Tokyo Olympics: Skateboard stars, karate kids and climbing for gold - the Games get a makeover

By Sports Desk July 05, 2021

The Tokyo Olympics will scale new heights, ride the crest of a wave, and hit it out of the park.

You can guarantee the Games will achieve that triple-whammy, because sport climbing, surfing and baseball are all part of Japan's big show.

The Games of the 32nd Olympiad have been hit hard by the pandemic, but the diversity of 'new' sports on offer means a feast of entertainment is beckoning, designed to attract younger audiences.

Skateboarding an Olympic sport? After snowboarding proved a raging success at the Winter Games, it was a banker that kickflips and Caballerials would be coming to the summer programme.

And soon enough we will all have a tight grip on the technicalities of lead climbing, speed climbing and bouldering.

The Olympics are getting a radical facelift, and you'll want to take a close look.


Sport climbing

Given the Olympic motto is 'faster, higher, stronger', perhaps it is a wonder that climbing has not been a part of the Games before now.

Yet this version of the sport is a relatively modern phenomenon, having first become established in the 1980s.

Climbing walls are as prevalent in many parts of the world as ice rinks or bowling alleys, becoming a fashionable leisure activity but a competitive sport for some.

Complicated routes to dizzying heights, seeking the highest controlled hold possible, are the hallmark of lead climbing, while speed climbing is an attack on the senses for competitor and viewer alike, with elite men having been known to hurtle up a 15-metre wall in barely five seconds.

Bouldering is a test of problem-solving expertise as well as skill, a true examination of the climber's wit and athleticism.

At Tokyo's Aomi Urban Sports Park, the climbing competition for men and women will cover all three disciplines, with combined scores deciding the medals.

 

Surfing

Sailing, canoeing and kayaking have been mainstays of the Olympic Games, and now surfing joins as a high-octane addition to the roster of sports.

The daredevil nature of surfing means it should prove one of the outstanding spectacles, assuming Mother Nature brings the Pacific coast waves Games organisers are looking for.

Each of the 20 men and 20 women competing will be allowed to ride up to 25 waves in 30 minutes, with their two highest scopes from the five judges being counted, so choosing the right moment for a high-tariff manoeuvre is all important.

Surf stars will be assessed on their "commitment and degree of difficulty, innovative and progressive manoeuvres, combinations of major manoeuvres, variety of manoeuvres, and speed, power and flow", the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said.

American John John Florence is a man to watch out for, with the 28-year-old two-time former world champion having built up his skills riding the waves of his native Hawaii. He suffered a worrying knee injury in Perth, Australia in May, but has recovered in time for the Games.

Skateboarding

Once largely portrayed as the preserve of weed-smoking punk kids, and certainly still patronised by the disaffected youth, skateboarding now comes with a highly professional element too.

Washington Square Park, Venice Beach and the undercroft of London's Southbank Centre have been epicentres of the growing subculture, but now the focus turns to Tokyo, where separate street and park disciplines will test the elite boarders.

Competitors will be assessed on the difficulty level, the originality and the execution of their displays at the Ariake Urban Sports Park.

This will be skateboarding's coming-out party as a major competitive sport, with the eyes of millions across the world setting their eyes on the stars who put themselves in more danger of injury than most Olympians.

Japan's Yuto Horigome and Aori Nishimura won gold in the men's and women's Street World Championship in Rome just a matter of weeks ago, ramping up the interest at home.

British 12-year-old Sky Brown, poised to become her country's youngest summer Olympian, will also be one to watch after recovering from a horror skateboarding accident last year that saw her suffer skull fractures. They are a tough set in this sport, with surely nobody braver than Brown.

Karate

Of course karate needed to be in any 21st century Olympics hosted by Japan, and it may be a surprise to many that this marks its debut at the Games.

The sport has Japanese roots and there seem sure to be home gold medals, while global exposure to karate is perhaps at an all-time high thanks to the popularity of Karate Kid spin-off Cobra Kai, the Netflix series.

Spain are a mighty force too, with Damian Quintero and Sandra Sanchez prime contenders for gold in the kata discipline, both being ranked number one in the world.

In the combat element, known as kumite, the jargon may take some getting used to for newcomers. One point, known as a Yuko, is awarded for a punch to key areas of an opponent, including the head, back or torso, while a Waza-ari is worth two points and will be given for a kick to the body.

An Ippon, for three points, is achieved by landing a high kick to the head or a punch to a grounded opponent.

Karate will take place at Tokyo's famous Nippon Budokan, which as well as being a famous martial arts venue also famously played host to The Beatles for a series of shows in 1966.

Rock acts including Bob Dylan and Cheap Trick recorded legendary live albums at the Budokan, which was built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and has also staged Muhammad Ali fights, one a standard boxing match in 1972 and the other a bizarre hybrid clash in 1976 with wrestler Antonio Inoki.

 

Baseball and softball

Baseball was an Olympic medal-awarding sport from 1992 to 2008 and softball had that status from 1996 to 2008, so you would be forgiven for not feeling any huge rush of enthusiasm about its return to the Games.

Unlike in basketball, the United States do not bring their baseball A-listers to the Games, relying on a group largely formed of minor-leaguers and free agents, and South Korea were the last Olympic champions.

This year the competition will feature the Dominican Republic, Israel, Japan, Mexico, South Korea and the United States, while the women's softball event will be contested by Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Mexico and the USA.

Japan's baseball stars are reportedly each in line for bonuses worth 10 million yen (£65,000) if they carry off the gold medal.

They won an exhibition event at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, beating the United States in the final, and have since claimed a silver and two bronze medals.

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  • False promises and falling outs – the inevitable fall of Rafael Benitez False promises and falling outs – the inevitable fall of Rafael Benitez

    The irony of Everton sacking Rafael Benitez on the day Carlo Ancelotti won the first trophy of his second Real Madrid stint was not lost on the Goodison Park faithful.

    Ancelotti stunned Everton in June by leaving to return to Madrid. While there can be no comparison between Los Blancos when it comes to allure, it cut deep that a manager who seemed committed to a long-term project on Merseyside, had left at the first opportunity.

    Not that Ancelotti's 18 months at Everton had been a roaring success. His final game was a 5-0 drubbing at Manchester City – the heaviest defeat of the Italian's managerial career, in his 1,167th match.

    That result condemned Everton to a 10th-placed finish. Just City and Manchester United won more away games last term in the Premier League, yet the Toffees suffered nine home defeats, with only the three relegated sides losing more on their own turf.

    But there was a feeling that Everton might have enough to push on under Ancelotti, should reinforcements arrive.

    Instead, it was former Liverpool boss Benitez, who had replaced Ancelotti for an ill-fated spell at Madrid in 2015, who arrived at Goodison.

    An unpopular pick among the fanbase, the Spaniard was always starting from behind the eight-ball.

    As was inevitable, the experiment failed. Benitez was sacked on Sunday after defeat at lowly Norwich City with Everton lingering six points above the bottom three after a run of one win in 13 league games (the club's joint-worst Premier League run) and facing the prospect of hiring a sixth permanent manager since 2016-17.

    False promises

    From Benitez's first news conference, it was clear that Everton, lavish spenders in recent years, were going to be cutting their cloth in line with tight financial limitations.

    "You have to work in the context of having a director of football, the board, and financial restrictions," he said after becoming only the second manager to take over Everton and Liverpool. "Talk the talk and walk the walk? I prefer to walk the walk."

    Only £1.7million was spent, but Everton started the league campaign brightly. Indeed, ahead of a September 13 game with Burnley, they had scored seven times, as many as they had in their last 10 games last term.

    After a 1-1 draw with United on October 2, Everton had 14 points from their seven Premier League games, the most since they had gone on to secure a fourth-place finish in the competition in 2004-05 (16). 

    Was that optimism built on solid foundations, though?

    Benitez's system was based on counter-attacking, with Everton happy to surrender possession. Only once before October had they had more than 50 per cent of the ball (51.71 v Burnley).

    It is a trend that has continued, with Everton – who have had more possession than only three top-flight teams across the season – only seeing more of the ball than their opponents on three further occasions. In each of those games, they lost.

    However, to be a counter-attacking team you must be solid, and Everton are not. They have shipped 34 goals, with only four teams having weaker defences, while 11 goals have been conceded from set-pieces, the second-worst figure in the league (Ancelotti's team only allowed 10 from dead-ball situations in 2020-21).

    But since Everton's woeful run started with a 1-0 defeat to West Ham on October 17, they have taken the lead just once – in a 5-2 home defeat to Watford. It is hard to sit back and play on the break if you are constantly chasing a game.

    In total, the Toffees have spent 36 per cent of games losing this season (when the ball has been in play), and only 12 per cent of the time ahead. West Ham (12) are the sole team to have gained more points from a losing position than Everton (11), so at least Benitez's men showed resolve on occasion.

    From October 17, Everton rank 18th for goals (11), 16th for shots on target (46/139), 12th for touches in the opposition box (259), 15th for chances created (93) and have the third-worst defence (27 goals conceded). They have an expected goals against (xGA) of 20.6 in that timeframe, the fourth-worst in the division. Their position is in no way false.

    Everton did play forward under Benitez (41.6 per cent of their passes were in an attacking direction, up from 32.9 per cent last season) but on only 86 occasions have they strung together a move of 10 passes or more, which ranks them 18th in the league, while their 490 passes/crosses is the fifth-lowest total.

    The bright sparks in that run have come from moments of inspiration. Demarai Gray's stunning winner against Arsenal or Richarlison's overhead kick at Norwich. Gray has been a standout performer, scoring five league goals from an xG of only 2.7, but it felt like there has been too much onus on the winger in recent weeks.

    Though injuries to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison, Yerry Mina and Abdoulaye Doucoure must be taken into account, Benitez's mantra became "I know what the fans want", but he appeared to be talking the talk rather than walking the walk. 

    Falling outs

    With Everton craving stability and unity, it is odd that owner Farhad Moshiri (more on him later) turned to Benitez, who was never the right pick to unite the fanbase or stabilise the club.

    He has fallen out with owners, sporting directors and high-profile players at previous clubs and, indeed, his time at Everton proved no different.

    Director of football Marcel Brands, who signed a contract extension in April, was moved on when Everton fans protested over the running of the club back in December, following a 4-1 defeat to Liverpool. 

    Evertonians' worst nightmare had played out, their rivals singing Benitez's name at Goodison after a humiliating defeat. It was the first time the Reds scored four goals in an away league derby since a 5-0 win in 1982, and Brands paid the price. His recruitment department followed, with director of medical services Dan Donachie having already left.

    Everton offered their full backing to Benitez and five days later, claimed a vital win over Arsenal. But a cloud hung over that victory.

    Since his arrival at Everton, Lucas Digne was second only to Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold for chances created by a Premier League defender (211). The France international had spoken openly of having been asked to play a more defensive role under Benitez, though behind the scenes matters appeared to boil over in a reported training-ground row.

    Digne was dropped and did not return bar, for reasons known only to Benitez himself, to take a seat on the bench in a 3-2 defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion. The full-back received applause from the crowd when he warmed up, but did not come on despite Everton needing an equaliser late on in a game in which they only made two changes.

    Last week, Digne was sold to Aston Villa. The sale eases the financial issues but leaves Everton without their third-most creative player (22 key passes) in the league this term. Indeed, only Andros Townsend (2.13) has crafted more opportunities for them this season than Digne (1.69) per 90 minutes.

    With Digne and James Rodriguez, who left for Qatar in September, gone and Gylfi Sigurdsson not involved, Everton are without all three of their leading creators from 2020-21.

    Moshiri mayhem

    Benitez leaves with a 26.3 win percentage from 19 league games. Only Mike Walker performed worse in the Premier League era. His dismissal should have come sooner, it seemed pointless delaying the inevitable.

    But for his faults, he is not the root cause of Everton's issues and owner Moshiri and chairman Bill Kenwright must look in the mirror.

    Since Moshiri took over in 2016, Everton have recorded 1.37 points per game, ranking them 10th in the league, but a vast amount of investment has been made. So, what next?

    Roberto Martinez, who was sacked in 2016, is reportedly a leading candidate. The Belgium boss won 21 Premier League games in his first season in charge at Everton, guiding them to a record points total of 72, but he won just 22 games combined across the next two years.

    Lucien Favre has also been mooted. He averaged 2.08 points per game at Borussia Dortmund, a figure bettered by only Thomas Tuchel (2.09) and new boss Marco Rose (2.11), while the Swiss led the club to their third-best Bundesliga points tally in 2017-18. He could provide experience and a modern approach.

    Graham Potter seems to have ruled himself out. Wayne Rooney is doing terrific work at Derby County, might he be an option?

    For now though, Everton's immediate focus must be on avoiding a relegation scrap. 

    Assistant Duncan Ferguson, who remained unbeaten in the league in his spell in charge prior to Ancelotti's arrival, seems a logical pick to take over on a temporary basis, with Villa visiting Goodison on Saturday, to perhaps provide some of the spark missing during Benitez's doomed tenure and buy Everton time to make the right choice.

    With just 19 points from the first half of the season, their lowest tally at the halfway stage of a season since 2005-06 (17), Everton cannot afford to get this appointment wrong, too.

  • Diego Carlos, Botman or both – why Newcastle must spend big at the back Diego Carlos, Botman or both – why Newcastle must spend big at the back

    Newcastle United plugged one of the two gaping holes in their side in time for last Saturday's huge game against Watford.

    Chris Wood made his debut as the club's only fit senior striker following his £25million move from relegation rivals Burnley.

    However, at centre-back, Jamaal Lascelles and Fabian Schar were again paired, prompting an all too predictable finale in which the former – Newcastle's captain – was beaten in the air for a dramatic Watford equaliser.

    Newcastle have been pushing hard for defensive reinforcements to fit in alongside Kieran Trippier, but Lille insist Sven Botman will not be sold in January and a pursuit of Sevilla's Diego Carlos is also dragging on, while interest in Benoit Badiashile of Monaco – another mooted option – has been complicated by his injury.

    Regardless, the Magpies' bottomless budget simply must deliver a centre-back in the coming days, for Eddie Howe's men – still with only a single win this season – risk being cut adrift, as the world's richest club or otherwise.

    Fine margins foiling Magpies

    Wood did not have an immediate impact, and Newcastle's attackers have struggled to aid their defensive colleagues this season, never once forging a two-goal lead in a game.

    But when they have been able to net first, doing so in 10 different matches, including against Watford, that back line has failed miserably to protect their advantage.

    Newcastle have dropped a league-leading 21 points from winning positions. With 18 matches to play, an unwanted club record of 31 (in 2004-05) is coming into view.

    This dismal trend has resulted in nine draws through 20 games, their most at this stage of a season in the competition's history (beating eight in 20 in 2003-04).

    Having lost fewer games (10) than 13th-placed Aston Villa (11) and trailed for only 35 per cent of their time with the ball in play (the same proportion as 10th-placed Leicester City), it will be these draws that relegate Newcastle, with such fine margins deciding their destiny to this point.

    Newcastle have missed at least one 'big chance', from which Opta would expect a player to score, in six of their nine draws – including Joelinton on Saturday and each of Sean Longstaff, Ciaran Clark and Jacob Murphy in the reverse fixture at Watford (another 1-1) – while their opponents have been far less profligate with the opportunities afforded by some generous defending.

    Generous Geordies giving up gifts

    Newcastle have gifted away a league-high 10 goals this term through errors leading to goals (four), penalty goals (five) and own goals (one), representing 23.3 per cent of the alarming total of 43 in the goals against column.

    It is a statistic that reflects slightly harshly on the St James' Park outfit, given Newcastle have given up just eight chances through errors. Only Everton (six goals from eight errors) have been punished more ruthlessly.

    But there can be no doubt Howe needs upgrades in that area of the pitch.

    Not content with squandering opportunities at one end, Clark is the only player in the Premier League to make an error leading to a goal, concede a penalty and be sent off this season – all in the space of 993 minutes. In fact, his error against Manchester City came inside five minutes on his return to the team having been dismissed after nine minutes against Norwich City.

    Long-term colleague Lascelles has been little better. He alone has conceded three penalties this term, more than any other player in the division. Meanwhile, Schar is the sole Newcastle player to have committed multiple errors leading to shots.

    There are only weak links in the middle of that defence right now.

    No Botman and Robin but a DC superhero?

    With Trippier already on board, Newcastle could yet recruit an entirely new defence this month, with Howe said to want two centre-backs – Botman and Diego Carlos appear the top targets – alongside a left-back.

    Robin Gosens was the latest name to emerge and be dismissed as an option by his current employers, Atalanta, over the weekend, but Newcastle surely have to land at least one of these ambitious targets in time for another vital fixture at Leeds United on Saturday.

    Botman showed on Sunday why he is so sought after and why Lille are so keen to keep hold of him, scoring at Marseille while also contributing 12 clearances and three blocks as the 10-man champions earned a draw. It is only the second example in Europe's top five leagues this season (also Dante versus Rennes in December) of a player making at least 12 clearances and three blocks.

    Diego Carlos, it would appear, is a more realistic buy in January, despite his importance to a Sevilla team who have conceded only 13 goals in 20 league games this term – a joint-low alongside Manchester City across Europe.

    The Brazil Olympic champion has started 19 of those games and leads LaLiga in blocks (21); interestingly, Burnley's James Tarkowski, another player of interest to Newcastle, tops the Europe-wide charts with 29.

    Diego Carlos should also bring some calm in possession, with his passing accuracy (88.4 per cent) dwarfing that of Clark (79.0), Lascelles (78.2) and Schar (67.3). The Sevilla man ranks second in LaLiga for passes (1,298) and sixth for forward passes (411), fitting with Howe's more progressive approach.

    Yet Newcastle's willingness to push their bid up towards a club-record fee may well be questioned in some quarters due to the more concerning similarities with his potential new team-mates.

    No player in Europe has made more errors leading to shots than Diego Carlos, with two of the five resulting in goals. Meanwhile, since joining Sevilla in 2019, he has conceded 10 penalties in all competitions – including three for fouls on current Premier League players in Adama Traore, Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku.

    Sevilla have only lost one of those 10 games, peculiarly, perhaps showing the difference Diego Carlos can make outside of these rash moments.

    Ideally, Newcastle would not introduce more chaos into this defence, but they certainly cannot afford to do nothing. If Diego Carlos is the man they want, the pressure is on to deliver him in time for Saturday.

  • Australian Open: Amid a crisis, a tennis tournament, as stars hunt grand slam glory Australian Open: Amid a crisis, a tennis tournament, as stars hunt grand slam glory

    The tennis season has begun with Rafael Nadal, Ash Barty, Paula Badosa and Thanasi Kokkinakis among the champions at small-scale events in Australia.

    Yet there has been one dominant story in the sport and little else has had a look-in in the lead-up to the Australian Open.

    Now that Novak Djokovic knows his fate, there is the welcome prospect of eyes turning to matters on the tennis court, rather than the Federal Court.

    With the action getting under way in Melbourne on Monday, Stats Perform looks at the main protagonists and what the numbers tell us about another high-stakes grand slam.

    Djokovic absence blows open men's draw

    As defending champion Djokovic heads for home, it is worth a reminder of how he has dominated this tournament.

    Nine of his grand slam titles have come in Melbourne, and he has taken the trophy in each of the last three years, helping him cosy up alongside Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on 20 majors, an all-time record they share. Of the 'Big Three', only Nadal is in the draw this year, with Federer currently on the injured list.

    Djokovic has the highest win percentage in the Open Era (since 1969) at the Australian Open, among players with 20 or more wins (91.1 per cent – W82 L8). He was hoping to join Nadal (13 French Opens) and Margaret Court (11 Australian Opens) in the exclusive club of players to reach double figures for singles titles at one slam.

    The Serb was also aspiring to become the first man in the Open Era to win four consecutive Australian Opens. It happened once before the tour turned professional, with Roy Emerson winning five in a row from 1963 to 1967. Djokovic has left Melbourne with the title every time that he has made it through to the semi-finals.

     

    So who takes the title now?

    Only Bjorn Borg (89.2 per cent) has a higher winning percentage in grand slam matches than Nadal (87.7 per cent) and Djokovic (87.5 per cent) in the Open Era, among players with 100 or more wins. So why not Nadal?

    The 35-year-old and Djokovic have carved up 12 of the last 14 grand slam titles, Nadal winning four of those (three French Opens, one US Open). He is battling back from a foot injury lay-off and coronavirus, and might need to get the early rounds out of the way without undue stress to stand a chance at the business end.

    The two exceptions in the Nadal-Djokovic sequence of slam dominance have come at the US Open, with Dominic Thiem winning in New York in 2020 and Daniil Medvedev triumphing at Djokovic's expense in last year's Flushing Meadows final. Thiem is not in Australia, but world number two Medvedev is, looking to become the third Russian man to win two slams, after Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin.

    The last man other than Federer, Nadal and Djokovic to secure back-to-back slam singles title was Andre Agassi (US Open 1999 and Australian Open 2000), but that is Medvedev's objective now, and he has the game to pull it off.

    Nadal has reached at least the quarter-final stage in 15 of his last 16 grand slam appearances, winning six of those majors (four French Opens and two US Opens), so he may well be a factor.

    Who else is in the frame? Alexander Zverev probably, having reached the quarter-finals in Australia in the last two seasons (SF in 2020 and QF in 2021). He won the Olympic Games and ATP Finals titles last year, so a grand slam is an obvious next step. He might want to keep double faults in check though, having served a tour-high 113 in slams last season.

    Stefanos Tsitsipas reached the Australian semi-finals in 2019 and 2021, so throw him into the mix too, and Matteo Berrettini might be a threat. The Italian, a runner-up to Djokovic at Wimbledon in July, served more aces than any other player in grand slams last year (311 aces, 16.4 on average per match).

     

    Others have more modest ambitions

    Andy Murray is back at the Australian Open for the first time since 2019, when he lost in the first round against Roberto Bautista Agut in five sets and was more or less given his last rites as a tennis pro after the match, having indicated he was close to retirement.

    The five-time Australian Open runner-up last won a match in this tournament in 2017, when he reached round four. A tough opener against Nikoloz Basilashvili awaits.

    Spanish 40-year-old Feliciano Lopez will make his 80th appearance in a grand slam and become the second man in the Open Era with 80 or more appearances at the four majors, after Federer (81).

    Do not expect an Australian to be men's champion, by the way. The last time an Australian reached the men's singles final was 2005, when Lleyton Hewitt lost against Safin, and the last home champion was Mark Edmondson in 1976.

    Barty backed in stacked women's draw

    For the first time since 1997, neither Serena nor Venus Williams will take part in the Australian Open. Yet the women's tour is in rude health, even without those great bastions.

    Ash Barty is world number one and a standout pick for many, only enhancing her claims after winning an Adelaide International title in the run-up to this fortnight.

    But there is staggering depth on the women's side at present, and Barty will face stiff competition.

    Incredibly, the last five grand slam finals have featured 10 different women, and teenager Emma Raducanu's against-all-odds US Open triumph in September shows best of all that new stars are emerging.

    Yet since 2000, only three non-seeded players have reached the women's singles final at the Australian Open: Serena Williams in 2007, Justine Henin in 2010 and Garbine Muguruza in 2020. 

    Barty could become the first Australian to be women's champion since Chris O'Neil in 1978, and the first to reach the final since Wendy Turnbull lost to Hana Mandlikova in 1980.

    The Queenslander is the top seed, and the last time the number one failed to reach at least the fourth round at Melbourne Park was in 1979, when Virginia Ruzici lost her opening match. Barty ended a long wait for an Australian winner of the women's title at Wimbledon last year, so why not closer to home as well?

     

    Naomi Osaka is back, so what should we expect?

    Truth be told, that's hard to know. Osaka took time out from tennis after the US Open to focus on her mental health and enjoyed hanging out with friends, before deciding she missed tennis enough to go back on tour.

    She had three wins at the Melbourne Summer Set tournament recently before withdrawing from a fourth match, saying her body had "got a shock" from the intensity. As defending champion in the season's first major, she has a target on her back and will need to find a way to handle that.

    Over the past six seasons, only Osaka has managed to win back-to-back grand slam singles titles among the women, and she has done so twice (US Open 2018 and Australian Open 2019, plus US Open 2020 and Australian Open 2021).

    The last player to win back-to-back women's Australian Open singles titles was Victoria Azarenka (2012 and 2013), so it does not happen regularly.

    Osaka has an 85 per cent win rate at this tournament: since 2000, only Jennifer Capriati (90 per cent) and Serena Williams (89 per cent) have had a higher win percentage in the main draw.

     

    You want challengers to the big two? Try sticking a pin in the draw

    The Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, which goes to the champion, is a trophy that upwards of a dozen women will seriously believe they can win.

    Aryna Sabalenka has reached the semi-finals of the last two slams but is mired in some kind of hellish serving groove, having made 74 double faults in her last four matches and lost the last three in a row.

    Anett Kontaveit won a tour-high 39 matches on hard courts last year but has only been to one grand slam quarter-final – last year in Australia, losing to Simona Halep.

    What about Ons Jabeur, who matched Kontaveit for a tour-high 48 wins across all surfaces last year? The Tunisian is queen of the drop shot, making 147 successful such plays on tour last year, more than any other player, and recently reached the top 10 in the WTA rankings for the first time.

    Maria Sakkari reached two slam semi-finals last year, the first of her career, and the form of Barbora Krejcikova and Badosa in the past week in Melbourne marks them out as contenders. Both are recent fast-risers, Krejcikova already with a French Open title to show.

    WTA Finals champion Muguruza could be the second Spaniard to twice reach the Melbourne title match, after Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (1994 v Steffi Graf and 1995 v Mary Pierce). Spain has never had an Australian Open women's singles winner: former French Open and Wimbledon champ Muguruza is an authentic contender.

    Halep was runner-up to Caroline Wozniacki in 2018, a semi-finalist in 2020 and quarter-finalist last year, and a Melbourne Summer Set title was a handy warm-up for the Romanian. Consider her, too.

    Monica Seles, in 1991, was the last player to triumph on her debut in the main draw, but she was already a grand slam winner (1990 French Open). Given the strength of the line-up, the prospect of a bolter coming through this field is unlikely, even if the example of Raducanu tells us anything is possible.

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