Woz­ni­acki ready to de­fend ti­tle as Wil­liams re­turns

TEN­NIS

Kalgoorlie Miner - - SPORT -

On the eve of her Aus­tralian Open ti­tle de­fence, Caro­line Woz­ni­acki ad­mits the big­gest un­known in 2019 might be the sport’s most-en­dur­ing cham­pion Ser­ena Wil­liams.

Wil­liams will gun for her 24th ma­jor ti­tle this year at Mel­bourne Park, re­turn­ing to Aus­tralia after miss­ing last year’s tour­na­ment with the birth of her first child.

Woz­ni­acki, who claimed a maiden slam in Wil­liams’ ab­sence, is out for her sec­ond.

Wil­liams’ first-round clash with Tat­jana Maria to­mor­row will be her first com­pet­i­tive match since the US Open fi­nal, lost dra­mat­i­cally to Naomi Osa- ka. Aside from three matches and three wins in Perth at the Hop­man Cup, where Wil­liams’ tough­est op­po­nent had been world No.49 Belinda Ben­cic, the 37year-old has kept a low pro­file since her dra­matic ca­pit­u­la­tion in New York.

Ahead of her own open­ing clash to­day with Ali­son van Uyt­vanck, Woz­ni­acki gave a frank as­sess­ment of where she might sit com­pared with the all-time great this month in Mel­bourne. “I don’t know,” she said. “I haven’t seen her play a match ei­ther, so I don’t re­ally know. All I can say is that I feel good. I feel like I’m hit­ting the ball well.”

At least Woz­ni­acki, the world No.3, un­der­stands her­self bet­ter than ever. The Dane, 28, shocked the sport in Oc­to­ber by re­veal­ing she suf­fered the de­bil­i­tat­ing au­toim­mune con­di­tion rheuma­toid arthri­tis.

She re­sponded by leav­ing the court be­hind in Novem­ber, trav­el­ling to the Mal­dives, the British Vir­gin Is­lands and An­field, home of her beloved foot­ball club Liver­pool, be­fore tun­ing back into the sea­son.

“I took quite a bit of time for my­self, just to re­lax and en­joy,” she said.

“It was im­por­tant for me just to leave the rac­quet be­hind for a while. That felt great . . . I just re­ally just lis­tened to my body, just saw how ev­ery­thing was go­ing.

“To be here as the de­fend­ing cham­pion, I’m just tak­ing it as a nice, fun chal­lenge.

“My first prac­tice was on Rod Laver (Arena), and it was just nice. I felt com­fort­able straight­away when I hit balls on that court. It was just a good feel­ing.”

“It’s def­i­nitely great to be back.”

Woz­ni­acki was a shock sec­on­dround loser in the lead-up tour­na­ment in Auck­land, but showed her readi­ness in a prac­tice set ear­lier this week with world No.6 Elina Svi­tolina, win­ning 6-3 un­der match con­di­tions on Mar­garet Court Arena.

De­spite her rank­ing and per­for­mance last year, Woz­ni­acki is ranked out­side the top-10 chances at Mel­bourne Park by book­mak­ers.

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