Melbourne, 6 December 2010 | Tim Rose

Monday 3 December sees the beginning of the Optus 18s Championships, with strong draws in both the boys’ and girls’ events featuring the best junior talent in the country.

The girls’ reigning champion, Queenslander Monika Wejnert, is returning to defend her crown, while the boys’ side is missing 2009 champion Jason Kubler, who is choosing to focus on the Australian Open Play-offs next week, and Ben Mitchell, who is resting after reaching the final of the Bendigo Pro Tour event.

Both draws contain junior representative players and a number who have begun their senior careers.

Photos: Optus 18s Australian Championships

Top seed James Duckworth (NSW) is a member of the AIS Academy Pro Tour Program and coached by legendary mentor Ray Ruffels. A Junior Davis Cup member in 2008, he stormed to the semifinals of this year’s French Open juniors, despite favouring grass and hard courts. Duckworth reached the quarterfinals in both the Optus 18s and the Australian Open Play-off last year, defeating top junior Kubler in the round-robin stage of the latter.

Globe-trotting Sean Berman (Vic) took out the Optus 16s last year and reached the semifinals of the Optus 18s. Berman, the second seed this week, was born in South Africa, grew up in New Zealand and played college tennis in the USA but now calls Australia home, much to the joy of local fans: he made the Australian Open Junior final under his adopted country’s banner in January 2010.

Gold Coast born and bred Maverick Banes (Qld) was a semifinalist in the Optus 18s last year. Seeded No.3 this week, Banes has been playing Futures events in 2010 and is ranked in the top 50 nationally.

Left-hander Ben Wagland (NSW) is currently ranked in the top 25 juniors in the world and has two junior titles to his credit. One who perhaps flies under the radar compared to some of his colleagues, Wagland nevertheless made the Wimbledon Juniors round of 16 in 2010.

A member of the 2009 Junior Davis Cup team, Luke Saville (SA) is also a member of the AIS Academy Pro Tour Program. Saville was this year not only awarded the title of his state’s best under 18 player, but also the Don Burr Medal for South Australia’s best overall male player. He was a finalist in the Optus 16s last year.

Defending her Optus 18s Girls Championship is Monika Wejnert (Qld), who captured the attention of all who saw her at the 2008 December Showdown. In that event, she stunned Jelena Dokic in the round-robin stages before losing a tight three-set battle in the final. Her performance in the 18s final last year, a dominant 7-5 6-0 win indicated the talent the now 18 year old possesses. Wejnert played in the 18s qualifying tournament over the weekend, dropping only five games in her three straight-set wins.

Returning to Melbourne Park is Isabella Holland (Qld), who was the No.12 ranked Australian female in November 2009. In January of that year she also made her main draw debut at the Australian Open, taking a set in a tight three-set loss. Holland was another to play in the Australian Open Play-offs last year.

Sophie Letcher (Qld) comes from rich tennis pedigree, with both of her parents finding success as tennis professionals. The top seed in the Girls 18s event, she has spent 2010 playing mostly senior money tournaments, which has pushed her national ranking into the top 20.

Viktorija Rajicic (Vic) is a former Junior Fed Cup Australian team captain. She has balanced playing senior and junior matches with some success in 2010, as evidenced by a top 25 national ranking. Still only 16, Rajicic should feel right at home as a local; she plays at the former home of the Australian Open, in nearby Kooyong.

Ashleigh Barty (Qld) is an extremely highly regarded 14 year old, who has taken all before her in her age groups and more, remaining undefeated at the ITF Junior World Championships and the Junior Fed Cup. The youngster was awarded the Female Junior Athlete of the Year title at Friday night’s Newcombe Medal awards. The future looks promising for Barty – could the 2010 Optus 18s be another step along the way to a successful professional career?