Australian Ashleigh Barty celebrates her win over Ukrainian Dayana Yastremska during their Adelaide International tennis match in Adelaide, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/James Elsby)
Australian Ashleigh Barty celebrates her win over Ukrainian Dayana Yastremska during their Adelaide International tennis match in Adelaide, Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/James Elsby)|Associated Press

Australian Open Women: Neal Abrams picks Simona Halep over Ash Barty, Naomi Osaka and Karolina Pliskova

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

I hope that getting a couple of months break from competing at the highest level of professional tennis is as calming and restful as getting that same break from writing about the competition. If so, then I expect the 2020 version of the Australian Tennis Open to showcase the world’s best women’s tennis players playing the world’s best tennis once again at the highest level this stage is set to offer, so that we global tennis fans can, once again, revel in the very best that our sport has to offer.

Going into the first Grand Slam tournament of the year, the list of top players is pretty much the same players as last year, just scrambled in some different spots. This year, our returning Women’s #1 player is Ash Barty, and I’d say that she stands a pretty good chance of capturing her initial Australian Open, but she’ll have to overcome both her chief competitors and her own body, as all players, both men and women must fight the constant injuries competing at this level consistently presents. For Barty, she’ll be dealing with Karolina Pliskova, Simona Halep, Naomi Osaka, Elina Svitolina, Bianca Andreescu, Belinda Bencic and Serena Williams, pretty much in that order.

2019 saw Pliskova play both some of the best tennis of her career and some of the very worst. When she’s on her game she is one of the most exciting shotmakers the women’s game has seen in years, which is consistent with the increasing athleticism the women’s game has showcased. If Pliskova could package the best of her game with peaking at just the right time, she would be the Australian champion. If she can’t, she’ll lose without putting up much of a fight. You’ll know from the very beginning whether or not Pliskova is on her game. If she sets herself up to break serve in the first game she receives, she’ll compete to the end. If she’s not tough in her first receiving game, count her out.

Halep, the spirited Romanian who is currently the reigning Wimbledon Champion, can also be seen as a legitimate contender to raise the Australian Open Trophy for her first time if she displays the dogged competitiveness she has been able to show in the past. In my opinion, next to Serena Williams when she was in her prime, Halep is the best competitor on the Women’s Tour. Should Halep bring her game, along with her competitiveness, to this year’s Aussie Open, she’s your champion.

You can never count out Osaka when it comes time to consider possible contenders. Osaka bangs with the best of them, serves tons, moves really well, and also competes. When I watch Osaka to determine whether or not she’s going to be into her match I watch for a small, but very important factor: Is she bending both of her knees to get as low as possible to return balls struck hard and deep? If she is, if she’s almost scrapping her knees to the concrete to get low, she is ready to compete with the best of ‘em. If not, it might be hard to count her out, but she didn’t bring her “A” game.

The remaining players who can usually also be counted on to play and compete for the title include Svitolina, Andreescu, Bencic and Serena. I’d make Andreescu the odds on favorite to take the title home to Canada so that she can share it with her 2019 U.S. Open trophy, except that she’s a young player already dealing with performance-related injuries. If and when she's injury-free, Andreescu can be counted on to win even when she’s not expected to.

You can be sure that this event will never be short of fabulous shotmaking, terrific movement, wonderful athleticism, and more spectacular tennis than any one fan can be expected to absorb at one place at one time. But going into the first day of the year’s very first Grand Slam event, with all of the current issues of the day already set and being counted, (like fire and injuries) I’m setting my sights on Simona Halep to walk away with her second Grand Slam title in three tournaments.

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