Saturday January 14th, 2012

Fernando Verdasco

Fernando Verdasco has seen his rank slip from No. 9 to No. 24 in the last year. (Theron Kirkman/AP)

The qualifying tournament is complete, the draw has been finalized and Monday's order of play has been released for the Australian Open. I'll obviously be checking in to see how Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Kim Clijsters are doing on the first day as they manage their niggles, but here are the matches I'm particularly curious about as the first Grand Slam tournament of 2012 kicks off in Melbourne (7 p.m. ET Sunday). Click here for the television schedule.

Bernard Tomic vs. Fernando Verdasco (second match, Rod Laver Arena): Depending on how seriously you take your tennis, you either raised an eyebrow when this match was revealed in the draw or you cackled in laughter. This matchup is a recipe for disappointment for Verdasco, a 2009 Australian Open semifinalist who has been slumping for more than a year now. Stuck in an emotional funk, he vacillates from seeming to be disinterested and unfocused to firing off his temper on the court. Take that volatility and throw in Tomic's languid, junky, frustrating game, and Verdasco could implode. He already lashed out at Milos Raonic's big-serving game as not being "real tennis." I can't wait to hear how he describes Tomic's slicing and dicing.

Mardy Fish vs. Gilles Muller (second match, Court 3): Muller has had his moments at majors, none more famous than his defeat of Andy Roddick in the first round of the 2005 U.S. Open, on the heels of stunning Rafael Nadal in the second round of Wimbledon that year. And just four months ago he made the fourth round in New York. For Fish, it's hard to know where his form is right now. He played two exhibitions leading up to the Australian Open, looking out of sorts in Perth but making the final in Kooyong, where he lost to Tomic. He should win this match and get a chance to work himself into the tournament, but Muller has a way of coming out of nowhere to pull off upsets.

Laura Robson vs. Jelena Jankovic (fourth match, Margaret Court Arena): The 17-year-old Robson played the best qualifying tournament of her career this week, putting together three solid matches (despite a minor wobble against Melanie Oudin) to reach the Australian Open main draw for the first time. Despite Robson's inexperience at this level, this isn't the first time she has faced Jankovic. The Serb, then ranked fourth, beat a 16-year-old Robson 6-3, 7-6 (5) in the first round of Wimbledon in 2010. Jankovic isn't the player she was two years ago and neither is Robson, so it'll be interesting to see how the British teen stacks up.

David Nalbandian vs. Jarkko Nieminen (7 p.m. local, 3 a.m. ET, Margaret Court Arena): Poor Jarkko Nieminen. The Swede Finn made the final of Sydney only to see rain push the final to Sunday. All well and good except that Nieminen is scheduled to play Nalbandian on Monday. That's horrible luck for a man who's played well through this final tune-up. The winner could face John Isner in the second round.

Lucie Safarova vs. Christina McHale (second match, Court 19): McHale, ranked 43rd and the No. 2 American behind Serena Williams, draws a tricky match with the hard-hitting but very streaky Czech lefty (that's just how they make them in the Czech Republic, apparently).  McHale is coming off her career-best appearance at a major after making the third round at the U.S. Open, while Safavora is a former quarterfinalist here. Courtney's Pet Picks: Victoria Azarenka vs. Heather Watson (11 a.m. local, 7 p.m. ET, Rod Laver Arena); Aravane Rezai vs. Peng Shuai (third match, Court 3); Jeremy Chardy vs. Grigor Dimitrov (third match, Court 8); Philipp Kohlschreiber vs. Juan Monaco (second match, Court 6); Julia Goerges vs. Polona Hercog (second match, Court 7); Sania Mirza vs. Tsvetana Pironkova (fourth match, Court 8).

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