The draw gods for this year's Australian Open have handed down some of the most anticipated first-round matches in recent Grand Slam history. Here are three from the men's side you need to catch tonight.
(2) Roger Federer vs. Benoit Paire
Two of the most versatile players on tour clash in the third matchup on Laver today. Paire had a breakthrough 2012 season, reaching his first ATP final in Belgrade (l. to Seppi), advancing to the third round at Wimbledon and scoring wins over fellow young guns like Dolgopolov, Dimitrov, Goffin and Tomic. He had a solid lead up to the Aussie as well, reaching the semis of Chennai and capturing the doubles title there with Wawrinka.
This is the first time in a long while that Fed hasn't played some sort of tune-up heading into the Australian Open, whether in Abu Dhabi, Kooyong or Doha—although he did launch his Gillette Federer Tour in December which featured the likes of Tsonga, Serena and Sharapova. He's been cool and collected in front of the press so far and has remained sharp in the opening rounds of the Australian in recent years, so chances are he's going in confident despite the lack of match practice.
In my most-anticipated Australian Open first-round preview, I hinted that this could be a difficult opener for the Swiss maestro. Paire has superb touch and is comfortable in all parts of the court, and it'll be interesting to see how his flat, driving two-hander matches up with Fed's backhand during their second meeting.
Prediction: Federer in four.
Bernard Tomic vs. Leonardo Mayer
Tomic has had quite the entertaining start to 2013, thrilling hometown Australian crowds across the country and silencing critics who at the end of last year wrote him off as a teen prodigy gone bad. The 20-year-old went unbeaten in singles play during Hopman Cup—chalking up a riveting win over Djokovic—before going on to capture his first tour title in Sydney in impressive fashion.
As if that wasn't enough, Tomic entered into a verbal spar session with Federer ahead of the start of the Open (tennis.si.com). Federer, who could potentially clash with Tomic for the second straight year Down Under in a couple rounds, fended off questions about the encounter by saying Tomic shouldn't look too far ahead. When asked about the blockbuster matchup with Fed a day later, the young Aussie countered back with, "Well, if he gets that far."
Pretty snarky from a guy who has a very tricky first rounder.
Leonardo Mayer surfaced from a couple years in the doldrums at the U.S. Open last fall, stretching countryman del Potro in a thrilling third-round match in Flushing. Tomic's laconic style and frequent slices from both sides, coupled with rabid support from the home crowd, will be in stark contrast to Mayer's cannon of a forehand and affinity for moving forward. First matchup on Rod Laver at night—don't miss this one.
Prediction: Tomic in four tight sets.
(19) Tommy Haas vs. Jarkko Niemenen
It's not often that head-to-heads between players on the ATP feature matches that happened over 10 years ago. That's right—these two rugged veterans first met in the first round of the 2002 French Open. Haas won that bout in four sets and has taken two more close encounters with the Finn since, including at Indian Wells last year.
Haas has historically done well in Melbourne, reaching the semis in '99, '02 and '07—but all when the Open was played on Rebound Ace. That neon green surface added extra bite to his high topspin shots, something that Plexicushion fails to do.
That should neutralize things a bit for Nieminen. Equipped with solid defensive skills and a crafty lefty game, the Finn has the game to frustrate Haas to no end. The last match on Show Court 3, it could be a lengthy one.
Prediction: Haas in a five-set war of attrition.
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