Serena Williams (pictured left) is the firm favourite to win the Australian Open as she again bids for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam singles title.
The 38-year-old American is aiming to match the record set in 1973 by Australia’s Margaret Court, who will be recognised at the tournament on the 50th anniversary of her calendar Grand Slam.
Old guard Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are still expected to be the men to beat in Melbourne, while Britain’s former world number one Andy Murray is missing because of a pelvic injury.
The first Grand Slam of the 2020 season is set to go ahead as planned, despite the backdrop of raging bushfires that have devastated parts of Australia.
Williams has not won a Grand Slam title since the 2017 Australian Open, when she was eight weeks pregnant.
Since returning from maternity leave in March 2018, she has reached four Grand Slam finals — two at Wimbledon and two at the US Open — losing them all.
But she goes into this tournament as the clear favourite, having rediscovered how to win a final.
Williams claimed the Auckland International on Sunday, beating fellow American Jessica Pegula in the final, to lift her first trophy in almost three years.
“It’s been a long time; I think you could see the relief on my face,” she said.
Williams’ drought has helped open up the women’s game; the past 11 Grand Slams have produced nine different winners, over a period that has seen seven players hold the world number one ranking.
Younger players have grasped their chance over the past three years, with 22-year-old Japanese Naomi Osaka and 19-year-old Canadian Bianca Andreescu both landing their first majors by beating Williams in New York, while the more experienced Caroline Wozniacki, of Denmark, and Simona Halep, of Romania, finally landed elusive Grand Slam titles.
Osaka, the defending champion in Melbourne, is expected to mount another title tilt on a surface that yielded a 14-match winning streak before she lost to Czech Karolina Pliskova in the Brisbane International semi-finals on Saturday.
Andreescu will not be playing in Melbourne, having pulled out with a knee injury sustained at the season-ending WTA Finals in October.
World number one Ashleigh Barty is aiming to become the first Australian woman to win at Melbourne Park in 42 years, while second seed Pliskova, having won the Brisbane title for the third successive year, is aiming prove wrong those who doubt she has the mindset to deliver a Grand Slam title.
While Williams seeks to match Court’s Grand Slam singles record, the 77-year-old Australian will be marking one of her other milestones — the 50th anniversary of her 1970 sweep of all four of the majors.
Court’s opposition to same-sex marriage and her view that transgender children are the work of “the devil” have made her a controversial figure and Tennis Australia has said it plans to “recognise” her as a champion rather than “celebrate” her as a hero.
The governing body has so far been vague on the details of what it is planning for Court, who is now a Christian pastor.
Grand Slam winners Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King are among those who have called for the Margaret Court Arena at Melbourne Park to be re-named because of her views and the issue could come up again with the Australian invited to participate in a “significant programme of events”. — BBC SPORT