Following an eventful fortnight, tennis action is finally set to get underway at Melbourne Park this Monday. Several top names will be in action at the warm-up tournaments leading up to the 2021 Australian Open, which is set to begin on 8 February.
Leading the women's draw at the Melbourne Slam will be top seed Ashleigh Barty, last year's winner Sofia Kenin and other Grand Slam champions including Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Victoria Azarenka, Petra Kvitova and Naomi Osaka.
With just over a week left for main draw action to start, now is the perfect time to look at the prospects of some of these big names. Here, we rank the top eight contenders for the title based on the players' performances in the Australian Open series over the last three years.
8. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Her form coming into the Australian Open this year is pretty underwhelming, but former junior No. 1 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has managed some solid results in Melbourne over the years. The Russian has two back-to-back quarterfinal showings to boast of, and could well be looking to go one up on those results.
With a ranking of No. 39, Pavlyuchenkova might miss the cut for securing a seed at this year's tournament. But she will be a dangerous floater that all the top names will be looking to avoid early.
7. Simona Halep
The final appearance from three years ago has helped former World No. 1 Simona Halep hold on to the seventh spot in this year's power rankings. And while she hasn't won too many titles in Australia, Halep's consistent showings in warm-up tournaments do bode well for her.
Given the right draw, there's no reason why Simona Halep can't stage another deep run in Melbourne Park this year.
6. Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka had a largely forgettable first few weeks at the start of last season. The Japanese star failed to recreate the form that saw her win the 2019 Australian Open title, and made early exits in both Melbourne and Brisbane.
But those results are not truly reflective of Osaka's abilities, especially on hardcourt. With a power-packed game like hers, backed by her title run in 2019, the youngster will continue to be seen as a formidable opponent.
5. Karolina Pliskova
Karolina Pliskova has made a habit of starting her seasons with nothing short of title runs in the Australian subcontinent. She has won the season opener crown at Brisbane thrice in the last four years, including at the 2019 and 2020 editions of the tournament.
That, coupled with semifinal and quarterfinal finishes at the 2018 and 2019 Australian Opens respectively, should give Pliskova - who looked completely out of sorts towards the end of the 2020 season - something to build on.
4. Garbine Muguruza
Garbine Muguruza has several fond memories of playing at the Australian Open. Not only did the Spaniard register her first Grand Slam breakthrough in Melbourne, but it was also here last year that she revived her dipping fortunes by staging an unexpected run to the summit clash.
It is based on that very run, coupled with decent showings in warm-up tournaments over the last three years, that Muguruza finds herself placed at number four in this year's power rankings list.
3. Petra Kvitova
Petra Kvitova's tennis journey came full circle at the 2019 Australian Open. Playing in her first Major final since the 2016 knife attack that had left her playing hand severely injured, Kvitova was visibly emotional throughout that fortnight. And while she went on lose the final in three sets, the Czech star still managed to make a huge statement.
After her struggles in the early part of her career, Kvitova finally seems to have found a way to adapt to the hot conditions Down Under. She now ranks 7th in most match wins in Australia among active players.
The big-hitting lefty has also made her aspirations of winning another Grand Slam clear. If she can find her from early, Kvitova can prove to be as strong a contender as any.
2. Ashleigh Barty
Having chosen to give a large part of the 2020 season a miss owing to COVID-19 concerns, World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty finally returned to tennis action in Adelaide on Friday. Playing against Simona Halep, the Australian would have gotten a fair idea of where her game is at after such a long gap.
The time spent on court in Adelaide would have also helped calm the early season jitters for Barty, who enters the Australian Open with huge expectations.
With a title on home soil and a couple of deep runs in Melbourne over the last three years, Barty has the right build-up leading into the 2021 tournament.
1. Sofia Kenin
Sofia Kenin tops the list owing to her dream run to the title at last year's Australian Open. The 22-year-old showed great character throughout the fortnight, upstaging a string of more accomplished opponents on the biggest of stages.
Kenin ended last season with another Slam final and the WTA Player of the Year award, both of which would have only bolstered her confidence levels.
Kenin also seems to enjoy her time in Australia; the American won her first career title in Hobart. The courts in this part of the world suit her game well, and there's no reason why the youngster shouldn't be backed for a repeat from last year.
The likes of former winners Serena Williams, Angelique Kerber and Victoria Azarenka, top 10 players Elina Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka, as well as young talents Ons Jabeur and Elena Rybakina have all done well in Australia in the past and could pose a serious challenge to all major contenders.