2013 Australian Open: 13 First-Round Matches to Watch
The draws for the 2013 Aussie Open are out, and upcoming matches on the Melbourne horizon are as tantalizing as ever. Venus vs. Maria, Murray vs. Del Potro, Serena vs. Vika... if all goes according to plan, the blazing blue Rod Laver Arena will be lit up with these and other blockbusters.
Before that happens, though, more than a few hopefuls will try to play the spoiler role. Here are the 13 most anticipated first round clashes this year Down Under.
(2) Roger Federer vs. Benoit Paire
Undoubtedly, Roger Federer got dealt the toughest quarter of the top four seeds. Up ahead could be a 2nd round encounter with former nemesis Nikolay Davydenko, a third round clash with either hometown hero Bernie Tomic or last year's ATP Newcomer Martin Klizan and potential future bouts with Milos Raonic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Before Federer even begins to consider looking ahead in the draw, he faces a stern test in round one from a young Frenchman. Paire's shot up more than 50 spots in the rankings during the 2012 season, and the 23-year-old's laconic style and natural shotmaking abilities resemble the Swiss maestro himself.
The last—and only—time these two played was in Federer's hometown tourney last year, and it was relatively smooth sailing for the Swiss. But even the highlights are testament to Paire's versatility and creativity on the court. Federer is going to take this opening match very seriously.
Prediction: Fed in four.
Melanie Oudin vs. Laura Robson
These two young guns met in the first round of Australian Open qualifying in 2012, and are slated to meet in the big leagues one year later.
Robson won that bout 6-3 6-4—but not after Oudin saved 9 match points. The American will have to rely on every last ounce of that same tenacity to try to beat her British counterpart this go around. After all, in Robson's last appearance in a Slam, she took out Li Na and beat Kim Clijsters in the Belgian's final singles match.
It will be an interesting contrast in styles, with Robson's Verdasco-esque lasers going up against Oudin's tenacious retrieving.
Prediction: Robson in a tight two-setter.
(7) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Michael Llodra
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Michael Llodra are flashy Frenchmen and good friends who won silver in doubles at the London Games together last year. They will meet for the sixth time in the first round of Melbourne.
Tsonga leads the series 5-0, but has benefited from three retirements from his countryman over the years.
It'd be easy to chalk up another victory for Tsonga, especially considering his past successes Down Under. But Llodra did end the year on a high, reaching the semifinals of the Paris Masters in his home country—knocking out Juan Martin Del Potro along the way.
Prediction: Tsonga improves to 6-0 with a four set win.
(25) Venus Williams vs. Galina Voskoboeva
It was on everyone's mind which top seed would draw Venus Williams in their bracket, and it turns out Maria Sharapova has the dubious honor.
Williams has some serious work to do before she plays Sharapova. Galina Voskoboeva, a lean, leggy, big hitter from Russia, looms. Check out highlights from Toronto a couple years ago, where she took down countrywoman Sharapova in straight sets.
Venus looked sloppy for the majority of the Hopman Cup last week, but ground out three wins and carried an injured John Isner in mixed doubles nonetheless. The American's biggest obstacle will be not succumbing to the unforced errors that Voskoboeva will be able to draw out of her.
Prediction: Venus in three.
(3) Andy Murray vs. Robin Haase
The first time these two butted heads in '08 in Rotterdam, Haase emerged with a straight sets victory. The Dutchman was poised to pull off another surprise victory at the 2011 US Open, going up two-sets-to-love against Murray before the Scot battled back to win 6-4 in the fifth.
First major, Olympic gold medal, Wimbledon final: Murray's certainly come a long way from that great escape in Flushing. The world No. 3 is also coming in on a high—capturing Brisbane for his first title of the year last week and gaining crucial going into Melbourne, where he landed in Federer's half.
Haase shouldn't be discounted, though. Equipped with big strokes, a good court sense and a strong head-to-head with Murray, he'll still be dangerous.
Prediction: Murray in three close sets.
(10) Caroline Wozniacki vs. Sabine Lisicki
It's been almost four years since these two have met, and that match—highlights included—was famous more for it's dramatic courtside "bump" than the fact that Lisicki pulled off a handsome upset over the Dane.
Lisicki and Wozniacki actually met down under five years ago, with Wozniacki triumphing in a close three-setter. Though much has changed for both women since that time, expect a similar result. Wozniacki's dogged baseline game and loopy strokes have fallen prey to the German's rocket-like forehand and ability to move forward the last couple times they've met, although Woz's consistency is much more dependable.
The world No. 10 ended last year on fire, but has started off 2013 with a couple disconcerting losses to Ksenia Pervak and Svetlana Kuznetsova, so Wozniacki's confidence may be low.
Prediction: Lisicki for the upset in three.
(1) Novak Djokovic vs. Paul-Henri Mathieu
It has been around four years since Djokovic and Mathieu have met—largely because of the Frenchman's absence from the game due to myriad injuries.
Even though Mathieu mounted a successful comeback in 2012, he's going to need to come up with something seriously special to upend the reigning Australian Open champ. Maybe the same magic he used to score his only ever victory over the Serb in '06 will do the trick.
Ultimately, though, the match will be in Djokovic's hands, as nearly all of them are these days. The world No.1 has the clear edge in power and consistency and should be able to expose Mathieu's forehand—which has a tendency to fall short—with relative ease. It'll be a good way for Djokovic to hit a lot of balls without feeling too much pressure in his first official match of the new season.
Prediction: Djokovic in a straightforward straight-setter.
(15) Dominika Cibulkova vs. Ashleigh Barty
In what's gunning to be one of the first primetime night matches, pint-sized dynamo Cibulkova squares off against hometown favorite, the 16-year-old wildcard Barty.
Cibulkova's known for her fiery personality as much as her strong on-court results. Judging by her performance this week in Sydney—where she blitzed Petra Kvitova and, at the time of publication, awaits Aga Radwanska in the finals—the Slovak is taking her chances Down Under very seriously.
That'll make it all the more tough for Barty. The spunky teen has crafted a game that revolves around hugging the baseline and masking a weak, slice-heavy backhand—but there's no doubt she'll be fueled by heaps and heaps of crowd support, particularly if, as I suspect, the match is played in Rod Laver Arena at night.
Prediction: Cibulkova will crush Aussie hopes everywhere, but it might be a close three-setter.
(18) Alexandr Dolgopolov vs. Gael Monfils
Two of the ATP Tour's most entertaining players will play for the first time at this year's Australian Open, with the winner looking as the favorite to move towards a fourth round match-up with Andy Murray.
Dolgopolov's herky-jerky serve, wily athleticism and old-school approach to the game have won him leagues of fans worldwide, and he'll be looking to come back strong in Melbourne after a taxing defeat at the hands of Bernie Tomic last year—a match that was counted as one of the most entertaining of 2012, by some.
Monfils was always going to be a dangerous floater in this year's draw. The flashy Frenchman can't ever seem to catch a break from the injuries. It was his right knee that betrayed him for the majority of last year. He's started off strong so far—you can catch highlights of his first round in Auckland against Benjamin Becker—but got destroyed in 49 minutes the Auckland semis today by David Ferrer and looks to be playing way too far behind the baseline.
He'll need to step it up.
Prediction: Dolgopolov in a crazy five-setter.
(8) Petra Kvitova vs. Francesca Schiavone
Kvitova and Schiavone met on clay, indoor hard and grass last year—basically every surface except Plexicushion—with the Czech triumphing in all three meetings.
Do all signs, then, point to another Kvitova victory? Yes and no. The Czech fell in Brisbane to a rejuvenated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and lost to Cibulkova this week in Sydney 6-1 6-1. She looked listless. She started complaining about her asthma in the Australian heat.
She is, in a word, vulnerable.
Schiavone hasn't had the most promising lead-up either, however. The Italian veteran fell badly to Ana Ivanovic and Ashleigh Barty in the Hopman Cup exhibition, and moved on to the Hobart warm-up tournament where she was handed a demoralizing opening round loss.
It's anyone's guess who will win this titanic struggle of polar opposites. Pure power pitted against devliish spins, a low-key persona up against a fiery fierceness—if it's anything like their battle at Wimbledon last year, fans should be in for a wild match.
Prediction: Kvitova in three close sets.
Ryan Harrison vs. Santiago Giraldo
It was the racket heard 'round the All England Club when these young guns collided in the opening round of the Olympics last summer. Harrison sent his stick flying to the sanctified turf of Wimbledon following a miserable defeat to Giraldo, which sparked a healthy round of discussion about the young American's temper and resulted in an on-air apology awkwardly orchestrated by the insufferable commentator Pat O'Brien.
Unfortunately, there's no footage of that match and its aftermath online—so instead, feast your eyes on an unbelievable display of returning from the young Colombian. That's certainly Giraldo's trademark: firepower.
It could also mark Harrison's downfall at the Australian this year. Even though his serve is improved and he can absolutely crack that backhand down-the-line, Giraldo's pure shotmaking abilities and pace off the ground could smother Harrison's resolve very quickly.
It may be a moot point, however. The winner of this one most likely gets Djokovic.
Prediction: Giraldo in four.
(1) Victoria Azarenka vs. Monica Niculescu
Many of the upcoming matches previewed in this article feature distinct contrasts in style. This opener between top seed and defending champ Azarenka and the eccentric Romanian Niculescu is perhaps even more salient than the rest.
Azarenka's game looked solid her first couple rounds in Brisbane before she pulled out with a disconcerting toe issue, but she certainly drew a tricky first round opponent in Niculescu. The world No. 54 plays with a variety of spins—including a frequent slice forehand—and is solid from all parts of the court, a rarity these days. She's also had her best results in majors at the Australian, and will benefit from two great results at warm-up tournaments coming in.
But this is Azarenka's match to lose, much like the tournament (Serena is, by far, her biggest competition). She is 4-0 head-to-head against Niculescu, and a double bagel is even on the books. If she's not fully healthy and able to move around in reaction to Niculescu's unique slicing and dicing, this could get tricky fast.
Prediction: Azarenka in straight sets, having to fight through one complicated set.
(8) Janko Tipsarevic vs. Lleyton Hewitt
Every year, the Aussie Open draw seems to produce a scintillating first round encounter that'll pack the opening night house at Rod Laver Arena. More than a few have featured hometown hero Hewitt, like in '09 against Fernando Gonzalez and in '11 versus David Nalbandian.
Both of those matches were losses for Hewitt, yet were intense productions of fantastic, passionate play. It's almost guaranteed that this year against Tipsarevic will yield the same quality tennis. Whatever deficits in Hewitt's game, the surface and the roaring, loyal crowd will be at his back.
Tipsarevic, though, won't fold under the pressure. He's coming off an impressive tournament victory at a lead-up in Chennai, India, and he drew the quarter with David Ferrer as his Top 4 seed. The Serb is no doubt senses a golden opportunity to advance to his first Slam semi.
Hewitt battled Ferrer very hard in one of the most exciting matches of last year's US Open. Tipsarevic plays a very similar game to the Spaniard, which must give Hewitt hope. And even though they haven't met in years, Hewitt does lead their head-to-head 3-1.
We don't know how many more Australian Opens will feature Rusty. Will he score yet another memorable, improbable victory on his home turf?
Prediction: Tipsarevic in a grueling four-setter.
(22) Fernando Verdasco vs. David Goffin: The Spaniard, who looked streakier than ever in his matches during the Hopman Cup exhibition last week, is susceptible to a loss in this tantalizing matchup. Belgium's Goffin is equipped with a beautiful all-court game and mesmerized audiences at the French Open last year when he broke through to the fourth round, taking a set off of Federer when he arrived there.
(12) Nadia Petrova vs. Kimiko Date-Krumm: You've gotta hand it to Kimiko. The fortysomething Ironwoman competed well at this week's warm-up tourney in Sydney, battling top seed Radwanska hard in oppressive temperatures. Her baseline-hugging game may not be enough to contend with Petrova's power playing, however.
(4) David Ferrer vs. Olivier Rochus: Two of the tour's tinier folk are set to brawl, with Ferrer carrying a 5-2 head-to-head advantage into the match. The two met in last year's Auckland final with the Spaniard prevailing, but Rochus has historically played well in Melbourne and has always played Ferrer close. An upset wouldn't be too inconceivable.
(9) Samantha Stosur vs. Kai-Chen Chang: The relatively unknown Chang has had quality wins in the past—her flat, go-for-broke game stymied Dinara Safina when the Russian was ranked No. 1 in the world. Stosur's low on confidence and match play following surgery during the off-season. Will she succumb to national pressure and slog through a second straight winless season in Australia?