Each day during the Australian Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview three must-see matches—and offer his predictions.
1. ALEJANDRO FALLA vs. (9) RICHARD GASQUET
Second Round; Court 3, fourth match
Head-to-head: Gasquet leads 1-0
Lefty spin can bamboozle some right-handers, but Gasquet isn’t usually one of them. The Frenchman with the flashy one-handed backhand has won nine straight matches against southpaws.
Falla is tricky because his style defies expectation. His two-handed backhand tends to be more dangerous than his lefty forehand, and though he grew up on clay in Colombia, playing in the high altitude of his homeland helped him develop his flat shots and willingness to take the ball early. Consequently, Falla—who reached the fourth round of the 2011 French Open, beat John Isner at Wimbledon last year, and took a two-set lead over Roger Federer at SW19 in 2010—is most comfortable on hard courts.
Gasquet oozes all-court ability, but can be maddening to watch when he retreats to default position eight feet behind the baseline. Working with coaches Riccardo Piatti and 2001 Australian Open semifinalist Sebastien Grosjean, the 26-year-old is trying to apply his transition game and sharp volleying skills. Gasquet is riding a six-match winning streak after opening the year collecting his eighth career title in Doha. Three of those titles have come on hard courts.
This is a match Gasquet should control, but that’s what scares me: Expectation sometimes stifles his aggression. Still, Gasquet has more shots, has reached the fourth round three times Down Under, and he's my pick.
THE PICK: GASQUET IN FOUR SETS
2. LUKAS ROSOL vs. (13) MILOS RAONIC
Second Round; Court 13, second match
Head-to-head: First Meeting
Rosol burst from anonymity when he scored one of the most shocking upsets in Open Era history, stunning Rafael Nadal in the second round of Wimbledon last June. It was an audacious display of brilliance from Rosol, who had never won a match on grass before last summer.
The 75th-ranked Czech will need to deliver another commanding serving performance to topple Raonic, whose wrecking ball serve is one of the most lethal weapons in tennis. Last year, Raonic led the ATP in service games won (93%), break points saved (74%), first-serve points won (82%) and was second in aces (1,002), only three behind tour-leader Isner.
The 22-year-old Canadian is a tremendous talent, but his game is still a work in progress. His return is not nearly as reliable as his serve, and while he grew up looking up to Pete Sampras and is trying to cultivate an attacking game, Raonic too often allows himself to be dragged into baseline rallies against quicker opponents.
If you saw Rosol’s masterful performance against Nadal, then you know the danger he poses. Two imposing servers may make this a tie-break test; Raonic won 27 tie-breakers last year, third most in the sport, while Rosol is 15-23 in them.
THE PICK: RAONIC IN FOUR SETS
3. RICARDIS BERANKIS vs. (25) FLORIAN MAYER
Second Round; Court 6, first match
Head-to-head: Even, 1-1
They’ve driven each other to the distance in splitting prior meetings, and this shapes up as another extended duel.
The 6'3" German has five inches and about 25 pounds on Berankis, who looks so slight from a distance he could be mistaken for a ball kid. Don’t be fooled: Berankis reached the third round here in his lone prior appearance.
Though the lanky Mayer is a mechanical ball striker, he can make magic happen. Mayer drilled 60 winners to beat Gasquet and reach his second major quarterfinal at Wimbledon last July. Mayer is contesting his 29th career major, while the 22-year-old Berankis is playing his fourth.
Given Mayer’s edge in experience and superior serve, you’d have to be either desperate for an upset or disorientated from sleep deprivation to pick the 110th-ranked qualifier with a suspect second serve, right?
Admittedly, this is a reach, but I’m backing Berankis. He’s very quick around the court and consistent from the baseline, and is comfortable on this surface, having dropped just one set in four tournament wins (three in qualifying). Berankis played through qualifying to reach the Los Angeles final last summer and injuries have sidetracked him in the past, which seem to given him more motivation and appreciation for major moments now. If he can minimize the double faults and drag Mayer into rallies, Berankis could surprise.
THE PICK: BERANKIS IN FIVE SETS