MELBOURNE • Six-time Australian Open champion Serena Williams was yesterday handed a tough draw for the year's first Major tournament, while title holder Angelique Kerber has a slightly easier route towards another final.
The 35-year-old Williams, bidding for a 23rd Grand Slam singles crown at the tournament starting in Melbourne on Monday, faces dangerous former world No. 7 Belinda Bencic of Switzerland in the opening round.
The second-seeded American, who lost the top ranking to Kerber last year, could then meet in-form Johanna Konta in the fourth round and sixth seed Dominika Cibulkova in the quarter-finals.
She could potentially then meet her 2016 US Open conqueror Karolina Pliskova in the semi-finals.
Williams' drop to world No. 2 was triggered by her shock defeat by Pliskova at Flushing Meadows, which also denied her the chance to surpass tennis legend Steffi Graf's 22 Grand Slam victories.
Pliskova is seeded to meet two-time Melbourne Park semi-finalist Agnieszka Radwanska in the quarter-finals.
World No. 1 Kerber is seeded for a last-eight clash with Spanish seventh seed and French Open champion Garbine Muguruza.
Kerber, who beat Williams to win the first of her two Grand Slams last year in Melbourne, starts with a first-round clash against Ukraine's Lesia Tsurenko.
Winning the Australian Open last year sparked a memorable season for the German, who followed it up by claiming the US Open.
She has two potential testing opponents early in her campaign, with a re-match against Russian teen Daria Kasatkina, who upset her in this week's lead-up Sydney International, on the cards.
The 19-year-old, ranked No. 26, shocked Kerber 7-6 (7-5), 6-2 in a second-round match played in sweltering conditions.
Former Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard, who rediscovered some form at the Sydney International in reaching the semi-finals, is another who could potentially be in Kerber's way.
While the pressure may be on the German to retain her crown, Williams wants nothing more than to add to her Major haul.
The American powerhouse's coach Patrick Mouratoglou told ESPN: "The goal is not to come back to No. 1.
"For that to happen, it would be necessary for her to play many more tournaments, and that's not the point. The point is to win as many Grand Slams as possible. You have to accept that if this is the goal you're not going to have others."