Five women to watch at the Australian Open

MELBOURNE: World number one and home favourite Ashleigh Barty is strongly fancied to win her maiden Australian Open when the first tennis Grand Slam of the year begins on Monday.

In the absence of Serena Williams, who is skipping the event because of fitness concerns, AFP Sport highlights five players to watch in an open-looking women’s draw:

Ashleigh Barty

The 25-year-old Wimbledon champion ended her 2021 season early, following a shock third-round loss at the US Open in September, opting to return to Australia because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Australian made her major breakthrough by winning the French Open in 2019 and rising to number one, but is yet to reach the final of her home Grand Slam.

Her best performance was a semi-final in 2020, losing to eventual champion Sofia Kenin, but she slumped out at the quarter-final stage last year, shocked in three sets by the 25th-seeded Czech Karolina Muchova.

Started her 2022 season in style by winning the singles and doubles titles at the Adelaide International.

Naomi Osaka

The defending Australian Open champion is back after a long break following a disrupted year in which she said she had suffered “long bouts of depression”.

Japan’s Osaka pulled out of the French Open after being fined $15,000 and threatened with disqualification after refusing to attend a news conference following her first-round win.

She subsequently withdrew from Wimbledon but has declared that she has a new outlook for 2022.

“I just want to feel like every time I step on the court I’m having fun,” she said.

The 24-year-old four-time Grand Slam champion looked in good touch in her first outing since the US Open, winning three matches at a Melbourne warm-up event.

Garbine Muguruza

The 28-year-old Spaniard is back in the top five after tumbling down the rankings following a drastic dip in form after her French Open and Wimbledon wins in 2016 and 2017 respectively.

She rounded off a resurgent 2021 campaign where she won titles in Dubai and Chicago by coming out on top of a weakened field to triumph at the WTA Finals in November, rising to number three in the world.

Muguruza has a good recent record in Melbourne. She came agonisingly close to defeating eventual champion Osaka last year, failing to convert two match points in the final set of an epic last-16 clash.

The year before she went all the way to the final, where she took the first set off American Sofia Kenin before losing 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.

Simona Halep

It has been a tough couple of years for the former number one — now 15th in the world — largely due to a calf tear that scuttled her mid-season in 2021.

It meant the Romanian failed to reach a tournament final for the first season since making her WTA Tour debut in 2010 and it also saw her briefly fall outside the top 20.

But the 30-year-old, a two-time Grand Slam champion, won her first title in 16 months in an Australian Open warm-up in Melbourne on Sunday.

“Physically I’m in the right place. Confidence is growing. I feel that I have the game to win matches,” she said.

Emma Raducanu

Made history by becoming the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam singles title at the US Open and the 19-year-old will be making her Australian Open debut as the first British woman in 44 years to win a major.

She also reached the last 16 at Wimbledon on debut but has endured a rocky few months, winning only two matches in four tournaments since New York and testing positive last month for coronavirus.

Finally made her Covid-delayed season’s bow on Tuesday in Sydney but slumped to a 6-0, 6-1 defeat.