The 2014 Australian Open gets underway on Monday, Jan. 13, and some of the game's top stars will be in action from the very beginning on Day 1.
Women's No. 1 Serena Williams is scheduled to hit the hard courts in Melbourne Park, as is three-time reigning men's champion and second seed Novak Djokovic.
As far as the native talent in this tournament, the draw hasn't been kind, but it has set the stage for another intriguing opening-round match involving a precocious teen and a recent Grand Slam semifinalist.
Below is a preview of those matches—along with the challenge ahead for Venus Williams—including predictions as to how they will play out to help kick off the first major tennis tournament of the season.
Note: Complete Day 1 schedule can be viewed at the tournament's official website.
Jordan Thompson vs. No. 20 Jerzy Janowicz
With a nice physique and a killer serve, Thompson has a chance to make some noise in Round 1 at the ripe age of 19.
But part of what makes the towering Janowicz so intimidating is his own powerful service game, which is among the best on the ATP circuit and allowed him to become a semifinalist at Wimbledon this past year.
Janowicz is only 23 himself and could be even higher regarded as one of the world's premier players if he could gather more consistency. An occasional hot-running temperament and a tendency to press don't do the Polish talent any favors.
While another Australian teen isn't likely to have a shot against a big name (more on that later), the circumstances and recent form that Thompson flashed could make this one mighty interesting.
In his most recent tournament, the fiery upstart hung with world No. 9 Richard Gasquet and even got a set off him before falling 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (4) in the AAMI Classic's opening day, per the Herald Sun's Bruce Matthews.
Competing that strongly against a gritty player such as Gasquet has to give Thompson confidence as he enters his Grand Slam debut with Melbourne behind him.
Although his inexperience on this big of a stage will only be enough to win one set, this will be an invaluable experience that Thompson will draw on as his promising future unfolds.
Prediction: Janowicz wins; 7-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2
Ashleigh Barty vs. No. 1 Serena Williams
The 17-year-old Barty will be the heavy underdog in what will feel like a dream scenario in battling Williams, but the home crowd should be behind the youngster since she hails from Australia.
It would be a shock if Williams didn't emerge from this match with a straight-sets victory. After all, she currently holds two of the Grand Slam trophies at the moment and is unlikely to even give a bit of ground at this early juncture.
However, Williams knows better than to take Barty lightly, heaping high praise on her upcoming opponent ahead of their encounter, per Leo Schlink of the Herald Sun:
She's extremely talented. She moves well. She plays well. She serves well. She has good returns. I saw her play a little bit at Brisbane. I was actually super impressed with her game. I thought she was a really, really great player...I think it will be a great opportunity for us both. I take every match as it comes and see how it goes. I try not to put too much pressure on myself.
Even with that respect, it is important to note that Barty's success in her very young career has come in doubles. While that has helped her develop diversity in her arsenal of shots, it has not quite prepared her to go toe-to-toe with a player of Williams' caliber.
There should be several entertaining points given Barty's precocious all-around skill set, but the power of Williams' groundstrokes and serve will be far too much to handle.
Prediction: Williams wins; 6-3, 6-2
Lukas Lacko vs. No. 2 Novak Djokovic
With a third-round appearance under his belt from 2012, the 96th-ranked Lacko isn't the biggest pushover as far as opening matches go for the Serbinator.
However, Djokovic should be able to handle this tuneup with relative ease and display his authoritative prowess and combination of fitness and power that is unparalleled when he is on his top game.
This match may be one-sided, but it will feature as one of the nighttime battles and will commence Djokovic's quest to capture the trophy for a fourth consecutive year and for the fifth time overall.
It will be interesting to see how Djokovic comes out of the gates, especially now that he's chasing Rafael Nadal for the top spot in the rankings after it looked like he'd reign supreme in the first portion of the 2013 campaign.
Djokovic's return game will diminish any potential advantage Lacko has in service games, and it should lead to some early breaks and set the tone for the remainder of the match.
Prediction: Djokovic wins; 6-1, 6-0, 6-2
Venus Williams vs. No. 22 Ekaterina Makarova
The hard court is Makarova's undoubted surface of preference, since she's made the quarterfinals in Melbourne the past two years and just did the same at the 2013 U.S. Open.
Williams is approaching the end of her prolific playing days, but she did just finish runner-up at the ASB Classic, losing in the final to Ana Ivanovic after battling back to win the second set in that showdown.
This might be the most intriguing match of the day given Williams' history as a seven-time Grand Slam champion and Makarova's recent prowess. Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times felt the clash was worthy of being scheduled on one of the more notable courts at Melbourne Park:
Consecutive straight-set losses in the quarterfinals to Maria Sharapova will continue to drive Makarova and should not lead to her suffering enough of a letdown to let the competitive Williams advance.
This should be a match that goes the distance, though, because going out in the first round at the Australian Open is something Williams has done just once in her career.
Unfortunately, falling to Makarova in a three-set thriller will mark the second time Williams bows out at this stage.
Prediction: Makarova wins; 6-4, 5-7, 6-3
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