The theme of the 2021 WTA season has been just how wide open the draws are. While you can count all the true men's singles Grand Slam title contenders on one hand, the number of women with a realistic shot at this title spans well into the double digits. While two of the three previous Grand Slams in 2021 went to a pre-tournament favorite when it was all said and done (Naomi Osaka in Australia and Ashleigh Barty at Wimbledon), anyone who bet on a Barbora Krejcikova over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova final when the French Open draw came out should have enough money to buy the Sabres from Jessica Pegula's dad.
Osaka is the most accomplished hard-court player in the draw with the Williams sisters both out due to injury, and Osaka already has twice as many hard-court majors as Venus, with two titles apiece at the US Open and Australian Open. While Osaka's A-game is the best in the draw, it has been quite a while since she's shown that level. The No. 3 seed from Japan has suffered hard-court defeats to Marketa Vondrousova and Jil Teichmann since returning from her mental health break which began at the French Open, and her last quarterfinal came way back in March in Miami. Her path to the semifinals looks the easiest on paper among the top four seeds, but her section of the draw still has plenty of potential challenges in it, which speaks to the depth of the women's game despite the absences of Serena Williams (hamstring) and Sofia Kenin (COVID-19). Former Grand Slam champions Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber and Sloane Stephens all reside in Osaka's quarter, not to mention No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina and No. 21 seed Coco Gauff, though the earliest Osaka could face any of these opponents would be the fourth round.
Barty's the deserving No. 1 seed here, and the 2019 French Open and 2021 Wimbledon champ has the all-around game to capture her first hard-court Grand Slam title. She's coming off a prominent hard-court title in Cincinnati just over a week ago, and that coupled with her Wimbledon crown should give Barty immense confidence. As someone who often plays their way into tournaments and doesn't have her top form in early rounds, Barty should be pleased with her relatively straightforward early draw, though her path from the Round of 16 onward could be brutal if the draw unfolds as expected. Either 13th-seeded Jennifer Brady or No. 22 seed Karolina Muchova, who faced off in the Australian Open semifinals, will likely be Barty's fourth-round opponent, and the top seed's possible quarterfinal opponents include (7) Iga Swiatek, (11) Belinda Bencic and (23) Pegula.
After Barty's quarter at the top of the draw comes Karolina Pliskova's quarter. The fourth-seeded Wimbledon runner-up is in good form, but her section boasts arguably the most daunting combination of established seeds and dangerous floaters. The three other chalk options into the Round of 16 are Pavlyuchenkova, Petra Kvitova and Bianca Andreescu. On top of that, there's No. 17 seed Maria Sakkari, 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, 2019 French Open semifinalist Amanda Anisimova and 2020 French Open semifinalist Nadia Podoroska to worry about. To sum up, that's two Grand Slam finalists from this year and three former Grand Slam champions all crammed into one section. Whomever emerges from this gauntlet will face the winner of Barty's section.
Lastly, No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka has a pretty straightforward path to the Round of 16, and (15) Elise Mertens or (20) Ons Jabeur are not the most fearsome likely fourth-round opponents. Conversely, nobody faces a more difficult projected path than No. 9 seed Garbine Muguruza, who had two match points against eventual champion Osaka at the Australian Open and has two Grand Slam titles of her own. Muguruza will potentially need to beat 18th-seeded Victoria Azarenka and No. 8 Krejcikova -- both Grand Slam champions as well -- just to set up a quarterfinal clash with Sabalenka.
Round 1 matches to watch
This is the premier first-round match to watch in the women's singles draw. Giorgi's among the game's best ball-strikers when her timing's right but she had perennially struggled to maintain her top form from match to match until the National Bank Open in Montreal a couple weeks ago. The 29-year-old Italian dropped just one set en route to that title and knocked out four players seeded among the top 21 here along the way. Meanwhile, Halep missed the French Open and Wimbledon due to a calf tear, then withdrew from Cincinnati due to a hip injury less than two weeks ago. What form the former world No. 1 will be in is a mystery that just adds to the intrigue of this terrific first-round clash. Prediction: Giorgi in three sets.
An all-American rematch of the 2017 US Open final should certainly be one of the matches to see in the first round, even though both players now find themselves unseeded. Both went on to have strong 2018 seasons but have since dropped off, as Stephens' 2017 win remains the only Grand Slam title among them. Stephens reached the French Open final in 2018 but has made only one Grand Slam quarterfinal from 2019 onward. Keys was a semifinalist at the 2018 French and US Open but also has only one major quarterfinal appearance since then. Stephens is 28 and Keys 26, so both still have time to get their once-promising careers back on track; perhaps a win in the latest installment of this rivalry (Stephens leads their head-to-head 4-2) will be the precursor to a deep run for one of these two. Prediction: Keys in three sets.
Brady looked set to become a perennial title contender at Grand Slams after reaching the semis here last year and the final at the Australian Open this year, but a foot injury forced her to withdraw from the French Open and skip Wimbledon. The injury flared up again in Cincinnati less than two weeks ago, but the 26-year-old American has luckily recovered in time to give it a go here. Brady's health is one aspect to watch in this match but so is the play of her opponent. Raducanu qualified into her second career Grand Slam main draw here after the 18-year-old Brit burst onto the scene with a run to the Round of 16 at Wimbledon. She was overcome by the moment against Ajla Tomljanovic at the All England Club, but none of the pressure will be on Raducanu in this one. Still, Brady's a bonafide top-five hard court player in the world when healthy. Prediction: Brady in two sets.
Speaking of players who dominate on hard courts when healthy, Andreescu -- who won the US Open in her only previous appearance back in 2019 -- certainly fits the bill. Unfortunately, she has spent more time recovering from injuries than on the court since then. The 21-year-old Canadian is in far from her best form at the moment, though at least she's healthy. On the other side of the net, Golubic has long been just another player on tour, but she's coming off her best career major result, having reached the Round of 16 at Wimbledon after previously posting a 4-17 career record in Grand Slam play. Despite Golubic's recent success, this match will come down to Andreescu's level, and she might just find her top form again when she returns to the site of her greatest career accomplishment. Prediction: Andreescu in two sets.
Sakkari has steadily climbed the rankings throughout her career and is now a fringe contender at major tournaments at age 26, having made the French Open semifinals earlier this year. The 19-year-old Kostyuk is at a far different stage in her development but also enjoyed her best Grand Slam result to date at Roland Garros this year with a run to the fourth round. The young Ukrainian has reached the third round or better in half of her six career Grand Slam main draw appearances and is knocking on the door of the top 50 at No. 56 in the world, so this is poised to be among the higher-quality matches in the opening round. Prediction: Sakkari in three sets.
Quarterfinals: Barty def. Pegula, Pliskova def. Andreescu, Gauff def. Svitolina, Muguruza def. Sabalenka
Semifinals: Pliskova def. Barty, Muguruza def. Gauff
Final: Pliskova def. Muguruza