Each day during the Australian Open, Richard Pagliaro will preview three must-see men's and women's matches—and offer his predictions.
Melbourne is Makarova’s best major: She is coming off consecutive quarterfinal appearances, was a doubles semifinalist last year, and has beaten six Top 20 players—including Serena Williams—Down Under. Venus, however, has lost in the third round in her last two Australian Open appearances. Look for the left-handed Russian, who opened the year by sweeping former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, to use the body serve to jam Williams.
Health is a variable: A wrist injury limited Makarova to two matches since her run to the 2013 U.S. Open quarterfinals; Williams says her ongoing battle with the energy-sapping Sjogren’s syndrome sometimes leaves her feeling like a Formula I car running on a half tank of gas. Venus can be erratic and slap balls into net, but she should be confident coming off a run to the Auckland final. The former No. 1 is a resourceful competitor willing to scrap and scramble if her serve isn’t landing, and the faster track should suit her well.
The Pick: Williams in three sets
Reigning and former Australian Open doubles champions collide in a stylistic clash. Vinci will mix her topspin forehand, slice backhand, and clever angles to try displace Zheng. The 56th-ranked Chinese will straddle the baseline, take the ball on the rise, and crack flat drives in the corners aiming to deconstruct Vinci.
The Italian’s slice backhand can befuddle some power players and she’s skilled around net, but Zheng typically handles the low ball well and also knows how to close up close. The 30-year-old vets are both 5’4” and neither strike fear on serve, so taking charge in rallies is crucial. Zheng has not surrendered a set to Vinci in their two hard-court meetings, including a 6-4, 6-2 sweep at the 2012 Australian Open. She was a semifinalist in 2010, while Vinci has failed to survive the second round in five of eight career appearances. Zheng is comfortable on this court, and if plays boldly, she should prevail again.
The Pick: Zheng in two sets
If you’re hungry for an upset, chew on this: Zakopalova swept Stosur in the Hobart semifinals last week; Sam wants so badly to succeed in her home major that she looks like she’s playing points with a racquet bag full of fear and anxiety strapped to her back—she's managed just one win in her last two Melbourne appearances.
The 31-year-old Czech has been around so long that she owns Australian Open wins over Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova, and has more career wins (450) than Stosur, the 2011 U.S. Open champion.
The question is: Which Stosur will show up? The woman who wrapped up 2013 winning Osaka, reaching finals in Moscow and Sofa, and has won 15 of her last 19 matches; or the skittish, tightly-wound player who fell to 296th-ranked qualifier Victoria Duval in the first round of the 2013 U.S. Open?
Here’s why I favor Stosur: She’s beaten Zakopalova in two prior Australian Open meetings, is the bigger server, and has won four of her last five tiebreakers. And perhaps most importantly, the Hobart loss could help Stosur in that she knows she must play high and heavy topspin to back her 5'5" opponent off the baseline, as Zakopalova will punish hip-high balls.
The Pick: Stosur in three sets
If this meeting is anything like their last one—Baghdatis squeezed out a 6-4, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (2) win in the 2010 Moscow semifinals—nerves and fitness could come into play. The 49th-ranked Istomin, who is ranked 59 spots higher and may well be fitter, will try to use his power and the occasional down-the-line drive to dictate.
Baghdatis and major night matches go together like a mirror ball and dance club. The expressive shotmaker knows how to engage the crowd (he led his Cypriot supporters in their songs during his inspired run to the 2006 final, and responded to crowd coaxing by smashing nearly every stick in his bag in a 2012 night meltdown vs. Stan Wawrinka) and will want to start fast to stir it up.
The Bag Man has lost in the first round in two of his last three majors and will face a physical opponent on a hot night, but if he's hitting his forehand—which can stray—with confidence and serving with conviction, he should advance.
The Pick: Baghdatis in four sets
When the unerring Monaco meets the unpredictable Gulbis, the hard-hitting Latvian usually unravels. Gulbis is more explosive, erratic, and looks like a heavyweight slugger trying to knock out a shadow: For all the vicious swings, he can’t land the big shots to hurt Monaco.
Gulbis' talent is prodigious, but the Grand Slam reality is pretty bleak: He has fallen in the first round in four of five Australian Open appearances, including a straight-sets loss to Monaco in 2010. He’s a major head case who’s managed just six Grand Slam victories in four years since losing to Monaco, and if he gets down quickly on a scorching hot day, it’s easy to envision Gulbis degenerating into the apathetic attitude that’s been his default mode for years.
I’ve been burned before picking the enigmatic Ernie, and you have to be a little impulsive—or nutty—to favor him here given his past crash-and-burn antics. But Monaco has been hampered by wrist injuries, Gulbis enters with more recent match play, and if the Latvian's forehand doesn't go kablooey...he may still implode, but what’s opening day without a little risk?
The Pick: Gulbis in four sets
Interestingly, these 30-something veterans have never squared off before. In theory, the faster hard court should favor the 35-year-old Haas, a three-time Australian Open semifinalist who showed all-court skills winning titles in Munich and Vienna last year.
The 58th-ranked Garcia-Lopez grew up on clay, but has had his moments on hard courts. He reached the St. Petersburg final last fall and has scored hard-court wins over Rafael Nadal (2010 Bangkok) and Andy Murray (2012 Indian Wells). Haas can play from anywhere on the court and possesses more variation in his game, but he’s been vulnerable in major openers, losing first-rounders in three of his last six Grand Slam tournament appearances, including a five-set loss to 70th-ranked Jarkko Nieminen at the 2013 Australian Open.
Both men can rip the backhand down the line, and while the 30-year-old Garcia-Lopez may be more equipped to grind in the heat, Haas can generate offense from more positions on the court—and gets the edge here.
The Pick: Haas in four sets