Tennis-Serena looks to hold back tide of youth in history quest

Nick Mulvenney
·3-min read
FILE PHOTO: Tennis - Australian Open - Third Round

By Nick Mulvenney

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Serena Williams will want to have a big say in the matter but the inexorable drive towards youth among women's Grand Slam winners looks set to continue at the Australian Open over the next two weeks.

The majestic American, who turns 40 this year, will be a contender for as long as she continues to swing a racket and arrives at Melbourne Park seeking a 24th Grand Slam title to match Margaret Court's record.

Simona Halep is the only woman over the age of 24 to have won a Grand Slam singles title in the last two years, however, with Naomi Osaka, Ash Barty, Bianca Andreescu and Iga Swiatek taking out the game's other major prizes.

U.S. Open champion Osaka has won three of the last five hardcourt Grand Slams and has been showing the sort of power and consistency that could make her the next dominant force in women's tennis.

The 23-year-old is seeded third but the rankings are perhaps not as reliable a gauge as they might be in other years because of the disruption to the international tennis circuit caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Osaka played only four tournaments last season, Barty holds the top ranking despite playing her first competitive matches in almost a year in the Australian Open warm-ups this week.

The 2019 French Open champion reached the semi-finals at her home Grand Slam last year -- a career best -- and will certainly not lack support from the restricted crowds as she bids to give Australia a first singles champion since Chris O'Neil in 1978.

Barty has looked fit and resilient in her warm-up matches and enjoyed what looked like a straightforward path to the business end of the tournament in Friday's draw, which paired her with world number 77 Danka Kovinic in the opening round.

FORM PLAYER

American Kenin would have to rank as the Grand Slam form player after winning her first major at last year's Australian Open and reaching the final of the delayed French Open.

The 22-year-old fourth seed can be frustratingly inconsistent but should have more than enough quality to get past her first-round opponent, local wildcard Maddison Inglis, and into the second week.

Andreescu has been sidelined by a succession of injuries since soon after she won the 2019 U.S. Open and many feared the worst when she pulled out of the Grampians Trophy warm-up this week.

The Canadian reassured her fans on Friday that the move was purely precautionary, however, and that she would be on court to face lucky loser Mihaela Buzarnescu in the first round next week.

Swiatek, who might struggle to match her fairytale run to the French Open title last year in only her third outing in the main draw at Melbourne Park, has been drawn in the same quarter as Halep and Williams.

It was the humiliating fourth-round loss to the Polish teenager at Roland Garros that put paid to Halep's hopes of taking the number one ranking off Barty -- and gave a reminder of the 29-year-old Romanian's sometimes fragile temperament.

The second seed will be leading the charge for the older players not named Williams along with the likes of her fellow former Grand Slam champions Victoria Azarenka, Angelique Kerber, Petra Kvitova and Garbine Muguruza.

All eyes will be on Williams, however, when she embarks on her 20th Melbourne Park campaign against German Laura Siegemund next week looking to take a first step towards her eighth Australian Open title and another slice of history.

(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Ken Ferris)