The first Grand Slam of the year of the year is all set to begin in Melbourne on Monday amid controversy over the bushfires that have ravaged several parts of Australia.
In the 52nd running of the Australian Open, defending champion and world No. 2 Novak Djokovic will aim to extend his supremacy at the tournament, which switches this year to a GreenSet surface – a hard-court surface that was used at the 2016 Olympics.
Top seed Rafael Nadal, meanwhile, will focus on adding a second Australian Open title and putting aside the disappointment of leaving Melbourne Park with four runner-up trophies over the past 10 years. If he wins, he’ll become only the second man in tennis history to win all four majors at least twice after the man who lends his name to the Australian Open’s showcourt – Rod Laver.
Swiss maestro Roger Federer will once again aim to defy his age. Another Slam will put him on monumental 21 titles and a record-equalling seven at Melbourne. Also, it will give him a two-major buffer to Nadal, who seems all set to go past him sooner rather than later.
On the women’s side, Japan’s Naomi Osaka will attempt to retain her crown, but world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty will aim to win her home Grand Slam and become the first Aussie in 42 years to do so.
Meanwhile, Serena Williams will continue her quest for an elusive 24th singles Slam, which will tie her for the all-time record with Margaret Court, who is being honoured at the tournament on the 50th anniversary of her calendar year Grand Slam.
Here are some exciting first-round matches to watch out for:
Novak Djokovic (2) v Jan-Lennard Struff
In a strong start to the year, Djokovic led Serbia to victory at the inaugural ATP Cup, beating Nadal in the final.
To begin his campaign for a record-extending eighth Australian Open title, Djokovic will face Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff. In their previous meeting at the 2019 French Open, Djokovic brushed aside the German in straight sets.
A win for Djokovic will be his 900th in singles – a feat only five other men have achieved in the Open era.
Struff put up some strong performances at the ATP Cup against Greece and Canada, but Germany bought out of the group stage. Currently ranked 37, Struff has had a poor start to the year, suffering an early loss at the Adelaide International.
Alexander Zverev (7) v Marco Cecchinato
Zverev began 2020 with losses to fellow Next-Genners Alex de Minaur, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Denis Shapovalov at the ATP Cup.
The 22-year-old has struggled to live up to expectations after a breakout 2018. He won a solitary title last year, and he only matched his previous best at a Grand Slam – the quarters at the French Open.
The Italian Cecchinato has not won a match at any Grand Slam barring a remarkable run to the 2018 French Open semifinals. But despite an early loss at the Auckland International, Cecchinato, who was ranked as high as world No. 16 less than a year ago, could spring a surprise challenge for Zverev.
Daniil Medvedev (4) v Frances Tiafoe
Medvedev is the potential gatecrasher to the Big Three party. The 23-year-old Russian was – by some distance – the breakout star of 2019. He became the seventh man to reach at least nine finals in a single year, including at six consecutive tournaments and a loss in the US Open final to Nadal. But after winning the Shanghai Masters, his form waned, and he lost all three matches in the ATP Finals round robin stage.
But Medvedev started off the year in style at the ATP Cup before Novak Djokovic was too much to handle in the semifinals.
Aggressive and powerful, Tiafoe made to the quarterfinals at Melbourne Park in 2019, defeating Kevin Anderson and Grigor Dimitrov before bowing out to Nadal. But the American couldn’t build on that success over the rest of the year. Touted as a Grand Slam contender well before his older opponent, Taifoe will look to live up to that hype.
Fabio Fognini (12) v Reilly Opelka
After becoming one of the oldest players to break into the top 10 in the world for the first time in their career last year, with a stellar win at the Monte Carlo Masters, the 31-year-old Italian will hope to improve his game beyond clay. Fognini had a woeful start to the year at the ATP Cup in the absence of top-ranked Italian Matteo Berrettini.
Fognini and Opelka have met twice before and share the spoils – the latter at the 2019 US Open and the former later at the Davis Cup.
The tallest man ever to play professional tennis, Opelka’s serve, coming in from a height of around 11 feet, will be a challenge for Fognini to chase.
Venus Williams v Coco Gauff
The 39-year-old Venus Williams will take on teenage sensation Gauff in a repeat of the 2019 Wimbledon first round, where the 15-year-old thumped the veteran in straight sets in a tremendous upset. With her fortunes on the court waning, Venus will face a stiff challenge again, though a hip injury caused Gauff from participating in Brisbane and Adelaide in the warm-up to the Australian Open.
Come Monday, it will be Gauff who will hold the edge over the former world No. 1 at the Margaret Court Arena.
Serena Williams (8) v Anastasia Potapova
Having won her last Slam at the Australian Open in 2017, Serena returns to the spotlight in her bid for a 24th Grand Slam title. The 38-year-old began 2020 on a positive note with the Auckland Open title earlier in January. In her first clash against Serena, teenager Potapova has an enormous task ahead of her. Having achieved her first Grand Slam match win at the Australian Open last year, Potapova will hoped to do better this time.
Maria Sharapova v Donna Vekic
Croatian world no. 19 Donna Vekic would have hoped for an easier round-one match, instead of former world No. 1 and five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova, who was handed a wild card for the tournament.
After losing to Serena Williams in the first round of the 2019 US Open, Sharapova, marred by injuries, was out of the reckoning for the rest of the year, and the 2008 Australian Open winner saw herself ranked at an 18-year low of 131 at the end of 2019. In her return to action in 2020, Sharapova lost in the first round of the Brisbane International to Jennifer Brady before another poor show in the Kooyong Classic.
Vekic, on the other hand, will look to build on her Grand Slam performances of 2019, when she reached the US Open quarters.
Simona Halep (4) v Jennifer Brady
American Jennifer Brady began 2020 in smashing fashion – with wins over Sharapova and world no. 1 Barty at the Brisbane International. Her best result at the Australian Open came three years ago, when the then 21-year-old made it to the fourth round. With a blistering serve, Brady could be a frustrating fixture for Halep, who will look go one better than in 2018, when she was runner-up to Caroline Wozniacki.
Svetlana Kuznetsova v Marketa Vondrousova (15)
The 20-year-old Vondrousova enjoyed an impeccable run at the French Open where she appeared in her first Grand Slam final. An excellent returner, the Czech star has already garnered attention among the current crop of youngesters. In an exciting match-up, the world no. 15 will face Svetlana Kuznetsova, who is trying to make her way back to the top after an injury-plagued 2018. Kuznetsova, the 2004 US Open winner, rose from 151 to 57 in the rankings in 2019 on the back of impressive performances.
Kristina Mladenovic v Karolina Pliskova (2)
Despite their head-to-head record tied at two-all, world No. 2 Karolina Pliskova walks into the match on Tuesday as a favourite on the basis of recent form. In stark contrast to Mladenovic’s form in doubles, in which she is currently the top-ranked player, her 2020 singles season did not get off to a good start. She failed to qualify for the Brisbane International, where Pliskova defended her title from 2019.
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