As the players wait nervously for the 2021 Australian Open to get underway, one of Britain’s best – Katie Boulter – has plenty of reasons to feel optimistic.
The Brit, 24, made a superb start to the year with two excellent wins in her first tournament. She outclassed Anna Kalinskaya in an impressive straight-sets victory. Then she fought back brilliantly to upset the media-anointed ‘next big thing’ in tennis, Cori Gauff in the next round of the Gippsland Trophy, one of the three WTA 500 events that took place this week in Melbourne.
Those wins earned Boulter a marquee meeting with Naomi Osaka in the last 16. And the Brit again impressed, as she won the first set and made the World No.3 work hard for victory. It was also Boulter’s best display against the Japanese player, as she had not won a set in either of their two previous encounters, so her performance definitely represents a step in the right direction.
Boulter in confident mood ahead of Kasatkina clashEmbed from Getty Images
After her encouraging displays at the Gippsland Trophy, Boulter is understandably confident about her chances of upsetting the odds in her first-round match at the Australian Open against Daria Kasatkina, a player who has struggled to recapture her best form since her ranking nosedived from 10 to 70 in 2019.
“It’s the stage I want to be on,” Boulter told BBC Sport. “I do feel like I can win a lot of matches at this level, as I feel like this week has shown. It’s exciting for me.”
The Brit continued, “But I cannot put a lot of pressure on this week, it’s just another week in the calendar, in terms of me mentally and the way I address it.”
“If something good comes of it, amazing. If it doesn’t then I go back to working hard and doing everything I can. I am sure I will have many other chances to compete here and in the other Grand Slams.”
Boulter starts rankings climbEmbed from Getty Images
In April 2019, Boulter suffered an injury at the worst possible time. She was in the best form of her life, had recently reached a career-high world ranking of 82 and had just won a crucial singles rubber against Kazakhstan to seal Great Britain’s qualification for the Fed Cup Finals.
However, the Brit struggled with back pain during that fateful match with Zarina Diyas, and she used a hot water bottle at the changeovers to manage the discomfort. When she went for a scan after the tie, the news was surely worse than even she feared, as the image showed she had sustained a stress fracture.
The injury kept Boulter out for six-and-a-half months. When she returned to the court, she had plummeted to 352 in the rankings through no fault of her own. And in that situation, she had little choice but to play mostly ITF events to re-discover her form, as WTA players who are out of action for between 26 and 52 weeks due to injury can only use their previous ranking to enter eight events.
The Brit found some form and decided to use her Special Ranking to enter the 2020 Australian Open. Unfortunately, she was drawn against Elina Svitolina, and she lost in straight sets despite a creditable display. She then used it again a month later in Acapulco and won a round, before the Covid-19 pandemic altered the rest of the season.
For the remainder of 2020, Boulter focused on finding form and fitness at lower-profile events. She won the Progress Tour Women’s Championships at the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton. Then she gained some useful match practice at the Battle of The Brits at the same venue and reached the final of an ITF 15K event in Egypt.
The Brit’s approach to 2020 clearly worked, because she has started 2021 in ideal fashion. And her victories at the Gippsland Trophy were not just important in terms of confidence and match practice. They were also significant for her world ranking. Before the event, she was ranked 371. When the rankings are updated tomorrow morning, she will have moved up to 316. And, if she beats Kasatkina, something she is definitely capable of doing, she could move up as high as 246.