Australian Open: Maria Sharapova's return, Simona Halep's tough path and other women's draw talking points

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This year's Australian Open women's singles tournament is probably the least predictable in recent history, with so many contenders that can walk away with the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.

Top-seeded Simona Halep will have to tame multiple power-hitters if she plans on claiming a maiden Grand Slam trophy while Maria Sharapova faces a string of tough foes standing between her and a second Australian Open title, which would come a decade on from her first.

Angelique Kerber looks to have recaptured her magic, but seeded 21 and with Sharapova in her sights, will have to do it the hard way if she hopes to add a second crown in Melbourne to go with the one she won in 2016.

US Open runner-up Madison Keys is perhaps a bit under the radar but can cause damage in that stacked second quarter of the draw.
Last year's finalist Venus Williams has a daunting opener against in-form Swiss Belinda Bencic while second-seeded Caroline Wozniacki has a manageable draw that could see her finally lift a Grand Slam trophy.








Watch the video above where Sport360's Stuart Appleby and myself take a close look at the women's draw Down Under.


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Australian Open: Roger Federer chasing a 20th Slam, No. 1 ranking on the line and other talking points in men's draw

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The Australian Open is fast approaching and there's lots to deliberate ahead of Monday's kick-off.

The draw was unveiled on Thursday night in the presence of Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova on Margaret Court Arena and there's so much to digest.

Novak Djokovic having a No. 14 seeding was always going to cause some drama while many players looking for a maiden Grand Slam title feel they have a greater chance in Melbourne with several top stars either missing the tournament or coming back from long injury breaks.

Is it going to be another Federer-Nadal show? Or will we see someone new break through?

Here are the main talking points surrounding the Australian Open men's draw...








FEDERER CLOSING IN ON A LIKELY 20TH

Federer is looking to become just the fourth player in history to win 20 or more Grand Slam singles titles. A fifth Australian Open crown this month would see Federer take sole ownership of fourth place on the all-time list where he trails Margaret Court (24), Serena Williams (23) and Steffi Graf (22) and is currently tied on 19 with Helen Wills Moody.

Of the 'Big Five', Federer seems to be the one entering the Australian Open in the best shape, with Andy Murray out of action due to hip surgery, Novak Djokovic playing with a sleeve on his right elbow that kept him away from the tour for the past six months, Rafael Nadal returning from a knee injury and Stan Wawrinka coming back from double knee surgery.

The Swiss appeared nearly untouchable at the mixed teams exhibition Hopman Cup earlier this month and while his draw is tougher than Nadal's, it is still a manageable one for the 36-year-old.

His toughest obstacles could come in the quarter-finals against 11th-seeded David Goffin ,who defeated Federer in the ATP Finals last November, or 12th-seeded Juan Martin del Potro, who is in Saturday's Auckland final on the back of blistering form this week and ousted Federer from the US Open last September.

Federer said after winning the Hopman Cup that he's approaching his title defence in Melbourne "the right way" and won't be adding pressure on himself irrespective of the length of the list of absentees or injured stars.

His path Down Under could look like this: R1 Bedene, R2 Struff/Kwon, R3 Gasquet, R4 Querrey/Raonic, QF Goffin/Del Potro, SF Thiem/A Zverev/Djokovic, F Nadal/Dimitrov.

If he defends his title, that would be some effort -- at 36 nonetheless!



RAFA'S FAVORABLE DRAW

It doesn't require an analyst to see that Nadal's draw could have been much tougher but that doesn't mean it will be a walk in the (Melbourne) park for the Spaniard. The 31-year-old delayed the start to his season to fully recover from a knee issue that prompted him to pull out after his first match at the ATP Finals in November.

One could argue that Nadal was coming back from a wrist injury at the start of 2017 and still managed to make the Australian Open final but it's worth noting he played Brisbane prior to Melbourne last year whereas this time his only match play came in an exhibition in Kooyong and the Tie Break Tens. Luckily, his draw allows him to ease into the tournament.

The world No. 1 is looking to complete a career Grand Slam double -- winning each of the four majors twice -- is bidding become only the sixth player in the Open Era to win the Australian Open after winning the US Open in the previous season.

He has won two of the last three Slams, picking up a 10th title at Roland Garros last June and a third US Open in September.



TOP RANKING IS ON THE LINE

One of Nadal or Federer will finish the Australian Open ranked No. 1 in the world. Nadal needs to at least reach the quarter-finals in order to keep his top spot while Federer can overtake his nemesis by winning the title and Nadal losing before the last-eight.

THE RETURNING FORMER CHAMPIONS

How Djokovic and Wawrinka will perform in their first tournament appearance since Wimbledon is probably the million-dollar question at the moment.

Djokovic, seeded 14 and handed a difficult draw, sounded optimistic following his appearance at the Kooyong Classic (we're ignoring the fact he lost in Tie Break Tens to LLEYTON HEWITT). The Serb has a new service motion to reduce pressure on his elbow and is targeting a seventh Australian Open crown. Meanwhile Wawrinka sounds a bit undercooked. "Still a lot to do," he said in Melbourne earlier this week, adding that he was positive nonetheless.

Wawrinka has Roberto Bautista Agut (possible third round opponent) and Dominic Thiem (possible fourth round) in his section of the draw and shares the quarter with Djokovic and Alexander Zverev.

Last year we saw a fairy tale comeback from Federer at the Australian Open. Can Djokovic or Wawrinka follow suit?

THE MUST-SEE FIRST ROUNDS

Add the following clashes on your must-watch list:

Juan Martin del Potro v Frances Tiafoe
Denis Shapovalov v Stefanos Tsitsipas
Mischa Zverev v Chung Hyeon
Thanasi Kokkinakis v Daniil Medvedev
Tomas Berdych v Alex de Minaur
Roberto Bautista Agut v Fernando Verdasco

DELPO'S BIG CHANCE

With lots of question marks surrounding that loaded bottom half, and two previous victories against Federer at the majors, Del Potro could finally grab his opportunity to add a second Grand Slam to his name. He's looking great in Auckland this week (faces Bautista Agut on Saturday in the final), is hitting backhands comfortably once again, and is back in the top-10 next week for the first time since 2014.

Can he capitalise on his chances? He'll be tested from the get-go against Tiafoe in the first round.



CURIOUS KYRGIOS

Nick Kyrgios also has a golden opportunity. While he's got the likes of Kevin Anderson and Grigor Dimitrov in his quarter of the draw, he should be beaming with confidence from his victory over the third-seeded Dimitrov on his way to the title in Brisbane.

Fitness and mentality are often touch-and-go with Kyrgios but he's probably learnt from blowing a two-set lead against Andreas Seppi in the Australian Open second round last year and will do everything to avoid a repeat. How juicy would a Nadal-Kyrgios semi-final be in Melbourne?



THE REST

Here's some quickfire for you: Will Dimitrov back up his ATP Finals title run? Can Goffin come through? Any chance Raonic finds his lost form? Will a young gun break out? Will Zverev finally replicate his tour results at a Slam?


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Australian Open: Andrey Rublev, Naomi Osaka, Denis Shapovalov and other young players to watch

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One the rise: Andrey Rublev.

A host of 20-year-olds like Jelena Ostapenko, Alexander Zverev and Belinda Bencic have already made waves on tour: Ostapenko won the French Open last year, Zverev ended 2017 ranked No. 4 in the world and Bencic was world No. 7 two years ago before injuries slowed her down but the Swiss is currently on a 15-match winning streak and climbing back up the rankings.

The Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan introduced to the world some of the brightest young prospects in the men’s game, but there are many more to keep an eye on over the next 12 months.

Here are some 21-and-under players to watch at next week’s Australian Open…

ANDREY RUBLEV

The young Russian ended 2017 by making the final of the Next Gen ATP Finals, and started 2018 by reaching the final in Doha, where he lost to Gael Monfils. Rublev, ranked a career-high No. 32 in the world, is already a Grand Slam quarter-finalist (US Open 2017). He hits a big ball and has a quirky personality.

The 20-year-old was handed a tough opener in Melbourne though. He faces ex-world No. 3 David Ferrer in the first round and could take on third-seeded Grigor Dimitrov in the last-32. The good news for Rublev is that he actually beat Dimitrov, in straight sets, at the US Open last year en route to the quarter-finals. If he gets past Ferrer, he could get the confidence he needs to cause some major upsets Down Under.

NAOMI OSAKA

The 20-year-old Japanese has made the third round in five of the seven Grand Slam main draws she’s participated in so far in her young career. A power-hitter with impressive composure on the court, Osaka‘s highlights from last season include wins over Angelique Kerber and Venus Williams.

Agnieszka Radwanska, a player with high tennis IQ, told Sport360 in an interview last year that she thinks Osaka plays “adult tennis”. “That surprises me. I think she thinks I’m like a brainless ball-basher,” said a self-deprecating Osaka in response.

Osaka peaked at 40 in the world in 2016 (was named WTA Newcomer of the Year), and is currently at No. 70. Come for the fiery groundstrokes, stay for the hilarious press conferences!

Osaka was drawn in Simona Halep’s quarter of the Australian Open draw and could face home favourite and No. 18 seed Ashleigh Barty in what would be a must-see third round.

ALEX DE MINAUR

To put it simply, Alex de Minaur is just pure fun. The 18-year-old, ranked 167 in the world, is already proving to be a smash hit this Australian summer, making the semis in Brisbane last week — taking out Milos Raonic along the way — and backing that up by reaching the final in Sydney this week (faces Daniil Medvedev).

He drew Tomas Berdych in the first round of the Australian Open and the way things are going so far this month, it’s actually looking like a tough draw for the veteran Czech rather than De Minaur.

CHUNG HYEON

The Next Gen ATP Finals champion hit a career-high No. 44 in the rankings last year and started 2018 with an impressive win over world No. 25 Gilles Muller in Brisbane. The South Korean upset John Isner in Auckland this week en route to the quarter-finals. He has a difficult Australian Open draw, facing last year’s quarter-finalist Mischa Zverev in the first round, before possible showdowns with Thanasi Kokkinakis or Alexander Zverev.

ASHLEIGH BARTY

One of the most enjoyable players to watch on the WTA tour, we’re all thankful Barty did not stay too long away from tennis, having spent a stint pursuing a cricket career. Seeded 18 in Melbourne, Barty heads to the Australian Open with lots of confidence, courtesy of her final showing in Sydney this week (plays Kerber in the final on Saturday). She’s in a difficult section of the draw, alongside top-seeded Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova and Osaka.

DENIS SHAPOVALOV

The Canadian teen is probably the most exciting of the young crew. From his attacking one-handed backhand to his fearlessness on the court, the left-handed Shapovalov has already claimed big scalps in his young career, defeating both Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal en route to the semis at the Masters 1000 in Canada in 2017, before reaching the fourth round at the US Open, as a qualifier.

He takes on fellow Next Gen player Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Australian Open first round and is in a loaded section of the draw with Nick Kyrgios, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Grigor Dimitrov and Rublev.

CORENTIN MOUTET

Perhaps less-touted than the players listed above, this 18-year-old wildcard could be France’s next big hope. Ranked 155 in the world, Moutet went on a tear on the Challenger and Futures circuit towards the end of last year, winning 28 of 31 matches in the span of two months, that included claiming a first Challenger title in Brest, France. He will make his Grand Slam main draw debut against Italian Andreas Seppi in the first round in Melbourne.

MARKETA VONDROUSOVA

The latest talented lefty to come out of the Czech Republic, the 18-year-old Vondrousova is the youngest player in the WTA top-100. She won 17 tour matches in a row last year, claiming a maiden WTA title, as a qualifier, in Biel, before winning a $100k in Trnava then reaching the French Open second round as a qualifier.

The world No. 66 faces Japan’s Kurumi Nara in the Australian Open first round before a possible clash with eight-seeded Caroline Garcia.

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