Before each day's play Down Under, we'll preview and predict three must-see matches.
Sloane Stephens vs. Shaui Zhang
If you’re looking to get a glimpse of the reigning US Open women’s champion, you might want to tune in early. Stephens is up first in Margaret Court Arena against Zhang, and judging by her recent form, she might not be around for long. Since her title run at Flushing Meadows, the American is 0-5, and in those five defeats she has won a total of 19 games and no sets. In her lone match of 2018, Sloane lost to Camila Giorgi 6-3, 6-0.
Of course, after her 900-spot rise in the rankings last summer, we know how quickly Stephens can turn things around, and she does have a 2-1 head-to-head record against the 35th-ranked Zhang. But the 28-year-old from China isn’t an ideal opponent for someone who is trying to find her form. Zhang is a quality player who reached the quarterfinals in Melbourne in 2016 and nearly knocked off top seed Karolina Pliskova at the US Open last summer. Winner: Zhang
It has been some time since a 37-year-old came in as the favorite, or the near favorite, at a Grand Slam. In light of that, you might think the draw gods could have given Venus an easier way to begin her two-week campaign for her first title in Melbourne. Instead, they’ve put her across from a 20-year-old who, before injuries sidelined her in 2016 and 2017, had cracked the Top 10 and was being hailed as a future No. 1.
Still, Venus has seen future stars come and future stars go, and she has never had any trouble with Bencic in the past. In their four meetings, Venus has yet to drop a set. Rather than competing on level terms in those matches, the young Swiss has appeared to be in awe of Venus, who reached her first Grand Slam final in 1997, when Bencic was all of six months old. Is Bencic ready to look on Venus as an opponent like any other opponent, rather than as an idol? If so, this should be a good one. Winner: Williams
If Nadal had been given his choice of first-round opponents, he couldn’t have done much better than Estrella Burgos. The Dominican is a fiery competitor who can play inspired tennis, but he’s also 37, he’s ranked 81st, he has spent much of the last year on the Challenger circuit, and his one match so far 2018 resulted in a 6-0, 6-2 loss to Richard Gasquet in Doha. Most troubling of all for Estrella Burgos, he’s just 5’7”, and he has a one-handed backhand. That height and that shot are generally not a winning combination against Nadal’s topspin forehand.
Estrella Burgos will be facing Rafa for the first time, in a night match in Rod Laver Arena. He probably won’t be overawed by the moment, and he might even inject some emotion and excitement into the evening, but even a rusty Rafa will a heavy favorite. Winner: Nadal