The opening Grand Slam of the year always provides plenty of surprises with some players having taken an extended winter break and just returning to the courts but the weather looks set to play havoc during the opening round.
The challenge of the Australian Open is historically weather related with Melbourne as likely to be drenched in rain as it is in sun. Over the last week however the conditions have been dry and cold, the temperature rarely exceeding the high teens. This has made for a comfortable practicing environment for the players but all that looks set to change on the opening day of the Open.
Temperatures are expected to soar into the mid thirties on Monday and provide the stifling heat that has made Melbourne such a challenging place to play. The opening day will see some very interesting matches in the first Grand Slam of the season with ladies third seed, Victoria Azarenka, first on the Rod Laver Arena to play Heather Watson. The Australian Open debutant is ranked just outside the top 100 in the world but this match could offer a challenge to Azarenka.
The Belarusian should have more than enough to make it through in straight sets but this isn’t the comfortable opening match that many leading contenders look for. Watson has a decent first serve and can play well from the baseline and should provide a good indicator of Azarenka’s form in Melbourne.
The home crowd will then have the chance to cheer on Bernard Tomic when the lanky Australian takes on former semi-finalist Fernando Verdasco. Tomic, a quarter finalist at Wimbledon, will provide a stern test for the 22nd seeded Verdasco with his passive approach to the game sure to frustrate his Spanish opponent.
This match looks set to the be the highlight of the opening day before defending ladies champion, Kim Clijsters, plays Portuguese qualifier Maria Joao Koehler. Clijsters has been blighted by a hip injury for the past six months but the Belgian should coast through this match as she finds her feet and her form.
The evening matches on Laver will also see two players eager to show that they have put their injuries behind them. Roger Federer, the five times champion, has been restricted by a back injury recently but the draw has handed the Swiss star an easy opening match against Alexander Kudryavtseva. The Russian qualifier is ranked 172nd in the world and having made his Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon last year this should be a very routine opener for Federer.
Caroline Wozniacki is once more the ladies top seed but the Dane has seen her preparations hampered by a wrist injury. She claims to be fully fit but it will only be after her opening match, against Melbourne native, Anastasia Rodionova, that a clear picture will emerge of Wozniacki’s health. Rodionova, a Russian born Australian, is more of a doubles specialist but has developed into a solid singles player, albeit one that should offer little challenge to Wozniacki.
The other show courts see Juan Martin del Potro start his campaign against Adrian Mannarino. Del Potro has been plagued by injuries in recent years but if the former US Open champion is fully fit he is one of the few players capable of beating the leading men.
Last year Li Na stole the hearts of the Melbourne crowd after a finishing runner-up to Clijsters. The Chinese player now has the pressure of recreating her strong opening to 2011 that also saw her claim the French Open crown. Li will open her campaign in the Hisense Arena against Ksenia Pervak. The Kazakhstani has only made it through the opening round once in a major but the world number 40 has the ability to provide Li with a hard workout. It is unlikely that Rafa Nadal will be provided with workout by his opponent Alex Kuznetsov but the second seed has been niggled by a shoulder injury recently. Nadal needs a strong tournament and a comfortable opening match could give him the confidence boost that he needs following a trying 2011 campaign.
The Margaret Court Arena sees an intriguing matchup of Laura Robson and Jelena Jankovic. Robson, a former Wimbledon junior champion, was impressive during qualifiers but has struggled to adapt to the seniors game. This match however could be her “coming out party” with Jankovic a shadow of the player she was in the past.
The former world number one has struggled in recent years and has clearly lost the confidence that once made her such a dangerous player. For Robson this could be an opportunity for an upset against the 13th seeded Serbian.
Other interesting matches on the opening day include Bethanie Mattek-Sands against the eighth seeded Pole, Agnieszka Radwanska. Mardy Fish, the American number one, also gets his campaign underway today against Gilles Muller, a former US Open quarter-finalist. The 25th seed, Juan Monaco, could be the first seed to fall out of the tournament with the Argentine likely to have a challenging game against Philipp Kohlschreiber.