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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

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