MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - On the eve of the first major of the season, WTA Insider breaks down the ones to watch at the Australian Open.
Listen to the WTA Insider Podcast previewing the draw below:
No.1 Simona Halep
Best AO result: Quarterfinals (2014, 2015)
The Australian Open remains the only major at which Halep has not reached a semifinal, taking first-round losses the last two years. This year, based on a simple eye test (as well as a statistical measure, apparently) Halep has the toughest draw of the Top 4 seeds, potentially having to go through Eugenie Bouchard Petra Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova, and Angelique Kerber or Maria Sharapova just to make the final.
No.2 Caroline Wozniacki
Best AO result: Semifinal (2011)
The Dane is looking good to make a hard-charging run at her first Slam title. She finished the 2017 season playing some of the best tennis of her career, winning the biggest title of her career at the WTA Finals Singapore, and comes into Melbourne as healthy, relaxed, and confident as she has in years.
No.3 Garbiñe Muguruza
Best AO result: Quarterfinal (2017)
The Spaniard is racing the clock to get fit after sustaining an upper leg injury in her opening match at the Brisbane International, and that hard luck could undermine her Australian Open campaign. But if she can manage the injury, there's no reason she can't better her quarterfinal run last year.
No.4 Elina Svitolina
Best AO result: Third round (2014, 2015, 2017)
No one won more titles in 2017 and no one was more clinical against Top 10 opposition than the Ukrainian, who boosted her seeding to No.4 thanks to her opening title in Brisbane. Svitolina's tour-level prowess has been proven, but she has still only made one Slam quarterfinal so far. She has to like her draw in Melbourne though - the first seeds she could face are Peng Shuai, Sloane Stephens, or Daria Kasatkina - and if she plays at her Brisbane level, you can, at a minimum, write her into the semifinal.
No.5 Venus Williams
Best AO result: Runner-up (2003, 2017)
The only woman to make two major finals last season, Venus looks fit and ready to fire in 2018. She played just one match in her lead-up, a three-set loss to Kerber in Sydney, but she looked fairly sharp, healthy, and it was a performance that looked to shake off the off-season rust. She'll be tested right out of the gate by one of the hottest players on tour in Bencic, where an upset win by the young Swiss would not surprise many.
No.6 Karolina Pliskova
Best AO result: Quarterfinals (2017)
Last year, Pliskova looked like a genuine threat to make the semifinal last year in Melbourne but fell in a tight three sets to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in the semifinals. It was the only blip on an otherwise near-perfect start to the 2017 season, which saw her ascend to No.1 after Wimbledon. The Czech slowed down after the grass season and rebounded just in time to make the semifinals of the WTA Finals to end her season. She as a tough draw, potentially playing Konta in the Round of 16, but if she gets her serve going she'll be tough to beat on Melbourne Park's quick courts.
No.9 CoCo Vandeweghe
Best AO result: Semifinalist (2017)
At a career-high ranking and tallying two Slam semifinals last season, including in Melbourne, Vandeweghe is flying dangerously under the radar. The big-hitting American is at her best on the biggest stages, and she's been drawn into the bottom half of the draw in Wozniacki's quarter, who she beat last year at Wimbledon. They could clash in what would be a great contrast of styles in the quarterfinals.
No.10 Johanna Konta
Best AO result: Semifinal (2016)
The Brit has consistently played her best tennis in Australia. Her first Slam semifinal came in Melbourne in 2016 and she backed that up with a quarterfinal run last year, losing to Serena Williams. She'll be one of the top names fighting it out in the top half of the draw, but she looked sharp in her opening tournament in Brisbane, tallying a strong win over Madison Keys in her first match. Konta's big game is built to do damage in Melbourne Park.
THE COMEBACK QUEENS
No.12 Julia Goerges
Best AO result: Fourth round (2012, 2014)
Give it up to the Germans. They have two of the hottest resurgent players in the draw, with 29-year-old Goerges leading the way. Goerges was ranked No.57 this time last year and has surged to a career-high thanks to her three-tournament run, winning Moscow, the WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai, and kicking off this year with a title in Auckland, beating Wozniacki in the final. Full of confidence and armed with a big serve, Goerges comes into Melbourne on a 14-match win streak.
No.16 Angelique Kerber
Best AO result: Champion (2016)
Right behind Goerges is 2016 champion Kerber, who has quickly put her disappointing 2017 campaign behind her. If past performance is your indicator of choice, Kerber is one of just two former champions in the draw. If you prefer current performance, she has not lost a match this season, tallying wins over Lucie Safarova, Venus, Dominika Cibulkova, Camila Giorgi, and Ashleigh Barty to win Sydney, as well as wins over Bencic and Elise Mertens in Hopman Cup. In all, she's 9-0 in 2018 and looks like a woman on a mission reclaim her rightful place in the Top 10.
No.17 Ashleigh Barty
Best AO result: Third round (2017)
A year ago, Barty played the Australian Open as a wildcard, ranked No.223, just starting out her first full WTA season since walking away from tennis and playing professional cricket. By the end of the season, the 21-year-old was one of the breakout stories of 2017 and she shows no signs of stopping. Barty made her third Premier final last week in Sydney and has never shied away from playing on home soil.
No.20 Madison Keys
Best AO result: Semifinalist (2015)
At 22-years-old, Keys already has a Slam final (US Open) and Slam semifinal (Australian Open) under her belt. That late state experience will begin to pay dividends this season. After two wrist surgeries abbreviated Keys' 2017 campaign, the American looks as fit as ever. She played one of the best matches of the young season against Konta in Brisbane, losing in three sets but looking incredibly chipper afterward due to her sustained high level. Hungry and healthy, Keys will be back in the Top 10 sooner than many people think.
No.26 Dominika Cibulkova
Best AO result: Runner-up (2014)
Like Kerber, Cibulkova looks to have put her sub-par 2017 behind her. She played some of her best tennis in Sydney to make the quarterfinals and she's fit and motivated after an extended off-season break. The Australian Open has been her most successful Slam, having made the final in 2014, the quarterfinals in 2015, and the fourth round in 2009. She could offer a stern test against Vandeweghe in the third round.
No.28 Petra Kvitova
Best AO result: Semifinalist (2012)
Kvitova has no points to defend until May and she's happy and healthy. More good news for the affable Czech: the courts at Melbourne Park are much faster now than when she played on them last. If the conditions remain mild, Kvitova could be a real threat and potential draw-buster. She's projected to face No.1 Halep in the third round and an upset there could turn the top half of the draw on its head.
No.48 Maria Sharapova
Best AO result: Champion (2008)
Could Sharapova put together a title run on the 10th anniversary of her first Melbourne triumph? Sharapova kicked off her season with a run to the semifinals of the Shenzhen Open, which boosted her ranking back into the Top 50. She been drawn into a tough section, potentially having to face the woman who knocked her out of the US Open in Anastasia Sevastova in the second round, with Kerber looming in the third round. But again, if you like past performance as an indicator, the Australian Open has been Sharapova's most successful Slam behind the French Open over the last decade.
No.78 Belinda Bencic
Best AO result: Fourth round (2016)
If Bencic can pull off the first round upset over Venus, her fantastic comeback from wrist surgery truly picks up steam. The Swiss star, who was a Top 10 player at 18-years-old, returned from wrist surgery in September ranked outside the Top 300. She's lost just a handful of matches since, pushing her ranking up to No.78 and she's repeatedly proven that she's one of the most dangerous unseeded players in the draw. Bencic finished her 2017 on a 15-match win streak and the only she's taken in 2018 is to Kerber at Hopman Cup. Watch out.