World number one Ashleigh Barty and 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams will spearhead the two WTA tournaments in Melbourne ahead of the Australian Open, with the top 32-ranked women split evenly across the simultaneous events, organisers said Thursday.
The onslaught of Covid-19 has forced a radical change to how the early 2021 tennis season will look, with the Australian Open pushed back three weeks to February 8.
Players will arrive in Australia from January 15 and undergo a mandatory two-week quarantine before two WTA 500 and two ATP 250 events are held alongside the ATP Cup, all at Melbourne Park.
Organisers have branded it the Melbourne Summer Series and named each tournament after areas of Victoria state.
That will see the women play the Gippsland Trophy and Yarra Valley Classic from January 31-February 6, marking Barty’s first appearance in 11 months after opting out of the US and European swing last year over coronavirus fears.
As well as Williams, the likes of world number two Simona Halep, defending Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin and previous Australian Open winners Naomi Osaka, Victoria Azarenka and Angelique Kerber will take part.
The leading men’s stars, including Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, will compete in the 12-team ATP Cup, which will be run at the same time and at the same venue.
Serena Williams will be seeking a record-tying 24th Slam singles title by winning an eighth Australian Open crown. Two-time champion Victoria Azarenka returns, having missed the tournament in 2020, alongside Poland’s Iga Swiatek, the newest Grand Slam women’s champion who won Roland Garros in October.
“We are looking forward to welcoming the world’s best players to Melbourne and what promises to be a spectacular Australian Open following a year of disruption on a scale none of us has ever experienced before,” said Australian Open Tournament Director Craig Tiley, referencing the decision to move the event from January to February due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Although the Australian Open will look a bit different to previous years, the safety of everyone is our top priority. We have the opportunity to stage a very safe, and happy Slam, and give the players the experience of competing in front of crowds again, something they’ve missed for most of this year.
“There are so many great storylines for AO 2021. Serena is gunning for her eighth title, our own world No.1 Ash Barty will return to Grand Slam competition and there’s a new crop of rising stars coming up to challenge them. It’s going to be a great few weeks of tennis here in Melbourne.”
Those that didn’t qualify will play in two ATP 250 tournaments — the Great Ocean Road Open and Murray River Open, featuring top names including David Goffin, Stan Wawrinka, Grigor Dimitrov and Nick Kyrgios.
“There’s no doubt this will be an historic week of tennis, and is the biggest-ever Australian Open lead-in week we have seen,” said Tennis Australia’s major events chief Cameron Pearson.