Each day during the U.S. Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview three must-see matches—and offer his predictions.
Arthur Ashe Stadium: Andy Murray (3) vs. Milos Raonic (15)
Head-to-head: Raonic leads 1-0
Evening fireworks could erupt in this second meeting between one of the game’s most dangerous servers in Raonic against one of its top returners in Murray. The Canadian with the mammoth serve leads the tournament in aces (89) and first-serve points won (89 percent), can dictate with his forehand, and will carry the confidence of sweeping Murray on the red clay of Barcelona in their lone meeting in April.
“[It] gave me a lot of insight into what he likes to do,” Raonic said. “If I do the things right, I know the opportunities will be there.”
While Raonic breezed by James Blake, Murray trudged through a near four-hour battle with big-serving Feliciano Lopez. Raonic is playing for his first major quarterfinal appearance, and while his return game is a weakness, if he serves better than 65 percent he will very tough to break on the fast Flushing Meadows court.
The Olympic gold medalist can do more with the ball, is a much better mover, and will try to use his variety to make his 6’5” opponent hit running shots from awkward spots. Murray is one of the fittest men on the circuit, so his four-set struggle with Lopez should not be a concern. Trying to pick up Raonic’s 135 M.P.H service blasts beneath the lights will be a challenge, but Murray is the more diverse, experienced player and should find a way through a demanding duel.
The Pick: Murray in four sets.
Arthur Ashe Stadium: Ana Ivanovic (12) vs. Tsvetana Pironkova
Head-to-head: Even, 1-1
Former French Open champion Ivanovic takes on 2010 Wimbledon semifinalist Pironkova in their first hard-court clash. Both are flat-ball hitters, but their strengths are different strokes. Ivanovic is at her best running around her backhand to fire her forehand kill shot into the corners. Pironkova’s two-handed backhand is her best weapon. Look for the 24-year-old Bulgarian to try to corner Ivanovic with deep, cross-court backhands to create space to flatten her two-hander up the line.
Pironkova is a little quicker around the court and also skilled at taking pace off the ball in an effort to disrupt the opponent’s timing. Former No. 1 Ivanovic is within striking distance of the Top 10 and sparked a comeback from a set down to defeat American Sloane Stephens in the third round, crunching a series of forehands near the lines.
Ivanovic has not reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal since she captured the 2008 French Open title—a streak of 17 straight majors without a trip to the elite eight—so she should be pumped for this opportunity. Then again, she could struggle with nerves, knowing that this match should be in her hands. Ivanovic attacked mid-court balls with confidence in the final two sets against Stephens, and if she holds her nerve and keeps her sometime stray service toss within reach, this is a match she should win.
The Pick: Ivanovic in three sets.
Louis Armstrong Stadium: Tomas Berdych (6) vs. Nicolas Almagro (11)
Head-to-head: Berdych leads 6-3
A pair of equal opportunity shotmakers—both guys can crack winners off the forehand and backhand—meet for the second time in a major this year. They squared off at the same stage in the Australian Open in January, with Berdych earning a close-fought 4-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3), 7-6 (2) win. Both men overcame explosive American opponents and raucous home crowds in third-round victories here, and both are playing for their first U.S. Open quarterfinal.
Both men can hit so big it is difficult to get off the defensive, so the first strike is obviously important. Both are also skilled changing direction, driving the ball down the line, and are big servers—Almagro is fourth on the ATP in aces and Berdych is ninth in the ace race—who are difficult to break.
A key difference is that Berdych is the flatter hitter, so if he’s hitting with conviction, that should give him the edge on this court, which plays faster and elicits a lower bounce than in Melbourne. The flip side is because Almagro plays with more spin, he has more margin of error, so if Berdych is tight, net clearance could be an issue and errors could ensue. Almagro, who is at his best on clay, has done a good job translating his game to hard courts, but Berdych’s style of play is better suited to this surface, making him the pick.
The Pick: Berdych in four sets.