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Serena's road to Australian Open repeat far from easy

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 31: Serena Williams of the United States celebrates winning a point in her women's final match against Maria Sharapova of Russia during day 13 of the 2015 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 31, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
January 15, 2016 10:25 AM

By Ashley Marshall, USTA.com

World No. 1 Serena Williams will begin the defense of her Australian Open title Monday against Italian Camila Giorgi and could meet longtime rival Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals.

The road to a 22nd Grand Slam women’s singles title – which would match Steffi Graf for the most in the Open era – could see Serena meet No. 27 seed Anna Karolina Schmiedlova in the third round and good friend and former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in the round of 16.

Eighth-seeded Venus Williams, drawn in the opposite half to her younger sister, opens against dangerous Brit Johanna Konta, who made the fourth round of September’s US Open as a qualifier, while No. 15 Madison Keys begins against Zarina Diyas.

Sloane Stephens, the fourth and last seeded American woman in the draw at No. 25, will meet a qualifier in the first round and could play Roberta Vinci – who famously ended Serena’s bid for a calendar-year Grand Slam last year in New York – in the third round.

The draw was hardly favorable to the other U.S. women. Five unseeded Americans were drawn against a seed in the opening round and two pairs of Americans were drawn against each other.

In Serena’s quarter, Alison Riske faces 12th seed Belinda Bencic and Lauren Davis starts against No. 26 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Christina McHale meets world No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska, the highest seed in that quarter of the draw, while Anna Tatishvili and Irina Falconi will square off for a place in round 2.

In the lower half of the draw, which gets underway Tuesday, Vicky Duval begins her Melbourne campaign against No. 18 seed Elina Svitolina, USTA Pro Circuit Australian Open Wildcard winner Samantha Crawford faces Danka Kovinic and Vania King plays Mona Barthel. Americans Madison Brengle and Coco Vandeweghe will face each other for a potential second-round matchup with No. 29 seed Irina-Camelia Begu.

Elsewhere, Varvara Lepchenko meets No. 31 seed Lesia Tsurenko of the Ukraine and Bethanie Mattek-Sands will play Denisa Allertova. Should the top seeds advance to the fourth round, Keys would meet world No. 2 Simona Halep and Venus would meet No. 9 Karolina Pliskova.

Should Serena advance past Sharapova, the 34-year-old would possibly meet Radwanska in the semifinals. She would not face No. 2 seed Simona Halep or third-ranked Garbine Muguruza before the final.

In the men’s draw, top American John Isner will start his Australian Open against 25-year-old Pole Jerzy Janowicz. It will be the first meeting between the pair and would be one of the tallest matchups in tour history; Isner stands 6-foot-10 and Janowicz is 6-8.

Also in this quarter of the draw – headlined by No. 2 seed Andy Murray – No. 31 Steve Johnson will play Aljaz Bedene, Donald Young will meet Santiago Giraldo and Brian Baker begins his feel-good comeback story against Simone Bolelli.

Baker, who sat out 2005 to 2007, 2007 to 2011 and 2013 to 2016 with hip, elbow and knee injuries, has played in the main draw of just one major since the 2013 Australian Open. Once ranked as high as No. 52 in the world, he last played at the 2013 US Open, losing to Lleyton Hewitt in four sets in the first round. A knee injury has kept him sidelined for the past three years, but he is using his protected ranking for entry into the main draw.

No. 25 seed Jack Sock, who will contest his second career tour title this weekend at the ASB Classic in Auckland, will play a qualifier in the first round, while Rajeev Ram will face No. 11 seed Kevin Anderson.

In the top half of the men’s draw, Sam Querrey meets Dusan Lajovic, Denis Kudla faces Filip Krajinovic, Austin Krajicek plays a qualifier and USTA Pro Circuit Australian Open Wild Card Challenge winner Noah Rubin faces 17th-seeded Benoit Paire.

The eight qualifying spots in each of the men’s and women’s draws will be decided Friday and Saturday. Bjorn Fratangelo, Tim Smyczek, Ryan Harrison, Taylor Fritz and Dennis Novikov are each one win away from a trip into the main draw on the men’s side. Nicole Gibbs, Julia Boserup and Sachia Vickery are all into the final round of qualifying among the women.

With 45 players in the main draw and qualifying draw, the U.S. has more players at the Australian Open than any other nation, including Australia, which has 36.