With six titles apiece, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic are the most prolific Australian Open champions of the current era. But neither player was given any favours in this year’s draw. Serena’s first-round match pits her against 19-year-old Swiss Belinda Bencic, who upset the world No.2 as she surged to her biggest career title at the Canadian Open in 2015. Lucie Safarova, runner-up at the French Open in 2015, could be next for Serena, and former No.1 Caroline Wozniacki sits in the same quarter. The path might be even tougher for Djokovic, who opens his 13th Melbourne Park campaign against Fernando Verdasco. The Serb leads the pair’s head-to-head record 9-4, but Djokovic needed to save five match points as he battled past the 33-year-old in their Doha semifinals two weeks ago. Adding to Djokovic’s challenge is that Melbourne is a favourite stop for Verdasco, a semifinalist in 2009 and an upset winner over Rafael Nadal in the first round last year.
It’s dangerous outside the top four
Kei Nishikori will be ruing the fact he lost his top-four ranking at the end of last year. As the No.5 seed at this Australian Open, the Japanese star sits in the same quarter as Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych and Roger Federer. Stan Wawrinka, the No.4 seed, has a statistically less-challenging path, with No.7 seed Marin Cilic the most dangerous opponent in his quarter. There’s similar security (at least statistically) for the No.4 seed Simona Halep in the women’s draw – No.8 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova is the highest-ranked opponent that Halep can meet until the semifinals. For No.5 seed Karolina Pliskova, the recent Brisbane champion, there’s a potential quarterfinal against No.3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska (although the Pole faces a tricky opener against 2014 Sydney champion and former Wimbledon semifinalist Tsvetana Pironkova). Dominika Cibulkova, the No.6 seed and Australian Open runner-up in 2014, has a far tougher path with Caroline Wozniacki, Johanna Konta and Serena Williams all sitting in her quarter.
Fate can play a part
Contesting his first Tour matches since he exited to Milos Raonic in a five-set semifinal at Wimbledon last July, there’ll be no easy matches for Roger Federer in his 18th Australian Open run. Still, there must have been some relief as he was drawn to face a qualifier in the first round. And waiting in the second? Another qualifier. That path could help the four-time Australian Open champion find his rhythm and build confidence before potential meetings with Tomas Berdych (No.10 seed), Kei Nishikori (No.5) and Andy Murray (No.1) in later rounds. Crowd favourite Rafael Nadal, who was stunned by Verdasco in the first round last year, sits on the opposite side of the draw. Should the draw progress according to seedings, Nadal’s first test against a higher-ranked opponent would be a fourth-round meeting with No.3 seed Milos Raonic.
Generations are overlapping
Grand Slam draws will always feature players nearing the end of their careers and others who are just starting out, but it seems a little more pronounced at this Australian Open. Consider that there are 16 years separating Serena Williams (at age 35) and Belinda Bencic (19) in their must-watch first round. Sister Venus, aged 36, first faces an opponent who is 14 years younger in Kateryna Kozlova. There’s also a fascinating blend of youth and experience in first-round men’s matches with 19-year-old local hope Omar Jasika up against 34-year-old veteran David Ferrer. A decade sits between fast-rising 19-year-old Alexander Zverev and Dutchman Robin Haase. Similarly, exciting American teenager Taylor Fritz, faces another veteran in Gilles Muller, also aged 34. We’ve become accustomed to seemingly ageless superstars, but they’ll face tough opposition from some talented young contenders – including Melbourne teenager Destanee Aiava, the first player born this century to compete in a Grand Slam main draw.
Aussies are circling
Any home Grand Slam advantage is often cancelled out by the enormous pressure placed on the Aussies, but with four seeded locals at Melbourne Park, a strong run from a crowd favourite becomes more likely. Nick Kyrgios, who at No.14 is the highest Australian seed, first meets Gastao Elias and could encounter compatriot Bernard Tomic, the No.27 seed, in the same quarter. Also lurking in that section, though, is 2014 champion and the No.4 seed Stan Wawrinka. Other Australian men hoping to make a mark in Melbourne include Alex De Minaur, James Duckworth, Sam Groth, Omar Jasika, Jordan Thompson, Andrew Whittington and Christopher O’Connell. The two local women’s seeds Sam Stosur (No.18) and Daria Gavrilova (No.22) also sit in the same quarter – and interestingly, both open their tournament against British opponents, in Heather Watson and Naomi Broady respectively. Gavrilova would need to progress past Karolina Pliskova (among other opponents) for an all-Australian quarterfinal to eventuate between the pair. Arina Rodionova, Lizette Cabrera, Ashleigh Barty, Destanee Aiava and Jaimee Fourliss are the other Australian women who’ll look to provide something special for the locals to cheer on.