Tough grind for Serena ahead of 24th Slam title

Serena Williams has been handed a challenging draw in her quest for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, starting with Germany's Tatjana Maria in the first round.

The American, seeded 16, is gunning to match Margaret Court's record of singles Majors and claim an eighth Australian Open crown.

But Williams is in a tough half of the draw and could meet world No. 1 Simona Halep in round four and, if she gets through that, Karolina Pliskova in the last eight.

Halep, who enters the tournament having played just one match in four months after a back injury, was handed a chance for revenge against Estonia's Kaia Kanepi.

The unseeded Kanepi knocked Halep out of the first round at Flushing Meadows last August, making the Romanian the first top seed to lose at that tournament's earliest stage.

If she comes through that dangerous opening showdown, she could meet Venus Williams in round three.

Defending champion and third seed Caroline Wozniacki starts against Belgium's Alison van Uytvanck and could meet 2008 champion Maria Sharapova in round three.

"Coming back as defending champion, it's something I always dreamed of. I feel at home here. These courts are suited for me. I'm enjoying every minute," said the Dane at yesterday's draw, while paying tribute to Williams.

"Serena is the greatest player to have played the game. Her experiences have been a learning experience for me. It'll be fun though as well.

"She has a baby now! It's amazing being back on tour so soon."

The 2016 winner Angelique Kerber, seeded two, begins her draw against Slovenia's Polona Hercog and could meet Wozniacki in the semis.

Kerber will get a few more days' rest after losing 6-4, 6-1 to Petra Kvitova in the Sydney International quarter-finals yesterday.

Japan's Naomi Osaka, the US Open champion, kicks off her tournament against Poland's Magda Linette and is in line to meet Australia's Daria Gavrilova in round two.

Oaska may then need to battle past twice-champion Victoria Azarenka in the third round. - AFP, REUTERS