MELBOURNE: World number one Ash Barty will return to competitive tennis after a lengthy hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic when she headlines two WTA tournaments in Melbourne ahead of the Australian Open, organisers said on Thursday.
The 24-year-old Queenslander 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 pandemic is still affecting the tennis calendar, with the year's first Grand Slam at Melbourne Park to start on Feb. 8, three weeks later than planned.
Barty, 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 Jan. 31-Feb. 6 as part of the Melbourne Summer Series.
The Gippsland Trophy and Yarra Valley Classic, named after regions in the state of Victoria, will include 49 of the top 50 women players.
The top 32 players will be split across the two events, with each featuring 64-singles and 32-doubles draws.
American Serena Williams, 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.
Players will start arriving Down Under from Jan. 15 and undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine before playing the warm-up events, which will be held at Melbourne Park.
Top men's players like Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic and world number two Rafa Nadal will represent their countries in the 12-team ATP Cup from Feb. 1-5 with those unable to make the cut divided into two ATP 250 tournaments.
The Great Ocean Road Open and Murray River Open will feature players including Grand Slam winner Stan Wawrinka and local hope Nick Kyrgios.
"While we know the circumstances are unique this year, it is a huge coup to secure such strong playing fields," Cameron Pearson, head of TA major events, said in a statement.
(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly in Mumbai; editing by Richard Pullin)