Picking a favourite on the women’s side remains as thankless a task as ever, especially after Serena Williams’s withdrawal. Who could have predicted that Jelena Ostapenko or Sloane Stephens would win their first grand slam titles last year? Still, if form is anything to go by then Svitolina will regard this as a fine opportunity to break her duck. The improving world No4 impressed on her way to winning the Brisbane International last week and the Ukrainian’s first real challenge could be Stephens, fitness permitting, in the fourth round.
With Andy Murray recuperating from hip surgery, the pressure on Konta – now coached by Michael Joyce – to keep British hopes alive in Melbourne is likely to be immense. The world No9 was a semi-finalist in 2016 and she also reached the last eight last year, losing to Serena Williams, the eventual champion, while a run to the last four at Wimbledon suggested that Konta could follow in Virginia Wade’s footsteps one day. The Sydney-born 26-year-old can be inconsistent, though, and was forced to withdraw from her Brisbane quarter-final with a hip problem.
The flux in the women’s game is best encapsulated by Simona Halep rising to the top of the rankings despite never having won a slam. Garbiñe Muguruza, meanwhile, has a patchy record on hard courts. Keeping that in mind, then, experience could be key. Venus Williams might not have her little sister for company but the 37-year-old was a finalist in Melbourne last year and should not be overlooked because of her age although she has a very tough opener against the returning Belinda Bencic.
The Russian is sure to split opinion wherever she goes, though one thing that is not in doubt is her ferocious competitiveness. The 30-year-old has been climbing the rankings since her return from a doping ban and she will be a threat simply because of her willingness to scrap. Sharapova reached the fourth round at the US Open but, while her slam pedigree is matched by few of her peers, she has a tough draw and will likely have to get past the 2016 victor, Angelique Kerber, just to reach the last 16 here.
Ostapenko and Stephens’s triumphs in Paris and New York should infuse every young hopeful with belief in Melbourne. Caroline Garcia should certainly fancy her chances after an encouraging end to 2017 which saw the Frenchwoman reach the semis in the season-ending tour finals. The 24-year-old is, however, in a tough quarter of the draw leaving her likely to face the losing US Open finalist, Madison Keys, in the fourth round and one of Muguruza, Sharapova, Kerber or Agniezska Radwanska in the last eight.