Sport Ash Barty heads strongest Australian Open field in years
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Ash Barty heads strongest Australian Open field in years

Australia's Ash Barty is returning for the Australian Open in Melbourne in February. Photo: AP
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At least 13 Australians have earned direct entry to the 2021 Australian Open, with officials releasing one of the strongest fields in years.

ACOVID-19 hasn’t stopped every player in the men’s top 100 and 98 of the world’s top 100 women’s stars from committing to the rescheduled Open starting on February 8.

Australia’s world No.1 Ash Barty headlines the women’s 128-strong draw, with eight-times champion Novak Djokovic once again the top seed for the men’s event.

“We are looking forward to welcoming the world’s best players to Melbourne and what promises to be a spectacular Australian Open following a year of disruption on a scale none of us has ever experienced before,” Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said on Thursday.

“Although the AO will look a bit different to previous years, the safety of everyone is our top priority.

“We have the opportunity to stage a very safe and happy slam, and give the players the experience of competing in front of crowds again, something they’ve missed for most of this year.

“There are so many great storylines for AO 2021 – Serena (Williams) is gunning for her eighth AO title while Novak, who often seems invincible at Melbourne Park, is going for a record ninth title.

“Our own world No.1 Ash Barty will return to grand slam competition, as will Roger Federer as he comes back from injury.

“And there’s a new crop of rising stars coming up to challenge them all. It’s going to be a great few weeks of tennis here in Melbourne.”

American world No.89 Taylor Townsend and Spain’s recently-retired three-time quarter-finalist Carla Suarez Navarro are the only top 100 players not on the women’s entry list.

Barty skipped both her French Open title defence and the US Open because of the coronavirus.

Joining her in the women’s draw are compatriots Ajla Tomljanovic and wildcards Astra Sharma, Maddison Inglis, Lizette Cabrera and Daria Gavrilova.

The 2011 US Open champion Sam Stosur is almost certain to also gain a wildcard, if she wants one, after narrowly missing the direct entry cut-off following the birth of her first child last year.

World No.23 Alex de Minaur leads the Australian men’s contingent, supported by John Millman, Nick Kyrgios, Jordan Thompson, James Duckworth and wildcards Chris O’Connell and Marc Polmans.

Another 10 wildcards will be issued in coming weeks, with more Australians sure to be recipients.

-AAP