Andy Murray of Britain hits a return during a practice session ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 13, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / PAUL CROCK
World number one Andy Murray could face challenges from Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka if he is to reach a sixth Australian Open final following Friday’s draw.
The Scot, coming off a magnificent 2016 with a second Wimbledon crown, a successful Olympic title defence and the year-end top ranking, has lost five Melbourne finals, four of those to defending champion Novak Djokovic.
Murray, who was knighted in Britain’s New Year Honours list, faces Ukraine’s Illya Marchenko first up and could meet Japanese fifth seed Nishikori or Swiss legend Roger Federer in the quarters and 2014 winner Wawrinka in the semis.
Federer, seeded 17, faces a qualifier first up and could play 10th seed Tomas Berdych in the third round as he bids to add to his record 17 Grand Slam titles.
Djokovic, in the bottom half of the men’s draw as the second seed, has a tough first-round against experienced Spaniard Fernando Verdasco.
Verdasco, ranked 40, has beaten Djokovic four times in their 13 encounters and the Serb had to save five match points in prevailing over him earlier this month in the semi-finals in Doha.
Last year Verdasco knocked out compatriot Rafael Nadal in a five-setter first round thriller in Melbourne.
Serbia’s Djokovic, bidding for a record seventh Australian Open title, is seeded to face Brisbane International winner Grigor Dimitrov in the fourth round and powerful Austrian eighth seed Dominic Thiem in the quarters.
He could then meet Canada’s big-serving third seed Milos Raonic in the semi-finals.
Raonic opens against flashy German Dustin Brown while 13th seed and recent Chennai champion Roberto Bautista Agut is a likely fourth-round matchup.
Nadal, who won the 2009 Australian Open and has been in two other Melbourne finals, is seeded nine and is in Raonic’s third quarter of the draw and in the bottom half with Djokovic.
The Spanish left-hander could have a third-round clash in store against rising German star Alexander Zverev.
The 24th-seeded Zverev has a string of scalps including two victories over Federer, most recently at this month’s Hopman Cup.
Australia’s explosive Nick Kyrgios is seeded 14 and opens against Portugal’s tricky Gastao Elias and could face Wawrinka in the fourth round.
Former German world number two Tommy Haas, aged 38, is competing in his first tournament since Vienna in October 2015 and will have a first-round match against Frenchman Benoit Paire.
Australian wildcard Thanasi Kokkinakis withdrew before the men’s singles draw due to a stomach muscle strain and his spot will be filled by a lucky loser from the qualifying draw.