The 2024 Australian Open begins this Sunday and the women’s singles could produce the most exciting tennis from the first Grand Slam of the year; Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka, Elena Rybakina and Coco Gauff have risen to the top of the WTA Tour and are expected to go deep into the event
Best of the action from the Brisbane International final between Elena Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka
Remember the ‘Big Four’ which dominated men’s tennis for a decade as Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray found themselves going head-to-head at the deep end of a Grand Slam?
Many people see that as a golden era for tennis and the women’s tour could be about to embark on a similar chapter as Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka, Elena Rybakina and Coco Gauff are set to battle it out for the Australian Open title.
Since the retirement of Ash Barty in March 2022, Swiatek has been the player to beat as she held the world No 1 spot for 75 weeks.
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The 22-year-old lost it briefly to Sabalenka after her surprise fourth-round exit at the US Open last September, but was back at the top of the WTA rankings following her WTA Finals triumph in November.
Swiatek led Poland to runners-up spot in the United Cup, a team competition, and won all her singles matches as she put down a marker ahead of the Australian Open.
Poland lost to Germany in the final and Alexander Zverev says Swiatek can expect “an amazing season ahead”.
“Iga, congratulations on the MVP. I said it before in an interview, I think having you on a team is like having a cheat code on a video game, so it’s amazing what you’ve been doing for the past few years,” he added.
Image: The Australian Open is the only Grand Slam missing for Iga Switaek
Can Sabalenka defend her title?
So Swiatek is favourite and is in great form. However, she’s yet to reach the final of the Australian Open, which is the only major left for her to complete a career Grand Slam – winning the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open.
Swiatek lost in the fourth round of last year’s Australian Open to Rybakina, who finished runner-up to defending champion Sabalenka.
Sabalenka had a stunning 2023, making the last four of each Grand Slam and her powerful groundstrokes were often too much to handle for most of the tour.
At the end of 2021, Sabalenka suffered from the yips – a likely psychological factor which prevented her from playing at a high level.
Image: Aryna Sabalenka will defend her Australian Open crown
Since then, a rapid rise to world No 1 and the improvement of her hitting has made the 25-year-old a top player.
Rybakina got the better of Sabalenka last Sunday though in the final of the Brisbane International with a ruthless 6-0 6-3 victory.
Sabalenka’s 15-match winning streak in Australia came to an end against the calmness of Rybakina, who is the 2022 Wimbledon champion.
“I was very happy with the whole week in Brisbane. I didn’t expect it to be like this,” said 24-year-old Rybakina.
“I’m just looking forward to the Australian Open. It gives me confidence but I always have battles with Aryna and Brisbane was just the beginning for all the players. I’m playing well so hopefully I continue.”
Image: Elena Rybakina, 24, lost last year's Australian Open final to Aryna Sabalenka
What about Gauff?
The youngest of the quartet is Gauff and she goes into the first Grand Slam of the year high on confidence too after beating Elena Svitolina in the Auckland Classic.
Gauff, who burst onto the scene at Wimbledon five years ago, enjoyed a stellar 2023 as the 19-year-old won her first major trophy at the US Open in September.
As the top seed in Auckland, Gauff continued where she left off last season and breezed into the final before showing her battling skills to fend off Svitolina.
The best of the action from the ASB Classic Final from Auckland between Coco Gauff and Elina Svitolina
In mid-2023, Gauff added Pere Riba and Brad Gilbert to her coaching team which appeared to make a difference almost immediately.
The ability to win when not playing well was certainly a quality the American was missing but that’s changed over the last six months.
Gauff will also play in the women’s doubles at the Australian Open alongside compatriot Jessica Pegula. The pair are third in the rankings but winning both doubles and singles titles is an extremely difficult feat, so for either player to become singles champion may require an early doubles exit.
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Osaka back at a Grand Slam
Naomi Osaka will make her first Grand Slam appearance in 17 months as she continues her return after giving birth to her daughter Shai in July.
Osaka won her first match back at the Brisbane International before losing to Karolina Pliskova 6-3 6-7(4) 4-6. She was set to play Emma Raducanu in an exhibition on Tuesday but the British players withdrew. Both players were given wild cards for the Australian Open, so could draw anyone in the first round.
“I know that if I keep training and if I keep putting in the work, then I’ll eventually get to where I want to be,” said Osaka.
“Even stepping on the court is a personal win because a couple of weeks ago I was even doubting if I could play with everyone.
“So I guess these two matches that I’ve had kind of prove to me that I am doing okay, and the year is just going to get better for me.”
Image: Naomi Osaka won the Australian Open in 2021 and 2022
Ukrainian Svitolina also gave birth to her first child in 2022 and returned to the tour in April, consistently challenging the top names.
She impressively made the quarter-finals at Roland Garros and the semi-finals at Wimbledon as she played some of the best tennis in her career.
Germany’s Angelique Kerber continues her comeback from pregnancy but has been unable to emulate Svitolina’s great return after losing four of her five singles matches at the United Cup, despite her country winning the tournament.
Image: Caroline Wozniacki is the 2018 Australian Open champion
Kerber is the 2016 Australian Open champion and Caroline Wozniacki is the 2018 winner, who is also back in Melbourne four years after she announced her retirement.
Wozniacki made a shock return to tennis last August and reached the second week of the US Open, losing to Gauff in the last 16.
What can Racudanu, Boulter and Burrage do?
Three British players are in the women’s draw – Raducanu, Katie Boulter and Jodie Burrage. Raducanu lost to Svitolina in Auckland but can be encouraged that she was close to beating the in-form 29-year-old.
Raducanu hasn’t gone beyond the second round of a major since her memorable 2021 US Open triumph and her right thigh was heavily strapped at the start of this month, hinting at concerns about her fitness.
The best of the action from Emma Raducanu’s match against Elina Svitolina at the ASB Classic in Auckland
“I know her personal goals are to just stay fit and healthy at the moment. Tennis is such a gruelling sport physically,” Sky Sports Tennis’ Naomi Broady said.
“There aren’t many other sports that you would play for so many hours, consecutive days, week after week, for 11 months of the year.
“She can’t really play 30 minutes in the first game and get subbed out and build it back up, it’s just straight in at the deep end with two gruelling matches.
“So for her, it’s just going to be about staying fit and healthy and then maybe after this Australian swing, looking to start going deeper in tournaments again.”
There was some spectacular hitting from Emma Raducanu in an epic rally during her clash with Elena-Gabriela Ruse at the Auckland Classic as the British player returned to the tour
British No 1 Boulter had a breakthrough 2023 as she won her first WTA title at the Nottingham Open and had a spell in the world’s top 50.
Boulter is in the Australian Open main draw for the first time since 2021 and will be looking to surpass her best run in Melbourne of the second round.
Burrage, 24, will make her Australian Open debut and is targeting a first match win at the Grand Slam.
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