Pagliaro's Picks: Delray, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Acapulco
Every Friday, after the weekend's matches have been determined, we'll predict the winner of each tournament.
Delray Beach, ATP (Semifinals):
Marinko Matosevic vs. Dudi Sela; John Isner vs. Kevin Anderson
Aussie qualifier Matosevic reeled off 12 of the last 14 games in fighting past flaky Ernests Gulbis, 3-6, 6-1, 6-1. The 173rd-ranked Matosevic served better than 70 percent in the final two sets against the 2010 Delray champion. If he does that against semifinal opponent Sela, he should win, but the scrappy Israeli will be confident after beating Philipp Kohlschreiber. I think Sela, who possesses a fine one-handed backhand, can squeeze out a win in his first ATP semifinal in two years.
Noted NASCAR fan Isner watched Daytona 500 highlights at the start of the week and will be revved up for a run at his first title of the year this weekend. The top seed broke Bernard Tomic four times in a 56-minute quarterfinal, and as the lone Top 30 player still standing, it's his title to lose, right?
Not so fast. Kevin Anderson fought off three match points in a second-set tiebreaker to take down fourth-seeded Andy Roddick on Friday night, 2-6, 7-6 (9), 6-4. Anderson has shined in South Florida: He upset Novak Djokovic in Miami four years ago, and swept Isner there last March en route to the quarters. The 6'8" South African is one of the rare players who can (almost) look the 6'9" American in the eye, and saving match points against a former Grand Slam champion figures to be empowering. Ultimately, these are the matches the 11th-ranked Isner must win if he's to realize his goal of a Top 10 ranking. If he can convert some timely rips with his forehand return, I believe he will.
The Pick: Isner
Kuala Lumpur, WTA (Quarterfinals and Semifinals):
Su-Wei Hsieh vs. Eleni Daniilidou or Oliva Rogowska; Petra Martic vs. Jelena Jankovic or Ayumi Morita
Jankovic celebrated her 27th birthday in style, denying three match points to defeat talented teen Caroline Garcia, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, in a first-round thriller. The second-seeded Serbian’s stamina will be tested again, as she must win two matches on Saturday to reach the final. Fresh off the Dubai semifinals, Jankovic has more weapons than Morita and is a better mover than Martic, so if she can cope with the conditions and avoid the drama she sometimes creates, she should reach the final.
Top-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska's withdrawal gave 123rd-ranked qualifier Hsieh a walkover into her second straight semifinal. If Daniilidou, who holds a 6-2, 3-2 lead over Rogowska, closes out that quarterfinal, she will face Hsieh for the first time in six years. Daniilidou, known for her bold one-handed backhand and serve-and-volley skill, can be dangerous if she's landing her first serve, but Hsieh should be fresher than either potential semifinal opponent. She's a consistent player who doesn't give up cheap points and she's won eight of her last nine matches. I see Hsieh advancing.
The 14th-ranked Jankovic is aiming to return to the Top 10, eager to win her first title since Indian Wells in 2010, and is the most accomplished player in the field, which is why I favor the former world No. 1 to take the title.
The Pick: Jankovic
Acapulco, WTA (Final):
Flavia Pennetta vs. Sara Errani
Acapulco looked like the new Rome as three Italians reached the final four. The third-seeded Errani backed up her second serve beautifully, winning 11 of 15 second-serve points and dropping serve only once in a 6-4, 6-1 semifinal sweep of her friend and doubles partner, top-seeded Roberta Vinci. An Australian Open quarterfinalist in singles and Melbourne finalist in doubles, Errani has won 12 of her last 15 matches, has not surrendered a set in this tournament, and should be be inspired playing to win her first title since Palermo in 2008.
Two-time Acapulco champion Pennetta may lack a single imposing shot (though her two-handed backhand is a weapon), but she's sound in all areas of the game, can play all-court tennis, and is contesting her seventh final in eight Acapulco appearances. The 36th-ranked Errani is the in-form player who can change the pace, spread the court with her forehand, and use her guile to unsettle opponents. But I believe Pennetta is a more complete player, and her backhand is stronger. If Pennetta can engage Errani in backhand rallies and strike her two-hander down the line to keep her Fed Cup teammate from cheating to her backhand side, she should have the edge.
The last time three Italians reached the semifinals of a WTA event was in July 2009, in Palermo. Interestingly, Pennetta defeated Errani, 6-1, 6-2, for the title in that final. This time around Errani, who is six years younger and extremely fit, will pose a much tougher test, but I see Pennetta prevailing.
The Pick: Pennetta
Dubai, ATP (Final):
Roger Federer vs. Andy Murray
Murray stopped one streak today and will try to snap another tomorrow. The Scot looked sharp in handing Novak Djokovic his first loss of the season; at one point Murray won seven straight games. His opponent, four-time champion Federer, rides a nine-match winning streak into his seventh Dubai final. Federer spread the court with the wide serve effectively, finished with his forehand emphatically, and overcame a sloppy stretch at the start of the second-set tiebreaker, fighting off four set points in a 7-6 (5), 7-6 (6) win over the imposing Juan Martin del Potro. Since his surprising Davis Cup loss to John Isner, Federer has played with more urgency and aggression, repeatedly stepping into the court and even showing the serve-and-volley a few times today. Given his tournament track record and the fact that he hasn't surrendered serve—or even been pushed to deuce—in four wins this week, Federer must be considered the favorite to collect the title.
I often sense an underlying edginess between these two—Murray has won eight of their 14 meetings, but Federer has won three of their five finals, including both Grand Slam title clashes—so if sparks fly early, managing emotions will be important. If Federer sustains his high-quality serving, he will win. But I'm picking Murray because he's a sniper with his return (he's winning 42 percent of his return games in 2012) and extends points with tremendous court coverage. If Murray can engage Federer in longer exchanges, I think he will torment the Swiss' one-handed backhand. Admittedly, I've been burned picking the ornery Scot in the past, only to see him implode, but he kept his composure after getting tight when closing out Tomas Berdych and Djokovic this week, scoring successive Top 10 wins. Murray knows that in order to make his win over Djokovic truly meaningful, he must back it up by beating Federer. Though Federer is the better pressure player and has been unbreakable so far, I believe Murray will find a way to win.
The Pick: Murray
Richard Pagliaro is a senior editor for TENNIS.com.