The bottom-half players in both singles draws of the Australian Open will be featured Tuesday in Melbourne. If there's a unifying theme to these three matches, it's irony.
No. 8 Venus Williams versus Johanna Konta
A funny thing happened while media sponge Serena Williams was deservedly absorbing almost all of the attention lavished on women's tennis last year. Her older sister Venus, who turns 35 in June and deals daily with Sjogren's syndrome, had a spectacular comeback campaign.
Barely inside the top 20 at the end of 2014 (to many, already an unexpected and impressive resurgence from 2013), Venus finished at No. 7 in 2015. Is there even better in store for 2016?
Against Konta, Williams will be facing a player similar to herself -- an aggressive all-court risk-taker with a big serve who will give her plenty of pace to work with. The 23-year-old Konta has been rising steadily and is up to No. 47 in the world rankings. At 5-foot-11, she is also just two inches shorter than Williams, but equally rangy. The two played once before, with Williams winning a knockdown, drag-out three-setter in the Wuhan quarterfinals this past September.
No. 5 Rafael Nadal versus Fernando Verdasco
Nadal begins the quest to reclaim his full Big Four membership from Stan Wawrinka against a player who almost ruined his career Grand Slam and most spectacular moment in Melbourne.
In one of 2009's semifinals, fellow lefty Verdasco, banging on the door of the top 10 at the time, fought Nadal for more than five hours through three tiebreakers and five sets before he relented 6-4 in the fifth set. The epic, high-quality match makes many "greatest matches" lists.
Verdasco, who can be as inconsistent as he is spectacular (and, alas, for longer periods), is now 32 years old and has slipped to No. 47 in the world. But he still has that atomic forehand and a penchant for painting the lines with it, as he demonstrated when he won the most recent of his seven titles in Houston in 2014. Of greater concern for his opponent: While Nadal holds a whopping 14-2 edge in career meetings, they split the two matches they played in 2015. Nadal won on clay, while Verdasco claimed the hard-court upset at the Miami Open.
Reflecting on their 2009 clash in his pre-tournament media briefing, Nadal said of Verdasco: "A lot of people always talk me about that match, no? It was a tough one, a great experience ... [But] it is not about playing against a lefty, [it] is about playing against a player that has a huge potential, is able to reach a great level of tennis. If you are not playing your best, it is very, very dangerous match."
Lleyton Hewitt versus James Duckworth
It's ironic. There's no other word for it. Lleyton Hewitt, the 34-year-old Aussie, multiple Grand Slam champion and former world No. 1, is playing his final event, on home turf. He has appeared in 20 editions of the tournament, yet has played a fellow Aussie only one other time (Todd Larkham, fourth round, 2003). Now, one of the numerous homegrown wild cards who thrive in every Grand Slam draw gets a chance to knock out his mentor and become an instant trivia question.
Duckworth, 23, has a stinging serve and volatile forehand. Like almost every Aussie under the age of 30, he has been feeding on the free advice and guidance of Hewitt, who is a devoted Davis Cup player and team leader. When Hewitt was asked in his pre-tournament news conference if advising Duckworth might backfire on him when they play, he said, "Perhaps. ... We'll see how good a student he is."
Duckworth doesn't need to be an A student to provide Aussie fans with a bittersweet Hewitt sendoff -- at No. 129 in the world, he is 180 spots higher than his mentor. Hewitt, meanwhile, has just been treading water until this final bid at his home major. A winner at Wimbledon and the US Open in that seam between the Pete Sampras and Roger Federer eras, he desperately wants to win one in Melbourne.