BY JUSTIN BERGMAN
MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — With no Serena Williams in the draw at the Australian Open, there’s certainly an opportunity for another women’s player to go on a surprising run and emerge as a first-time Grand Slam champion, as Sloane Stephens and Jelena Ostapenko did last year.
Just don’t describe the first Grand Slam of the year as “more open” than usual.
“Whenever I get asked that question, it always comes across in really kind of an almost negative way instead of acknowledging how many great players we have,” Johanna Konta, who reached the semifinals of Wimbledon last year, said in her pre-tournament news conference Saturday.
“The depth in women’s tennis I really do believe in the last few years has gotten so strong,” she added. “There’s no straight sailing to the quarters or semis. It doesn’t exist.”
Stephens agrees the Australian Open field is still extremely tough, even with Serena Williams, the defending champion and 23-time major winner, skipping the tournament as she continues her recovery from a complicated childbirth in September.
“There’s a lot of great players,” she said. “It’s up for grabs.”
Indeed, any number of women could be holding the trophy at Melbourne Park in two weeks. The No. 1-ranking changed seven times in 2017, with five different women assuming top spot — three for the first time.
One of those women, Simona Halep, is looking to finally break through and win her first major after twice finishing runner-up. She won the season-opening Shenzhen Open in China, but has had mixed previous results at Melbourne Park, losing in the first round the last two years.
“I don’t feel pressure. I feel OK. I feel fit. I feel ready to start,” she said. “I have one more goal: to win a Grand Slam.”
Stephens came out of nowhere to win the U.S. Open last year after a lengthy time out with an injury to her left foot. She’s struggled to adjust to the sudden stardom that’s come with being a Grand Slam champion — she’s lost seven straight matches since September — but believes she can find her game again in Melbourne.
“I think it’s always a tough transition when you go from not playing tennis for 11 months to winning a Grand Slam,” she said. “I like to just stay in my own little bubble and do my own thing. … It’s kind of been what I’m trying to do.”
There are plenty of other contenders, too. Ostapenko has rocketed up the rankings after her stunning win at last year’s French Open. Venus Williams is a threat again at 37 years old, and 2016 Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber is playing well after a subpar year, capturing the Sydney International title on Saturday.
Garbine Muguruza is the reigning Wimbledon champion, though her health has been in question at the start of the new year. Caroline Wozniacki had a career-reviving season in 2017 and could return to the No. 1 ranking for the first time in six years with a strong showing in Melbourne.
And then there’s Elina Svitolina, who just captured her 10th tour-level title last week at the Brisbane International and has a shot at No. 1 herself at the Australian Open.
“I had a great week in Brisbane. Of course, I’m confident,” she said.
But she added this alone isn’t enough in today’s constantly shifting, ultra-competitive women’s game.
“Everyone wants to win a Grand Slam. … So, I try to find my way, what can help me to be there, to be ready for the fight. Just one match at a time.”
Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.