Australian Open: Ash Barty’s shot at history and other key storylines

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The 2022 tennis season kicks off on Monday, with the Australian Open getting underway in Melbourne. The January Grand Slam has plenty of drama baked in as veterans seek to prove themselves and rookies aim to make waves.

Can Naomi Osaka repeat? Will Ash Barty break through? Here are the three storylines to watch for ahead of the Australian Open.

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1. Ash Barty tries to win one at home

World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty heads into the Australian Open fresh off clinching the Adelaide International title. Defeating No. 7 seed Elena Rybakina in straight sets in the final, Barty has won 17 of her last 18 matchups against Top 20 opponents. The Australian native is also coming off a sensational 2021 campaign, capturing the Wimbledon title to become the first Australian woman since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1980 to win the major. The 25-year-old ended last season with a WTA Player of the Year award after taking home five titles in 2021 and ending the year as the World No. 1.

In her rise through the tennis ranks, Barty has captured the heart of Australians, with two million viewers from her home country tuning in to watch the Wimbledon final well into the night and early hours of the morning. With two Grand Slams to her name, Barty hopes to make it a third at home in Australia, improving upon her 2020 semifinal run in Melbourne.

If Barty pulls off the win, she will become the first Australian to capture the major since Chris O’Neil in 1978.

The No. 1 seed won’t have any easy path. As the draw stands, Barty could face reigning champion Naomi Osaka in the tournament’s fourth round.

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2. Naomi Osaka returns to defend her title

Naomi Osaka is back on tour after a 2021 season largely defined by the multiple breaks she took from the sport. The 24-year-old first stepped back from tennis during last season’s French Open, citing her mental health. The four-time Grand Slam winner pulled out of Wimbledon as well before returning for the Tokyo Olympics. Following a tough US Open loss to Leylah Fernandez in September, Osaka took another break from tennis, announcing her decision in an emotional press conference after the Grand Slam.

Now, Osaka is back and ready to compete, admitting that her respite from tennis was shorter than even she expected.

“I actually really thought I wasn’t going to play for most of this year,” Osaka told reporters after the first round of January’s Melbourne Summer Set. “I’m really happy with myself that I love the sport that much, because I literally said that I was unsure when I was going to play after the US Open, and I’m here right now.”

After making a semifinal run at the Melbourne Summer Set, Osaka had to pull out of the Australian Open tune-up tournament, citing an abdominal injury. The reigning Australian Open champion is expected to recover for the Melbourne major, which kicks off Osaka’s 2022 campaign. Drawing a potential Round of 16 matchup with No. 1 seed Barty, Osaka’s title defense should be filled with drama and intrigue, as well as some exceptional tennis.

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3. A preview of the tour without the Williams sisters

The Australian Open will be without both Venus and Serena Williams for the first time since 1997, with both sisters pulling out of the Grand Slam due to lingering injuries. The Williams sisters’ two-decade plus run down under speaks to the American stars’ prolonged dominance on tour. Neither Venus nor Serena have hinted at retirement, but with both in their 40’s and having already accomplished everything possible in the sport, it’s fair to assume the sisters are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning.

It is hard to imagine tennis without two of the sport’s most towering figures, but the 2022 Australian Open could provide a glimpse into what the post-Williams era looks like.

Will World No. 1 Barty take command as the undisputed leader of the sport, or will No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka clinch her first Grand Slam? Could Naomi Osaka win a fifth Grand Slam and regain her earlier trajectory? Not to mention Garbiñe Muguruza, Barbora Krejcikova, Iga Swiatek, Paula Badosa, and Emma Raducanu, all of whom will have a chance to step into the Williams’ void and claim their position at the forefront of the next generation of tennis stars.