Each day during the Australian Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview three must-see matches—and offer his predictions.
1. (25) VENUS WILLIAMS vs. (2) MARIA SHARAPOVA
Third Round; Rod Laver Arena, first night match
Head-to-head: Sharapova leads 4-3
A blockbuster battle between Grand Slam champions should fill Rod Laver Arena with sound and fury. Both are titanic power players, so the woman making the first strike will have the edge.
Sharapova is hitting with domineering authority, force-feeding four bagels in four sets and ravaging her returns, converting 12 of 18 break points. Venus’s first serve is one of the best in women’s tennis history: She still brings searing 120 M.P.H. heat into the corners. Waging an ongoing battle with Sjögren's Syndrome, Williams compares playing pro tennis with the energy-sapping illness to driving a race car running on only a half tank of fuel, but she’s revved up and running well, having not dropped a set in singles or doubles.
If Venus plays her vintage game, she can still hit a higher level in spurts—she’s faster, her serve is bigger, she’s the better net player, and her game is deeper. The question is, can she match Maria’s intensity, consistency, and commitment to obliteration from the first ball? The second serve is the most vulnerable shot for both players; on the deuce side Venus almost always slices her wide to the right-hander’s forehand, so look for Sharapova to sit on that return and rip it.
Williams swept Sharapova in both of their major meetings—at Wimbledon in 2005 and 2007—but Sharapova has won three of their four hard-court clashes. I believe Venus’ top level of tennis will most often beat Maria’s best level, but Maria plays her best more often. The 2008 champion has reached the Aussie Open final in three of her last five appearances and has the edge if this goes the distance: Sharapova was 14-1 in three-setters last year. I like her to come through a tight test.
THE PICK: SHARAPOVA IN THREE SETS
2. MADISON KEYS vs. (5) ANGELIQUE KERBER
Third Round; Rod Laver Arena, first match
Head-to-head: First meeting
The 105th-ranked Keys has blasted through two rounds in an impressive break-out performance. Kerber knows all about coming-out parties. The lefty was ranked No. 92 and had never surpassed the third round of a Grand Slam when she stormed into the 2011 U.S. Open semifinals.
The sturdy German is fit and tough—she’s won 20 of her last 24 three-setters—puts plenty of balls in play, counters pace effectively (particularly off her two-handed backhand), and relishes big moments. She has reached two Grand Slam semifinals in her last five majors and is the last woman to beat Serena Williams. Kerber will try to grind the 17-year-old American from the baseline.
Barring injury or apathy, Keys has all the weapons to be a Top 10 player. Keys has won seven of her last eight matches, and her menacing, massive serve means that even if the rest of her game goes off, she can still challenge top players. The teenager has swept three left-handers this month, so I don’t think the spin will trouble her, though the pressure of the moment could.
An explosive all-courter, Keys can crush the ball with fearlessness, alter the spin and height of her shots, close at net, and looks like she’s having a blast out there. Kerber is the favorite, and I can’t argue if you back her, but think the Keys thrill ride continues.
THE PICK: KEYS IN THREE SETS
3. (22) JELENA JANKOVIC vs. (13) ANA IVANOVIC
Third Round; Hisense Arena, second match
Head-to-head: Ivanovic leads 7-3
Serbian Fed Cup teammates and former world No. 1s face off in what could be a fascinating, tense match. The rivalry between the Belgrade baseliners was once so fierce they were barely on speaking terms; they’ve since buried the hatchet, but there won’t be a lot of small talk on court.
Stylistically, they are very different players. Former U.S. Open finalist Jankovic is quicker around the court, better on the counter-attack, and her two-handed backhand is her best shot. Ivanovic, the 2008 French Open champion and Australian Open finalist, is an aggressive baseliner who possesses more power: Her flat forehand will be the biggest weapon on the court.
Jankovic must make this match about movement and backhand exchanges, while Ivanovic will want to make it a hitting contest and impose her forehand, forcing JJ to counter off her back foot. It’s a tough call because both can be emotional competitors prone to revealing inner angst and indecision through body language. Maintaining mental strength and a high first-serve percentage is crucial as both can struggle on second serve under pressure.
Jankovic is more athletic, her backhand down the line is a kill shot, and she was a Melbourne semifinalist five years ago. The faster surface should favor Ivanovic; she’s the power player and has won four of their six hard-court meetings. For those reasons, I’m riding with Ana.
THE PICK: IVANOVIC IN THREE SETS