Each day during the Australian Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview three must-see matches—and offer his predictions.
1. (4) DAVID FERRER vs. (16) KEI NISHIKORI
Fourth Round; Rod Laver Arena, second match
Head-to-head: Nishikori leads 2-1
This is a match between 2012 quarterfinalists who favor the forehand and can drill the ball with accuracy on the run. Auckland champion Ferrer is 10-1 this season. He’s playing for his fifth consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal and his 499th career win, which is fourth all-time among Spanish men.
Nishikori dropped his opening set of the event, but has reeled off nine straight since. However, he has yet to face a Top 50-ranked opponent, and lifting his level may be a challenge. He’s lost six of his last eight matches against Top 10 opponents, with his only wins coming against Tomas Berdych in Tokyo last fall—and against Ferrer at the Olympics last July. Don’t let Nishikori's unimposing 5’10”, 150-pound frame fool you: He can crack the ball.
In their last major meeting, Nishikori beat Ferrer to the punch, and his poise amid fifth-set pressure impressed me when he out-dueled the Spaniard, 7-5 in the fifth, at the 2008 U.S. Open. When Nishikori's timing is on, he can take the forehand a little bit earlier and fire it a bit flatter than Ferrer; both men are very skilled hitting the forehand swing volley.
The harder the grind, the more intensity Ferrer brings to the fight—he’s won four consecutive five-setters and is 17-9 going the distance. But Nishikori has won six of seven career five-setters, is seven years younger (so he should have fresher legs), he has plenty of fan support Down Under. I give him a slight edge here in what could be a grueling test.
THE PICK: NISHIKORI IN FIVE SETS
2. (8) JANKO TIPSAREVIC vs. (10) NICOLAS ALMAGRO
Fourth Round; Hisense Arena, third match
Head-to-head: Almagro leads 1-0
This shapes up as a high-octane baseline battle between undefeated opponents playing for their first Australian Open quarterfinal.
Since Almagro went the distance in the first round, he has not surrendered a set. Chennai champion Tipsarevic is 7-0 this season, though scoring successive five-set wins that may physically deplete him. The Serb has won just one of his last six matches against Top 20 opponents; Almagro has dropped eight of his last nine vs. Top 10 opponents.
The powerful Spaniard is more explosive on the first serve, and his vicious kicker on the second delivery is tough to attack. The tattooed Tipsarevic is more dangerous on the return, as he can shorten his stroke to take it on the rise, while Almagro has bigger backswings and consequently needs more time to generate his returns.
Tipsarevic tends to play a bit closer to the baseline, take the ball a bit earlier, and is more effective moving forward to finish at net. If he’s timing the ball well, his ability to take the offensive in baseline exchanges could give him the edge; though Almagro, who has 62 aces and is winning 82 percent of his first-serve points through three rounds, can nullify that with another strong serving day. Almagro swept their lone meeting on the red clay of Roland Garros, but the faster hard court should help Tipsy turn the tables.
THE PICK: TIPSAREVIC IN FIVE SETS
3. KEVIN ANDERSON vs. (5) TOMAS BERDYCH
Fourth Round; Margaret Court Arena, fourth match
Head-to-head: Berdych leads 4-0
Big Berd rarely looks up to opponents—only seven men in the Top 100 are taller than the 6’5” Czech—and the 6’8” Anderson is one of them.
Size doesn’t always matter, but the serve can be a difference maker on the faster Melbourne courts. A three-time All-American at Illinois, Anderson is a smart situational server who doesn’t just try to blast his way past opponents; he changes spin, speed, and location shrewdly, and will need a masterful serving day against Berdych, who is more athletic and dynamic.
It’s simplistic to view Berdych’s 4-0 record against the South African and dismiss Anderson as a non-threat. But remember that Jeremy Chardy was winless against Juan Martin del Potro before surprising the seventh-ranked Argentine, and Anderson nearly knocked Berdych out of Roland Garros last year, holding a two-sets-to-one lead before Berdych fought back to prevail in five.
Playing for his third straight Australian Open quarterfinal, the favored Berdych is under more pressure, and because he hits so flat, he doesn’t have as much margin for error if he gets tight. That’s why a fast start is imperative for Anderson: He’s got to make Berdych, who can get nervous, feel the heat early. If he does, he can extend this one, but I think Berdych has more game and more experience. If he manages his nerve he should advance.
THE PICK: BERDYCH IN FOUR SETS