TENNIS: A red-hot Karolina Pliskova has placed herself in cotton wool in a bid to claim her first major at Melbourne Park.
Fresh from her dazzling display in Brisbane, the Czech has withdrawn from the Sydney International to rest a niggling left thigh injury and get herself right for the start of the Australian Open next Monday.
Set to move up to No.5 in the world rankings on Monday, Pliskova will aim to become the latest Brisbane International champion to graduate to grand slam winner after she powered past Frenchwoman Alize Cornet 6-0 6-3 at Pat Rafter Arena on Saturday night.
Three times in its first eight editions has the Brisbane International women's champion gone on to become a first-time grand slam title winner.
Petra Kvitova (2011) claimed the Wimbledon crown six months later, Li Na (2008) went on to win the 2011 French Open and Victoria Azarenka (2009) broke through at the 2012 Australian Open.
Pliskova now has seven titles on the women's tour but is yet to claim a major, though she came close at the US Open last year when losing the final to world No.1 Angelique Kerber.
The 24-year-old, who won the Australian Open junior title in 2010, lost just five points in a 19-minute first-set onslaught against Cornet in Brisbane, hitting 12 winners and four aces.
"I didn't miss in almost the whole first set,” Pliskova said. "Yeah, I was feeling pretty good.”
She has now has rocketed into contention for the Australian Open title, if she can overcome her thigh complaint.
Cornet, who beat Serena Williams at Wimbledon in 2014, was left in awe of her opponent, who looks most likely to experience a breakout year just as Kerber did in 2016.
"She was amazing and I'm sure she will win a grand slam (title) very soon,” she said.
Cornet (back) and young Aussie Ashleigh Barty (shoulder) have also been forced to pull out of the Hobart International, and world No.6 Elina Svitolina was another to withdraw from the Sydney tournament due to a viral illness.
Two-time major winner Svetlana Kuznetsova, however, looked fighting fit and made a statement of her own in the first round at Ken Rosewall Arena.
The 31-year-old defending champion - and No.5 seed - demolished Irina-Camelia Begu 6-1 6-4 to set up a showdown with local hope Sam Stosur or fellow Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Kuznetsova, a US Open (2004) and French Open (2009) champion, returned to the top 10 for the first time in six years during a 2016 campaign that began with victory in Sydney.
Though in the twilight of her career, she feels she can challenge in Melbourne if her confidence is up.
"I always feel at the start of the year I need a lot of matches because I was struggling (in previous years at this time),” she said.
"I remember last year in Auckland, I couldn't win one match. I lost to (Tamira) Paszek ... I was playing horrible. And then I came here and it gave me confidence.”
Australian rising star Thanasi Kokkinakis, meanwhile, will make his long-awaited return to singles play in Sydney against fellow Aussie Jordan Thompson in the first round. The pair are contesting Sunday night's doubles final together in Brisbane.