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Saturday January 12, 2013

Victoria-Serena semis and Djokovic-Murray final on the cards in Melbourne

MELBOURNE: Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams are in the same half of the draw at the Australian Open, setting up the prospect of a semi-final match between the defending champion and the title favourite.

Top-ranked Azarenka has lost 11 of her 12 matches against Williams, who increased her career haul to 15 Grand Slam titles last year by winning at Wimbledon and the US Open.

Azarenka cried off their scheduled semi-final at the Brisbane International last week, blaming an infected toe from a bad pedicure, which critics suggested was tactical. Williams won the title.

“(The toe) is much better,” she said at the draw, held under a hot sun on the banks of Melbourne’s Yarra river.

“I’ve been practising for the last couple of days and it feels good, so I’m really happy that it’s all gone and behind me.”

Williams has won five Australian titles, more than any other woman in the Open era, and is in dominant form after winning 35 of her last 36 matches.

And now Williams appears to be poised for another dominant run, one that has her entertaining thoughts of a calendar year Grand Slam in 2013, starting with the Australian Open.

“I think for me, absolutely,” Williams replied when asked if a Grand Slam is possible this year.

Second ranked Maria Sharapova, the French Open champion, is on the other half of the draw with No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska, No. 5 Angelique Kerber and No. 6 Li Na. She could meet Venus Williams in the third round.

Novak Djokovic’s bid for a third consecutive Australia Open title got a boost when No. 2-ranked Roger Federer and US Open champion Andy Murray both landed in the other half when the official draw was made yesterday.

Top-ranked Djokovic will face Paul-Henri Mathieu in the first round and also has fifth-seeded Tomas Berdych in his quarter of the draw and fourth-seeded David Ferrer in his half.

Ferrer is the highest-ranked Spaniard in the tournament in the absence of 11-time major winner Rafael Nadal, who hasn’t played on the tour since the middle of 2012 due to a left knee injury.

Ferrer, however, seemed nonplussed about the rankings.

“I don’t care, because Rafa (Nadal) has been injured for a long time and I was at number four in 2008,” Ferrer told Fairfax Media before his first appearance at the Auckland Open.

“So I don’t have special motivation to be at number four, I have motivation to improve my game and to be in the top-10 all year.”Federer will play Benoit Paire of France in the first round and has a potential third-round match against local hope Bernard Tomic. Federer, a four-time Australian Open winner, could face Murray in the semi-finals.

Murray, who ended a 76-year drought for British men at Grand Slam events when he won the U.S. Open last year, will start his campaign against Robin Haase of the Netherlands and has a potential quarterfinal against sixth-seeded Juan Martin Del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion.

“I think realistically, three can win,” Australia’s former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash said at the draw, referring to Djokovic, second seed Federer and third-seeded Murray, who is aiming to win back-to-back titles.

“You’ve got to say Novak, you’d expect him to be the favourite ... but Andy Murray is hitting his peak.”

On the women’s side, Azarenka has a first-round match against Romania’s Monica Niculescu and is in the same quarter as former No. 1-ranked Caroline Wozniacki and seventh-seeded Sara Errani.

Serena Williams will play Edina Gallovits-Hall of Romania in the first round and is in the same quarter as 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and 19-year-old American Sloane Stephens, who is seeded 29th.

Kvitova has a tough opener against 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone. — Agencies

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