Ashleigh Barty will be the big favorite to win her Australian Open at home for the first time, but even with Serena Williams absent, the world number one faces threats from every angle. For the first time in a quarter of a century, the first Grand Slam of the year will feature neither Williams’ sisters: Serena would have sought to equal the record for the 24th major crown, but she is out of shape.
With defending champion Naomi Osaka still working to regain her best form and fitness after a long hiatus, 25-year-old Barty has become the clear favorite at Melbourne Park.
Like her rival Osaka hers, Barty was eliminated from the third round of the US Open in September and did not play the rest of the year, returning to her home in Australia due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Unlike the Japanese star, who withdrew from a prep tournament last week saying her “body was shocked” after playing her first few games for four months, Barty appears to be back in the rhythm.
Barty won the French Open in 2019 and Wimbledon last year, but her best performance in Melbourne was reaching the semi-finals in 2020, where she lost to eventual champion Sofia Kenin.
However, she issued a warning to the rest of the Australian Open field on Sunday, claiming the singles and doubles titles at the Adelaide International.
Barty withdrew from this week’s Sydney Classic, explaining that she needed to rebound from her exploits, but she said her 14th career singles crown was a huge confidence boost.
“When my back was against the wall, I was able to produce some pretty good stuff,” she told the WTA.
“The preseason is good, but you never know where that level is until you put yourself to the test against the best.
“And it’s been great to have good hits this week and I feel like I’m ready.”
Halep, Muguruza threaten
Men’s tennis has been dominated by the “Big Three” of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, but women’s tennis is still open.
Last year’s four Grand Slams were won by four different women: Osaka (Australian), Barbora Krejcikova (French), Barty (Wimbledon) and Emma Raducanu (USA) and the early starts of Osaka and Barty at the US Open They underlined the point.
Osaka, a two-time Melbourne champion, faced eventual New York finalist Leylah Fernandez, who lost to fellow teenage non-seeded Raducanu in the decider for the title.
Britain’s Raducanu, who is embarking on her first full season on the WTA Tour, has struggled since her surprising appearance at Flushing Meadows and last month she tested positive for Covid-19.
She withdrew from a preparation event in Melbourne last week saying that she was “too early for me, that she had just returned from isolation”.
Raducanu should be fine for the Australian Open, and Fernandez will be there too, as will another prodigious young talent in the form of 17-year-old American Coco Gauff.
But this could be the opportunity for the older guard to reassert itself.
Garbine Muguruza, who lost to American Kenin in the 2020 final, is third in the world rankings behind Barty and Aryna Sabalenka from Belarus.
The 28-year-old Spaniard blew two match points against Osaka last year at Melbourne Park in the round of 16 and won the season-ending WTA Finals in Guadalajara.
There’s also the resurgence of another former number one, Simona Halep.
The 30-year-old Romanian, a popular figure in women’s tennis, won her first title in 16 months on Sunday after a losing streak of calf and knee problems.
“After a difficult year, it is always good to have a trophy in my hands,” said the Romanian.
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“Physically I am in the right place, confidence is growing,” she added.