Last year's runner-up Venus Williams starts off against one of the most dangerous floaters in the draw in Belinda Bencic - while No.1 seed Simona Halep is set for an early Petra Kvitova clash.
Alex Macpherson
January 11, 2018

MELBOURNE, Australia - The 2018 Australian Open draw has pitted last year's finalist Venus Williams against Belinda Bencic in the first round - while No.1 seed Simona Halep could face two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova as early as the third round.

This time last year, Venus's sister Serena drew the Swiss talent off the bat, defeating her and going on to win a 23rd Grand Slam title - but this year, Bencic has marked herself out as one of the most dangerous unseeded players in the draw, compiling a 15-match winning streak at the end of 2017 and helping Switzerland reach the final of the Hopman Cup last week alongside Roger Federer.

Simona Halep takes a break from practising hard ahead of the 2018 Australian Open (Getty)
Simona Halep takes a break from practising hard ahead of the 2018 Australian Open (Getty)

Elsewhere, Simona Halep's top seeding has not protected her from one of the toughest routes to, potentially, her first Australian Open semifinal. Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, seeded just No.27 after missing half of 2017 due to a knife attack sustained in a home invasion, lurks in the third round; the winner could face home favorite Ashleigh Barty in the fourth round, though Barty has to run a gauntlet of hard hitters herself in the first two rounds in Aryna Sabalenka and Camila Giorgi.

Unseeded Maria Sharapova, another looming floater, has landed in one of the draw's most intriguing sections. The Russian opens against Germany's Tatjana Maria, with No.14 seed Anastasija Sevastova - the player who sliced and diced Sharapova out of last year's US Open - awaiting in the second round.

2008 champion Maria Sharapova holds the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup at the 2018 Australian Open official draw ceremony (Getty)
2008 champion Maria Sharapova holds the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup at the 2018 Australian Open official draw ceremony (Getty)

If the 2008 champion survives that, her reward could be a resurgent Angelique Kerber in the third round. The 2016 champion has started 2018 with a seven-match winning streak and counting, and must be regarded as one of the title favorites.

There's also the potential for Kerber to reprise one of last year's finest Slam matches in the fourth round, where No.3 seed Garbiñe Muguruza is her projected opponent. The pair's epic Wimbledon encounter at the same stage paved the path for Muguruza to win her second Slam title - but the Spaniard has a question mark over her health, having been forced to retire in the Brisbane International last week after suffering cramps and to withdraw from this week's Sydney International due to injury. No.26 seed Agnieszka Radwanska stands between Muguruza and a possible second-week meeting with Kerber, Sharapova or Sevastova.

Caroline Wozniacki practises ahead of the 2018 Australian Open (Getty)
Caroline Wozniacki practises ahead of the 2018 Australian Open (Getty)

Meanwhile, the oldest active Roland Garros champion takes on the youngest in the fourth quarter: No.7 seed Jelena Ostapenko faces Francesca Schiavone in the first round, and is projected to meet No.2 seed Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinals.

The projected fourth round matches are as follows:

[1] Simona HALEP (ROU) vs [16] Elena VESNINA (RUS)
[9] Johanna KONTA (GBR) vs [6] Karolina PLISKOVA (CZE)
[3] Garbiñe MUGURUZA (ESP) vs [14] Anastasija SEVASTOVA (LAT)
[11] Kristina MLADENOVIC (FRA) vs [8] Caroline GARCIA (FRA)
[5] Venus WILLIAMS (USA) vs [12] Julia GOERGES (GER)
[13] Sloane STEPHENS (USA) vs [4] Elina SVITOLINA (UKR)
[7] Jelena OSTAPENKO (LAT) vs [10] CoCo VANDEWEGHE (USA)
[15] Anastasia PAVLYUCHENKOVA (RUS) vs [2] Caroline WOZNIACKI (DEN)

The full draw can be found at ausopen.com.