Each day during the Australian Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview three must-see men's and women's matches—and offer his predictions.
The four-time Grand Slam champion is nearly a foot taller than Cibulkova, but Sharapova sometimes struggles to shake the 5’3” Slovak’s shadow. Cibulkova crushed Sharapova, 6-0, 6-2, in the 2009 Roland Garros quarterfinals; the Russian avenged one of her worst defeats with a 6-1, 6-1 annihilation two years later at Wimbledon.
The surface speed should favor the more powerful Sharapova. She has a wider wingspan, she will want to pulverize Cibulkova’s sub-80 M.P.H. second serves, and if she can hit the kick serve at times it will set up her screaming first strike. Sharapova is a hard-core fighter, who has won 20 of her last 23 three-setters, but here’s what scares me: She’s dumped a tournament-high 29 double faults, she’s still shaking off rust (this will be just her eighth match since Wimbledon 2013), and she’s been sporadic since winning the longest match of her career in round two.
I like Cibulkova’s quickness and love her feistiness. She cracks the ball bigger than her size suggests and will be fresher—Cibulkova has spent three hours, 33 minutes on court compares to Sharapova’s six hours and 58 minutes of work. Dominika will try to straddle the baseline, attack Maria in forehand exchanges, and make this a physical test. Admittedly, this is a reach, but we’ve seen Cibulkova pull major upsets before.
The Pick: Cibulkova in three sets
When these two meet, separation is as narrow as the net. All three of their prior matches have gone the distance: Jankovic won their lone hard-court clash, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, at the 2010 U.S. Open, while Halep prevailed in subsequent clay-court matches, winning 7-6 in the third in Brussels 2012, and rallying for a 4-6, 6-0, 7-5 triumph in Rome last May.
The 28-year-old Serbian has not lost a set in Oz, she’s converted 18 of 23 break-point chances—78 percent, the best conversion rate of any woman still standing—and she is playing for her 100th career Grand Slam victory. In contrast, Halep, who failed to survive the second round in 13 of 14 prior Grand Slam appearances, has only 13 major wins to her credit.
Jankovic is an opportunistic player who has crafted career revival working with older brother, Marko, as coach. I definitely don’t underestimate the former No. 1. The 22-year-old Romanian’s inexperience is a real concern here, but Halep hits the ball early, she’s quick around the court, and she can spot the serve. I had her as my darkhorse pick before the tournament began and I’ll stick with Halep here.
The Pick: Halep in three sets
A rematch of the 2013 semifinals should keep players, fans and trainers on their toes and could be an explosive encounter between budding rivals embroiled in a “non-existent” relationship.
Azarenka was both overwhelming and unnerving in her 6-1, 6-4 sweep of Stephens last year, hitting declarative drives to build the lead, and then taking a controversial late-match medical time-out at 5-4 before sealing it. The two-time champion is a sniper on return, she’s reduced the pace of her first serve to promote a higher percentage (78 percent, best of any woman still in the tournament), and will use her two-handed backhand to try to corner Stephens in backhand rallies.
Potentially, Stephens can be one of tennis’ most complete players, but she must play with more urgency and clearly-defined purpose. Stephens may be the fastest woman in the game, but she’s more comfortable using her speed laterally to defend rather than rushing forward to close, and she’s stalled her cause with slow starts.
If she attacked with her forehand, I believe Sloane has the skills to prevail, but I’m just not sure if she’s ready to play with the clarity and commitment this moment demands. Azarenka should be empowered by her 17-match Melbourne winning streak and sight of a Serena-free field.
The Pick: Azarenka in three sets
Shortly after Nadal scored a three-set win over an 18-year-old Nishikori in their first meeting at the 2008 Queen’s Club, he predicted the kid would someday crack the Top 10.
Rafa will be proven right, eventually, as the 17th-ranked Japanese is contesting his fourth Grand Slam round of 16 in his last eight majors, but look for the world No. 1 to dispense punishment rather than praise in this rematch. Nishikori is a quick and creative baseliner who can take the ball on the rise and generate edgy angles.
The problems Nadal poses are considerable: The 2009 champion has a substantial strength advantage, Nishikori’s favored inside-out forehand feeds into Rafa's lethal lefty forehand, and the Spaniard's ruthless commitment to cross-court exchanges has drained Kei's legs, lungs and desire in the past. Rafa hasn’t just beat Nishikori, he’s beat him up, rolling through the last 11 sets they’ve played.
Nishikori can be a flashy shotmaker, but a highly-disciplined Nadal has not lost a set here, he’s the more ferocious competitor, and will be hungry to reach his seventh straight Melbourne quarterfinal without complications.
The Pick: Nadal in three sets
Two breakout players will try to back up their biggest Grand Slam wins by reaching a maiden major quarterfinal. The 62nd-ranked Bautista Agut blistered 72 winners in shocking No. 5 seed Juan Martin del Potro in a five-set second-round victory, then defeated No. 27 seed Benoit Paire, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4—his first wins over seeded opponents in Grand Slam play. The 25-year-old Spaniard dismissed Dimitrov in Beijing last fall (6-4, 6-2), he’s moving beautifully, defending tenaciously, and has been willing to play his accurate topspin drives close to the lines.
While Bautista Agut has been more consistent, Dimitrov is more explosive. The Bulgarian is an enchanting talent who generates buzz because he can create flashes of shot-making magic from anywhere on the court—see the running backhand pass he bolted down the line in the tiebreaker of his 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 7- 6 (10) third-round thriller over Milos Raonic. Raonic’s wrecking-ball serve made rallies brief, but Bautista Agut will be thrilled to grind in long baseline exchanges. Can Dimitrov show the mental discipline and physical fortitude necessary to beat a stubborn opponent who picked him apart in their last match? I believe Dimitrov will use his thumping serve and all-court acumen to advance.
The Pick: Dimitrov in four sets
Federer required five match points and three hours and 34 minutes of focus to subdue Tsonga in five sets in the 2013 quarterfinals, and he may have to turn back time to stop the 2008 finalist this time around.
Tell me that Tsonga is younger, fresher, and will pound his sledgehammer serve and heavy forehand to Federer’s weaker one-handed backhand—which clanked its share of shanks in the Swiss’ Brisbane final loss to Lleyton Hewitt earlier this month—and I won't argue.
Even so, here’s why I favor Federer: He’s won eight of their 11 hard-court clashes, three of their five Grand Slam meetings, and he’s never lost to the Frenchman in a hard-court major. Federer is older, less confident, and a more vulnerable version of the guy who consistently produced key strikes at crunch time in the past, but his first serve has been very sharp so far—he’s won 84 percent of first-serve points and dropped serve just once.
The serve, break-point conversion, and accuracy firing the inside-out forehand to torment the opponent’s backhand will be key for both men, as this could come down to tiebreakers. Federer looks healthier, hungrier, and a bit smoother than he did last year, and I think if he can hit the high notes at the right times, he can advance to his 11th consecutive Australian Open quarterfinal.
The Pick: Federer in five sets