With the qualifiers now determined, and the main draw settled, British hopes are pinned on Emma Raducanu, Heather Watson and Harriet Dart having successful runs at the Australian Open next week.
I just want to keep putting myself out there. Even if I keep getting knocked down, it’s just about getting back up and basically falling in front. You’re one step better and you learn more. I’m just at the start of my first season. My goal is to not get too down or too high. Emma Raducanu
Raducanu will bear the brunt of expectation on her 19-year old shoulders, although she claims not to be feeling any pressure after her chastening 6-0 6-1 defeat at the hands of Elena Rybakina at the Sydney Tennis Classic last week.
“I’m not sure of other people’s opinions of me,” she said. “It’s going to happen, pressure is a privilege. I thrive under the adrenaline, I hope.
“So for me, I don’t really think about other people’s opinions or expectations.
“The only ones I have are that of myself, to improve and get better.”
Many will hope that the teenager from Bromley, who is seeded for the first time at a major at No 17, will follow up her block-busting run to the US Open title in September, when she stormed through both the qualifying and main draw matches without dropping a set, with something special.
As a result of winning her first Grand Slam in New York, Raducanu is now one of the biggest names in tennis and attracting lucrative endorsement deals that could prove a distraction if not managed carefully.
Her latest venture is with Nike, who launched a commercial featuring Raducanu this week, one of only a handful of athletes afforded that level of exposure by the sportswear company.
When Raducanu won her US Open title, however, it was only her second Grand Slam main draw appearance after making her Wimbledon debut in June, reaching the 4th round before retiring during her clash against Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic.
It is a different story for the teenager at Melbourne Park, where she is now the hunted, as opposed to being the hunter.
Raducanu has been handed a tough draw at Melbourne Park, taking on another US Open champion in Sloane Stephens.
“I think I’ll brush this off,” she said after her Sydney loss and referencing her recent bout with COVID. “Yesterday was pretty much my 2nd time playing competitive points for 2 months.
“I’m confident that I can brush it off and keep going and keep working.”
That she is committed to proving herself was clear when she hit the practice court with new coach Torben Beltz immediately after the match.
“I just want to keep putting myself out there,” she added. “Even if I keep getting knocked down, it’s just about getting back up and basically falling in front. You’re one step better and you learn more.
“I’m just at the start of my first season. My goal is to not get too down or too high.”
In a first meeting between the two, and the first match of the year for Stephens, Raducanu has had time to fine-tune herself since Sydney, while the American, who recently got married, has lost in the first round of the AO in her past two appearances.
Following the retirement of Johanna Konta in December, Heather Watson, who is the only other British woman to have directly qualified for the main draw, became the British No 2 behind Raducanu, and she will take on Egypt’s Mayar Sherif in her opening round.
Harriet Dart, the British No 3, made it through 3 rounds of qualifying into the main draw where she will play Iga Swiatek, the No 7 seed from Poland who won Rolland Garros in 2020.
All 3 British woman have landed in the lower half of the draw and, if the moon and stars were to align themselves just so, Raducanu and Watson could, theoretically, meet in the 3rd round.
World No 1 Ash Barty is, unsurprisingly, the top seed for the first Grand Slam of the year, with Aryna Sabalenka, Garbiñe Muguruza, Barbora Krejcikova and Maria Sakkari completing the top 5.
Barty is the firm local favourite, who has started 2022 on fire with a scintillating run to a second Adelaide International title and, with a depleted draw without Karolina Pliskova, Jennifer Brady, Karolina Muchova, Nadia Podoroska and both Williams sisters, the Aussie has her best chance ever to win the Open.
Having claimed her second major title at Wimbledon last year, Barty is under huge pressure to deliver at Melbourne Park, where no Australian has won since Chris O’Neil claimed the women’s title in 1978 at Kooyong.
“I can’t do any more than I can try,” the 25-year-old told reporters at Melbourne Park on Saturday. “That’s all I can do. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.
“I just have to hope that everyone understands that I’m giving it my best crack. It doesn’t always work out exactly how you want to.
“But you go about it the right way, you do the right things and try and give yourself the best chance, that’s all you can do.
“That goes for all the other Aussies as well, everyone else in the draw. They’re trying to do that thing over and over and over, do the right things and give themselves the chance.”
She starts her quest for a first home Grand Slam title on Monday against Lesla Tsurenko, a qualifier from Ukraine, while defending champion Naomi Osaka, who is seeded 13th, opens against Colombia’s Camila Osorio, also on Monday.
Barty could face the Japanese in the 4th round as Osaka returns after a 4-month break from the sport.
Osaka has landed in the toughest section of the draw, and could require back-to-back wins over Bencic and Barty just to make the quarter-finals.
Her 4 majors have all come on hard courts, but it is hard to predict how the two-time AO champion will fare following a turbulent second half of 2021, opting to take a hiatus after the US Open in a season punctuated by poor results as well as mental health breaks.
“I just want to feel like every time I step on the court I’m having fun,” she said at Media Day in Melbourne. “I can walk off the court knowing that even if I lost, I tried as hard as I could.
“I just feel like for me, I’m the type of person that cared a little bit too much about the results and the ranking and stuff like that.
“And I just need to find a way to enjoy the game again because that’s the reason why I was playing in the first place.”
The good news is the former No 1 looked sharp in her 3 matches at the Melbourne 1 WTA 250-level event last week and, after facing Osorio in the first round, she could meet either Dayana Yastremska or Madison Brengle in round 2.
Sabalenka, the big-hitting Belarusian, is seeded to meet Barty in the final, but she will need to lift her game dramatically to even make the second week as she has yet to win a match this year after two shockers in Adelaide.
The World No 2 takes on Aussie wild-card Storm Sanders as her first challenge.
Muguruza, the No 3 seed from Spain, experienced a resurgence last year and the former World No 1 and winner of the WTA Finals in November had loomed as Barty’s greatest threat, until a shock straight-sets loss to Daria Kasatkina in her final tune-up match in Sydney last week.
A finalist in 2020, Muguruza is nevertheless one to watch, and she has a good first-week draw to lock herself back into form.
“I feel a lot of emotions when I step into the Rod Laver court because I was very close to having this Grand Slam in my pocket,” Muguruza told reporters on Saturday. “I guess I’ll have to try and try as many times as I can.
“Yeah, why not do it again? Of course, it’s complicated. You have to put so many things together. But I’ve done it and I believe more than ever that I can do it again.”
Drawn in the bottom half, Muguruza faces Frenchwoman Clara Burel in the first round, and either Alizé Cornet or Viktoriya Tomova, a qualifier from Bulgaria, in the second, while her first seeded opponent would be French Open semi-finalist Tamara Zidansek from Slovenia.
Her difficulties ramp up in the second week, though, with a potential 4th-round showdown with Simona Halep over whom Muguruza holds the 4-3 edge, while No 6 seed Anett Kontaveit or No 12 seed Elena Rybakina, both of whom looked sharp in their pre-Melbourne events, could be waiting in the quarter-finals.
Halep, with her drought-breaking title at her season-opening event in Melbourne 1, the 5-times Grand Slam finalist showed she is, hopefully, over the leg injuries that forced the former World No 1 to miss the bulk of 2021.
Krejcikova, the one-time doubles specialist turned French Open singles champion and most improved player on tour, is a completely different customer to the player who appeared here last year, and has yet to make an impact at Melbourne Park.
The finalist in Sydney, narrowly lost to another Spanish threat, Paula Badosa, on Sunday and both play on Monday, with the Czech facing Andrea Petkovic from Germany and the Spaniard taking on local favourite Ajla Tomljanovic.
It goes without saying that no-one is going to breeze through the AO draw, but for some, the path looks more seamless than it does for others, and there are some intriguing opening-round encounters on the cards.
2019 champion Sofia Kenin has the un-enviable task of taking on Adelaide 2 winner and compatriot Madison Keys in her opener on Monday, while the Raducanu-Stephens clash will draw huge attention, probably on Tuesday.
Keys leads the head-to-head with Kenin, 2-1, with all 3 meetings coming in 2019, but Kenin’s lone win came on clay.
Both women come into the match with a handful of wins to start the season, Kenin having made the quarter-finals of Adelaide 1, where she lost to Barty, and Keys winning the title at Adelaide 2.
Victoria Azarenka, a two-time champion in Melbourne, has drawn a manageable path to the Round of 16.
Seeded 24, the Belarusian opens against Hungary’s Panna Udvardy to face either Croatia’s Petra Martic or Swiss Jil Teichmann in the second, while the first seed she could take on would be No 15 seed Elina Svitolina from Ukraine, but Azarenka holds a 4-0 head-to-head against the former World No 3.
Belinda Bencic, the Olympic champion, has her work cut out for her in the first week, opening against Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic in the first round, and then, possibly, facing last week’s Melbourne 2 champion Amanda Anisimova in the second.
The Swiss could face Osaka in the third round and while few would relish taking on the Japanese that early, Bencic’s record against her is 3-0, and she has not lost a set to the Japanese on a hard court.
There are 12 Grand Slam champions amongst the 32 seeds with Barty (1), Muguruza (3), Krejcikova (4), Swiatek (7), Kenin (11), Osaka (13), Halep (14), Angelique Kerber (16), Raducanu (17), Petra Kvitova (20), Azarenka (24) and Jelena Ostapenko (26) all falling within this category.
Providing Swiatek deals with Dart, the Pole will play either Aussie Daria Saville or Sweden’s Rebecca Peterson in the second round, while her first seeded opponent could be 25th-seeded Daria Kasatkina from Russia in round 3, and her potential seeded opponents in the Round of 16 would be No 10 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, another Russian or Czech Kvitova.
The 2020 Roland Garros champion, who showed strong form in Adelaide, has yet to make a major quarter-final away from the clay, but that could change this year in Melbourne, where she has made the Round of 16 in the past two years.
Angelique Kerber, the 16th seed from Germany, arrived late in Australia after testing positive for COVID, and has a tricky, if intriguing, first round meeting with Estonia’s Kaia Kanepi.
Their head-to-head is even at 2-2, and regardless of form, Kanepi remains one of the most dangerous opening rounds of any tournament, while this will be Kerber’s first match of the season.
A finalist in 2019, Kvitova also has a tough first rounder against the Romania’s Sorana Cirstea, who ousted her in 3 sets in round 2 last year, in what will be the 9th meeting between the two, with the Czech owning a 5-3 advantage.
Meanwhile, crowds on the AO show courts have been capped at 50% capacity in response to rising coronavirus rates in Melbourne, the Victorian government announced on Thursday, although sessions on Rod Laver Arena and Margaret Court Arena, which have already sold, will not be affected, with all tickets already bought remaining valid, and there will be no changes to ground pass access.
More than 37,000 people tested positive for Covid in Victoria on Wednesday and the state, which has an estimated population of 6.7 million, recorded 25 more deaths and a further 953 people were hospitalised.
“These updates to arrangements for the Australian Open will mean that fans, players and the workforce can look forward to a terrific Covid-safe event,” said Jaala Pulford, Victoria’s acting minister for tourism, sport and major events.
UK coverage of the Australian Open 2022 will be broadcast live exclusively on Eurosport, eurosport.co.uk and the Discovery+ app via smart devices.