By Nick Mulvenney
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Top seed and world number one Ash Barty’s bid to end the host nation’s long wait for a homegrown Australian Open champion will begin against Ukraine’s Lesia Tsurenko when the year’s first Grand Slam gets under way next week.
Men’s champion Novak Djokovic will begin his quest for an eighth Australian Open title against Jan-Lennard Struff, while the man he beat in last year’s final, Rafa Nadal, will take the top seeding into a contest against Bolivian Hugo Dellien.
Serena Williams arrived in Australia with confidence high after a title win in the warm-up tournament in Auckland as she looks to finally match Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles.
The 38-year-old eighth seed begins her bid for an eighth Melbourne Park crown with a first-round tie against Russian Anastasia Potapova.
The players already in Melbourne awoke on Thursday to skies clear of obvious signs of the bushfire smoke that choked the city on Tuesday and Wednesday and disrupted qualifying.
The draw, which took place in the evening in the arena named in honor of Australian Court, threw up an intriguing clash for Serena’s 39-year-old sister Venus, who will face fellow American Coco Gauff.
Gauff, 15, exploded onto the tennis map at Wimbledon last year when, as a qualifier, she beat twice Australian Open champion Venus on her main draw Grand Slam debut.
Japan’s Naomi Osaka has enjoyed an even more stratospheric rise over the last couple of seasons and won her second Grand Slam crown in Australia last year.
The 22-year-old will start her title defense against Czech Marie Bouzkova, although she may not know it yet after vacating the stadium court before the draw was revealed.
“I don’t even like seeing who I’m first playing until the day before the match,” the third seed said before making a hasty exit.
Another former champion, Maria Sharapova, needed a wild card to get into the tournament and could present quite a challenge for 19th seed Donna Vekic.
Djokovic won a record seventh Melbourne Park crown last year to extend a still unbroken three-year dominance of the Grand Slam titles by the trio of the Serbian, Nadal and Roger Federer.
With Djokovic and Nadal now in their 30s and Federer, who will open his quest for a 21st major title with a first-round match against Steve Johnson, heading towards his 40s, all eyes are on the young guns who might break their grip.
“Daniil (Medvedev) is playing great tennis, he’s definitely in that small group of players who are getting closer to a Grand Slam title,” Djokovic said.
“Alongside him is Dominic Thiem, who is knocking on the door, and (Stefanos) Tsitsipas, who won a big tournament at the (ATP) World Finals.
“We are hoping this is not going to be the year they make the breakthrough, but it’s inevitable and that it makes it exciting.”
Russian fourth seed Medvedev faces the toughest challenge of the trio in the first round against American Frances Tiafoe, who reached the Australian Open quarter-finals last year.
Austrian Thiem, seeded fifth, plays France’s Adrian Mannarino, while Greek sixth seed Tsitsipas takes on Italian Salvatore Caruso.
Nick Kyrgios looms as a tricky potential hurdle in Nadal and Thiem’s quarter of the draw but most Australian hopes of success will rest on the shoulders of Barty, who is out to end the 42-year wait since Chris O’Neill won the title at Kooyong in 1978.
The Australian Open runs from Jan. 20 to Feb 2.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Shri Navaratnam and Alison Williams)