The first round proper of the Australian Open hasn’t even taken place yet and already the tournament is on everybody’s lips.
Women’s tennis has become a hotbed of exciting matches and young stars – notably British teenager Emma Raducanu – and the draw is wide open, even if home hero Ashleigh Barty will start next week as favourite to win the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.
There is the return of Naomi Osaka, who took a four-month break at the end of a difficult 2021, while 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams does not participate.
This will also be a tournament without former British No1 Johanna Konta, who retired last month. Here are our ones to watch when play begins on Monday.
Barty has become a force since her fourth-round appearance in the 2018 US Open. Since then, she’s won Slams on clay in Paris and on grass in SW19, but she’s yet to win the big one on home soil.
Her best attempt came in 2020 when she reached the semi-finals in Melbourne, only to be knocked out by eventual winner Sofia Kenin in straight sets.
Right-handed Barty has just topped a decade as a pro, earning over $20m (£14.5m) in prize money.
She’s in hot form right now, too, winning the singles and doubles title at warm-up event the Adelaide International Trophy.
Australians are performing well across multiple sports in their homeland at the moment, raising hopes that Barty could finally add that coveted title to her trophy cabinet.
Fascinating both on and off the court, Osaka is already a four-time Grand Slam winner at the age of 24 and goes into this tournament as defending champion.
Recently she had made her presence most felt away from the white lines, advocating for mental health issues in sport and for changes to players’ media obligations at tournaments.
As the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam singles title, Osaka is a trailblazer for her country and continent, and will be looking to add a third Aussie Open to her roster – a fifth major in all.
She, like Barty, is one of the clear favourites for this tournament and arguably the poster girl for the women’s game in the post-Serena age.
Open long shots
As Emma Raducanu proved in her fairytale run at the US Open last year, you can never write off an outsider.
Coco Gauff didn’t have the most fluid of 2021s but she’ll be back in Melbourne looking to hit a stride that’s already seen the 17-year-old impress at Grand Slams – the energetic American famously beating former doubles partner Venus Williams in the first round of Wimbledon in 2019.
Of course, Raducanu is the last woman to have won a major. The 19-year-old Brit will have a lot of pressure on her shoulders, having won the US Open as a qualifier, and she’ll need to find better form than her opening match of the year, where she lost in straight sets 6-0 6-1. She faces a tough first round clash with another former US Open champion, Sloane Stephens.
Angelique Kerber is ranked as an outsider by the bookies, but she has the experience to go all the way. The German is a former world No1 and has three Grand Slams to her name –having only failed to be victorious in the French Open. At 33 she does not have youth on her side, but a repeat of her Australian Open success five years ago is far from impossible.