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Even without Serena, Aussie Open women’s field still tough

ATP Tour: Australian Open Preview

United States’ Sloane Stephens smiles during a press conference at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (Dita Alangkara/AP)

United States’ Sloane Stephens smiles during a press conference at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. (Dita Alangkara/AP)

MELBOURNE, Australia — Without defending champion Serena Williams in the draw at the Australian Open, there’s certainly an opportunity for another player to go on a surprising run and emerge as a first-time Grand Slam champion.

Sloane Stephens and Jelena Ostapenko did it last year.

Just don’t describe the first Grand Slam of the year as “more open” than usual.

“Whenever I get asked that question, it always comes across in really kind of an almost negative way instead of acknowledging how many great players we have,” Johanna Konta, who reached the semifinals of Wimbledon last year, said in her pre-tournament news conference Saturday.

“The depth in women’s tennis, I really do believe in the last few years, has gotten so strong,” she added. “There’s no straight sailing to the quarters or semis. It doesn’t exist.”

Stephens agrees the Australian Open field is still extremely tough, even without Williams, the 23-time major winner. Williams withdrew from the tournament to recover from health issues after a complicated childbirth in September.

“There’s a lot of great players,” Stephens said. “It’s up for grabs.”

A new face will be holding the trophy at Melbourne Park in two weeks. The No. 1-ranking changed seven times in 2017, with five different women assuming top spot — three for the first time.

Top-ranked Simona Halep is looking to finally break through and win her first major after twice finishing runner-up. She won the season-opening Shenzhen Open in China, but has mixed results at Melbourne Park, losing in the first round the last two years.

“I don’t feel pressure. I feel OK. I feel fit. I feel ready to start,” Halep said. “I have one more goal: to win a Grand Slam.”