Three To See, 2014 Aussie Open: Day 6

Friday, January 17, 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

(3) Maria Sharapova vs. (25) Alize Cornet
Head-to-head: Sharapova leads 1-0
Rod Laver Arena, first match

Squandering a one-set, one-break lead, Sharapova fought off a determined Karin Knapp, brutal heat and dicey shotmaking (67 unforced errors) to gut out a 6-4, 4-6, 10-8 second-round victory. Cornet also went the distance in a 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 decision over Camila Giorgi.

Sharapova showed resilience winning the longest match of her career, but can she recover in just her eighth match since Wimbledon? Cornet is a consistent baseliner capable of exploiting misfires — she took the opening set from Victoria Azarenka at both Roland Garros and the U.S. Open last year — but her second serve can be shaky (nine double faults in round two), she’s vulnerable to power players (1-18 lifetime vs. Top 5 players) and in 31 prior Grand Slam appearances she’s reached the fourth round only once (here in 2009).

The 2008 champion clanked 12 doubles in round two. Sharapova must clean up her serve—she hit the kick serve in Brisbane and was reluctant to use it vs. Knapp—but the candy maven's more powerful and her appetite for the fight is undeniable.

The Pick: Sharapova in two sets


(10) Caroline Wozniacki vs. Garbine Muguruza
Head-to-head: Muguruza leads 1-0
Rod Laver Arena, third match

Short-term memory loss is a prerequisite for Grand Slam success, but these two may struggle to shake some recollections. Wozniacki won’t forget the 6-2, 6-4 trouncing Muguruza delivered in Miami last March and the 38th-ranked Spaniard may well recall the 6-2, 6-0 thrashing she endured against Serena Williams in her last appearance in Rod Laver Arena.

Right ankle surgery forced Muguruza to miss the second half of 2013, but she’s soaring this season. The red-hot power player won her first WTA title in Hobart this month as a qualifier and rides a 10-match winning streak, including a three-set win over 24th-seeded Kaia Kanepi in the opening round, into the this match.

Wozniacki’s volley won’t ever evoke comparisons to Evonne Goolagong’s elegance around net, but the resourceful former No. 1 won 11 of 15 trips to net and scrambled effectively in her second-round over Christina McHale. Muguruza, who will want to pound the Wozniacki forehand, absolutely has the game to win this match the question is can the 20-year-old play with patience, manage her nerve and combat Wozniacki’s court coverage? I'm not sure she can, but I believe in her game anyway.

The Pick: Muguruza in three sets


(16) Carla Suarez Navarro vs. (20) Dominika Cibulkova
Head-to-head: First meeting
Margaret Court Arena, first match

Tennis is all about adjustments and these two know how to apply their strengths to varied circumstances. Clay is Suarez Navarro’s native surface, but she’s reached quarterfinals at the 2013 U.S. Open and the 2009 Australian Open. All three of Cibulkova’s titles came on hard court, but her best Grand Slam result is a 2009 Roland Garros semifinal appearance.

Suarez Navarro played with passion in a second-round triumph over Galina Voskoboeva. She will use her versatile one-handed backhand to create sharp angles and her heavy topspin to force the 5’3” Slovak to hit shoulder-high shots off her back foot.

Court positioning and timing are keys for Cibulkova. She is the flatter, harder hitter but must step forward and take the Spaniard’s topspin on the rise, anticipate the slice backhand at times and drive the ball into the corners to make the 5'4" Spaniard defend. Expect a feeling-out process in their first meeting, but Cibulkova has permitted just eight games so far and if she plays points on her terms, I see her advancing.

The Pick: Cibulkova in three sets


MEN

(1) Rafael Nadal vs. (25) Gael Monfils
Head-to-head: Nadal leads 9-2
Rod Laver Arena, first night match

Nadal crunched Monfils 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-2 in the Doha final earlier this month and if the rematch resembles past meetings expect high-energy running rallies—and the world No. 1 commanding pivotal points.

You may view Monfils as a self-indulgent shot-maker, injury-prone showman or the best pure athlete in the game capable of testing anyone when the muse moves him. If he’s serving with conviction, I believe Monfils, my darkhorse pick, can be competitive and deliver his share of eye-popping acrobatics.

Since Monfils swept Nadal in the 2009 Doha quarterfinals—the Frenchman’s lone win in 12 matches against a world No. 1—Rafa has won 15 of the last 17 sets they’ve played with Sliderman scraping out a pair of breakers. Breaking Nadal's serve has not been in the script. Potentially, this is more than a popcorn match, it’s an action-adventure thriller. But at this stage it’s about delivering on critical points rather than dazzling with style points. No one does repetition as ruthlessly as Rafa.

The Pick: Nadal in four sets


(11) Milos Raonic vs. (22) Grigor Dimitrov
Head-to-head: Tied 1-1
Margaret Court Arena, third match

A heat wave and hail storm have hit Melbourne; this match may be the next wave’s arrival. Raonic owns the imposing serve (48 aces in seven sets) and immortal endorsements (both Rod Laver and Pete Sampras tout him as a future Grand Slam champion) that play well in Oz—he’s playing for his third trip to the fourth round.

Dimitrov is trying to establish identity. Is he an over-hyped underachiever, who has lost seven of eight major matches to seeded opponents and arrived in Oz with a gruesome 8-13 career Grand Slam record? Or is he a blazing all-court talent, who has won four of his last nine meetings with Top 20 opponents, including knocking off No. 1 Novak Djokovic in Madrid and upsetting No. 3 David Ferrer to the Stockholm final to win his first ATP title last October.

Raonic is the superior tiebreak player who can count on that massive serve to slam through tight spots, but Dimitrov is more agile and better balanced off both forehand and backhand. This may wind up stinging more than a Raonic body serve to the rib cage, but I'll take the risk and roll with Grigor.

The Pick: Dimitrov in five sets


(10) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. (18) Gilles Simon
Head-to-head: Tsonga leads 5-3
Hisense Arena, first night match

Considering Simon spent time on crutches with a bad ankle last week, is pained by a creaky knee and has toppled two giants in draining five-setters despite the slender physique that recalls Lleyton Hewitt on a liquid diet, I figured the only way he’d still be standing now is with the help of a stunt double.

Simon is the rare breed who can play some of his toughest tennis when he seems most physically fragile. His ability to land shots within inches of the baseline, abruptly alter the pace and improvise strategically, make him a tricky opponent.

Tsonga has won five of six hard-court meetings between the French Davis Cup teammates, but Simon swept their last match in Metz last year. The 2008 Australian Open finalist looked a little disinterested at the outset of his opening-round win, but Tsonga hasn’t surrendered a set, he's dropped serve just twice in the tournament and is facing a banged-up foe he will not underestimate.

The Pick: Tsonga in four sets  

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