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Three to See, Day 8: Rublev v. Rune; Djokovic's next test—and will the Bencic v. Sabalenka winner go all the way?
Each day, we'll preview three must-see matches.
Published Jan 22, 2023
The Break: Sam Stosur retires—from tennis
Andrey Rublev vs. Holger Rune
The more injured Rune is, the better he plays? That’s what you might have thought if you watched his straight-set win over Ugo Humbert on Saturday. Rune was holding his wrist and gingerly moving his foot—even as he was running away with the second set. Afterward, he said he was able to play “full”—100 percent—but his physical status will be something to watch going forward.
Judging by the form of his next opponent, Rune will need to have every bit of good health he can muster. After losing his first two matches of 2023, Rublev, the fifth seed, has been dominant in Melbourne. He was in total control in a straight-set win over 25th seed Dan Evans on Saturday.
Still, it’s Rune who comes into this match having not dropped a set, and despite being just 19, he also comes in with a 1-0 record against his higher-ranked opponent. While Rublev is the more relentless ball-striker, Rune can match him physically, and do more with the ball from different parts of the court. He’s the younger player, but he sounds like a man who considers himself the favorite.
“We played each other last year in Paris,” Rune said of Rublev. “I was still believing that I could beat him, and I did beat him. He’s a super tough opponent. He’s obviously playing well here.
“I’ll expecting a tough match, but really looking forward to it.” Winner: Rune
Belinda Bencic vs. Aryna Sabalenka
This is just a fourth-round match, but it has the feel of one that could determine the champion. These two have come out of the gates as fast as anyone on either tour. Sabalenka won the first tune-up event in Adelaide, while Bencic won the second. Neither has dropped a set in Melbourne.
Their head-to-head is 1-1, but they haven’t faced off since 2019. Sabalenka is the heavier hitter, and the match would seem to be on her racquet; if she’s connecting, there’s not much anyone can do about it. But Bencic is a first-class counterpuncher and absorber of pace, and she has a history of hot streaks that lead to big titles.
One twist to this match will come from the sidelines: Bencic recently started working with Sabalenka’s former coach, Dmitry Tursunov. Will he know the secret to stopping her freight-train game? Winner: Sabalenka
Novak Djokovic vs. Alex de Minaur
“I’m still here and I’m holding on,” Djokovic said after his third-round win over Grigor Dimitrov.
That sounds like a fairly dramatic assessment after a three-set victory, doesn’t it? Djokovic, of course, is referring to the upper leg injury that has been bothering him all tournament. He says that every match is a “roller coaster” when it comes to the injury, and he’s doing his best to ride it. The pain comes and goes and comes and goes again. But he keeps moving on.
Djokovic will face a tougher test, from the person across the net as well as the fans in the stands, in the fourth round. He and De Minaur have never played, but they seem destined to create some beautiful rallies together. Both can hit and run and retrieve and counterpunch all day. De Minaur is coming off a win over Rafael Nadal earlier this season, and looks set to have a career year. He’s also the kind of guy who can push Djokovic’s leg to its limit.
“It’s a big challenge of playing an Aussie guy here in front of his home crowd,” Djokovic said. “I’m sure that the atmosphere will be electric, and he's going to have a lot of support, and he’s going to be pumped to try to win the match.”
“But I’ve had experiences before,” he reminded the media. That includes two wins over another Aussie favorite, Lleyton Hewitt, on these courts.
As for De Minaur, he says he’s going to “take it to” Djokovic and “not shy away” from the moment.
Djokovic will fighting an injury, his opponent, and the crowd. I think you know what that means. Winner: Djokovic