Friday January 13th, 2012

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal haven't met at a Grand Slam semifinal since the 2005 French Open, but that could change at the Australian Open. (Christophe Ena/AP)

The men's and women's draws are set for the Australian Open. Here's a look at the road ahead for the top seeds and some matches to watch:

Men's Draw

The big news here is that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are in the same half of a Grand Slam draw for the first time since the 2005 French Open, ending a 26-major streak. This means that No. 2 Nadal and No. 3 Federer could meet in the semifinals and that fourth-seeded Andy Murray avoids yet another potential semifinal with Nadal, who defeated the Scot in three major semifinals last year. Instead, if seeding holds, Murray would face No. 1 Novak Djokovic for a spot in the finals.

Photo Gallery: Federer vs. Nadal history

Federer and Nadal both open against qualifiers and have manageable paths to the quarterfinals. The Swiss could get 13th-seeded Alexandr Dolgopolov in the fourth round, while Nadal’s possible opponents at that stage include No. 16 John Isner, David Nalbandian and No. 18 Feliciano Lopez. From there, Federer could see Mardy Fish or Juan Martin del Potro and Nadal could draw Tomas Berdych. That potential Federer-Del Potro quarterfinal is begging to be an epic match. Here’s hoping that happens.

Djokovic, in his quarter, could meet the up-and-coming Milos Raonic in the fourth round. That’s assuming Raonic can get past No. 15 Andy Roddick in the third round. (By the way, the last time Roddick and Raonic met, this happened.) The 21-year-old Raonic looked dangerous in winning the Chennai Open last week for his second career title. The Canadian wasn’t broken once in 48 service games and held his nerve to edge Janko Tipsarevic in the final 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 7-6 (4). I think Raonic is the real deal.

If Djokovic could pass that possible fourth-round test, fifth-seeded David Ferrer might be waiting for him in the quarterfinals. The Spaniard won their last meeting, at the ATP World Tour Finals in November. First, however, Ferrer might have to knock off No. 9 Tipsarevic in the fourth round.

Murray, meanwhile, has a challenging draw from start to finish. He begins with the ever-hungry American Ryan Harrison and then could clash with a slew of Frenchmen, including No. 14 Gael Monfils in the fourth round and sixth-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals. Also lurking in his quarter is No. 19 Viktor Troicki, who almost ousted Murray from Roland Garros last year. And that’s all just to get to the semifinals for a potential rematch with Djokovic, who dominated the Scot in the 2011 Australian Open final.

Early Matches to Watch

• First Round: Andy Murray vs. Ryan Harrison; Bernard Tomic vs. Fernando Verdasco; Andy Roddick vs. Robin Haase.

• Potential Second Round: Marcos Baghdatis vs. Stanislas Wawrinka; John Isner vs. David Nalbandian.

• Potential Third Round: Richard Gasquet vs. Janko Tipsarevic; Andy Roddick vs. Milos Raonic.

Women's Draw

Kim Clijsters is looking to defend her title at the Australian Open. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

It's worth noting at the top that we could have a rematch of last year's final between defending champion Kim Clijsters and Li Na in the fourth round, with the winner potentially getting No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinals. Either way, that would be a tough quarterfinal for Wozniacki, who struggled with a wrist injury at this week's Sydney International.

If there's an "easy" quarter, it's Victoria Azarenka's. The No. 3 seed has an interesting first-round match with Heather Watson but a relatively straightforward path to the quarterfinals, where she's projected to face No. 8 Agnieszka Radwanska, whom Azarenka just beat in the Sydney semifinals. I'm loving her chances to get to the final, especially if Wozniacki gets past the winner of the Clijsters-Li match.

On the bottom half of the draw we have bashers, and there's no bigger basher than No. 2 Petra Kvitova. Her quarter has Samantha Stosur, Marion Bartoli, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Ana Ivanovic, all of whom have firepower. While Kvitova is favored to at least make the quarterfinals, she could have a dangerous third-round match against Maria Kirilenko. Kirilenko's speed and willingness to close the net could rattle the Czech, leading to an early upset.

That's three quarters down and I haven't even mentioned two of the biggest names in the draw yet. That's because Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova are in the same quarter. Sharapova, the fourth seed, has the most difficult road to the title of any of the top names. She opens against Gisela Dulko, who defeated Sharapova in the second round at Wimbledon in 2009 and has a penchant for upsets at majors. Sharapova also could play U.S. Open semifinalist Angelique Kerber in the third round, Sabine Lisicki or Svetlana Kuznetsova in the fourth round, Williams in the quarterfinals and Kvitova in the semifinals. All this without any competitive match play heading into the tournament.

As for Serena, the favorite in my book as the No. 12 seed, her draw is deceptively tricky. Her quarter is filled with streaky players who can morph into world-beaters for a day: Tamira Paszek , Dominika Cibulkova, Kaia Kanepi and Vera Zvonareva. Williams will need to be sharp out of the gate.

Early Matches to Watch

• First Round: Maria Sharapova vs. Gisela Dulko; Madison Keys vs. Zheng Jie;  Lucie Safarova vs. Christina McHale.

• Potential Second Round: Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Sloane Stephens; Julia Goerges vs. Kimiko Date-Krumm. • Potential Third Round: Kaia Kanepi vs. Vera Zvonareva; Petra Kvitova vs. Maria Kirilenko; Samantha Stosur vs. Nadia Petrova. The last time Stosur and Petrova met at a Slam, they played the longest women's U.S. Open match in history. Stosur prevailed 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 7-5 in 3 hours and 16 minutes.

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