MELBOURNE: Iga Swiatek is the strong favourite to land her fourth Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, but the picture is considerably less clear if the world number one fails to live up to her top seeding.

With Ash Barty and Serena Williams having hung up their rackets and Naomi Osaka pregnant with her first child, Melbourne Park will almost certainly usher in a new era by crowning a first-time champion on Jan. 29.

The only two former winners in the 128-strong field face each other in the opening round and it is highly unlikely either will still be around when the Daphne Akhurst Trophy is presented.

Victoria Azarenka won her two titles a decade ago, and little has gone right for Sofia Kenin since she triumphed in 2020, although she did reach the semi-finals in Hobart this week.

The race to fill the void left by the absence of the likes of last year’s home-grown champion Barty and seven-times winner Williams should be spearheaded by Swiatek, who looked unbeatable at times last season.

The 21-year-old Pole won her second French Open, proved she could also win on hard courts with a first US Open triumph, and racked up a 21st century record 37-match winning streak.

She was reduced to tears after being beaten by American Jessica Pegula on fast Sydney courts at the United Cup only last week but quickly moved to quash the idea that the emotional outburst was a sign of something deeper.

“It’s not the first time I cried after a lost match. Nothing special,” said the self-confessed perfectionist.

World number one Swiatek leads Australian Open charge

“I just knew that I felt kind of helpless today, because physically and mentally I wasn’t able to kind of show up even, and problem-solve.”

Different proposition

Swiatek was thrashed 6-4 6-1 by Danielle Collins at Melbourne Park last year in her first hardcourt Grand Slam semi-final, and the American looms this year in the last 16 if the seedings hold.

Problem-solving is something Swiatek prides herself on, however, and Collins, the 13th seed, might find the Pole a different proposition if they meet this year.

Unsurprisingly, the bookmakers rate powerful baseliners Aryna Sabalenka, champion in Adelaide last week, and Pegula, who helped the United States win the United Cup, as the best chances of taking the title after Swiatek.

Charismatic American teenager Coco Gauff would be a popular champion, not least in the Australian Open marketing department.

Last year’s French Open finalist is in form, having opened the season with the title at the Auckland Open.

Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina’s big serve gives her a chance of a second Grand Slam title, while world number four Caroline Garcia is enjoying a late-career renaissance and won the WTA Finals on hardcourt last year.

Collins, Barbora Krejcikova, Belinda Bencic, Daria Kasatkina and Veronika Kudermetov have all shown the sort of early season form that could augur a run deep into the tournament, which starts on Monday.

Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur is seeded second after reaching the finals at the last two Grand Slams, losing to Rybakina at Wimbledon and Swiatek at Flushing Meadows.

Her reliance on dazzling racket skills rather than power might work against her on the famous blue courts but there would surely be few more popular winners than the bubbly 28-year-old.

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