Ash Barty is embracing the hype as the world No 1 lines up for her best chance yet to break Australia’s most infamous sporting drought.
Tennis fans need only peep at the betting markets to realise Barty will likely never be presented a more inviting opportunity to win the Australian Open than this month in Melbourne.
Barty and defending champion Naomi Osaka, who has slumped to 13th in the world following a traumatic past seven months, are the only two players with single-digit odds to claim the women’s crown.
The absence of seven-times champion Serena Williams, doubts over Olympic gold medallist Belinda Bencic and several other Covid-19 sufferers, and an extraordinary shake-up of the top 10, have left Barty as the clear Melbourne Park favourite.
Beyond the old guard of former No 1s, the resurgent Garbiñe Muguruza lay a fresh but mostly unproven batch of challengers.
Tunisian trailblazer Ons Jabeur, Spaniard Paula Badosa, Estonian Anett Kontaveit, Greek sensation Maria Sakkari and the Czech Republic’s shock French Open winner Barbora Krejčíková all finished the year inside the top 10 for the first time in 2021.
Little wonder the perennially circumspect Barty has entered the new season guarded but fancying her chances of becoming the first home hope to win the Open since the unseeded Chris O’Neil in 1978.
“It’s as good as anyone’s,” the Wimbledon champion said. “There will be 128 of us in the draw. We’ll all do the same thing, do the best we can do. That’s all we can ask, all we can do.”
As ever, Barty remains respectful and wary of her emerging new threats.
“There were certainly a number of breakout years through 2021, girls really stepped up, were able to play really consistent seasons which is exciting to see for the women’s game.”
“You have obviously seen those girls that have been at the top for a very long time. Some had a rough run with injury, others had pretty solid years. It feels like it’s just good competition.
“Genuinely there is really good depth and you have to bring your best time and time again to be able to compete with everyone and give yourself a chance to win the big titles.”
The 25-year-old stopped short of declaring her five-title haul in 2021 her best season yet. But Barty did admit her preparation for a ninth Open tilt felt less cramped after finishing up in September and opting out of the season-ending championship and Billie Jean King Cup in November and December.
“But until you play that first match, you never quite know until you kind of dip your toes in again into what it feels like for the competition,” she said.
“It’s a different beast. You just need to enjoy that and work your way through it in the first couple weeks because not often are you playing your very best tennis right at the start.
“You have to work your way in, earn that right. I’m looking forward to that challenge starting here in Adelaide of trying to find my groove, really enjoy being out on the match court again.”
Barty will open her Adelaide title defence on Wednesday against either American teenage prodigy Coco Gauff or a qualifier.