MELBOURNE, Australia - Nine players will break new ground when the Australian Open begins next week by making their debut in the main draw of a Grand Slam. Get to know more about them here at wtatennis.com.
Jana Fett (CRO)
The only debutante to receive direct entry into the main draw, Jana Fett has had a rollercoaster professional career since her greatest junior success, when she reached the 2014 Australian Open girls' final, losing to Elizaveta Kulichkova.
The Croat had rocketed into the Top 150 by the end of 2015, a year in which she won three ITF Pro Circuit trophies, finishing with the $75,000 title in Toyota, Japan - en route to which Fett beat Naomi Osaka in the semifinals and Luksika Kumkhum in the final.
But disaster struck in 2016, as a wrist injury meant that the former junior World No.12 could play just one match between January - when she had made her Slam qualifying debut in Melbourne, winning a round - and October. Her ranking accordingly sank to No.340 by January 2017.
In a spectacular turnaround considering that Fett had been sidelined just before she had gotten a chance to make inroads on to the WTA Tour, she swiftly made up for lost time - qualifying for her first WTA event in Hobart and going all the way to the semifinals. However, that run meant that she was unable to compete in qualifying in Melbourne - and Fett fell in the final qualifying rounds at both Wimbledon and the US Open as she slowly rebuilt her ranking.
A second WTA-level semifinal in September, at the Japan Women's Open in Tokyo - where Fett also scored her first Top 20 win over Kristina Mladenovic - enabled the Croatian No.6 to finally break the Top 100, where she finished the year at No.98, a position that also got the 21-year-old straight into this year's Melbourne main draw.
Magdalena Frech (POL)
Experience is often crucial in professional tennis, but Magdalena Frech proved it wasn't necessary this week. The Pole, who turned 20 last month, navigated through three qualifying rounds at a Slam at the very first time of asking, scoring an impressive win each time: Japan Women's Open finalist Miyu Kato and a brace of highly touted 18-year-old talents, Sofya Zhuk and Kayla Day.
Frech, also making her debut on Australian soil, had a breakthrough year in 2017, nearly halving her ranking from No.320 to No.166 as she put together a 52-25 win-loss record. That included her first two ITF $25,000 titles in August, in Leipzig and Braunschweig - part of a 12-match winning streak during which Frech scored her first Top 100 win over Richel Hogenkamp - as well as qualifying for a WTA tournament for the first time in Bucharest. Standing between the World No.163 and her first WTA-level main draw win is former Australian Open quarterfinalist Carla Suárez Navarro.
Ivana Jorovic (SRB)
For former junior World No.1 Ivana Jorovic, coming through qualifying this week was a much-needed result. The 20-year-old, who was the sixth last player accepted in the qualifying draw, had seen her ranking plummet precipitously over the past month from No.194 to No.280.
In 2014, Jorovic was the Roland Garros girls' runner-up (losing to Daria Kasatkina in the final), and over the next three years the Serb lifted four ITF $50,000 trophies and reached a career high of No.134 in October 2016 as she made inroads on the professional circuit. That year, she also reached the final qualifying round at a Grand Slam on two occasions, falling at the final hurdle to Nicole Gibbs at the Australian Open and Sara Sorribes Tormo at Roland Garros.
Last year was more of a struggle for Jorovic, as she lost in the first qualifying round at all four Slams and failed to progress past the quarterfinals of any tournament. Three excellent wins over Arantxa Rus, Ysaline Bonaventure and Bibiane Schoofs could set her right in 2018 - but she faces a monumental task in the main draw against No.4 seed Elina Svitolina in the first round.
Anna Kalinskaya (RUS)
The 2015 Roland Garros girls' finalist and former junior World No.3, Anna Kalinskaya turned heads last February, when - in just her second WTA main draw match ever - the Russian shocked Caroline Garcia in the first round of Kuala Lumpur for her first Top 30 victory.
Having rocketed up the rankings in 2016, shooting from No.681 to No.200, last year found Kalinskaya consolidating her position, moving up to her current No.161 as she began to make inroads on to the WTA Tour, coming through qualifying on three occasions. Her first win this week was a statement of intent that she's ready to move up another level, ousting two-time Slam finalist and former World No.2 Vera Zvonareva 6-2, 2-6, 6-0 in an intergenerational all-Russian battle, and her reward is a first-round meeting with Sydney semifinalist Camila Giorgi.
19-year-old Kalinskaya has good memories of Melbourne, though: in 2016, she lifted the girls' doubles trophy alongside Tereza Mihalikova.
Marta Kostyuk (UKR)
Arguably the most eye-catching run through qualifying came courtesy of 15-year-old Marta Kostyuk, a wildcard entrant as the reigning girls' champion playing just her ninth senior tournament. The tenacity that has been her trademark on the junior circuit was on full display as she battled through three three-setters against vastly more experienced opposition: No.9 seed and local favorite Arina Rodionova 4-6, 6-3, 6-3; avenging a loss last May to Chile's Daniela Seguel 1-6, 6-4, 6-2; and then rolling over Nürnberg finalist Barbora Krejcikova 6-3, 5-7, 6-0.
It has been 13 years since a 15-year-old last qualified for a Slam - Sesil Karatantcheva at the 2005 Australian Open (in which 15-year-old Nicole Vaidisova also competed as a direct entrant) - but Kostyuk was sanguine about her achievement, telling reporters afterwards: "I was happy for the first minute, and then it was just like another match - it's not like I won the tournament or something!"
The Ukrainian, who was proud of herself for "[managing] to stay calm in every match", said a turning point came midway through her match against Rodionova. "There was a moment, in the second game of the second set, that I thought I will die because it is so hot and the rallies were so long," she recalled. "But when I won that game, I switched to the next level and everything was quite easy."
Age, Kostyuk says, is just a number - except for the advantage it gives her over opponents. "Age is nothing to me," she informed reporters. "When people say to me, the girl you beat is 10 years older than you, I'm like, so what? But girls who are 25, they're coming to play against a 15-year-old girl and they are becoming tight when I start to win."
The junior World No.2 has been inspired this week by her memories of winning the girls' title last year - despite losing in the first round of the ITF $25,000 tournament in Playford last week, when she set foot in Melbourne something clicked. "In this place, I am playing great! You just feel you can do everything here." And the World No.521 has a strong team in her corner - not least manager Ivan Ljubicic, Roger Federer's coach, whom she is beginning to appreciate.
"Only a month ago when I was practising in Italy, I just realised how lucky I am to have him by my side," Kostyuk said. "When he's coming for my matches, and when he says a word to me, you cannot imagine how I feel. When he says, 'Let's go, Marta,' I feel I can beat anyone." The first test of the young prodigy's self-belief in the main draw will be No.25 seed Peng Shuai.
Passed through my first GS qualifications with the best team. Main draw here I come!!❤️ @theljubicic @AustralianOpen pic.twitter.com/04eHbgDBWA
— Marta Kostyuk (@marta_kostyuk) January 14, 2018
Bernarda Pera (USA)
The final player added to the 2018 Australian Open draw was 23-year-old Bernarda Pera, who snuck in as a lucky loser at the last minute thanks to a late withdrawal by Margarita Gasparyan. For the Croatia-born American, it's a continuation of the magnificent momentum she built up in a breakthrough 2017 that saw her rise from No.318 to her current career high of No.123.
Pera had never been ranked inside the Top 200 prior to last year, but a spectacular few months on the ITF Pro Circuit changed that. Between March and July, she was the champion or runner-up at six out of nine tournaments, culminating in her biggest trophy to date at the $80,000 event in Olomouc, Czech Republic. Here she scored her first two Top 100 victories, over Richel Hogenkamp and, in the final, World No.41 Kristyna Pliskova 7-5, 4-6, 6-3.
It was the Olomouc title that catapulted Pera into the Top 200, gaining her direct entry to Slam qualifying for the first time at the US Open (she had previously competed twice via wildcard). She came close to the main draw there, losing to Anna Blinkova in the final round. But this week, despite losing at the same stage to Viktorija Golubic, Pera has become the ninth and final Slam debutante in Melbourne - and ironically, she faces Blinkova in the first round of the main draw once again.
.@bernarda_pera wins her first #USOpen qualifying match vs. Jing-Jing Lu 6-4, 5-7, 6-4 and advances to R2. https://t.co/VXJWA5x7Ws #USTennis pic.twitter.com/IdJOIdfR3K
— USTA (@usta) August 22, 2017
Jessika Ponchet (FRA)
French wildcard Jessika Ponchet's journey up the rankings has been an unconventional one that has found the 21-year-old plying her trade out of the limelight. Having eschewed junior competition, Ponchet plunged straight into the ITF Pro Circuit at the age of 14 - but had a major setback when torn knee ligaments forced her to sit out most of the 2015 season.
Last year, though, the French No.10 made her move, storming up the rankings from No.526 at the end of 2016 to her current No.270 thanks to a solid 42-24 win-loss record. This included victories over this week's Hobart finalist, Mihaela Buzarnescu, Australian wildcard regular Olivia Rogowska and Ponchet's first ever Slam qualifying win - over former junior World No.1 Dalma Galfi at Roland Garros.
A semifinal run in the ITF $25,000 event in Playford last week was an impressive start to Ponchet's 2018 campaign as she scored wins over No.3 seed and fellow Slam debutante Anna Kalinskaya and former World No.45 Anna-Lena Friedsam before being forced to retire against Alexandra Bozovic. Even without that injury cloud, though, Ponchet's Slam debut would be a baptism of fire: she goes up against Wimbledon champion Garbiñe Muguruza off the bat.
Tout savoir sur le tirage au sort des Français et Françaises à Melbourne. Jessika Ponchet a tiré le gros lot ! @Gael_Monfils peut jouer Djokovic au 2e tour, @richardgasquet1 risque de défier Federer au 3e tour ! ?? ?? ? https://t.co/cm6SFWGi7X pic.twitter.com/UPtC8aDT9J
— FFT (@FFTennis) January 11, 2018
Viktoriya Tomova (BUL)
When the deciding set of Viktoriya Tomova's final qualifying match to Anna Blinkova this week began to slip away en route to a 6-3, 1-6, 6-1 defeat, there must have been a sense of déjà vu for the 22-year-old - and not in a good way. It was the fourth time Tomova had fallen at the final hurdle in Slam qualifying - and the third time it had been a three-set loss.
But Ana Konjuh's withdrawal meant that a Lucky Loser place was open in the main draw, and fortune finally smiled on Tomova, who will face Nicole Gibbs in the first round. The first Bulgarian to debut in a Slam since Tsvetana Pironkova qualified here in 2006, the World No.140 has been a solid Top 200 player since 2016 and won her first WTA main draw matches last year in Bastad and Linz.
Wang Xinyu (CHN)
16-year-old Wang Xinyu is the second youngest player competing in the main draw - and, aside from the unranked Margarita Gasparyan, the lowest ranked at No.643. The junior World No.4 earned her place via the Asia-Pacific Wildcard Playoff in December when - having needed a wildcard into even that preliminary competition - she shocked the field to take the ultimate prize.
Wang's run included a 1-6, 6-4, 6-3 semifinal upset of the No.1 seed, former World No.30 Misaki Doi; and in the final, the Chinese teenager was two points from defeat against fellow wildcard, Papua New Guinea's Abigail Tere-Apisah, before rallying to win 4-6, 7-5, 6-4.
Along with the Doi victory, the hard-hitting Wang has scored two further Top 200 wins, stunning compatriot Han Xinyun in the first round of the Shenzhen ITF $100,000 event in November and starting her season with her first WTA qualifying victory, also in Shenzhen, over Jang Su Jeong 2-6, 6-1, 6-4. She's also raised her biggest junior trophy in recent months, beating junior World No.1 Whitney Osuigwe in the final of the Osaka Grade A tournament in October. Wang will be no pushover for any main draw player - and her first-round opponent, Alizé Cornet, should be on guard.