Breaking down Canadian first-round matches at Australian Open

Denis Shapovalov of Canada returns the ball to Hyeon Chung of Korea during the ATP Next Gen tennis tournament finals, at the Rho fair, near Milan, Italy, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. (Luca Bruno/AP)

The 2018 Australian Open draw was released Thursday morning.

Three Canadians — Milos Raonic (ATP rank: 23), Denis Shapovalov (ATP rank: 50), and Eugenie Bouchard (WTA rank: 83) — will be competing when the first round gets underway on Sunday, with Raonic as the lone seeded Canuck in the season’s first Slam event.

Here’s a look at the matchups ahead for the trio, as well as an update on the four Canadian wild cards still alive in qualifiers.

Milos Raonic (22) vs. Lukas Lacko

Raonic, the top-ranked Canadian in the world and only seeded Canadian at this year’s Aussie Open, is working his way back from a disappointing and injury-filled 2017 season that saw him drop out of the world’s top-20 for the first time in five years.

The 27-year-old reached the quarterfinals of last year’s Australian Open, losing to eventual finalist and 2018 top seed Rafael Nadal, and will face an uphill battle to repeat the same success this time around. On New Year’s Day, Raonic appeared in his first match since October, losing in straight sets to Australian Alex De Minaur (ranked 208th) at a warmup tournament in Brisbane.

He’ll face 90th-ranked Lukas Lacko of Serbia, who reached a career-high ranking of 44 back in 2013, which is also the last time these two squared off, with Raonic taking that match 6-3, 6-3.

Competing in the same bracket quadrant as No. 2-seeded Roger Federer, the defending champion, it could setup a potential quarterfinal matchup between the two if Raonic does regain his form on the hard court in Melbourne.

Denis Shapovalov vs. Stefanos Tsitsipas

The “Summer of Shapo” captivated Canadian tennis fans after the Thornhill, Ont., native crashed onto the professional tennis scene following a dominant junior career without skipping a beat. Signature wins over Nadal and Juan Martin Del Potro in Toronto en route to a semifinals run at the Rogers Cup, as well as a victory over Jo-Wilfred Tsonga and a Round-of-16 appearance at the 2017 U.S. Open helped establish the 18-year-old as one of the brightest up-and-coming stars in the world.

2018 will take on an entirely different shape for Shapovalov, who no longer has the benefit of “sneaking up” on opponents. He enters his first full pro season as a top-50 ranked player and will carry the increased expectations that come with that. At a tournament in Aukland, New Zealand last week, Shapovalov dropped a second-round match to Del Potro 6-2, 6-4 but still managed to show us why he’s one of the more exciting players on tour.

He’ll make his Australian Open main draw debut against another rising teen in 19-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, who ranks 80th in the world and is a former No. 1-ranked junior player. The two met three times during their junior careers, with Shapovalov winning two of those matches, both at junior Slam events (the French Open and Wimbledon).

Shapovalov will competing in the same section of the bracket as third-seeded Grigor Dimitrov, as well as 20-year-old 30th-seed Andrey Rublev and No. 17-seed Nick Kyrgios. A win in his first matchup could set up a rematch with Tsonga.

Eugenie Bouchard vs. Oceane Dodin

Bouchard seems far removed from her 2014 Australian Open semifinal appearance. Now 23, Bouchard is looking to reclaim her position as a contender but, despite changing coaches near the end of 2017, remains mired in a slump that has seen her win just three of her past 15 matches.

Her matchup with France’s Oceane Dodin should be an interesting one with plenty to prove for both players. Dodin hasn’t played since a Quebec City tournament last September, when she was forced to withdraw due to health issues. But Dodin is a strong player, ranked 87th, and was the 2016 National Bank Cup champion. Bouchard is expected to drop out of the top 100 rankings once they’re updated next, but a win versus Dodin could setup a second-round match versus No. 1 seed Simona Halep.

On Thursday night, four Canadians will be competing in qualifiers, looking to punch home their ticket to the Australian Open main draw. Francoise Abanda, Frank Dancevic, Peter Polansky and Vasek Pospisil will all be in action.

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