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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Five women to look out for at AO2020

It’s where Martina Hingis won her first Grand Slam title in 1997, aged just 16. It’s where a teenaged Amelie Mauresmo announced herself to the world with a run to the final in 1999. And in more recent years, it was where a trio of 19-year-olds – Sloane Stephens, Eugenie Bouchard and Madison Keys – made exciting runs to the semifinals in 2013, 2014 and 2015 respectively.
This year, Naomi Osaka was the latest young champion, improving in a big way on her fourth-round run in 2018 by going all the way to the title.
Will it be a similar story at Melbourne Park in 2020? One thing is certain – there is no shortage of young exceptionally talented players currently rising in the women’s game.
Here are five who could next make an Australian Open breakthrough.

Belinda Bencic

It may seem surprising to include a former world No.7 on this list, yet Bencic, who lost the better part of two seasons due to injuries, is still just 21 years of age. The prodigious Swiss enjoyed an exceptional junior career and transitioned quickly to the professional circuit, advancing to the US Open quarters in 2014 and cracking the top 10 in February 2016. By September 2017, she had plummeted to No.318. Thankfully, Bencic – whose style recalls Hingis or Anastasia Myskina – has worked her way back into the top 50 and looked fitter than ever at January’s Hopman Cup, where she pushed Serena Williams to three sets. If she can keep her body healthy and enjoy a year of uninterrupted, confidence-boosting match play, she could very well be a threat in 12 months’ time at the Australian Open, where her best result was a run to the fourth round in 2016.

Dayana Yastremska

Just 18 years of age, the Ukrainian made everyone sit up and take notice late last year when she stormed to the WTA title in Hong Kong. Playing a hyper-aggressive, free-wheeling style evoking Jelena Ostapenko, Yastremska has the ability to smack opponents off the court, and she did so against Garbine Muguruza the very next week, backing up her Hong Kong title with a run to the semis in Luxembourg. Having ended 2017 ranked No.189, she was up to No.60 by the end of 2018, and opened 2019 with a run to the third round at the Australian Open, beating former top-10 stalwarts Sam Stosur and Carla Suarez Navarro. Said Stosur: “I came up against a young 18-year-old who not everyone's heard of yet, but they will in weeks or months to come. I think she's going to be a very good player.” Serena Williams ended up dishing out a tennis lesson to the teenager in the third round, but don’t think Yastremska won’t learn from it. 

Sofia Kenin

In her short career, Kenin has made a habit of pushing some of the biggest names in the sport to the brink. Ranked outside the top 100 at the US Open in 2017, she went all the way to the third round and stretched Maria Sharapova in an exciting match at Arthur Ashe Stadium. A year later, she was thrown into the deep end in the 2018 Fed Cup final; in front of 15,000 Czech fans she pushed the higher-ranked Katerina Siniakova for almost four hours before going down. Prior to coming to this year’s Australian Open, she won her first WTA title in Hobart and cracked the top 40, before extending world No.1 Simona Halep to three sets at Rod Laver Arena in the second round. Her ranking and results show she’s trending the right way, and although she’s short in stature, she forces opponents to have to play at a very high level to beat her. With another year’s experience and strength under her belt, the 20-year-old could be a dark horse at Melbourne Park in 2020.

Amanda Anisimova

The 17-year-old was one of the stories of this year’s Australian Open, mostly thanks to her straight-sets rout of the highly-fancied Aryna Sabalenka. In a masterful performance, the American dropped just five games as she overwhelmed Sabalenka with the cleanness of her hitting and her presence on a big show court. The owner of one of the best backhands in the game, Anisimova – born in the United States to Russian parents – announced herself as a star of the future when she upset Petra Kvitova en route to the fourth round at Indian Wells in 2018. After suffering a foot injury that kept her off tour for four months, Anisimova proved that Indian Wells performance was no fluke by reaching her first WTA final in Hiroshima. Then came her trip to the last 16 at Melbourne Park, cementing her place within the top 100. Having only recently stopped competing on the junior circuit, Anisimova, somewhat scarily, has so much upside and so much more experience to gain. She could be an incredible force here in 12 months’ time.

Astra Sharma

The 23-year-old from Western Australia was a largely unknown quantity until this year’s Australian Open, when she qualified for the main draw – upsetting former world No.2 Vera Zvonareva along the way – and then advancing to the second round. And she extended her stay in Melbourne well into the second week by reaching the mixed doubles final with compatriot John-Patrick Smith. Given this was her first appearance at a Grand Slam tournament, it was a resounding debut, and an invaluable learning experience. She caught the eye of plenty of tennis insiders along the way. “Watched @astrasharma during her singles campaign and again tonight, she is the best female natural athlete I’ve ever seen come out of Australia,” tweeted Roger Rasheed. Added John Millman: “Hot take... @astrasharma is good. Pretty sure we’ll be seeing a lot of her.” Having come through the US college system, Sharma’s ranking is set to soar from No.232 to No.164 after her run in Melbourne. And with a venomous serve and heavy, kicking forehand, she looks set to rise higher still as she strives to become a Grand Slam force.