by: Ben Stevens
Congratulations, tennis fans. After a lean two months of on-court action, during which we’ve had to subsist on old youtube clips, dribs and drabs on social media, and pretending to care about the IPTL, we’ve finally made it through the desert – Grand Slam tennis is back, baby.
It’s one of the great things about professional tennis that unlike most other professional sports, a new season starts with very little preamble before we get to a truly meaningful event. A player’s year – or even career – can be defined by what they’ve accomplished come the end of January, and that means from day 1 of the Australian Open, there’s plenty of excitement to go around.
Of course, we’re still a few days away from any big names squaring off against each other, but the beauty of the early rounds is that gems can be unearthed anywhere, giving us a chance to explore outside the limelight. Therefore, without further ado, here are three matches worth watching on day 1 of the Australian Open.
Ryan Harrison (USA) v Nicolas Mahut (FRA) – 1st on Court 15
Whatever it is about the first round at the Australian Open, every year there’s a least one epic five-setter on the outside courts that doesn’t get enough attention. In 2016 it was a 13-11 finish between Jeremy Chardy and Ernests Gulbis, 2015 a 10-8 decider between Feliciano Lopez and Dennis Kudla, 2014 a 16-14 nailbiter between Gilles Simon and Daniel Brands … you get the idea. This year, it might just be these two. No longer burdened by the “future of American tennis” tag, Harrison has started to settle into life on the ATP tour, with his dogged defense and massive serve making him a tough out for any player – case-in-point, his hard-fought loss to eventual champion Jack Sock last week in Auckland. Against the veteran Mahut you’ve got an intriguing contrast in styles, as the Frenchman will be given plenty of opportunity to hit through the court with his old school, flat groundstrokes, but in-turn give Harrison plenty of chances to do what he does best, absorb pressure and scramble. Both men have to like their chances, and after all, Mahut is obviously no stranger to lengthy five-setters, so why not one more for the resume?
Roberta Vinci (ITA)  v Coco Vandeweghe (USA) – 3rd on Margaret Court Arena
2015 US Open finalist Vinci may come in 20 spots higher than Vandeweghe in the rankings, and yet she may not even be the favourite in their first-round matchup. The 25-year-old American was only four ranking spots away from a seed herself, and has every reason to feel confident having taken two of their three career meetings, the most recent of which was at Wimbledon last year. That match on the grass gave Vandeweghe plenty of opportunity to tee-off on Vinci’s shots, but the slower hard courts in Melbourne should bring the latter’s ability to move opponents around the court back into play. It’s set to be a real 50-50 proposition, and that’s exactly what you want in a round 1 match.
Marin Cilic (CRO)  v Jerzy Janowicz (POL) – 3rd on Show Court 2
Perhaps no match of the first round offers the sheer popcorn value of this one. It could play out as a high-action blockbuster… or it could be a tragicomedy. Cilic and Janowicz are two of the most naturally gifted guys on tour, and yet while they’re both capable of playing some seriously high-octane tennis, there’s also room for the occasional headscratcher, making this match more ripe for an upset than you’d think. By no means is it guaranteed to be a nail-biter, but with the weapons these guys possess it doesn’t have to be. It could last 4 hours or 40 minutes, either way it’s sure to be a blast.