Each day during the Australian Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview three must-see matches—and offer his predictions.
1. (14) MARIA KIRILENKO vs. (20) YANINA WICKMAYER
Third Round; Hisense Arena, first match
Head-to-head: First meeting
Expectations spiked when Wickmayer soared to the 2009 U.S. Open semifinals, but she’s stumbled in majors since, failing to survive the second round in five of her last eight Grand Slam tournaments.
The rangy Wickmayer is off to a strong 6-2 start this season, reaching the Auckland final where she fell to undefeated Agnieszka Radwanska. Wickmayer can win this match if she can sustain the high first-serve percentage she’s had through two rounds, attack Kirilenko’s second serves to keep the points short and maintain the depth on her groundstrokes. Wickmayer’s strength is her ground game, but Kirilenko can play sharper angles, she’s more comfortable from more areas on the court and she’s had success in Melbourne in the past. Kirilenko beat a pair of former top-ranked players—Maria Sharapova and Dinara Safina—en route to the 2010 quarterfinals and showed her sharp instincts at net advancing to the 2011 doubles final. Kirilenko would be wise to drag Wickmayer forward at times as she's not nearly as comfortable at net as the Russian.
It’s quite possible Wickmayer finds her groove and blasts Kirilenko back behind the baseline, but I like the fact Kirilenko has plenty of options and is willing to mix it up to find solutions. Given her variety and track record here, I think she’ll advance.
THE PICK: KIRILENKO IN TWO SETS
2. LAURA ROBSON vs. (29) SLOANE STEPHENS
Third Round; Court 2, third match
Head-to-head: Stephens leads 1-0
They squared off in the season opener in Hobart with Stephens squeezing out a 6-4, 7-6 (4) victory in a battle of two teenagers who look like future Top 10 standouts.
This tournament is a homecoming of sorts for the 18-year-old Robson, who was born in Melbourne and thrilled Aussie fans fighting back from a 1-4 third-set deficit to topple 2012 semifinalist Petra Kvitova, 2-6, 6-3, 11-9. The left-handed Robson is a rhythm player and beautiful ball striker. When she finds her range, she can punctuate points quickly as the shots flow like all the right answers on a test. Robson should be empowered winning an exhausting duel with Kvitova, though that battle could sap some strength from her legs. Robson overcame 12 double faults in round two and knows she must play a cleaner match against Stephens, who is speedier and has played cleaner tennis to this point, albeit against lower-ranked opponents.
If Stephens leave shots hanging short in the court and plays down the middle too often, Robson will overpower her. The 19-year-old Stephens is playing with purpose after a torn abdominal injury sidelined her for the final two months of 2012. I think if Stephens works the width of the court to make the slower Robson move and prevents Robson, who broke Kvitova seven times, from getting too many looks at second serves, she will prevail.
THE PICK: STEPHENS IN THREE SETS
3. SVETLANA KUZNETSOVA vs. CARLA SUAREZ NAVARRO
THIRD ROUND; Court 2, First match
Head-to-head: Kuznetsova leads 2-1
Three years ago, I watched Suarez Navarro score what she called “one of the most important” wins of her career as she upset the then top-seeded Kuznetsova in Indian Wells. The court looked about as big as a chessboard to a frustrated Kuznetsova that day and she just couldn’t make the right moves as the Spaniard dropped back seven feet behind the baseline and defended everything Sveta threw at her in a 6-4, 4-6, 6-1 victory.
Suarez Navarro owns a snazzy one-handed backhand and put it to good use, taking down French Open finalist Sara Errani in the opening round. She has good memories in Melbourne. Suarez Navarro beat Roberta Vinci and Venus Williams in succession to advance to the 2009 quarterfinals in her Australian Open debut and figures to be a tricky customer for the sometime cranky Kuznetsova.
Two-time Grand Slam champion Kuznetsova is the bigger, stronger, more powerful player and the Melbourne courts are playing faster, which should benefit the more aggressive Russian — if she can keep her head together should adversity strike. Kuznetsova looks refreshed after missing the final four months of 2012 with a right knee injury and memories of her collapse in the desert should prevent another relapse. She’s lost just six games in two matches and should continue to roll.
THE PICK: KUZNETSOVA IN TWO SETS