BEIJING, China - The 2018 China Open, the final Premier Mandatory of the season, has a number of intriguing first-round matches, including a meeting between No.2 seed Caroline Wozniacki and former World No.7 Belinda Bencic.
Switzerland's Bencic ran off four consecutive defeats of Wozniacki in 2015 on her way to her career-high ranking, and leads their overall head-to-head 4-2 - but will be looking to snap a four-match losing streak dating back to New Haven, the week before the US Open.
Elsewhere, US Open champion Naomi Osaka will face a qualifier or lucky loser in her first event since a final-round showing at the Toray Pan Pacific Open. Osaka enters Beijing with a question mark over her health, as a viral illness kept Osaka from starting the preceding tournament in Wuhan.
If Osaka makes it into the second round, she could face 2015 runner-up Timea Bacsinszky, who has not won a WTA main draw match since Wimbledon 2017 due to an injury-ravaged year-and-a-half but who has rediscovered some form on the ITF Pro Circuit in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, Roland Garros runner-up Sloane Stephens will seek to end a three-match losing streak - and to seize her first match win in Asia since 2015 - against Wuhan quarterfinalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. The Russian has previously upset two Top 10 players in Beijing: Venus Williams in 2009 and Flavia Pennetta in 2015.
Defending champion Caroline Garcia was lifted into the Top 10 thanks to her spectacular Wuhan/Beijing double last year - but could face tumbling back out of it 12 months on without anothe deep run. The Frenchwoman's title defence in Wuhan ended at the hands of Katerina Siniakova at the first hurdle, and in Beijing she opens against rising local wildcard Wang Yafan - with No.14 seed and 2015 champion Garbiñe Muguruza looming in the third round.
But a significant obstacle for Muguruza could be an even more dangerous threat to emerge from this section: the powerful 20-year-old Aryna Sabalenka, rewarded with a performance bye thanks to her semifinal run in Wuhan, has been racking up the Top 10 scalps in recent months and awaits the Spaniard in the second round. Even before that, Muguruza has to navigate renowned upset artist and former World No.8 Ekaterina Makarova in the first round.
Elsewhere, the 2018 title count leader and 2014 runner-up here, Petra Kvitova, starts her campaign against Daria Gavrilova; the winner will take the lead in their head-to-head, currently tied at 2-2, and a resurgent Dominika Cibulkova could await in the second round.
No.3 seed Angelique Kerber will seek to rediscover her form of the first half of the year against Kristina Mladenovic, while No.1 seed Simona Halep aims to halt a three-match losing streak against a qualifier. The Romanian has not lost four consecutive Tour matches since the start of 2016; if she avoids that fate in Beijing, either Tokyo semifinalist Donna Vekic or San Jose runner-up Maria Sakkari lurk in the second round.
In welcome news, the tournament also sees the return to competition of Mihaela Buzarnescu, who was struck down by an ankle injury in Montréal in August just as she had scaled new heights in her career with the San Jose title and a Top 20 ranking. The 30-year-old starts against Aliaksandra Sasnovich, with either No.7 seed Karolina Pliskova or wildcard Samantha Stosur awaiting in the second round.
Click here to view the full China Open 2018 draw.
Note: No.16 seed Ashleigh Barty withdrew due to a right arm injury after the draw was made. Madison Keys was originally slated to play Naomi Osaka, but was moved into the spot Barty vacated as the next eligible seed.