MELBOURNE • Serena Williams is hot favourite to repeat her 2017 Australian Open win and claim a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title with her rivals, including defending champion Caroline Wozniacki, battling health issues and poor form.
The American won her 23rd title and seventh at Melbourne Park while eight weeks pregnant two years ago, and now attempts to match Margaret Court's mark of 24 major singles crowns.
The 37-year-old enters the tournament ranked 16th in the world but has such immense quality that numbers mean little to her, despite fresh memories of her meltdown in losing last September's US Open final to Naomi Osaka.
She missed her first chance to match Court when she lost last year's Wimbledon final to Angelique Kerber, and said ahead of the Australian Open that she was taking nothing for granted.
"It's something that I clearly want but I have to be able to get there and beat a lot of good players to get it," said the American, who will start against unseeded German Tatjana Maria on Tuesday.
She said she had put the controversial final at Flushing Meadows behind her and intended to "move on to bigger and better things". Then, she had raged against umpire Carlos Ramos, who imposed three code violations, with the final one resulting in the loss of a game.
Eighteen-time Grand Slam winner Chris Evert believes that Williams is well-poised to win the Australian Open this year.
"She seems fitter than last year," said Evert, an ESPN tennis analyst. "The scary thought looking at the women, they have to be thinking at this point, 'Gosh, she was 60, 70 per cent last year reaching two finals, and now she seems fitter, leaner, she's moving better'."
The scary thought looking at the women, they have to be thinking at this point, 'Gosh, she was 60, 70 per cent last year reaching two finals, and now she seems fitter, leaner, she's moving better.'
CHRIS EVERT , 18-time Grand Slam winner and ESPN tennis analyst, on Serena Williams.
Bookmakers in Australia have also installed Williams as a short-priced favourite for the title.
While her US Open conqueror Osaka is second favourite, it points to a lack of serious rivals for Williams among the established players. The 21-year-old world No. 4 is the leading light for the next generation but is still inexperienced.
Wozniacki, ranked third, started last season by winning her first Slam in Melbourne and returning to world No. 1, but ended it in October with the bombshell announcement that she had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
The 28-year-old Dane insists she can manage the debilitating auto-immune condition, which sometimes leaves her so exhausted she cannot raise her arms above her head. Whether she can cope with the gruelling two-week slog of a Grand Slam remains to be seen.
World No. 1 Simona Halep of Romania comes into the tournament under a fitness cloud after a back injury curtailed her 2018 season.
Maria Sharapova also retired at the Shenzhen Open due to a thigh injury earlier this month. The Russian has failed to impress since returning from a doping ban and now ranked 30th, is looking some way from the player who won five Grand Slams.
Two-time Major champion and ex-No. 1 Garbine Muguruza also had an injury-blighted 2018 which saw her drop out of the top 10.
But Aryna Sabalenka, 20, from Belarus has zoomed up the rankings from 73rd at the start of last year to No. 11 on the back of wins in New Haven and Wuhan, and is a dark horse to emulate Osaka.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, WASHINGTON POST
Day 1: Singtel TV Ch114 & Ch115, StarHub Ch208 & 209, tomorrow, 8am & 4pm
Women to watch
SIMONA HALEP, 27 (ROM)
World ranking: 1
Grand Slams: 1
Best Australian Open result: Final (2018)
She bounced back from losing to Caroline Wozniacki in Melbourne 12 months ago to claim her maiden Slam at the French Open and climb back to No. 1, despite a nagging back injury that forced her to miss the WTA Finals in Singapore. The top seed is without a coach, after long-time Australian mentor Darren Cahill stepped down for family reasons. Biggest weapon: Despite her short stature, Halep's speed and athleticism allow her to cover the court quickly and surprise opponents with winners even when she is on the back foot. Biggest weakness: She lacks the physical strength of her biggest rivals and has a reputation for imploding under the spotlight, despite winning her first Major.
ANGELIQUE KERBER, 30 (GER)
World ranking: 2
Grand Slams: 3
Best Australian Open result: Champion (2016)
The Wimbledon champion turns 31 on Friday and is tipped to unveil a more aggressive approach under new coach Rainer Schuttler. He will add more "daring" to the 2016 Australian Open champion's game, said the German Tennis Association's Barbara Rittner, who helped develop Kerber as a teenager.
Biggest weapon: A traditional baseliner and at her most comfortable overpowering opponents from the back. She can dominate rallies with her forehand and her defensive game is one of the best on the circuit. Biggest weakness: Opponents will hope to capitalise on her service game.
NAOMI OSAKA, 21 (JPN)
World ranking: 4
Grand Slams: 1
Best Australian Open result: 4th round (2018)
The 21-year-old US Open champion has the opportunity to demonstrate she can withstand the spotlight of being the new standard-bearer for tennis in Japan, Asia and the next generation of women. She arrives as second favourite with the bookies behind Williams, and has said she does not feel any pressure to perform. Biggest weapon: A formidable blend of power and accuracy helps Osaka hit winners from any part of the court. The Japanese also has the endurance to go the distance against the big guns. Biggest weakness: Despite her US Open victory, she is still short of experience on the big stage and is uncomfortable at the net.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS