Australian Open 2014: Early-Round Opponents That Could Cause Problems for Stars

Rob Goldberg@TheRobGoldbergFeatured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2014

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 09:  Rafael Nadal of Spain serves during his training session ahead of the 2014 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 9, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
Michael Dodge/Getty Images

When the draws for any major tournament come out, fans dream about the late-round possibilities. However, there are some early-round matchups at the 2014 Australian Open that could be interesting as well.

Before we can have our projected final of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, however, these stars and others have to sidestep a few landmines that could end their tournament early. We all remember Nadal going down in the first round to Steve Darcis last year at Wimbledon.

All the top competitors have a potentially tough challenge ahead of them before they even reach the quarterfinals. Here is a look at the biggest tests set for the preliminary rounds.

 

No. 1 Rafael Nadal vs. No. 25 Gael Monfils

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 14:  Gael Monfils of France plays a backhand in his first round match against Ryan Harrison of the United States during day two of the 2014 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 14, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Pho
Michael Dodge/Getty Images

Nadal's first-round match against Bernard Tomic was supposed to be one of the best of the opening rounds, but an injury forced an early exit:

As Nick Nemeroff of Tennis View Mag points out, things only get easier for the No. 1 seed:

However, the tournament will take a sharp turn immediately after that. If seeds hold up, Nadal will be forced to face Gael Monfils in the third round. This is someone no top seed hopes to see across the court.

Monfils battled his way to the finals at Doha to start the year, including a win over Richard Gasquet. Although he lost to Nadal in the championship, he won a set and sent a message that he will be tough to beat. Additionally, the French star defeated Nadal the last time they competed in 2012.

Although Monfils can be a bit inconsistent, his best is as good as almost anyone in the world. This is a scary thought for the top-seeded Nadal this early in the tournament.

 

No. 1 Serena Williams vs. No. 17 Samantha Stosur

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 11:  Samantha Stosur (R) of Australia celebrates with the championship trophy alongside Serena Williams (L) of the United States  who poses with the second place trophy after their Women's Singles Final match on Day Fourteen of th
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

According to the seeds, Ana Ivanovic would be a tougher matchup in Round 4 for Serena Williams. However, Samantha Stosur is the one she should be afraid of facing.

The 29-year-old defeated Williams in the finals of the 2011 U.S. Open, so she knows she is capable of winning when the pressure is on. While many times the top seed is able to dominate through intimidation, that will not be a factor in this one.

Meanwhile, the Australian should get a nice boost from the home crowd despite the fact she has never advanced to the quarterfinals at this event. Her expectations remain high, though, as she told Matt Cronin of Tennis.com:

I want to try to play well and play my best tennis here in Australia and give them all something to cheer about. This time around I feel fine. [But] because I'm seeded 17 this year instead of 8 or 9, whatever I was last year, certainly doesn't lower my expectations of what I think I'm going to be capable of doing.

With the confidence to win and the experience to back it up, Stosur can be able to attack Williams on the court and put her in a defensive position. This will be necessary to win, and it could be the only thing that causes the American problems in the first few rounds.

 

No. 2 Novak Djokovic vs. No. 23 Ernests Gulbis

INDIAN WELLS, CA - MARCH 15:  Novak Djokovic of Serbia returns a backhand to Ernests Gulbis of Latvia during the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 15, 2011 in Indian Wells, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

For Ernests Gulbis to even face Djokovic, it will be an uphill battle. Unranked American Sam Querrey has plenty of talent that could lead to a deep run and could beat the Latvian in the second round. If he survives, Gulbis would have to upset Fabio Fognini in Round 3.

However, the 25-year-old player is the person who matches up the best against the No. 2 seed.

Gulbis has a strong serve that is also accurate enough to cause problems for even the best defenders. If he can have a great match where his first-serve percentage is around 70 percent, it would make him almost impossible to break.

Additionally, he has had success at a high level in the past with four tournament titles, plus an early win over Djokovic in 2009. This should give him confidence if he were forced to face the three-time defending champion at the Australian Open.

While it would not be an easy win, Gulbis has the ability necessary to pull off the upset or simply make things interesting in the fourth round. 

 

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