Each day during the Australian Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview three must-see matches—and offer his predictions.
1. SABINE LISICKI vs. (10) CAROLINE WOZNIACKI
Head-to-head: Lisicki leads 2-1
Once a title contender, Wozniacki is at risk of becoming a first-round casualty. Two years ago, Wozniacki held match point against Li Na for a spot in the final only to suffer a gut-wrenching semifinal loss. Now, the former No. 1 is playing to prevent her third straight Grand Slam opening-round exit.
Wozniacki has looked tentative in two tune-up losses and knows playing prevent defense against the harder-hitting Lisicki has been a recipe for defeat in the past.
The 36th-ranked German owns an imposing serve, can rip returns off both wings and has dictated play against Wozniacki in winning their last two meetings with Wozniacki's lone victory coming at the 2008 Australian Open. Lisicki has a habit of over-hitting at times; consequently she can squander points.
Wozniacki’s confidence has waned considerably during her slide. She will want to use her counter-punching skills to extend points against the sometime erratic Lisicki, but Wozniacki must be willing to hit her best shot, the two-handed backhand, up the line at times and she must maintain depth on her forehand or risk Lisicki overpowering her in crosscourt exchanges.
On the surface, this clash pits Wozniacki’s consistency and quickness against Lisicki’s superior serve and power, but Lisicki is quick around the court too, she’s more explosive and if she’s controlling her blasts, she should advance.
THE PICK: SABINE LISICKI IN THREE SETS
2. FRANCESCA SCHIAVONE vs. (8) PETRA KVITOVA
Head-to-head: Kvitova leads 3-1
Former Grand Slam champions eager for fresh starts meet in a clash of contrasting styles. Kvitova is a flatter hitter capable of over-powering almost anyone when she’s on. Spin doctor Schiavone mixes heavy topspin drives bounding shoulder high with the slice backhands slithering deviously low in an effort to displace and disorientate opponents.
Schiavone is a shrewd mid-match adjustor, who can close at net and has staying power. The opera fan has a flair for the dramatic: She fought off six match points subduing Svetlana Kuznetsova in a four hour, 44-minute Oz Open epic two years ago — the longest women’s major match in Open Era history. The 6-foot Kvitova handles the high ball well and must be vigilant getting up quickly to any short slices. Kvitova’s asthma can act up in heat and humidity, the 2011 Wimbledon champion struggled with the pressure of expectation last year and she’s prone to pulling the trigger prematurely on down the line drives.
Former Wimbledon champion Kvitova has all the shots and Schiavone has more guts than a crocodile wrestler. If Kvitova can consistently connect on her first serve and play with patience — use her lefty forehand crosscourt to corner Schiavone in the backhand side and then drive the ball down the line when she’s on or inside the baseline — this match is in her hands.
THE PICK: KVITOVA IN TWO SETS
3. JAMIE HAMPTON vs. (31) URSZULA RADWANSKA
Head-to-head: First meeting
By the time this match is over, Hampton will have spent so much time with the Radwanska sisters recently they may wind up Facebook friends.
Hampton played with poise and power in testing top-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska before losing, 7-6, 7-6, in the Auckland semifinals earlier this month. The 5-foot-10 Urszula doesn’t have her older sister’s flair for finesse, but she can back opponents off the baseline with her power, she reached her first WTA final last June, advanced to successive semifinals after the 2012 U.S. Open and figures to be eager after earning seeded status in Melbourne for the first time.
The 63rd-ranked Hampton swept 2010 Australian Open semifinalist Zheng Jie in Auckland and the American has played bold, clean tennis in recent months. Since losing to Marion Bartoli in the U.S. Open first round last August, Hampton has posted a 13-4 record with two of those losses coming to Agnieszka.
This looks like a true toss-up. I don’t see either woman dominating on serve, so it should be a match decided from the baseline. Hampton played with conviction and positive emotion in Auckland and if she can reproduce that level of play here, I like her chances to pull off the upset.
THE PICK: HAMPTON IN THREE SETS