Australian Open 2014: Must-See Early-Round Matches

Jeremy EcksteinFeatured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2014

Australian Open 2014: Must-See Early-Round Matches

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    Maybe the 2014 Australian Open did no favors to its native sons, but Bernard Tomic and Lleyton Hewitt will be front and center with their opening-round matches.

    Melbourne's tennis fans will pack Rod Laver Arena when Tomic looks to wave some Aussie magic in upsetting World No. 1 Rafael Nadal. Hewitt's first-round challenge will be 24th-seeded Andreas Seppi.

    These are two of the most enticing matches in the men's draw, which is packed with compelling showdowns and potential upsets.

    The women's draw also has its share of intriguing pairings. Who wouldn't want to watch unseeded Venus Williams challenge 22nd-seeded Ekaterina Makarova?

    This is your guide to the most interesting matchups and stories of the first round.

Jiri Vesely vs. (19) Kevin Anderson

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    Some tennis fans are growing impatient of waiting for Grigor Dimitrov or Milos Raonic to be the next young star. Maybe Jiri Vesely will fill in the void.

    He will be cutting his teeth at the Australian Open against hard-serving, 19th-seeded Kevin Anderson.

    The left-hander Vesely stands at 6'6", which is still an inch short of Anderson. He is the next talent from the tennis-rich Czech Republic and was recently named 2013 ATP Star of Tomorrow (formerly called Newcomer of the Year) for moving his 2013 ranking from No. 263 to No. 82.

    Can the young gun challenge one of the seasoned veterans of the ATP Tour? Regardless, this will be a great measuring stick for Vesely and a chance for fans to glimpse a possible star of the future.

Francesca Schiavone vs. (20) Dominika Cibulkova

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    Francesca Schiavone vs. 20th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova will provide plenty of aggressive and interesting tennis.

    On one side, veteran Schiavone, the one-time French Open champion (2009), will play with tactical savvy and opportunistic attacking. Australians revere this kind of tennis and will support her to the end.

    The younger Cibulkova is her erratic counterpart. In 2009, she reached the French Open semifinals and narrowly missed her opportunity to battle Schiavone for the title.

    Since then, she has struggled to harness her risk-taking groundstrokes and style. Her swinging volleys are a technical violation of old-school tennis, but they can have spectacular results either way.

    This match should be competitive and full of flavor. Both players can show their flamboyant talents, but Schiavone will need to match Cibulkova's energy. The Aussie crowd should provide a nice assist.

Lleyton Hewitt vs. (24) Andrea Seppi

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    Once upon a time, Lleyton Hewitt was the bright star of tennis, ahead of his juniors Swiss rival Roger Federer. He won two Grand Slam titles and became the No. 1 player in the world.

    Injuries have since ravaged his body. He was cheated out of several prime years to challenge Federer, Rafael Nadal and other stars who followed his brief time at the top of the tennis world.

    Hewitt seemed on the verge of retirement following the 2013 Australian Open and a fall out of the ATP Top 100. But his fighting spirit picked up his body, and he gathered momentum through the summer, including winning his U.S. Open second-round match against Juan Martin del Potro.

    Now, he is ranked No. 43 and holder of the Brisbane title against old rival Federer. It was only his second win in 18 matches against Federer over the last decade.

    Most importantly, his infectious intensity and grit have the Aussie faithful believing he can provide more retro magic and perhaps drive to the fourth round to take on Nadal. The humid night and rollicking atmosphere at Rod Laver Arena would be the essence of sports.

    But in the opening round, Hewitt must will himself past 24-seeded Andreas Seppi. The Italian journeyman crashed the fourth round at Australia in 2013 and has consistently advanced in opening rounds. He will be steady, but can he overcome the pride and heart of Australia?

    It will be one of the most emotional matches of the first round, and it should be highly competitive.

Klara Zakopalova vs. (17) Samantha Stosur

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    The Aussie tennis gods have not been kind to their own players. Lleyton Hewitt drew a stern test. Bernard Tomic and James Duckworth must vie against possibly the two greatest players ever in Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, respectively. Ashleigh Barty drew the unenviable task of becoming Serena Williams' first-round victim.

    The hope for Australia may rely on Samantha Stosur. The former U.S. Open (2011) champion may have the first realistic opportunity to challenge and defeat Serena Williams in the fourth round behind her experience and all-court skills.

    Stosur should be in control versus World No. 37 Klara Zakopalova, a consistent but underwhelming threat to win big matches. It will be most important for Stosur to establish her good serving and rhythm in order to tune up for Serena. She cannot play too loose and fall victim to errors.

    This could be the highlight for Australia's home players. Stosur should fill up seats and ride the partisan support for a good time on her journey to her second-week showdown.

Marcel Granollers vs. Marin Cilic

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    It seems like ages ago when Marin Cilic was the 2010 Australian Open semifinalist and reached his career-best No. 9 ranking. Then, he was a talented, hard-hitting future star. Now, he is looking to come back from a doping suspension and four months away from tennis.

    His rocky road may be the jolt he needs to become a more consistent Top 10 player. He is too talented to  settle into a roller-coaster career.

    Recently, prominent tennis writer Peter Bodo compared Cilic's physical size and abilities to Juan Martin del Potro.

    Cilic's opponent will be Marcel Granollers, the big Spaniard with the powerful serve. Like Cilic, he could stand to improve his footwork and defense but should provide enough fireworks to make this a heavyweight duel.

Ryan Harrison vs. Gael Monfils

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    Gael Monfils is a crowd attraction wherever he goes, even in New York City's U.S. Open where he was cheered against top American John Isner.

    In Australia, the fans will appreciate his athleticism and flair. After all, Australian tennis tradition has seen stylistic heroes of their own in past generations including Lleyton Hewitt, Patrick Rafter, Pat Cash and Rod Laver. The latter represented a virtual tour of Aussie champions.

    His opponent will be Ryan Harrison, a powerful youngster with a big serve and forehand but not a lot of variety. He's the powerful foil who could make this an intriguing contrast of styles.

    Harrison has been inconsistent and often moves as if his feet were encumbered by cement blocks. If he gets routed, Monfil's wizardry may appear as if he is toying with Harrison.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands vs. (3) Maria Sharapova

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    A healthy Maria Sharapova can be the biggest story in women's tennis. At her best, she pounds her powerful groundstrokes and brings unmatched energy and decibels to the WTA.

    The problem is that she has not been relevant since the French Open. Her recent drama has included injuries, coaching changes and another loss to Serena Williams at Brisbane's tune-up.

    Will she be an Aussie contender?

    Her real return must begin with a not-so-easy matchup versus Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Mattek-Sands is coming off a knee injury, but she upset Agnieszka Radwanska at Sydney. This could be a first-round casualty for Sharapova if she is not near her A-game.

Juan Monaco vs. (23) Ernests Gulbis

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    A year ago, Juan Monaco was ranked No. 12 and would have been a solid favorite against Ernests Gulbis. Poor play, nagging illnesses and injuries took their toll on him, but he is better than his No. 42 ranking suggests.

    Gulbis was well out of the Top 100 at the dawn of 2013. He skipped the Australian Open but soon rode a 13-match winning streak, which ended versus Rafael Nadal at Indian Wells.

    Many tennis fans are interested to see if the mercurial Gulbis can augment his talent with patience and control. At his best, he can compete with anyone. He carries a big serve, beautiful backhand and searing groundstrokes.

    Djokovic fans may want to tune in to root for Monaco. If Gulbis rides his best tennis, their potential fourth-round meeting could be a blockbuster.

Venus Williams vs. (22) Ekaterina Makarova

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    Venus Williams is 33 years old and far removed from her Grand Slam winning days, but her champion's presence will always be part of her makeup. There still remains the possibility that she can turn back the clock and play with the power and grace that once flowed from her wonderful skills.

    Her lanky athleticism supplies its own kind of textbook form. Perhaps there's never been a WTA player who could reach down and pick up such a beautiful backhand. That alone is worth the price of admission.

    Her opponent is Ekaterina Makarova, who is coming off a strong year. She has been to the Aussie quarterfinals two years running, including 2013 victories over Marion Bartoli and Angelique Kerber.

    At Madrid, she stopped Victoria Azarenka's 18-game winning streak, and at the U.S. Open she topped Agnieszka Radwanska to reach another quarterfinal.

    Both players will be feisty and determined, and they might provide the best match of the opening round. How it plays out could be entertaining.

Bernard Tomic vs. (1) Rafael Nadal

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    Rafael Nadal is the No. 1 player in the world, but he will also be the antagonist for his opening blockbuster versus young Aussie Bernard Tomic.

    They only met once: in the 2011 Australian Open third round. Tomic even led 4-0 in the second set, but he was ultimately swept. The match is trivial now, and a lot has changed—except Nadal's ranking.

    Tomic has kicked around as a potential star for a few years now. He has shown flashes of very good tennis, but he is still learning to be committed to the sport and show a workmanlike attitude.

    If he needs inspiration, he need look no further than Nadal. The Spaniard has been the epitome of dedication and focus with his superstar career. His ears and senses will be muted to home-crowd cheering for Tomic. It will probably arouse his sharpest efforts.

    There's a good chance this match will be close for at least a set. Nadal will attack with his high topspin and see if Tomic self-destructs. Tomic might be able to trouble Nadal with his flat strokes and changes of pace. If Tomic panics, Nadal will tear into him like a bull shark.

    Will it be great theater, a stunning upset or a Nadal onslaught?

    You don't want to miss this one.