MELBOURNE • The Australian Open draw was announced yesterday and, in her first official match since September, Serena Williams will face an Italian player entirely different from the one who dealt her a stunning loss in the semi-finals of the US Open.
The American tennis star was two matches away from completing a calendar-year Grand Slam when she lost to the slicing and the craft of veteran Roberta Vinci.
In the first round of the Australian Open, which begins on Monday, the top-seeded Williams will face Camila Giorgi, an unrelenting see-the-ball, hit-the-ball basher.
Giorgi, the world No. 35, is the highest-ranked player Williams could have faced in the first round. Nevertheless, the draw has afforded the American several breaks if she gets past that initial hurdle.
In the fourth round, where she could have faced Vinci or the surging Victoria Azarenka, Williams' potential opponent is her close friend Caroline Wozniacki, the 16th seed, against whom she has a 10-1 record.
In the quarter-finals, Williams avoided drawing her sister Venus and instead could face fifth-seeded Maria Sharapova, whom she played in last year's final. Williams holds a 17-match winning streak against the Russian and has an 18-2 career record against her.
In the semi-finals, if the seedings hold, Williams will face fourth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska, against whom she is 8-0.
Although the world No. 1 pulled out of matches at the Hopman Cup last week because of lingering knee problems, she expressed confidence in her readiness to defend her title.
"Everything is actually really well," said the American, who practised at the Margaret Court Arena early yesterday. "I'm feeling really good, I'm excited about it. I've been training every day for so long, and I'm like, okay, I'm ready now. It feels good."
Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion, won the tune-up event in Brisbane last week and is considered by many to be the second favourite for the title behind Williams, despite her modest seeding at 14th.
Azarenka, second-seeded Simona Halep, third-seeded Garbine Muguruza and eighth-seeded Venus are in the bottom half of the draw and cannot face Serena until the final.
On the men's side, the five-time champion Novak Djokovic opens against Chung Hyeon, a South Korean ranked 51st.
Chung, 19, improved his ranking by 122 spots last year by racking up wins at the Challenger level, but has won only one Grand Slam match.
Djokovic will not face anyone who has won a Grand Slam tournament until the semi-finals, where he could face third-seeded Roger Federer, who opens his tournament against 117th-ranked Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia.
Second-seeded Andy Murray begins against the 18-year-old German Alexander Zverev, a wiry 1.98m-tall baseliner.
The Scot is joined in the bottom half by fourth-seeded Stan Wawrinka and the fifth-seeded Rafael Nadal, who could meet in the quarter-finals in a rematch of their 2014 final in Melbourne which was won in an upset by Wawrinka.
NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE