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The Draw: 30 June

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Friday, 13 January 2017 09:34 AM GMT
Djokovic, Serena face tough starts to Australian Open takes a look at the early storylines from the 2017 Australian Open singles draws... READ MORE

In a tournament known for offering up more than its fair share of surprises, the one thing that is for sure about this year's Australian Open is that Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams will need to hit the ground running after Friday's draw dealt them brutal first-round matches.

While world No.1 Andy Murray should enjoy a comfortable start to his title bid and defending women’s champion Angelique Kerber has the chance to ease herself in, Djokovic and Williams face the toughest of openers.

Djokovic, six times the champion in Melbourne but the No.2 seed behind Murray this year, plays Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, now ranked 40 but a man who sent Rafael Nadal packing in round one here 12 months ago.

At 33, Verdasco may be in the twilight of his career but he still possesses a howitzer of a forehand and last week in Doha, he held five match points against Djokovic before bowing out in three sets.

“Everyone remembers what Fernando did to Rafa here last year,” said Paul Annacone, the former coach of Roger Federer and Tim Henman, who was on hand for the draw, which was held at Melbourne Park on Friday morning. “He's not afraid of the big boys and that’s an amazing match-up.”

Djokovic, who is trying to become the first man to win the title seven times, began 2017 in superb form, beating Murray in another epic three-set encounter to win the title in Doha. The 30-year-old could play in-form Grigor Dimitrov in the last 16, while No.8 seed Dominic Thiem and third seed Milos Raonic are also in his half.

Having taken top spot from Djokovic at the end of 2016, Murray begins his first Grand Slam event as the No.1 seed against world No.93 Illya Marchenko of Ukraine in the first round. 

A five time runner-up, Murray could face the big-serving Sam Querrey, who took out Djokovic at Wimbledon last summer, in the third round. John Isner is also a potential opponent for Murray early on, and he could even find himself up against Roger Federer in the quarter-finals.

Tournament organisers had been bracing themselves for the prospect of a third-round clash between No.17 Federer and ninth seed Nadal, something made possible by their fall in the rankings after injury in the past 12 months.

In the end the dream/nightmare scenario did not materialise as two of the greatest players of all time landed in opposite halves.

The return of Federer after six months out – to allow his knee to recover from surgery earlier in 2016 – has added extra spice to the event and the former world No.1 was handed a nice start to his campaign, facing qualifiers in each of his first two rounds.

From then on, though, things will get tougher, quickly, as he likely faces a third-round clash with Tomas Berdych, seeded 10th this year, then Kei Nishikori in the fourth round, with Murray likely to be waiting in the quarter-finals.

Like Murray, world No.1 Kerber tops the seedings in a Grand Slam for the first time, having usurped Williams thanks to her first two Grand Slam titles, in Melbourne last year and then at the US Open in September.

The German begins against Lesia Tsurenko, a Ukrainian ranked 61, and avoided many of the dangerous floaters in the draw in the early rounds.

But Williams faces the toughest challenge of all against Belinda Bencic, the 19-year-old Swiss who was ranked as high as No.7 in February of last year before injury forced her down the rankings to her current mark of No 48.

Bencic excelled when playing alongside Federer for Switzerland in the Hopman Cup in Perth at the start of the year and could give six-time champion Williams, who missed the last two months of 2016 through injury, a real test.

“For the great players like Serena it’s always how they manage themselves in the first two rounds,” Annacone said. “This is a tremendous match-up. I’ll be very interested how Serena handles the pressure and how Belinda handles the pace. This is a brutal section of the draw.”

Fifth seed Karolina Pliskova, the runner-up to Kerber at the US Open, is also in Williams' half while ninth seed Jo Konta, a semi-finalist in Melbourne last year and this year's Syndey champion, could play Williams in the last eight.

Nothing is going to come easy. 

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