Serena Williams hasn’t played a competitive match since the US Open, the last Grand Slam of 2018. But heading into the first Grand Slam of 2019, the 37-year-old American dominates the narrative.
First, because of how her last match ended – a controversial showdown against the chair umpire as she lost the final to 20-year-old Naomi Osaka. Second, and the more importantly, because she returns to the scene of her last Major title, which she won while eight weeks pregnant in 2017.
While her comeback was a big storyline in women’s tennis last year – she justified it by reaching the final of both Wimbledon and US Open – her defeats in the two finals and the sparse seven tournaments she played suggests that for once, Serena is not the favourite in a Major.
Serena’s drive and big-match temperament is perhaps unparalleled, battling her way back to the top after childbirth and life-saving surgeries. But not her game anymore, there is a crop of players who can consistently break her in the big moments.
Her trophy in 2017 put her one ahead of Steffi Graf with 23 Slams in the Open era. As she goes for more history and Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24, she could well emerge the champion in Melbourne again.
But this Australian Open is a chance for the regulars to press advantage, in a field that is packed with powerful contenders.
A loaded field
Defending champion Caroline Wozniacki, top seed Simona Halep, 2016 champ Angelique Kerber, US Open winners Naomi Osaka and Sloane Stephens, season-ending WTA Finals titlist Elina Svitolina, 2019 champs Petra Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova, Julia Goerges and Aryna Sabalenka.
These players, a mix of veterans and youngsters, dominate the potent seeded field in women’s singles. Several of them have already won a Slam and know what it takes. Indeed, most of the seeds and a bunch of unseeded players have the prowess to win, including Slam winners Garbine Muguruza, Jelena Ostapenko, Venus Williams and Victoria Azarenka, who was the last woman to defend an Australian Open title.
In field with such depth, the passage to the second week will come down to a few key aspects:
Fitness in the sweltering Melbourne heat, a cool head in the loaded early clashes to avoid the carnage like Wimbledon, the ability to dig in on a court that rewarded the grinders last year, and the composed self-belief to turn the tide when down without their coach’s intervention.
More often than not, one woman has found it tough to do all of this together.
Last year’s final was a prime example of how hard it is to get it all together, as Wozniacki trumped Halep in a thrilling epic of skill and will. A match before, Halep needed a sensational effort to edge out Kerber in the semis, which seemed to take so much out of her that she ran out of gas in the dying moments of the final.
The Romanian reversed that result to win the French Open after being a set and a break down to Stephens. Kerber then used similar gumption to stitch her winning run at Wimbledon before Osaka’s big game overpowered everyone and everything, on and off court, at US Open. But it was Svitolina who lifted the WTA Finals, a win that had triggered Wozniacki’s Slam run last year.
All these players look poised for a similar charge in Melbourne, but are weighed down by different factors at the start of the season.
Wozniacki is suffering from debilitating auto-immune rheumatoid arthritis; Halep curtailed her 2018 season with a back injury and has very little match practice heading into a first-round match against Kaia Kanepi who stunned her at US Open; Osaka is still learning to deal with the scrutiny that comes with a Slam; and Svitolina, true to her mercurial career, lost in the first match she played in Brisbane as top seed.
Meanwhile, Kerber, a former champion here, has had a good run at Hopman Cup, while two veterans Pliskova and Kvitova have shown good form and mental grit to lift the two tough, season-opening trophies in Australia. And then there is everyone’s favourite dark horse – Belarus’s Sabalenka, the Shenzen champion, who had brilliant run up the ladder in 2018.
But as has been the case in the last seven Majors, the form guide, draws and previews can only tell so much; women’s tennis has the glorious uncertainty that throws up fairy tales and history at any given point.
In two weeks’ time, we could have a new tennis record or a teenage champion. But the one thing for certain is lights out tennis. The last eight Slams have been won by eight different women and there well could be a ninth winner in Melbourne.