Three To See, Indian Wells: March 13
(5) Petra Kvitova vs. (13) Maria Kirilenko
Head-to-head: Tied 3-3
They've faced off in pressure matches before: Kirilenko beat the 2011 Wimbledon champion in the Olympics last July; Kvitova answered with a victory in the New Haven final last August. Conditions—and conditioning—could be a factor. The forecast calls for "near-record" highs above 90 degrees, and this match could be played in the height of the heat. Kvitova's asthma has been an issue at times, particularly in North America, while Kirilenko is one of the fittest women in the game, though she is coming off a demanding three-set win.
The left-handed Kvitova is a pure ball striker, the more explosive player, and should be empowered riding an eight-match winning streak. Kirilenko is a savvy competitor who should be confident after beating Agnieszka Radwanska, but Kvitova is eager to reach her first Indian Wells semifinal, and I believe she'll do it.
The Pick: Kvitova in two sets
(Q) Ernests Gulbis vs. (5) Rafael Nadal
Head-to-head: Nadal leads 4-0
The red-hot Gulbis has won 13 straight matches, has the physicality to stand up to Nadal, and has already taken the first strike in the verbal rally, declaring: "I'm going to be ready for it. One shot one corner, one shot other corner. I want to see him get it.”
The 6'3" Gulbis has the physical tools to win this match, but it's his mind that scares me. The volatile Latvian can go off the grid under stress—smashing his racquet, kicking the Corona sign affixed to net, stubbornly overplaying his beguiling drop shot; take your pick—while Nadal gives nothing away and is one of the most disciplined players you'll see.
The mercurial Gulbis is playing his 14th match in 19 days; Nadal is playing his second match since crushing world No. 4 David Ferrer in the Acapulco final on March 2. Because Gulbis is so dangerous off both serve and return, and his two-handed backhand is a weapon even in the face of Nadal's vicious lefty cross-court forehand, he cannot be discounted. But Nadal has reached the semifinals or better in seven straight trips to the desert, is 36-6 lifetime in this event, and will relish playing long rallies in searing heat. I believe he can get to Gulbis' reconstructed forehand, and get the win.
The Pick: Nadal in two sets
(6) Tomas Berdych vs. (10) Richard Gasquet
Head-to-head: Gasquet leads 4-2
They are the ATP's No. 2 and No. 3 in match wins this season—Gasquet is 17-3 and Berdych is 16-4—and both are playing for their second trip to the Indian Wells quarterfinals. Fresh off finals in Marseille and Dubai, Berdych is the bigger hitter who can unleash flat blasts point after point and hit through opponents.
Gasquet seldom hits the same spin or speed in succession; he can alternate his heavy topspin and low slice to unsettle opponents, particularly off his brilliant one-handed backhand. The Frenchman, who has won two of his first five tournaments this year, is not as powerful, but he's quicker around the court, possesses more variety, is a fine volleyer, and has served well against the Czech in their recent meetings.
The Pick: Gasquet in three sets