The Australian Open draw takes places on Thursday evening this year (19:00 local time, noon UAE time), instead of its usual timing of Friday morning ahead of the tournament, and with several stars either unseeded or falling in a lower than usual seed bracket, quite a few surprises could be in star.
The reason the draw has been moved up is because this year it is being televised and it is open to the public who can attend its unveiling on Margaret Court Arena.
Maria Sharapova has been chosen to take part in the draw alongside defending champion Roger Federer since Serena Williams, last season’s women’s singles winner is not competing in Melbourne this year.
The decision to include Sharapova in the draw has raised some eyebrows because the last time she was at the Australian Open, the Russian failed a drugs test that led to her receiving a 15-month suspension.
Sharapova is the 2008 champion at Melbourne Park nonetheless and has been back from her ban for nearly eight months. She was unranked back in April when she returned from her suspension and is now up to No. 47 in the world.
Ahead of Thursday’s draw, we ask five burning questions we’re eagerly waiting to have answered.
WHERE WILL DJOKOVIC LAND?
Novak Djokovic dropped to No. 14 in the world after pulling out of Doha in the opening week of the season. The Serb was the defending champion in the Qatari capital but was unable to compete due to the elbow injury that kept him out of action for the past six months.
He will be seeded No. 14 in Melbourne, which means he could face a top-four player in the fourth round. World No. 1 Rafael Nadal, No. 2 Roger Federer, No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov and No. 4 Alexander Zverev are possible fourth round opponents for Djokovic, who is a six-time Australian Open champion.
Djokovic has never faced Nadal at a major earlier than the quarter-finals, while the last time the Serb took on Federer as early as the fourth round in a Slam was 11 years ago at the 2007 Australian Open.
WHO WILL DRAW SHARAPOVA?
In her first Slam back from suspension, Sharapova drew the then second-seeded Simona Halep in the first round of the 2017 US Open. Sharapova won in the three sets, taking out one of the tournament’s hot favourites. With the five-time Grand Slam champion unseeded at a major once again, the first question on everyone’s minds will be: Who will get Sharapova in the opening round?
WHERE WILL THE FLOATING FOUR FALL?
We can expect some serious mayhem in the women’s draw because players like 2016 champion Angelique Kerber, 2014 runner-up Dominika Cibulkova, ex-world No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska and two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova are all seeded between 21 and 27. We should be prepared for some monster third rounds. This draw has Radwanska-Wozniacki third round written all over it.
WHO’LL DRAW THE KYRGIOS SHORT STRAW?
As it stands, Nick Kyrgios is seeded 17. Assuming no one above him pulls out — Stan Wawrinka has raised doubts around his participation after withdrawing from Wednesday’s Tie Break Tens — the Aussie can face a 9-16 seed in the third round. A Djokovic-Kyrgios third round perhaps? Yikes!
WILL WE SEE MORE WITHDRAWALS?
Besides Wawrinka’s injury doubts, other seeds with physical concerns include Garbine Muguruza, who retired from Brisbane with cramps and from Sydney with a right thigh injury, Caroline Garcia, who had a back issue last week, Johanna Konta, who retired with a hip problem from her Brisbane quarter-final and Jack Sock, who complained of a hip issue at Hopman Cup. Will any of them pull out?
For the first time since 1975, two Egyptians are competing in a men’s singles category at a Grand Slam, and Mohamed Safwat and Karim-Mohamed Maamoun made sure they commemorated that feat by winning their first rounds of Australian Open qualifying on Wednesday.
Safwat, ranked 222 in the world, commenced his campaign Down Under with a 6-4, 6-3 win over Estonian Jurgen Zopp, coming back from 0-3 down in the second set to secure a straight-sets succes.
Maamoun celebrated making his Grand Slam debut by battling past El Salvador’s Marcelo Arevalo 6-2, 5-7, 7-5.
The 238th-ranked Maamoun next takes on 37-year-old Frenchman Stephane Robert while Safwat faces 22-year-old Italian Lorenzo Sonego.
“The first Grand Slam is a big dream for me,” the 26-year-old Maamoun told Sport360.
“I always played to be able to compete in one of these big tournaments. It’s always been a big goal for me to play here, to compete and see the top players, so it was an amazing feeling. I really enjoyed the atmosphere, everything was really nice.”
While this is Maamoun’s first Slam, Safwat is competing in his seventh. The closest Safwat came to qualifying was at Wimbledon in 2016 when he won two matches before losing in the final round.
The Egyptian No. 1 is used to being alone at the majors but is thrilled he finally gets to share the experience not just with a compatriot but a good friend in Maamoun.
“It is really really nice to finally have someone to travel with, have a friend you know. Actually we didn’t have a chance to support each other today because we were playing almost at the same time but it’s always good to have a close friend from your country with you, to be with you, traveling with you, sharing everything,” said the 27-year-old Safwat.
“It’s really fun, it makes the tournament much better. I was happy we both managed to win today, he had a tough match. I’m sure it was a big moment for him too.”
[📸: Instagram/karimmaamoun] pic.twitter.com/VY7ZVjnb8Y
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) December 21, 2017
Safwat is not content though with the two wins he and Maamoun scored on Wednesday and is eyeing far greater achievements.
“At the end of the day it’s only a first round of qualies. We don’t have to celebrate that much by just winning the first round of qualies if we really want to progress and have a better dream and bigger dream.
“It’s good but at the end of the day winning first round of qualies at a Slam – I’m sure the more we focus, the more we work hard, the more wins will come.”
Both Safwat and Maamoun stand out among the current generation of Egyptian players. The pair have been grinding it out on the Challenger tour while many of their countrymen are sticking to the lower-tier Futures circuit, with Egypt hosting tournaments at that level almost every week of the season.
Safwat has been playing Challengers more consistently since 2013 while Maamoun took the leap last season, to test himself against tougher opposition.
“I knew that I cannot make it with only Futures so I had to step up my game and try to compete at a higher level,” explains Maamoun.
“My coaches and I felt that I can beat these players, I have the capabilities to win these matches and win in big tournaments so I started playing Challengers more to get used to the big competition and the tough matches and it really helped my game and helped my mentality.
“I felt that I can compete, and I can do this, it made me believe more. It’s been really good. I’m happy with how I’m performing now. The previous year I was playing only Futures, now I’m playing this year a Grand Slam and I’m really focusing on Challengers, so it’s a very big progress for me and I’m happy about it. Hopefully I keep going to achieve playing the four Grand Slams this year.”
Maamoun shares Safwat’s sentiments and is thankful they can both support each other in Melbourne this week. The historic moment of have two Egyptians at a Slam is also not lost on him.
“Me and Safwat have been really good friends for a long time and last year we didn’t play many tournaments together but we always try to support each other, help each other as much as we can, so it’s a really good thing for me that I have him hear by my side and also that I’m there for him in his matches,” says Maamoun.
“I think it’s a very big thing that two Egyptians are playing in the same Grand Slam, I think it didn’t happen for a long time. And it’s also a good thing that we’re not in the same quarter to play each other so hopefully we can both qualify and it will be a very big thing for Egyptians and for young players to motivate them to keep going and chase their dreams.”
Safwat, who peaked at 187 in the world rankings in 2014, is approaching the new season with high hopes. He added Austrian ex-world No. 17 Gilbert Schaller to his team as a coach. Schaller famously defeated a second-ranked Pete Sampras in the 1995 French Open first round.
“I’ve been changing a few things, I’ve been working on my weaknesses. I’ve been developing my mental state. Basically it’s one of the best preseasons I’ve ever had, I really had fun,” said Safwat.
“I did half of it in Egypt, half of it in Vienna. With the changes I made I’m really feeling so much progress and I feel there’s more to come, I just need to keep up the progress.”
Serena Williams will be ready to make her tennis comeback at the Australian Open with her return to Melbourne for the season’s opening Grand Slam “very likely”, organisers said on Wednesday.
Williams, 36, won this year’s Australian Open while pregnant and gave birth to a baby girl in September. She has not played a competition since, raising questions over whether the 23-time Grand Slam winner would attempt to defend her title next month.
But tournament director Craig Tiley is optimistic she will return for a crack at her seventh Melbourne Park crown after marrying Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian last month. Williams is yet to confirm the exact date of her comeback.
“She’s got her visa, she’s entered, she’s practising and she’s probably just got to find a bit more space for a bigger entourage,” Melbourne’s Herald Sun quoted him as saying.
“There’s no question that she’ll be ready in our view and she wants to break a record that is Margaret Court’s. It would be a pretty significant accomplishment for her to be able to do that.”
Australian Court has 24 major titles, making her the most successful player in Grand Slam history.
Tiley described the Australian Open, which will be held from January 15-28, as a “family-friendly event”.
“We’ve had this before. Roger Federer travels with his four kids and we are a family-friendly event,” he said, referring to Williams and her baby.
The winner of the 2018 tournament will walk away with Aus$4.0 million (US$3.0 million), up from Aus$3.7 million last year. The total tournament purse has risen 10 percent to Aus$55 million.