Each day during the Australian Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview three must-see matches—and offer his predictions.
ZHENG JIE vs. (9) SAMANTHA STOSUR
Second Round; Rod Laver Arena, third match
Head-to-head: Stosur leads 3-2
Zheng stands 5'4 ½" but looms as a major obstacle for the skittish Stosur. The two-time Grand Slam semifinalist beat the Aussie, 6-3, 6-7 (9) 6-4, in Sydney earlier this month.
A 2010 semifinalist, Zheng has reached the fourth round in her last three Melbourne appearances, while Stosur is eager to ease the pain of her 2012 opening-round exit. These two shape shots differently: Zheng hits fast, flat drives that sometimes skim the top of the net; Stosur is at her best crunching a kick serve that hops as if infused with helium in order to set up her heavy topspin forehand.
They also both have weapons to torment each other: Stosur must use her heavy spin to keep the ball above the shorter Zheng's shoulders and out of her strike zone; Zheng will want to play to Stosur’s sometimes stiff two-handed backhand, and take her returns early to get the kicker on the rise. This could come down to which woman imposes her preferred pattern at crunch time.
Their lone Melbourne meeting came in doubles; in the 2006 final, Zheng and Zi Yan upset the top-seeded team of Stosur and Lisa Raymond to earn China’s first Grand Slam title. I have major respect for Zheng’s competitiveness, but her second serve can be suspect. If Stosur can relax—she looked tight slapping serves into net in the first set of her opening-round win—whip her topspin to pin Zheng behind the baseline, and keep her nerve on pivotal points, I see her advancing in a close encounter.
THE PICK: STOSUR IN THREE SETS
MADISON KEYS vs. (30) TAMIRA PASZEK
Second Round; Court 3, second match
Head-to-head: First meeting
Two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist Paszek snapped a six-year Australian Open skid with a 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 victory over Stefanie Voegele that spanned two hours and 46 minutes. It was her first win of the season. The feisty, 5'5" Austrian isn’t scared to take the first strike in rallies, or abruptly change direction by driving the ball down the line. At Wimbledon she’s been inspired when going the distance, winning seven of eight three-setters and proving she can thrive under major pressure.
Paszek is only five years older than the 17-year-old Keys, but she is much more experienced, contesting her 22nd Grand Slam tournament. Keys swept Australian Casey Dellacqua in the opening-round to score her second victory at a major in her third Grand Slam appearance. The 5’10” American is a dazzling talent whose attacking game is much more polished than her age suggests. Watch her closely and see how technically strong her massive serve and explosive groundstrokes are. The there's her court sense—playing with more topspin when she’s pushed wide, hitting the one-handed slice when stretched, and knowing when to go for the outright winner—which has improved dramatically during her brief career.
Paszek has made major runs before, but Keys has more shots, is more athletic, and more explosive. She can dictate on serve and has burst out to a 7-2 start this season. Coming off a draining match, Paszek is alreadt behind the eight ball, while Keys has been in fine form and has an immense upside.
The Pick: KEYS IN TWO SETS
KSENIA PERVAK vs. HEATHER WATSON
Second Round; Court 8, second match
Head-to-head: First meeting
Two young players competing for their first trip to the third round face off in what could be an entertaining outer-court encounter. The left-handed Pervak toppled hard-hitting No. 32 seed Mona Barthel in a three-set opening-round win. No. 50 Watson rallied from a set down to defeat Alexandra Cadantu.
Earlier this month, Pervak played through qualifying in Brisbane, surprised former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki (7-6 in the third), then took down No. 31 Urszula Radwanska before falling to No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals.
The 82nd-ranked Pervak is striking the ball well and should be feeling confident after her upset of Barthel, already her sixth win of the young season. Still, I like Watson’s court coverage and return game. The first British woman to win a WTA title in 24 years is a spirited competitor, and a win here can propel her even higher than her current No. 50 ranking. This could go the distance, and Watson gets the edge.
THE PICK: WATSON IN THREE SETS