MELBOURNE, Australia - Seven players will break new ground next week at the Australian Open by contesting the main draw of a Grand Slam for the first time. Get to know more about them here at wtatennis.com.
Paula Badosa Gibert (ESP)
In 2015, Paula Badosa Gibert seemed to be on a fast-track to the top of the sport. The Manhattan-born Spaniard won the Roland Garros girls' trophy in June, defeating Marketa Vondrousova and Anna Kalinskaya in the last two rounds, to cap off her junior career; she had already reached the third round of Miami as a wildcard ranked World No.419 on her WTA debut, and would go on to play her first Slam qualifying at the US Open and crack the Top 200 as a 17-year-old in the same year, racking up four Top 100 victories in the process over Petra Cetkovska, Zheng Saisai, Ana Konjuh and Lauren Davis.
But over the next few years, a string of injuries plagued Badosa Gibert, who was forced to retire from 11 matches across 2016 and 2017 as her ranking sank out of the Top 300. Last year, though, the right-hander enjoyed a spell of better health, winning three ITF titles and reaching her maiden WTA quarterfinal in Rabat - and consequently scoring her highest year-end ranking to date of World No.143.
Last September, Badosa Gibert announced that her new coach would be Xavier Budo, who had formerly worked with Carla Suárez Navarro for 10 years. The partnership is paying dividends: the 21-year-old's path this week has included dismissals of two players who made an impact on last year's Australian Open main draw, Denisa Allertova and Marta Kostyuk.
Ysaline Bonaventure (BEL)
Four years ago, Ysaline Bonaventure had a baptism of fire to the WTA Tour. A qualifier ranked World No.215 at Bastad in 2015, the Belgian was drawn against none other than Serena Williams in her main draw debut. "Is this a joke or am I playing Serena Williams tomorrow?" she tweeted incredulously.
Bonaventure lost that match 6-2, 6-1, but despite becoming a fixture in Grand Slam qualifying over the next few years, it was only following a six-month absence due to a wrist injury in 2016-17 that she gathered the momentum to move up a level. Having sunk to No.480 in June 2017, the left-hander roared back with strong performances in high-level ITF events to finish the year at No.181. In 2018, she parlayed that into WTA-level impact for the first time, capturing a maiden victory over Yulia Putintseva in Auckland and following that with a quarterfinal debut in Budapest a month later, beating Donna Vekic en route.
Coached by former World No.57 and 1992 Wellington champion Noelle Van Lottum, Bonaventure reached a career high of No.116 last June; having lost in the final qualifying round of a Slam in three sets twice previously, at the 2015 US Open and Roland Garros 2018, the 24-year-old was efficient in dispatching former Top 100 player Richel Hogenkamp 6-4, 6-3 to change her fortunes this week.
Clara Burel (FRA)
The story of Clara Burel's climb to junior World No.1 last year was one that culminated in Chinese redemption. The French player had put in consistently strong performances to reach three of 2018's most important junior finals - but had stumbled at the last hurdle each time, losing the Australian Open to Liang En-Shuo 6-3, 6-4, the US Open to Wang Xiyu 7-6(4), 6-2 and the Youth Olympic Games to Kaja Juvan 7-5, 6-4. Even in a rare ITF Pro Circuit outing, Burel had lost the Clermont-Ferrand W25 final to Lesley Kerkhove 6-3, 4-6, 6-4.
But at the ITF Junior Masters in Chengdu, the year-end event for the Top 8 juniors in the world, the 17-year-old exorcised those demons to beat Maria Camila Osorio Serrano 6-2, 6-2 for her first title of the year. "I’ve had some tough finals and it has been very painful for me to lose every time in the final so I am very happy to get my hands on this trophy," she told itftennis.com afterwards.
Competing via a reciprocal wildcard with the French Tennis Federation, Burel is currently ranked World No.551.
Zoe Hives (AUS)
After four years of competition on the ITF Pro Circuit with just one W15 title to her name, 22-year-old wildcard Zoe Hives broke through in a big way in 2018, with her season bookended by impressive winning streaks. The Australian opened her year by winning the strong W25 in Playford, defeating Bianca Andreescu and Marie Bouzkova en route, and finished it with a 10-1 record and two titles in her final three tournaments, lifting trophies at the Toowoomba W25 and Canberra W60.
Hives has carried her form over at a higher level to start 2019. In Brisbane qualifying the Ballarat native battled past former US Open semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer in three sets before pushing teenage prodigy Anastasia Potapova to a 6-3, 4-6, 7-5 loss, and this week Hives scored a maiden WTA main draw victory - and career-best win - over Johanna Larsson 7-6(1), 7-6(2) in the first round of Hobart.
On hearing of his former charge's wildcard, Hives' childhood coach Peter Joyce reminisced to The Courier about his first impressions of the player: "She was very small, really small, she was skin and bone and had a big heart and was a pretty determined young lady, even as a child," he said. "She had a dream and she just wanted to secure it and nothing got stuck in her way."
Veronika Kudermetova (RUS)
There's making a splash on your WTA debut - and then there's doing it twice. Veronika Kudermetova's breakthrough tournament came in Stuttgart last year, when she qualified - and then immediately scored a Top 30 scalp in the main draw, defeating Carla Suárez Navarro 7-6(5), 6-2. Two months later, the Russian did it again on grass, qualifying for 's-Hertogenbosch and upsetting both Anett Kontaveit and Belinda Bencic in the main draw to notch up a maiden quarterfinal.
Indeed, making a splash as a qualifier is becoming Kudermetova's MO. In July, there was a second quarterfinal showing in Gstaad; in October, the Kazan native ousted former champion Alison Riske from Tianjin. And naturally, Kudermetova kicked off 2019 in the same vein, qualifying for Shenzhen and then battling past both Irina-Camelia Begu and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in three sets to make a third quarterfinal.
There, the 21-year-old's run was ended in what would have been a poignant match against Vera Zvonareva: Kudermetova is coached by Sergey Demekhine, who had previously taken the former World No.2 to two Grand Slam finals.
In the past, Kudermetova has struggled with backing up some of her bigger runs: in her first match after Stuttgart, she lost in the first round of the ITF W25 event in La Bisbal d'Emporda to Montserrat Gonzalez; 's-Hertogenbosch was followed by qualifying losses in Mallorca and Wimbledon to Ysaline Bonaventure and Barbora Stefkova; and after Gstaad she fell in qualifying at home in Moscow to Valentyna Ivakhnenko.
But this time, at a career high of World No.111, Kudermetova continued in Melbourne where she'd left off in Shenzhen, finishing with a three-set win of Tereza Martincova to make the main draw.
Astra Sharma (AUS)
"Is there an athlete - male or female - at Vanderbilt who's done more than Astra Sharma has done in her career?" asked the Nashville university head coach Geoff Macdonald as the Australian concluded her final college tennis season last May.
Sharma's high point had arguably come in 2015, when as a freshman she clinched Vanderbilt's first ever national tennis title in the NCAA Championships and was named the Tournament Most Outstanding Player. And last year, she took that talent worldwide after putting her medical degree on hold to try her hand at the pro ranks.
Sharma undoubtedly enjoyed a successful start, compiling a 37-11 record - including ITF titles in Baton Rouge, Gatineau and Cairns - from just 14 tournaments. But this week, the 23-year-old took her tennis to another level, arguably sending the most shockwaves through the qualifying draw in Melbourne.
In the first round, Sharma eliminated No.1 seed Vera Zvonareva for her maiden Top 100 win - and the World No.230 backed that win up with two battling victories from a set down against Varvara Flink and Irina Khromacheva, saving three match points against the latter to win 5-7, 7-6(7), 7-6[12-10]. Having given home fans the most to cheer about for a week, it's ironic that Sharma's reward is to split the crowd in the main draw: she has been drawn against fellow Australian, wildcard Priscilla Hon, in the first round.
Iga Swiatek (POL)
Thus far in her young career, 17-year-old Iga Swiatek has flown under the radar in comparison to her junior peers from more established tennis nations such as Amanda Anisimova, Anastasia Potapova and Whitney Osuigwe. But the Pole - who is yet to receive any WTA-level wildcard, whether main draw or qualifying - has been turning heads on the ITF Pro Circuit with almost every outing.
Between her pro debut in 2016 and the end of last year, Swiatek compiled a 64-10 win-loss record - despite a seven-month hiatus from the game in 2017 for ankle surgery - including seven titles, four of which came last year as she zoomed from No.690 up to No.175. Frequently, the powerful Warsaw native's title runs would feature remarkably dominant scorelines as she eviscerated her opposition: Swiatek conceded just 21 games in eight matches en route to her first W25 title, in Pelham last April, as a qualifier.
There was unfinished business in the junior ranks, too - a Slam title, which Swiatek duly captured at Wimbledon in July, defeating a host of young talent including Osuigwe, Clara Burel, Wang Xinyu and Leonie Kung en route.
It is astonishing that Swiatek only made her belated WTA qualifying debut last week in Auckland - where she beat her precursor as Wimbledon junior champion, Claire Liu, before falling to Jana Cepelova - but the right-hander is wasting no time. Starting with a comeback upset of yet another teenage phenomenon, No.6 seed Olga Danilovic, in the first round, Swiatek has blitzed 93 winners this week en route to navigating Slam qualifying at her very first attempt. Both in next week's main draw and over the course of 2019, she is sure to be one to watch very carefully.