Serena Williams was eight weeks pregnant during her 2017 Australian Open triumph and while she has failed to add to her tally of 23 Grand Slam titles, the American is still regarded as the dominant force in women’s tennis on her return to Melbourne.
The 37-year-old took a year off after the birth of her daughter Alexis Olympia in September of that year, before returning to action last season, when she reached the finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
The losses left Williams still seeking a 24th Grand Slam singles title to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record and she will have another tilt at that milestone during the Jan. 14-27 event, despite entering the tournament ranked 16th in the world.
Chris Evert has described trying to pick a women’s singles champion in Melbourne as a “crapshoot”, with the last eight Grand Slam titles having been won by different players.
Defending champion Wozniacki has been battling rheumatoid arthritis but the 28-year-old Dane will remain a contender, as will 21-year-old Osaka, who jumped into the spotlight with her ruthless victory over a fired-up Williams in New York.
Belarussian Aryna Sabalenka has emerged as a dark horse, with many observers, including American great Evert, tipping the 20-year-old to make her Grand Slam breakthrough in 2019.
Sabalenka surged up the WTA rankings last year with her first two titles and arrived in Melbourne fresh from winning another tournament in Shenzhen.
“I have no reason to believe that Sabalenka will not win more than one Grand Slam. Why? I see two things. I see hunger and I see boldness,” 18-times major singles champion Evert said in a conference call looking ahead to the Australian Open.
“Whether that’s fearlessness or what. It’s tied up, the boldness, fearlessness, confidence. That’s her swagger, I see that. Like this girl wants it. You can see it in her eyes. She’s pretty intense.”
(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; Editing by John O’Brien)