MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Defending champion Novak Djokovic will launch his bid for a record seventh Australian Open title with a mouth-watering first round match against Fernando Verdasco.
Spaniard Verdasco knocked out compatriot and 14-times grand slam champion Rafa Nadal in the opening round last year at Melbourne Park and had five match points against Djokovic in their recent clash at the Qatar Open.
Should Djokovic advance, the world number two could face a resurgent Grigor Dimitrov in the fourth round. The Bulgarian won the Brisbane International last week and is in ominous form.
Andy Murray, who swiped the top ranking from Djokovic late last year, is unlikely to feel much sympathy for his long-time rival’s tough first week.
The Briton suffered his fourth defeat, and fifth in Australia overall, to 12-times grand slam champion Djokovic in last year’s Melbourne Park final.
Murray holds the top seed and the advantage this year, however.
The Scot faces 93rd-ranked Ukrainian Illya Marchenko in his opener, who he beat comfortably in the second round of the 2011 tournament, their sole Tour encounter.
From there, three-times grand slam winner Murray enjoys a relatively smooth run to the quarters where fifth seed Kei Nishikori or Roger Federer may await.
Federer, seeded 17th after the longest injury lay-off of his near-20 year career, eases back in to grand slam action against a qualifier.
But the Swiss master’s path to an 18th grand slam title is likely to mean passing a huge third round hurdle against Japan’s Nishikori.
Three-time major winner Stan Wawrinka, the 2014 champion, faces a challenging first round clash with Slovak Martin Klizan, with a possible fourth round against tempestuous Australian talent Nick Kyrgios.
Nadal, the 2009 champion and seeded ninth this year, plays German journeyman Florian Mayer first up as he seeks to revive his career after a barren two years at the majors.
A potential blockbuster quarter-final against third seed Milos Raonic looms for the 30-year-old Mallorcan, who has failed to reach the last four at a grand slam since his 2014 French Open triumph.
In the women’s tournament, Serena Williams has been dealt a perilous first clash against Swiss talent Belinda Bencic as the American bids for a record 23rd grand slam title in the professional era.
Williams, coming back after a four-month lay-off to deal with shoulder injuries, could then face former top 10 player Lucie Safarova in the second round.
“(Bencic) knows how to feel comfortable in the big matches,” Federer’s former coach and tennis analyst Paul Annacone told the draw ceremony at Melbourne Park on Friday.
“I’ll be interested to see how Serena handles the pressure.”
Champion Angelique Kerber, who stunned Williams in the final last year, will play 61st-ranked Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko as she seeks to shrug off some indifferent form in the leadup.
The German world number one is aiming for her third grand slam win following on from her maiden U.S. Open title last year.
French Open champion Garbine Muguruza, seeded seventh, will play 109th-ranked New Zealander Marina Erakovic, while third seed Agnieszka Radwanksa takes on Tsvetana Pironkova.
Editing by Peter Rutherford