Each day during the Australian Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview three must-see men's and women's matches—and offer his predictions.
Wozniacki’s nickname is “Sunshine” and though her fitness can be a weapon in the heat, she’s been burned before by McHale. The New Jersey native swept the Danish counter puncher in Cincinnati in 2011 when Wozniacki was world No. 1 — one of five Top 10 wins in McHale’s career. Both women are quick around the court and adept at extending points. Gaining the edge in running exchanges and imposing their respective strengths — McHale’s forehand is her best shot and Wozniacki’s backhand is her weapon — is vital. Former world No. 24 McHale played through qualifying to reach the round of 16 in Sydney and knows how to beat the 2009 U.S. Open finalist, but she's won just one of her last 14 matches against Top 20 players.
New coach Thomas Hogstedt is encouraging Wozniacki to use her speed moving forward to create more offense: She won 11 of 18 trips to net in the opening round. Wozniacki has failed to survive the second round in four of her last six Grand Slam appearances, but should be prepared against an opponent who’s beaten her to the punch in the past.
The Pick: Wozniacki in three sets
Last season, Lepchenko was seeded at three of the four majors, while Halep ranked as low as No. 69 last April before finding her form and winning six titles — second only to No. 1 Serena Williams — along with WTA Most Improved Player honors.
The 5’6” Halep has a sneaky fast serve, her mobility, ability to take the ball early, court sense and willingness to crack drives down the lines are all assets she applied winning 53 matches in 2013.
The left-handed Lepchenko is the stronger athlete who will want to whip her heavy topspin to back Halep off the baseline and force her to combat shoulder-high shots from defensive spots. Lepchenko requires more time to generate her bigger back swings so the faster surface should suit Halep. However pressure will be a factor: Halep has failed to survive the second round in 10 of her last 11 Grand Slam tournaments. It all presents a challenging obstacle for the former junior No. 1, but I see Halep clearing this hurdle.
The Pick: Halep in two sets
Camila Giorgi vs. (25) Alize Cornet
Head-to-head: First meeting
Margaret Court Arena, first match
If you're buzzed by the rush of risk-taking shotmakers, then keep your eye on Giorgi. The 136th-ranked Italian qualifier hit more than three times as many winners as Caroline Wozniacki in upsetting the former world No. 1 at the 2013 U.S. Open, summing up her mind-set simply: “My instinct is just to hit the ball and go for the lines to handle the nerves."
Giorgi, who is 7-8 vs. Top 25 opponents, plays near the edge which makes her both a dangerous and sometimes self-destructive force. She overcame 47 unforced errors, including 13 double faults, in the first round.
Cornet reached round two playing just one game before Polona Hercog’s retirement, but the 23-year-old earned plenty of match play partnering Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to lead France to the Hopman Cup title. If she’s timing the ball and her serve doesn’t go askew, Giorgi, who seems to thrive on major stages, is capable of the upset. But Cornet plays cleaner tennis and if she withstands the heat and plays with control she should coax enough errors to advance.
The Pick: Cornet in three sets
A confounding kick serve and jolting forehand make Sock a hard-court threat, but questionable conditioning compelled him to pull the trigger prematurely in rallies, stalling his progress. Sock looks a bit fitter this season and should be empowered sweeping No. 12 Tommy Haas in Auckland then pounding 16 aces —along with 12 double faults —in his first-round Melbourne win.
Injuries have hampered Monfils, but he covered the court as thoroughly as Google Earth in his Doha final loss to Rafael Nadal earlier this month. The elastic Frenchman is the faster mover and his backhand is a more penetrating shot than Sock’s two hander.
Watching Monfils play can sometimes be as jarring as riding in a Ferrari alongside a driver learning to use a stick — sudden skids, squeals and spurts ensue, but when he downshifts with authority, you feel the roar of the ride. I can see Sock, who can strong-arm opponents if he's landing, possibly pulling out a tiebreaker. But Monfils beat another young American who relies on the forehand, Ryan Harrison, in the first round and Sliderman should stick the landing here.
The Pick: Monfils in four sets
(18) Gilles Simon vs. Marin Cilic
Head-to-head: Simon leads 3-0
Court 2, third match
The journey into round two was almost as arduous as an obstacle course for a hobbled Simon, who survived a sprained ankle, creaky knee and 41 aces from Daniel Brands in a 6-7, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 16-14 marathon that spanned 4 hours 31 minutes. Simon was on crutches before the tournament began, he may need to upgrade to a motor scooter now.
Meanwhile, Cilic wasn’t exactly in cruise control: The 2010 semifinalist fought back from a two-set deficit for a five-set win over Marcel Granollers, raising his five-set record to 17-7. Cilic, who hired fellow Croat Goran Ivanisevic as coach in part to help strengthen his serve, hit 22 aces and faced just three break points in round one.
It’s tough to imagine the slender Simon, whose counter-punching style is predicated on his court coverage and consistency, will be at full strength. Expect Simon to shorten points (he hit 32 aces and won 37 of 55 trips to net in the opener), but Cilic will be committed to the cause and should stop a wounded opponent.
The Pick: Cilic in four sets
Seppi disarms opponents with his baseline control and calm disposition. The 6’3” Italian doesn’t serve as big as his size suggests and though he doesn’t own a commanding shot, he doesn’t offer a glaring weakness either. Seppi squandered a two-set lead against home favorite Lleyton Hewitt, then staved off a match point in the fifth set to grind out a four hour, 18-minute victory. Will he be exhausted or strengthened by that struggle?
Former junior No. 1 Young held a two set to one lead when opening-round opponent Robin Haase retired. It was just the third Grand Slam win for Young since his run to the 2011 U.S. Open fourth round. I’ve always had a fondness for lefty shotmakers from Laver to Rios to Arazi and Young has beautiful feel and a flair for creating flashy angles—as well as hard-court wins over Andy Murray, Gael Monfils and Stan Wawrinka. But I can’t talk myself into picking DY here because his second serve is suspect and I can’t count on him to fully invest his energy and focus on every point, which is imperative against the ultra-consistent Italian.
The Pick: Seppi in four sets