Djokovic to open v Verdasco; Federer, Murray in same quarter
MELBOURNE: 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 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-finals at Doha last week.
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 US Open to finish the year at No. 1, is set to play Lesia Tsurenko in the first round. Tsurenko withdrew from her semifinal 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 OK for the Australian Open.
Federer had surgery on his left knee last February after reaching the Australian Open semi-finals 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 semifinal 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 US Open finalist Nishikori in the fourth and five-time Australian Open runnerup Murray in the quarters.
Paul Annacone, Federer's former coach, was at the draw in a commentary role and said the 35-year-old Swiss star had enough experience at Melbourne Park — where he has won four titles and reached the semi-finals or better in 12 of the last 13 years — to make another charge at the title.
"Very strange seeing 17 next to Roger's name," he said. "For Roger, because he's been here so often, knows how to prepare, I don't see it being a huge issue."
Nishikori, speaking on the eve of the draw, said having Federer sitting lower in the list of seeds than usual was daunting for his rivals but was a promotional bonanza for the tournament.
"It's not the best news for us, for sure. It's a bit tough," he said. "It's not the best if you play, but it's great for the fans."
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 year-end 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.
US 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 third-ranked Milos Raonic are in the top quarter on that side of the draw. Organisers 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, carrying their trophies into the revamped entry to Melbourne Park. Djokovic equaled Roy Emerson's record of six Australian titles last year — he has won five of the last six — and Kerber won her first.
"Everyone else is here, not to defend, but to chase a title, try to win it," Djokovic said. "And I put myself in that position."
Kerber saved a match point in her opener against Misaki Doi of Japan last year, when she was seeded seventh, and knows better than to take the first round lightly when the Australian Open starts Monday.
"It was just one point that changed everything," Kerber said. "It was an amazing two weeks, starting with the first round where I was match point down, then playing the best player in the world in Serena in the final.
"To be here now, top seed, it's very special."