The first matches of the Australian Open begin tonight. The early rounds are often a snoozefest with the top seeds bludgeoning poor qualifiers. However, there are some that should definitely be seen, providing interesting matchups on the hard court.
Radek Stepanek (29) vs. Nicolas Mahut: Stepanek is a veteran who has only reached as far as the fourth round once at the Aussie Open. Mahut, the younger Frenchman, has not had a lot of success Down Under either, never going past the second round. Prediction: Stepanek in four sets
Robin Haase vs. Andy Roddick (15): Roddick has been shaky at best in recent slams, allowing Mardy Fish to claim the top American position. Last year he made a run at the US Open making it the quarterfinals and losing to Nadal. It would be tough to believe that Roddick would exit in the first round on his best surface, but he has to make a statement in order to prove that he is still relevant. Roddick will probably get as far as the third round here. Haase is young and has only played in Australia three times, having his most success last year by getting to the third round. Prediction: Roddick in four sets
Mikhail Youzhny vs. Andrey Golubev: Youzhny is a madman. He is terribly inconsistent too, having only made the quarterfinals in Australia in 2008. I would love to see Youzhny make a run in the tournament and perhaps bang his head with a racket again. Golubev shouldn't be too much of a challenge for Youzhny, as he was knocked out in the first round in each Grand Slam last year. But with Youzhny it's impossible to predict how he'll play. Prediction: Youzhny in four sets
Richard Gasquet (17) vs. Andreas Seppi: Gasquet is an excellent player, but he never seems to get that far in Grand Slams. Last year he was out in the third round in Australia. His game is smooth and his one-handed backhand is a force to be reckoned with. Seppi is pretty solid but also makes early exits in the Slams. Prediction: Gasquet in three sets.
Andy Murray (4) vs. Ryan Harrison: Murray is obviously a heavy favorite, but Harrison is one of the bright new faces for American tennis. Look out for him to challenge Murray early on. Harrison's lack of experience in Grand Slams will probably shake him up in this important setting. Prediction: Murray in three sets (but one will be a tiebreaker!)
Marcos Baghdatis vs. Benjamin Becker: A battle between two veterans, Baghdatis has to be a favorite here. Becker lost in the second round of Australia last year and didn't even play in the other Slams. Baghdatis plays well on the hard court and seems to linger around with good endurance in five set battles. He hasn't played well recently though, so this could be a bit more of a struggle than he anticipated. I sincerely want this to be an absolute battle. Prediction: Baghdatis in five sets
Fernando Verdasco (22) vs. Bernard Tomic: The crowd favorite youngster, Tomic goes up against the spotty Spaniard in the first round. Verdasco played one of the greatest matches of all time against Rafael Nadal in the 2009 Australian Open Semifinals, but to say he had a poor 2011 is a bit of an understatement. Tomic has a big game and will be pumped up by a partisan crowd, likely forcing an early exit for Verdasco Down Under. Prediction: Tomic in 4 (grueling) sets