AUSTRALIAN OPEN

Tough ride for Nadal in Melbourne

Tomic, Monfils, Hewitt, Del Potro, Federer and Murray in Spaniard’s path to final

Rafael Nadal during a practice session at Melbourne Park on Friday.
Rafael Nadal during a practice session at Melbourne Park on Friday. PAUL CROCK / AFP

Rafael Nadal, as expected, will be the top seed going into the Australian Open as the world number one attempts to wrest back the trophy he last won in 2009 from Novak Djokovic, who has triumphed at Melbourne Park for three consecutive years. Nadal was absent from the last tournament during his seven-month injury lay-off but the world's top two players met in the 2012 final — regarded as one of the classics — after which both looked like they had gone 12 rounds rather than five sets.

Going into the tournament on the back of a first-ever title win in the first event he has contested in a season, and a 75-7 win-loss record in 2013 that reaped 10 titles, including two Grand Slams, Nadal is as well-placed as ever to add to his sole Australian Open title. There will be stern challenges from fronts other than the Serbian number two, Nadal's projected opponent in the final, not least in the form of maverick world number 52 Australian Bernard Tomic, his first round opponent.

A potential last 16 clash with Lleyton Hewitt should also be eyed warily by the Nadal camp. Melbourne Park has not toasted a home winner since Marc Edmondson in 1976. Hewitt reached the final in 2005, losing to Marat Safin, and while the odds of a repeat of that run are longer than the walk from Melbourne to Perth, the Australian is still perfectly capable of causing an upset. He won the warm-up event in Brisbane, beating Roger Federer in the final, subsequently leaping 17 places in the ranking to 43. Hewitt also beat Andy Murray in an exhibition match in Kooyong on Friday.

Murray's own injury struggles are also to the benefit of Nadal. The three-times finalist has played just four matches since his return from back surgery in December and himself has admitted it is "unrealistic" that he will challenge for the title. Murray and Federer are projected quarterfinal opponents, with Nadal and Juan Martín del Potro on a last-eight collision course in the same half of the draw. Resurgent Gaël Monfils, a wickedly talented but inconsistent former top-10 player ranked 23 after a series of injury problems, could await in round three.

David Ferrer is seeded three and will open against world number 74 Santiago González, winner of three Challenger Circuit titles last year and playing in his first Grand Slam. Ferrer has twice reached the semifinals of the Australian Open, in 2011 and 2013, losing to Murray and Djokovic respectively. To reach the same stage this year Ferrer may have to deal with Jerzy Janowicz, the Wimbledon semifinalist with the serve that keeps line judges awake at night, in the last 16, with Tomas Berdych his projected quarterfinal opponent. Lurking in the semifinals will likely be Djokovic, although Stanislas Wawrinka, who lost an epic five-set battle to the Serb in the quarterfinals last year, and Richard Gasquet will reserve their right to a say in the matter.

Ferrer recently parted company with his coach of 15 years, Javier Piles, placing his fortunes in the hands of former top-100 player José Francisco Altur and his physio, Rafael García. The world number three was surprisingly knocked out of the Auckland warm-up tournament, which he has won four times, by 62-ranked Yen-Hsun Lu.

Also among the seeded Armada members will be Tommy Robredo, who enjoyed a renaissance season in 2013, Feliciano López, and Fernando Verdasco, who squeaked into the final spot due to the withdrawals of Jürgen Melzer and compatriot Nicolás Almagro.

In the women's draw Carla Suárez, seeded 16, opens against the USA's Vania King with Dominik Cibulkova her biggest stumbling block en route to a fourth-round clash with Maria Sharapova. Home hope Sam Stosur, seeded 17, has had the misfortune to be drawn in the same section as Serena Williams, a potential last-16 opponent and odds-on favorite to claim a sixth Australian Open title.

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