Australian Open – Three females to feature prominently in Melbourne

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TENNIS analyst Gavin Mair (@gavinnightmair) returns with his best bets from the 2018 Australian Open women's section.

Australian Open | 15th-28th January 2018 | Eurosport

Down Under, the first Grand Slam of the year kicks-off in a couple of days time. In my opinion the first Grand Slam of the season is the most interesting of them all as it helps to set expectations for the season ahead.

Last year’s champion Serena Williams is not ready to return to tour having given birth to her daughter Olimpia only a few months ago and in her absence there is not one player on the WTA tour that has made a clear and consistent case to be the WTA’s number one player.

This situation makes for better betting opportunities than the men’s draw, where it is quite possible either Roger Federer or Rafa Nadal will again reign victorious.

The 2017 edition of the Australian Open featured four players known for their attacking approach to the game making the semi-finals, and a major reason for this was the speeding up of the court from previous years. It is expected that the courts will once again be slick.

Eight of the 10 favourites in the outright draw can be found in the top half of the draw, therefore I am looking to the bottom half for value alternatives. Last season’s outright previews proved to be very successful as from 234.43 units staked a profit of +100.39 units was won.

I record my outright performance on my blog with links to previous WLB articles.

I use statistics that I have researched and analysed to form the basis of my opinions, and I examine the draw quarter-by-quarter to examine who the main contenders are as well as any potential outsiders.

Quarter 1: Main Challengers

Simona Halep, Joanna Konta and Karolina Pliskova all hold similar hard court form at Grand Slam level but the world number one, Halep, appears to be the smart pick in this quarter.

Of the three, Konta holds the best tournament form having made a quarter final and a semi-final in the past two years. However, I can see three big question marks against her name.

Konta holds poor recent form, there is a potential match up issue for her against Barbora Strycova in the third round and perhaps the most important deterrent of all is a potential hip injury that caused her to retire in Brisbane two weeks ago and likely had an impact on her first round defeat in Sydney – an event that she won 12 months previous.

Karolina Pliskova is good at getting the job done and even when her game is off she can find a way to win. In theory her big serve and groundstrokes fit the profile of a contender at this event. However, if Simona Halep can make it to the quarter-final – which with her draw she should do – it is a nightmare matchup for Pliskova, and one she is unlikely to reverse in Melbourne.

As for Halep whilst she is the world number one, it is hard to find a commentator that truly believes her to be the complete package, as a huge choke in last season’s French Open final best demonstrates.

Halep has fallen in the first round of Melbourne in four of the last six seasons, and generally she struggles to play to her seeding in Grand Slam events.

Quarter 1: Dark Horses

In terms of dark horses from the first quarter there are a few names that catch the eye.

Ashleigh Barty is progressing well, but her best results have been at lower level events. Petra Kvitova has a poor record in Australia and it is hard to imagine her as a factor at the top level any more given the surgery to her left hand 12 months ago.

Elena Vesnina would have been of interest to me had she been fitter, but the reigning Indian Wells champion does not look ready to win here.

An unseeded darkhorse is Naomi Osaka who has an explosive game that has the potential to click together at any moment. However, for the meantime she is a volatile commodity and this is unlikely to be her time.

Quarter 1 Summary

Australia probably won’t give Halep her first Grand Slam title but she is deservedly favourite to make the semis in this quarter.

She can be backed at 9/4 with Bet365 to win Quarter 1.

Quarter 2: Main Challengers

At the start of last week Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza was the outright market favourite. However, for the third consecutive year the Spaniard has had an injury hit warm up to the Australian Open – although injury rumours in the lead up to Grand Slams should be treated with a touch of caution.

So far in her career Muguruza has not played her best tennis in Australia and her best Grand Slam efforts have consistently been on other surfaces.

2016 champion Angelique Kerber has looked in fine form at the start of this season. In the Hopman Cup exhibition she looked far more happy on the court than she had done throughout all of the 2017 season. The German understandably struggled with the pressure of being viewed as a Grand Slam champion.

Kerber has a huge match with Maria Sharapova in the third round that will likely tell a lot about both players.

Speaking of Sharapova, she has twice been an Australian Open finalist since 2012. However, it is unclear exactly what her current level is. For example, her performance data suggests a decline on her ability to return serve compared with before her doping ban. Sharapova does maintain an aura and nobody wants to play her.

On her day Madison Keys holds arguably the biggest hard court game on tour, other than Serena Williams. Her style of play is inconsistent though, and there is some injury doubt around her. For the 2015 semi-finalist to have a repeat run she may have to figure out a way to get the better of Angelique Kerber who convincingly leads their head to head 6 matches to 1.

Caroline Garcia ended 2017 impressively, breaking through to win two Premier hard court events including the prestigious Beijing event. If Garcia can rediscover that form then she could be the player to beat.

A retirement in Brisbane has dampened expectations, especially with what is being alluded to by her as a ‘persistent back injury’.

Quarter 2: Dark Horses

Anastasija Sevastova is a very dangerous player lurking in the draw. The Latvian seems to peak at Grand Slam events, which largely accounts for her high seeding of 14.

At the US Open Sevastova beat Maria Sharapova. They play again in the second round.

11th seed Kristina Mladenovic is in wretched form having failed to win any of her last 15 matches.

Mirjana Lucic Baroni was a surprise semi-finalist last season, but don’t expect a repeat.

Unseeded Aliaksandra Sasnovich started the season well, and could capitalise in the bottom of the quarter.

Quarter 2 Summary

With a gun to my head I would choose Angelique Kerber to come through this quarter but a skinny 3/1 with Bet365 doesn’t offer enough value to my eyes.

Quarter 3: Main Challengers

Elina Svitolina has the most hype of any player heading into this event, and since the draw was made has shortened to outright favourite with several bookmakers. For me this is a risky proposition, and if there was any value in her it is no longer there.

The Ukrainian has improved year by year, but has struggled at Grand Slams, even managing to out-choke Simona Halep during last season’s French Open.

In the first week of the season Svitolina scored a Premier level title in Brisbane. Winning a Premier event, which is the primary evidence being used to make the case for Svitolina winning this Grand Slam, is actually becoming routine for her with several titles at that level to her name.

Winning a Grand Slam champion is a different test entirely, and in my opinion is hard to gauge whether she has levelled up enough to be considered a serious contender.

In addition to this, Svitolina has not progressed beyond the 3rd round in Melbourne and if the assessment of conditions is accurate she will be vulnerable to a heavy hitter as has often been her undoing on faster hard courts.

One player who lives for Grand Slams is the veteran Venus Williams, who saved her best for the big events in 2017 – Venus made the final of the Australian Open and Wimbledon, the final of the Year End Championships and the semi-final of the US Open.

Unlike Svitolina, Williams is proven in the big time and if it comes down to a match of wills you’d have to favour Venus.

Ekaterina Makarova has an impressive record in Melbourne outperforming her ranking on each of her past six visits. She is the obvious worry for Venus backers in the third round.

US Open champion Sloane Stephens is on a losing streak since her against-the-odds title in New York. Stephens has lifted her game for the big occasion in the past, but inconsistency continues to plague her and her stock is low going into this event.

Quarter 3: Dark Horses

Daria Gavrilova is a popular figure in Australia and has had a couple of decent runs in recent years, but she is not a serious contender to go very deep in the draw.

Julia Goerges is on a hot streak, winning her last 14 matches and the last three tournaments that she has entered. Despite playing the best tennis of her career, there is in my opinion a limit to how far she can go.

Former top 10 player Belinda Bencic is on the comeback trail and is another on a hot streak of form. Unfortunately for the Swiss, she has been drawn against Venus Williams who has had a comfortable time against Bencic in the past.

Maria Sakkari and Katerina Siniakova are two young players with a bright future. Siniakova was runner-up to Halep at Shenzhen a couple of weeks ago. The winner of their first round clash could prove a handful for Svitolina in Round 2.

Quarter 3 Summary

Venus Williams continues to be written off because of her advancing years. However, in this open field there are not many players you would back with confidence to dispatch the legendary American.

I have placed a stake on Venus to win outright at 40/1 to win on the Betfair Exchange and I will hopefully be able to manage that position in the coming weeks.

With the bookmakers you can back Venus Williams outright at 33/1 each-way with Boylesports. I also fancy Williams to win Quarter 3 at a best price is 8/1 with Ladbrokes.

Quarter 4: Main Challengers

When I looked through the outright odds a couple of weeks back I was surprised to find Dominika Cibulkova available at 114 on the Betfair Exchange.

The Slovakian can be a big time player but is coming off a nightmare 2017. But not to long ago she was lifting the Year End Championship at the end of the 2016 season and in Sydney this week, Cibulkova has looked to be in decent shape.

Caroline Wozniacki was the Year End Championship winner for 2017, dominating the field on a slow-as-treacle hard court. However, Melbourne is thought to play slicker than the average hard court and that doesn’t play to the Dane’s strengths. Her record at the Australian Open is poor.

Last year Coco Vandeweghe was an unexpected sem-finalist. The American is a super aggressive hard courter who proved that run wasn’t a one off by producing a similar performance at the US Open. Vandeweghe is under the guidance of Pat Cash and if she hits her targets there is reason to suggest she could have a good couple of weeks.

Jelena Ostapenko is the French Open champion, but her hard court record isn’t the best. She has the tools to become a top level player on this surface but until she sorts out her serve she will struggle to make a serious impact.

Quarter 4: Dark Horses

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova is a consistent top 20 player but seems stuck at a level that she probably won’t break out of.

Kaia Kanepi is unplayable on her day, which is a bit of a worry for my Cibulkova bet as that is the first round opponent for the Slovakian.

Sam Stosur’s best days are behind her, and she has never done the business in her homeland.

Quarter 4 Summary

There is plenty of value on Dominika Cibulkova, and for that reason I will opt for her over Coco Vandeweghe.

I will be backing Cibulkova outright at 80/1 each-way with Betfred. Again, I like the value on her to win the quarter at 16/1 with Ladbrokes.

Best Bets

Australian Open – Venus Williams to win outright (33/1 each-way Boylesports)

Australian Open – Dominika Cibulkova to win outright (80/1 each-way Betfred)

Australian Open – Simona Halep to win Quarter 1 (9/4 Bet365)

Australian Open – Venus Williams to win Quarter 3 (8/1 Ladbrokes)

Australian Open – Dominika Cibulkova to win Quarter 4 (16/1 Ladbrokes)

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