By Eleanor Crooks, PA Tennis Correspondent, Melbourne
Reigning Australian Open champion Ashleigh Barty strode out onto Rod Laver Arena on Saturday to a huge ovation.
Unfortunately for the tournament and the home country, Barty was only there to participate in a light-hearted hit for kids’ day having tucked her third grand slam trophy under her arm 12 months ago and headed off into retirement at the age of 25.
Barty recently announced she is expecting her first child and, while she has plenty of time ahead of her, there is no indication she might change her mind.
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 14, 2023
Barty’s absence will be keenly felt along with that of Serena Williams, a more expected retiree, and two-time former champion Naomi Osaka, who is also pregnant, leaving the women’s draw short on star power.
Only two former champions are in the field – Victoria Azarenka and Sofia Kenin, who ironically meet in the first round – while, of the other nine slam winners, six have only won a single title.
Iga Swiatek pulled well ahead of the pack last year following Barty’s retirement, collecting her second and third slam trophies at the French Open and US Open, and she goes into this tournament as the clear favourite.
The 21-year-old had expected to have a lot more time on Barty’s heels and spoke of how much she was influenced by the Australian.
“For sure when she retired I felt like she still had the best tennis out there,” said Swiatek. “So I was pretty sad that I’m not going to be able to compete against her and maybe win.
“But, on the other hand, she gave me a lot in terms of my motivation and my willingness to practise even more and to have more variety on court. When I played against her, I felt like she just has all these different game styles.
“Even in her book she says she has five types of slice. I don’t know how that’s possible. I still haven’t figured out only one type.”
Winning her first grand slam title on hard courts in New York was a big moment for Swiatek, whose best surface by some distance is clay.
But the Pole, who reached the semi-finals in Melbourne last year, is certainly not untouchable and was in tears after a heavy loss to world number three Jessica Pegula at the United Cup last weekend.
“I think I’m always going to have this part of me that is a perfectionist,” said Swiatek. “When I’m not feeling comfortable on court, it’s kind of hard to not be harsh.
“On the other hand, the most important thing is to find this balance that, on court, for sure I want to get better and better, but, off the court, the things that happen in practice don’t have to influence my whole day and my whole mood. These are the things I’ve been working on. It’s for sure getting better.”
The second seed is popular Tunisian Ons Jabeur, who is looking to go one better after losing in the last two grand slam finals – to Elena Rybakina at Wimbledon and then Swiatek in New York.
“I will try to use that experience from last year because it was kind of tough,” she said. “My goal is to not lose any more finals, but just use that to be ready for the next one.
“The goal as second in the world is to be in the second week, to make finals. I like this kind of pressure. I’m going to put more pressure on myself because I feel like sometimes you just need that to be one of the top players.”
Among other likely contenders are Pegula, fourth seed Caroline Garcia, big-hitting Aryna Sabalenka, Olympic champion Belinda Bencic and teenager Coco Gauff.
Still only 18, the American had a strong 2022, reaching her first grand slam final at the French Open and establishing herself in the top 10.
Gauff, who could play Emma Raducanu in round two, wants to be challenging for the biggest titles now but is also well aware that time is very much on her side.
“It’s something that I’ve really thought about,” said Gauff, who began her season with a title in Auckland last weekend.
“As much as I would like to think this might be the best I’ll be, I don’t believe it because I feel like most of the tennis players, at least on tour now, are peaking in their career around 22 to 26.
“I’ve noticed from 15 when I started to now, I realise physically I’m at a much different level. I think I’m just continuing to get stronger. I know the best is yet to come for me.”