A New WTA Season Begins Down Under As Australian Summer Kicks In

Ashleigh Barty (photo: James Elsby / Tennis Australia)

ADELAIDE/WASHINGTON, January 3, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

The WTA’s 2022 season kicked off Monday Down Under at the Adelaide International 1, a 500-series outdoor hard-court event at Memorial Drive in South Australia. The tournament, with more than $700,000 in prize money, features World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty and World No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka on opposite ends of the draw. The defending champion is World No. 9 Iga Swiatek.

Barty, 25, who has been idle since the US Open, went home to Australia in September to recover following a long physical and emotional year on the road, which was impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Before she shut down her season, Barty won five WTA titles, including the Wimbledon Championships in June. She finished last season with a 42-8 win-loss record and was 14-2 from the start of Wimbledon.

“It was obviously nice to have some time to reflect with my family and see my family after what was an enormous year,” Barty said during a pre-tournament press conference Monday. “We probably spent two or three weeks where it was pretty low-key, just catching up with everyone as best we could.

“I mean, I still didn’t see a lot of my team, my extended team, that were either in Melbourne or different places. It was only really starting to connect with everyone now again. It has been quite a long time in a sense of not being able to see everyone and really enjoy the fantastic year that we did have.

“But it’s been a nice period at one. Obviously, we started pre-season, have trained well, are looking forward now to starting playing here in Adelaide and testing myself again.”

The top eight seeds in Adelaide are all ranked in the WTA Top 15: World No. 1 Barty of Australia, No. 2 Sabalenka of Belarus, No. 6 Maria Sakkari of Greece, No. 8 Paula Badosa of Spain, No. 9 Swiatek of Poland, No. 12 Sofia Kenin of the United States, No. 14 Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan and No. 15 Elina Svitolina of Ukraine.

“I feel like I’m a defending champion, but on the other hand I feel like it’s a little bit different tournament,” said the fifth-seeded Swiatek during a press conference on Sunday, noting that last year’s tournament was played at the end of February. “I don’t feel any pressure, so that’s good thing. I’m just, as I said, trying to find the rhythm and just play first matches without a lot of stress and a lot of baggage on my shoulders.”

Barty, who has a first-round bye, could play 17-year-old American Coco Gauff, ranked 22nd, in the second round, while Swiatek could oppose 24th-ranked 2021 US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez of Canada in the second round if both win their first-round matches.

Among the intriguing first-round matchups, Badosa, a winner in eight of her last 10 matches on hard courts, faces No. 27 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in a rematch of October’s BNP Paribas Open final. Coincidentally, the two are playing doubles together in Adelaide.

In Monday’s opening match, the third-seeded Sakkari, who finished 2021 ranked in the Top 10 for the first time in her career, fired 10 aces and rallied from a shaky middle stanza to beat No. 30 Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia, 6-2, 0-6, 6-4. “I found a way to win,” she said of her two-hour and five-minute victory during her on-court interview, “which sometimes is enough. I’m excited to be into the next round.”

Meanwhile, World No. 13 Naomi Osaka of Japan and No. 20 Simona Halep of Romania are the top seeds at the Melbourne Summer Set 1 (WTA 250) event and World No. 18 Jessica Pegula of the United States and No. 21 Elise Mertens are the top seeds in the Melbourne Summer Set 2 (WTA 250) tournament. Both will run concurrently this week at Melbourne Park starting on Tuesday.

Osaka will oppose No. 61 Alize Cornet of France in her first match since the US Open.

Both Venus and Serena Williams not playing in Australian Open

For the first time since 1997, the Australian Open – the year’s first major event – will be without either of the Williams sisters.

On Friday, Venus Williams, 41, announced that she would not play in the Australian Open. It comes after younger sister Serena Williams, 40, revealed in early December that she’s still recovering from a right hamstring injury that she sustained during the first round of Wimbledon and will miss playing in Melbourne. Currently ranked 41st, she’s won the Australian Open seven times – most recently in 2017.


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A post shared by Venus Williams (@venuswilliams)

Since her 1998 debut, Venus Williams has missed only three Australian Open, most recently in 2012, when she battled an auto-immune disease. She was a finalist to Serena in 2017. Last year, Venus played a limited schedule and her last match came in August at a WTA 250 event in Chicago. By the end of 2021, Williams’ ranking had dropped to 318th.

Noteworthy …

• Reigning US Open champion Emma Raducanu, just 19, was awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List for services to tennis. Of note, too, Raducanu has withdrawn from this week’s Melbourne Summer Set, but still plans to play the Australian Open, which begins Jan. 17.

“The timing to compete in the first Melbourne event is too soon for me, having just returned from isolation,” she said over the weekend. Last month, Raducanu tested positive for COVID-19 upon arriving in Abu Dhabi for the Mubadala World Tennis Championship. She was forced to withdraw without playing in the exhibition event.

• World No. 6 Rafael Nadal, who is the top seed in the ATP 250 Melbourne Summer Set event that begins Tuesday, will also play doubles with fellow Spaniard Jaume Munar.

By the numbers

Twenty-three-year-old French lefty Ugo Humbert, who stunned World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev at the ATP Cup on Sunday, 6-7 (5), 7-5, 7-6 (2) for the biggest win of his young career, has now won six of his last eight matches against Top 10 players. His victory over Medvedev, who led the ATP with 63 match wins last year, represented his first career win over a Top 3 player and it improved his lifetime record against the Russian to 2-0 after also beating him on clay at Hamburg in 2020.

“I had some opportunities in the first set, but I think I tried to stay relaxed and focused on what I had to do, and it was a great match,” Humbert said during an on-court interview. “I really love to play in Australia. It was a great atmosphere on the court. It was very tough today – I’m not feeling very good now, but I’m very happy.”

“Quotable …”

“I surprised myself with how well I played out here. You always work hard in the off-season, but you never really know what could happen in that first match of the year.

“I actually really like this court. It’s not too fast, which I prefer. It gives me a little time to swing out on my shots being so big. That helps me out a lot.”

John Isner of the United States, who won his opening ATP Cup match against Brayden Schnur of Canada, 6-1, 6-4, in 66 minutes on Sunday in back of 10 aces while winning 46 percent of his return points.

What they’re sharing on social media

Gaël Monfils /New year, new start …

Elise Mertens / Happy New Year! 💞