Three To See, Wimbledon: Day 5
(15) Nicolas Almagro vs. (24) Jerzy Janowicz
Head-to-head: Almagro leads 1-0
Grass has tripped up several high seeds this week, but these two dynamic servers could rip up the lawn in their second Grand Slam meeting of the season.
The 6'8" Janowicz can serve such sharp angles, it must feel as if he's hitting from the top of a flagpole. The 6'0" Almagro generates immense pace and spin off a relatively low toss that's tough to read: He leads the ATP in aces, is second (to Milos Raonic) in first-serve points won, and fourth (ahead of Janowicz) in break points saved. All signs indicate tiebreakers are inevitable—both arrived at SW19 with 9-10 tiebreak records in 2013.
I picked Janowicz to upset Almagro at the Australian Open in January, and the sometimes volatile Spaniard smacked 18 aces and did not face a break point in a 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4), 6-1 victory. You'd think I would have learned from that experience, but I'm going to back Janowicz in the upset again because I think the surface suits his game, he's played more matches on grass this season, and his wide wingspan may help him poke back a key return in a breaker.
The Pick: Janowicz in four sets
These talented left-handers have split two grass-court meetings at Eastbourne—Kvitova squeezed out a 7-6 (8) 7-6 (4) win at the 2011 event, while Makarova was a 7-5, 6-4 winner last year—and creating scoreboard separation will be a challenge since both can command on serve and close at net.
The 27-year-old Makarova can vary from erratic to emphatic, but she's played her best tennis against high seeds on big stages. She swept Vera Zvonareva and Serena Williams in succession at the 2012 Australian Open, reached her second Melbourne quarterfinal in January, and is one of only three women to beat Victoria Azarenka this season.
Former Wimbledon champion Kvitova can be streaky and prone to mid-match malaise—seven of her last 10 matches have gone the distance—but I believe she can do a little bit more with the ball, and her return game can be imposing when she's connecting. It's an adventure picking Petra, but I believe in her game and see her finding a way through a tight test.
The Pick: Kvitova in three sets
Ernests Gulbis vs. Fernando Verdasco
Head-to-head: Verdasco leads 2-1
Both men are gifted players with big weapons, but both can blow up under pressure.
Playing for his fourth trip to the fourth round, the left-handed Verdasco will want to use his forehand to control the center of the court, drive the ball deep and coax Gulbis into low-percentage shots, which doesn't take too much persuading. Verdasco can be fragile, but he's had some major wins at majors (beating David Ferrer in a fifth-set tie breaker at the 2010 U.S. Open) and gut-wrenching losses—he was a few points from the 2009 Australian Open final before bowing to Rafael Nadal in a five-hour and 14-minute epic.
The 39th-ranked Gulbis comes out of the coin toss playing grip-and-rip tennis. He can dictate with his serve, deconstruct with the return, and school even elite opponents by mixing in angled finesse with his baseline blasts.
When Verdasco gets tight, he short-arms his second serve. He must serve effectively because Gulbis will chew up the second serve if it lands short in the box—he's second on the ATP in break points converted (48 percent). Managing emotions will be key, which makes this a tough call as both guys can beat themselves up under pressure. Gulbis hits a bit flatter, tends to take the ball earlier, and snapped a streak of 18 consecutive Grand Slam exits before the third round. If he can keep his head together, I think he will advance.
The Pick: Gulbis in four sets