Not for the first time of late at a Grand Slam, it’s 4/1 the field as players gather for the Australian Open, which gets under way on Monday.
To show just how open the women’s game is right now, look no further than this statistic – the last eight Slams have been won by eight different players. It is the only time this has happened in the Open era of tennis.
It makes predicting a winner with much confidence a difficult task. There are many with the potential to triumph but finding ‘the one’ has been tough at the Slams recently.
The layers have understandably sided with seven-time champion Serena Williams and at 4/1 she could turn out to be a great bet.
Yet, as the price suggests, she’s far from the certainty she’s looked at various times in her career.
The American is yet to win a Slam since giving birth, although she did reach two finals last season – at Wimbledon and the US Open.
On both occasions she was well beaten in those matches, the second of which brought her famous meltdown and row with umpire Carlos Ramos.
As much as she’ll want to move on from that, I suspect the incident will follow her on her latest visit to Melbourne. How will the crowd react? Will she feel the need to change something with regard to her on-court behaviour? Will the media be prepared to let it go?
The two final losses mean a player once renowned for her killer instinct towards the end of tournaments has now lost four of her last seven Slam finals. In addition, two of her five career semi-final losses at the majors have come in her last nine Slams.
I believe this statistical downturn can be linked to the fact she’s spent recent years homing in on various records. She’s now passed Steffi Graf to set a new record for Open-era titles but she remains one shy of Margaret Court’s all-time tally of 24.
Williams could draw level with Court at the home of the arena which bears her name in a fortnight’s time but to do so she’ll need to improve on the level she showed at the recent Hopman Cup.
In Perth, the 37-year-old did win all three singles matches but she dropped a set to Belinda Bencic and needed tie-breaks to see off Katie Boulter and Maria Sakkari.
She does have a decent draw but I’m prepared to look elsewhere on this occasion.
Instead it looks worthwhile turning to Angelique Kerber, the 7/1 shot who heads up the bottom half of the draw.
The German won in Melbourne in 2016, a result which sparked a golden season in which she also won the US Open and ascended to world number one.
She failed to cope with the pressure the following year but 2018 brought about a recovery with the Wimbledon title captured for the first time. Kerber also made the last eight of the US Open and the semis here where she held match points against Simona Halep only to lose what was arguably the match of the year 8-6 in the decider.
Like Williams, Kerber started the year at the Hopman Cup. She also posted a 100 per cent record singles, winning all four matches, including victories over Ashleigh Barty and Garbine Muguruza.
There was a quarter-final loss to Petra Kvitova in Sydney, although that came at a time when thoughts must have been turning to Melbourne. Not too much should be read into that.
Kerber looks to have a pretty decent path into the second week where the erratic Sloane Stephens is her seeded quarter-final opponent.
The semis are due to see Kerber meet defending champion Caroline Wozniacki, who is battling arthritis and looks to be facing a big battle to keep hold of her crown.
The Dane is now a massive price but can be discounted, as can world number one Simona Halep, who is only just back from injury. An early loss in Sydney means she has now lost her last five matches and hasn’t posted a win since August.
A rematch with Kvitova is also a possibility at the last-four stage for Kerber, although he Czech is in a very tough section. Bencic or Barbora Strycova in round three would likely test Kvitova, while she could then have to get through both Aryna Sabalenka and the aforementioned Barty, two form players who have shortened significantly in recent times.
Both hold decent chances of making a serious impact at a Slam for the first time, but the value is now gone with neither bigger than 14/1.
So, with Kerber in decent form, holding a strong course record and at almost twice the price of the favourite, the German is my headline selection.
Taking a Risk in the Top Half of the Draw
It may also be worth risking an each-way shot in the top half of the draw in the hope that Williams fails to make the final.
Anastasija Sevastova fits the bill on that front.
Only Williams prevented her from reaching the US Open final in September, defeating the Latvian in the semis. Sevastova had already taken out Stephens and Elina Svitolina.
That was part of a strong run at the end of 2018, one which also brought a quarter-final appearance in Montreal, a runners-up spot in Beijing (where Osaka was among her victims) and a semi-final in Moscow.
2019 has begun well enough with a quarter-final run in Brisbane where Osaka took her revenge narrowly, winning 6-4 in the third.
Sevastova boasts a strong serve and is able to mix up her game which isn’t simply about power.
She doesn’t have a significant track record in Melbourne but since returning from a period in retirement in 2015, she has undoubtedly had some tricky draws.
This time, she looks to have been handed a good chance to get into the tournament. She’s in the second quarter alongside Osaka, a potential last-16 opponent, and Svitolina. The pair could meet in the quarter-finals.
But despite being a Grand Slam champion, Osaka is still struggling to back top-20 opponents on a regular basis – she went 9-14 against them last season – while Svitolina’s record at this level leaves much to be desired – she’s yet to go beyond the quarters at any of the major events.
At 40/1, Sevastova is worth a small punt.