The first round of a Grand Slam is often the most exciting, with sixty-four matches to be played, there is always scope for shocks, new names rising to the occasion, or an veteran rolling back the years to re-awaken past glories. I preview some interesting matches that could perhaps go under the radar, others that could provide potential shocks, and the matches that many will naturally be drawn to in the opening round.
10. Pierre-Hugues Herbert vs Pablo Andujar: So neither of these two players are seeded. So what? Andujar is ranked 59th compared to Herbert’s 167th. That in itself is enough to make this match interesting. Andujar has a shocking record on hard-courts recently, winning just two matches on the surface in 2015 (excluding Davis Cup). He beat 251st-ranked Frank Dancevic and a Jarkko Nieminen well on the way to retirement. It is worth mentioning that he lost in the first round last year to Marius Copil, who was ranked 194th, and that is a lower ranking than Herbert currently possesses. Herbert is also in fine form, having had to defeat Gastao Elias and Edouard Roger-Vasselin in qualifying. Pick: Herbert in straight sets.
9. Julien Benneteau vs Nicolas Almagro: In previous years at a grand slam this match-up would not have taken place in the first round, and odds are that in a draw these men would both have a bracket with a number next to their names indicating a seeding. But those days are gone for both. They have struggled with injury. For Almagro, a nasty foot injury curtailed most of his 2014 and he has yet to rescale the heights that took him to a top-ten ranking. Benneteau missed all of 2015 post Indian Wells. Almagro at least most of 2015 even if his form was not great, and this event two years ago brought his best-ever run at a grand slam, when he served for a place in the semi-finals against David Ferrer. Benneteau played a Challenger event last week, and was well off the pace in a defeat to Alejandro Falla, where he picked up just three games. Pick: Almagro in straight sets.
8. Martin Klizan vs Roberto Bautista-Agut (24): Bautista-Agut will be cursing his luck to have been drawn against Klizan because this meeting is fraught with danger. These two have never met at a grand slam before, but have played each other five times (three times at ATP events and twice further down the ranks of professional tennis). The problem for Baustista-Agut is that though owning a 4-1 lead in all meetings, he has only been able to win in straight sets once. Matches involving players like Klizan are always about the day, and whilst he probably does not boast the upset potential that the likes of Ernests Gulbis or Marcos Baghdatis have claimed in the past, the Slovakian left-hander will be hard to defeat. Bautista-Agut is in fine form though, picking up the Auckland title, and will hope to carry that form into the the first slam of the year. Pick: Bautista-Agut in five sets.
7. Noah Rubin vs Benoit Paire (17): This is one for the romantics of shocks out there but this match is undoubtedly an interesting one. Rubin is one of the lowest-ranked players in the draw, by virtue of his winning the USTA Challenger competition that yielded an Australian Open wildcard to the American who performed best over three Challengers towards the end of last season. An in-form Benoit Paire is one who can defeat the very best, as Kei Nishikori, Gael Monfils, Nick Kyrgios, and Grigor Dimitrov will all testify, having lost to the Frenchman in 2015. He may have improved his ranking considerably over 2015, in fact he lost in the first round of qualifying in Melbourne last year. But his year was still punctuated by losses to the likes of Tim Puetz and Marco Chuidinelli. A lot will depend on which version of Paire will show up. Rubin has not had a lot of experience at this level, and this is in fact just his second appearance in the main draw of a slam, and his first at the Australian Open. Pick: Paire in four sets.
6. Dominic Thiem (19) vs Leonardo Mayer: Mayer is perhaps the most difficult draw for seeds in the first round. The Argentinian is a good server, at home more than most of his countrymen on hard-courts, and he reached his career high ranking of 21 just last year. Thiem is one of those youngsters on the rise, along with Borna Coric, Alexander Zverev and Nick Kyrgios. But there are times where Thiem still looks out of his league against experienced opponents, and is not immune to surprising defeats. They have played three times including a match in a qualfying draw, with Thiem leading 2-1. Thiem’s wins were both tight, whilst Mayer won comfortably in the other. Pick: Thiem in five sets.
Highlights of Thiem vs Mayer from the Nice ATP final in 2015.
Fabio Fognini beats Guido Pella in straight sets to reach the fourth round in Melbourne
Fabio Fognini beat Guido Pella 7-6 (7-0) 6-2 6-3 to reach the fourth round at the Australian Open in Melbourne. The Italian star converted five of his six break points to close out the match after 2 hours and nine minutes.
Fognini saved two break points in the first set with a forehand and a backhand and held his serve. The Italian star did not convert a break point in a long seventh game. Both players went on serve to set up a tie-break. Fognini did not drop a single point to cruise through to a 7-0 win.
In the second set Fognini earned a crucial break in the sixth game to take a 4-2 lead. He held his serve on the second deuce after saving a break point. The 2019 Monte-Carlo champion sealed the second set with another break with a forehand return winner.
Fognini earned a break lead in the fourth game of the decisive set. Pella broke straight back in the fifth game. Both traded breaks again in the sixth and seventh games. Fognini broke for the third time and converted his second match point with a serve up the T.
He is also the 12th player to come back from two sets down at all four Grand Slam tournaments.
With his five-set victories over Reilly Opelka and Jordan Thompson in the first two matches Fognini made history on Wednesday when the “Come-back king” became the first player to win back-to-back Australian Open matches in final set tie-breaks.
“I am so happy to be in the fourth round again in Australia. Now it’s time to recover. I played a really solid game against a really tough opponent. I am happy with the performance”, said Fognini.
Fognini set up a fourth round match against 2018 Australian Open quarter finalist Tennys Sandgren, who beat Sam Querrey 6-4 6-4 6-4 after 1 hour and 52 minutes. Sandgren fended off nine break points and converted just 2 of his 14 break point chances. Two years ago Sandgen beat Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem en route to reaching his first quarter final at a Grand Slam event.
Marin Cilic prevails over Roberto Bautista Agut in five-set thriller in Melbourne
Marin Cilic overcame Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut 6-7 (3-7) 6-4 6-0 5-7 6-3 after 4 hours and 10 minutes to score his first top 10 win since the 2018 US Open, when he beat David Goffin.
Cilic fought back from losing the first set at the tie-break, but he bounced back in the second set by breaking serve in the ninth game, when Bautista Agut made a forehand error. Cilic held on his serve to win the second set 6-4 to draw level to 1-1.
Cilic cruised through to a bagel win in the third set. The Croatian player got an early break in the fourth set to open up a 3-1 lead. Bautista Agut broke back in the sixth game to draw level to 3-3. Cilic did not convert a break point chance at 5-5. Bautista Agut earned the break at 6-5 to force the match to the fifth set.
Cilic broke serve in the opening game of the fifth set with a forehand winner, but he did not convert a break point at 4-2. He broke for the seventh time in the match in Bautista Agut’s next service game to clinch a thrilling win, as Bautista Agut fired a backhand into the net.
Cilic took a re-match against the Spanish player, who won their previous head-to-head clash at the 2019 Australian Open in five sets.
“I had an incredible patch. It was a surreal level. Every ball I was hitting was going in. It was coming off my raquet incredibly well. I knew Roberto would always fight and he pushed me all the way in the fourth set”, said Cilic.
Karen Khachanov edges Mikael Ymer in marathon match in Melbourne
Karen Khachanov battled past Mikael Ymer 6-2 2-6 6-4 3-6 7-6 (10-8) in a marathon match after 4 hours and 14 minutes.
Ymer broke serve twice in the second and fourth games of the fourth set to open up a 4-1 lead. Khachanov broke back in the seventh game, but Ymer broke for the third time to take the fourth set 6-3.
Khachanov broke serve in the sixth game to take a 4-2, but he was broken back in the next game.
Khachanov was not able to serve out the match at 5-3 in the fifth set before trailing 6-8 in the decisive match tie-break. Khachanov came back by winning four consecutive points to clinch a thrilling win.
Australia’s Alexei Popyrin beat Spain’s Jaume Munar 6-2 7-6 (7-5) 6-2 after 2 hours and 4 minutes setting up a third round match against Danil Medvedev. Popyrin broke twice in each of the first and third sets and saved all four break point chances.
Taylor Fritz came back from two sets down to beat Kevin Anderson 4-6 6-7 (5-7) 7-6 (7-4) 6-2 6-2. Anderson was leading by two sets and 4-2 in the third set, but Fritz broke back before winning the third set at the tie-break. Fritz cruised through the fourth and fifth sets. Fritz will face Dominic Thiem in the third round.
“That was huge for me. He played a really tough five setter just the other day and then obviously coming back. Going back to back five setters is going to be tougher for him than usual. I felt fresh, so I just told myself that I have to keep running”,said Fritz.
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