Simona Halep faces wild card in Australian Open first round

Ash Barty in action at the Sydney International final against Angelique Kerber

This tournament marks the 106th edition of all time, 50th edition in the Open Era, and the 200th overall Grand Slam event of the Open Era. Venus Williams will be 38 in June but was a runner-up at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon previous year.

Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki spearhead the charge to succeed Serena Williams at an Australian Open left wide open by the withdrawal of the defending champion and new mum.

"I have one more goal: to win a grand slam".

But she said she was not looking past her first-round opponent - Australian wildcard Destanee Aiava.

Indeed, any number of women could be holding the trophy at Melbourne Park in two weeks. But 2018 could be different. With Serena Williams on maternity leave for most of 2017, the 26-year-old Halep had her best chance for a breakthrough at the majors but ended the year empty-handed again, with a second French Open final defeat after another near miss in 2014. "When her forehand is operating well, she has got one of the best two-handed backhands, she's a great retriever, her serve has improved enough to give her some free points". The no-nonsense Romanian, however, dismissed a suggestion that she might start her own clothing line like Serena's older sister Venus Williams. She reeled off wins over Svitolina, Halep and Pliskova in Singapore, rising from 19th to second in the world in 12 months. Her biggest weapon is her serve - she was the ace leader on the WTA Tour past year, powering down 452 first service winners in 69 matches. Although at her best on clay, Halep is well capable of winning the biggest tournaments on hard courts.

"Whenever I get asked that question, it always comes across in really kind of an nearly negative way instead of acknowledging how many great players we have", Johanna Konta, who reached the semifinals of Wimbledon past year, said in her pre-tournament news conference Saturday. She swept aside a quality field in Brisbane last week with victories over Johanna Konta and Pliskova en route to the title and a world ranking of four. Nothing changes that I'm number one or number two or number three. The 25-year-old rose to world number one in July last year following victories in Brisbane, Doha and Eastbourne, but fell to the crown of thorns that the top-rank was.

Venus last won a Slam in 2008 but she enjoyed a renaissance a year ago when she reached two Grand Slam finals and returned to the world top five. Ostapenko, now 20, rocketed up the rankings after her stunning win at the French Open.

The Australian-born Briton became one of the stories of Melbourne Park in 2016 after beating Venus in the first round and reaching the semis, where she lost to eventual champion Angelique Kerber.

Wozniacki is riding high after her resurgence in 2017 when she reached eight finals, with victories in Tokyo in September and at the season-ending Tour Championship.

Konta also won Miami and reached last year's Wimbledon semis but she then endured a slump in form with niggling injuries and dropped from a career-high fourth in the world to her current ninth.

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