All eyes were on Serena Williams, who won the Australian Open when seven weeks pregnant in 2017 and needs one more major to draw alongside Margaret Court at the top of the all-time list on 24, as the women’s draw was made on Thursday. She has a gentle opener against the unseeded German Tatjana Maria, but could play world No 1, Simona Halep, in the fourth round and is in the same half as Naomi Osaka, who beat her in the final of the US Open in September.
Williams, who is seeded 16 for the tournament in Melbourne after reaching the past two grand slam finals, will play her first tour match since the defeat by Osaka when she takes on Maria on Tuesday having prepared for the Australian Open with three successive singles victories in the Hopman Cup.
The defending champion Caroline Wozniacki, one of Williams’s closest friends on the tour, could play former champion Maria Sharapova in the third round, while second seed Angelique Kerber is in the same quarter as Sloane Stephens, who fell to Johanna Konta in the first round in Brisbane.
At the draw ceremony, Wozniacki spoke of her anticipation at returning to Melbourne Park, before paying tribute to Williams. “Coming back as defending champion, it’s something I always dreamed of,” she said. “It means so much to me. It’s something I’ve wanted my whole career, and something I waited for for a long time. To finally get that [major victory] here was very special – it’s the Happy Slam, it’s the first slam of the year, and it just made my year so much more enjoyable.
“The first time I came back here and hit on the courts, I thought, ‘Okay, I’m home.’ I feel like these courts are suited for me, so it’s incredible to be back. I’m just enjoying every minute of it. I’ve had a great off-season and I feel very well prepared.
“Serena is the greatest player to have played the game. Her experiences have been a learning experience for me. It’s been fun though as well. She has a baby now! It’s amazing being back on tour so soon.”
Simona Halep: ‘My dream was to be the best. I did everything for tennis’
Konta, who retired after five games in the Sydney International, plays the Australian Ajla Tomljanovic in the first round and could meet the tough Russian Daria Kasatkina in the third round. Tomljanovic beat Konta in Brisbane last week and the Briton is in the same half of the draw as both Williams’ sisters, Halep and Osaka.
The other British contenders are on the other side of the draw, Katie Boulter having drawn the Russian Ekaterina Makarova – a formidable assignment – in a section that includes the Belarusian player everyone is talking about as the next major force in the game, Aryna Sabalenka, who begins against a qualifier.
Heather Watson plays 31st seed Petra Martic, of Croatia, and would have to get past Stephens in the third round to progress further.
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