Nadal begins Open defence, Swiatek targets maiden Melbourne title

SYDNEY: Rafael Nadal returns to the scene of one of his greatest Grand Slam triumphs when the Australian Open begins Monday, with women’s number one Iga Swiatek headlining the night session on the showpiece Rod Laver Arena.

A year ago, the 36-year-old Spaniard defied a long injury layoff and a two-set deficit in the final against Daniil Medvedev to win his second Melbourne Park title and a record 21st Grand Slam.

The top seed, who extended that record to 22 titles at Roland Garros, faces a testing first-round clash against emerging 21-year-old Briton Jack Draper, who reached the Adelaide semi-finals last week.

“Probably one of the toughest first rounds possible… young, powerful, growing very, very fast in the rankings, playing well,” said Nadal of Draper, the world number 40.

Swiatek said she was ready for an “intense” opening match against Germany’s Jule Neimeier, the world number 69 who reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon last year.

The pair’s only previous meeting came in the last 16 of the 2022 US Open, where Swiatek dropped the first set before coming through 2-6, 6-4, 6-0 and going on to win her third Grand Slam title.

Earlier, American seventh seed Coco Gauff will have the honour of playing the opening match on Rod Laver Arena against the Czech Republic’s world number 46 Katerina Siniakova.

Seventh-ranked Gauff heads into the first Grand Slam of the year on a high after winning her third WTA title at the Auckland Classic this month.

Gauff holds a 3-1 career win-loss record against Siniakova, with the lone defeat coming in a group match at last year’s Billie Jean King Cup.

They will be followed onto the centre court by Greek sixth seed Maria Sakkari, who faces Yuan Yue of China, the world number 117, before the Nadal v Draper clash.

Daniil Medvedev has been the Australian Open runner-up for the past two years, losing first to Djokovic in 2021 and then Nadal 12 months ago.

Seeded seven, the Russian will round off the first night session on Rod Laver Arena against 60th-ranked American Marcus Giron.

Third seed Jessica Pegula is fancied by many to make a Slam breakthrough this year and she will open proceedings on Margaret Court Arena against Romania’s world number 161 Jaqueline Cristian.

The 28-year-old starred for the victorious USA team at the United Cup in Sydney this month, where she won four of her five matches and beat Swiatek in the semi-final.

She has never made it past the last eight in a major and lost to the eventual champion Ashleigh Barty at that stage in Melbourne a year ago.

Later on the same court, the only two previous women’s Australian Open champions in the draw will square off.

Victoria Azarenka, the Belarusian 2012 and 2013 winner, will play Sofia Kenin, whose lone Grand Slam title came in Australia in 2020.

Also in action on Monday are men’s third seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, who plays 64th-ranked Frenchman Quentin Halys, and last year’s women’s runner-up, the American 13th seed Danielle Collins who starts against Anna Kalinskaya of Russia.

Novak Djokovic, who was detained and deported ahead of last year’s tournament after refusing to get vaccinated for Covid-19, begins his campaign for a record-extending 10th Australian Open title on Tuesday.

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