Each day during the Australian Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview three must-see men's and women's matches—and offer his predictions.
This match pits Schiavone’s all-court versatility versus Cibulkova’s bold baseline shotmaking. The former French Open champion seldom hits the same spin or speed on successive shots, while Cibulkova will camp out close to the baseline and blast the ball into the corners.
The 33-year-old Italian will try to use her court savvy and sharp angles to coax Cibulkova into errors. The 24-year-old Slovak will try to take the first strike in rallies and make the lighter-hitting Schiavone defend on the run.
For a refresher on Schiavone’s toughness, revisit the 2011 Australian Open, when she fought off six match points in outlasting Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-4, 1-6, 16-14, in a four hour, 44-minute marathon—the longest women's Grand Slam match in Open Era history. I don’t doubt Schiavone’s staying power, but I believe Cibulkova’s baseline power will prevail.
The Pick: Cibulkova in two sets
A rematch of the 2013 Washington, DC final—Rybarikova rallied from a 1-4 first-set deficit for a 6-4, 7-6 triumph last August—could be another close encounter between friends. The 35th-ranked Rybarikova is the smoother server and will try to use it to set up her favored forehand. Petkovic is typically more comfortable playing grinding rallies, generates a bit more sting off her two-handed backhand, and despite knee injuries in recent years, is a fitness freak whose conditioning can be an edge in extreme heat.
Rybarikova should be committed to the cause playing for her first Australian Open win and 300th career victory. Injuries have limited Petkovic to one Grand Slam victory since her run to the 2011 U.S. Open quarterfinals. Petkovic is the more emotional player who can channel the fire into action—or implode when intensity gets the best of her. The former world No. 9 has had more success in Melbourne, reaching the 2011 quarterfinals, while Rybarikova has failed to survive the first round in 13 of her last 16 major appearances.
The Pick: Petkovic in three sets
Sharapova has used her superior power and pulverizing return to dominate this match-up—she’s dished out four bagels in 11 sets. The Russian has suffered only three first-round losses in her Grand Slam career, but two of them came in Melbourne (her 2003 Grand Slam debut, and a 2010 loss to Maria Kirilenko). She will be eager for a winning Grand Slam return after suffering a stunning Wimbledon second-round upset before missing the 2013 U.S. Open with a shoulder injury.
Mattek-Sands scored five consecutive straight-sets wins, including a victory over fifth-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska, to reach the Sydney quarterfinals. The American is typically more dangerous in the front court, however Sharapova can blister the ball so hard and flat that bending those blasts into sharp angles at net is no easy task.
Mattek-Sands knows what happens when she plays Sharapova in a straight-up baseline battle—the consequences are crushing. Bethanie must try to attack, draw Maria forward at times, and vary the height of her shots to keep the ball out of Sharapova’s substantial strike zone. But even if Mattek-Sands beats her to the punch, Sharapova is the heavyweight hitter.
The Pick: Sharapova in two sets
The battle of the backward baseball caps pits two players skilled on the counter-strike. Seppi is an extremely fit and steady player whose baseline style is predicated more on placement than power. Hewitt tuned up for Melbourne by beating Roger Federer to win Brisbane—his first title since 2010. He looks hungry and will try to rouse the faithful into a fervor.
Seppi is coming off a career-best fourth-round performance here and has won three of four hard-court meetings with the former No. 1. Hewitt has been bounced in the opening round in three of the past five years, including a straight-sets loss to Janko Tipsarevic in last year’s opener.
This is an intriguing match because neither man will overpower, so each will try to outmaneuver the opponent. As such, this could escalate into a physically-demanding test. Hewitt, who upset Juan Martin del Potro in five sets at the 2013 U.S. Open, will bring plenty of grit, sweat and fight—and I favor his passion over Seppi’s past success.
The Pick: Hewitt in five sets
The forecast calls for temperatures to reach triple digits, but even with the roof closed, the court could start to feel like scorched earth to Tomic when embroiled in corner-to-corner exchanges with the world No. 1.
The 57th-ranked Aussie is most inspired before home fans and will need all their help, as he's bidding to become the lowest-ranked man to beat a world No. 1 in Oz since No. 86 Marat Safin beat Andy Roddick in 2004. The lanky Tomic's flat shots stay low, he's got a knack for locating the corners, with a sneaky-quick serve, his two-handed backhand down the line is a weapon, and he’s never lost in the first round in Melbourne.
But Nadal is fitter, faster and the more ferocious competitor. And given that Rafa missed the 2013 tournament, you’d expect him to be primed for a fast start in order to quiet the crowd and drain the desire from the former junior No. 1. Rafa did not drop a set in their lone meeting at the 2011 Australian Open, and that trend should continue tonight.
The Pick: Nadal in three sets
Seeds have served as major roadblocks for Harrison, who has lost 11 consecutive Grand Slam matches against seeded opponents. The 21-year-old American will try to jump-start his game against Monfils, who can play with the elastic exuberance when relaxed—or use his speed to retreat into chase-and-counter mode when he’s tight. The former Australian Open junior champion, whose ranking dropped outside of the Top 100 last February as he battled a knee injury, took a set off Nadal in the Doha final earlier this month and should carry confidence into this match.
Harrison will try to use his serve and forehand to take charge early in rallies and force the quicker Frenchman to defend, as his backhand and return game are vulnerabilites. Monfils, a former world No. 7, is a better mover, will have the advantage in backhand exchanges—and if he’s landing his first serve and controlling his nerve, should advance.
The Pick: Monfils in three sets