Melbourne | Preview – Can Iga bag her first AO title?

World No 1 Iga Swiatek is once again a favourite to lift the Australian Open title, but has been dealt a tough draw as she faces 2020 champion Sofia Kenin in the 1st-round and, potentially, 2016 winner Angelique Kerber or Danielle Collins in the second, while defending champion Aryna Sabalenka, the World No 2, has an easier time of it, at least on paper, meeting a qualifier, 18-year old Ella Seidel in her opener.

I remember last year I was, kind of, analysing what I can do throughout the whole year. I mean, I got tired just thinking about it. This year I'm just thinking about until the end of Australian Open, then I'm going to think about my next goals. Iga Swiatek

“I feel really great,” Sabalenka told the media on Saturday. “I had an incredible season last year, improved a lot as a player and as a person. I did really a great pre-season. We worked a lot. I felt like we improved a lot… [I] feel like I’m ready to go.”

The return of former champions Naomi Osaka, Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki to Melbourne Park after maternity breaks looks destined to produce some high-pressure opening rounds, while Elina Svitolina, who returned from maternity leave herself just 9 months ago, was an Auckland finalist last week.

Osaka, who has won the Australian Open and US Open titles twice, opens against No 16 seed Caroline Garcia and is in the same quarter of the draw as the reigning US Open champion Coco Gauff.

“I love the comfort of it,” Osaka said about returning to Melbourne Park. “I guess just going into the locker room and having the same locker as before. I think little things like that really make me happy. Just being able to hit on Rod Laver, I guess look up at the sky and, kind of, just realise, like, I’ve been able to win twice here. I would love to do it again.”

Three-time major winner Kerber starts against Collins, who beat Swiatek in the semi-finals here in 2022 on her way to the final.

That was 3-time French Open winner Swiatek’s best run at the Australian Open so far, but the 22-year old Pole has matured her game considerably since then.

“I remember last year I was, kind of, analysing what I can do throughout the whole year,” Swiatek told reporters. “I mean, I got tired just thinking about it.

“This year I’m just thinking about until the end of Australian Open, then I’m going to think about my next goals.”

Swiatek seeks to become a better player, rather than focusing on results, and she has used the off season to work on the drop-shot, volleying and, particularly, her serve, adding new dimensions to her already awesome baseline game.

“We’ve been planning to do that for a long time now,” Swiatek said recently about her serve. “It’s hard to find the proper time, especially when we, kind of, wanted to do it last year, but I won, suddenly, US Open.

“We were, like, why would we do it after winning a Grand Slam? The timing was pretty tricky. We also tried a little bit to change something after Wimbledon last year.”

She is determined to embrace the changes, which aren’t huge and have helped to start this year in spectacular form.

“This time I knew I was, kind of, ready to just stick with it and not come back to my older movement, my previous movement,” she added. “I mean, it’s not a big change. Like, I’m only changing my swing here. Up there everything is the same.

“It was enough for me to have couple weeks, yeah, to be fully committed, not let myself go back to the old movement.”

Jelena Ostapenko, who won the Adelaide International title on Saturday, could prove a difficult opponent for Iga Swiatek

© Mark Brake/Getty Images

It remains to be seen if Swiatek can use her new arsenal to get through her quarter, which includes two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka and 2017 French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko, who are the seeded players there.

Wozniacki, the 2018 champion, will meet 2023 semi-finalist and 20th-seeded Magda Linette in the 1st-round, while Svitolina, who is also in Swiatek’s quarter, opens against Australian wild-card, Taylah Preston.

“There’s a lot of young players. Some players were probably born the year I turned pro. I don’t know,” Wozniacki reflects. “We’re probably not far off.

”I definitely feel young on the inside, but I realise I’m no longer in my 20s. In tennis, I’m in the older generation.”

Third-seeded Elena Rybakina, the 2022 Wimbledon champion who lost the Australian Open final to Sabalenka last year, has a challenging opening match against former World No 1 Karolina Pliskova.

Possible women’s quarter-finals could be: Swiatek (1) vs. Marketa Vondrousova (7), and Rybakina vs. Jessica Pegula (5) in the top half; with Sabalenka (2) vs. Ons Jabeur (6), and Gauff (4) vs. Maria Sakkari (8) on the bottom half.

Emma Raducanu is relaxed as she signs autographs for fans after a training session at Melbourne Park

© Julian Finney/Getty Images

British interest lies with Emma Raducanu, who faces a 1st-round clash with Shelby Rogers, while Katie Boulter takes on World No 73 Yuan Yue, who is without a Grand Slam main-draw win in 2 years, and Jodie Burrage meets Tamara Korpatsch, ranked 81, in a similarly winnable match.

Raducanu thrashed Rogers 6-2 6-1 in the 4th-round of the US Open in 2021, her 7th victim of 10 when she won her historic major title as a qualifier.

The Brit missed the last 8 months of 2023 after triple surgery on her wrists and ankle, while Rogers tore a muscle shortly before Wimbledon, and was out for the rest of the season with abdominal and knee problems.

“It just puts things into perspective,” she says. “The feeling of not being able to move your body, like, to walk to the kitchen to get a snack, for example, I couldn’t do it. And you miss it.

“You don’t really realise until you go through it yourself, no matter how many different athletes say, ‘Be grateful, appreciate being healthy’. I feel until you actually experience it yourself, it’s different.”

Raducanu’s potential 2nd-round opponent Sorana Cirstea is a familiar face too, having lost to the Brit in the 3rd-round of Wimbledon that same year.

Elina Svitolina reached the final in Auckland and took a set off Coco Gauff

© Hannah Peters/Getty Images

The 1st Quarter

A closer look at the women’s draw sees Swiatek sitting at the top of the table facing Kenin, who is ranked just outside the seedings at World No 38, and has also reached the Roland Garros final, only to be beaten the then-unseeded Pole for the title in 2020.

Things get no easier for the winner of that match, who then faces either 2016 Australian Open champion Kerber or 2022 Australian Open finalist Collins in the 2nd-round.

Former World No 1 Kerber returned to the tour at the United Cup last week as part of the victorious German team, and she will play her first Grand Slam event since 2022 Wimbledon.

Kerber and Collins have split their two meetings, but Collins’ win over Kerber was a 6-0 6-2 victory at the 2019 Australian Open.

No 19 seed Svitolina could be a Round of 16 opponent for whoever comes out of that section..

At the other side of the first quarter is 7th seed and reigning Wimbledon champion Vondrousova.

The Czech, who withdrew from this week’s Adelaide event due to a hip injury, is slated to play a qualifier in Dayana Yastremska, ranked 96, in the 1st-round.

In Vondrousova’s section sit Azarenka, seeded 18, and Ostapenko, the 11th seed, who would meet in the 3rd-round if the seedings hold.

The 2nd Quarter

Another blockbuster 1st-round match kicks off the second quarter, with Rybakina, last year’s Australian Open runner-up, facing former World No 1 Pliskova in the opening round.

Pliskova, who is the highest-ranked unseeded player at World No 37, was an AO quarter-finalist last year, but Rybakina has won all 3 of their previous meetings.

At the other end of this quarter is 5th seed Pegula, who has made the Australian Open quarter-finals in each of the last 3 editions, and plays Rebecca Marino, a Canadian qualifier in the 1st-round.

Pegula’s fitness is questionable, though, as the American was forced to pull out of Adelaide this week with a gastrointestinal illness.

If seedings are maintained, Pegula would meet rising Chinese star Zheng Qinwen, the No 12 seed, in the Round of 16, while lurking in Zheng’s section is Raducanu, who plays Rogers in the 1st-round.

Defending champion Aryna Sabalenka has been dealt an easy draw and faces a qualifier in the first round

© Graham Denholm/Getty Images

The 3rd Quarter

Moving into the bottom half of the draw, No 4 Gauff is the highest seed in the 3rd quarter, where she will face Anna Karolina Schmiedlova in the 1st round, against whom the 19-year American is 2-0 up.

The reigning US Open champion, who successfully defended her Auckland title last week and is 29-4 on hard courts since last July, could meet No 32 seed Leylah Fernandez in the 3rd-round.

In Gauff’s section is another exciting 1st-round match between No 16 seed Garcia and two-time Australian Open champion Osaka, with the winner of that match possibly meeting Gauff in the Round of 16.

Osaka and Garcia’s lone previous meeting came at the 2021 Australian Open, and Osaka won that match in straight sets.

No 8 seed Maria Sakkari holds down the other side of the 3rd quarter, and she will play Nao Hibino in her opener, with 10th-seeded Beatriz Haddad Maia also in her section.

Another former AO champion is in Haddad Maia’s portion of the draw – Wozniacki, who returns to Melbourne for the first time since 2020, and the former World No 1 will face last year’s semi-finalist Linette, the 20th seed, in the 1st-round.

The 4th Quarter

At the very bottom of the draw, No 2 seed and defending champion Sabalenka rounds out proceedings in the 4th quarter, and while her rivals deal with dangerous foes, her projected 3rd-round opponent is 28th seed Lesia Tsurenko.

Sabalenka, who held the World No 1 ranking for 8 weeks last year, opens against qualifier Siedel, and could face another qualifier in round 2.

No 6 Ons Jabeur is the highest seed at the other side of this quarter, and she will also face Yuliia Starodubtseva, also a qualifier, in the opening round, with the prospect of meeting 2023 WTA Newcomer of the Year Mirra Andreeva in round 2, and No 9 seed Barbora Krejcikova a potential Round of 16 opponent.



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