Halep, Wozniacki eye maiden Slam in Serena's absence
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 on Monday.
The world's two top-ranked players will spearhead the charge to succeed Serena Williams at 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 number three 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 on Tuesday against Australian wildcard Destinee Aiava.
Former number one 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 Tour Championship.
"I think I've improved everything," said Wozniacki ahead of a first-round clash Monday with Romania's Mihaela Buzarnescu.
She lost in the Auckland Classic final last week to Germany's Julia Goerges, but said the rain-disrupted tournament had been tough, ideal preparation.
"It was a good start to the year," said Wozniacki.
- Dangerous floater -
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. "I've started to play more consistently," she said. "I'm stronger physically. I have a different look to my game."
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.
Britain's world number nine Johanna Konta could figure despite a stuttering start to the season.
She reached the 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 and will open against unseeded German Maria Tatjana.
Former champions aiming to go deep into the tournament include evergreen 37-year-old Venus Williams, who last won a Slam in 2008 but last year reached two finals -- in Melbourne and Wimbledon -- to get back to world number five, and Angelique Kerber.
The German won in Sydney at the weekend and will hope to recreate 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 ever to win a major.
© 2018 AFP