Re­turn­ing Fed­erer looms large for field, Mur­ray

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - BIRTH AND DEATH - JOHN PYE MELBOURNE, AUS­TRALIA

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.

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