With the final round of qualifying completed on Wednesday in Dubai, the 16 women who have won through to places in the main draw in Melbourne have been determined, with Britain’s Francesca Jones in the mix alongside the likes of veteran Tsvetana Pironkova and teenager Clara Burel.
.... I had a wee mental breakdown, to be honest, before the match. I think I was probably well prepared physically and mentally. We worked really hard, I tried to trust the work that we did. I got into the Australian Open [qualifying draw] just before Christmas, I think, so I had a good few weeks to put myself in the right mindset. I just tried to take it match by match and really, as much as possible, ignore the bigger picture, and just focus on the ball. Francesca Jones
Jones’ inspiring run in Dubai culminated in a thumping 6-0 6-1 win over China’s Lu Jia-Jing in what was just her third Grand Slam qualifying event, and the first time she has won a match.
She lives with a rare genetic condition that saw her born with just 3 toes on her right foot and 4 on her left, which affects her balance, and 3 fingers and a thumb on each hand, that impacts her grip.
The 20-year old World No 241 admitted she did not believe she was ready to go all the way when she began her campaign in Dubai.
“My fingers had actually split from the cold in the UK and I couldn’t hold my racket too well on my forehand side, and my forehand’s my best shot,” she said with a laugh. “So I had a wee mental breakdown, to be honest, before the match.
“I think I was probably well prepared physically and mentally. We worked really hard, I tried to trust the work that we did.
“I got into the Australian Open [qualifying draw] just before Christmas, I think, so I had a good few weeks to put myself in the right mindset.
“I just tried to take it match by match and really, as much as possible, ignore the bigger picture, and just focus on the ball.”
The first to qualify was No 1 seed Kaja Juvan with a commanding 6-1 6-2 win over Rebecca Sramkova from Slovakia in just 51 minutes.
The 20-year-old from Slovenia pushed Serena Williams to 3 sets in the second round of Wimbledon in 2019, and reached the same stage at Roland Garros and the US Open last season.
“I think I’ve always been good dealing with these last-round matches, it’s not my first qualifying,” Juvan said, after a match in which she never faced a break point.
“I always just try to focus on the things I need to do, and today I was doing it pretty well. I think that a lot of things that we’re working on really showed, and I’m happy that I was able to go through it.”
Later, Pironkova, a 33-year-old mother from Bulgaria, was one of several veterans winning her way to Melbourne with a 6-3 7-5 defeat of Margarita Gasparyan from Russia.
Pironkova, whose best run at a major was reaching the 2010 Wimbledon semi-finals, has now made 3 consecutive Grand Slam main draws since her return from maternity leave last year.
In her first pro tournament in over 3 years, Pironkova made a stunning run to the 2020 US Open quarter-finals, where she fell to Serena Williams in 3 sets, made a 3rd-round showing at Roland Garros, and went from unranked in August to World No 136 by season’s end.
“I’m very happy,” Pironkova said, after her win. “Now that I think about it, I’ve only played Grand Slams since I’ve returned, three in a row!
“I have a lot of things to work on in my game still, it’s the first matches for the season.
”But I’m really happy that I was able to fight through all the matches, especially yesterday was a really, really tough match for me. Today also was kind of tricky, but I’m happy that I fought through.”
France’s 19-year-old Clara Burel, who defeated Maria Camila Osorio Serrano from Colombia, 6-4 6-3, is storming up the rankings, having risen from outside the top 500 in August to No 236 after reaching the 3rd round at Roland Garros as a wildcard.
“Everything, I think [is clicking],” said Burel, who is projected to rise to a career-high ranking of No 209 after her AO qualifying result.
“At the beginning [when we resumed] I wasn’t playing that well during the matches, but my practices were really good, and I just kept playing better and better.
“I’m really excited. I’m just really happy to be able to go to Australia this year. It wasn’t easy, but I’m really happy.”
Serbia’s Olga Danilovic, another 19-year-old who burst to prominence with her first WTA title back in 2018, qualified for a major main draw for the first time thanks to a 6-2 3-6 6-1 win over India’s Ankita Raina.
The left-hander, who peaked just inside the top 100 during that 2018 season, has since slipped to No 183 but appears to be trending upward again.
Fellow 19-year-old Elisabetta Cocciaretto joined Burel and Danilovic in the main draw following a 6-3 6-1 dismissal of Harmony Tan from France.
The in-form Italian has now won 16 of her 22 matches since pro tennis resumed.
Mental challenges have defined Sara Errani’s recent journey, with the Italian admitting to ausopen.com that she now struggles on court with nerves and tension that prevent her from playing as freely as she did during her top-10 days of 2012 and 2013.
The 33-year-old managed to control those nerves on Wednesday, however, and became another veteran sealing her place in the AO main draw with a 3-6 6-2 6-4 win over wildcard Ana Konjuh from Croatia.
“I’m really happy to have won this match and to go to Australia. It’s a dream for me,” she said.
Also winning on Wednesday were 30-year-old Canadian Rebecca Marino and 29-year-old Valeria Savinykh.
Russia’s Savinykh beat 13th seed Ysaline Bonventure from Belgium, 6-4 7-5, while Marino will play in the main draw at a major for the first time since the Australian Open in 2013 after beating Belgian Maryna Zanevska in straight sets, 6-4 7-6(11).
No 3 seed Greet Minnen from Belgium claimed her spot in the AO main draw for a second straight year, outlasting former Top 20 player Varvara Lepchenko of the United States, 6-2 3-6 6-4, in 2 hours and 18 minutes.
Timea Babos from Hungary, the No 7 seed, outlasted No 20 seed Anna Karolina Schmiedlova of Slovakia, 6-2 6-7(5) 6-2, in a clash between former Top 30 singles players.
“I was [in Dubai] pretty much all December,” said Babos, following her hard-fought 2 hour and 30 minute encounter. “I prepared very well, and I really wanted to play well here and qualify, so I guess the effort paid off.
“That’s just something extra and it gives me even more motivation for the future. I’m very happy that I did the job.”
Babos is the 4th-ranked doubles player in the world and the defending Australian Open women’s doubles champion with Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic
“That’s what I came here for, to Dubai, to be able to also play the singles in Melbourne, so obviously I’m very happy and excited for that.”
Meanwhile, Mayar Sherif continued her stellar form by qualifying for a second consecutive Grand Slam main draw.
The 24-year-old, who made history at Roland Garros in September as the first Egyptian women to ever play in a Grand Slam main draw, overpowered former World No 39 Aleksandra Krunic from Serbia, 6-1 6-2, to score her 29th win in her last 35 matches dating back to March.
In the last match of the day, 18-year-old Whitney Osuigwe continued her stunning turnaround in form with a 3-set win over Romanian Mihaela Buzarnescu.
The American teenager had lost 11 of her final 12 matches in 2020, and looked to be heading for another disappointment when she trailed Buzarnescu 6-2, 5-2, but she rebounded to record an inspiring 2-6 7-6(1) 6-2 triumph.
“I really tried to make that my identity, never giving up. It shows in tennis it’s never over until it’s actually over, so I kept that in the back of mind the entire time,” Osuigwe said.
“Last year was tough, and I think at a point in time I started not enjoying tennis. So a big part of coming into this year was just finding my happiness with tennis again, just leaving 2020 behind me and starting fresh.
“During the pre-season I was on the track every single day, practising twice a day, so I worked really hard to get to where I am right now.”
Wednesday’s other victors who advanced to the AO main draw in Melbourne are Chloe Paquet of France and Mayo Hibi of Japan.
Hosting Australian Open qualifying offshore, with the women in Dubai and the men in Doha, was an historic first for the tournament and an innovative solution to some of the logistical challenges presented by the pandemic.
“We appreciate the assistance of our friends and colleagues in United Arab Emirates and Qatar for hosting Australian Open 2021 qualifying due to the current travel restrictions into Australia,” Australian Open Tournament Director Craig Tiley said.
“I’d like to thank the Brandplus team of Bharat Godkhindi, Kay Godkhindi and Sagari Godkhindi and all their staff for organising women’s qualifying in Dubai, and to the Doha team of Nasser Al-Khelaifi, Karim Alami and the Qatar Tennis Federation, who have led the charge to help us stage the men’s event.
“From the beginning of our AO planning we were determined to run qualifying and provide competition and earning opportunities for the players.
“It’s very rewarding to see 32 of them progress and start their Grand Slam journey. I look forward to seeing them all in Melbourne for the Australian Open.”
A further 6 women (and 6 men) will travel to Australia as Lucky Losers and undertake 14 days of mandatory quarantine with the rest of the international players.
Strict COVIDSafe protocols are in place for the Australian Open as follows:
- All players must return a negative test prior to boarding their flight to Australia
- 15 flights, none at more than 25 per cent capacity, will bring players into Australia in a 36-hour period from Thursday 14 January
- Everyone will be tested on arrival and isolated until results are received
- Once a negative result has been returned players can train within a highly controlled and strictly supervised environment for five-hours per day