Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

ASB Classic: The draw that puts Venus Williams on course for victory as she dodges Caroline Wozniacki and Sloane Stephens

From left: Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki and Sloane Stephens. Photos / Getty Images
From left: Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki and Sloane Stephens. Photos / Getty Images

Venus Williams has been given the best possible chance of a repeat ASB Classic triumph after the tournament draw was completed today.

There are no easy games at this level but Williams - who will face Russian world no 75 Daria Kasatkina in the first round - has been placed into arguably the easier half of the field, avoiding third seed Caroline Wozniacki and dangerous American world No 30 Sloane Stephens.

It means that 2015 runner-up Wozniacki would meet 2014 Champion Ana Ivanovic in the semi-finals, if both players progress that far.

Wozniacki faces world No57 Danka Kovinic of Montenegro in the first round while Ivanovic will play a qualifier when she starts her campaign later this week.

Meanwhile, Kiwi No1 Marina Erakovic avoided any of the big guns and will play Kazakstan's Yulia Putintseva in her opening match. The match is a repeat of their clash at Wimbledon last year, where Putintseva prevailed 7-6 (5) 7-5 in just over two hours. The 20-year-old Putintseva enjoyed a breakthrough campaign last year, reaching a career high ranking of 70 and finishing the season in the top 100 (77) for the first time. She lost in the first round of qualifying at the ASB Classic last year, in her only previous appearance at the tournament.

Erakovic has progressed beyond the first round in Auckland in two of the last three years, but hasn't gone further than the second round here since 2008.

The standout first round clash looks to be two-time grand slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova's match with experienced German Mona Barthel.

Kuznetsova who has been ranked as high as No2 in the world and currently sits at 25, has a tough challenge against world No44 Barthel, the highest ranked player outside of the seeds. Another intriguing match sees perennial Auckland favourite Julia Goerges up against solid Czech Lucie Hradecka (world No53).

And fortune smiled on 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, who was granted a wildcard yesterday and found out today she will play a qualifier in the first round.

"On balance it's a great draw all round," said tournament director Karl Budge. "We have been lucky in the last two years in getting marquee finals. All things going well we might have another grand slam quality final."

The big three of Ivanovic, Williams and Wozniacki have all requested Tuesday matches to start the tournament but it's likely one of them will play Monday evening, with Ivanovic the logical choice given she has been in Auckland since last Thursday morning.

- NZ Herald

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