Each day during the Australian Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview three must-see matches—and offer his predictions.
1. LLEYTON HEWITT vs. (8) JANKO TIPSAREVIC
Head-to-head: Hewitt leads 3-1
This match may generate the most raw high-voltage energy Melbourne has seen since AC/DC rocked Rod Laver Arena.
Hewitt gets up for the majors and relishes turning matches into hard-court street fights. It can get pretty intense—recall Hewitt’s verbal and sometimes physical clashes with Alex Corretja, Guillermo Coria, Juan Ignacio Chela, and David Nalbandian for reminders—which often brings out the best in the feisty former No. 1.
Hewitt hit the ball cleanly in exhibition wins over Milos Raonic, Tomas Berdych, and Juan Martin del Potro in Kooyong, and enters this match on a high.
“I’m extremely happy with how I’m hitting the ball at the moment, and a lot of the pressure’s on [Tipsarevic],” said Hewitt, who will likely pull out the viche, the lawn mower and plenty of primal “Come ons!” to energize himself and the Aussie faithful.
The 31-year-old is playing his 17th Open, but he’s only three years older than Tipsarevic. And although the pressure is on the tattooed Dostoevski devotee, this isn’t Tipsy’s first trip to a major pressure-cooker.
It’s tempting to pick the sentimental favorite, but I believe Tipsarevic’s first serve and forehand—he served 28 aces against just three double faults in winning Chennai last week, and owns a more explosive forehand than Hewitt—are the key weapons here, and I like him to prevail in what could be a punishing battle.
THE PICK: TIPSAREVIC IN FIVE SETS
2. DAVID GOFFIN vs. (22) FERNANDO VERDASCO
Head-to-head: First meeting
Verdasco has had his shares of highs and lows Down Under. He came achingly close to reaching the 2009 final, falling short to Rafael Nadal in an epic five-setter, and squandered a two-set lead in a tight five-set loss to Bernard Tomic last year.
The Spanish left-hander's vicious forehand will be the biggest shot on the court, and he is the bigger, stronger athlete: The chiseled Spaniard has 45 pounds and three inches on the scrawny Goffin, who plays with the youthful exuberance of a school kid cutting class to feed his tennis fix.
Tell me that if Verdasco lands his first serve frequently, smacks that forehand with authority, and maintains his nerve that he will power past Goffin, and I won’t argue with you. Another lefty veteran, Jurgen Melzer, swept Goffin in Brisbane last week.
But while Verdasco has a six-pack, Goffin has a sixth sense for point construction. He has shrewd court sense, fast hands—watch him take the ball on the rise and redirect it with command—and he can be creative playing off pace. Verdasco may well blow Goffin off the court, but what’s the fun of an opening day without risk? I’ll ride with the Belgian in an upset.
THE PICK: GOFFIN IN FIVE SETS
3. GRIGOR DIMITROV vs. (32) JULIEN BENNETEAU
Head-to-head: Dimitrov leads 2-0
The pair engaged in a triple tie-break thriller in Basel last fall, with Dimitrov drilling 17 aces to earn a gripping, 7-6, 6-7, 7-6 decision. The rematch could be an adventure.
Underestimate Benneteau at your own risk. This man held a two-set lead over Roger Federer at Wimbledon last June and reached the Sydney semifinals last week (falling 10-8 in a third-set tie-breaker to Kevin Anderson), but he’s felt the competitive blues in Oz. Benneteau has lost in the first round five times in eight prior appearances.
Benneteau tends to be more consistent and his two-handed backhand is a weapon. Dimitrov is the more explosive player, has younger legs—should stamina come into play—and served brilliantly to set up his electrifying forehand in reaching his first ATP final in Brisbane earlier this month.
Admittedly, I’ve been burned picking Dimitrov in the past. Still, he exudes dazzling shot-making skills and I believe in his game. It’s his head that worries me. If he can reproduce the quality of tennis and calm sense he showed in Brisbane, I believe Dimitrov will win. If he indulges his urge for low-percentage, highlight-reel theatrics, mayhem may ensue. Either way, it should be fun to watch.
THE PICK: DIMITROV IN FOUR SETS