Melbourne | The Australian women’s draw is wide open
It is time for the also-rans to step up to the plate at this year’s Australian Open since defending champion Serena Williams is absent, having elected to opt out as she is not yet one hundred percent fit following the birth of her first child.
British hopes are pinned on Johanna Konta, who views Serena’s absence as a chance to celebrate the depth of women’s tennis, not as a negative in describing the first major of the year as more open than usual.
I’m trying actually not to think too much back on how I did here last year or how I was even feeling here last year. I’m coming into this year with slightly different challenges than I was end of last year. I feel very actually conscious of really appreciating being back and playing, and almost being grateful for the challenges that I have now. Jo Konta
“Whenever I get asked that question, it always comes across in really kind of an almost negative way instead of acknowledging how many great players we have,” she said in Melbourne on Saturday.
“The depth in women’s tennis, I really do believe in the last few years, has gotten so strong. There’s no straight sailing to the quarters or semis.”
Having arrested a five-match losing run at the end of last year with a couple of hard fought wins, Konta comes in with some solid match practice under her belt, and thankfully clear of the hip injury worries of Brisbane.
“I’m trying actually not to think too much back on how I did here last year or how I was even feeling here last year. I’m coming into this year with slightly different challenges than I was end of last year.
“I feel very actually conscious of really appreciating being back and playing, and almost being grateful for the challenges that I have now.
“I’m also working through the challenges that I faced end of last year, trying to really just get back in the match routine of things, trying to get back into the level I want to be playing consistently.
“That can take time, that does take time, but I’m hoping that I can play my way into it, yeah, try to stay here as long as I can.”
Konta is seeded ninth for the title and has arrived in Australia with her new coach, Michael Joyce, and a new mindset, plus she is fast becoming a solid responder to some of the more challenging questions that face the tour.
Following Billie Jean King’s statement on the ongoing concern around the comments of Margaret Court, she offered a considered answer: “In terms of scheduling, I will play wherever I’m scheduled. That’s out of my control. I will look to be prepared for whatever court I’m playing on.
“But in respect to the controversy that’s surrounding that, I don’t agree with what Margaret Court said. However, she’s entitled to her own opinion.
“I think it’s unfortunate that this whole thing has even occurred, because it does overshadow why her name is on the court. It’s not because of her beliefs, it’s because of her achievements in the sport.
“It’s unfortunate it’s kind of meshed together when they’re actually quite separate.”
Konta reached at least the last eight in both of her Australian Open appearances to date, but slumped out of the Sydney International in the first round and faces a tricky opener against the competitive American, Madison Brengle, on Tuesday, against whom she has a 1-3 head-to-head record although, perhaps significantly, she won their last encounter in Indian Wells in 2016 in straight sets.
The top seed is Simona Halep, who will be sporting her lucky red dress in Melbourne, is looking to improve on her two-time runner-up status.
The 26-year-old Romanian, who currently has no clothing sponsor, confirmed she will be wearing the same dress in Australia that she used while registering a dominant victory at the Shenzhen Open a fortnight ago.
She found the outfit on the internet and hoped it would bring the same results in Australia: “Was a [web] site, in China actually, and one of my managers helped me, and in 24 hours I had the outfit, and it was perfect. I was lucky,” she said.
Lucky dress or not, Halep will need to overcome her poor record at Melbourne Park where she has lost in the first round in both of the past two years when she opens on Tuesday against Australian wildcard Destinee Aiava.
Second-seeded Caroline Wozniacki says she is playing better than ever as she and Halep both aim for a first Grand Slam victory in Australian.
The former World No 1 is riding high in the rankings again after reaching eight finals in 2017, with victories in Tokyo in September and at the season-ending Tour Championship, and she could snatch back the top slot over the coming two weeks.
“I think I’ve improved everything,” said Wozniacki ahead of her first-round clash on Monday with Romania’s Mihaela Buzarnescu.
The Dane lost the Auckland Classic final last week to Germany’s Julia Goerges, but said the rain-disrupted tournament had been tough, ideal preparation.
“It was a good start to the year,” said Wozniacki.
Last year there were two first-time major-winners while Serena was on maternity leave, Jelena Ostapenko at the French Open and Sloane Stephens at the US Open, but their chances in Melbourne look slim.
Latvia’s Ostapenko rocketed up the rankings after her stunning French Open win last year but was far from her attacking best in first-round defeats in Shenzhen and Sydney recently, while Stephens has not won a match since her Flushing Meadows triumph.
Spain’s Garbine Muguruza, the third seed, is the reigning Wimbledon champion, although her health has been in question as she battles injury.
Having withdrawn from leg cramps in Brisbane followed by a thigh injury in Sydney, Muguruza admitted that she would have loved to play to more matches leading into Melbourne.
“I only played two matches, but I felt that my tennis was good,’’ she said.
“I don’t know. I think sometimes you don’t need that many matches. With my experience, sometimes you play very good, and you don’t need 25 tournaments before [hand]. Sometimes you need it. So far, I am OK.
“I’m trying to every day improve, try to recover. I know I’m playing on Tuesday, so we see.’’
In-form Elina Svitolina, the World No 4, last week won the Brisbane International after picking up five WTA Tour titles last year, more than any other woman.
The Ukrainian believes hard work in the off-season is paying dividends: “I’ve started to play more consistently. I’m stronger physically. I have a different look to my game.”
World No 6 Karolina Pliskova lost to Svitolina in the Brisbane semi-final but also will be a contender for a maiden Slam behind one of the biggest serves on tour.
The most dangerous floater is 2008 champion Maria Sharapova, who is back in the world’s top 50 for the first time since returning from a 15-month doping ban and will open against unseeded German Maria Tatjana on Tuesday.
Former champions aiming to go deep into the tournament include evergreen 37-year-old Venus Williams, who last won a Slam in 2008 but last year reached two finals, in Melbourne and at Wimbledon, to get back to World No 5, and Angelique Kerber, who comes in on a nine-match winning streak.
The German won in Sydney at the weekend and will hope to recreate her stunning run to the championship in Melbourne two years ago after a poor 2017, which saw her drop outside the world’s top 20.
Victory for Venus would see her eclipse Ken Rosewall as the oldest player ever to win a major but she has a tough opener against the precocious Belinda Bencic from Switzerland on Monday, while Kerber takes on compatriot Anna-Lena Friedsam on Tuesday.
Britain’s Heather Watson, who had an encouraging run in Tasmania by reaching the semi-finals earlier this week, opens her campaign on Tuesday against Yulia Putintseva from Kazakstan.
All in all, the Australian women’s draw is wide open this year.