Each day during the Australian Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview three must-see matches—and offer his predictions.
1. GAEL MONFILS vs. (18) ALEXANDR DOLGOPOLOV
Head-to-head: First meeting
Repaint the blue court with a kaleidoscope of color and it still won’t match the vivd all-court flair these two entertaining shotmakers can provide.
Former No. 7 Monfils is playing his first major since the 2012 Australian Open. A right knee injury sidelined him for three-and-a-half months last season, but he’s moved well and looked eager in seven matches this month.
Dolgopolov has a very quick service action and loose arm, generating plenty of power from low toss that’s tough to read. He can flatten out his forehand and bamboozle opponents with his extreme slice backhand and devotion to the drop shot.
They are two of tennis' fastest men and both sometimes seem more interested in scoring style points than constructing sound points. Monfils is the stronger, more explosive athlete with a longer reach and a more penetrating backhand. But size disparity has not stalled the Ukrainian in the past. Dolgopolov deconstructed two bigger men — 2008 finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and No. 4 Robin Soderling — to reach the 2011 quarterfinals, while former Australian Open junior champ Monfils has yet to surpass the fourth round.
If he’s landing his first serve, works over Dolgo’s weaker backhand wing and doesn’t drift into defensive positions too far beyond the baseline, I believe Monfils will win a wild one.
THE PICK: MONFILS IN FIVE SETS
2. JARKKO NIEMINEN vs. (19) TOMMY HAAS
Head-to-head: Haas leads 3-0
These 30-something veterans have been around so long, Haas reached his first Australian Open semifinal 13 years ago and Nieminen has faced five former champions — Pete Sampras, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Marat Safin, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal — in Melbourne. Both have had success here: Haas is a three-time semifinalist and Nieminen reached the 2008 singles quarterfinals and 2010 doubles semifinals.
Nieminen is solid in all areas, but lacks one imposing weapon. The Fin’s two-handed backhand is his kill shot so look for Haas to lash his whipping one-handed backhand crosscourt to the lefty’s forehand to create space. Haas started 2012 ranked No. 205 before a revival in which he beat Roger Federer in the Halle final and earned ATP Comeback Player of the Year honors. But he’s failed to survive the first round in four of his last seven majors and knows this is a danger match.
They’ve only played once in the last 10 years with Haas scoring a 7-6 (9), 6-4 win in Indian Wells last March. Haas hits his shots with a little more juice, he is the more aggressive all-courter and while Nieminen is usually a cagey competitor, he has retired from Oz Open matches three times previously.
THE PICK: HAAS IN FOUR SETS
3. MARINKO MATOSEVIC vs. (12) MARIN CILIC
Head-to-head: Cilic leads 1-0
Five months ago, Matosevic experienced the ecstasy and agony of Grand Slam tennis, taking a two-set lead over Cilic at the U.S. Open only to fall in five sets.
The Bosnian-born Matosevic, whose parents are of Croatian descent, lives in Melbourne and is coming off a break-through season in which he reached his first ATP final as a qualifier in Delray Beach and rocketed more than 150 spots up the rankings. The highest-ranked Aussie man is hungry for his first major win and should be empowered by both a raucous crowd and the confidence gained from nearly knocking Cilic out in New York.
The 6-foot-6 Cilic is fast and fit — he’s won his last six five-setters — and while he doesn’t serve quite as big as his size suggests, his expansive reach can shrink the court and he can use his two-handed backhand to corner opponents. Cilic vaulted to a career-high rank of No. 9 after his run to the 2010 Australian Open semifinals.
These are two big guys who can crack the ball from the backcourt. Cilic is the more experienced and polished player, who transitions from defense to offense more effectively. And though Matosevic should be pumped before the home crowd even if Cilic gets down, he is 15-6 in five-setters and knows he can come back.
THE PICK: CILIC IN FOUR SETS