In stark contrast to the men’s game, the last eight women’s Grand-Slam tournaments have thrown up eight different winners. Starting with Serena Williams’ 2017 Australian Open title, they have been, in order: Jelena Ostapenko, Garbine Muguruza, Sloane Stephens, Caroline Wozniacki, Simona Halelp, Angelique Kerber and Naomi Osaka. Of those eight, only Kerber and, of course, Williams have won more than one Grand Slam.
The picture this week is even further confused by so many of the leading women having an asterisk by their names. Wozniacki has had a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis since her triumph last year, while Halep has been suffering from a back problem. Both seem unlikely to be able to summon the sorts of reserves and resilience to match their outstanding final of 12 months ago.
Stephens and Ostapenko have both been in woeful form of late, and Muguruza hasn’t been much better. Ostapenko is a charming delight off the court but is struggling to recapture the sort of liberated hitting that brought her an unexpected French Open trophy in 2017. At just 21, the Latvian has plenty of time to figure it out, but for now remains a crowd-pleaser rather than a contender. Stephens, a consummate athlete who should thrive in Melbourne, seems to have temporarily mislaid her game. Muguruza remains a dangerous player but nothing in her recent results would indicate she will challenge over the next fortnight.
Could the 21-year-old Osaka claim her second Slam in a row? It would certainly be a popular victory after she was robbed of her moment of glory at the US Open by Williams’ disgraceful behaviour. You can never rule out someone who can hit 125mph serves and crunching forehand winners, but Osaka lost all three of her matches at the WTA Tour Finals at the end of last season, retiring from the last with a hamstring injury. There’s little doubt in my mind that Osaka will win more Grand Slams, but perhaps not this one.
Kerber, then, for my money starts as favourite. Just. She has won the tournament before (in 2016), and having since added the US Open and Wimbledon to her collection she clearly knows how to pace herself through Slams. The German looked in pretty good nick during the Hopman Cup, and isn’t afraid of facing the kind of pace some of her younger rivals can generate.
Outside of those past Slam winners, there are Elina Svitolina, winner of the WTA Tour Finals last year who is seeded six, rising star Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands (seeded nine) and 15th-seed Ash Barty who will enjoy the home support.
And then there is Serena Williams. Seeded only 16 and in the same section of the draw as her sister, Venus, and top seed Halep, she is one of a number of players who could win, but doesn’t start as clearcut favourite to do so, not least because of the physical demands the tournament places on competitors. But don’t count her out either.