For Harriet Dart, who forced a tie-break out of the former world No 1 Karolina Pliskova at Wimbledon last year, the prospect of sharing a court with Maria Sharapova in the first round of the Australian Open is not as daunting as some might imagine.
The 22-year-old Londoner, riding at a career-high 132 in the rankings, says of taking on the Russian – one of only five current players with a career grand slam – “I am super excited to play in the main draw. Sharapova has been my idol since I was very little. But I have played the US Open and I have played Wimbledon twice in qualifying, where you have to win three matches against very high-level players.”
They open proceedings on the Rod Laver Arena on Monday morning local time, when the heat will be building; later in the afternoon Kyle Edmund plays Tomas Berdych on the re-named Melbourne Court, followed by Andy Murray against Roberto Bautista Agut, giving the day a very British feel.
Dart began to deliver on her potential last year, winning her first ITF title then arriving at Wimbledon in buoyant mood and taking a set off the more accomplished of the Pliskova twin sisters, Karolina, in the first round, having beaten Kristyna at Eastbourne. She won another ITF title in Norway, on a retirement, then worked her way steadily up the rankings. “I have been playing good tennis and hope to take that into the main draw and hopefully get some more matches,” she said.
She came from a 6-1 loss in the first set of her third match to beat the 10th qualifying seed, Ivana Jorovic, of Serbia, on Friday to seal her path into the draw, giving up one game in the deciding set. The leap in class on Monday will be dramatic.
“I looked up to [Sharapova] growing up,” she said. “One, she always looked so nice when she was playing, and also the way she holds herself on the court, her presence. She has been so successful in the game. I was pretty young when she first won Wimbledon. It will be pretty cool to play her.”
She added: “Last year I had a really good season. I started with a new coach [Goran Marijan]. I was training abroad in Turkey for a year and a bit. This year, we decided to go back to the UK because my coach is full-time with me. We have been working on my game, trying to improve things 5-10%. That makes a big difference when you put it all together. I have been happy I have stuck with it and implemented it in matches. I am getting results for the hard work.
“Goran is an Aussie of Croatian background. We were based in Istanbul but now in London. Istanbul is a cool city.”
It might be of little consequence at this stage of her career, but Dart is on the same side of the draw as the world No 2 and 2016 champion, Angelique Kerber, who brings a run of good form to her opener against the unseeded Slovakian, Polona Hercog.
The German said: “The tournament starts from zero, but I’m here to find my rhythm in the first round, trying to do my best, then looking at the tournament day by day.”
Also playing on day one are Heather Watson, against 31st seed Petra Martic, first up on Court 14, and Katie Boulter, in the draw by right, against the Russian Ekaterina Makarova, also first up, on Court 12. There are no guarantees any more in the women’s game, so the British first wave might at least have the element of surprise against higher-ranked opposition.
Meanwhile, the greatest of them all, Serena Williams, remained strangely silent, choosing not to give a pre-tournament press conference at the place where she won the most recent of her 23 slams, two years ago while seven weeks pregnant.
She starts against the German Tatjana Maria and, as happens often, is locked into a section with her sister Venus, whom she beat in the final two years ago. The unseeded elder Williams plays the 25th seed, Mihaela Buzarnescu, and could meet Serena in the fourth round.
The player who beat Serena to announce her arrival in the big time at the US Open last September, Naomi Osaka, was not so shy here as on that dramatic occasion. In an entertaining exchange on Saturday, she said she feels no different as a person to when she previously got into the draw here through qualifying.
“It holds a lot of special memories,” she said. “I feel the same. It would be bad if I changed in three months.”
Asked if she was as open in private as she appears to be in public, she raised a smile when she replied: “I don’t want to sound rude to you guys, right? But when I sit here, it’s, like, you guys aren’t real people.”