Each day during the Australian Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview three must-see men's and women's matches—and offer his predictions.
Monica Puig vs. (28) Flavia Pennetta
Head-to-head: First meeting
Margaret Court Arena, second match
Creative writing occupies some of Puig’s spare time, and she’s also crafted success plotting past seeds in majors. Last year, Puig upset 11th-ranked Nadia Petrova at Roland Garros, then thrashed fifth-ranked Sara Errani en route to the Wimbledon round of 16.
The 20-year-old from Puerto Rico is an aggressive baseliner who will take her cracks at any balls Pennetta leaves dangling near mid-court. Puig is 11 years younger than the 2011 Australian Open doubles champion, is physically stronger,and at home on hard courts.
Pennetta was ranked No. 83 when she celebrated a revival run from wrist surgery reaching the 2013 U.S. Open semifinals. Since then, she’s won only two tour-level matches. Still, I’m picking her because she’s a more precise player, accurate returner, and a fluid mover who can counter on the run. The former doubles world No. 1 can use the entire court to construct points, a useful skill should plot twists come into play.
The Pick: Pennetta in two sets
Zheng Jie vs. Madison Keys
Head-to-head: Keys leads 2-1
Court 8, third match
The schizoid scores of their past matches—Zheng crushed Keys 6-2, 6-1 at the 2012 Australian Open; Keys permitted only four games in hard-court wins in Sydney and Osaka last year—reinforces the importance of the fast start and first strike.
The 5’4” Zheng hits flat and craves pace, which she'll get plenty of from her dynamic opponent. A 2010 Australian Open singles semifinalist and 2006 doubles champion, Zheng has defused big servers in recent Grand Slams, edging Samantha Stosur in Melbourne and Venus Williams in Flushing Meadows last year. Look for the 30-year-old Chinese to step in and trade baseline blasts with the 18-year-old American.
Keys’ massive serve, electric forehand, and substantial reach are advantages, but Zheng is more experienced and has persevered in scorching conditions before. Keys is coming off a 6-2, 6-7 (8), 9-7 first-round win and may be depleted, but her serve is the biggest shot on the court. Because of that, I see her advancing.
The Pick: Keys in two sets
(17) Samantha Stosur vs. Tsvetana Pironkova
Head-to-head: Stosur leads 3-0
Rod Laver Arena, first night match
A streaking Pironkova played through qualifying, then dispatched three Top 10 players in straight-sets succession to capture her first career title in Sydney and emerge as the feel-good story of the Australian summer.
Stosur sometimes looks so stressed playing at home, she mis-hits into misery then beats herself up about it, seeping deeper into the emotional sink hole. Since Aussie hopes Lleyton Hewitt and Bernard Tomic are both one and done, Sam may feel the sizzle of the spotlight even more.
Two weeks into the New Year, Pironkova has already beaten more Top 25 players than she did all of last season. She’s riding a career-best nine match winning streak and she can whip her weapon—the flat backhand—down the line to exploit Stosur’s habit of exposing court while hitting her forehand from her backhand corner.
The 57th-ranked Bulgarian has served boldly, but Stosur is typically the more commanding server. She can also mix her spins to play with more margin, and if she manages her nerve and swings freely—always major challenge on home soil—she should maintain her mastery of a dangerous opponent.
The Pick: Stosur in two sets
Two former Australian Open quarterfinalists meet for the first time in a major. It’s tempting to pick Dolgopolov for these reasons: He dismissed Chardy the last time they played, his rapid-fire service action is tough to read, he’s one of the fastest men in the game, and though the 157-pound Ukrainian looks as imposing as a slightly-built ball kid, he’s played tough tennis in oppressive circumstances. He won the 2012 Washington, DC title, reached the 2012 Brisbane semis, and scored five-set wins over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Robin Soderling en route to the last eight in Oz three years ago.
Chardy will likely feel the pressure defending quarterfinal points, and he’ll have to confront the contrast of Dolgo’s whipping forehand and flair for the bamboozling drop shot, but I favor the Frenchman. The Brisbane semifinalist can dictate with his serve, he’s an athletic player who can finish in the front court, and has been effective playing the slice backhand to set up his forehand—as he did upsetting Juan Martin del Potro here last year. Plus, Chardy's 7-2 record in five-setters is a testament to his tenacity if this goes the distance.
The Pick: Chardy in four sets
Tennis’ marathon man opened Oz with another comeback run. Robredo rallied for a 6-1, 6-7 (7), 3-6, 7-6 (5), 8-6 win over Lukas Rosol—his fifth straight five-set match win to raise his five-set record to 14-4.
The 32-year-old Benneteau also went the distance, defeating Pablo Carreno Busta, 6-3, 3-6, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2. The faster surface can benefit Benneteau, who owns a solid serve, can attack behind his two-handed backhand (he won 30 of 43 trips to net in the opener), and is aiming for his ninth trip to a Grand Slam third round in his last 10 major appearances.
Robredo won’t overwhelm, but he won’t overplay, either. That can make gaining traction in baseline rallies a more grueling proposition from Benneteau, because the 31-year-old Spaniard rarely plays loose shots on pivotal points. At the 2013 French Open, Robredo became just the second man in history to come back from two sets down to win in three consecutive Grand Slam matchs. While Benneteau is definitely dangerous, I see tireless Tommy prevailing in the long run.
The Pick: Robredo in five sets
This shapes up as grip-and-rip tennis between power players whose ambition has yet to match their ability. It’s an opportunity match: Gulbis has only exceeded the second round of a Grand Slam three times in 25 prior major appearances. Querrey, who has yet to surpass the fourth round of a major, is playing for his fourth trip to the Melbourne third round.
Look for the Querrey second serve, which can lack direction and pace under pressure, against the Gulbis return, which can vary from dangerous to erratic, as central to the outcome—particularly if tiebreakers come into play.
Both men are explosive—and both can betray their cause with flaky dispositions and dubious decisions when stress levels spike. I’m going with Gulbis because I think his second serve is usually a bit sounder, he’s willing to move forward when necessary, and he can impose his advantage in backhand exchanges. Querrey can get a bit too predictable playing his best shot, the inside-out forehand, repeatedly.
The Pick: Gulbis in four sets