Each day during the Australian Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview three must-see matches—and offer his predictions.
1. (7) JO-WILFRIED TSONGA vs. (9) RICHARD GASQUET
Fourth Round; Rod Laver Arena, third match
Head-to-head: Gasquet leads 4-3
Break out the Tricolor face paint for this clash—it's the first time in the Open era that Top-10 ranked Frenchmen have met in a major.
When Gasquet catches fire, his shot-making can light up the court. For a reminder, revisit his 2007 run to the Wimbledon semifinals, when he swept Tsonga then fought back to beat Andy Roddick, hitting electrifying winners previously only produced by Roger Federer and video-game geeks. Gasquet’s brilliant one-hander gives him an advantage in backhand exchanges, and he spots his serve very effectively to set up his first strike; he leads the tournament in first-serve points won (85 percent).
A French player who grew up with the pair once told me he believed Gasquet had more game, but Tsonga had more guts. Tsonga, who has shed some weight and seems to be playing with more discipline working with former Lleyton Hewitt mentor Roger Rasheed, brings physicality as well. The muscular 2008 finalist has more than a 30-pound weight advantage and a much meatier five-set record, 8-4, compared to Gasquet's 5-11.
I’m a sucker for shotmakers (Marcelo Rios, Hicham Arazi, Kei Nishikori, etc.) so it’s tempting to go with Gasquet, but Tsonga hasn’t lost a set yet, and I can’t see him shrinking from the moment against a fellow Frenchman.
THE PICK: TSONGA IN FOUR SETS
2. (2) ROGER FEDERER vs. (13) MILOS RAONIC
Fourth Round; Rod Laver Arena, second night match
Head-to-head: Federer leads 3-0
Federer calls the Aussie Open the “Happy Slam,” and the Swiss is usually sporting a smile after the first week of majors. Federer has reached an astounding 34 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals, but Raonic’s serve is so scary it could frighten the grin off an emoticon.
In their past meetings, breaks have been as scarce as a seat on court: Four of nine sets have been decided in tie-breakers. If this rematch becomes a tie-break test, Raonic will be dangerous. Last season, the 6’5” Canadian led the ATP in first-serve points won (82 percent), was second in aces (1,002), and won the third most tie-breakers (27). He is bidding to become the first Canadian man in Open era history to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal.
Raonic gets up for facing Federer, pushing him to decisive tie-breakers in Madrid and Halle last year. The Canadian’s return game and backhand are vulnerabilities, and he’s not nearly as quick around the court as Federer, so look for the four-time champion to vary the depth of his slice backhand and make the big man bend.
When big servers are landing, they can surprise Federer in majors—Tomas Berdych beat him at the 2010 Wimbledon and 2012 U.S. Open, Robin Soderling at the 2010 French Open, and Tsonga at 2011 Wimbledon—but I believe Federer will be very vigilant here. and his experience, athleticism and all-court skills make him the pick.
THE PICK: FEDERER IN FOUR SETS
3. JEREMY CHARDY vs. (21) ANDREAS SEPPI
Fourth Round Hisense Arena, second match
Head-to-head: First meeting
Here we have two marathon men coming off five-set wins over seeds try to sustain inspired runs. Playing his 32nd major, Seppi is bidding to reach his first Grand Slam quarterfinal and become the first Italian man since Cristiano Caratti in 1991 to reach the last eight here. Chardy is aiming for his first quarterfinal in his 20th major.
The Frenchman ripped his forehand, used the chip backhand shrewdly, and smacked 20 aces stunning Juan Martin del Potro in round three. But you know what happens the round after a man pulls off an emotional major upset, right?
No. 100 Lukas Rosol shocked Rafael Nadal last year at Wimbledon and lost in the next round. But No. 212 Mark Edmondson toppled top-seeded Ken Rosewall in the ’76 Aussie Open, then beat heavily-favored John Newcombe to take the title. Will Chardy ride the wave or hit the rock after his biggest career win?
Seppi is so placid on court, you could tell him you just saw his rental car rolling down the hill and he probably wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. His control is his strength—he will not overplay his shots—but the 6’3” Italian will not overwhelm with his serve either. Chardy is the bigger server and more explosive player; Seppi is the steadier one. Six of Seppi’s last eight major matches have gone the distance, and while Chardy has won six of his eight career five-setters, I’ll pick Seppi to squeeze out another tight one.
THE PICK: SEPPI IN FIVE SETS