Each day during the Australian Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview three must-see matches—and offer his predictions.
1. KAI-CHEN CHANG vs. (9) SAMANTHA STOSUR
Head-to-head: Chang leads 1-0
On the surface, the prospect of a Top 10-ranked Grand Slam champion playing on her home soil against a world No. 86 with precisely four career major match wins has all the makings of a mis-match, right?
For one, Chang stunned Stosur, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (3), just three months ago to reach her first WTA final in Osaka. Then consider that Stosur went winless in tune-up tournaments in Brisbane and Sydney. She's also coming off minor surgery to remove spurs from her left ankle, looked tight and tentative in an opening-round exit last year, and conceded that she’s felt the pressure playing in her home major, and you can understand why an upset is a real possibility here.
Stosur’s plight reminds me of Amelie Mauresmo’s struggles at Roland Garros: She wants so badly to do well and please supporters that the thought of another collapse can leave her looking as tight as someone trapped in a strait jacket.
Chang should be confident given her recent win. Still, Stosur’s hellacious kick serve and stinging topspin forehand put this match in her hands. The question is: Can she calm the nerves that have terrorized her here in the past? A fast start would help. If she gets down early, buckle up.
THE PICK: STOSUR IN THREE SETS
2. CASEY DELLACQUA vs. MADISON KEYS
Head-to-head: First meeting
They’re separated by three spots in the rankings, five inches in height, and a decade in age.
Dellacqua reached the second week with a fourth-round run four years ago. But times have changed: The 27-year-old lefty from Perth eked out just five games against 42-year-old qualifier Kimiko Date-Krumm in Sydney, which doesn’t exactly inspire expectations of an extended stay in Melbourne. However, Dellacqua has the experience of playing on Margaret Court Arena and will have complete crowd support, while the 17-year-old Keys has played only three Grand Slam matches in her young career.
If you saw Keys' eye-popping performance in Sydney—she crushed No. 17 Lucie Safarova and former Australian Open semifinalist Zheng Jie in succession, and pushed sixth-ranked Li Na to three sets in the quarters—then you know her upside looks larger than the Outback. The American is a gifted player with an instinct for an attack and a massive serve, but like many young pros, she’s still refining the rough edges, learning to play the score, and string sound points together.
Keys is the more explosive player, and if she can manage the moment, master her nerve, and play points on her terms, I think she’ll advance in the first of many Melbourne wins to come.
THE PICK: KEYS IN TWO SETS
3. GALINA VOSKOBOEVA vs. (25) VENUS WILLIAMS
Head-to-head : First meeting
Introductory meetings in majors can sometimes start with a feeling-out period where both players hit down the middle before expanding their aim and ambition. But Venus isn’t one to poke around. Expect her to come out blasting away in her Australian Open return.
The 80th-ranked Voskoboeva enters with much more match play: She’s 4-2 after playing through qualifying to reach the round of 16 in Sydney. Voskoboeva has reached the third round in two of her last three trips to Melbourne, while Venus—who hasn't played yet this year—has been vulnerable to early-round exits in Oz. She suffered a 2-6, 6-0, 9-7 first-round loss to No. 94 Tsvetana Pironkova in the 2006 first round, and fell to No. 46 Carla Suarez Navarro in the 2009 second round.
Given her ongoing battle with the energy-sapping Sjögren's Syndrome, it’s tough to gauge the stamina that the 32-year-old star can bring on a day-to-day basis. But the fact that she’s planning to play doubles with sister Serena suggests Venus must be feeling fairly confident about her strength and endurance.
Venus has the edge in experience and power, and if she’s healthy, she should prevail.
THE PICK: WILLIAMS IN TWO SETS