The 2016 season is set to begin on Sunday with the first premier level event of the year commencing in Brisbane. The tournament has once again attracted a stunning line-up with 3 of the world’s top 5 players in action (defending champion Maria Sharapova, Simona Halep and Garbine Muguruza). Victoria Azarenka, Dominika Cibulkova, Belinda Bencic and Angelique Kerber add depth to a typically highly competitive field for the first big event of the year. An exciting week of tennis is guaranteed in the Queensland capital.
Simona Halep sits at the top of the draw and potentially faces an extremely difficult opening round match. The Romanian top seed receives a bye into the second round where she is likely to run into Victoria Azarenka (should the Belarussian advance past a qualifier in the first round). This would be a blockbuster second round match, a massive early season test for both Simona and Victoria. The top quarter of the draw is extremely stacked with the eighth seeded Roberta Vinci and Jelena Jankovic at the bottom of the first quarter. Dominika Cibulkova looms as a dangerous floater in this section of the draw, the Slovakian will come up against Yanina Wickmayer in the opening round.
The second quarter of the draw is headlined by defending champion Maria Sharapova. The Russian has enjoyed her time in Brisbane over the last couple of years, reaching the semi-finals in 2014 before claiming the title for the first time in 2015 with a win over Ana Ivanovic in a memorable final. Maria faces a tough opening round opponent this year, she will face fellow Russian Ekaterina Makarova in her first match.
Maria looks like the clear favourite to advance through the second quarter, her biggest threat will come from the eighth seeded Belinda Bencic, an opponent she has never faced (that would be a highly entertaining quarter-final match-up). Belinda Bencic will start her 2016 season with a first round battle with Sara Errani. Andrea Petkovic is the potentially troublesome unseeded floater in this section. Ultimately the top half of the draw looks far more difficult with the majority of the tournament favourites residing in the top half of the draw.
The third quarter of the draw includes seeded players Timea Bacsinszky and Angelique Kerber. Bacsinszky will kick-start her Brisbane campaign with a tough first round clash against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. The winner of that match will face the winner of an all French affair between Alize Cornet and Kristina Mladenovic. The fourth seeded Angelique Kerber sits at the bottom of this section and she too faces a difficult opening round opponent when she faces Camila Giorgi. The Italian is certainly capable of causing an upset, the German will be wary.
The sixth seeded Carla Suarez Navarro sits at the top of the fourth quarter and will begin her Brisbane campaign when she comes up against local wild card Ajla Tomljanovic. This looms as an important match for both ladies who will be eager to start their season with a victory. At the bottom of the draw is the second seeded Garbine Muguruza. The Spaniard will receive a bye into the second round before facing either Anna Karolina Schmiedlova or Varvara Lepchenko in her opening match of the season. The unseeded Sam Stosur also features in this section, Sam will play a qualifier in the first round. A good draw for Sam, but a victory is no certainty given her record in Australia.
Overall, the draw is very exciting with blockbuster matches right from the very beginning of the tournament. There are a number of potential champions that spring to mind, most notably: Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, Garbine Muguruza and Simona Halep. Of those four, Garbine clearly has the easiest draw and looks a good chance to advance to the final if she brings her late 2015 form to the Queensland capital. It is tough to predict who will come through the top section: a potential semi-final between Victoria Azarenka or Simona and Maria Sharapova looms. Perhaps the winner will someone else, Angelique Kerber, Belinda Bencic, Dominika Cibulkova all have a strong chance among others. Ultimately, I think it will be Victoria Azarenka who starts the year on a high, by claiming another big title on Australian soil.