Tennis may be ultimate “What have you done for me lately?” sport. You can never rest on your laurels, no matter how great you are. We have abundant proof of that once again at the Australian Open. What did Roger Federer get in his return to Melbourne after that stunning, world-riveting performance in 2017? A nightmare draw, that’s what. He has Novak Djokovic in his (bottom) half, along with a slew of big hitters led by No. 4 Alexander Zverev and Juan Martin del Potro.
Serena Williams isn’t present to defend her title, but her opponent in the title match is back. That’s Serena’s sister, Venus. She potentially has as harrowing a path as Federer. Our advice to Roger and Venus: “Don’t look back.” Here are three of the most intriguing Day 1 matchups as the new Grand Slam year gets underway:
So what’s to worry about, Venus fans? Just look at those rankings. Besides, Bencic hasn’t even taken a set from Williams, never mind a match. Yes, but Bencic, once tabbed as a future No. 1 and perhaps the next Martina Hingis (and not just because both are Swiss), has been plagued by injuries on and off for the past two years.
Bencic is still just 20. She’s a former No. 1 junior who won French and Wimbledon singles titles before making her way to the main draw. She seems to be returning to the form that carried her into the top 10 two years ago. She won 10 straight matches (and two $125K WTA titles) to end 2017 and three of the four matches she played in her only warm-up event for this tournament, the Hopman Cup exhibition, where she partnered with Federer to clinch the win for the Swiss.
Venus, by contrast, has played just once since the trophy match at the WTA Finals, and that was a loss against No. 22 Angelique Kerber last week in Sydney. At age 37, Venus certainly needs to pick her spots, but this is the dangerous place where the rubber of competition meets the road of age.
Venus will need to dial in her serve and most aggressive, smothering A-game quickly if she hopes to stop the resurgent Bencic’s momentum. The Swiss hits a very clean, nearly flat ball, expertly changes the direction of rallies and hits her down-the-line backhand fearlessly.
This match between two of the most promising under-20 players on the tour may be a preview of a rivalry that will define tennis in the coming decade. Both players are that good. Tsitsipas is a former junior No. 1, but he never did win a junior Grand Slam title. He partly has Shapovalov to thank for that, as the Canadian tagged Tsitsipas in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and the semifinals at Wimbledon.
Shapovalov became a sensation last summer when he sliced up Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal on his way to the semifinals at the Montreal Masters. A lefty with a one-handed backhand, the 18-year-old 6-footer plays an electric, crowd-pleasing game based on bold shot-making.
At 6-foot-4, Tsitsipas may be even more explosive. He’s got a booming serve delivered with a smooth motion. He hits a big ball off both wings. Like Shapovalov, he hits a one-handed backhand. Incidentally, Tsitsipas shares an Aug. 12 birthday with another player of Greek heritage whom you might have heard of: Pete Sampras.
This promises to be riveting shootout — and a look at the future of men’s tennis.
No. 13 seed Sloane Stephens vs. No. 35 Shuai Zheng (Stephens leads series, 2-1)
It’s time for Stephens to stop the bleeding. She hasn’t won a match since she won the US Open back in early September, taking five consecutive losses — the last an ugly 6-3, 6-0 drubbing in Sydney last week at the hands of Camila Giorgi. But Stephens seems eager to return to top form. As she told reporters during media day Saturday: “I think personally I had a lot of things going on [late last year]. I’m not going to look back on it. It’s a new year, new season.”
The challenge for Stephens will be flipping whatever mental or emotional switch needs to be flicked to begin a turnaround. And she’ll have to do it against a 28-year-old veteran who turned in her best Grand Slam performance in Melbourne Park in 2016, using an upset of No. 2 Simona Halep as a springboard to the quarterfinals. The upside for Stephens: This is the tournament where she broke through, reaching the semifinals via an upset of Serena in 2013.
Stephens plays a coy, wait-and-see game at the best of times. When she’s not eager to take advantage of opportunities to counterpunch and attack, her passive game is easily contained. She needs to find motivation, and quickly, if she hopes to survive against this experienced, diligent baseliner.
Ferrer, a 35-year-old, two-time Australian Open semifinalist, has the experience to exploit the impatience and impetuosity of this rising young star.