Each day during the Australian Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview must-see matches—and offer his predictions.
(1) VICTORIA AZARENKA vs. SVETLANA KUZNETSOVA
Quarterfinal; Rod Laver Arena, first match
Head-to-head: Kuznetsova leads 4-3
The defending champion faces the two-time Grand Slam champion in what could be a compelling quarterfinal. They have split four career hard-court meetings.
Champions extol Kuznetsova’s game—Roger Federer once called Kuznetsova one of his favorite women to watch; Justine Henin picked her to win the French Open upon retirement—because she's the complete package. Sveta is a dynamic all-court player who can drop back behind the baseline and play heavier topspin, step forward into the court and flatten out shots, or employ the dazzling volley skills that have helped her win two Australian Open doubles titles.
I don’t envision Kuznetsova shrinking from this moment. The former No. 2 is a far better player than her injury-induced ranking of No. 75, yet lower expectations because of her six-month layoff may allow her to swing more freely and attack her shots, as she did toppling former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki.
Azarenka hits hard, clean, and hugs the baseline, so Kuznetsova will not have the time to create she enjoyed against the counter-punching Dane. If Kuznetsova leaves shots short, Azarenka will pounce and make her pay. Vika isn't as strong of a server, but she's riding an 18-match winning streak Down Under, is 14-1 in her last 15 three-setters, and I see her withstanding a tough, experienced opponent and advancing.
THE PICK: AZARENKA IN THREE SETS
(3) SERENA WILLIAMS vs. (29) SLOANE STEPHENS
Quarterfinal; Rod Laver Arena, second match
Head-to-head: Williams leads 1-0
Serena is aiming to succeed Chris Evert as the oldest woman to hold the world No. 1 ranking, and she’ll have to beat the teenager she’s called a future No. 1 to continue her quest.
This match comes a few weeks after Williams swept Stephens, 6-4, 6-3, en route to capturing her 47th career title in Brisbane. The 19-year-old is a gifted player who will make her Top 20 debut when the new rankings are released on Monday. Stephens must make inroads on Williams’ second serve and hold her own to have a real shot here.
Serena leads the field in first-serve points won (86 percent) and aces (30), owns the best serve in women’s tennis history, and has a knack for unleashing the knockout blow when she needs it most. Still, Stephens can crack her groundstrokes with plenty of spin and pace, and she’s so quick around the court that she’s one of the few women who can extend Williams in running rallies. That could be key if Williams' strained ankle is an issue, but Stephens knows she cannot afford to play passive tennis.
Williams, an overwhelming favorite, is riding a 20-match winning streak (one win short of her career best), and has flirted with omnipotence in winning 56 of her last 58 matches. Serena typically turns it up in the latter stages of Grand Slam events, and knows and respects Sloane’s game, so she should be pumped to make a major statement and move closer toward capturing her sixth Australian Open crown. Sloane has a very bright future, but Serena's time is now.
THE PICK: S. WILLIAMS IN TWO SETS
(3) ANDY MURRAY vs. JEREMY CHARDY
Quarterfinal; Rod Laver Arena, third match
Head-to-head: Murray leads 4-1
Chardy’s percolating serve has powered him to his first Grand Slam quarterfinal; Murray’s penetrating return has propelled him to his ninth consecutive major quarterfinal.
Bidding to become the first unseeded major semifinalist since 2008, Chardy’s strokes aren’t as smooth as the U.S. Open champions', but he’s played clever and powerful patterns in this career-best run. The 36th-ranked Frenchman used the short chip backhand to lure Juan Martin del Potro forward and blast vicious forehand passes by the sixth seed in a stirring five-set upset. But that tactic won’t fly against Murray, who is one of the game’s best movers and can torment opponents with his drop shots and acute angles.
All five of their prior meetings have come on hard courts, with Chardy sweeping his lone win in Cincinnati last August. If it’s a scorching day, fitness freak Murray’s speed, strength, and stamina will be even bigger assets. He has spent just over seven hours on court in sweeping all four of his matches in straight sets; Chardy has labored for 11 hours, 40 minutes and has not scored a straight-sets win in expending emotional energy—and straining his knee—in this event.
If Chardy, whose smash recalls Cedric Pioline, serves imposingly, he could extend this, but the rangy, ornery Scot has already broken serve 27 times in the tournament. Murray is 8-0 in 2013, is riding an 11-match major win streak, and is the clear favorite to march into his fourth consecutive Melbourne semifinal.
THE PICK: MURRAY IN FOUR SETS
(2) ROGER FEDERER vs. (7) JO-WILFRIED TSONGA
Quarterfinal; Rod Laver Arena, first night match
Head-to-head: Federer leads 8-3
Expect plenty of shotmaking sizzle when four-time champion Federer faces 2008 finalist Tsonga in the marquee quarterfinal beneath the lights.
Beating Federer in the Australian Open quarterfinals is as easy as moon walking across the Yarra River with a packed racquet bag strapped to your back. He is playing for a record-extending 10th consecutive Australian Open semifinal and a stupefying 33rd Grand Slam semifinal. Federer has looked fit and played fast in carving up the competition, including home favorite Bernard Tomic and powerful Canadian Milos Raonic, without permitting a set.
That said, Tsonga has cause for confidence: He handed Federer his first loss from two sets to love up in a major when he roared back for a rousing win in the 2011 Wimbledon quarterfinals. An emotive, explosive player, the thickly-muscled Tsonga can attack net with the vigor of an Aussie Rules footballer on a breakaway, but the Frenchman’s game is much more than sheer force. Tsonga backs up his sledgehammer serve with a massive forehand and sharp-angled volleys.
Both men are dangerous on the run, but when stretched, Tsonga’s instinct is to go for it, while Federer factors the score, situation, and court positioning into sounder shot selection. Tsonga is capable of soaring, but Federer’s consistency is staggering—he’s contesting his 35th consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal (only five other active men have even played the last 35 majors)—and I believe he will leverage his edge in movement and on the backhand to create openings and take charge.
THE PICK: FEDERER IN FOUR SETS