Youthful Osaka, Barty stand in way of Serena’s path to 24th Slam

Serena Williams tennis

FILE PHOTO: Tennis – A Day on the Drive Exhibition – Memorial Drive Tennis Club, Adelaide, Australia – January 29, 2021 Serena Williams of the U.S. earlier than her match in opposition to Japan’s Naomi Osaka at A Day at The Drive REUTERS/Morgan Sette

Serena Williams continues her lengthy quest for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam when the coronavirus-delayed 2021 Australian Open begins on Monday, 4 years since her final main triumph in Melbourne.

It could also be this season or by no means for Williams, who turns 40 in September and can have to conquer a area bursting with younger expertise headed by US Open champion Naomi Osaka, residence favourite and world primary Ash Barty and defending champion Sofia Kenin.

The event was put again three weeks to permit all gamers to quarantine for 14 days, however a coronavirus case at a resort noticed all play shelved Thursday in warm-up occasions with tons of of gamers and officers ordered again into isolation for COVID assessments.

Williams, who will play second on Rod Laver Arena Monday in opposition to Germany’s Laura Siegemund, says she has benefited from the delays, utilizing them to recuperate totally from the nagging Achilles harm sustained throughout her run to the semi-finals on the US Open, which prompted her to withdraw from Roland Garros.

“I needed time. I don’t think I would have been here if it was during the regular season,” she mentioned.

“I definitely was pushing the limits, but I’m here,” assuring {that a} shoulder difficulty that prompted her to pull out of the warm-up Yarra Valley Classic semifinals wouldn’t be an issue.

Williams received her twenty third Grand Slam singles title on the Australian Open in January 2017, then revealed she had been pregnant with daughter Olympia.

She has reached 4 main finals since, twice at Wimbledon and twice on the US Open, however left empty-handed every time and coronavirus-disrupted 2020 was the primary yr since 2006 that she failed to attain a Slam last.

Osaka comes into Melbourne as US Open champion, as she did two years in the past earlier than battling previous Petra Kvitova in one of the best Australian Open finals to raise the Daphne Akhurst Cup.

Osaka’s rise

The Japanese icon final yr overtook Williams to change into the world’s highest-paid feminine athlete, in accordance to Forbes journal, and arguably the face of the game after campaigning for variety and social justice.

Osaka received widespread reward for her outspoken assist of the Black Lives Matter motion throughout the coronavirus shutdown and on the US Open, the place the 23-year-old wore a unique masks every spherical emblazoned with the identify of a sufferer of systemic racism or police brutality.

“I feel like the last year changed me a lot,” mentioned Osaka, who will open the event Monday on centre court docket, the Rod Laver Arena, in opposition to Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

“There was a lot of things I was struggling with, and I feel like during quarantine I really had to dig deep in myself and try to figure it out for myself.”

The 2019 French Open winner and high seed Barty will carry the nation’s hopes of a primary residence champion in greater than 40 years, having come shut final yr when agonizingly shedding a good semi-final 7-6 (8/6), 7-5 to eventual champion Kenin.

Barty had been in unrivalled kind pre-pandemic, profitable an Australian Open warm-up in Adelaide to add to 4 WTA titles in 2019, together with her maiden main at Roland Garros.

And although the 24-year-old has hardly swung a racquet since, electing not to journey as a result of of coronavirus dangers, it was as if she had by no means been away as she received the Yarra Valley Classic last in opposition to Garbine Muguruza on Sunday.

“I couldn’t wait to get on the court quick enough,” mentioned Barty after her straight-sets victory.

“It is always a little bit tricky when you haven’t played in 12 months.”

Kenin’s protection

Kenin, 22, finds herself as defending champion at a Slam for the primary time, having received when seeded 14 a yr in the past.

The WTA participant of the yr additionally reached the ultimate of the delayed French Open in a breakout season truncated by the coronavirus.

Her preparations suffered a blip when she misplaced in straight units to Muguruza in the Yarra Valley on Friday, a re-run of final yr’s last, and appeared to choose up an harm.

World quantity two Halep, 28, has been Wimbledon champion since 2019 as a result of the event was cancelled final yr.

The Romanian has lifted just one different Slam trophy, the 2018 French Open, regardless of spending seven consecutive years in the highest 10, the longest lively streak of any lady, however she Halep is nursing a again harm.

With most gamers having had little time on court docket, extra accidents or shock outcomes are possible, as on the delayed French Open in September, received by the just about unknown Polish teenager Iga Swiatek.

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