Ashleigh Barty has not played a match since February, opting not to defend her French Open title and also skipping the US Open due to the coronavirus scare. File / Associated Press
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 on 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 Feb.8.
Players will arrive in Australia from Jan.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 Jan.31-Feb.6.
Barty has not played a match since February, opting not to defend her French Open title and also skipping the U.S. Open in New York as the novel coronavirus wreaked havoc on global sport.
The 24-year-old Queenslander, who held on to the top women’s singles ranking during last year’s disrupted season, will play for the first time in 11 months at one of two WTA 500 events from as part of the Melbourne Summer Series.
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.
Serena, 39, will also return to competitive action after exiting the French Open with an injury and would hope to get some matches under her belt before embarking on her bid for a record-equalling 24th major title.
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.
The innovative championship debuted across three Australian cities -- Perth, Brisbane and Sydney -- in January last year with 24 nations split into six groups ahead of a finals series.
Djokovic’s Serbia emerged triumphant, overpowering Nadal’s Spain to win the inaugural title.
Teams’ qualified for the ATP Cup based of men’s singles rankings, with Austria, Russia, Greece, Germany, Argentina, Italy, Japan, France and Canada also making the grade.
All of the world’s top 10 players will take part, except Roger Federer who has pulled out of the Australian Open for the first time in his career as he continues his recovery from two rounds of knee surgery.
ATP Finals champion Daniil Medvedev headlines a strong Russian team alongside fellow top 10 star Andrey Rublev, while world No.3 Dominic Thiem will try to take Austria to glory.
Australia was included as host nation, but without showman Nick Kyrgios, who was not on the team sheet.
Kyrgios has paid the price for a year of inaction over COVID-19 concerns after he was ruled out of Australia’s team after his world ranking slipped to number 46 following a 11-month absence from the ATP Tour.
The 25-year-old last played a competitive match at Acapulco in February after deciding to remain at home in Australia when the circuit resumed in Europe and North America after a hiatus.
Each nation have two singles slots that will be taken by their top-ranked players and Australia’s challenge at the ATP Cup will be led by Alex de Minaur and John Millman who are ranked 23 and 38, respectively.
The duo will be joined by doubles players John Peers and Luke Saville as Australia look to improve on their semi-final finish at last year’s inaugural tournament. The ATP Cup will be held from Feb. 1-5 in Melbourne ahead of the Australian Open, the year’s first Grand Slam, and the event will feature world number one Novak Djokovic and second-ranked Rafa Nadal.