Three To See, 2014 Aussie Open: Day 5

Thursday, January 16, 2014 /by

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


WOMEN

(1) Serena Williams vs. (31) Daniela Hantuchova
Head-to-head: Williams leads 8-1
Rod Laver Arena, first match

The sight of Serena on the opposite side of the net must haunt Hantuchova, who has lost six of seven Grand Slam meetings to Williams in straight sets.

The lone positive memory in a history of misery for the 30-year-old Slovak came when she beat Williams, 6-1, 7-6 (5), at this stage in the 2006 Australian Open. Daniela cites the 17-time Grand Slam champion’s serve as a dominant weapon. But even without the commanding serve, I’d still favor Williams because Hantuchova can’t gain traction in running rallies with the quicker American, she doesn’t possess the jolting power Serena does to end points with a single swing, and is compelled to squeeze shots closer to the lines.

Hantuchova is sound in every aspect, but Williams is superior in all areas and she’s playing for a milestone: If Serena wins this match she will raise her Melbourne record to 61-8, surpassing the record she shares with Margaret Court for most all-time Australian Open main-draw wins in the Open era.

The Pick: Williams in two sets


(9) Angelique Kerber vs. Alison Riske
Head-to-head: Kerber leads 1-0
Hisense Arena, first match

The last time Riske faced a Top 10-ranked lefthander in a Grand Slam, she stunned an ailing Petra Kvitova at last year's U.S. Open. The Pittsburgh native’s game is predicated on aggressive court positioning (not surprising for a woman whose Twitter handle is @riske4reward) and her flat strikes generated by compact back swings that are tough to read.

Kerber has made major strides in Grand Slam play: The 2011 U.S. Open semifinalist was 7-15 in her first 15 majors, but she’s posted a 30-9 record in her last 10 Grand Slam appearances, including a trip to the 2012 Wimbledon final four.

The return of serve will be vital. Monica Seles was Riske’s tennis role model and she likes to adopt a similar predatory posture in taking returns early: Riske broke five times in a 6-1, 6-1 shellacking of former U.S. Open semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer in round two. If she’s punishing returns and gets to Kerber’s forehand she has a shot to surprise. But while Kerber can get cranky under pressure, she usually handles pace well, she’s skilled on the counter strike, and should have the edge here.

The Pick: Kerber in two sets


(14) Ana Ivanovic vs. (17) Samantha Stosur
Head-to-head: Stosur leads 4-3
Rod Laver Arena, first night match

Former Grand Slam champions collide in a marquee match. Both women will try to use the serve-forehand combination to control rallies and attack the opponent’s weaker backhand wing.

Stosur's home major has been a pressure cooker for the Aussie, who has often looked stressed out in past Australian Opens. Ivanovic, who is sometimes spooked by nerves herself, knows staying close from the start is vital, and she should be inspired coming off a 6-2, 5-7, 6-2 win over Stosur in Sofia last fall—her first hard-court over the 2011 U.S. Open champion. Stosur says the Sofia court played slower and grittier than Melbourne; if that’s the case it could aid Ana, who hits flatter.

Former No. 1 Ivanovic tuned up for Melbourne by winning her 12th career title in Auckland. The 2008 Australian Open finalist is riding a seven-match winning streak and is playing for her third straight trip to the fourth round. But I give Stosur the slight edge because she’s won four of their five hard-court meetings, she’s kept calm so far, and her slice backhand can pose problems for the 6-foot Serb.

The Pick: Stosur in three sets


MEN

(17) Tommy Robredo vs. (9) Richard Gasquet
Head-to-head: Tied 2-2
Hisense Arena, first night match

Gasquet is capable of all-court artistry; Robredo plays with unrelenting tenacity. The Frenchman has more shots; the Spaniard is the more spirited competitor. The 31-year-old Robredo has won two of their three hard-court clashes, including a 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 victory in the 2007 fourth round.

Outlasting Robredo in a five-set Grand Slam match can be a task as arduous as crossing the Outback on rollerblades. Tommy has been ultra-tough in major marathons: He is 14-4 in five-setters, while Gasquet is 7-12 and has apparently been bothered by a back issue in recent weeks, which makes him vulnerable if Robredo drags this the distance.

I don’t think Gasquet, who won successive five setters over Milos Raonic and David Ferrer to reach the 2013 U.S. Open semifinals, can win this match playing from behind, so a fast start is crucial. Gasquet has not surrendered a set in this tournament, and the fact it’s a night match should help the Frenchman. If Gasquet can apply his all-court skills and engage Robredo in backhand rallies, I believe he can fight through a tough test.

The Pick: Gasquet in four sets


(15) Fabio Fognini vs. Sam Querrey
Head-to-head: First meeting
Margaret Court Arena, first night match

Their first singles meetings comes 24 hours after they shared the doubles court: Fognini and Simone Bolelli beat Querrey and Ryan Harrison, 6-2, 7-5.

Facing Querrey’s crushing serve—the American has hit 43 aces and dropped serve just three times in two singles wins—in doubles should help prepare the theatrical Italian, who has a knack of creating angles off the return. Fognini had a history of sleepwalking his way through the Australian summer: He arrived in Oz with just one match victory in six prior Melbourne appearances, including four straight opening-round exits. Fognini is more comfortable around net, can create sharper angles, and will try to target Querrey’s two-handed backhand.

The 51st-ranked Querrey is a more accomplished hard-court player (he’s won five of his seven titles on hard courts), his serve is the biggest weapon, and though he’s only won two of his last 15 matches against Top 20 opponents, he should be confident after deconstructing 23rd-seeded Ernests Gulbis in round two. I favor Sam’s power over Fabio’s wizardry.

The Pick: Querrey in four sets


(3) David Ferrer vs. (29) Jeremy Chardy
Head-to-head: Ferrer leads 4-1
Rod Laver Arena, second match

Ferrer, a 2013 semifinalist, is aiming to reach the round of 16 for his 15th straight Grand Slam tournament. A year ago, he advanced to at least the quarterfinals of all four majors for the second straight year, including his first Grand Slam final at the French Open. When Ferrer brings the ferocity and starts screaming “Vamos!” his intensity could frighten the grin off an emoticon.

Chardy knows the force he’s facing, but he beat Juan Martin del Potro en route to the Melbourne quarterfinals last year and has split two prior hard-court matches with Ferrer. Chardy will need a superb serving day and he must force Ferrer into forehand exchanges to create necessary space to attack the Spaniard’s weaker backhand wing. If Ferrer can consistently run around his backhand and fire his inside-out forehand to the Frenchman’s backhand, he should prevail.

Maybe I’m feeling a little loopy from sleep deprivation, but I’ll take a shot with Chardy here. He’s an agile athlete who can close at net, and if his serve is clicking he has a chance at the upset.

The Pick: Chardy in five sets

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