The build-up to this year’s Australian Open has been unusual but on first look, it appears to be business as usual in the women’s draw loaded with big names and dangerous floaters who can take home the title.
The form guide matters even lesser after a pandemic-interrupted season and with most players having had little time on court, another shock result — like unseeded teenager Iga Swiatek winning the French Open — is possible.
The list of favourites has been expanded further with two first-time champions in 2020 and is headed by defending champ Sofia Kenin, home favourite world No 1 Ashleigh Barty, US Open champion Naomi Osaka, the inimitable Serena Williams and with plenty of former Major winners in the mix.
However, the effects of the pandemic are being seen more in the women’s field as a host of top players had injuries concerns in the week gone when three tournaments were played simultaneously after two weeks of quarantine.
Six of the top 12 seeds have dealt with some form of injury niggle in the last week including Kenin, Serena, Bianca Andreescu, Osaka, Simona Halep, and Victoria Azarenka. Each of them is a bona fide title contender in Melbourne, which opens up the field even more. While many of these withdrawals were precautionary, the lack of practice could affect the women’s field.
Here’s a look at the major storylines ahead of the season-opening Slam:
Kenin’s tricky title defence
In recent times, winning a Grand Slam has seemed easier than defending it on the WTA Tour.
Kenin, 22, finds herself as defending champion at a Slam for the first time and despite being the named the WTA player of the year after reaching the two of three Major finals in 2020, this will be a challenge.
The French Open finalist doesn’t come into Melbourne completely cold though, having reached the quarter-finals in Abu Dhabi last month. But her warm-up suffered a blip when she lost in straight sets to Garbine Muguruza in a re-run of last year’s final.
The fourth seed may not be the flashiest of players but had shown tremendous fighting spirit all through her title run last year and replicated it for the most part in Paris, despite an erratic season otherwise. The same hunger will serve her well to battle the pressure that will come as being the defending champion.
All eyes on Osaka
Osaka comes into Melbourne as US Open champion, as she did two years ago when she won an epic final. But this time, she is here as a seasoned veteran after experiencing the full rollercoaster ride – from world No 1 to shock exits then back to winning ways again.
Last year, as defending champion she fell early to teen sensation Coco Gauff but since then she has won the only Major she played – the US Open. The 23-year-old won her third Grand Slam coming from a set and a break down in New York and also won widespread praise for her support of the Black Lives Matters movement. The Japanese icon last year overtook Serena Williams as the world’s highest-paid female athlete and is now arguably the face of the sport on and off the courts.
Admirably, she managed to hold her nerve even in the face of pressure in New York and if she can do it again, she will further strengthen her legacy as a fourth Major in modern women’s tennis has proved to be extremely elusive.
Serena Williams continues her quest
Four years after her last Major triumph in Melbourne, Serena is still stuck in her quest of a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam. Every year since 2017, the question has been the same: can she pull level with Margaret Court?
An injury setback saw her lose from matchpoint last year and the 10th seed pulled out of her warm-up tournament with another niggle. But it may be this season or never for Serena, who turns 40 in September. She has reached four Major finals since return from maternity break but has been left empty-handed each time.
A small advantage, she says, is that she benefited from the delay to recover fully from the nagging Achilles injury sustained during her semi-finals run at US Open, which subsequently caused her to withdraw from Roland Garros making 2020 the first year since 2006 that she failed to reach a Major final.
Home hope Barty returns after long hiatus
The top seed Barty will carry Australia’s hopes of a first home champion in more than 40 years, and rightly so with the unbeaten start to 2021.
Barty had been in great form pre-pandemic as well, winning an Australian Open warm-up in Adelaide and came close last year when agonisingly losing a tight match to eventual champion Kenin. But the 24-year-old stopped her season in February, choosing not to travel because of coronavirus risks. That she is still world No 1 is due to the changed ranking system, a fact not universally well-received. In September the multi-talented Australian, a former professional cricketer, won a golf tournament near Brisbane and doesn’t appear to have lost much steam in the long hiatus as was evident when she lifted the title at the warm-up event in Melbourne.
Doing well as home favourite with little practice and a lot of pressure is a whole different ball game and only time will tell whether the time away was good for her game.
The outside bets
Can a women’s preview be complete with a list of potential dark horses?
Last year’s beaten finalist Garbine Muguruza (14th seed) reached the final of the warm-up event while 15th seed Swiatek will be looking to capitalise on her experience from Roland Garros triumph.
World No 2 Halep, who came agonisingly close to the title in 2018, comes in under an injury cloud after a one-sided loss in the warm-up event but also as celebrating seven consecutive years ranked inside the top 10, placing the two-time Grand Slam champion in some exalted company.
Since bursting into the top 10 in January 2014, the supremely consistent Halep has won 16 tournaments, tying with Petra Kvitova (ninth seed) for the most during that time, another two-time Major champion and former finalist to watch out.
Former champion Azarenka (12th seed), who finally turned a corner in her comeback by reaching the 2020 US Open final, will be keen to carry on that momentum on the hard courts. Elsewhere, 2019 US Open winner Bianca Andreescu (eighth seed) will make her much-awaited comeback after missing the whole of 2020.
The perpetual contenders and top-10 seeds Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova, Aryna Sabalenka are also in the mix to make a long-awaited breakthrough. US Open semi-finalist Jennifer Brady reached the final the week before while Elise Mertens won a title. And then there is the chance of a lower-ranked winner which can never be counted out. The possibilities, as is often the case with the women’s singles draw, are endless.
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