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Friday January 10, 2014 MYT 10:22:00 AM
Friday January 10, 2014 MYT 5:20:49 PM
by ian ransom
Photo from KIA shows (left to right) Craig Tiley, chairman of the 2014 Australian Open Tennis Championships, tennis star Rafael Nadal of Spain and Tony Barlow, head of Kia Motors Corp.'s Australian branch posing during a promo ceremony in Melbourne on Thursday. Kia is a major official sponsor of the event set for Jan. 13-26. - EPA
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - World number one Rafa Nadal will battle the bad boy of Australian tennis Bernard Tomic and a partisan crowd in the first round at Melbourne Park as he bids for a 14th grand slam title.
The Spaniard dumped a teenaged Tomic from the 2011 tournament but will be wary of the former Wimbledon quarter-finalist who raises his game in front of home fans and has returned to form by making the semi-finals in this week's Sydney International warmup.
"I think it's safe to say that's a night match," six-times grand slam champion Boris Becker, now coaching men's title-holder Novak Djokovic, said at the draw ceremony at Melbourne Park on Friday.
"Obviously it's (one of) the toughest first rounds ... (Tomic's) playing well in Australia."
The local hope's horror draw with Nadal drew groans and rueful laughs from Australian media and fans, with ashen-faced tournament director Craig Tiley saying he thought he was going to "fall through a hole" in his chair.
However, Nadal's run to the quarter-finals is also littered with landmines, a potential third-round match against 25th seeded Frenchman Gael Monfils followed by a likely round four meeting with 16th seed Kei Nishikori of Japan among them.
Fifth seed and 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro, the only player to break the "Big Four's" stranglehold over the grand slams in recent years, looms as a quarter-final opponent.
Second seed Djokovic has been drawn in the much kinder lower half of the draw and will face Slovakia's 90th-ranked Lukas Lacko first up.
Djokovic's first major test is likely to be in the quarter-finals with the much-improved eighth seed Stanislas Wawrinka, who pushed him in a five-set marathon in last year's tournament.
Wimbledon champion Andy Murray has been given no favours as he battles back from a back injury that put paid to the latter half of his 2013 season, drawn in the same quarter as 17-times grand slam champion Roger Federer.
The Briton will play 112th-ranked Japanese Go Soeda in the first round but big-serving American John Isner, seeded 13th, shapes as fourth round clash ahead of a quarter-final blockbuster with former world number one Federer.
Coming off his most disappointing season in years, Swiss Federer faces Australian wildcard James Duckworth first with 10th seeded Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga a likely tough fourth-round encounter.
The women's draw elicited further growns for local fans, with world number one Serena Williams drawing rising Australian talent Ashleigh Barty in the first round as the American bids for her 18th grand slam title and sixth at Melbourne Park.
Williams's draw lines her up for a potentially challenging fourth-round clash with Australia's Sam Stosur, who beat her in the final of the U.S. Open in 2011.
Double defending champion Victoria Azarenka, seeded second, will take on Swede Johanna Larsson with the prospect of a fourth round match against rising American Sloane Stephens, seeded 13th.
Third seed Maria Sharapova kicks off her bid for a fifth grand slam title against colourful American Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
The Russian enjoys a relatively smooth run to the quarter-finals where eighth seed and former world number one Jelena Jankovic may wait.
Fourth seed Li Na, runner-up at Melbourne Park last year, will play a qualifier ahead of a possible quarter-final clash with former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova.
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)
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