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    Djokovic, Nadal can only meet in final at Australian Open

    MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA (AP) – Rivals Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal were placed on opposite halves of the Australian Open bracket in the draw yesterday, meaning the owners of a combined 43 Grand Slam singles titles could only meet in the final at Melbourne Park.

    Djokovic, a nine-time champion in Australia, returns to the hard-court tournament after missing it last year when his visa was revoked and he was deported from the country because he isn’t vaccinated against COVID-19.

    He also couldn’t compete at the 2022 US Open.

    Fourth-seeded Djokovic will open his bid for a 10th Australian Open title against Spaniard Roberto Carballes Baena in the tournament which begins on Monday.

    Iga Swiatek, the women’s number one-ranked player, takes on German Jule Niemeier, who is ranked number 68, in the opening round. The Polish player was a semi-finalist at Melbourne Park in 2022, a year in which she won the French and US Open titles.

    But the main first-round focus will be on Nadal, who faces a potentially challenging match against British player Jack Draper. Draper, who is 21, was a semi-finalist in the Next Gen Championships in November and will also play in a semi-final of the Adelaide International today.

    Serbia’s Novak Djokovic. PHOTO: AP

    Another opening-round highlight has five-time Australian Open finalist Andy Murray against Italian Matteo Berrettini, a former Wimbledon finalist who is the number 13-seeded player.

    Murray defeated Australian Alex de Minaur 6-3, 6-3 in an exhibition match yesterday and is pleased with his form.

    The potential men’s quarterfinals by seeding are: Nadal versus number seven Daniil Medvedev in what would be a rematch of last year’s final at Melbourne Park, won by Nadal after dropping the initial two sets, and number three Stefanos Tsitsipas versus number six Felix Auger-Aliassime in the top half; and Djokovic versis number five Andrey Rublev, and number two Casper Ruud versus number eight Taylor Fritz in the bottom half.

    Nadal has a leading 22 Grand Slam singles titles, one more than Djokovic.

    Wimbledon finalist Nick Kyrgios, who faces Roman Safiullin in the opening round, will play Djokovic in an exhibition match today in Melbourne.

    Ons Jabeur, who reached both the Wimbledon and US Open finals in 2022, is seeded second and plays Tamara Zidansek in the women’s draw.

    Number three Jessica Pegula, who led the United States team that claimed the mixed teams United Cup in Sydney last week, faces Jacqueline Cristian from Romania in the first round.

    Australia’s Billie Jean King Cup captain Alicia Molik, who attended the draw at Melbourne Park, said Pegula is a contender.

    Seventh-seeded Coco Gauff, who won a tournament in Auckland last week, faces a tough first-round test against Katerina Siniakova, who defeated her in the Billie Jean King Cup finals in November.

    The potential women’s quarterfinals are: Swiatek versus Gauff in what would be a rematch of last year’s French Open final, won by Swiatek, and Pegula versus number six Maria Sakkari in the top half of the bracket; and Jabeur versus number five Aryna Sabalenka, and number four Caroline Garcia versus number eight Daria Kasatkina in the bottom half.

    Another big first-round match is two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka against Sofia Kenin, who won the title at Melbourne Park in 2020.

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