The Australian Open is finally upon us, and forgive me if you’ve heard this one before – it comes at a strange time for professional tennis. Between Serena, Rafa, Nole, Murray, Vika, Nishikori, Muguruza, Wawrinka and Bernard Tomic (okay, maybe not that last one), the 2018 AO is set to begin with many of its stars either not present, or under a cloud of uncertainty which even by recent standards, sets us up for a particularly wide open tournament.
For a sport that feeds off the repeated success of a few individuals, perhaps that’s not ideal, but there’s certainly beauty to be found in the chaos. This is when the next generation is made, and/or when those that never quite got their turn finally have a chance to break through – in either case, it doesn’t matter whether you’re watching a match on centre, or the most obscure of outside courts, you could be looking at what turns out to be the story of the tournament.
Each day in this space, you’ll find three matches that for one reason or another – it could be a particularly competitive matchup, some sort of greater intrigue, or simply its sheer entertainment factor – that should make it worth your time. Without further ado, here’s your three to see for Day 1 of the 2018 Australian Open.
Sloane Stephens (USA)  v Shuai Zhang (CHN) – 1st on Margaret Court Arena
Coming into this tournament with a (championship) hangover of Charlie Sheen-ian proportions, things aren’t set to get any easier for US Open winner Sloane Stephens. Since triumphing in New York Stephens has lost six-straight, with an additional retirement due to a knee injury sustained during the 2017 Elite Trophy – all of which is to say she could hardly be riding lower against an opponent who took three late-season titles, and has beaten her previously. If Stephens is to come through this test, she has to be able to frustrate Zhuai’s attempts to push the tempo, and while that’s something she can certainly do at her counter-punching best, whether that’s possible in her current form is a question that makes this prime upset material.
Venus Williams (USA)  v Belinda Bencic (SUI) – 2nd on Rod Laver Arena
After falling to Serena in the first round here last year, the tennis gods have seen fit to prescribe Belinda Bencic another dose of the Williams Sisters treatment, this time at the hands of Venus. Just like in 2017, Bencic comes in with many giving her an outside chance, if more off the back of the player she was when she reached world no 7 as an 18-year-old, than the player she is now at the ripe old age of 20. Still, Bencic is definitely dangerous, and knows how to take the fight to power hitters should Venus give her the chance. If Venus is to make the final again in 2018, she’d do well to send a message in this one.
Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE) v Denis Shapovalov (CAN) – 3rd on Show Court 2
If you’ve got a thing for one-handed backhands and easily mispronounced names, boy is this the match for you. Two of only three teenagers in the top 100 (Frances Tiafoe is the other), Shapovalov and Tsitsipas look like some of the best bets for the future of men’s tennis, and it will be fascinating to see how the former’s pure shotmaking matches up against the latter’s all-court style in this first career meeting. With a 30-place ranking advantage you’d have to give Shapovalov the edge, but Tsitsipas has already made waves this year with a run to the quarterfinals in Doha, which is sure to give him plenty of confidence. Whoever wins, hopefully it’s the start of a magnificent rivalry.