Sport360 - - Australian Open -

Caro­line Woz­ni­acki

The Dane fi­nally broke her Grand Slam hoodoo in Mel­bourne 12 months ago af­ter 12 years of try­ing, and is de­ter­mined to prove she re­mains a force at the top level af­ter drop­ping the bomb­shell that she is suf­fer­ing from rheuma­toid arthri­tis. Woz­ni­acki, 28, says the de­bil­i­tat­ing auto-im­mune con­di­tion is so bad that on some days “I wake up and can’t lift my hands over my head”. The shock di­ag­no­sis came af­ter Woz­ni­acki had re­turned to num­ber one and taken her WTA tour ti­tle tally to 30 with vic­to­ries not only in Mel­bourne, but also East­bourne and Bei­jing. She ar­rives ranked three be­liev­ing she can con­trol her con­di­tion.

Si­mona Halep

The Ro­ma­nian bounced back from los­ing to Woz­ni­acki in an epic Mel­bourne fi­nal 12 months ago to claim her own maiden Slam at Roland Gar­ros and climb back to num­ber one de­spite a nag­ging back in­jury that forced the 27-year-old to miss the WTA Fi­nals. Top-seeded Halep is with­out a coach af­ter long-time Aus­tralian men­tor Dar­ren Cahill stepped down for fam­ily rea­sons, and de­scribed 2018 as “very emo­tional” but in­sisted it had made her men­tally stronger. “When you have a tar­get on your back it’s not easy be­cause ev­ery­one wants to play their best against you and beat you,” she said. “But be­ing num­ber one is some­thing you should em­brace and be proud of.”

An­gelique Ker­ber

The Wim­ble­don cham­pion and world num­ber two is tipped to un­veil a more ag­gres­sive ap­proach un­der new coach Rainer Schut­tler, who reached the Aus­tralian Open fi­nal in 2003 where he lost to An­dre Agassi. Schut­tler will add more “dar­ing” to the 2016 Aus­tralian Open cham­pion’s game, said the Ger­man Ten­nis As­so­ci­a­tion’s Bar­bara Rit­tner, who helped de­velop Ker­ber as a teenager. “In gen­eral, it’s about her of­fen­sive game,” Rit­tner told of the three­time Grand Slam cham­pion who lost an ag­o­nis­ing, breath­less semi-fi­nal to Halep in Mel­bourne last year. “She is un­be­liev­ably good with the vol­ley – in this more ag­gres­sive, more dar­ing game.”

Naomi Osaka

The pop­u­lar 21-year-old’s US Open tri­umph was over­shad­owed by Ser­ena Wil­liams’ tantrum in the fi­nal at Flush­ing Mead­ows but Osaka has the op­por­tu­nity in Mel­bourne to demon­strate she can with­stand the spot­light of be­ing the new stan­dard bearer for ten­nis in Ja­pan, Asia and the next gen­er­a­tion of women. She ar­rives as sec­ond favourite with the book­ies be­hind Wil­liams, and seems un­fazed both by her strato­spheric rise and by the prospect of the huge sup­port she could re­ceive at the Aus­tralian Open, of­ten dubbed the Asia-Pa­cific Grand Slam. “I never feel pres­sure to per­form. I en­joy Grand Slams the most,” she said. “There is a cer­tain de­gree of pres­sure, but it’s from my­self.”

Ser­ena Wil­liams

De­spite be­ing ranked out­side the top 10, few would be brave enough to count Wil­liams out of the equa­tion as she aims to equal Mar­garet Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam sin­gles ti­tles. The 37-year-old has won at Mel­bourne Park seven times, most re­cently on her last visit in 2017 when she was eight weeks preg­nant with daugh­ter Alexis Olympia. Wil­liams missed the chance to equal the record in both the Wim­ble­don and US Open fi­nals last sea­son and says she is now avoid­ing fo­cus­ing on the num­bers. “I al­ways have crazy big goals but I like to keep them to my­self,” Wil­liams said re­cently.

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