With the first round of the Australian Open in the books, it's time to highlight which players are on the rise and which ones look most vulnerable heading into the next round. Players who have been eliminated are of little interest to fantasy players as the tournament unfolds, so this column is meant to take a look ahead based on what's happened so far rather than reflect on the past.
The top players from both sides of the draw emerged from the first round largely unscathed, as (10) Gael Monfils was the only top-11 seed in either draw to falter, though both the men and women lost the No. 12 and 13 seeds. Some of the favorites are rolling as expected while others answered some of the lingering questions surrounding them heading into the tournament, and there's plenty to talk about when it comes to American tennis on both sides of the draw. In the men's draw, we're witnessing the first Grand Slam action of a potential future star, while a multiple-time Grand Slam champion could be in trouble. On the women's side, one of the favorites put the entire draw on alert with a nearly flawless opening-round effort, while two high seeds could have their hands full against American challengers in the second round.
Carlos Alcaraz - We have seen a number of teenage sensations pop up on the women's side in recent years, but the men's tour has largely missed out on the fun until now. That's about to change now that Alcaraz has broken onto the scene. The 17-year-old Spaniard qualified into the main draw before defeating fellow qualifier Botic Van de Zandschulp 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 in his Grand Slam main draw debut. Couple that success with his win over David Goffin in Adelaide last week, and confidence won't be a problem for Alcaraz ahead of a second-round clash with 95th-ranked Mikael Ymer, who knocked out No. 26 seed Hubert Hurkacz in the opening round. Should he get through that one, Alcaraz will likely get an opportunity to measure up against one of the game's premier young talents, as a third-round matchup with fifth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas looms.
Rafael Nadal - Nadal has historically struggled to make it through the Australian Open without picking up an injury by the end, but this is the first time that he entered the draw nursing a notable injury from the get-go, as his back acted up in the lead-up to the tournament, preventing him from practicing serves. The No. 2 seed's serve lacked pace in the opening round, but Nadal otherwise showed no signs of being bothered by injury in a 6-3, 6-4, 6-1 dismissal of Laslo Djere. Not only is his stock up due to health, but Nadal also has a favorable draw which lacks the type of big servers who could put pressure on the Spaniard to have to hold every time. There are no seeded players left in his path until the Round of 16, and his two possible seeded opponents at that stage are (16) Fabio Fognini and (21) Alex de Minaur, neither of whom possess the type of booming serves that have given Rafa trouble on faster surfaces.
American Tennis - No. 27 Taylor Fritz is the only seeded American man, but players from the United States still managed to post a 7-3 record in the first round. While most Americans will be underdogs in their second-round matches, there are some nice upset opportunities available for these guys to make names for themselves. Tommy Paul stands out as a player capable of making a deep run here. His second-round opponent is No. 28 seed Casper Ruud, who has won 65 percent of his career matches on clay and just 37 percent on other surfaces, while the other seed in their section (No. 12 Roberto Bautista Agut) has been eliminated. Frances Tiafoe and Michael Mmoh will have their work cut out for them against Novak Djokovic and Nadal, respectively, but qualifier Maxime Cressy has more of a puncher's chance against No. 6 Alexander Zverev, who was a few points away from falling two sets to love down in the first round against Cressy's fellow UCLA alum Marcos Giron.
Stan Wawrinka - Wawrinka took care of business 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 against Pedro Sousa in the first round, but the drawmakers did the No. 17 seed no favors in this tournament. His second-round opponent will be Marton Fucsovics, who always seems to play his best tennis at Grand Slams. Fucsovics went 8-3 at the majors in 2020, with four-set Round of 16 losses to Roger Federer in Australia and Andrey Rublev at the French Open. Should Wawrinka get through that one, he'd likely face No. 14 Milos Raonic, who made the quarterfinals here last year and is 3-0 against Wawrinka at Grand Slams, with two of those wins coming at this tournament. If he passes that test, Wawrinka's reward would likely be a Round of 16 meeting with top-seeded Djokovic.
Alex Bolt - Bolt is ranked 166th, but the Australian has played some inspired tennis at his home slam before, taking a two sets to one lead against Dominic Thiem in the second round last year before ultimately falling in five to the eventual finalist. He'll have another opportunity to pull a second-round upset this year, as Bolt will take on enigmatic No. 18 seed Grigor Dimitrov, who has made it past the second round in only four of his last nine Grand Slam appearances.
Ashleigh Barty - It didn't take long for the top-seeded Barty to announce her presence as a contender at her home slam, as she swept Danka Kovinic off the court 6-0, 6-0 in the first round. She also got some help from around the grounds, as the highest seed in her way before the quarterfinals (No. 16 Petra Martic) was eliminated by 183rd-ranked Olga Danilovic. Barty's long-term prospects are encouraging, but she will need to take things one round at a time, starting with a second-round clash with countrywoman Daria Gavrilova.
Jennifer Brady - Brady displayed a marked improvement in her game following last year's COVID-induced layoff, capturing her first WTA Tour title in Lexington, Kentucky before making a run to the US Open semifinals. The No. 22 seed picked up where she left off to start this tournament, registering a convincing 6-1, 6-3 win over Aliona Bolsova. The biggest obstacle standing between the American and the Round of 16 was 13th-seeded Johanna Konta, who was forced to retire in her first-round match due to an abdominal injury, so Brady now has a clear path to a potential All-American fourth-round showdown against No. 4 Sofia Kenin. Next up for Brady is another American opponent in Madison Brengle, whom Brady handily defeated 6-3, 6-1 in their only previous meeting.
Jessica Pegula - Pegula pulled arguably the most notable upset in the men's or women's singles draw in the first round, knocking out 12th-seeded US Open runner-up Victoria Azarenka 7-5, 6-4. That win took out the big fish in her section, and Pegula's draw cleared up even further when 20th-seeded Maria Sakkari fell to Kristina Mladenovic in three sets, leaving no seeds between the 26-year-old American and the Round of 16. Jessica's parents own the Buffalo Bills, who won their first two playoff games since 1995 in January, and she has a golden opportunity to build on the Pegula family's successful sporting start to 2021 with a deep run down under. Pegula's second-round opponent will be local favorite Samantha Stosur, whose best days are well behind her at age 36.
Elina Svitolina - Svitolina has perennially underperformed at Grand Slams relative to her lofty ranking, and the No. 5 seed has only been past the third round at this tournament twice in eight tries. Her 6-3, 7-6 (5) first-round win over Marie Bouzkova wasn't all that impressive, especially considering Svitolina won only a dreadful 12 percent of second-serve return points. Svitolina's second-round opponent is prominent youngster Coco Gauff, whose two biggest weaknesses of late have been the second serve and closing out sets/matches. Gauff got a big boost in the latter category by taking care of business 6-3, 6-2 against Jil Teichmann, who pushed the 16-year-old American to a third-set tiebreak less than two weeks ago in Melbourne. If Svitolina fails to put pressure on Gauff's underwhelming second serve, this match could lead to the latest disappointing Grand Slam exit for the Ukrainian.
Danielle Collins - Collins went through a bit of a lull after making the semifinals here in 2019, but she's coming off her best major result since then at her most recent Grand Slam appearance, reaching the quarterfinals at the 2020 French Open before falling in three sets to Kenin. The feisty American didn't need to get out of cruise control in a 6-3, 6-1 victory over Ana Bogdan in the first round, setting up a second-round meeting with No. 6 seed Karolina Pliskova. Collins just beat Pliskova in straight sets last week in Melbourne, so she's primed to pull off the upset here.