The Australian Open organizers decided to make a bigger deal of the draw ceremony this year – staging it on Thursday night in Margaret Court Area.
That alone might not have been enough to attract a crowd but the fact that Roger Federer, a five-time champion, and Maria Sharapova, winner in 2008, would also participate insured lots of interest in the arena and for the live broadcast on Channel Seven.
In the picture above Federer is being interviewed by Channel Seven personality Hamish McLachlan but he didn’t stay around to see the actual draw. He claimed that he gets a bit “freaked out” knowing about it.
There certainly are a number of fascinating match-ups and potential match-ups in both draws – Venus Williams vs. recent Hopman Cup champion (with Federer) Belinda Bencic stands out among the women while 19-year-old Aussie sensation Alex de Minaur (he beat Milos Raonic in Brisbane and is the Sydney semifinals this week) vs. Tomas Berdych is a big marquee showdown among the men for the locals.
But here we’ll concentrate on the Canadian players – Raonic, Denis Shapovalov and Genie Bouchard – and they have some testing and intriguing match-ups in the early going.
Right off the top Shapovalov takes on former junior rival – he defeated him 4-6, 7-6(5), 6-2 in the semifinalx on his way to the 2016 Wimbledon Boys title – Stefanos Tsitsipas. The 6-foot-4, 19-year-old Greek is eight months older. He made a no. 210 to no. 80 leap on the ATP rankings in 2017 – comparable to Shapovalov’s no. 250 to no. 51.
While Shapovalov made headlines with his sensational performances at the Rogers Cup in Montreal and at the U.S. Open last year, Tsitsipas (pictured above with an older fan during last year’s Aussie Open qualifying) had his breakthrough later in the year when he qualified at the ATP 250 event in Antwerp in October and then defeated no. 33 Pablo Cuevas, no. 51 Ivo Karlovic, and no. 10 David Goffin before losing in the semifinals to no. 26 Diego Schwartzman.
After drawing an in-form Kyle Edmund for his first match in Brisbane and then Juan Martin del Potro for his second match in Auckland, Shapovalov faces a tricky opponent because Tsitsipas is also on the way up and, like himself, may well now be playing better than his ranking.
It’s definitely a popcorn match – a connoisseur’s delight – in the first round of a Grand Slam event. And it’s a matchup that sooner than later could be taking place in the later stages of these major tournaments.
Raonic, seeded no. 22, takes on no. 90-ranked Lukas Lacko in his first round match. In their only previous meeting, Raonic prevailed over the 30-year-old Lacko 6-3, 6-3 on hard courts in Tokyo in 2013.
He enters the Australian Open short on match play. After exiting the Rogers Cup in early August with a left wrist problem that required a surgical procedure, he only played one complete match in Tokyo in October – when the wrist still seemed to be an issue because he only hit one-handed backhands but still beat Viktor Troicki 6-3, 6-4 – for the rest of 2017. In his only match in 2018, he fell victim in Brisbane to the inspired play of the high-flying de Minaur.
Raonic did play the Tiebreak Tennis exo in Melbourne on Wednesday night – defeating Dominic Thiem 10-7 and then losing 11-9 to eventual winner Berdych.
In effect, he enters the Australian Open very much like he entered Wimbledon last July after losing to Thanasi Kokkinakis in his only grass-court match before the Big W. Then he went on to get through four rounds at the All England Club before losing to Federer in the quarter-finals.
Looking down the road at this year’s Aussie Open, Raonic could play no. 13 seed Sam Querrey in the third round and defending champion Federer in the round-of-16.
As for Bouchard in the women’s draw where she will play no. 87-ranked Oceane Dodin of France in her opener, it could be a case of the calm before the storm. The 6-foot Dodin, 21, has been suffering from a vertigo problem and has not played since losing at the National Bank Cup in Quebec City last September, a tournament she had won the year before.
Dodin only arrived in Melbourne on Tuesday and certainly won’t be battle-tested when she faces Bouchard. Although 0-4 in matches in 2018, Bouchard did pull off an exo win at Kooyong on Thursday – 6-2, 6-0 over jaded 17-year-old Aussie Destanee Aiava.
If Bouchard gets past Dodin, the storm will likely hit in the form of No. 1 seed Simona Halep in the second round.
It was not exactly pretty but Francoise Abanda, seeded No. 10, made it through her first round of qualifying on Thursday – defeating Lu Jia-Jing of China 6-4, 6-3 in 66 minutes. Both players were far from their best – Abanda hit four double faults and didn’t serve well but she was much bigger off the ground and dominated rallies with the 28-year-old, no. 231-ranked Lu. The winners to unforced errors ratio for the two players were Abanda 13/14 and Lu 16/36.
“I’m satisfied for a first match of the year,” Abanda said afterward. “It was okay, also the conditions were very hot. I didn’t know my opponent at all. I know she was ranked about 200. So I just tried to show up ready and play solid.”
Asked about arriving in Melbourne with no match play so far in 2018, the 20-year-old from Montreal replied, “I’ve been playing tennis for quite a while. I wasn’t worried. I know how to play tennis. But it’s true that without matches you really don’t know what to expect.”
On the subject of facing 23-year-old Anna Karolina Schmiedlova of Slovakia in Friday’s second round, Abanda said, “I played her once in Repentigny (the Canadian Junior International before the U.S. Open) and I won. I know she was ranked really high (no. 26 in 2015) and then she struggled a bit. (After ending 2016 at no. 227, the 5-foot-9 Slovak is up to no. 138.) She’s a tough opponent, a good player who you don’t want to take lightly because she can play at a really high level.”
Things didn’t turn out so well for Carol Zhao of Richmond Hill, Ont., and Bianca Andreescu from Mississauga, Ont.
Zhao, playing in her first Grand Slam qualifying, was beaten 6-3, 6-0 by Denisa Allertova.
There were two junctures when it seemed like Zhao could get herself back into the match after trailing 3-0 and 4-1 in the opening set. She got back to 4-3 and the no. 131-ranked Allertova looked as if she might be wilting a bit in the hot morning sun. Younger (at 22) and probably fitter, Zhao had a chance but too many unforced errors crept into her game and Allertova regained control.
The ‘wear out Allertova’ scenario also existed into the second set but Zhao double-faulted at 30-all in the very first game and things just got worse from there. The 24-year-old Czech, a bigger hitter than Zhao, capitalized on her opponent’s unforced errors to finish off the match in 58 minutes.
Courtside coaching is permitted in the Australian Open qualies and Canadian Fed Cup captain Sylvain Bruneau can be seen above talking to Zhao at the end of the first set.
“I was disappointed in the result but I think there were some positives that I can take away from the match for myself personally in terms of what I’ve been working on,” Zhao said. “Obviously when you’re here you want to be more competitive and you want to show that you have a lot more to offer. I thought she played really well today and it was a tough match.
“I felt as the match progressed I was sinking my teeth into it more and I could see holes that potentially, if I stayed on her, I could break her down. I didn’t serve well enough. I definitely need to serve better at this level and be more effective.”
As for Andreescu, her salmon-coloured Nike outfit looked terrific but her tennis failed her on the day she was well below par and was beaten 6-1, 6-1 by Alexandra Dulgheru of Romania. The winners to unforced errors stat told the tale – Andreescu was 15/33 while her 29-year-old opponent was 13/7.
“It’s a disappointing loss,” said Canadian Fed Cup captain Sylvain Bruneau. “Bianca seemed a little lost – like she didn’t have her bearings… and her game-plan wasn’t clear.
“She was hitting too short and she made too many unforced errors in the match. She’s a really talented player and is capable of doing lots of things out there. Maybe that’s the problem, her choices have to become much clearer – what to do on what kind of shot. At the moment she’s lacking direction in her matches. I saw that in the fall as well, so we’ll have to look into it.”
On Friday, four Canadians play in the second round of qualifying:
Abanda v Schmiedlova: The 23-year-old Slovak can have shaky confidence but to take advantage of that Abanda will have to up her level from a very ordinary performance against the no. 160-ranked Lu on Thursday.
Vasek Pospisil v Stefano Napolitano. The 6-foot-5 Italian lost to American Reilly Opelka in the last round of qualifying a year ago and will be pumped to do better this year. At no. 108 Pospisil is ranked much higher than the no. 217 Napolitano and hopes to return to the Australian Open main draw for the first time since 2016.
Peter Polansky v Christian Harrison: The no. 250-ranked American, 23, is playing in his first Australian Open qualifying or main draw. Polansky, 29 and ranked no. 139, starts out with a big experience advantage as he takes part in the 32nd Grand Slam qualifying event of his career.
Frank Dancevic v Duckhee Lee. The 19-year-old Lee, who is deaf, came close to qualifying a year ago at Melbourne Park before he lost 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 to Alexander Bublik of Russia in the final round. The wily Dancevic, 33, came on strong in his opening round against Adrian Menendez-Maceiras of Spain and will have to rekindle that form against the South Korean to have a chance to qualify at the Australian Open for a fourth time.
These little munchkins were in the stands during the Carol Zhao – Denisa Allertova match but didn’t actually pay any attention to what was going on out on the court. But they were willing to pose for this picture after the match.