Henry Wancke | 9th Mar 2020 | 0
Melbourne | Barty and Pliskova head strong women’s field
© Brendon Ratnayake/AFP via Getty Images
With Australia’s favourite player, Ash Barty, heading the draw for the first time at the Australian Open, interest in the women’s game will not only be high, but intense.
We’re a country with a very strong history in tennis, but we’re also a country with a strong history in all different sports. Australia is a sporting nation. We love sport. Ash Barty
The likeable Aussie carries the hopes of a nation struggling with the disastrous bushfires that continue to ravage the country on her shoulders, but she remains both relaxed and positive as she bids to become the first Australian singles player to win her home Grand Slam tournament since Chris O’Neil took the women’s title in 1978.
She is treading in famous footsteps, behind those who dominated the early years of the open era, such as Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong Cawley and a host of others.
Court’s 24 Grand Slam singles titles, including 11 at her home event, remains a record for the sport and is one being chased by Serena Williams, who hopes to equal it in Melbourne this year.
“It’s very special to have that history, both on the men’s side and the women’s side,” Barty says.
“I think for me in particular being able to learn from so many of the past legends that have played on our female side for Australian tennis has been remarkable.
“We’re a country with a very strong history in tennis, but we’re also a country with a strong history in all different sports. Australia is a sporting nation. We love sport.”
Barty’s triumph at Roland Garros on the clay came as a bit of a surprise, but then winning the grass-court title at Edgbaston catapulted her to the No 1 spot, while reaching the 4th round at Wimbledon helped keep her there.
Barty admits that she would not have expected to win her first Grand Slam title on clay.
“For us Aussies we’re a little bit hard court,” she said. “We’ve got hard courts all around the country. I never went on real clay until I went to Europe for the first time when I was a teenager.
“Going over to Europe having not been too experienced on clay before is a little bit of a different experience for us Australians, but I’ve played enough now on all different surfaces. I feel like I trust myself to play the right style and the right game on each surface.”
Reaching the final in Adelaide in front of a home crowd will have done wonders for her confidence ahead of her AO campaign, which she opens with a first-round match against Lesia Tsurenko on Monday.
There are many intriguing match-ups on the Melbourne menu, where the 8 top seeds are Barty (1), Karolina Pliskova (2), Naomi Osaka (3), Simona Halep (4), Elina Svitolina (5), Belinda Bencic (6), Petra Kvitova (7) and Serena Williams (8).
The tournament kicks off with the top half of the draw playing on Monday, which means the incredible combination of stars that have landed in the second quarter of the draw will all be tested right away.
Defending champion Osaka leads the toughest quarter of the draw and opens against Rogers Cup semi-finalist Marie Bouzkova.
Serena Williams, who is bidding to win a record-tying 24th major title, also anchors this quarter, opening against talented young Russian Anastasia Potapova.
The two could meet in the quarter-finals, but securing that blockbuster match-up will take some heavy lifting from both.
Osaka’s section of the draw includes Venus Williams and Coco Gauff, who will face-off in the first round, and she could face a familiar foe in Sofia Kenin in the Round of 16.
Osaka and Kenin locked horns in the first week of the season, with Osaka coming through 6-7(3) 6-3 6-1 win.
Floating in Serena’s section are Caroline Wozniacki, who is playing her final tournament before retiring, and an in-form Dayana Yastremska, who is now coached by Serena’s former hitting partner Sascha Bajin.
Coco Gauff has a number of familiar faces in her section of the draw, which kicks off with a Wimbledon rematch against Venus Williams.
The two Americans will face-off for the second time in 3 Slams, after Gauff defeated Venus 6-4 6-4 in the first round of Wimbledon last summer.
Gauff played her first event of the season in Auckland, where she lost in the second round to Laura Siegemund, but she made the semi-finals in doubles with Caty McNally.
Venus has not played an event since the Tianjin Open in early October, the 39-year-old American withdrawing from Brisbane due to an unexpected setback in training, and from this week’s event in Adelaide due to a hip injury.
15-year-old Gauff could also face Osaka in the third round, a rematch of their memorable encounter at the US Open, which Osaka won 6-3 6-0.
Given the depth of the current WTA field, it is a risky business declaring any top seed a draw winner, but with the top two seeds looking strong to start the season, they look ready to navigate their early draws.
Pliskova defended her title in Brisbane with wins over Osaka and Madison Keys, while Barty has rebounded from her early Brisbane exit with a run to the final in Adelaide, which means a swift turnaround for the Aussie in Melbourne.
On the whole, both women have favourable first-week draws that they should navigate into the second week.
The first seed Barty could face is Elena Rybakina, seeded 29 and a fast-rising talent from Kazakhstan who was ranked No 191 at the start of the 2019 season and finished at 37.
The 20-year-old kicked off her 2020 campaign by making the Shenzhen final (l. Alexandrova).
Alison Riske, Martic, and Julia Goerges are also floating in Barty’s section, with her projected quarter-final opponent being either Kvitova or Keys.
Since losing to Kvitova in the quarter-finals here last year, Barty has won their last 3 matches while she faced Keys twice in 2019 and did not lose a set.
Pliskova has a tricky opening draw against Kristina Mladenovic, the Frenchwoman having split her 4 meetings with the Czech but this will be their first meeting on the singles court since 2017.
From there, the Czech could face either Laura Siegemund or CoCo Vandeweghe, with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova looming in the third round. Pliskova is 6-0 over the Russian.
A semi-finalist in 2018, Halep was dealt the toughest opening draw of the Top 4 seeds and faces the big-hitting No 49 Jennifer Brady, who comes into Melbourne brimming with confidence after a fantastic showing in Brisbane where she came through qualifying to defeat Maria Sharapova and Barty, before losing to Kvitova.
In the third round, Halep could also face 2019 semi-finalist Danielle Collins, who has been a wrecking ball through the first two weeks of the year, tallying two Top 10 wins over Elina Svitolina (Brisbane) and Belinda Bencic (Adelaide), and lost to Barty in the Adelaide semi-finals in 3 tight sets.
If Halep can take care of her first-week draw, the second week could feature match-ups that are more comfortable for her, with Elise Mertens and Karolina Muchova her projected seeded Round of 16 opponents, and waiting in the quarter-finals could be either Bencic or Aryna Sabalenka.
Sabalenka knocked Halep out of the quarter-finals in Adelaide this week, but has never made it past the third round in Melbourne.
British hopes lie with Konta, Heather Watson, Katie Boulter and Harriet Dart.
Britain’s top-ranked player is seeded at No 12 but has been struggling with a knee injury and played just one competitive match since last year’s US Open where she reached the quarter-finals.
Konta, the World No 13, has been passed fit for Melbourne and she starts against Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, but managing her ongoing knee issue has taken her out Anne Keothavong’s Fed Cup team in February’s qualifier against Slovakia.
“I had a really good chat with Anne in November and so everyone who is important to me does know about this decision and has been really supportive and on board with it,” said Konta.
“It’s kind of a combination of things: it’s an Olympic year, I’m looking to schedule things slightly differently for the longevity of my body and to be able to come back in following years and hopefully play more Fed Cup.”
Konta’s team-mate Boulter is also coy over her involvement in Bratislava, meaning Team Britain could be without the two singles players who fired them back to the elite last year.
“I haven’t confirmed my status on Fed Cup at the moment,’ said Boulter, who faces World No 5 Svitolina in her first round in Melbourne. “It is something I am going to focus on after the Australian Open.”
In better news for British tennis, Harriet Dart qualified for the main draw, beating Giulia Gatto-Monticone, 6-1 6-3.
She achieved the same feat last season but was hammered in the first round of the main draw 6-0 6-0 by Maria Sharapova.
Dart’s progression came well into Thursday evening as organisers strove to clear the back-log of matches after weather impacted Wednesday’s schedule.
“I definitely stepped up today. I thought I dealt with the conditions a bit better and I was happy to have gotten a match under my belt beforehand, and I was just able to continue my form tonight,” said Dart, who advanced to the 3rd round at Wimbledon last year,.
“Last year was a great learning curve for me. I played a lot of new tournaments and I was able to use all of that really good experience and build on that, and was able to have a really good run at Wimbledon, at my home Slam, which was great.
“Hopefully I can do more than that. With every round I’m gaining a bit more confidence, and of course I can take experience from last year [at Melbourne Park].”
Meanwhile, Watson’s excellent run in Hobart came to end in the semi-finals and she will now focus on her opening match against Kristyna Pliskova, the left-handed twin sister of the World No 2.