Ashleigh Barty makes her Rod Laver Arena singles debut tonight against no less an opponent than the greatest active women’s tennis player, world No. 1 Serena Williams.
At 17, Barty has an impressive amount of top-flight experience, starting with a victory in the Wimbledon junior girls event when she was just 15.
She played the first of her six Grand Slam tournaments at Melbourne Park two years ago, and 2013 provided her with further valuable competition at the highest level when she and compatriot Casey Dellacqua were doubles finalists at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open.
Heading into her match-up against Williams, the only other top-10 player the Queenslander from Ipswich had previously faced was No. 4 Petra Kvitova at the 2012 French Open, which resulted in a 6-1 6-2 loss. But she recorded the best win of her career two weeks ago in Brisbane, upsetting No. 32 Daniela Hantuchova 6-3 7-5.
Barty had to withdraw from her second round meeting in Brisbane with Maria Sharapova with an adductor injury, but says it’s “perfect and spot on” after treatment.
She will need to be in peak form against Williams. Though not at her best, the 32-year-old American nonetheless ruthlessly mowed down her two biggest rivals – Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova – in winning the Brisbane title.
Williams’ ability to swat cold winners at a nanosecond’s notice is hugely intimidating for opponents, so the plucky 166cm Barty is forewarned. But she punches well above her weight, and can dispatch forehands and backhands with surprising power and accuracy.
Barty, ranked No. 153, is looking forward to the match-up. “It’s really exciting,” she said. “It’s not every day you get the opportunity to play the No. 1 in the world, one of the greatest champions of all time.”
While she has nothing to lose, her countrywoman Samantha Stosur enters her 12th Australian Open under the microscope of an Australian public that’s growing accustomed to underwhelming results on home turf from the 2011 US Open champion.
A year ago, Stosur lost to Zheng Jie in Sydney the week before the Australian Open and was beaten again by the Chinese, after leading 5-2 in the third set, in the second round at Melbourne Park. This year it’s a similar situation. Following a loss in Hobart last Friday to Klara Zakopolova, Stosur faces the diminutive, free-swinging Czech at Rod Laver Arena this afternoon.
The 29-year-old Stosur and the Australian summer circuit has become an annual soap opera that remains compelling viewing, as agonising as it is for her and her fans.
A third Australian, Jarmila Gajdosova, opens the day at Rod Laver against No. 9 seed Angelique Kerber. Now 26, Gajdosova struggled for much of 2013 with mononucleosis and is still far from the form that took her as high as No. 25 in 2011.
The men showcased on Melbourne Park’s main show court are three-time defending champion and second seed Novak Djokovic in the evening, and third-seeded David Ferrer in the afternoon.
Djokovic’s opponent, No. 96-ranked Lukas Lacko of Slovakia, is 0-14 against top-10 opponents while the man Ferrer faces, No. 74-ranked Alejandro Gonzalez of Colombia, has never before been on court with a player in the top 10.
It shapes up as a pleasant way for Djokovic and Ferrer to ease into the event.
TOM’S INTREPID TIPS
Date Krumm vs. Bencic
The startling 27 years between these two – Bencic is 16 and Date Krumm 43 – works in favour of the precocious Swiss qualifier. Bencic in three.
Stosur vs. Zakapolova
New coach Myles Maclagan helps Stosur with her composure and clarity. Stosur in two.
Janowicz vs. Thompson
The gritty Aussie Open wild card playoff winner stuns the temperamental, under-prepared Pole. Thompson in five.
S. Williams vs. Barty
The youth versus experience dynamic here goes Serena’s way, but Barty has her moments. Serena in two.
Djokovic vs. Lacko
The Serb gets his third title defense off to a smooth start. Djokovic in three.
Hantuchova vs. Watson
The 30-year-old Slovak has lost to a 17-year-old (Barty) and a 20-year-old (Tomljanovic) in 2014. Next it's a 21-year-old. Watson in three.
Gulbis vs. Monaco
The volatile Latvian is maturing and should give an 'earnest' effort. Gulbis in four.
Dellacqua vs. Zvonareva
A shoulder injury followed by surgery has kept the Russian, 29, out for almost 18 months. Wild card winner Dellacqua has been a lot more active. Dellacqua in three.