Barty eyes Melbourne party
World No. 1 needs to cope with home crowd's expectations and fend off the likes of Williams and Osaka
Ashleigh Barty faces the double burden of being world No. 1 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 spectacularly climbed to the top of the women's rankings last year and will start her Melbourne Park campaign today, 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 No. 1 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 today, but going by what happened recently, 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 top ranking 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," said Barty, who will face world No. 120 Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine in the first round today.
Japan's Naomi Osaka knows all about the struggles of coping with the pressure of being world No. 1, 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 US Open, but suffered early exits at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
The 22-year-old, who appointed her third coach of the year in Belgian Wim Fissette last month, also disappointed in the defence of her US Open title.
But she regained some end-of-season form with the Pan Pacific Open and China Open titles, and is back at world No. 3, behind Karolina Pliskova.
Williams, 38, has won seven of her 23 Grand Slam singles in Melbourne but faces a different test in the twilight of her illustrious career.
Since returning from childbirrth, 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, she enjoyed her first WTA singles title in almost three years at the Auckland Classic.
While Melbourne will miss the US Open winner Bianca Andreescu, who pulled out with a knee injury, there will be many 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. - REUTERS