MELBOURNE (Reuters) – World number two Novak Djokovic needs no reminder of the threat posed by Spain’s Fernando Verdasco as he begins his quest for a seventh Australian Open title on Tuesday.
Djokovic saved five match points against Verdasco in the semi-finals in Doha this month before prevailing and going on to win the title by defeating arch rival Andy Murray in the final.
The impressive nature of the 29-year-old’s victory over Murray quickly put a lid on talk of a Djokovic decline but he will be wary of four losses to Verdasco.
“I can’t call it a nightmare draw. I just see it as a huge challenge. I hope I’ll be able to deliver,” Djokovic said of his 14th meeting with a player who owns a sledgehammer forehand.
“He has won against most of the top players. He’s not overwhelmed by the occasion. I hope I will not get to the stage where I have to defend match points.”
More serious questions have been asked about former champion Rafael Nadal who was beaten in round one by Verdasco last year.
Nadal, without a hardcourt title for three years, was plagued by injury last year and has slipped to ninth in the rankings.
Germany’s Florian Mayer, ranked 49, will be his first test as he sets off to Nadal to become the first man in the modern era and only the third man ever to win each of the four grand lam titles at least twice.
The last of Nadal’s 14 majors came at the 2014 French Open but he firmly believes a second Australian Open title is still a realistic goal.
“If I don’t believe that I can be competitive, and when I mean ‘competitive’, is fighting for the things that I fought for during the last 10 years, I will be probably playing golf or fishing at home,” he said.
Big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic continues his search for a maiden grand slam title against Germany’s Dustin Brown while flamboyant Frenchman Gael Monfils faces a stern test against Czech Republic youngster Jiri Vesely.
Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov, fresh from winning the title in Brisbane, takes on Australian wildcard Christopher O’Connell.
In the women’s draw 22-times grand slam champion Serena Williams faces a tough opener against Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic. Polish third seed Agnieszka Radwanska, last year’s semi-finalist, will hope to end her wait for a grand slam and will take on Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova.
Young Spaniard Sara Sorribes Tormo, making her first appearance in Melbourne, has the daunting task of taking on in-form Karolina Pliskova, who recently broke into the top-five after winning the Brisbane title this month.
(Reporting by Shravanth Vijayakumar in Bengaluru; editing by Martyn Herman)