Maiden Slam: Five women who could win 2018 Australian Open

The withdrawal of defending champion and seven-time winner Serena Williams has opened up the women's draw at the Australian Open. Here are five women who could win their first Grand Slam title this month in Melbourne:

Simona Halep

The world number one has fallen in the first round at Melbourne Park for the past two years but she has hit the ground running in 2018.

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.

An aggressive baseliner, the 26-year-old Romanian won in Madrid, Bucharest and Montreal last season and reached four other finals including the French Open, where she lost an epic three-setter to Jelena Ostapenko.

Halep has to overcome her reputation for folding at critical moments in big matches, but she may never have a better chance to get off the mark.

Caroline Wozniacki

After having to deny retirement rumours just over a year ago, the Dane comes to Melbourne with her eye on regaining the top world ranking six years after she last held it.

The 27-year-old closed 2017 with a first career victory over Venus Williams at the WTA Tour finals in Singapore and opened 2018 with a run to the final in Auckland.

Reached six finals last year before finally getting over the winning line in Tokyo in September, and has hardly missed a beat since.

In Singapore, she reeled off wins over Elina Svitolina, Simona Halep and Karolina Pliskova and has risen from 19th to second in the world in 12 months.

Johanna Konta

Australian-born Briton became one of the stories of Melbourne Park in 2016 after beating Venus Williams in the first round and reaching the semis, where she lost to eventual champion Angelique Kerber.

Lost in the last eight in 2017 to Serena Williams, who also went on to lift the title. Konta also reached last year's Wimbledon semis but she then endured a slump in form with niggling injuries and dropped from a career-high fourth in the world to her current ninth.

Loves playing in Australia and won in Sydney 12 months ago, although she lost in the first round there this week.

Karolina Pliskova

The tall, tattooed 25-year-old, whose identical twin Kristyna will also be playing at Melbourne, rose to world number one in July last year following victories in Brisbane, Doha and Eastbourne.

Reached the Australian Open quarter-finals in 2017 when seeded five and is looking to go further this time around. Biggest weapon is her serve -- she was the ace leader on the WTA Tour last year, powering down 452 first service winners in 69 matches.

On top form Pliskova, ranked six, will be hard to beat and she enjoyed a good warm-up in Brisbane last week, losing in the semi-final to Svitolina.

Elina Svitolina

Enjoyed her best year on tour in 2017, winning five WTA titles -- more than any other woman -- at Taiwan, Dubai, Istanbul, Rome and Toronto, and rising to a career-high number three in the world by September.

In Toronto, the 23-year-old demolished Venus Williams, Garbine Muguruza, Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki, proving she can put together a sustained run against the best.

Swept aside a quality field in Brisbane last week with victories over Johanna Konta and Karolina Pliskova en route to the title and a world ranking of four.

Source: AFP