Serena handed tough draw

TOUGH ROAD: Serena Williams of the US will be aiming for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title when the Australian Open begins from January 14. AFP

World number one Novak Djokovic will start his bid to win a record seventh Australian Open title next week against a qualifier following Thursday's draw.

The Serb had a magnificent 2018, making an astonishing climb back from outside the world's top 20 in June, winning Wimbledon and the US Open on the way to reclaiming the number one ranking in November.

He will start his drive to make history against a yet-to-be-decided qualifier and could meet France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the second round.

Champion Roger Federer, seeded three and also gunning for a seventh Melbourne title, starts his title defence against world number 99 Denis Istomin and could meet Rafael Nadal in the semifinals.

"He (Djokovic) continues to challenge me. I played him in his prime when he was virtually unbeatable. It was important not to get frustrated by it. I always enjoy my matches against him," 20-time Grand Slam winner Federer said at the draw.

In the women's section, Serena Williams has been handed a challenging draw in her quest for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title, starting with Germany's Tatjana Maria in the first round.

The American, seeded 16, is gunning to match Margaret Court's record of singles majors and claim an eighth Australian Open crown. 

But Williams is in a tough half of the draw and could meet world number one Simona Halep in round four, and if she gets through that Karolina Pliskova in the last eight.

Second seeded Nadal begins against Australian James Duckworth, fourth seed Alexander Zverev faces Slovenian Aljaz Bedene while last year's runner-up Marin Cilic has a tricky encounter with Australian Bernard Tomic.

A highlight first round clash will see Australia's unseeded Nick Kyrgios up against Canada's big-serving 16th seed Milos Raonic, with the winner facing either Stan Wawrinka or Ernests Gulbis.

Three-time Grand Slam winner Andy Murray has a tough clash with 22nd-seeded Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut as he returns from a hip injury. 

Halep, who enters the tournament having played just one game in four months after a back injury, was handed a chance to avenge Estonia's Kaia Kanepi, who beat her in the first round of the US Open in August.

If she comes through that dangerous opening showdown, she could meet Venus Williams in round three.

Defending champion and third seed Caroline Wozniacki starts against Alison Van Uytvanck of Belgium and could meet 2008 champion Maria Sharapova in round three.

"Coming back as defending champion, it's something I always dreamed of. I feel at home here. These courts are suited for me. I'm enjoying every minute," said the Dane at Thursday's draw, while paying tribute to Serena.

The 2016 winner Angelique Kerber, seeded two, begins her draw against Slovenia's Polona Hercog and could meet fifth seed Wozniacki in the semis.

Japan's Naomi Osaka, the US Open champion, kicks off her tournament against Poland's Magda Linette and is in line to meet Australia's Daria Gavrilova round two.

AFP

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Serena handed tough draw

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