Returning Federer looms large for field, Murray
Six-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic drew a difficult first-round opponent in Fernando Verdasco, and Roger Federer’s fall in the rankings complicated his chances at Melbourne Park after he ended up in the same quarter as top-ranked Andy Murray, No. 5 Kei Nishikori and No. 10 Tomas Berdych.
The official draw for the season’s first major was held Friday and delivered an awkward opponent for second-seeded Djokovic. Verdasco had an upset win over fellow Spaniard Rafael Nadal in the first round here last year, and had five match points before losing to Djokovic in the semi-final at Doha last week.
Third-ranked Milos Raonic of Thornhill, Ont., will open against Germany’s Dustin Brown. Raonic has won the only previous meeting between the players in the opening round of the 2016 U.S. Open.
Six-time women’s champion Serena Williams, aiming for an Open-era record 23rd Grand Slam singles title, drew a challenging first-round opponent in Swiss teenager Belinda Bencic – who was seeded 12th last year – and also had No. 9 Johanna Konta, No. 17 Caroline Wozniacki and No. 6 Dominika Cibulkova in her quarter.
Top-ranked Angelique Kerber, who beat Williams in the final here last year to win her first Grand Slam title, and also won the U.S. Open to finish the year at No. 1, is set to play Lesia Tsurenko in the first round. Tsurenko withdrew from her semi-final later Friday in Hobart, citing a viral problem which forced her to pull out of the Brisbane tournament the previous week. She said she hoped to be okay for the Australian Open.
Eugenie Bouchard of Westmount, Que., coming off a semifinal appearance at the Sydney Open, faces American Louisa Chirico. It will be their first meeting.
Federer had surgery on his left knee last February after reaching the Australian Open semi-final and, after ending his record run of 65 consecutive majors by skipping the French Open, spent the second half of 2016 on the sidelines recovering after a semi-final exit at Wimbledon.
The 17-time Grand Slam winner slipped to No. 16 in the year-end rankings, and dropped a further spot this week to be seeded 17th after Grigor Dimitrov beat Nishikori in the Brisbane International final last Sunday and moved up to No. 15.
Federer was drawn to play qualifiers in the first two rounds, then potentially former Wimbledon finalist Berdych in the third round, 2014 U.S. Open finalist Nishikori in the fourth and fivetime Australian Open runner-up Murray in the quarter-final.
After leaving Australia quickly after a fifth-final loss, Murray won nine titles in 2016 – including Wimbledon, the Olympics and the season-ending ATP Finals to replace Djokovic in the yearend No. 1 ranking.
He will play Illya Marchenko in the first round and has a potential third round against No. 31 Sam Querrey, who upset Djokovic at the same stage last year at Wimbledon.
U.S. Open champion Stan Wawrinka is on the bottom of the same half of the draw.
No. 2-ranked Djokovic is in the other half and has No. 4 Dominic Thiem, No. 11 David Goffin and Dimitrov in his quarter.
Nadal, the 14-time major winner who is returning from two months off with a left wrist injury, and Raonic are in the top quarter on that side of the draw. Organizers confirmed Australia’s Thanasi Kokkinakis withdrew because of injury, leaving an extra place open for a qualifier.
Djokovic and Kerber attended the draw as defending champions. Djokovic equalled Roy Emerson’s record of six Australian titles last year – he has won five of the past six – and Kerber won her first.