With only a few weeks to the kick-off of Australian Open 2012, the world’s top tennis stars have only a short window in which to gain the match practice they need to be fit and ready to go for the year’s first Grand Slam tournament. As a result, tournaments leading into the Australian Open are simply loaded with tennis talent, including Grand Slam champions, top-ranked players, exciting future prospects, colourful characters and a healthy contingent of local stars.
While some players choose to prepare through exhibitions, events in Asia, the Middle East and New Zealand, or traditional lead-up events at Perth’s Hopman Cup or Kooyong’s AAMI Classic in Melbourne, January’s tennis schedule is anchored by Australian Open Series events in Brisbane, Sydney and Hobart before players head to Melbourne Park for two weeks of intense action.
Queensland’s premier tournament recently received a boost on the women’s side with the WTA upgrading the event to Premier status, contributing to a significant increase in both prize money and star power. As a result the women’s field is jam-packed with stars for the 2012 edition, including Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters, home favourite Sam Stosur and Serbian duo Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic.
Other talent joining them will be top-tenner Andrea Petkovic, 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone and former world No.5 Daniela Hantuchova.
The Brisbane International has a history of producing stunning matches and worthy winners in the women’s draw. In 2010, Clijsters and Justine Henin played out a sensational final – and one of the highest-quality matches of the season – that ended with Clijsters winning the title in a third set tiebreak. In 2009, Victoria Azarenka won her first career title, setting her along the path that now sees her entrenched in the world’s top five. And in 2011, Petra Kvitova bagged the trophy, kicking off a year that saw her win the Wimbledon title and climb to world No.2.
The men’s event also boasts an impressive list of names. The tournament will be headed by world No.4 Andy Murray, and he’ll be joined by former top 10 stars Gilles Simon (currently No.12) and Tommy Haas, who is on the comeback trail from injury. Yet much of the focus will be on the exciting young guns of the draw, headed by local hope Bernard Tomic, and also including Americans Donald Young and Ryan Harrison and Japan’s Kei Nishikori. Also taking part will be the ever-popular Marcos Baghdatis, James Blake and former No.5 Tommy Robredo.
Apia International Sydney
Nine of the world’s top 10 women have signed on to contest the Apia International at the Sydney Olympic Park Tennis Centre, continuing a long-standing tradition of strong women’s draws at the event in Australia’s harbour city.
Heading the field will be world No.1 Caroline Wozniacki and 2011 Grand Slam champions Stosur, Kvitova and Li Na – also the defending champion – who will ensure the battle for the trophy is a memorable one. Also looking to fine-tune their games in the week before the Australian Open will be No.3 Azarenka, fellow top tenners Vera Zvonareva, Agnieszka Radwanska and Marion Bartoli, Grand Slam champions Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova, and former world No.1 Jankovic. In the men’s draw, those at Homebush will get to see 2009 US Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro in action, who after an injury-plagued 2010 has climbed back to world No.11 by the end of 2011. Del Potro will be joined by Australian great Lleyton Hewitt, with the two-time major winner receiving a wildcard into the draw.
Also entering the Sydney event will be the monster-serving American John Isner, flashy Frenchman Richard Gasquet, sunny Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis, former champion Dmitry Tursunov and rising Serb Viktor Troicki.
Moorilla International Hobart
This women’s only event has an impressive honour roll of champions, including Kim Clijsters (2000), Alicia Molik (2003), Anna Chakvetadze (2007), Kvitova (2009) and 2011 winner and local hope Jarmila Gajdosova. Gajdosova will be back to defend her title at the Domain Tennis Centre in 2012, and will be joined by another Australian favourite in Casey Dellacqua – the Western Australian was recently granted a wildcard into the event. Belgian Yanina Wickmayer enters as the highest-ranked player, peaking at No.12 in 2010 and reaching the US Open semifinals the year before that. Also making the trip to Hobart will be Spanish veteran Anabel Medina Garrigues, 2011 US Open semifinalist Angelique Kerber and former world No.11 Shahar Peer.
AAMI Classic Kooyong
A prestigious lead-in event to the Australian Open, this eight-man round-robin event in played at the charming Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club, the Australian Open’s former home before its move to Melbourne Park in 1988. The invitational event each year attracts a stellar field of top men looking to guarantee themselves at least three matches against quality opposition prior to their Australian Open campaign. This year is no exception. Top ten stars Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych and Mardy Fish will all grace the field, joined by former world No.1 and 2003 US Open Andy Roddick and former world No.7 Gael Monfils. Also appearing will be AAMI Classic debutantes Bernard Tomic – generating plenty of local interest in the event – and fast-rising young Canadian Milos Raonic. Completing the field is Austrian Jurgen Melzer.