Ash Barty's shock retirement in 2022 - having just realised her dream of winning the Australian Open - was always going to leave a power vacuum in women's tennis. Almost two years on, former World No.4 and respected commentator Jelena Dokic says she can still see the effects of the Aussie champion's absence as a contingent of female stars battle to establish themselves at the top echelon of the sport.
Dokic was talking on Channel Nine's coverage before day two got underway at Melbourne Park on Monday, hours after Barty wowed fans by returning to Rod Laver Arena on the opening night. Barty brought out the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup - awarded to the women's champion at the Australian Open each year. The 27-year-old sent fans into a frenzy after appearing alongside Andre Agassi, with the American legend holding the male equivalent, the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup.
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The sight of the beloved Australian champion had fans understandably pining for her return to tennis, but it was her absence from the sport that Dokic was keen to discuss on Monday. The former World No.4 claimed that Barty's retirement had opened the door for a number of female stars to assume her former position at the summit of the women's game.
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Poland's World No.1 and French Open champion Iga Świątek has emerged as the most dominant female star since Barty's retirement, with last year's Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka and runner-up Elena Rybakina rounding out the top three. With four different champions at the four majors last year though - including Markéta Vondroušová at Wimbledon and Coco Gauff at the US Open - the battle for supremacy in the women's game is an open affair.
Players such as Greek World No.8 Maria Sakkari have also been firmly entrenched in the WTA's top-10 for several years now but have failed to take the next step. Dokic believes the absence of Barty has given hope to more of her former rivals and believes that the players who are able to deal with the pressure of competing on the biggest stage, will emerge as the ones to catch in 2024.
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"I think whoever will be in the first two or three this year will be the ones that deal with pressures and expectations the best," Dokic said on Nine's coverage. "We heard multiple players including Maria Sakkari say how much that's affected her especially in grand slams, knowing this number one, two, three ranking is here for the taking after Ash Barty retired.
"When Ash was playing everyone felt 'we don't have a chance'. Whoever deals with the pressures and has the right mindset will be up there." Sakkari had failed to make it past the first round of the last three grand slam tournaments but the eighth seed got her Australian Open campaign off to a positive start in round one. Sakkari advanced to the second round with a 6-4 6-1 victory over Japan's Nao Hibino and will fancy herself against Russia's Elina Avanesyan in round two.
Defending champion Sabalenka was clearly in a rush to get through the first match of her title defence in the late match on Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night. The Belarusian needed less than an hour to thump German teenager Ella Seidel 6-0 6-1 in a match that started at 11.41pm, making a mockery of the plan avoid late start times by bringing day one of the tournament forward from Monday to Sunday.
The biggest shock so far in the women's draw came early on Monday, however, with Wimbledon champion Vondrousova bundled out in straight sets by Dayana Yastremska. The Ukrainian qualifier ruthlessly dismantled her out-of-sorts opponent 6-1 6-2, after Vondrousova had arrived in Melbourne after a hip issue forced her to withdraw from the Adelaide International.
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