MELBOURNE (AFP): World number one Iga Swiatek is the woman to beat when the Australian Open begins on Monday without retired great Serena Williams and last year s champion Ashleigh Barty.
With two-time Melbourne winner Naomi Osaka also missing, it is almost certain that there will be a new name on the Daphne Akhurst trophy.
The only former title-holders left in the draw are out-of-sorts Sofia Kenin, who won in 2020, and Victoria Azarenka, the Belarusian whose second Australian Open triumph was a decade ago.
Poland s Swiatek is clear favourite, having dominated women s tennis following the retirement in March last year of the Australian Barty.
Swiatek secured eight WTA titles in 2022 and became the first woman in six years to win two Grand Slams in the same season — at Roland Garros and New York — to cement her place at the top of the rankings.
Now she has her sights on a maiden title at Melbourne Park, which would leave the 21-year-old needing only a Wimbledon championship to complete a career slam.
“I m going to try to kind of cut off everything that happened last year and just focus on the future because I feel like I can take a lot of experience from these tournaments last year,” she said earlier this month.
Swiatek has not had it all her own way though. A 6-2, 6-2 capitulation to American world number three Jessica Pegula in the recent semi-final of the United Cup in Sydney left the Pole in tears.
She complained that she felt “helpless” and unable to show up “physically and mentally”, but that was her only early season blip after three straight-sets wins.
Pegula was outclassed by Barty in the quarter-finals at Melbourne last year, but with the Australian out of the picture, the American will fancy her chances of a maiden Slam.
The 28-year-old played a central role for the victorious USA team at the United Cup to continue her red-hot form from the end of the 2022 season.
That included lifting a second singles trophy at the WTA 1000 in Guadalajara.
Ons Jabeur, the world number two, also enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2022, reaching two Grand Slam finals, and her first major cannot be far away.
Jabeur was stunned though by rising Czech teenager Linda Noskova in the semi-finals at Adelaide last week and the Tunisian needed treatment on a back problem during the first set.
Caroline Garcia rounded off 2022 by winning the WTA Tour Finals to reach a career-high ranking of four and carried that form into the United Cup, winning both her singles matches.
Should Swiatek falter, the Frenchwoman will be in the hunt, as will revitalised Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka and American teenager Coco Gauff.
Both fired Australian Open warning shots with warm-up tournament wins.
The powerful 24-year-old Sabalenka said she was ready for a “big fight” in Melbourne after winning her first title since 2021 at the Adelaide International.
The 18-year-old Gauff, who last year broke into the top 10 for the first time, kicked off her season by clinching the Auckland Classic title last week for a third WTA crown.
“This gives me a lot of confidence,” Gauff, touted as the natural heir to Serena Williams, said.
“I wanted a win but did not expect it in the first tournament of the year.”