WILL EVANS serves up tennis tips as he casts his eye over the women’s section of the 2022 Australian Open draw. Can Ash Barty end the long Aussie drought? Is Osaka set for her third Melbourne triumph? Or will yet another first-time Grand Slam champ emerge?
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Not since the heyday of Rafter and Hewitt has an Aussie been as well-placed to break the Australian Open’s long-running homegrown champion drought, which now stands at 44 years. World No.1 Barty won Wimbledon last year – her second Grand Slam crown – as well as WTA 1000 hard-court titles in Miami and Cincinnati. She’s fallen short as a frontlinecontender in Melbourne with quarter-final losses in 2019 and ’21 either side of a semi-final appearance in 2020, but Barty beat Guaff, Kenin, Swiatek and Rybakina on her way to the Adelaide International crown last week. Few women’s players have been as short to win a Grand Slam pre-tournament in recent years – and the 25-year-old is ideally equipped to handle the favouritism tag this time around.
After following up her 2020 US Open success with the Australian Open title last year (the second time she has achieved that double), Osaka endured a chequered 2021 season. She withdrew during the French Open and missed Wimbledon, citing mental health reasons, and bowed out in the third round of her US Open title defence. The 24-year-old looked good at the Melbourne Summer Set before pulling out of her semi-final fixture. But if she progresses into the second week of the Australian Open, look out: all four times Osaka has made it beyond the fourth round of a Grand Slam, she has gone on to lift the trophy.
Muguruza finished 2021 ranked third in the world, despite failing to make it past the fourth round of a major last season. She was otherwise outstanding, winning the Dubai Championships, Chicago Falls Tennis Classic and WTA Finals, as well as reaching the final of the Yarra Valley Classic and Qatar Open. The two-time Grand Slam winner was the Australian Open runner-up in 2020 and is attracting plenty of buzz as a huge threat over the next fortnight. The 28-year-old has made a good start to 2022 at the Sydney International.
The tennis world appeared to be Swiatek’s oyster when she obliterated the competition to take out the 2020 French Open without dropping a set. She hasn’t exactly struggled since, but a quarter-final run at Roland Garros is her best effort in five majors since. Swiatek won her first WTA hard-court title in Adelaide last February, as well as taking out the Italian Open on her favoured clay surface. An impressive Adelaide International run last week – eventually losing to Barty in the semis – shapes as a solid lead-in for the 20-year-old.
The 26-year-old Estonian is on the fifth line of betting despite making to the last eight of a major just once – but women’s tennis’ recent history is brimming with Grand Slam winners without any previous deep runs. Kontaveit’s sole quarter-final appearance at a Slam came at the 2020 Australian Open, but her contender status stems from a watershed 2021 campaign where she won four WTA titles and qualified for another three finals – including the WTA Finals. The world No.7 has confidently powered into the Sydney International semi-finals and looms as a genuine dark horse at Melbourne Park. .
The tenacious Romanian endured an injury-hampered 2021 season, missing the French Open and Wimbledon before making it to the fourth round of the US Open in her return. But Halep has thrown down the gauntlet with her authoritative victory in the Melbourne Summer Set tournament. A two-time Grand Slam winner, Halep reached the Australian Open final in 2018, the semis in 2020 and the quarters last year. A big, big chance in Melbourne, where the diminutive 30-year-old’s gutsy style habitually renders her a crowd favourite. .
If a 10th first-time Grand Slam champion in 19 majors is to be crowned, Bencic has to be a considered a real chance. Her best Slam performance was a semi-final run at the 2019 US Open, while she reached the quarters at Flushing Meadows last year. But winning the Olympic Gold in Tokyo last year underlined the Swiss 24-year-old’s ability to step up on the big stage. She beat French Open champ Barbora Krejcikova, Muguruza, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Elena Rybakina on her way to the final, where she outlasted Marketa Vondrousova. .