A plethora of intriguing encounters awaits audiences as the third round begins at the Australian Open. Foremost among them are two in the women’s draw, which we include in our latest preview.
Kerber vs. Keys (Rod Laver Arena): Long hovering on the horizon, the 17-year-old Madison Keys has soared into the consciousness of the tennis world by winning four main-draw matches in the last two weeks. Moreover, she has won most of them decisively, including routs of top-20 opponent Safarova in Sydney and the 30th-seeded Paszek here. The teenager’s serve could prove a crucial weapon against Kerber, whose superior steadiness and experience should prevail in rallies unless Keys can find a way to unsettle her, which she could with a strong start. Featured on the show court of a major for the first time, she seems more likely to rise to the occasion than crumble under the weight of the moment.
Li vs. Cirstea (RLA): Familiar with both rising and crumbling in spectacular style, the 2011 Australian Open runner-up split her two meetings with Cirstea at majors last year. Li defeated the heavy-hitting Romanian at Roland Garros but lost to her at Wimbledon before battling past her in a Cincinnati three-setter, so she will know what to expect. While Cirstea defeated Stosur in the first round here last year and can hope to capture that magic again, the moderately paced hard court in Australia would seem to favor Li’s more balanced game.
Sharapova vs. Williams (RLA): Scanning the WTA elite, one might not find two champions more similar in playing style than these two legends of first-strike tennis. Both Sharapova and Venus can hammer lethal missiles from both groundstroke wings, and both compete with the ferocity of women whose lungs illustrate their loathing for losing. Both have the ability to win free points in bunches with their serves, but both also can lose control of that shot beyond repair amidst cascades of double faults. Both have survived significant bouts of adversity, Sharapova by battling back from a career-threatening shoulder surgery and Venus by battling back from a career-threatening illness. While the American has accumulated a richer title haul, the Russian owns the more balanced resume.
Their record reflects much of the above, neatly balanced at 4-3 in Sharapova’s favor but skewed 4-1 in her favor away from Wimbledon, where Venus has claimed her greatest achievements. Not dropping a single game through her first two matches, Maria can expect a steep elevation in her opponent’s quality and must come as prepared to elevate her own quality as she did five years ago here against Davenport. Like her sister, Venus has produced some of her most dazzling surges when least expected, and she has looked quietly impressive if less overtly overpowering so far.
Ivanovic vs. Jankovic (Hisense): Those who appreciate tennis largely from an aesthetic perspective may wish to cover their eyes in a pairing of two women who sprayed disheveled errors to every corner of the court in their previous matches. Meanwhile, those who fancy their tennis served (or double-faulted) with a dollop of drama should enjoy this battle between two countrywomen who have feuded chronically but bitterly. The superior player by most measures, Ivanovic has dominated their head-to-head as her versatile forehand has hit through Jankovic’s baseline defense. So high do the emotions run in these matches, though, that one never knows what to expect from one point to the next.
Djokovic vs. Stepanek (RLA): In addition to their five-set epic at the 2007 US Open, Stepanek has troubled the Serb on two other occasions. He won a set from him at Wimbledon last year by using his idiosyncratic style to disrupt Djokovic’s rhythm. Even as his career has faded, Stepanek continues to revel in the spotlight and ended 2012 on a high note by winning the decisive match in Davis Cup. That momentum probably cannot lift him high enough to disturb Djokovic in Australia, where he looks as dominant as ever in all facets of his game.
Ferrer vs. Baghdatis (RLA): The fourth seed in Nadal’s absence, Ferrer can falter at times with the distractions caused by partisan crowds. Supported vociferously by Melbourne legions of Greeks and Cypriots, Baghdatis hopes to revive the memories of his charge to the 2006 final. At this tournament two years ago, he became the first man ever to win after losing the first two sets to Ferrer at a major, surprising in view of their relative fitness. The fourth seed looked vulnerable in stretches against an overmatched opponent in the last round, while Baghdatis did likewise in another mismatch. His flat, net-skimming groundstrokes should offer an intriguing contrast to Ferrer’s safer topspin.
Anderson vs. Verdasco (Hisense): Reprising their meeting at the Hopman Cup this month, this match pits a rising against a fading star. Like Baghdatis, Verdasco has failed to duplicate his breakthrough performance in Melbourne (a 2009 semifinal), and he should count himself fortunate to escape a five-setter to start the tournament. On the other hand, Anderson followed his strong results in Perth with a final in Sydney, where he showed poise under pressure. Expect plenty of quick holds as each man struggles to crack the other’s serve.
Benneteau vs. Tipsarevic (MCA): Which Tipsarevic will show up here? The man who fired his way past Hewitt with a blizzard of electric shot-making, or the man who barely edged past Lacko in an unimaginative performance? Tipsarevic looked a bit drained after the heroics of his opener, and he may pay the price if he enters this match flat, for Benneteau rolled past trendy dark horse pick Dimitrov in the first round. Although streaky, the Frenchman represents a clear notch upward in quality from Lacko.
Querrey vs. Wawrinka (MCA): The lanky American with the casual power got a little too casual early in each of his first two matches, dropping the opening sets in both. Against Wawrinka, a natural grinder who thrives on long rallies, Querrey should discipline himself to eliminate such gifts. Having lost both of his previous meetings to the Swiss, including a US Open five-setter, he will need to maintain a higher first-serve percentage this time and aim to end points more efficiently.
Almagro vs. Janowicz (Court 3): In the wake of a bizarre five-set comeback against Devvarman, one wondered whether to praise Janowicz for his tenacity in roaring back after losing the first two sets, or to linger on his immaturity for letting his emotions run astray early in the match. Without that costly burst of petulance, the match likely would not have lasted as long as it did. Similarly, Almagro needed much longer than expected to dismiss American neophyte Steve Johnson in another five-setter. Between the Spaniard’s backhand and the Pole’s forehand, fans should see risky, flamboyant shot-making as each man hopes to exploit a weak section of the draw.