Australian Open draw winners and losers
MELBOURNE, Australia -- The Australian Open draw ceremony took place on Friday morning. The women ended up with an exciting and balanced draw that should set up some blockbuster matches in the second week. The men, meanwhile, have an incredibly top-heavy draw, with Rafael Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro, Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga all in the same half. If three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic wasn't tipped as the favorite going into the tournament, he definitely is now.
With the brackets finalized (qualifiers will be placed over the weekend), here's a look at the draw winners and losers:
Novak Djokovic (No. 2 seed): The four-time Australian Open champion is gunning for his Open Era record fifth crown in Melbourne. He won the David Ferrer sweepstakes, drawing the No. 3 seed in his half instead of No. 4 Murray. To make things even more rosy, the fifth and sixth seeds, del Potro and Federer, landed in Nadal's half, leaving Djokovic with Tomas Berdych and Stanislas Wawrinka on his side. Djokovic is a combined 51-10 against the top 10 players in his half and has never, I repeat, never lost to Ferrer, Berdych Wawrinka, or Gasquet on an outdoor hard court. He couldn't have asked for a better draw.
The highest-ranked player in his section is 15th-seeded Fabio Fognini, who is hobbled with a foot injury and isn't exactly known for his competitive instincts. The biggest threat to Djokovic before the final would likely come from Wawrinka, who took him to five memorable sets at both the Australian Open and U.S. Open last year. Despite those thrilling matches, Djokovic still leads the head-to-head 15-2. There are no sure things in sport, but Djokovic's making his fourth straight Australian Open final is as close as it gets.
Serena Williams (No. 1 seed): Williams came out ahead in drawing No. 7 Sara Errani as the highest seed in her section. Serena demolished Errani 6-0, 6-1 in 46 minutes in last year's French Open semifinals on Errani's best surface and, notably, Williams' worst. The five-time champion could face a host of dangerous opponents in the semifinals, with 2013 finalist Li Na, Petra Kvitova, Sabine Lisicki and Angelique Kerber in the opposite section, but it should be smooth sailing through the early rounds.
The WTA: I haven't seen a women's Slam draw this balanced in quite some time and that's a very good thing for the WTA. If the seeds hold -- and that's a big if -- the quarterfinals would feature three fantastic matchups. Li and Kvitova (Li leads 4-3), both Grand Slam champions, could meet for the right to play Williams. Maria Sharapova could face her old nemesis from the Bollettieri academy, Jelena Jankovic (Sharapova leads 8-1), and the bad blood between Agnieszka Radwanska and Victoria Azarenka could fuel a good one as well (Azarenka leads 12-3). A semifinal slate of Williams vs. Li or Kvitova and Sharapova vs. Azarenka is a WTA fan's dream.
Andy Murray (No. 4 seed): The most important thing for Murray is to have a few easy early matches to play himself into form as he continues his comeback from back surgery. That's precisely what he needs to find his match legs after crashing out of his only warm-up tournament, the Qatar Open, in the second round. The three-time finalist is set up for that exact scenario: He opens against No. 112 Go Soeda, then a qualifier. His potential third-round opponent is No. 26 Feliciano Lopez, against whom Murray is 7-0. Tsonga or Federer possibly looms in the quarterfinals, but the draw has given Murray the best opportunity to prepare.
David Ferrer (No. 3 seed): If lightning strikes and Djokovic suffers an early upset, Ferrer would be in perfect position to make his second major final. The 31-year-old, a semifinalist last year, shouldn't have too much trouble in the early rounds. His toughest opposition before the quarters would come from No. 14 Mikhail Youzhny, No. 20 Jerzy Janowicz, who is coming off an injury, or No. 29 Jeremy Chardy, who knocked out del Potro last year. Ferrer has also won six of the last eight meetings against his projected quarterfinal opponent, Berdych.
Rafael Nadal (No. 1 seed): If Nadal wins his second Australian Open title, he would become the first man in the Open Era to complete the career Slam twice. To do so he'll have to navigate a dangerous "Group of Death" that is littered with dangerous players. He'll open against the tricky Bernard Tomic, who once again is playing his best tennis on home soil. His potential third-round opponent? The dynamic Gael Monfils, who took him to three sets in the final of the Qatar Open last week. A resurgent Lleyton Hewitt, who beat Federer in the Brisbane International final, looms in the fourth round. Nadal is surely the favorite to win each match, but the question is whether the matches themselves, which could easily go four or five sets, will take their toll.
Survive the first week and he's projected to play del Potro, the most dangerous man outside the Big Four, and then a potential semifinal against either Murray, Federer or Tsonga. All that and then he could play a fairly well-rested Djokovic in the final. It's hard to see a scenario in which Nadal could have drawn a tougher road to the title.
Roger Federer (No. 6 seed): It's not the worst draw Federer could have earned, but it could have been better. He'll open with two straightforward opponents in James Duckworth and possibly Radek Stepanek, but a third-round showdown against Fernando Verdasco could be dangerous, especially if Verdasco plays the way he did at Wimbledon. Speaking of Wimbledon, in lieu of Verdasco, Federer could get a rematch with Sergiy Stakhovsky, who ousted him in the second round of Wimbledon, in the third round. From there, Federer may have to go through both Tsonga and Murray just to match his 2013 semifinal result.
The Aussies: There's been a good amount of buzz over the last week about the home team's fantastic results in the lead-up events, but all that hope and optimism was quickly extinguished. The audible groans from the crowd upon seeing Tomic, who has played well enough to make the semifinals of the Sydney International, and Hewitt, who won Brisbane, land in Nadal's section said it all. On the women's side, Sam Stosur, who is gaining confidence with a semifinal run at the Hobart International this week, landed in Serena's section and could face Sydney finalist Tsvetana Pironkova in the second round. And poor Ashleigh Barty. The 17-year-old, who upset Daniela Hantuchova in Brisbane, drew Serena in the first round. At least she'll get to play on Rod Laver Arena.
Sloane Stephens (No. 13 seed): Stephens had a blessed draw when she made the semifinals last year, but that's not the case this year. She opens against a quality opponent in Yaroslava "Golden Set" Shvedova and could face the talented but unheralded Ajla Tomljanovic in the second round. Her potential third-round opponent is two-time Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, before a possible rematch of last year's controversy-laden semifinal against Azarenka.
Ryan Harrison (unseeded): Another Slam, another rough first-round draw for Harrison, who gets Monfils. Come on, tennis gods. Cut the guy some slack. This post has been updated to correct Andy Murray's potential opponents.