Youthful Osaka, Barty stand in way of Serena’s path to 24th Slam

MELBOURNE (AFP) – Serena Williams continues her long quest for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam when the coronavirus-delayed 2021 Australian Open begins today, four years since her last major triumph in Melbourne.

It may be this season or never for Williams, who turns 40 in September and will have to conquer a field bursting with young talent headed by US Open champion Naomi Osaka, home favourite and world number one Ash Barty and defending champion Sofia Kenin.

The tournament was put back three weeks to allow all players to quarantine for 14 days, but a coronavirus case at a hotel saw all play shelved on Thursday in warm-up events with hundreds of players and officials ordered back into isolation for Covid tests.

Williams, who will play second on Rod Laver Arena today against Germany’s Laura Siegemund, said she has benefitted from the delays, using them to recover fully from the nagging Achilles injury sustained during her run to the semi-finals at the US Open, which caused her to withdraw from Roland Garros.

“I needed time. I don’t think I would have been here if it was during the regular season,” she said.

“I definitely was pushing the limits, but I’m here,” assuring that a shoulder issue that caused her to pull out of the warm-up Yarra Valley Classic semi-finals would not be a problem.

Williams won her 23rd Grand Slam singles title at the Australian Open in January 2017, then revealed she had been pregnant with daughter Olympia.

She has reached four major finals since, twice at Wimbledon and twice at the US Open, but left empty-handed each time and coronavirus-disrupted 2020 was the first year since 2006 that she failed to reach a Slam final.

Osaka comes into Melbourne as US Open champion, as she did two years ago before battling past Petra Kvitova in one of the greatest Australian Open finals to lift the Daphne Akhurst Cup.

The Japanese icon last year overtook Williams to become the world’s highest paid female athlete, according to Forbes magazine, and arguably the face of the sport after campaigning for diversity and social justice.

Osaka won widespread praise for her outspoken support of the Black Lives Matter movement during the coronavirus shutdown and at the US Open, where the 23-year-old wore a different mask each round emblazoned with the name of a victim of systemic racism or police brutality.

“I feel like the last year changed me a lot,” said Osaka, who will open the tournament today on centre court, the Rod Laver Arena, against Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

“There was a lot of things I was struggling with, and I feel like during quarantine I really had to dig deep in myself and try to figure it out for myself.”