Nadal-Federer rematch among 6 storylines to watch at Australian Open

Switzerland's Roger Federer, right, is congratulated by Spain's Rafael Nadal. (Dita Alangkara/AP)

The first Grand Slam of 2018, the Australian Open, will get underway and there are plenty of storylines to watch throughout the two-week event.

On the men’s side, Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka are back from injury, but Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori remain out. In the women’s draw, Serena Williams was forced to withdraw from the tournament while she still recovers after the birth of her daughter, but sister Venus will look to carry over her resurgence from 2017.

It should be an exciting tournament. Here are six key storylines to follow.

Canadians facing tough early matchups

Genie Bouchard has advanced past the third round of a grand slam just once since making the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 2015, and the chances of the 83rd ranked player bucking that trend in Melbourne are pretty slim.

If she makes it past her first-round opponent, 85th ranked Oceane Dodin of France, she faces a second-round match against the top-seeded Simona Halep.

On the men’s side, Milos Raonic faces a difficult return to grand slam tennis with a potential third round clash against Sam Querrey, where the winner would most likely face Roger Federer in the fourth round.

Peter Polansky made it through qualifying and will play 48th ranked up-and-comer Karen Khachanov. Although the Russian prefers the slower clay, he will be the overwhelming favourite to advance. Vasek Pospisil also took the qualifying route and has been rewarded with a nightmare matchup against the sixth-seeded Marin Cilic.

Finally, Richmond Hill, Ont. native Denis Shapovalov opens the tournament with an intriguing, yet favourable, matchup against 19-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, but is in tough after that. He faces a rematch with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (who he beat during his memorable U.S. Open run) in the second round, with local boy Nick Kyrgios and World No. 3 Grigor Dimitrov potentially in store for him in the next two rounds if he were to advance. Regardless, those potential matchups should make for an exciting brand of tennis.

Two other Canadians, Francoise Abanda and Frank Dancevic both failed to make it through qualifying.

Men’s next Next Gen is on their way

They say that genius skips a generation, and this may just be so in men’s tennis. The brilliance of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray and their 50 combined grand slam titles has been followed up by Dimitrov, Raonic, Nishikori and David Goffin with a total of zero major titles so far. That group is very good, but still not as great as the older generation.

There is a new wave making their presence felt, though, with 20-year-old Alexander Zverev leading the pack as the fourth ranked player in the world. Nick Kyrgios’s talent knows no bounds, and at 22 he already has a 5-4 record against Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Plus, he seems to be making strides in the mental aspect of his game as well.

You know about Shapovalov, but Andrey Rublev is the rising star not enough people are talking about. At age 20, he has already racked up victories against the likes of Dimitrov, Goffin, Jack Sock and Tomas Berdych. And he got off to a solid start to 2018 by reaching the finals at the Qatar Open.

21-year-old Hyeon Chung defeated both Rublev and Shapovalov en route to winning the Next Gen ATP Finals.

Another rising star, 18-year-old Australian Alex De Minaur, began the calendar year ranked 208, but has vaulted into the top 150 by reaching the semifinals and finals of the Brisbane and Sydney events where he defeated Milos Raonic, Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez along the way. His play has been so good that he even got a shout out from Murray on Twitter.

Other youngsters of note are Khachanov (who will face Canada’s Polansky), Daniil Medvedev and Thanasi Kokkinakis.

Maria Sharapova will have all eyes on her

After being allowed to return from her doping ban sooner than initially expected, the U.S. Open was the only grand slam to grant Sharapova a wildcard in 2017. She made the most of the opportunity, upsetting Simona Halep 6-4 4-6 6-3 in a thrilling first-round match before losing in the fourth round to Anastasija Sevastova.

Sharapova could face Sevastova as early as the second round this time around, and it will be interesting to see if she can fare any better with more matches and confidence under her belt, including a semifinal appearance in China’s Shenzhen Open.

Also noteworthy, when Sharapova plays Tatjana Maria in her first-round match, the scoreboard will literally read:

MARIA

SHARAPOVA

No Serena Williams makes the women’s draw wide open

After Serena Williams won the 2017 Australian Open and left the tennis scene due to her pregnancy, the door opened for some up and coming players to compete for the throne. Jelena Ostapenko won the French Open, Garbine Muguruza took the Wimbledon crown and Sloane Stephens completed a dream return to tennis by winning the U.S. Open.

Worth noting, Stephens has now lost seven straight matches since winning her first slam.

That final grand slam of the year was an incredible tournament for the United States as Venus Williams, Madison Keys and Coco Vandeweghe rounded out the semifinalists. For their own home tournament, Australia will be resting their hopes on 17th ranked Ashleigh Barty.

If she can make it to the fourth round, Barty could face Halep, who has a history of failing to close matches under pressure. The home crowd will undoubtedly be up for that contest, but Barty will have to get there first.

Also keep an eye out for world No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki, who has a favourable draw and has shown improvement in getting over the final hurdle. She lost the first six finals she played in during 2017, before winning the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo and the WTA Finals title in Singapore.

She did, however, lose in the final of her first tournament of the year in Auckland, to 12th ranked Julia Gorges.

The return of Novak Djokovic

New coach, new serve, but perhaps the old Djokovic. The Serb sat out the second half of the 2017 season to allow an ailing elbow to recover but is ready to go now.

The former world No. 1, who in 2016 became the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four slams at the same time, has had a miserable go of it since and has plummeted all the way to No. 14 in the world rankings heading into this tournament.

Djokovic now has both Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek guiding him, and is hopeful that a modified serving motion will help rekindle some of his old form. With six Australian Open titles to his name, he is an opponent no one will want to face, and with the path ahead of him, Djokovic has every opportunity to show that he is well and truly back.

To win the tournament, Djokovic could have to beat Gael Monfils (coming off a win in Qatar) in the second round, fourth-ranked Zverev in the fourth round, fifth-ranked Thiem or rival Wawrinka in the quarters, before titan clashes with Federer and Nadal in the semis and final.

If he can pull it off, it would certainly make for a return for the ages.

Roger Federer in tough to make a rematch with Rafael Nadal possible

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer turned back the clock in 2017 with two grand slams apiece, including memorable wins at their beloved French Open and Wimbledon respectively. It all started so unassumingly in Melbourne, with no one expecting a Federer-Nadal final classic until it actually happened.

Nadal has been handed a fairly comfortable draw, with no one among the top six in store for him until at least the quarter-finals when he could face Cilic. On the opposite end of the draw is Federer, and while he will be heavily favoured to make the second week, things could get tricky by the quarter-final stage.

The 19-time grand slam winner faces a potential battle against Juan Martin Del Potro, who has twice shattered his U.S. Open title dreams, before a potential semifinal against one of Djokovic, Zverev, Thiem or Wawrinka.

At the 2017 U.S. Open, the two pillars of men’s tennis appeared set for collision course in the quarter-finals with favourable draws for both of them, but Federer fell in the quarters to Del Potro. Nadal went through the entire tournament without facing anyone seeded higher than 24 to claim his 16th grand slam.

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