Five women to watch
With the Australian Open just days away, we take a closer look at five women who are capable of enjoying an extended stay in Melbourne:
1) Coco Vandeweghe (USA)
Best Australian Open result: Semi-finals (2017)
First round opponent: Timea Babos
The 26-year-old enjoyed the best season of her career in 2017.
Vandeweghe, who cracked the Top 10 for the first time in November, reached the last four of the two hard-court majors and excelled in the team game.
She became the first player to win eight Fed Cup rubbers in a single year - in singles and doubles - since the current format was implemented in 2005. Her outstanding performances in American colours helped her nation end a 17-year wait for an unprecedented 18th success.
Vandeweghe, an attack-minded player with considerable firepower, will expect to be involved in the closing stages of the action at Melbourne Park. She has improved greatly under the tutelage of Pat Cash and individual glory might not be too far away.
2) Julia Goerges (GER)
Best Australian Open: Fourth round (2012, 2013 & 2015)
First round opponent: Sofia Kenin
The German is at the peak of her powers and enjoyed the best season of her career in 2017. She won silverware on two occasions, in Zhuhai and Moscow, and completed a fruitful campaign at world No.14 – her highest ever finish.
Goerges' form has fluctuated drastically throughout recent years due to a number of factors, but she has never entered a Grand Slam is such red-hot form.
She recently won the Auckland Classic in New Zealand, defeating Caroline Wozniacki in the final, and dropped just one set en route to a fifth-career title.
Goerges is yet to make it beyond the fourth round of a major – falling at the last sixteen stage on five occasions - and she will expect to go at least one step further on this occasion.
3) Angelique Kerber (GER)
Best Australian Open result: Winner (2016)
First round opponent: Anna-Lena Friedsam
After such a prosperous 2016, Kerber’s fall from grace last year was both dramatic and unexpected.
The 29-year-old suffered the indignation of losing in the first round of the US Open last summer and she looked bereft of ideas every time she stepped between the white lines.
A productive off-season and a change in coaching personnel appears to have helped the double major winner rediscover her mojo. Under the guidance of Johanna Konta’s former employee, Wim Fissette, Kerber’s steely resolve has returned, and she is back to winning ways.
The German snapped up a first title in over two years at the Sydney International on Saturday - and she has been the standout performer in the opening weeks of the new season.
Kerber has been placed in the most challenging section of the draw in Melbourne, and could encounter Maria Sharapova in the third round.
4) Ashleigh Barty (AUS)
Best Australian Open result: Third round (2017)
First round opponent: Aryna Sabalenka
The 21-year-old made significant progress in 2017 and managed to bring an end to Sam Stosur’s nine-year reign as Australian No.1. She currently resides at a career-high ranking of No.17 and will be expected to fly the flag for the home nation at the first Grand Slam of the year.
The crafty Queenslander, who has never been beyond the third round of a major, bagged her first WTA title in Kuala Lumpur last year. She further demonstrated her qualities by reaching finals in Birmingham and Wuhan.
Barty is an intelligent performer with many layers to her game. Her flair and creativity has also helped her become a fine doubles player and a second week appearance in Melbourne has to be a target.
A credible final appearance at last week’s Sydney International will only have increased her confidence.
5) Belinda Bencic (SUI)
Best Australian Open result: Fourth round (2016)
First round opponent: Venus Williams
The talented Swiss is on the comeback trail after surgery on her left wrist in May.
A lengthy spell on the sidelines saw Bencic’s ranking plummet, and she has been playing catch up ever since. Her recent results on the ITF Circuit have been a source of encouragement, though, and she is now firmly back inside the Top 100.
The Swiss won the last three tournaments she entered last year – in Hua Hin, Taipei and Dubai – and she opened up the the new campaign by winning the Hopman Cup alongside Roger Federer.
It’s perhaps odd to highlight the prospects of a player who will face Venus Williams in the first round, but Bencic is capable of springing a surprise and embarking on a deep run.