Simona Halep is the women's top seed for AO 2018 Simona Halep practicing ahead of AO 2018

Women's draw: Halep's date with Destanee

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A women’s draw starting with only half its usual quota of Williams sisters may be threatened with the early loss of the family’s one active current member, after Venus Williams drew talented Swiss Belinda Bencic in the opening round of Australian Open 2018.

Perhaps the best measure of the fluidity at the top of the women’s game is the fact that the top ranking changed hands seven times in 2017. That did not include the elder Williams, who finished at No.5, but last year’s runner-up at Melbourne Park and Wimbledon was the unofficial choice of many as the outstanding player of the year.

MORE: Full AO 2018 women's singles draw

In Bencic, fresh from partnering Roger Federer to the final of last week’s Hopman Cup, Venus faces a hugely testing first assignment. The 20-year-old’s ranking has suffered through injury, but she has been as high as seventh, and compiled a 15-match winning streak at the end of last season.

The draw’s third quarter is also home to Ukrainian No.4 seed and new Brisbane International champion Elina Svitolina, while the fourth is headed by Caroline Wozniacki and French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko – the latter one of six major winners in the 128-strong field, and scheduled to start against former Roland Garros queen Francesca Schiavone. Put another way: youngest French champion v oldest.

Title favourite and first-time top seed Simona Halep is in new territory on lofty line one, and with the prospect of opening against out-of-sorts Australian wildcard Destanee Aiava. Yet that is a particularly strong section of the draw, and her path is littered with obstacles; dual Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, seeded 27th after missing the first five months of last year following that horrific knife attack which imperilled her career, could await the Romanian in the third round. Karolina Pliskova, who had a turn during the musical chairs pantomime at No.1 mid-year, could then await Halep in the quarters.

Spanish No.3 seed Garbine Muguruza faces a difficult section of the draw, assuming she is sufficiently recovered from the right thigh problem that prompted her withdrawal from the lead-up tournament in sweat-soaked Sydney after another retirement and cramping incident in Brisbane the week before.

Indeed, the second quarter boasts an intimidating depth of talent that extends to US Open finalist Madison Keys, Australian Open 2016 champion Angelique Kerber, now finding form again, and unseeded 2008 winner Maria Sharapova, who makes her Australian comeback against Tatjana Maria. The latter pair could meet in the third round.

Interesting initial match-ups include 17th-seeded Keys against China’s Qiang Wang, 2014 Melbourne finalist Dominika Cibulkova versus Kaia Kanepi, and the clash between Rio Olympic gold medallist Monica Puig and Australian veteran Sam Stosur

In a more comfortable section at the bottom lurks still-seeking-her-first-major Caroline Wozniacki, whose outstandingly consistent year closed with success in the prestigious WTA Finals and who logged more match wins in 2017 than any other woman on tour. The Dane opens against Romanian Mihaela Buzarnescu, and is seeded to meet Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the third. A first Australian Open semifinal since 2011, when she reigned as No.1 in the world, surely beckons.