Halep, Wozniacki dream of maiden Major in Australian Open

Halep, Wozniacki lead host of players eyeing maiden Slam in absence of Serena

Simona Halep will sport her "lucky" red dress and Caroline Wozniacki says she is playing better than ever as both aim for a first Grand Slam victory when the Australian Open starts today.

The world's two top-ranked players will spearhead the charge to succeed Serena Williams at this year's first Major left wide open by the withdrawal of the defending champion and new mum.

With the 36-year-old Williams not ready yet to return, the tournament could be there for the taking by a host of players yet to win a Grand Slam led by top seed Halep, Wozniacki and fourth-ranked Elina Svitolina.

Last year, there were two first-time Major-winners while Serena was on maternity leave - Jelena Ostapenko at the French Open and Sloane Stephens at the US Open.

But their chances in Melbourne look slim: Stephens hasn't won a match since her Flushing Meadows triumph, and Ostapenko was far from her attacking best in first-round defeats in Shenzhen and Sydney recently.

Wimbledon champion and world No. 3 Garbine Muguruza is battling injury problems which could further aid Halep's hopes.

And the 26-year-old Romanian, who currently has no clothing sponsor, confirmed she would wear the same "lucky" red dress in Australia that she used while registering a dominant victory at the Shenzhen Open a fortnight ago.

She found the outfit on the internet and hoped it would bring the same results in Australia.

"Was a (web)site, in China actually, and one of my managers helped me, and in 24 hours I had the outfit, and it was perfect. I was lucky," she said.

But lucky dress or not, she will need to overcome her poor record at Melbourne Park where she has lost in the first round in both of the past two years when she opens tomorrow against Australian wildcard Destanee Aiava.

Former No. 1 Wozniacki is riding high in the rankings again after reaching eight finals in 2017, with victories in Tokyo in September and at the season-ending WTA Tour Finals.

"I've improved everything," said Wozniacki ahead of her first-round clash with Romania's Mihaela Buzarnescu today.

She lost to Germany's Julia Goerges in last week's Auckland Classic final, but said the rain-disrupted tournament had been tough, ideal preparation.

"It was a good start to the year," said Wozniacki.

In-form Svitolina last week won the Brisbane International after picking up five WTA Tour titles last year, more than any other woman.


The Ukrainian believes hard work in the off-season is paying dividends.

Halep, Wozniacki dream of maiden Major in Australian Open
(From left) Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki, Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova and Johanna Konta kick-start their bid for a first Australian Open title today.PHOTO: AFP

"I've started to play more consistently," she said. "I'm stronger physically. I have a different look to my game."

World No. 6 Karolina Pliskova lost to Svitolina in the Brisbane semi-final, but will also be a contender for a maiden Slam with one of the biggest serves on Tour.

Britain's world No. 9 Johanna Konta could figure despite a stuttering start to the season.

She reached at least the last eight in both of her Australian Open appearances to date, but slumped out of the Sydney International in the first round and faces a tricky opener against competitive American Madison Brengle.

The most dangerous floater is 2008 champion Maria Sharapova, who is back in the world's top 50 for the first time since returning from a 15-month doping ban. She will open against unseeded German Maria Tatjana tomorrow.

Former champions aiming to go far in the tournament include 37-year-old Venus Williams, who last won a Slam in 2008 but rose to world No. 5 last year after reaching two finals - in Melbourne and Wimbledon - and Angelique Kerber.

The German, who turns 30 on Thursday, won in Sydney last Saturday and will hope to reproduce her stunning run to the championship in Melbourne two years ago, after a poor 2017 which saw her drop outside the world's top 20.

Victory for Venus would see her eclipse Ken Rosewall as the oldest player to win a Major. - AFP