Three To See, 2014 Aussie Open: Day 10

Tuesday, January 21, 2014 /by

Each day during the Australian Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview three must-see matches—and offer his predictions.

(5) Agnieszka Radwanska vs. (2) Victoria Azarenka
Head-to-head: Azarenka leads 12-3
Rod Laver Arena, second match

Radwanska spends her spare time watching the TV series “Revenge”; she’ll need to pull off a prime-time performance to earn retribution against Azarenka in a rivalry where there’s no love lost.

In recent meetings, Vika has executed a ruthlessly effective game plan: Control the center of the court, force the Pole to counter from difficult, defensive positions, and ravage Radwanska’s second serve. The good news for Radwanska rooters: Aga is 19-1 when winning the opening set at the Australian Open. The bad news? Her lone loss was a 6-7 (0), 6-0, 6-2 defeat to Azarenka in the 2012 quarterfinals. Radwanska is the smoother mover and has clever court sense, but Azarenka is an accurate ball striker, bigger hitter, and one of the game’s best returners.

The two-time defending champion is a roadblock for Radwanska, winning seven straight meetings while capturing 14 of the last sets 16 they’ve played. Radwanska is dangerous but faces a double dilemma here: She hasn’t beaten Azarenka since the 2011 Tokyo semifinals and has is 0-4 at this stage of the Australian Open. Azarenka is riding an 18-match Melbourne winning streak, she’s the only woman to reach the quarterfinals without surrendering a set—and she’s the clear favorite.

The Pick Azarenka in two sets


(1) Rafael Nadal vs. (22) Grigor Dimitrov
Head-to-head: Nadal leads 3-0
Rod Laver Arena, third match

The world No. 1 attributes some of his success to the joy of suffering. Rafa endured pain from a blister on his racquet hand and hard yards on his legs in a three hour, 17-minute quarterfinal adventure over Kei Nishikori. The blister—which at the very least could hinder his feel if he plays with tape surrounding his hand—combined with Dimitrov’s blazing all-court skills present serious impediments.

If you’re one of the skeptics dismissing Dimitrov as a product of “media hype” you need a reality check—or a review of his gritty victory over Novak Djokovic in a wild thriller in Madrid last year—because the 22-year-old Bulgarian is the real deal. Variety can be unsettling: Dimitrov’s convulsive serve, quickness around the court, and his ability to change spins by playing high and heavy or flatter and faster are all assets. Look for him to attack Nadal's second serve with drives down the line, as Nishikori did in winning 61 percent of points played on the top seed’s second serve.

All three of their prior matches have gone the distance, with Nadal using his lefty forehand to get to Dimitrov’s one-handed backhand in the decider. I believe Dimitrov will deliver his share of spectacular shot making, but Nadal’s relentless, confounding baseline combinations, mental strength and physical stamina make him the favorite—even if he tastes the pain.

The Pick: Nadal in four sets


(4) Andy Murray vs. (6) Roger Federer
Head-to-head: Murray leads 11-9
Rod Laver Arena, first night match

Semifinal streaks collide as Federer is playing for a record-extending 11th trip to the final four here, while Murray mounts his quest for a fifth straight semifinal in Oz.

Stylistically, the Scot presents a much different challenge than Federer’s fourth-round victim, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The Frenchman tries to deconstruct with his power; Murray will want to displace Federer with his versatility, court coverage, and by taking the pace off at times. Back surgery sidelined Murray for the final three months of 2013, yet he’s playing his way into form, enjoys the edge in backhand exchanges, and can recall his five-set win over Federer in the 2013 Oz Open semifinals—his only win over the Swiss in four major meetings.

Whether it’s a function of finally being free of back pain, growing familiarity with his new, larger Wilson racquet, or the confidence that comes from his 7-1 start to the season, Federer looks refreshed these days. The Swiss won 34 of 41 trips to net against Tsonga (83 percent); repeating that level of front-court success will be much tougher against Murray, whose two-handed backhand is lethal. The 17-time Grand Slam champion is just 2-9 in his last 11 matches against Top 5 opponents (both wins came against Juan Martin del Potro), but Federer is second in the tournament in first-serve points won (86 percent)—and when his first serve is firing, his whole game seems to flow. I favor Federer in a tight, tricky test.

The Pick: Federer in five sets

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