By Sudipto Ganguly
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Ash Barty faces the double burden of being world number one and the focus of an expectant host nation as she seeks to win the Australian Open amid challenges from record-chasing Serena Williams and a host of other Grand Slam winners.
The 23-year-old Queenslander Barty spectacularly climbed to the top of the women’s rankings in 2019 and will start her Melbourne Park campaign next week having won her maiden Grand Slam at the French Open and the WTA Finals in Shenzhen.
Her successes saw her become the first Australian woman since Evonne Goolagong-Cawley to gain the world number one accolade and also raised hopes that she could end the country’s 42-year wait for a home winner in Melbourne.
She will be the cynosure of the sports-loving nation and the local media when the year’s first Grand Slam kicks off on Monday but going by what happened in the recent past, handling the pressure could prove arduous for Barty.
In November, leading Australia’s charge to win the Fed Cup against France in Perth, she suffered an upset loss to Kristina Mladenovic which ended her team’s hopes of winning the trophy for the first time in 45 years.
Yet Barty, who regained her number one spot in September after holding it for seven weeks following her Roland Garros triumph, says she is ready for the next daunting chapter.
“Having a number next to your name doesn’t guarantee anything. It doesn’t guarantee wins. You still have to go out there, do the work — put all those kind of runs on the board, I suppose — and work from there,” the former cricketer told reporters in Adelaide this week.
“All you can do is try and do your best every single match.”
Japan’s Naomi Osaka knows all about the struggles of coping with the pressure of being world number one but she will defend her crown having rediscovered her confidence.
Osaka started 2019 by lifting her second straight Grand Slam title in Melbourne following her success at the 2018 U.S. Open but subsequently suffered early exits at the French Open and Wimbledon.
The 22-year-old, who appointed her third coach of the year in Belgian Wim Fissette in December, also disappointed in the defense of her U.S. Open title.
Yet Osaka regained some end-of-season form with the Pan Pacific Open and China Open titles and, after having dropped to number four, is back to third in the world behind Karolina Pliskova.
Williams, who has for years thrived under the pressure of expectation that faces Barty, has won seven of her 23 Grand Slam singles in Melbourne but faces a different test in the twilight of her illustrious career.
She was eight weeks pregnant when winning in Melbourne in 2017 but similar success in Slams has proved elusive since she returned to the circuit as the mother of baby Olympia.
She has lost four finals in her quest for a 24th Grand Slam singles title to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record but last week enjoyed her first WTA singles title in almost three years at the Auckland Classic.
“It’s pretty satisfying to get a win in a final,” Williams told reporters. “That was really important for me.
“I want to build on it. Obviously it is a step towards the next goal in Melbourne.”
While Melbourne will miss the U.S. Open winner Bianca Andreescu, of Canada, who pulled out with a knee injury, there will be plenty of others who have tasted major success before in what looks a wide open field.
Last year’s finalist Petra Kvitova and Simona Halep are equipped to add to their multiple majors while the 2018 Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki will aim to bow out from the sport on the highest note.
Angelique Kerber, Sloane Stephens, Garbine Muguruza, Jelena Ostapenko, Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova are the other Grand Slam winners who are outside the top 16 seeds.
(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Ian Chadband)