Three To See, Madrid: May 8
Jerzy Janowicz vs. (6) Tomas Berdych
Head-to-head: Berdych leads 1-0
The 6'8" Janowicz lit up the Masters stage last fall in Paris, playing through qualifying to reach the final. He became the first man since Harel Levy in 2000 to reach the title match in his Masters debut.
Though Janowicz is at his best on hard courts, he won three Challenger titles on clay last season, and opened Madrid by hitting seven aces and dropping just four points on his first serve in a sweep of Sam Querrey.
Berdych was runner-up to Roger Federer at the 2012 Madrid event. He opened this season on a 21-6 run, reaching at least the quarterfinals in all six of his hard-court tournaments, which included a three-set win over Janowicz in Marseille. But the flat-hitting Czech is just 2-2 on clay in 2013, and could be challenged by both his opponent's serving and the pressure of defending a substantial number of points from last year.
Service breaks will be at a premium, and Berdych has done a good job holding serve throughout the season. For that, and for his experience, he is the pick to gain his 400th career win and advance.
The Pick: Berdych in two sets
In this battle of wondrous one-handed backhands, Youzhny has had the upper hand, winning nine of the 11 sets they’ve played, including all four tiebreakers.
The 31st-ranked Youzhny is a very resourceful player who showed his fighting spirit in saving match points against Fabio Fognini in a 7-6 (4), 2-6, 7-6 (5) victory on Tuesday. After escaping exile with a gritty performance, Youzhny ought to be fired up for this encounter.
Only three men—David Ferrer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal—have won more matches than Almagro (23) this year. In the past, Almagro’s sometime volatile temper and occasionally toothless return game have been obstacles, but he’s been a calmer competitor in 2013. While he remains most comfortable returning well behind the baseline, he’s 10th on the ATP in break points converted (46 percent), leads the tour in aces (312) and is second to Milos Raonic in first-serve points won (79 percent). I see the 2010 Madrid semifinalist breaking through and beating Youzhny for the first time.
The Pick: Almagro in three sets
(11) Ana Ivanovic vs. Laura Robson
Head-to-head: Ivanovic leads 1-0
A pair of powerful baseliners square off for the second time in a match where the first strike will be critical. Both women can sting the forehand with such force, you half-expect them to leave bruise marks on the ball.
When she’s in rhythm, the left-handed Robson can hit lofty notes, but sustaining them can be a challenge. The 41st-ranked Brit had not won back-to-back matches since the Australian Open, but ended that slide by breaking serve five times in a row in a 6-3, 6-1 thrashing of No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska. Robson’s cross-court forehand feeds directly into Ivanovic’s weaker backhand wing, and if she reproduces the high level she showed in dominating Radwanska, she will win.
Still, Ivanovic has played solid tennis on clay this spring. The former French Open champion pushed eventual champ Maria Sharapova to three sets in the Stuttgart quarterfinals and seems to be managing stressful moments better these days. Protecting her second serve will be key: Robson ravaged Radwanska's second serves, so Ivanovic will need to make a high-percentage of her first serves. If she does, and stays calm, I see her advancing.
The Pick: Ivanovic in three sets