MELBOURNE, Australia - For the first time, three former Grand Slam finalists will feature in the Australian Open qualifying field. Among the hopefuls preparing to battle through three rounds this week to seal a coveted main draw place are Vera Zvonareva (Wimbledon and US Open runner-up in 2010), Sara Errani (Roland Garros finalist in 2012) and Roberta Vinci (US Open finalist in 2015).
World No.132 Vinci, who announced on Twitter in November that she would retire after the Italian Open in May, will begin the final Slam of her career with arguably the draw's most intriguing match-up. The 34-year-old will take on 19-year-old ITF Junior Masters champion and 2015 Wimbledon girls' runner-up, Anna Blinkova of Russia - who turned heads when she qualified for her first Slam here last year - in the first round.
By contrast, Zvonareva is embarking on a second career following a two-year hiatus in which the Russian gave birth to her first child. Sitting at No.200 after a comeback year in which she reached the Dalian WTA 125K final and Tashkent semifinals in September - as well as winning a round in US Open qualifying - the 33-year-old's Melbourne quest also starts with an intergenerational battle.
19-year-old compatriot Anna Kalinskaya is yet to play the main draw of a Slam, but the 2015 Roland Garros girls' finalist has had some eye-catching results, including a win over Caroline Garcia in Kuala Lumpur last year. Zvonareva, meanwhile, comes into the tournament with a question mark over her health, having retired against Marie Bouzkova in the quarterfinals of the ITF $25,000 event in Playford last week.
Errani, meanwhile, could be buoyed by pushing a Top 30 opponent in Barbora Strycova to three tight sets last week in Auckland, and begins her campaign against China's Lu Jing-Jing, who reached her first WTA quarterfinal last year in Nanchang.
At the other end of the age spectrum, there's plenty of young talent on the brink of bursting through. The two highest-ranked 17-year-olds in the world, Ukraine's Dayana Yastremska (No.177) and Canada's Bianca Andreescu (No.188), could square off in the second round - though both have a former Top 30 opponent in their way first.
Yastremska goes up against No.17 seed Misaki Doi, who memorably held a match point against Angelique Kerber in the first round in 2016 before the German went on to claim her first Slam title, while Andreescu takes on Alexandra Dulgheru.
The youngest player in the qualifying draw, though, is another Ukrainian - last year's girls' champion Marta Kostyuk. The 15-year-old World No.521, participating via a wildcard, was the youngest junior Slam winner since Laura Robson at Wimbledon in 2008, and made an impressive incursion into the pro circuit in May when she won the ITF $25,000 tournament in Dunakeszi, Hungary. In the first round here, she faces the highest-ranked local player in the draw, No.9 seed Arina Rodionova.
Elsewhere, 39-year-old former World No.7 Patty Schnyder will play the second Slam qualifying draw of the career she restarted in 2015. Last year, she beat Ysaline Bonaventure at the US Open - setting herself up for an impressive autumn in which she was runner-up in ITF tournaments in Biarritz and Toronto. Now ranked No.150, Schnyder will face American No.14 seed Bernarda Pera in the first round.
Form players to look out for include the No.1 seed, Sachia Vickery. The American is at a career high on the brink of the Top 100 of No.105 following her exploits last week in Auckland, when she battled her way to the semifinals out of qualifying - including a stunning 6-2, 6-2 upset of Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals. Vickery takes on Lesley Kerkhove first, with a possible final qualifying round against Zvonareva looming.
19-year-old Viktoria Kuzmova also qualified for Auckland, reaching the second round before falling to eventual champion Julia Goerges. Having impressed at the US Open by qualifying for her maiden Slam and pushing Venus Williams to three sets in the main draw, the big-serving Slovak is the No.16 seed here - and her first round against former World No.47 María-Teresa Torró-Flor is sure to be a display of power tennis.
Hard-hitting No.11 seed Luksika Kumkhum, whose first-round upset of Petra Kvitova sent shockwaves through the draw in 2014, is also lurking: the Thai could face Errani in the final qualifying round, in what would be a tantalizing stylistic contrast.
Elsewhere, 2016 Australian Open girls' champion Vera Lapko takes on Alexandra Cadantu, with a potential qualifying round against resurgent former World No.26 Anna Karolina Schmiedlova looming.
18-year-old Sofya Zhuk, the 2015 Wimbledon girls' titlist, starts against wildcard Sara Tomic, fresh off her first Top 100 win over Ons Jabeur in Sydney qualifying; and fellow wildcard and University of Georgia graduate Ellen Perez, who impressed in the Sydney main draw, begins against Greece's Valentini Grammatikopoulou, a quarterfinalist in the Playford ITF tournament last week.