MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - The 2018 Australian Open draw is out and World No.1 Simona Halep has been handed a tough road as she is set to be the top seed at a Slam for the first time in her career. From the blockbuster first-round clash between Venus Williams and Belinda Bencic, to the possible third-round showdown between 2016 champion Angelique Kerber and 2008 champion Maria Sharapova, here's how this year's draw shakes out.
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Top 8 seeds: No.1 Simona Halep, No.2 Caroline Wozniacki, No.3 Garbiñe Muguruza, No.4 Elina Svitolina, No.5 Venus Williams, No.6 Karolina Pliskova, No.7 Jelena Ostapenko, No.8 Caroline Garcia.
Top half: Halep, Muguruza, Pliskova, Garcia
Bottom half: Wozniacki, Svitolina, Venus, Ostapenko
Projected quarterfinals: Halep vs. Vesnina, Konta vs. Pliskova, Muguruza vs. Sevastova, Garcia vs. Mladenovic, Venus vs. Goerges, Stephens vs. Svitolina.
Last year's final: Serena Williams d. Venus Williams, 6-4, 6-4.
Simona Halep, Karolina Pliskova, and Johanna Konta handed a tough quarter
The No.1 ranking is on the line at Melbourne Park and while the five challengers to Halep's No.1 ranking all have to go deep to unseat her, the Romanian was handed, potentially, the toughest draw of any top four seed.
Halep's top quarter includes Karolina Pliskova and Johanna Konta, as well as Petra Kvitova and Ashleigh Barty. She will open against Australian teenager Destanee Aiava and play either Eugenie Bouchard or Océane Dodin in the second round. Unless Bouchard finds the magic that saw her best Angelique Kerber and Maria Sharapova in Madrid last year - the Canadian has lost her last six matches - Halep, who looked very sharp during her title run in Shenzhen last week, should handle her openers.
Then it gets tricky. Halep could face Kvitova in the third round (Kvitova opens against Andrea Petkovic), Barty in the Round of 16, and either Konta or Pliskova in the quarterfinals. Survive her own quarter and Garbiñe Muguruza, Angelique Kerber, Maria Sharapova, or Madison Keys could be lurking in the semifinals.
Projected to face off in the Round of 16, Pliskova and Konta will like their early rounds but once the seeds get involved the difficulty level ramps up. Pliskova could face Lucie Safarova, who played a fantastic three-set match against Kerber in Sydney this week, and Konta could face Barbora Strycova, a tough out on any surface.
Angelique Kerber and Maria Sharapova could face in the third round.
As of this writing, 2016 champion Angelique Kerber has yet to lose a match in 2018. After going undefeated at Hopman Cup, she's into the semifinals in Sydney and is looking very much like the Kerber that won two majors, Olympic silver, and rose to No.1 two years ago.
The German has been drawn into the top half of the draw, in the second quarter led by Garbiñe Muguruza. She's in a top-quality section that includes 2008 champion Maria Sharapova and Brisbane semifinalist and No.14 seed Anastasija Sevastova. The draw sets up a potential second-round match between Sharapova and Sevastova, a match-up that yielded two fantastic matches in 2017. The slicing and dicing Sevastova ended Sharapova's run at the US Open, and the Russian got her revenge a month later at the China Open, with both matches going three sets.
Whoever survives that section of the draw could face Muguruza in the Round of 16.
Venus Williams and Belinda Bencic to clash in the first round
The highlight of the first round is also the most unfortunate clash in the first round, as the tournament will have to bid adieu to either 2017 finalist Venus Williams or one of the best stories of the last few months, Belinda Bencic.
Venus looked solid in her one match before the Australian Open, a three-set loss to Kerber in Sydney. Meanwhile, since coming back from injury, Bencic has won 31 of her last 35 matches (all levels, including Hopman Cup). Something's gotta give.
Land of opportunity awaits for Madison Keys, Julia Goerges, and CoCo Vandeweghe.
To the extent there are soft pockets in this minefield of a draw, Madison Keys, Julia Goerges, and CoCo Vandeweghe look primed to take advantage. Keys and Vandeweghe are former semifinalists in Melbourne, while Goerges has yet to make it past the Round of 16.
Keys looked sharp in the one match she's played this season, a three-set loss to Konta in Sydney. She's been drawn in the second quarter, in a section anchored by Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic. Both Frenchwomen come into Melbourne with question marks, as Garcia picked up a back injury in Brisbane and Mladenovic currently riding a lengthy losing streak. The other seed in Keys' section, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, is still coming back from a shoulder injury. This is a good chance for Keys to back up her run to the US Open final last fall.
Goerges is the hottest player on tour right now, having built a 14-match win-streak dating back to the Kremlin Cup. The German has won three consecutive titles, having won the Kremlin Cup and WTA Elite Trophy to finish her resurgent season and opening 2018 with a win at the ASB Classic, where she beat Caroline Wozniacki in the final.
Goerges has been drawn into the third quarter, and sits in the section anchored by Venus, Daria Gavrilova, and Ekaterina Makarova. Depending on how that opener between Venus and Bencic plays out, this could be Goerges' section to take.
A semifinalist last year, Vandeweghe has to like her draw to the quarterfinals. She's in the top half of the bottom quarter, a section anchored by Jelena Ostapenko, who has struggled to find her form early on. The remaining seeds in that section are Anett Kontaveit and Dominika Cibulkova.
First round matches to watch (Top half): Petra Kvitova vs. Andrea Petkovic, Ashleigh Barty vs. Aryna Sabalenka, Jelena Ostapenko vs. Francesca Schiavone, Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Kristyna Pliskova, Heather Watson vs. Yulia Putintseva, Madison Keys vs. Wang Qiang, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni vs. Shelby Rogers, Caroline Garcia vs. Carina Witthoeft.
First round matches to watch (Bottom half): Venus Williams vs. Belinda Bencic, Sloane Stephens vs. Zhang Shuai, Maria Sakkari vs. Katerina Siniakova, Aleksandra Krunic vs. Anett Kontaveit, Dominika Cibulkova vs. Kaia Kanepi, Samantha Stosur vs. Monica Puig, Kiki Bertens vs. CiCi Bellis, Caroline Wozniacki vs. Mihaela Buzarnescu.