Australian Open draw envisions epic women's matches and more of the Big Three

Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

The 2020 Australian Open draws were unveiled Thursday in Melbourne, answering several questions surrounding the first Grand Slam of the tennis season.

On the men's side, the towering question going in was, "Which quarter of the draw would be without one of the Big Three (Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer)?" It turned out to be the second quarter, in which the top seeds are No. 4 Daniil Medvedev and No. 7 Alexander Zverev.

The WTA question on everyone's mind was, "Where will Serena Williams land?" The seven-time Aussie champ lucked out when No. 2-ranked US Open champion Bianca Andreescu withdrew with a bad knee. That lifted Williams to the safety of a top-eight seeding. She is positioned in the bottom of the top half of the draw, the main rival in her quarter is potential fourth-round opponent -- and No. 3 seed -- Naomi Osaka.

Monday's opening day will feature Djokovic and No.1 seed Ashleigh Barty, but Grand Slam draws are volatile entities. It's a fool's game to look too far into the future. So let's analyze the draw a little differently.

Match we'd most like to watch

Women: The dynamic between Coco Gauff and Venus Williams is likely to be a fascinating first-round matchup, given their history. It will be interesting to see how Gauff handles the situation emotionally and mentally. She's no longer the happy-go-lucky teenager who can just go out and swing from the heels, hoping for a dream-come-true win. Psychologically, it might be even tougher for Williams. Her best strategy might be to relentlessly attack and try to crush the 15-year-old.

Men: Frances Tiafoe vs. Medvedev is the glamour first-round matchup, but another of the young Americans faces an intriguing challenge when 6-foot-11, 22-year-old Reilly Opelka goes up against No. 12 seed Fabio Fognini. Opelka, presently ranked No. 11, ticks better than Tiafoe at No. 38 and rains down the aces. He also moves well for a big man. The contrast with the flashy, tricky Italian artist should be fascinating.

Second-best first-round matchups

Women: Amanda Anisimova (No. 21 seed) vs. Zarina Diyas. A French Open semifinalist, 18-year-old prodigy Anisimova suffered a terrible blow last summer. Konstantin Anisimov, her father and coach, died unexpectedly shortly before the US Open. She played just three matches and went 1-2 the rest of the year. She has won more than that already this year, reaching the semifinals in the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand, before taking a loss to Serena Williams.

Diyas, a native of Kazakhstan, is a crafty 26-year-old veteran with an all-court game. She has been ranked as high as No. 31. This one ought to be close and give us a great sense of where Anisimova is in her progress.

Men: No. 2 seed Djokovic vs. Jan-Lennard Struff. At the draw ceremony on Thursday evening in Melbourne, Djokovic said: "I've had some great matches, including the 2012 final that almost went for six hours and last year at Wimbledon, another five-set thriller, but last year's [Australian Open] final against Rafa was probably my most complete performance. He was in great form and hadn't dropped a set all tournament. It was one of those days where everything worked perfectly."

Can Djokovic hit similar high notes this year? His first opponent may demand some quick, affirmative answers. Ranked No. 37, Struff didn't miss earning a seed by much. He's a 6-foot-5 power baseliner with enough athleticism to take the racket out of anyone's hand, as he demonstrated with 2019 wins over the likes of Karen Khachanov, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Nick Kyrgios.

Luck of the draw

Women: Sofia Kenin, No. 14, gets a qualifier in Round 1, the winner to meet either another qualifier or home nation wild card Lizette Cabrera. There's room for Kenin to operate in the quarter, at least until a projected fourth-rounder with Osaka.

Men: Spain's Pablo Carreno Busta, seeded No. 27, plays a qualifier in the first round, with the winner guaranteed to play another qualifier. But the winner of that match is in trouble, as he's most likely to meet top seed Nadal.

Bad luck of the draw

Women: Venus Williams has been struggling, winning just one match since the US Open. She also pulled out of the Brisbane tournament with an undisclosed "setback" suffered during training. Now she must play Gauff, who catapulted to stardom with her first-round upset of Williams at Wimbledon last July.

Men: Tiafoe's hopes of reprising his 2019 run to the quarterfinals -- and reaping the same number of rankings points -- took a blow when he was drawn to play one of the toughest outs in the game, No. 4 Medvedev.

Toughest quarter

Women: Would you believe five former US Open champions are in the same quarter of an Australian Open draw? Yep. The second quarter features Venus and Serena Williams, Osaka, Sloane Stephens and Samantha Stosur. Also in the mix: Kenin and former champion Caroline Wozniacki. The Australian Open is the only major former No. 1 Wozniacki ever won, as well as her farewell event (she is retiring). That means her motivation -- and emotions -- will be sky high.

Men: The men's draw is very well balanced this year, with the dangerous big hitters whom everyone fears pretty well distributed throughout the draw. Call it a toss-up between the quarters containing the Big Three.

Easiest quarter

Women: Major champion-in-waiting Karolina Pliskova, seeded No. 2, has a nice opportunity in the fourth quarter if she can avoid first-round jitters and get past up-and-down Kristina Mladenovic. The only Grand Slam champs in her quarter are 34-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova and Garbine Muguruza. Kuznetsova is ranked No. 54. Muguruza is an erratic shadow of her former self. Elina Svitolina, No. 5, is the major stumbling block in the quarter.

Men: The top seeds in the second quarter are Medvedev and Zverev, who has been struggling lately. Opportunity abounds.

Favorite in danger of stumbling

Women: Simona Halep, No. 4, just hasn't looked convincing since she experienced her career-defining moment at Wimbledon. She's just 7-7 since winning that title, and she has continued to struggle with injuries. Jennifer Brady, Halep's first-round opponent, is coming off successive wins over Maria Sharapova and Barty in Brisbane.

Men: Can we count Zverev as a favorite? Not really. That leaves beloved Federer, who, unlike his Big Three peers, goes into the tournament with no matches played since early November. Sure he's Federer, but still.

Favorite best positioned to sail

Women: Serena Williams should be able to get dialed in with a few stress-free matches. She may not be looking forward to a third-round meeting with her great friend Wozniacki, but the dynamics of that relationship suggest a Williams win.

Men: Nadal opens with virtually unknown Hugo Dellien of Bolivia, and may not have a thing to worry about until Kyrgios in the third round. There could be worse things to worry about, even if Kyrgios has won three of their seven meetings. The only other conspicuous obstacle is No. 5 Dominic Thiem, a potential fourth-round opponent.

Cinderella candidate

Women: Any of those brilliant youngsters who showed us so much last year: Gauff, Anisimova, Marketa Vondrousova, Dayana Yastremska and Aryna Sabalenka.

Men: Nobody but nobody ever talks about Thiem except at the French Open. But the Indian Wells champion showed he can bring it on hard courts, and he's such a strong, fit guy that if he gets some momentum he could run the table.

American with the friendliest path

Women: Kenin (see above).

Men: John Isner has had some poor tournaments Down Under in recent years, but he has a shot at redemption. He opens with a match against Brazilian clay-courter Thiago Monteiro, which will land the winner opposite a qualifier with a winnable third-round looming.

Most likely to hit the reset button

Women: Osaka resolved to regain her status after her desultory loss at the US Open, and backed up her vow with a terrific fall campaign in 2019. She lost a tough semifinal to Pliskova in Brisbane just days ago, but that may have just stimulated her appetite.

Men: Djokovic was steamed at the end of 2019, having lost his No. 1 ranking at the 11th hour and failed in his mission to help Serbia secure the Davis Cup. Nadal played a leading role in both those fails. You can bet Djokovic wants revenge.

Most likely to sneak through undetected

Women: If this tournament produces one of those familiar "surprise" semifinalists, look for it to be Yastremska, Elena Rybakina or Viktoria Kuzmova, all of whom are 21 or under.

Men: Andrey Rublev, the whippet-lean, 22-year-old Russian, is back up to No. 18 following a long comeback from injury. He's inexhaustible, tensile and 11-0 since the Paris Masters last October.