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Even without Serena Williams, Australian Open women's field still tough

Even without Serena Williams, Australian Open women's field still tough

With seven of the top-10 players yet to have won a Grand Slam, the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup might see a new victor this time around.

While Stephens speaks of hope heading into the new year, she didn't start 2018 on a high note. She reached the last eight in both of her Australian Open appearances to date but slumped out of the Sydney International in the first round this week.

Caroline Wozniacki, WTA Finals champion and the second seed, faces Romania's Mihaela Buzarnescu.

With Serena Williams out after giving birth to her first child and injury doubts surrounding Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza, the tournament could be there for the taking by top-ranked Halep, who has yet to win a Grand Slam. The Swiss finished 2017 on a 15-match winning streak to book her place in the Australian Open by right and carried that on with three impressive victories at the Hopman Cup. But 2018 could be different. She won the season-opening Shenzhen Open in China, but has mixed results at Melbourne Park, losing in the first round the last two years.

"The depth in women's tennis, I really do believe in the last few years, has gotten so strong", she added. The no-nonsense Romanian, however, dismissed a suggestion that she might start her own clothing line like Serena's older sister Venus Williams.

World number six Karolina Pliskova lost to Svitolina in the Brisbane semi-final but also will be a contender for a maiden Slam behind one of the biggest serves on tour. Her biggest weapon is her serve - she was the ace leader on the WTA Tour a year ago, powering down 452 first service winners in 69 matches. Halep said she had enjoyed "as good a pre-season as she could remember" as she swept to both singles and doubles titles at the Shenzhen Open last week. Although at her best on clay, Halep is well capable of winning the biggest tournaments on hard courts.

"I have one more goal: to win a grand slam", the Romanian 26-year-old told reporters at Melbourne Park on Saturday.

And then there's Elina Svitolina, who earned her 10th tour title last week at the Brisbane International.

If she can continue building on her momentum, she has the ability to make a deep run at Slams, and maybe lift the trophy as well. 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.

Maria Sharpova, the 2008 victor, returns after missing last year's Australian Open because of a drug suspension. The Belgian lost almost two months after suffering a hugely unfortunate ankle injury at the French Open yet still qualified for the ATP Finals and stunned Federer before losing to Dimitrov in the final. In 2016 after beating Venus in the first round and reaching the semis, where she lost to eventual champion 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.

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