MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Chris Evert describes trying to pick a women's singles champion at this month's Australian Open as a "crapshoot" but the American says 20-year-old Aryna Sabalenka, one of many names being thrown into the mix, must be taken seriously.
The Belarussian surged up the WTA rankings last year, winning her first two titles and ending it just outside the top 10 and arrived in Melbourne fresh from winning in Shenzhen.
With her powerful groundstrokes and potent serve the quick Melbourne courts are likely to suit her style and American great Evert is looking forward to watching her progress as part of broadcaster ESPN's coverage team.
The last eight Grand Slam titles have been won by different players and the women's game is searching for a player to sustain dominance as Serena Williams has done in the past.
"I have no reason to believe that Sabalenka will not win more than one Grand Slam. Why? I see two things. I see hunger and I see boldness," 18-times major singles champion Evert said in a conference call looking ahead to the Australian Open.
"Whether that's fearlessness or what. It's tied up, the boldness, fearlessness, confidence. That's her swagger, I see that. Like this girl wants it. You can see it in her eyes. She's pretty intense."
While Evert thinks Serena is "raring to go" as she looks to equal Margaret Court's all-time Grand Slam title record of 24, she predicts strong challenges from the players who stopped the American reaching that tally last year - Japan's Naomi Osaka, who beat Williams in the U.S. Open final, and Angelique Kerber who trounced her in the Wimbledon title match.
"I think Osaka is reliable, I think she's gotten some matches in. I think she's going to go in pretty confident at this point," Evert said.
"Kerber looked good at the Hopman Cup. Then outside Sabalenka looked good, as usual. She's the one that we need to watch I think for this year."
Sabalenka, seeded 11th, faces a qualifier in the first round and a potential last-16 clash against Petra Kvitova who beat her this week in Sydney.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond)