Swiatek to Gauff: Five women to watch at Australian Open

MELBOURNE, Jan 15 — World number one Iga Swiatek is the favourite to win an Australian Open women’s draw shorn of some of its biggest recent stars.

Ashleigh Barty, who lifted the trophy 12 months ago, and Serena Williams have retired, while the 2019 and 2021 winner Naomi Osaka is pregnant and absent.

AFP Sport picks out five players to watch:

Iga Swiatek

The 21-year-old seized her opportunity after the retirement of Barty to dominate 2022, securing eight WTA titles and becoming the first woman in six years to win two Grand Slams in the same season — at Roland Garros and New York.

After losing the Australian Open semi-final to Danielle Collins, Poland’s Swiatek did not look back, embarking on an incredible 37-match winning streak.

She begins her campaign on Monday against Jule Neimeier, the German world number 68, who reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon last year and took a set off Swiatek in the last 16 at Flushing Meadows.

“We played in the US Open, and you saw how intense that match was, how tough,” Swiatek said. “It’s not going to be easy.

Ons Jabeur

The Tunisian world number two appears to be on the cusp of a Grand Slam breakthrough, having been runner-up at Wimbledon and the US Open last year.

The 28-year-old has set herself a 2023 target of toppling Swiatek from the number one ranking and becoming the first Arab and African woman to win a Slam.

Late bloomer Jabeur was 26 when she lifted her maiden WTA title in 2021 at Birmingham, adding Madrid and Berlin trophies last year.

“I will try to use that experience from last year because it was kind of tough,” Jabeur said ahead of her first-round clash against Slovenia’s Tamara Zidansek on Tuesday.

“My goal is to not lose any more finals, but just use that to be ready for the next one.”

Jessica Pegula

The 28-year-old world number three comes into Melbourne Park after starring for the victorious USA team at the United Cup, where she won four of her five matches and beat Swiatek.

Pegula, whose parents are the billionaire owners of the Buffalo Bills NFL franchise, reached the Australian Open quarter-finals in 2021 and last year, where she was outclassed by a rampant Barty.

With Barty out of the way she could prove the biggest challenge to Swiatek.

The easy-going Pegula, who faces Romania’s world number 143 Jaqueline Cristian on Monday, admitted last year to spending time relaxing at the blackjack table in a Melbourne casino.

Aryna Sabalenka

The explosive Belarusian promised she would be up for a “big fight” at the Australian Open after winning in Adelaide this month for the 11th WTA title of her career.

The 24-year-old left-hander sprung back into form last season, reaching the semi-final at the US Open and the WTA Tour finals championship match, where she lost to Caroline Garcia.

Sabalenka can suffer hugely from nerves, which were all too obvious at her two season-opening tournaments in Australia last year when she was reduced to tears as her serve collapsed.

Seeded five, she will begin her campaign against 73rd-ranked Tereza Martincova of the Czech Republic on Tuesday.

Coco Gauff

The 18-year-old goes into Melbourne Park on a high after winning her third WTA title at the Auckland Classic this month and warned Saturday that her “best is yet to come”.

The seventh seed first won hearts as a 15-year-old in 2019 at Wimbledon when she arrived as a qualifier and reached the last 16, beating five-time champion Venus Williams along the way.

Her exploits sparked “Coco Mania” and she went on to win her first WTA title that year with her second coming in 2021, a year in which she beat Barty in Rome.

Last year she reached her first Grand Slam final, losing to Swiatek at Roland Garros.

The American has the honour of playing in Monday’s opening match on the showpiece Rod Laver Arena against the Czech Republic’s world number 48 Katerina Siniakova.

Gauff would be the youngest Australian Open champion since a 16-year-old Martina Hingis in 1997 if she lifts the winner’s Daphne Akhurst Cup. — AFP


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