Former Australian Open quarter-finalist Sabine Appelmans has lamented the strength of competition she faced during her time on the WTA Tour.
The Belgian player spent 13 years in the professional ranks, winning seven WTA titles between 1988 and 2001. However, she failed to make it beyond the last eight in a Grand Slam.
Appelmans subsequently saw Kim Clijsters (4) and Justine Henin (7) win 11 Grand Slams between them, but is unlikely to witness a Belgian success in Australia this time around.
Elise Mertens is Belgium’s leading hope in the tournament this year, with the 26-year-old priced at 80/1 in the online betting markets to lift the prestigious trophy.
Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka head up an extremely strong line-up in Melbourne, replicating what Appelmans had to contend with throughout her career.
The two-time Belgian Sportswoman of the Year faced some of the greatest women players ever to grace tennis, including legendary German star Steffi Graf.
Appelmans played Graf on four occasions, losing the first three matches before finally recording a victory in Hanover in 1998. She believes Graf was her toughest opponent.
“Steffi was so complete, she was like an icon to me – I looked up to her,” she said. “She had an unbelievable forehand and unbelievable footwork as well.
“I remember playing her for the first time and only winning one game, so that was very tough.”
Another major stumbling block to Appelmans’ hopes of sporting success was nine-time Grand Slam women’s singles title winner Monica Seles.
The former world number one, who won the Australian Open four times between 1991 and 1996, was never defeated by the Belgian left-hander.
“She was such a fighter on the court,” added Appelmans. “She played everything with two hands and got to all the balls, bringing everything back.
“I enjoyed playing her but I never beat her, so that was a tough opponent.”
Appelmans’ run to the quarter-finals at the 1997 Australian Open was undoubtedly her standout performance in a Grand Slam, although she should probably have gone further.
The 16th seed beat Mary Pierce 6-1 in the first set of their last-eight encounter, but the French player eventually battled back to claim the victory.
She was joined in the quarter-finals that year by fellow Belgian player Dominique Monami, who was forced to retire during the second set of her match against Mary Joe Fernandez.
Despite the setback, Monami subsequently became Belgium’s first ever top ten player in the world rankings, laying the foundations for Clijsters and Henin to follow in her footsteps.
Appelmans admits that the rivalry with her compatriot was a friendly one, but says she sometimes found it difficult to play against someone she knew so well.
“We were very close in the rankings and we were good friends, but we also had to play each other on the court,” she said.
“It was not always easy playing someone else from Belgium and also with somebody you’re very close with.”