MELBOURNE: Seven times champion Serena Williams will be back at the Australian Open in 2019 having missed her title defence this year after giving birth, organisers said Tuesday.
The 23-time Grand Slam winner, who won on her last appearance in 2017 while pregnant, will be joined in January’s tournament by double Melbourne Park champion Victoria Azarenka who was forced to withdraw from the 2018 event because of a custody battle with her baby’s father.
Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said Tuesday he was expecting a full contingent of the top 100 men and women players in Melbourne next year.
“I’m delighted to announce that Serena Williams will return to the Australian Open in January,” Tiley said while launching the 2019 event at Rod Laver Arena.
“We last saw Serena here in Melbourne as our champion, holding the Daphne Ackhurst Memorial Cup in 2017. Of course what we didn’t know at the time was that she was already eight weeks pregnant with baby Olympia,” said Tiley.
Williams needs one more Grand Slam singles victory to equal Australian Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24.
“Serena loves coming to Melbourne and I know she’s excited about returning in January with her family, it’s definitely a very special place for her,” said Tiley.
“She’ll also be super-focused on winning here, and equalling Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.”
Tiley said the tournament was gearing up to welcome back Azarenka and Williams – and their children.
“Vika (Azarenka) is also a new mum to toddler Leo and I’m looking forward to showing her, and Serena, our new creche facilities,” said Tiley. “I’m sure they’ll be appreciated.”
Six-time men’s winners Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, who captured his 20th Grand Slam title in Melbourne in January, look to be among the players to beat again in 2019.
Tiley was also looking forward to the return of Britain’s Andy Murray, the five-time losing finalist who missed this year’s tournament with injury.
“With his incredible work ethic and competitive spirit it would be foolish to underestimate him,” he said of the Scot.
Tiley said prize money at the January 14-27 tournament will be increased to A$60.5 million (RM176 million) from A$55 million in 2018 – split equally between men’s and women’s tournaments.
The 2018 singles winners Federer and Caroline Wozniacki both picked up cheques for A$4 million.
The tournament will also introduce a 25-second serve clock to speed up play, after the innovation made its Slam debut at this year’s US Open.
“The 25-second serve clock will be introduced for all matches,” said Tiley.
“We know there’s a move to speed up play and we’ll continue to work with the players on the best ways to do this.”