than the Czech big-server would have preferred in the second round and if they play to their full potential, her likely third round match-up against either young prospects Jelena Ostapenko or Yulia Putintseva could be far from easy.

Agnieszka Radwanska's draw looks kind, taking on Tsvetana Pironkova in the first round, before either facing Qiang Wang or Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. The injury-doubt Alize Cornet, or another young player, Anett Kontaveit, look likely in the third round.

Considering the weakness of this quarter, it might be worth looking at other players who have back-to-lay potential, and I have found one who possesses both ability and a lot of upside from an age and improvement basis.

Ana Konjuh has been tipped for the top, and the Croatian starlet, who has just turned 19, has strong stats on the surface, holding serve 74.1% and breaking opponents 32.2% in the last 12 months (combined 106.3%). It's also worth noting that she is 15-7 in main tour hard court matches in this time period - a better record than many main contenders.

Konjuh opens as a slight favourite against the over-rated and out of form Kristina Mladenovic in the first round, before probably facing the similarly over-rated Daria Gavrilova, who will receive home support but has a worrying tendency to throw away winning positions. Timea Bacsinszky or the talented but erratic Camila Giorgi probably wait for her in the third round, but as third round opponents go, there are definitely many worse. Konjuh is currently available at 400.0399/1 on the Exchange, and there are far worse long-shots which we can look to trade.

Quarter Four

Caroline Wozniacki 40.039/1
Johanna Konta 21.020/1
Serena Williams 4.57/2

Following her triumph in the Sydney warm-up event, our shortlist choice - Johanna Konta - has seen her price has drop to 21.020/1 and following inclusion in a tough fourth quarter where the extremely talented Japanese youngster Naomi Osaka and Caroline Wozniacki lay in wait in the second and third rounds, we have to scrub the Brit from our list of possibles.

The big-serving Osaka would definitely have made our shortlist herself if it wasn't for a wrist injury which forced her to retire against Konjuh in the quarter-finals in Auckland last week, whilst this draw for Wozniacki also forces us to consider whether the Dane's draw is just too tough.

The big intangible in the women's draw, and the final player worth mentioning in the fourth quarter is the dominant player of the last decade - Serena Williams.

As I mentioned in the pre-draw preview, she's currently unbackable even at 4.57/2 despite this being much bigger odds than usual for any tournament. A tough opening two rounds against Belinda Bencic and either Lucie Safarova or Yanina Wickmayer are in prospect for the American.

Recommended Bets (all have back-to-lay potential which will be discussed during the daily previews)

Back-to-lay Svetlana Kuznetsova @ 65.064/1
Back-to-lay Elina Svitolina @ 42.041/1
Back-to-lay Ana Konjuh @ 400.0399/1


Follow Dan on Twitter @TennisRatings

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