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By Chris Oddo | Thursday January 11, 2018

With the release of the Australian Open draw on Thursday (see full draw ceremony above), we turn our attention to first-round action, which begins on Monday in Melbourne. Here are five first-round matchups that we’re dying to see.

1. Belinda Bencic vs. Venus Williams

Venus Williams returned to the Australian Open final for the first time since 2003 last year and she would have become the tournament’s oldest champion in history had it not been for her sister Serena defeating her in the final. This year, Williams will have to endure a very tricky first-round matchup with 20-year-old Swiss Belinda Bencic. Resurgent Bencic had her 18-match winning streak snapped by Angelique Kerber at Hopman Cup, but the former World No.7 is finally fit and in form after a long run of injuries in 2017. But don’t feel sorry for Williams. The World No.5 is back in the Top 5 and looking like a true threat to win the title at 37 years of age. This might be a tricky draw for the American, but it’s even tougher for Bencic who owns a 0-4 lifetime record against Williams.

2. Denis Shapovalov vs. Stefanos Tsitsipas

Want to see two immensely talented teenagers go head-to-head for Grand Slam glory? So do we, and we shall. World No.50 Denis Shapovalov turned the tennis world on its hear last summer when he became the youngest player to ever reach a Masters 1000 semifinal in Montreal in August, and he backed that performance up by becoming the youngest player to reach the second week of the US Open since 1989. What does the Canadian have planned to top those amazing feats in 2018? He’ll have to be on top of his game, because he’s going up against another rising star in Stefanos Tsitsipas from Greece. Tsitsipas is a former junior No.1 and at No.80 in the world he’s the highest-ranked player to ever come from Greece.

The pressure will be on Shapovalov to defend his turf as the game's premier teenager in this match and it will be interesting to see how the Canadian handles it.

3. Andrey Rublev vs. David Ferrer

Russia’s Andrey Rublev has been making a name for himself over the last year. The 20-year-old is seeded at a major for the first time in Melbourne and he reached the Doha final in the first week of the season, proving that his trip to the U.S. Open quarterfinals last year was no fluke. But the lean, scrappy powerhouse from Moscow will face a big challenge at Melbourne this year when he faces 35 year old World No.38 David Ferrer.

Both Ferrer and Rublev play a punishing style predicated on fitness, and even though Ferrer is past his prime, he’s demonstrated fantastic form thus far this season at Auckland. The Spaniard has looked very strong in reachin the semis at Auckland and he'll take on Juan Martin del Potro tonight. Will the legendary Spaniard, one of just four active ATP players with over 700 wins to his name, be able to keep the rising Rublev at bay in Melbourne? Or will it be the Russian who makes another strong statement and takes out the living legend?

4. Sloane Stephens vs. Zhang Shuai

It's no secret that Stephens has not won a match since she claimed the U.S. Open title in September. Well here is here chance to show that she's a big-match player whether she's in form or not. Meanwhile China's Zhang is a late-bloomer who has learned over the past few seasons how to win matches on the Grand Slam stage. Stephens has won two of three against Zhang, but the Chinese took their last meeting and they have not met since 2014.

This should be a really tough challenge for Stephens. Zhang is a committed athlete who has played the best tennis of her career over the last two seasons. She'll be gunning for the U.S. Open champion from first ball to last.

5. Alex de Minaur vs. Tomas Berdych

Teen sensation de Minaur will ride into Melbourne with a ton of confidence after reaching back-to-back semifinals at Brisbane and Sydney. Due to play Benoit Paire in the semis tonight, the 18-year-old could do even more damage before he hits Melbourne. He'll have the crowd behind him and Berdych will be tasked with keeping him at bay. The Czech certainly has the firepower to do it, but he'll have to execute, block out the crowd, and play ruthless tennis.

6. Novak Djokovic vs. Donald Young

Novak Djokovic will face America’s Donald Young in his first match since Wimbledon 2017. The Serb owns a 2-0 lifetime edge over Young but the American has the advantage of being the more in-rhythm player. It could be a tricky encounter for Djokovic because he surely wants to get off on the right foot with a fairly simple victory to begin his season. But has he knocked enough rust off his game to be in line for a straightforward win? There will be pressure for Djokovic to face as all eyes will be on him as he begins his comeback bid.


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