SLOANE STEPHENS VS. TAYLOR TOWNSEND
It has been feast or famine for Stephens in Melbourne. In 2013, she beat Serena Williams on her way to the semifinals, but she hasn’t won a match Down Under since 2014. Her last three trips there have netted three first-round losses. Surely, Sloane will put an end to that run of futility against the 91st-ranked Townsend, when they meet in Margaret Court Arena on Monday, right? Don’t count on it. Stephens is coming off a 6-0 third-set defeat at the hands of Yulia Putintseva in Sydney, and while the 22-year-old Townsend has yet to make good on the considerable potential she showed as a junior—she won the Aussie Open girls’ title in 2012—she’s a lefty shot-maker and all-courter who Stephens has never faced. It might take some time for her to adjust. Winner: Stephens
ROBERTO BAUTISTA AGUT VS. ANDY MURRAY
It’s the first day of the Grand Slam season, and, naturally, we have our first scheduling controversy. As many are asking: Why would Australian Open officials send Murray out to Melbourne (formerly Hisense, formerly Vodaphone) Arena, the third show court on the grounds, for what could be his final professional match? It’s a legitimate question: Murray is a three-time major champion and five-time Australian Open finalist, and he may wind up his Hall-of-Fame career on a court that doubles as a cycling track.
But what’s done is done, and now it’s up to Murray to give himself another chance to get back into Rod Laver Arena. It’s not going to be easy. Murray is just 5-4 in his last 10 matches, and he admits that he can only “play up to a certain level” due to chronic hip pain. In his first tournament of 2019, in Brisbane, he went down in fairly routine straight-set fashion to Daniil Medvedev. At the same time, the 30-year-old Bautista Agut is coming off perhaps the finest sustained performance of his career; last week in Doha, he beat Stan Wawrinka, Novak Djokovic, and Tomas Berdych to win the title. If your body is hurting, the ever-steady RBA is not the guy you want to face in a best-of-five-setter on a hard court. Winner: Bautista Agut
ROGER FEDERER VS. DENIS ISTOMIN
Once or twice a year, Istomin emerges from obscurity—trademark colored spectacles in place—to throw a scare into a top player at a Slam. The 32-year-old Uzbek (he’s of Russian descent) has weapons that are lethal enough to push anyone around, but too erratic to do it for long—lethal enough, in other words, to win him a set, but not lethal enough to win him three. The major exception to that rule came at this event in 2017, when he threw enough haymakers to survive a lengthy five-setter against Novak Djokovic in the second round.
Can lightning, Istomin-style, strike twice on the same court? It’s doubtful. Federer is 6-0 against Istomin, who has lost his last three matches, is currently ranked 93rd, and who spends most of his time at the Challenger level. It’s true that the last two times they played, Istomin won the first set before Federer came back to win in three. But those two matches happened in 2013 and 2014; if anything, Federer is better now than he was then. Istomin is almost surely not the guy Federer would have chosen to face to start his title defense in Melbourne. But while he may surrender a set, he probably won’t surrender three. Winner: Federer