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Serbia's Novak Djokovic attends a practice session ahead of the Australian Open in Melbourne on Thursday. Image Credit: AFP

Melbourne: Rivals Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal were placed on opposite halves of the Australian Open bracket in the draw on Thursday, meaning the owners of a combined 43 Grand Slam singles titles could only meet in the final at Melbourne Park.

Djokovic, a nine-time champion in Australia, returns to the hard-court tournament after missing it last year when his visa was revoked and he was deported from the country because he isn’t vaccinated against Covid-19. He also couldn’t compete at the 2022 US Open.

Fourth-seeded Djokovic will open his bid for a 10th Australian Open title against Spaniard Roberto Carballes Baena in the tournament, which begins Monday.

Challenging match

Iga Swiatek, the women’s No 1-ranked player, takes on German Jule Niemeier, who is ranked No 68, in the opening round. The Polish player was a semi-finalist at Melbourne Park in 2022, a year in which she won the French and US Open titles.

But the main first-round focus will be on Nadal, who faces a potentially challenging match against British player Jack Draper, who is 21, was a semi-finalist in the Next Gen Championships in November and will also play in a semi-final of the Adelaide International on Friday.

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Spain's Rafael Nadal getting ready for his Australian Open defence. Image Credit: AFP

Another opening-round highlight has five-time Australian Open finalist Andy Murray against Italian Matteo Berrettini, a former Wimbledon finalist who is the No 13-seeded player.

Murray defeated Australian Alex de Minaur 6-3, 6-3 in an exhibition match on Thursday and is pleased with his form.

Best preparation

“It is always difficult in exhibition matches to play like it is the first round of a Grand Slam, but I wanted to try to leave everything out on the court to give my body the best preparation, to see how I was moving, to see how I was serving, and it went well,” Murray said.

The potential men’s quarter-finals by seeding are: Nadal vs No. 7 Daniil Medvedev in what would be a rematch of last year’s final at Melbourne Park, won by Nadal after dropping the initial two sets, and No 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas vs No 6 Felix Auger-Aliassime in the top half; and Djokovic vs No 5 Andrey Rublev and No 2 Casper Ruud vs No 8 Taylor Fritz in the bottom half.

Nadal has a leading 22 Grand Slam singles titles, one more than Djokovic. Wimbledon finalist Nick Kyrgios, who faces Roman Safiullin in the opening round, will play Djokovic in an exhibition match on Friday in Melbourne.

Jabeur seeded second

“I am one of the best players in the world, so I am definitely going to go into the Australian Open and any Grand Slam with confidence,” Kyrgios said.

Ons Jabeur, who reached both the Wimbledon and US Open finals in 2022, is seeded second and plays Tamara Zidansek in the women’s draw.

No 3 Jessica Pegula, who led the US team that claimed the mixed teams United Cup in Sydney last week, faces Jacqueline Cristian from Romania in the first round.

Mental fortitude

Australia’s Billie Jean King Cup captain Alicia Molik, who attended the draw at Melbourne Park, said Pegula is a contender.

“I feel like she has the mental fortitude and I really feel like she can be here late in the stage of the Australian Open,” Molik said.

Seventh-seeded Coco Gauff, who won a tournament in Auckland last week, faces a tough first-round test against Katerina Siniakova, who defeated her in the Billie Jean King Cup finals in November.

The potential women’s quarter-finals are: Swiatek vs Gauff in what would be a rematch of last year’s French Open final, won by Swiatek, and Pegula vs No 6 Maria Sakkari in the top half of the bracket; and Jabeur vs No 5 Aryna Sabalenka, and No 4 Caroline Garcia vs No 8 Daria Kasatkina in the bottom half.

Another big first-round match is two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka against Sofia Kenin, who won the title at Melbourne Park in 2020.