MELBOURNE: World number one Iga Swiatek said on Saturday she was ready for an “intense” opening Australian Open match while paying tribute to retired champion Ashleigh Barty for inspiring her to greater heights.

Poland’s Swiatek begins her Grand Slam campaign on Monday against Jule Neimeier, the German world number 68 who reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon last year.

More recently, the pair clashed in the last 16 at the US Open, where Swiatek had to dig deep after dropping the first set before coming through 2-6, 6-4, 6-0 and going on to win the tournament.

“We played in the US Open, and you saw how intense that match was, how tough,” Swiatek told reporters.

“It’s not going to be easy. But any match in a Grand Slam is always more intense and more stressful than other tournaments. I’ll be ready for it.”

Swiatek, the top seed, is a strong favourite for the first Grand Slam of the year in the absence of last year’s retired champion Barty.

The Australian, who is pregnant, dropped into Melbourne Park on Saturday for “kids’ day” and enjoyed a light-hearted practice hit with Swiatek, who took over from her as world number one.

“When she retired I felt like she still had the best tennis out there,” said Swiatek. “So, yeah, I was pretty sad that I’m not going to be able to compete against her and maybe win.”

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But the 21-year-old credited Barty for making her a better player.

“She gave me a lot in terms of my motivation and my kind of willingness to practice even more and to have more variety on court.

“When I played against her, I felt she just had all these different game styles and slices. 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.

“I have like huge respect for Ash. She really gave me huge motivation at the beginning of last season to get even better. I’m kind of grateful for that.”

Swiatek seized on Barty’s retirement to dominate 2022, securing eight WTA titles and becoming the first woman in six years to win two Grand Slams in the same season – at Roland Garros and New York.

Now she has her sights on a maiden title at Melbourne Park, which would leave her needing only a Wimbledon championship to complete a career slam of all four majors.

Swiatek departed in tears after losing to American world number three Jessica Pegula at the recent United Cup, and admitted she needed to be kinder to herself.

“I think I’m always going to have this part of me that is a perfectionist,” she said.

“When I’m not feeling comfortable on court, it’s kind of hard to not be harsh.

“It’s for sure getting better. But, yeah, I mean, we care so much and we give ourselves to this sport that it’s sometimes tough to find this balance. But I’m getting better at it, for sure.”


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