Asutralian Open: World No 1 handed tough road to Melbourne rematch with old rival

Andy Murray is the top seed at next week's Australian Open
Andy Murray is the top seed at next week's Australian Open
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If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.

It has been a mantra that has followed Andy Murray’s trophy-laden tennis career but nowhere more so than on the hard courts of the Australian Open.

Britain's Kyle Edmund looks to replicate or better the fourth round he reached at the US Open. (AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic)

Britain's Kyle Edmund looks to replicate or better the fourth round he reached at the US Open. (AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic)

The Scot has reached five of the last six finals in Melbourne without prevailing; a statistic which has been largely due to the defensive brilliance of his great rival Novak Djokovic – who will seek a magnificent seventh title over the next two weeks.

As a rivalry, the Murray-Djokovic battle is beginning to match the past delights served up by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras and John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg.

This era’s dominant pair have met in seven finals at Grand Slams – as well as 13 in other events on the ATP Tour.

An eighth in Melbourne would match the figure fought out between Federer and Nadal, while Agassi and Sampras met in five showpieces and Borg and McEnroe played out four in the space of three years from 1979 to 1981.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic stands in the way of both Andy Murray and Kyle Edmund in the 2017 Australian Open. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

Serbia's Novak Djokovic stands in the way of both Andy Murray and Kyle Edmund in the 2017 Australian Open. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

Djokovic has had the beating of Murray in finals so far. But this year’s Australian Open seems better poised than ever before.

Djokovic, dethroned as world No 1 by Murray at the end of last year, looks refreshed after a winter break and wrestled back the initiative between them after winning the Doha Open in three gruelling sets last week.

That victory brought an end to Murray’s 28-match winning streak, a run that included a World Tour Finals success over Djokovic that secured the No 1 ranking at the end of 2016.

There was an initial shock at the start of the new season as Murray slipped to an exhibition defeat to Belgian stroke-maker David Goffin.

But his run to the final in Doha last week expelled any fears of a summit hangover.

Yesterday’s draw will not keep Murray awake too long into the night – despite the presence of 17th seed Federer as a potential quarter-final opponent.

First-round opponent Illya Marchenko, of Ukraine, has not made it into the second round in Melbourne since 2011 – although he did reach the fourth round of the US Open last year – while probable second-round opponent Yen-Hsun Lu, 33, has not taken a set off Murray since his shock victory over the Scot at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Big-serving Americans Sam Querrey and John Isner would offer similar tests in successive rounds from three to four – should 19th seed Isner overcome rising French player Lucas Pouille to make the second week.

Federer was always the banana-skin in the men’s draw after dropping to a 16-and-a-half year low ranking of 17 due to the knee injury that plagued 2016.

And the 35-year-old was handed the smooth start he would have hoped for after his lengthy period away. He will face qualifiers in both the opening two rounds.

However, he must progress from a section including fifth-seed Kei Nishikori to reach the last eight – the stage he beat Murray at in 2014 on the pair’s last meeting in Melbourne.

Nishikori also has quarter-final previous with Murray having beaten him at the US Open in August.

Should Murray gain revenge on either party, a match-up with 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka is likely before the proposed dual against Djokovic.

The draw has been kind to the British male quartet, with Kyle Edmund, Dan Evans and Aljaz Bedene all facing players outside the top 50.

Beverley’s Edmund meets Santiago Giraldo, while in-form Evans plays Argentine Facundo Bagnis and Bedene was paired with Victor Estrella Burgo of the Dominican Republic.

There was no such comfort for British women’s No 1 Johanna Konta, however, who made a superb run to the semi-finals at Melbourne Park last year, but has landed in a brutal section of the draw.

Belgian Kirsten Flipkens, whom she lost to at Monterrey last year, awaits in round one and Konta may need to overcome the big-hitting 19-year-old Naomi Osaka, US Open semi-finalist Caroline Wozniacki, world No 6 Dominika Cibulkova and then Serena Williams just to reach the last four.

The women’s draw also poses a stiff challenge to Heather Watson and Naomi Broady, who both face seeded Australians.

Broady meets up and coming Aussie Daria Gavrilova while Watson, who has only progressed past the first round once in five attempts, plays veteran Sam Stosur.

Djokovic has a trickier route to the showpiece. Veteran Spaniard Fernando Verdasco awaits in the first round, little over a week after wasting four match points against the Serb.

Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin or a qualifier await next before a potential match-up with Beverley’s Edmund.

After reaching the fourth round at the US Open, Edmund has the appetite for the big stage now and will fancy his chances against flamboyant Colombian Giraldo in the first round.

His potential second round opponent, 30th seed Pablo Carreno Busto, has yet to make it past the first round in Australia leaving Edmund a favourite to secure a third meeting with Djokovic.

The world No 45’s run in New York last year was brought to a sharp halt by Djokovic and their first meeting in Miami also brought a straight-sets defeat on Edmund.

While 2016 was a breakthrough year for Edmund, 2017 is all set to be his emergence – although a win over Djokovic may still be a far cry. It’s still very much a case of one win at a time for the 21-year-old.

Bulgarian Gregor Dimitrov, another player promising great things, and perennial quarter-finalist Richard Gasquet, feature in the same section, while Goffin or emerging star Dominic Thiem could lie in wait in the last eight.

Djokovic, however, is a different class on the hard courts and should not need to worry too much.

Melbourne is as good as a second home to the Serb, who still holds the cards in his rivalry with Murray.

He has won all five meetings against Murray at the Australian Open, and out of 19 sets, Murray has won just four.

But the clout of the No 1 ranking puts Murray in a greater mindset to previous years.

And it would be a great shame if he never picked up the trophy he has tried so hard to get.