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Djokovic faces Verdasco test in Australian Open first round

Serbia's Novak Djokovic hits a shot during a training session ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, Australia, January 12, 2017. REUTERS/David Gray
Serbia's Novak Djokovic hits a shot during a training session ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, Australia, January 12, 2017. REUTERS/David Gray

By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Defending champion Novak Djokovic will launch his bid for a record seventh Australian Open title with a mouth-watering first round match against Fernando Verdasco.

Spaniard Verdasco knocked compatriot Rafa Nadal out in the opening round last year at Melbourne Park and had match points against Djokovic in their recent clash at the Qatar Open.

Should Serb Djokovic advance, the world number two could face a resurgent Grigor Dimitrov in the fourth round. The Bulgarian won the Brisbane International last week and is in ominous form.

World number one Andy Murray will face Ukraine's Ilya Marchenko in his opener, as the Briton searches for an elusive maiden title at Melbourne Park after five trips to the final.

Murray, beaten in four of them by Djokovic, including last year's decider, faces a relatively smooth run to the quarter-finals where Nishikori or Roger Federer may await.

Federer, seeded 17th after a long injury lay-off, makes his much-anticipated return to grand slam action with a first match against a qualifier.

The Swiss master's path to an 18th grand slam title quickly becomes tricky, however, with a potential third-round encounter with fifth seed Nishikori.

Stan Wawrinka, the 2014 champion, faces a tough first round opponent in Slovak Martin Klizan, with a possible fourth round against tempestuous Australian talent Nick Kyrgios.

Nadal, seeded ninth, will play German Florian Mayer and has a decent run before a possible quarter-final against big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic, seeded third.

In the women's draw, Serena Williams will start her bid for a professional-era record 23rd grand slam title with a perilous first clash against Swiss talent Belinda Bencic.

The American could then face former top 10 player Lucie Safarova in the second round.

Defending champion Angelique Kerber, who stunned Williams in the final last year, will play 61st-ranked Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko.

World number one Kerber is aiming for her third grand slam win following on from her maiden U.S. Open title last year.

French Open champion Garbine Muguruza, seeded seventh, will play 109th-ranked New Zealander Marina Erakovic, while third seed Agnieszka Radwanksa takes on Tsvetana Pironkova.

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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