Australian Open draw: Rafael Nadal avoids Novak Djokovic, Simona Halep and Maria Sharapova handed tough path

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The top seeds of the men’s and women’s singles draws at the Australian Open were handed mixed fortunes as Rafael Nadal managed to avoid Novak Djokovic in his half while Simona Halep was given a brutal path.

Nadal, last year’s runner-up in Melbourne, opens his campaign against Dominican Victor Estrella Burgos. The first seed he could meet is Bosnian No. 28 seed Damir Dzumhur in the third round with No. 16 seed John Isner lying ahead as a possible fourth round opponent for the Spaniard.

Sixth-seeded Marin Cilic could be Nadal’s quarter-final foe or Spanish No. 10 seed Pablo Carreno Busta. No. 3 seed Grigor Dimitrov or No. 8 Jack Sock are seeded to potentially take on Nadal in the semi-finals.

Roger Federer, the No. 2 seed, begins his title defence against Slovenian Aljaz Bedene. The Swiss could square off with 29th-seeded Frenchman Richard Gasquet in the third round, 2016 semi-finalist Milos Raonic in the fourth round, and seventh-seeded David Goffin — who beat Federer in the ATP Finals last November — or Juan Martin del Potro — who ousted Federer at the 2017 US Open — in the quarter-finals.

Djokovic, a six-time Australian Open champion, is seeded 14 since his ranking slipped due to his six-month injury hiatus. The Serb landed in the quarter of the draw that is home to fourth-seeded Alexander Zverev and fifth-seeded Dominic Thiem. Djokovic faces American Donald Young in the opening round. His possible path could see him face Zverev in the fourth round, Stan Wawrinka, Thiem or Roberto Bautista Agut in the quarters, before a mouth-watering prospect that is a semi-final against Federer.

The 20-year-old Zverev might have a tough task at hand. If he wants to make it out of his quarter of the draw, he might have to beat his brother Mischa — a quarter-finalist in Melbourne last year — in the third round, or Australian wildcard Thanasi Kokkinakis — who defeat Alexander Zverev at the Hopman Cup last week — before a showdown with Djokovic in the last-16.

Meanwhile, last year’s semi-finalist and current ATP Finals champion Dimitrov has No. 17 seed Nick Kyrgios, Canadian teen Denis Shapovalov, or former runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga all as potential fourth round opponents.

Sock or in-form 11th-seeded Kevin Anderson could face Dimitrov in the quarters.

Potential last-16 clashes by seed

Rafael Nadal (ESP x1) v John Isner (USA x16)

Marin Cilic (CRO x6) v Pablo Carreno Busta (ESP x10)

Grigor Dimitrov (BUL x3) v Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA x15)

Kevin Anderson (RSA x11) v Jack Sock (USA x8)

Dominic Thiem (AUT x5) v Stan Wawrinka (SUI x9)

Novak Djokovic (SRB x14) v Alexander Zverev (GER x4)

David Goffin (BEL x7) v Juan Martin del Potro (ARG x12)

Sam Querrey (USA x13) v Roger Federer (SUI x2)

THE LADIES

On the women’s side, Halep might have to tame several power-hitters if she plans on making it through her quarter of the draw. While former champion Maria Sharapova also has a daunting path ahead of her.

Halep commences her assault on a first Grand Slam title against local wildcard Destanee Aiava. If she wins against the 17-year-old Aussie, the Romanian world No. 1 would then face either former semi-finalist Eugenie Bouchard or French big-hitter Oceane Dodin.

Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova or German former top-10er Andrea Petkovic are possible third round opponents for Halep. Talented No. 18 seed Ashleigh Barty or Japanese Naomi Osaka — who hits a big ball — could lie ahead in the fourth round before potential quarter-final showdowns with either Karolina Pliskova or Johanna Konta.

Tunisian Ons Jabeur is in Halep’s quarter and opens her campaign against No. 16 seed Elena Vesnina.

Pliskova and Konta could clash in the fourth round but the Czech No. 6 seed might have to defeat fellow Czech Lucie Safarova first in the third round. .

Garbine Muguruza, the No. 3 seed, and eight-seeded Caroline Garcia, are both potential semi-final rivals for Halep or Pliskova.

A juicy third round between Muguruza and ex-world No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska could be in the cards, if the latter manages to get through her tough opener against Kristyna Pliskova.

Muguruza could get 2016 champion Angelique Kerber, or Sharapova or 14th-seeded Anastasija Sevastova in the fourth round, before a possible quarter-final against Garcia.

Sharapova begins her Australian Open against Germany’s Tatjana Maria then in the second round could get a rematch with Sevastova, who ousted the Russian in the US Open last year.

If Sharapova manages to get through that one, she could then face an in-form Kerber in the third round before possibly Muguruza in the last-16.

The bottom half of the draw has some incredible match-ups with last year’s runner-up Venus Williams drawing Belinda Bencic in the first round. Bencic, who came back from left wrist surgery last year is on a 15-match winning streak and showed stunning form in the Hopman Cup last week.

If Williams advances, up ahead is a possible tough clash with Auckland champion and No. 12 seed Julia Goerges, who is on a 14-match winning streak, claiming three titles back-to-back.

Fourth-seed and Brisbane champion Elina Svitolina is a potential quarter-final rival for Williams, while US Open champion Sloane Stephens is also in that quarter of the draw but the American has a tough opener against Zhang Shuai to get through.

Second-seeded Caroline Wozniacki shares a quarter with French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, and the pair are possible semi-final opponents for Svitolina or Williams.

Potential last-16 clashes by seed

Simona Halep (ROU x1) v Elena Vesnina (RUS x16)

Johanna Konta (GBR x9) v Karolina Pliskova (CZE x6)

Garbine Muguruza (ESP x3) v Anastasija Sevastova (LAT x14)

Kristina Mladenovic (FRA x11) v Caroline Garcia (FRA x8)

Venus Williams (USA x5) v Julia Goerges (GER x12)

Sloane Stephens (USA x13) v Elina Svitolina (UKR x4)

Jelena Ostapenko (LAT x7) v Coco Vandeweghe (USA x10)

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS x15) v Caroline Wozniacki (DEN x2)

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Where will Novak Djokovic land and other burning questions ahead of the Australian Open draw

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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?

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Australian Open: Egyptian duo Mohamed Safwat and Karim Maamoun making history in Melbourne

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Good starts: For Safwat (l) and Maamoun.

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.”

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.”

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