Three To See, 2014 Aussie Open: Day 7

Saturday, January 18, 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

(9) Angelique Kerber vs. (28) Flavia Pennetta
Head-to-head: Tied 2-2
Rod Laver Arena, first match

Kerber celebrated her 26th birthday on Saturday and will try to keep the party going with her first trip to the Australian Open quarterfinals on Sunday.

Pennetta, a 2013 U.S. Open singles semifinalist and 2011 Australian Open doubles champion, is smacking her first serve with more vigor. She’s dropped serve just three times, but served 45 percent or worse in all three tournament wins. If that trend continues, look for Kerber to punish the 31-year-old Italian’s second serve.

Angelique has won both of their prior major meetings—in the 2011 U.S. Open quarterfinals and 2012 Roland Garros third round—in three sets, and I can’t argue if you pick the sturdy German here. But I favor Flavia for these reasons: The former world No. 1 doubles player can stand and trade from the baseline or use her all-court skills to close at net, she's a problem solver who has yet to lose a set, and if her serve is sharp, she can use the inside-out forehand to create some space for her backhand down the line.

The Pick: Pennetta in three sets


(1) Serena Williams vs. (14) Ana Ivanovic
Head-to-head: Williams leads 4-0
Rod Laver Arena, second match

A clash of the current and a former world No. 1 pits women empowered by winning streaks. Brisbane champion Serena is on a 25-match tear; Ivanovic, who defeated Venus Williams to win Auckland earlier this month, has won eight straight times.

Since dismissing Dinara Safina to rule Roland Garros in 2008, Ivanovic has reached the quarterfinals just once in her last 22 Grand Slams. However, the 2008 Melbourne finalist pushed reigning Australian Open champ Victoria Azarenka to three sets at the 2013 U.S. Open, and showed plenty of positive energy winning 82 percent of her first-serve points in rallying past 2011 U.S. Open champ Samantha Stosur in round three.

This is a match of first-strike tennis between two aggressive players averse to giving up ground. Controlling the center of the court and forcing the opponent to defend the edges will be key. Also, Ana is 1-8 lifetime vs. world No. 1 players.

Though she was a bit impatient in round three, Serena is more explosive, serves with more variety, has swept all eight sets these two have played (three of the four wins were at the U.S. Open), and wins the running rallies. Serena has gone 77-3 since the 2013 Australian Open and typically turns it up at this stage of majors.

The Pick: Williams in two sets


(4) Li Na vs. (22) Ekaterina Makarova
Head-to-head: Li leads 4-0
Hisense Arena, second match

Escaping the ledge of loss can be liberating: Makarova stormed back from a 0-3 third-set deficit vs. Venus Williams in round one and has not lost a set since; Li fought off a match point to subdue Lucie Safarova, 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3 in round three. "I think five centimeters saved my tournament," said Li. 

Margins are minute when the 2011 Roland Garros champion and Makarova meet. Three of their four matches have gone the distance and both have played dynamic tennis in Oz: Li was a finalist in two of the last three years; Makarova has beaten six Top 20 players—including Serena Williams—in advancing to consecutive quarterfinals.

Li can be emotionally combustible and become her own worst enemy, but she’s quicker around the court and can crack strikes down the line on the run. The fourth seed plays so flat she sometimes slaps balls into net when stress spikes. Defending the second serve will be vital: Li must combat Makarova’s slider wide on the ad side. Coming off a tense win against a left-hander should prepare Li for the Russian’s lefty spin, and I see her edging into her fourth Melbourne quarterfinal.

The Pick: Li in three sets


MEN

(2) Novak Djokovic vs. (15) Fabio Fognini
Head-to-head: Djokovic leads 6-0
Rod Laver Arena, third match

The defending champion is as constant as sunscreen in Melbourne's summer. Riding a 27-match winning streak, Djokovic is playing for his 19th consecutive major quarterfinal and his seventh straight trip to the last eight in Oz.

Fognini, who lost in the opening round in five of his prior six appearances, is bidding to reach a major quarterfinal for the first time since the 2011 French Open. When he’s fully committed to the cause, Fognini is fun to watch because he can take the ball early, redirect pace with accuracy, and mix soft hands and mischievous inclinations to create chaos in the front court.

These former practice partners know each other very well and have a history that’s a horror show for Fognini. Djokovic does everything better, hits bigger, moves faster, and has permitted just two sets in six meetings. Djokovic looks driven to become the first man in the Open era to win four straight Australian Open titles and I don’t see him stumbling here.

The Pick: Djokovic in three sets


(3) David Ferrer vs. Florian Mayer
Head-to-head: Ferrer leads 4-3
Hisense Arena, third match

Though Ferrer says winning a major title is no longer his primary aim, he remains a major pain in the neck to those with the misfortune to meet him at this stage.

The 2013 Roland Garros finalist has reached eight straight Grand Slam quarterfinals and scored straight-sets wins over Mayer in both of their major meetings (at Flushing Meadows in 2007 and 2011). But there’s hope for the 30-year-old German here. Mayer defeated two seeds—No. 14 Mikhail Youzhny and No. 20 Jerzy Janowicz—in succession, and has beaten the last two Top 5 players he’s faced. He snapping a four-match losing slide to Ferrer with a 6-4, 6-3 win in Shanghai last fall, and surprised No. 4 Andy Murray in Doha earlier this month.

An extremely fit player, Mayer served 60 percent or better in his last two matches and will need to match that mark against Ferrer, who leads the tournament in break points won (22) and is second in first-serve receiving points won. This could be a tricky encounter, but Ferrer has used his inside-out forehand to damaging effect against the more mechanical Mayer and should advance.

The Pick: Ferrer in four sets


(8) Stanislas Wawrinka vs. (17) Tommy Robredo
Head-to-head: Robredo leads 6-1
Rod Laver Arena, second night match

A 14-4 record in five-setters gives Robredo a well-deserved reputation as tennis’ marathon man, and he’s been very good giving Wawrinka the runaround by playing higher-percentage patterns and cleaner shots under pressure. The unerring Spaniard lures the Swiss into indulging his craving for the down-the-line drive, and has impulsively overplayed in trying to bang his way back into matches. Wawrinka is the more powerful player, but Robredo is shrewder, playing the score and situation with greater care.

Covering Robredo’s upset of Roger Federer at the 2013 U.S. Open and wrongly picking Richard Gasquet to beat Tommy in round three, you think I would know better than go there again. Given Robredo won their lone prior Grand Slam meeting (at the 2006 U.S. Open) and prevailed in both of their 2013 encounters (at Casablanca and Cincinnati) you’d have to be loony or suffering from sun-stroke to back Wawrinka here. But I think Stan is the more commanding server, he should be much fresher (he's contesting only four full sets to reach this stage), and if he plays assertively while maintaining margin for error, he’s got a shot to halt a history of futility.

The Pick: Wawrinka in five sets

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