Each day during the Australian Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview three must-see matches—and offer his predictions.
1. XAVIER MALISSE vs. (22) FERNANDO VERDASCO
Second Round: Margaret Court Arena, 7 p.m. EST
Head-to-head: Verdasco leads 2-1
In the first round, Verdasco beat back 22-year-old Belgian David Goffin, fighting from a break down in the fourth set to grind out a five-set victory. Now Verdasco takes on 32-year-old Belgian Malisse, needing no reminder of the threat he poses. Malisse squeezed out a five-set triumph in their meeting at Wimbledon last June.
When motivated, the X-Man possesses the skills to pose problems. The 2002 Wimbledon semifinalist often smooth-steps around his backhand to crack his forehand with ambition and direction. His backhand is not a weakness, but he prefers to play it cross-court and doesn’t drive it down the line nearly as much as the forehand. Malisse has won eight of his last nine matches against lefties.
The Spanish lefty snapped a three-match losing streak in five-setters with his first-round win, perhaps a result of the off-court training time Verdasco has put in with Gil Reyes, Andre Agassi’s fitness trainer. The 194-pounder looks so sculpted that he could work as a stunt double for Michelangelo’s David.
When Verdasco gets tight, he can complicate matters, losing his nerve, the racquet-head speed on his second serve, and the depth on his backhand. A fast start is important: If Verdasco can drive his favored forehand deep and alter the height on that shot to prevent Malisse from stepping in, this is a match he can control.
THE PICK: VERDASCO IN FOUR SETS
2. BRIAN BAKER vs. (20) SAM QUERREY
Second Round; Court 6, second match
Head-to-head: First meeting
This is their first Tour-level meeting, but the Americans aren’t exactly strangers to one another. Querrey beat Baker at the Sarasota Challenger last April, 6-3, 1-6, 6-3.
A thoughtful player, Baker is very sound technically and tactically. He reads the game well and is adept at figuring out what opponents don’t like—and feeding them just that. Sidelined for nearly six years with an assortment of injuries, Baker made one of the best comebacks in Open era history last year and is now pushing for a Top 50 spot.
Throughout his career, Querrey has shown flashes of Top 10 talent—he once hit 10 aces in a row (against James Blake) and in 2010 won four titles in five finals on three different surfaces. The problem for Sam is sustaining it. The 6'6" Californian has the components for success—formidable serve, heavy forehand, the power to control from the backcourt, athleticism to close at net—the question is: Does he have the desire and drive to make it work?
Querrey has lost six of his last eight matches to fellow Americans, is 1-5 in five-setters, has failed to survive the second round Down under four years running, and he’s up against a savvy and hungry opponent. I’m tempted to ride with the revived Baker, but if Querrey can hit the corners with his serve and set up that forehand, it’s a winning combination—if he competes with interest and intensity.
THE PICK: QUERREY IN FOUR SETS
3. FELICIANO LOPEZ vs. (31) RADEK STEPANEK
Second Round; Court 3, fourth match
Head-to-head: Stepanek leads 7-2
Though Stepnaek, a 2012 Australian Open doubles champion, has owned this match-up, Lopez has won two of their last three meetings. If the court is playing faster this year, as some suggest, that could benefit the left-handed Spaniard, whose service motion is so fluid it should be silk screened on t-shirts as a model for hackers and elites alike.
The 42nd-ranked Lopez is coming off a career-best fourth-round performance in Melbourne last year. He can summon his best tennis in important moments—he beat Juan Martin del Potro in Argentina to help lead Spain to the 2008 Davis Cup—and when he’s sliding that slice serve into the corners, he can be dangerous in tie-breakers.
Stepanek, a Davis Cup hero himself, retired from Sydney with an intercostal strain, but fought back from a two-set deficit against Viktor Troicki on Monday for his fifth career comeback from a two-set hole. Lopez, who swept his first-round match, should be fresher, and he has a better five-set record than the Czech (a 16-8 mark compared to 14-21).
If Lopez serves effectively and tie-breakers come into play, he has a shot at the upset. But Stepanek, an underrated server himself, puts a lot of returns in play, and can use his two-handed backhand to break Lopez down from the baseline or force him to pass off his one-hander. I see the Worm working his way through this match.
THE PICK: STEPANEK IN FOUR SETS