MELBOURNE: The Australian Open gets underway with a bang today, with last year’s finalist Venus Williams taking on resurgent Swiss talent Belinda Bencic in a much-anticipated clash of generations on Rod Laver Arena’s centre court.
In a sign of Williams’ astonishing longevity, 20-year-old Bencic was just a toddler when the American won the first of her seven Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon in 2000.
Williams continued her late-career flourish at Melbourne Park last year, reaching her first Grand Slam final in eight years before being stopped by her champion sister Serena.
With new mum Serena absent this year and the women’s tournament wide open, Venus may be as good a chance as any of her rivals to win her first Grand Slam since Wimbledon in 2008.
But she will first need to get past the highly rated Bencic, who stormed into the top 10 as an 18-year-old before being sidelined for much of 2017 after wrist surgery.
The injury saw Bencic tumble out of the top 300 but she has quietly marched back up to 78 since returning to action in September.
Like her 37-year-old opponent, Bencic packed a lot into her teenage years, reaching the 2014 US Open quarter-finals when just 17 before claiming her first WTA title at Eastbourne the following year.
She has also been in sound form in the lead up, teaming up with Roger Federer to win the Hopman Cup for Switzerland in Perth.
Williams has played only one match since being beaten in the WTA Finals decider by Caroline Wozniacki in October, a loss to 2016 Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber at the lead up Sydney International.
But the veteran has never lost a set to Bencic in their four matches, their last clash in the third round of the 2015 US Open.
Williams will look to blow Bencic away quickly with her aggressive game, while her opponent will be keen to drag the veteran American into long rallies and find moments to unleash her fierce backhand down the line.
The 2009 men’s champion Rafa Nadal, who was beaten in a classic five-set final by long-time rival Roger Federer last year, headlines the evening session at Rod Laver Arena with a first round match against Dominican journeyman Victor Estrella Burgos.
Nadal, bidding for a 17th Grand Slam title, has had very limited preparation since a knee injury forced him to pull out of the season-ending ATP Tour finals but declared himself “more or less” happy with his game on Saturday.
Danger lurks for a couple of last year’s Grand Slam champions in the women’s draw, with French Open winner and seventh seed Jelena Ostapenko taking on the seasoned Francesca Schiavone, also a winner at Roland Garros, in the opening match at Rod Laver Arena.
US Open champion Sloane Stephens, seeded 13th, faces a test against China’s Zhang Shuai in the early match on Margaret Court Arena, the second show court.
Fans hoping for a shakeup of the men’s game will keenly watch the progress of third seed Grigor Dimitrov, who plays Austrian qualifier Dennis Novak, on Rod Laver Arena.
Local hope Nick Kyrgios, seeded 17th, is certain to generate a raucous atmosphere at his favourite Hisense Arena when he takes on Brazil’s Rogerio Dutra Silva in the late match.