By DENNIS PASSA
AP Sports Writer
MELBOURNE, Australia — Stanislas Wawrinka was a day away from playing his first match at the Australian Open and all everyone wanted to talk about was his last match at Melbourne Park in 2013.
Mind you, his five-set, fourth-round loss to eventual champion Novak Djokovic lasted 5 hours and 2 minutes, including 12-10 in the fifth, and turned out to be the longest Grand Slam match of 2013.
“It was a great match, even if I lost it,” Wawrinka said Sunday. “At the beginning of the year, that’s why I play so good the rest of the year. Took a lot of confidence with that match.”
Not enough confidence, however, to think he has a Grand Slam singles title in him.
“So far … I’m so far away,” Wawrinka said, laughing. “Only one semifinal in the U.S. Open last year in the last 10 years of my career. I’m improving. I’m really happy. I finished last year in the top eight. I feel I’m close from the top guys to beat them maybe once or to stay close from them.
“But I’m not thinking I’m not winning a Grand Slam.”
Wawrinka, who was told Sunday that he had been honored with the “personality of the year” award in his native Switzerland, has been working with former player Magnus Norman of Sweden as coach for nearly a year, although the two don’t travel together all the time.
Norman was briefly ranked No. 2 in 2000 when he made the semifinals of the Australian Open and the final at the French Open, losing to Gustavo Kuerten at Roland Garros.
“He’s a quiet person, a little bit like me. That’s why we are great together,” Wawrinka said.
Wawrinka, who won the Chennai Open in India to start 2014, is on the bottom half of the draw that contains Djokovic and No. 3 David Ferrer as its major threats. Wawrinka, who plays Andrey Golubev of Kazakhstan in the first match at Hisense Arena today, could play Djokovic this year in the semifinals.
GO SOEDA, SAYS KEI: Kei Nishikori comes into the Australian Open having won the Kooyong exhibition tournament and confident of his first-round chances against Australia’s Marinko Matosevic. Surprisingly, No. 16-seeded Nishikori also figures his Davis Cup teammate, Go Soeda, could give Wimbledon champion Andy Murray a tough first-round test at Melbourne Park.
Nishikori, who beat Tomas Berdych in the Kooyong final on Saturday, said Murray’s recent three-month layoff from minor back surgery could place the Scottish player at risk of a surprising loss in the early rounds.
“He’s great player, of course, but I don’t think he’s going to play 100 percent … first round,” Nishikori said Sunday. “If he (Soeda) can be aggressive … come in more, hit big forehands. Andy is really steady on the groundstrokes. It’s not going to be easy match.”
Nishikori is in the top half of the draw that features Nadal, Roger Federer, Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
ROUGH START: There’s been good news and not-so-good news for Australia’s two top male players leading into the Australian Open. Veteran Lleyton Hewitt beat Roger Federer, another 32-year-old former No. 1, in the Brisbane International final and appears injury free after several years of foot ailments.
Bernard Tomic, whose defense of the Sydney International ended with a 53-minute loss to No. 5-ranked Juan Martin del Potro in the final on the weekend, has the unenviable task of facing top-ranked Rafael Nadal in the first round at Melbourne Park.
“I got killed,” the 21-year-old Australian said of his loss to del Potro. “There was nothing I could do.”
Hewitt also has a tough first-rounder against No. 24 Andreas Seppi and could face Nadal in the fourth round. Hewitt’s loss to Marat Safin in the 2005 final was the best run by an Australian player at the national championship since Mark Edmondson won it in 1976.
Another up-and-coming Australian player, Marinko Matosevic, plays No. 16 Kei Nishikori of Japan.
Tennis Australia officials were aghast at the draw when Tomic’s name appeared in the No. 2 spot in the 128-draw against Nadal came only 20 minutes after Australian teenager Ashleigh Barty drew the same placing in the women’s draw against top-seeded Serena Williams.
UPGRADES FOR LAVER: Rod Laver Arena, the main stadium at Melbourne Park, is set to get as 5,000-seat outdoor show court to go with the 15,000-seat arena that is the Australian Open’s featured center court.
Victoria state government officials said Sunday that the $325 million development will include a new entrance and a media and administration center.
Rod Laver Arena and the 10,000-seat Hisense Arena both have retractable roofs, and from 2015, the 5,000-seat Margaret Court Arena will also have one.