The late withdrawal of Serena Williams from the Australian Open did little to shake up the field, given the American has not played since winning her 23rd slam title in Melbourne a year ago when she was seven weeks pregnant, but it did offer a sliver of hope for the other contenders, including Britain’s Johanna Konta.
Konta has shown enough in Brisbane this week to suggest she has recovered from the worrying stretch of five straight defeats that accompanied her foot injury late last season and she has as good a chance of competing for the title as any of the top 10 – if she is fit.
Konta quit during the third set of her tight match against Elina Svitolina on Thursday with a strain to – what else? –her right hip, although it appeared to be considerably less serious than the nagging weakness in that area that has plagued Andy Murray to the point where his very future is in doubt.
The world No9 later flew to Sydney, where she was born, to reunite with her family and to work out what she needs to do to get fit for Melbourne on 15 January. Konta said in a vague fitness update on Friday: “My medical team has been assessing the injury again and we will have a clearer idea when I next practise. I’ll give everyone more of an update when I can.” That did not sound as if she was waiting for an ambulance to hurry her away for a scan.
There is doubt still about the participation of Victoria Azarenka and pundits have looked elsewhere for a Melbourne favourite, mainly in the direction of Garbiñe Muguruza, just ahead of Karolina Pliskova, although the Czech lost in straight sets to Svitolina in Brisbane.
Simona Halep, the world No1, has reached the final at the Shenzhen Open, where she will face Katerina Siniakova, the defending champion, who defeated Maria Sharapova in three sets.
Williams, who is not yet ready to return, will be in the peculiar situation of being technically unranked on the last day of the tournament – the first time that has been the case since October, 1997. It seems not even the prospect of drawing alongside Margaret Court’s 24 majors was sufficient a temptation for her to change her mind about coming to Melbourne.
She received support from Nick Kyrgios, whose commitment to the sport has known its rocky moments. Asked after beating Alexandr Dolgopolov in three sets in Brisbane what he made of the welter of withdrawals and injury problems among elite players, the straight-talking Australian said: “They’ve got to do other things in their life, mate. I mean, Serena just had a kid. She can’t play tennis forever.
“That’s what happens. People do other stuff. I do other stuff than playing tennis, as well. We can’t be available all the time. If I had a kid, I probably wouldn’t play the Australian Open, either. Andy Murray is a bit unfortunate through injury but they’re getting older, these guys. They can’t always be available.”
If there is a new force lurking to fill the void in the women’s draw in Melbourne, a good long-shot may be world No74 Belinda Bencic, who brought her run of unbeaten singles matches in all competitions to 18 when she beat the world No10 CoCo Vandeweghe 7-6 (6), 6-4 to help Switzerland into the final of the Hopman Cup in Perth this week.
There is support, too, for Australia’s most versatile athlete, the international cricketer and world No17, Ashleigh Barty. One bookmaker reckons she is “among the most popular bets” to win in Melbourne, which reflects sentiment for a local favourite as much as considered analysis. That said the former Wimbledon girls’ champion had been in excellent form until her first-round defeat in Brisbane to the unseeded Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko.