Rafael Nadal to be tested early in Oz

The Australian Open has been very kind to Novak Djokovic, and at first glance, it seemed to get even more magnanimous. The defending champion, Djokovic is poised to become the first man in the Open era to carry off the title five times, and he appears to have been gifted with a draw that’s significantly friendlier than the one foisted on top-seeded Rafael Nadal.

But is it, really? Let’s look at the draw quarter-by-quarter, starting at the top, Nadal section.

If Nadal’s quarter seems tougher, it’s largely because his first-round pairing jumps out at you. He’s going to meet the great Australian hope (and, sometimes, dope), Bernard Tomic. Forget all the controversy about Tomic and his wacky father. Apart from anything else -- including the hype this match will generate Down Under -- Tomic always lifts his game at home. He’s a tricky, shifty player, and he probably wants to win back some of the fans he’s lost with his antics.

A third-round rematch with Gael Monfils (whom Nadal beat in a three-set final in the Doha final last Sunday) is no gimme, either, and Nadal’s projected fourth-round opponent is a tough out, No. 16 seed Kei Nishikori. If nothing else, the draw will certainly leave Nadal broken in for a potentially grueling quarterfinal battle with No. 5 seed Juan Martin del Potro.

Moving into the second quarter of the draw, Roger Federer may be down to No. 6 in the rankings, but the way they now do the draw, he’s ensconced in the slot that once was reserved for either the No. 3 or 4 seed (this year, David Ferrer and Andy Murray respectively) -- the very bottom of the top half.

As it turned out, Murray ended up at the top of that second quarter. It’s probably fine with him, because he’s now got good reason to rethink those gloomy predictions he’s been making about his chances in Melbourne. (Murray was out most of the fall for minor back surgery and rehab, and has played exactly two tournament matches since shortly after the US Open.)

Murray appears to have little to worry about until a fourth-round meeting with No. 13 John Isner (Murray could get a qualifier in both the second and third rounds). By contrast, Federer in that quarter might have to survive former finalist and No. 10 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or former semifinalist Marin Cilic, to make a projected date with Murray in the quarters.

With Murray and Federer both in that second quarter, the third quarter is up for grabs. The high seed is No. 3 David Ferrer, and the biggest threat to his semifinal dreams appears to be the next-highest seed in that section, No. 7 Tomas Berdych. Ferrer seems to be having trouble grinding with his familiar enthusiasm now that he’s 31, and Berdych is consistent, but he didn’t win a title in 2013 (although he did lead the Czech Republic to a highly valued Davis Cup title).

That third quarter will be an interesting one, stocked as it is with unpredictable, but dangerous players like No. 20 Jerzy Janowicz and No. 14 Mikhail Youzhny, flashy Alexandr Dolgopolov, No. 12 and former semifinalist Tommy Haas and power servers Ivo Karlovic and Kevin Anderson. If this tournament is going to have a surprise semifinalist, he’s likely to come out of that section of the draw.

And that brings us to the bottom half, and what some see as a relatively easy draw for the defending champ.

Very few players are going to outmaneuver, outrun or outrally Djokovic on the courts at Melbourne Park -- or anywhere else. But Djokovic’s quarter of the draw (as No. 2 seed, he’s at the very bottom) contains a number of men who could conceivably outhit him -- especially if the courts are playing as fast as early reports suggest.

Djokovic could meet Dmitry Tursunov in the third round. Tursunov is an unpredictable, electric shot-maker and he’s playing well. After that, Djokovic could run into one of two other explosive players in his quarter: mercurial Ernests Gulbis or Sam Querrey. And that’s before he even gets to the quarterfinal, where he could meet either Richard Gasquet or (on form) No. 8 seed Stan Wawrinka -- two more guys who rely on fearless and powerful groundstrokes.

Remember, Wawrinka challenged Djokovic in the fourth round in Melbourne last year, and that one turned into an epic, and according to some, the best match of 2013. Djokovic finally won it 12-10 in the fifth, but Wawrinka was No. 17 at the time. He’s a player of a different class -- and ranking -- now.

So though we may not be dropping household names here, nobody in his right mind would call Djokovic’s dance card an easy one. The truth is that if Nadal and Djokovic hope to meet in yet another dream Grand Slam final, they must be prepared to jump through comparably hazardous hoops to make it happen.