venus williams belinda bencic head to head venus williams belinda bencic head to head

Day 1 preview: Stars start out


If it’s astonishing to think that Venus’ Williams first-round AO2018 opponent, Belinda Bencic, was just a few months old when the superstar debuted at this event as a beaded-haired teenager 20 years ago, it’s more astonishing still to consider everything to have unfolded in that time.

There have been seven Grand Slam titles collected for the prolific competitor, among a record 76 majors contested overall. After rising to world No.1 in 2002 there were inevitable challenges for Venus, including an illness that contributed to her drop outside the top 100 in 2011.

MORE: Day 1 schedule of play

But as she booked-ended a remarkable 2017 with runner-up performances at the Australian Open and the prestigious WTA Finals, Venus was clearly back to her best. There was also a ninth finals appearance at Wimbledon, ensuring she starts her 18th Australian Open appearance at world No.5.

Experience is now as much a weapon for the 37-year-old Venus as her trademark serve and powerful groundstrokes, and she’ll need it as she meets Bencic in the second match at Rod Laver Arena on Monday.

MORE: The women’s singles draw for AO2018

Neither her ranking – currently world No.78 – nor her relative youth tell the full story of the talented young Swiss, who drew comparisons to countrywoman Martina Hingis as she claimed her first two career titles at age 18. At Toronto, where she hoisted the biggest trophy, her victims included Caroline Wozniacki, Serena Williams and Simona Halep.

In 2017, Bencic was thwarted by a wrist injury requiring surgery, but after five months on the sidelines she returned to win three consecutive lower-level events late in the year. In combining with Roger Federer to win the recent Hopman Cup for Switzerland, she extended a match-winning streak to 18.

Bencic is yet to win a set over Venus in four matches, but will be buoyed by upsets of world No.9 CoCo Vandeweghe and world No.18 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova among her three match wins in Perth. A fascinating cross-generational battle looms.

Equally fascinating is the form of Rafael Nadal, who returns to the court where he began his stunning career revival last year.

Runner-up to Federer at Australian Open 2017, Nadal soon became a record-breaking champion with a 10th title at Roland Garros. A 16th Grand Slam title was added at the US Open, underlining Rafa’s emphatic return to world No.1. 

MORE: The men’s singles draw for AO2018

While proudly retaining top spot as he enters tonight’s first round against Victor Estrella Burgos – a world No.81 from the Dominican Republic whom he has never competed against on tour – Nadal is also aware of the challenges ahead. 

After a lifetime spent with his Uncle Toni as coach, this Australian Open marks the first official departure from that link. There’s also concern about injury, a lingering knee problem resulting in Rafa’s absence from the season-opening Brisbane International.

“(This) is the first time I am here without playing (an) official match in my career,” he admitted to media at Melbourne Park. “(A) new situation for me.”

Returned to top seed status at the only Slam he is yet to win twice, Nadal retains a simple view. 

“Everyone starts from zero. I start from zero again,” he said. “Start as (a) new season, an exciting one. I hope to be healthy and competitive, and most important thing, I hope to enjoy tennis one more year.”

At age 31 and contesting his 13th Australian Open, it’s perhaps natural that the Spaniard counts his seasons in the singular now.

But as with Venus, still thriving two decades since reaching the first of nine Australian Open quarterfinals as a 17-year-old, there’s an equal awareness that such abundant competitors always have a longer-term view.

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