MELBOURNE, Australia — As the top two seeds, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer didn’t have reason to be too concerned about Thursday’s draw for the Australian Open — knowing that they cannot face each other before the final.
Federer won last year’s championship battle in a thrilling five-setter, but this time he might have things even tougher with Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro, Milos Raonic and David Goffin all potential obstacles.
On the women’s side, while there is no Serena Williams as she recovers full fitness after the birth of her first child, the draw offers plenty of intriguing encounters in the first round, first week and further down the line. Here are 10 takeaways from the draw:
1. Roger Federer needs to conserve energy early
Last year’s draw was all about how then-world-No. 1 Andy Murray could face Federer in the fourth round, only for the Scot to crash out early. This time, Federer ought to be able to do his usual trick of breezing through the opening week, starting against Aljaz Bedene of Slovenia, and he should have no trouble with Richard Gasquet in the third round. But he’ll need to conserve energy that first week because his path to the final could conceivably include Sam Querrey, del Potro (or Goffin), Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka (or Sascha Zverev). And that’s before Nadal in the final (in theory).
2. Venus Williams gets toughest draw possible
Twelve months after reaching the final, Venus clearly hoped she could ease her way into the tournament. No such luck. Her first-round opponent is Belinda Bencic, the Swiss who was among the top 10 before missing most of last year with wrist trouble. Now she’s back and on a roll, winning 18 of her past 19 matches, helping Federer to a Hopman Cup victory and storming back up the rankings. Last year, when not fit, Bencic drew Serena Williams and didn’t stand a chance. Venus has won all four of their matches, but they have not played since 2015. This time, Bencic looks dangerous.
3. Rafael Nadal will have time to find his range
With his knee seemingly recovered from the strains it suffered at the end of last year, Nadal’s biggest worry going into Melbourne is a lack of match practice. The Spaniard has reached the final here in three of the past five years, and — as he showed at the US Open — when he’s 100 percent, hard courts are no barrier. Nadal could not have hand-picked a better first week, starting off against Victor Estrella Burgos, a Dominican ranked 81st. Although Borna Coric of Croatia could be tough in the third round, Nadal should ease through the first week before finding bigger challenges. But with Djokovic and Wawrinka in the other half, he has avoided the biggest dangers.
4. Top seed Simona Halep needs to hit the ground running
World No. 1 Halep won the title in Shenzhen to open 2018, and it’s just as well she found form quickly because she has a tough first week. Still chasing her first grand slam title, she begins against Australian wild card Destanee Aiava, a hugely talented 17-year-old. Providing there are no slip-ups — and she has lost in the first round in each of the past two years — she could play Eugenie Bouchard in the second round and then two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in the third.
5. Early danger for Maria Sharapova
The Australian Open organizers brought out Sharapova for the draw ceremony on Thursday, ensuring a bit of extra interest and some criticism as she returns to Melbourne for the first time since failing a drug test here in 2016. Sharapova is unseeded this year as she climbs the rankings and could play former champion Angelique Kerber in the last 32. Before that, though, she’ll need to overcome Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia, who took Sharapova out at the US Open.
6. Caroline Wozniacki handed golden draw
It’s been six years since Wozniacki ended the year ranked No. 1, and though many might think she fell off the face of the planet, she has finished inside the top 20 every year since 2008. Having enjoyed a strong second half of 2017, the Dane’s toughest opponent before the semifinals, on paper, would be 10th-seed CoCo Vandeweghe, while Halep, Garbine Muguruza, Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova are in the other half. She still believes she can win a grand slam. This looks like the ideal draw.
7. Which Sloane Stephens will show up?
Stephens has not won a match since winning the US Open back in September, and though the American is one of those players who often goes up and down in form, her first-round battle has danger signs all over it. She’ll take on China’s Zhang Shuai, who almost quit the game before showing up in Melbourne in 2016 and beating Halep and Madison Keys on her way to the quarterfinals. If Stephens can find her form, she should reach a quarterfinal, likely against fourth seed Elina Svitolina, but it’s a big if.
8. Nick Kyrgios has a chance to show home fans his class
There has not been a home singles champion at the Australian Open since 1978, when Chris O’Neil won the title unseeded. You have to go back even further to 1976 for the last Australian male singles champion, Mark Edmondson. Since then, Pat Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt have both come close, and perhaps this year Kyrgios has a chance for a big run. Viktor Troicki and Denis Shapovalov might cause him problems early on, but if his mind is there, the seeds in his section — Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Grigor Dimitrov — are good but far from unbeatable.
9. Time for Sascha Zverev to take the next step up
Outside of Federer and Nadal, Germany’s Zverev was the standout performer on the Tour in 2017, winning five titles, including two Masters 1000s. His record in the slams is poor, having yet to go past the last 16. In the top section of the bottom half, he would be the likely fourth-round opponent for Djokovic, if Djokovic makes it, and right now, you’d make Zverev the favorite. A possible clash with his brother Mischa might be tricky in the third round, but with clay-court lover Dominic Thiem the highest seed in his section and Stan Wawrinka returning from injury, the semifinals await.
10. Jack Sock leads the American challenge
After his superb end to 2017, when he won the Paris Masters, qualified for the ATP Finals and made the semifinals in London, Sock carries a lot of American hopes on his shoulders, and he’s been blessed with a good draw. Beginning against Japan’s Yuichi Sugita, he is seeded to play US Open runner-up Kevin Anderson in the last 16, but it’s easy to see him through to at least the last eight if he remains in form.