Emma Raducanu prepares for her 2022 Australian Open campaign. (Photo: Australian Open/Twitter)

With the 2022 Australian Open just around the corner, The Inner Sanctum takes a look at some of the most intriguing first round women's singles clashes.

With the 2022 Australian Open getting started on Monday, The Inner Sanctum has chosen five first round women’s singles matches to keep an eye on next week.

Sloane Stephens (USA) v Emma Raducanu (GBR)

The current US Open champion takes on a former US Open champion in what is perhaps the match of the first round.

Raducanu is playing in her first Grand Slam since her remarkable run to the US Open title, but the Brit has been dealt a brutal first round draw in the form of Stephens.

The American has been as high as world number three and reached the semi-finals at the Australian Open back in 2013, offering a daunting prospect for her young opponent.

Stephens would know better than most the pressure on Raducanu’s shoulders, going on her own 2013 Australian Open run at just 19, including a victory over Serena Williams.

Stephens though has endured a torrid last few years, and is currently ranked 68. Last season, the American had to wait until March to secure her first win of the year, something she will be desperate to improve upon this time around.

Raducanu meanwhile has struggled for form since her remarkable success in Flushing Meadows.

Posting a 2-4 record, Raducanu’s most recent defeat was a demolition at the hands of Elena Rybakina in Sydney in which the Brit was only able to win a single game in the match.

Still, Raducanu has proven that she doesn’t need a particularly impressive track-record to achieve special results and will likely view a vulnerable Stephens as an excellent opportunity to find some form.

Whoever wins this one could do some real damage in the draw with some confidence under their belt. 

Sloane Stephens has been handed a first round draw at the Australian Open. (Photo: Australian Open/Twitter)

(11) Sofia Kenin (USA) v Madison Keys (USA)

This all-American affair could light up the first round with two players desperate to recapture some of their best tennis.

Former Australian Open champion Kenin returns to the site of her greatest triumph from 2020, however a 2021 season plagued by injuries and poor form means her upwards career trajectory has stalled over the last 12 months.

A temporary split with her coach, who is also her father, epitomised what was a tumultuous period for Kenin.

Nonetheless, having won only seven matches since the last Australian Open, Kenin will view this year’s tournament as a chance for a fresh start with her father once again by her side.

Keys is a player who knows more than a thing or two about career setbacks, with the former world number seven currently ranked down at 87.

She had a similarly fruitless 2021, but has started 2022 with a bang by charging to the Adelaide title, indicating she is primed for a return to her best tennis this year.

Kenin and Keys played three times in 2019, with Keys leading the head-to-head 2-1. Importantly, Keys won both hard court matches including one at the US Open.

Still, a lot has changed for Kenin since that time whilst Keys has suffered multiple setbacks, ensuring this contest is filled with intrigue.

Madison Keys celebrates her semi-final victory in Adelaide. (Photo: Australian Open/Twitter)

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Storm Sanders (AUS) v (2) Aryna Sabalenka (BLR)

There’s nothing quite like a hometown underdog coming up against a big-name seed, and that’s exactly what we have in store when Sanders takes on Sabalenka.

The Aussie is coming off a career-best season in 2021 in which she broke into the top 200 singles rankings for the first time at the start of the year, and finished at the lofty heights of rank 129.

She also competed in the singles main draw of a Slam for the first time since 2016 when she played at Roland Garros, before reaching the Wimbledon semi-finals in doubles.

A story of persistence and dedication to the sport, Sanders comes into this year’s Australian Open with a 0-5 record in singles at the Slams. Her toughest challenge yet awaits in the form of world number two Aryna Sabalenka.

The Belarussian is at the top of her game and is a terrifying prospect with her power and intensity.

The only thing Sabalenka has been lacking in recent years is consistently deep runs at Grand Slams in singles, although she appears to be rectifying that pattern based on her two semi-finals at Wimbledon and the US Open last year.

The match is not a foregone conclusion though, as the home crowd will get behind Sanders and drive her to another level against an opponent who has suffered two shock early exits in her warm-up tournaments in Australia.

Sabalenka won’t have an easy ride in this one.

Aryna Sabalenka is hoping for a breakthrough Australian Open campaign in 2022. (Photo: Australian Open/Twitter)

Anhelina Kalinina (UKR) v (21) Jessica Pegula (USA)

A choice for tennis aficionados, Kalinina and Pegula were two of the ‘winningest’ players in 2021.

Pegula’s year-end ranking jumped from 62 in 2020 to 18 in 2021 as she earned 37 match wins across the year.

Whilst that didn’t translate into any titles, Pegula secured wins over the likes of Victoria Azarenka, Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova and Naomi Osaka.

The American’s year was kick-started by a run to the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, where she lost to eventual finalist Jennifer Brady.

Kalinina is a less well-known proposition. The 24-year-old Ukrainian plied her trade largely on the ITF circuit in 2021, racking up an incredible five titles.

She wasn’t without success at WTA level either, reaching the final of an event in Hungary and beating Angelique Kerber at Roland Garros.

Kalinina’s reward for her relentless success was a rise of 110 places in the WTA rankings from 162 at the end of 2020 to 52 at the end of 2021.

Sitting just outside the top 50, it’s incredible that Kalinina is only now making her main draw debut at the Australian Open.

All of the winning done by these two players over the last year means their first round match should offer plenty of quality in what is their first meeting at this level.

Anhelina Kalinina will be one to watch in 2022. (Photo: ITF/Twitter)

Ajla Tomljanovic (AUS) v (8) Paula Badosa (ESP)

Another case of an Australian playing at home against a more highly fancied opponent, Tomljanovic and Badosa have already met once this year.

Badosa defeated Tomljanovic in straight sets earlier this week in Sydney on her way to claiming the title, and will be keen to repeat the trick in Melbourne.

The Spaniard became a major player at the top of the WTA tour last season when she broke into the top 10 following her triumph at Indian Wells.

Badosa made a habit of winning in 2021, including a victory over Ash Barty, and appears set to translate her regular tour form into Grand Slam success.

Badosa will also be keen to dispel some of her demons from her last trip to Melbourne where she was caught up in plenty of COVID-related drama.

Tomljanovic wasn’t as successful in 2021, however still achieved several important milestones.

Most notably, the Australian achieved her best Grand Slam singles result by reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, and will be desperate to improve on her record at her home Slam where she has only ever reached the second round.

Perhaps the extra pressure, atmosphere and presence of a partisan home crowd will elevate this contest from a relatively comfortable Badosa win to a much more competitive affair at Melbourne Park.

Paula Badosa celebrates winning the Sydney Tennis Classic. (Photo: Australian Open/Twitter)

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