MELBOURNE: Roger Federer will open his Australian Open title defence against Slovenian Aljaz Bedene next week, while top seed Rafa Nadal, the losing finalist last year, was paired with Dominican Victor Estrella Burgos at the draw yesterday.
Women’s top seed Simona Halep of Romania faces Australian wildcard Destanee Aiava in the first round, with second seed Caroline Wozniacki starting out against Halep’s compatriot Mihaela Buzarnescu.
Serena Williams will not defend the women’s title having had her first child last year but 2008 champion Maria Sharapova, who failed a drugs test at the tournament in 2016, is back unseeded after a ban and will face Germany’s Tatjana Maria.
Williams’s sister Venus, who lost to her sibling in the final last year, is seeded fourth and the 37-year-old was handed a tricky first encounter against Swiss former world No 7 Belinda Bencic, who is 17 years her junior.
Men’s third seed Grigor Dimitrov will face a qualifier, with Alexander Zverev, ranked fourth, playing Italian Thomas Fabbiano but with 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka, returning after surgery, in his section of the draw.
Young gun Zverev had little luck in his first Australian Open draw as a top five seed with either Wawrinka, who plays Ricardas Berankis, or Novak Djokovic potentially standing in his path in the quarter-finals.
Six-time Melbourne Park champion Djokovic, seeded 14th after missing the back end of last season with an elbow injury, will take on American lefthander Donald Young in his first match with mercurial Frenchman Gael Monfils looming in round two.
Federer also has Milos Raonic, Juan Martin del Potro, David Goffin and Tomas Berdych in his quarter of the draw, while Nadal would appear to have the easier section, although former US Open champion Marin Cilic looms as a last-eight opponent.
If the draw goes to seeding, Dimitrov would face American Jack Sock in the last eight, with ailing world No 5 Dominic Thiem, who withdrew from Kooyong because of illness yesterday, taking on Zverev.
Australia’s sole men’s seed, Nick Kyrgios, takes on Brazilian Rogerio Dutra Silva and local women’s 18th seed Ashleigh Barty takes on Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka.
Federer is the “clear favourite” to retain his Australian Open title over an injury-riddled field when the first Grand Slam of the season starts next week in Melbourne.
Federer’s bid for a 20th Grand Slam title will be aided by the absences of Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori, as well as lingering injuries to top players who are still expected to play like Nadal and Wawrinka.
But more so than the competition, it is the 36-yearold Federer’s dominant play at this month’s Hopman Cup, where he won all four of his singles matches and led Switzerland to a third title, that gives him the edge.
“He looks younger than ever,” Patrick McEnroe told reporters on Wednesday.
“He’s moving as beautifully as ever. He’s hitting the ball brilliantly. Wins four or five matches at the Hopman Cup against high-level competition. To me, he’s the clear favourite.”
Bookmakers are also expecting the world No 2 to successfully defend his title. – Reuters