Each day during the Australian Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview three must-see matches—and offer his predictions.
LAURA ROBSON vs. (8) PETRA KVITOVA
Second Round; Rod Laver Arena, second night match
Head-to-head: First meeting
A pair of powerful left-handers meet for the first time in what could be an electric night match between the former Wimbledon champion and former junior Wimbledon winner.
At the 2012 U.S. Open, Robson showed major potential in dispatching Grand Slam champions Kim Clijsters and Li Na en route to her first fourth-round appearance at a major. The 18-year-old Brit concluded 2012 winning 12 of her final 16 matches, and if she’s hitting with conviction she will test the eighth seed.
Kvitova owns all the shots, but she can be streaky and doesn’t always put points together wisely. She sometimes plays down the line prematurely, and though she’s a fine volleyer, the 6-foot Czech doesn’t always close net with urgency, creating challenging half volleys rather than more routine high volleys.
A year ago, Kvitova reached the Aussie Open semifinals and had a shot to seize the No. 1 ranking before bowing to Maria Sharapova. She is playing with the pressure of defending those points, and her asthma has posed problems in heat and humidity—so the fact this is a night match should help her. I see Robson as a real threat here, particularly if she can build an early lead and apply scoreboard pressure. Both women can end points with one swing, so the first strike is vital. But I think if Kvitova can handle the pressure and apply her all-court skills, she will advance.
THE PICK: KVITOVA IN THREE SETS
SVETLANA KUZNETSOVA vs. (26) SU-WEI HSIEH
Second Round; Margaret Court Arena, second match
Head-to-head: First meeting
Both women have made history in Melbourne. Five years ago, Hsieh became the first player from Chinese Taipei to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam here. Two years ago, Kuznetsova squandered six match points succumbing to Francesca Schiavone in a gut-wrenching, four-hour and 44-minute fourth-round loss, which was the longest women’s Grand Slam match in Open era history.
Two-time Grand Slam champion Kuznetsova is a much more talented and dangerous player than her current rank of No. 75. She’s also prone to self-sabotage caused by mind-numbing shot selection and mid-match implosions.
Hsieh, who closed 2012 winning 18 of her last 21 matches, will want to extend rallies to frustrate the Russian. She moves well, and if she can coax the crankiness out of Kuznetsova, then she should gain traction.
Clarity has been an issue for Kuznetsova: The reigning Aussie Open doubles champion can play aggressive all-court tennis if she chooses, or drop back and use her heavy topspin to play a counter-attacking baseline game. The problem is, Kuznetsova doesn’t always know which tactical path to pursue. Still, she's the more powerful and varied server, has dropped only three games in the first round, and looks rejuvenated after missing the final four months of 2012 with a right knee injury.
THE PICK: KUZNETSOVA IN TWO SETS
SHUAI PENG vs. (14) MARIA KIRILENKO
Second Round; Hisense Arena, first match
Head-to-head: Kirilenko leads 2-1
Familiar foes square off for the second time in the last three majors in an intriguing match pitting Kirilenko’s all-court prowess against Peng’s potent, flat two-handed strokes.
Kirilenko is extremely fit and quick to the ball. She as options on court and is shrewd making mid-match adjustments. The Moscow native has shown good instincts at net, winning 12 doubles titles, including the 2012 WTA Championships. If she’s getting beat by Peng’s power in baseline rallies, Kirilenko can change it up. In their last meeting at Wimbledon last July, I picked Kirilenko in three sets and she delivered a 6-1, 6-7 (8), 6-3 triumph.
The 32nd-ranked Peng barely missed out on a seeding here. Ranked as high as No. 14, she reached the fourth round two years ago and held a match point before bowing to Agnieszka Radwanska. Though her reach is limited because of her two-handed style, Peng is a pure ball striker, who will continue to fire away regardless of the pressure.
Three years ago, Kirilenko beat a pair of former top-ranked players—Sharapova and Dinara Safina—en route to the quarterfinals. I respect Kirilenko’s versatility and problem-solving skills, but have been impressed with Peng’s conviction striking her shots. She is competing with fierce desire and I give her a slight edge here in what could be another taxing three-setter.
THE PICK: PENG IN THREE SETS