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Three to See, Day 9: Lehecka eyes Tsitsipas upset; Pegula and Azarenka, Khachanov and Korda prepare for rematches
Each day, we'll preview three must-see matches.
Published Jan 23, 2023
WATCH: Hear from Stefanos Tsitsipas after his Round 4 win vs. Jannik Sinner.
Karen Khachanov vs. Sebastian Korda
Korda is only 22, but he already has a history with Khachanov. They’ve played three times, and Korda has won twice. But Khachanov won the most memorable of their encounters, 10-8 in the fifth set at Wimbledon in 2021.
This time it’s Korda who is coming off an epic win, 10-7 in a fifth-set match tiebreak against Hubert Hurkacz. Khachanov, meanwhile, straight-stetted Yoshihito Nishioka—and won the first two sets 6-0, 6-0. Which means the biggest question mark for this match will Korda’s physical state. He’s making strides Down Under, but is he ready for the next test that every Slam hopeful must pass, the ability to bounce back after a five-set win?
Korda will be the crowd favorite, but that may actually make Khachanov more comfortable. The towering, mostly unflappable Russian thrives on defying audiences and knocking off their favorites: He did it against Nick Kyrgios at the US Open last year, and against Frances Tiafoe earlier in this tournament. Korda is on the rise, but Khachanov, with his power game and quiet belief, may still be a little out of his reach. Winner: Khachanov
Jessica Pegula vs. Victoria Azarenka
The pressure has suddenly risen in the top half of the women’s draw. That’s because the seemingly immovable object there, Iga Swiatek, has been moved out of the tournament. Now the four women left—Pegula, Azarenka, Jelena Ostapenko, and the player who beat Swiatek, Elena Rybakina—have a much more open path to a Grand Slam final than they did two days ago. We’ll see how they react to their unexpected opportunity-of-a-lifetime.
Seedings-wise, Pegula, the world No. 3, would seem to have the biggest opportunity of all of them. If so, she says it hasn’t sunk in yet.
“It’s an interesting feeling, I guess. I still don’t really feel like that,” she says, citing the fact that she’s the only player left in her half who hasn’t won a major. “It still feels like there’s a long way to go, to be honest.”
It’s true, while Pegula has the better ranking right now, Azarenka has the better pedigree. She’s been No. 1 and won here twice, and at 32 she has shown signs of her old stubborn grit in her last two matches, which she won in three sets over Madison Keys and Lin Zhu.
Pegula and Azarenka have split their four meetings 2-2; Pegula won the most recent of them, in Guadalajara last fall. When they face each other on Tuesday, it will be a match between a woman who is finding out how good she can be, and a woman trying to get back to her best. Their styles are similar; both hit hard and semi-flat. But these days Pegula’s placement is just a little more precise. Winner: Pegula
Stefanos Tsitsipas vs. Jiri Lehecka
If you haven’t seen the 21-year-old, 71st-ranked Lehecka play yet, you probably won’t be surprised by what he does well. Whether it’s his serve, his forehand, or his backhand, he takes the ball on the rise and hammers it. As Australian commentator Wally Masur said during his last match: “That’s what the new generation can do, they can find winners from any part of the court.” With his short blond hair and ramrod-straight swing stance, Lehecka might be a less-tall Tomas Berdych for the 2020s.
Whatever he’s doing, it’s working for him. He made the final of the Next Gen Finals last fall, and he has knocked off two second-tier title contenders, Felix Auger Aliassime and Cam Norrie, so far in Melbourne. Can he do the same to a top-tier contender?
Tsitsipas won’t be completely surprised by what the Czech can do. They faced each other on indoor hard courts in Rotterdam last year, and Tsitsipas came back from a set down to win. Lehecka, like his fellow newcomer Holger Rune, doesn’t sound like he’ll lack for confidence when they meet again.
“I will go for that revenge for sure,” Lehecka says. “I think that he will remember, and he’ll know what my strengths are. He’ll feel that I can get him under pressure.
“I know how to play against him.”
Lehecka can be inconsistent when he’s on the run, but he has the superior backhand, and he’ll be able to rush Tsitsipas. Much will likely depend on Tsitsipas’s serve, which saved the day for him in his last match, against Jannik Sinner. At some stage, Lehecka will beat Tsitsipas; but on this stage, in front of thousands of his “home Slam” supporters, I’ll take Tsitsipas. Winner: Tsitsipas