Federer, Djokovic drawn in same half for Australian Open

Roger Federer. (Alastair Grant/AP)

MELBOURNE, Australia — Roger Federer found himself in a slightly awkward position before the Australian Open draw.

Just being there.

A few minutes later when the formalities were completed, Federer found out how difficult defending his title could be after landing in the same half as six-time champion Novak Djokovic.

"This is not normal," Federer told a crowd of hundreds of fans before the draw on Thursday at Margaret Court Arena. "I don’t like usually going to draws because they freak me out. I don’t want to know who I play other than just seeing the sheet at the end and knowing who my first-round opponent is."

First up, the 36-year-old Swiss will play Ajaz Bedene of Slovenia. He also has No. 7-ranked David Goffin, Juan Martin del Potro, Sam Querrey, and Canada’s Milos Raonic in his quarter.

There’s a potential semifinal against Djokovic, who is aiming for a record seventh Australian Open title but is seeded 14th as he returns from six months on the sidelines with a right elbow injury.

Djokovic is in the same quarter as the Zverev brothers — fourth-seeded Alexander could meet older brother and No. 32-seeded Mischa in the third round — 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka, and No. 5 Dominic Thiem.

Federer beat Rafael Nadal in the final here last year on his return from six months on the sidelines and is seeded No. 2 as he bids for a 20th Grand Slam singles title.

Raonic, ranked 22nd in Melbourne, takes on Slovakia’s Lukas Lacko on Sunday in a first-round match. The hard-server from Thornhill, Ont., is a former world No. 3 but has seen his ranking slip after an injury-plagued 2017.

Canadian teenager Denis Shapovalov of Richmond Hill, Ont., who cracked the top 50 last year while beating the likes of Nadal and del Potro, makes his Australian Open debut when he takes on Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece.

Djokovic had a contrasting 2017, starting at No. 2 but losing in a second-round upset at the Australian Open and not playing again after Wimbledon. It was the first year since 2009 that Djokovic didn’t reach at least one Grand Slam final. He delayed his return until two exhibition appearances this week.

Top-ranked Nadal will open against Victor Estrella Burgos, has a potential fourth-round match against John Isner, and No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov in his half of the draw. He followed his run to the final in Melbourne by winning the French Open and U.S. Open, splitting the Grand Slam honours with Federer for the year.

Serena Williams has opted not to defend her title four months after giving birth to her first child, leaving the women’s draw open.

Her sister Venus, who lost the all-Williams Australian Open final last year, has a tough opener against Belinda Bencic — who combined with Federer to win the Hopman Cup for Switzerland last week — and is also in the same quarter as U.S. Open winner Sloane Stephens.

Top-ranked Simona Halep opens against Australian wild card Destanee Aiava, has a potential second-round match against 2014 Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard of Westmount, Que., and is in the same half as Garbine Muguruza, the Wimbledon champion.

Bouchard, who has fallen on tough times in recent years and comes into Melbourne ranked 81st, faces France’s Oceane Dodin in the first round.

Third-seeded Muguruza is in a difficult quarter containing former Australian Open champions Maria Sharapova and Angelique Kerber, and U.S. Open finalist Madison Keys.

Sharapova, who won the 2008 Australian title and reached three other finals at Melbourne Park, missed last year’s tournament during a 15-month suspension after a failed doping test here in 2016.

The five-time major winner finished 2017 ranked No. 60, meaning she missed out on a seeding for the Australian Open and could face 2016 champion Kerber in the third round.

"There’s no easy way to get to the top," Sharapova told the crowd at Margaret Court Arena before the draw. "You always have to beat the top players in order to get to the top."

Organizers defended the decision to invite Sharapova to appear as the representative for the women’s draw, with tournament director Craig Tiley saying the sanction was over and the 30-year-old Russian was there as a former champion.

Sharapova said after a long time out she had to be patient coming back to the tour, but was still confident of returning to the top ranking and winning major tournaments.

"The drive, I still have it. I certainly will hope I put myself in that position," Sharapova said. "I put a lot of expectations on myself because I have been there, and I have delivered in those moments. I expect to continue to do so."

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