MELBOURNE • Roger Federer, as eager as a yearling after six months off the tennis tour recovering from knee surgery, will be the hunter rather than the hunted at the Australian Open, which starts in Melbourne on Monday.
He could play world No. 1 Andy Murray as early as the quarter-finals of a tournament the Swiss has won four times in 17 visits.
Murray, five times a losing finalist, will play world No. 93 Illya Marchenko first up - having won their only encounter, in Melbourne six years ago in the second round.
Federer has one of eight qualifiers packed into that quarter of the draw, but thereafter will have to get past Tomas Berdych and Kei Nishikori to reach the first weekend.
World No. 2 Novak Djokovic, who beat Murray in a long, enthralling final in Doha last week, starts against Fernando Verdasco at the other end of the draw.
Spaniard Verdasco knocked out compatriot and 14-time grand slam champion Rafael Nadal in the opening round last year at Melbourne Park and had five match points against Djokovic in their recent clash at the Qatar Open.
Should Djokovic, the defending champion who is bidding for a record seventh Australian Open title, advance, the world No. 2 could face a resurgent Grigor Dimitrov in the fourth round.
The Bulgarian won the Brisbane International last week and is in ominous form.
Federer, who lost to German teenager Alexander Zverev in Perth last week, will probably be happy to get out of the first week, but he was always going to be the wild card in the draw after his ranking had slipped outside the top 16 during his enforced absence.
The 2009 champion Nadal, who has also struggled with injury since withdrawing from the French Open in the first week, is seeded ninth and plays the tricky Florian Mayer in the first round.
Zverev, who beat the Spaniard last year, lurks early on his dance card.
A potential blockbuster quarter-final against third seed Milos Raonic looms for Nadal, who has failed to reach the last four at a Grand Slam since his 2014 French Open triumph.
Murray, who swiped the top ranking from Djokovic late last year and enjoys a relatively smooth run to the quarter-finals where fifth seed Nishikori or Federer may await, said: "I've had tough draws in the past at Grand Slams. This one potentially could be really hard - but they don't always work out that way. Draws can open up.
"The year I won Wimbledon was a perfect example. I had Roger and Rafa potentially in the quarter-finals.
"When they both lost I was told, 'This is his only chance to win Wimbledon, this is his best chance.'
"I went from having no chance at the beginning of the week to having my best chance ever.
"If you get to the fourth round, you are pretty much into a rhythm and well into the tournament anyway, so it doesn't make much difference if you play someone in the fourth round or the quarter-finals."
Three-time Grand Slam winner Stan Wawrinka, the 2014 champion, faces a challenging first round clash with Slovak Martin Klizan, with a possible fourth round against tempestuous Australian talent Nick Kyrgios lurking.
THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Men's final: Singtel TV Ch114 & StarHub Ch208, 4.30pm