The top seed is local star Ashleigh Barty, the defending champion is Naomi Osaka, but the focus ahead of the Australian Open is largely on the one woman who has entered virtually every Grand Slam as a favourite for more than a decade now – Serena Williams.
Despite losing the last four Major finals she has played in, by straight sets to unlikely opponents and first-time champions, the 38-year-old American will be the player to beat when the season-opening Grand Slam begins on Monday.
The quest for the elusive 24th Grand Slam – which will equal Margaret Court’s all-time record – has been both a motivator and millstone around her neck, as she has failed in finals repeatedly since her comeback to tennis after giving birth. Her 23rd Major came here in Melbourne when she was pregnant with her daughter, and that was her last title for almost three years till she finally turned the runner-up tide at the start of the year when she lifted the WTA title in Auckland, where she reached the doubles final as well.
With her first trophy as a mother in the bag, Serena has “learned to win again”, as she once said she needed to. With the momentum from that win, she will be dialed when she takes the court. Although the veteran has had little game time – Auckland being the first tournament since the US Open final loss – and tough clashes against Osaka in the draw, her powerful serve and unerring consistency in big tournaments gives her an edge even at her age.
However, age and experience is not as big a factor when it comes to women’s tennis. In 2019, we had a teenage Grand Slam champion and runner-up in Bianca Andreescu (who is out injured) and Marketa Vondrousova, 23-year-old Barty win the French Open and WTA Finals while Naomi Osaka and Simona Halep backed their 2018 haul with one more Major, beating veterans Petra Kvitova and Serena Williams.
As previews have predicted for almost three years now, the women’s draw is wide open and wildly exciting. We could well see the decade begin with a first-time champion or the resurgence of an old warhorse, and the two weeks of tennis leading up to it promise unpredictability and entertainment.
The current WTA top 20 are all potent players who can either turn the tables or crumble under pressure on any given day. The precursor tournaments at the start of the year also threw up a mixed bag of results.
World No 1 Barty was stunned in her opener at Brisbane by qualifier Jennifer Brady but went on to lift the trophy in Adelaide while world No 2 Karolina Pliskova had to battle hard to beat Osaka and Madison Keys to defend her Brisbane title. Both women have shown good form to start the season and justified their seeding, but are also not the most consistent of players at big tournaments.
World No 3 Osaka, who said 2019 has some of the worst months of her life despite the title in Melbourne, is getting ready for her title defence with a fourth coach in a year, the experienced Wim Fisette. If the Belgian coach – who has guided Victoria Azarenka, Kim Clijsters, Simona Halep, and Angelique Kerber before – can help her find her consistency again, the Japanese could be a big threat on the hard-courts.
Meanwhile, top players like Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, Aryna Sabalenka, Belinda Bencic, Kvitova, Johanna Konta and Garbine Muguruza have struggled to start the season strong while youngsters Ekaterina Alexandrova and Elena Rybakina have won titles. Americans Keys and Danielle Collins, who had stormed to the semis in Melbourne last year, are in good touch as well. Former champions Caroline Wozniacki, Angelique Kerber, Victoria Azarenka, and Maria Sharapova are all on rollercoaster rides of their own. Woznacki will be playing her final tournament on tour at the site of her biggest career triumph and will look to make her final punch count. Sharapova, who has beaten Wozniacki last year, has a wildcard entry after injury troubles and will be pumped up as well.
All of them have the ability to put together a good run for the next two weeks. With the constant upheaval in rankings, the first-round clashes some of them have had are against former top players and it will be case of maintaining a high level from the start.
The start of the new decade could also re-start the trend of teen Grand Slam champions. Despite US Open champion Andreescu’s absence, the teen talent in action is phenomenal.
21st seed Amanda Anisimova, who had reached the fourth round of the Australian Open and French Open semis as a 17-year-old last year, is back in the groove after the sudden death of her father and coach late last year, reaching the final at Auckland.
World No 67 Coco Gauff, the youngest in the top 100 at only 15, hasn’t stopped since she took the tennis world at Wimbledon and will have a rematch with Venus Williams at the Australian Open. 23rd seed Dayana Yastremska, the 19-year-old who was the runner-up in Adelaide, has teamed up with last year’s winning coach Sascha Bajin and could be a dark horse as well.
With this kind of quality and depth, no one is flying under the radar headed into the first Grand Slam of the year. The women’s draw is as wide and wild as ever.