Australian Open 2014: Predicting and Previewing Week 2 of the Tournament
Competition is heating up Down Under as Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka fight to defend their Australian Open championships.
The main front-runners have been largely untroubled so far, but five top 10 players (Juan Martin Del Potro and Richard Gasquet on the men's side and Petra Kvitova, Sara Errani and Caroline Wozniacki on the women's side) have already fallen away over the first three rounds.
With the tournament now entering its second week, let's look at each section of the men's and women's draw to predict what we're likely to see over the final seven days of competition as play enters the quarter-final stage.
Serena Williams' Quarter
World No. 1 Serena Williams remains the favorite in the women’s draw after a comfortable run during the first week of the tournament.
Williams has dropped just 12 combined games in wins against Ashleigh Barty, Vesna Dolonc and Daniela Hantuchova, and she hasn’t spent more than 42 minutes on any one set so far.
With first-week temperatures consistently hitting triple digits, her time on court—or lack thereof—is key.
The reigning US Open champion didn’t play her best tennis against Hantuchova—her first serve, especially, wasn’t up to her usual high standards—but she didn’t need to be.
Aussie favorite Sam Stosur, ranked 17, would have given Williams a bigger test in the fourth round, but Ana Ivanovic rallied to beat her. Ivanovic is winless against Williams, and while it will be her toughest test here so far this year, it’s smooth sailing into the semifinals.
Either wildcard Casey Dellacqua or Canadian teenager Genie Bouchard will make it to their first-ever quarterfinals in a major, but neither has the game to upset Williams, who will be even fresher considering she will no longer be playing in the doubles tournament with sister Venus.
Bouchard, the No. 31 seed, is the most likely to advance. She upset Jelena Jankovic (in Tokyo), Ivanovic (at Wimbledon) and Stosur (in Charleston) in 2013, so she clearly has the game to cause top players problems.
She lost her only other match with Williams in the round of 32 in Cincinnati last year after taking the first set, but don’t expect this one to be as close.
Li Na's Quarter
The seeds will be going head-to-head in Li Na’s quarter of the draw.
Fourth-seeded Na will face Ekaterina Makarova, seeded 22, while No. 9 Angelique Kerber will meet No. 28 Flavia Pennetta.
On paper, Na and Kerber should meet in the quarterfinals, but it might not be that simple.
Na was pushed in a tough three-setter against No. 26 Lucie Safarova in the third round, so it will all depend on how much energy she has left in the tank. Makarova has lost all four previous meetings with Na—all on hard courts—but she has taken three of those matches to a decisive third set.
Just as that match could go either way, so could the other in this section. Kerber’s tournament got off to a shaky start when she needed three sets to beat Jarmila Gajdosova in the first round, but she looked much more comfortable against Alla Kudryavtseva and Alison Riske.
Pennetta, meanwhile, has yet to drop a set, but she has the added weight of playing in the doubles with Kristina Mladenovic.
Pennetta has the more experience and she won their last hard-court match in 2012, but Kerber is the younger and stronger of the pair and also has a hard-court Grand Slam victory over her opponent.
Regardless of whether Na or Makarova advance, I’d expect Kerber to continue her roll into the last four for her third quarter-final appearance.
Maria Sharapova's Quarter
It's not too unrealistic to expect the finalist from the bottom half of the draw to be either defending champion Victoria Azarenka or No. 3 seed Maria Sharapova.
Azarenka has been dominant here in the past couple years, while Sharapova has a difficult road ahead of her if she wants to make it into the semifinals.
She will need to beat No. 25 seed Alize Cornet on Saturday, either No. 16 Carla Suarez Navarro or No. 20 Dominika Cibulkova on Monday and then most likely eighth-seeded Jelena Jankovic or No. 11 seed Simona Halep in the quarters. That's no easy task.
Sharapova has the game to make it much deeper in the draw, but the potential fourth-round match between Jankovic and Halep is the most exciting prospect right now.
Jankovic, a former World No. 1, dropped just five games in her first two matches and she should have little trouble advancing past Kurumi Nara. Halep, meanwhile, will need to get off to a better start against Zarina Diyas than she did against Varvara Lepchenko if she has any hope of continuing her rise up the rankings.
It's hard to see Sharapova losing against either opponent, even if she keeps pushing the envelope with her second serve. She's 8-1 lifetime against Jankovic—including 6-0 on hard courts—and she has won both previous meetings with Halep.
As long as tennis' glamor girl continues to return as well as she has in the first week, there shouldn't be any upsets in this quarter of the draw any time soon.
Victoria Azarenka's Quarter
There are still potentially three quarter-final matchups involving a pair of top 10 seeds, but none is more fascinating than Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska.
But before we jump too far ahead, there are a couple of roadblocks. For Azarenka, that's likely American No. 13 seed Sloane Stephens, assuming the champ beats Yvonne Meusburger and Stephens dispatches Elina Svitolina as expected.
Azarenka won their only other meeting here last year in somewhat controversial fashion when she called for a medical timeout in their semifinal—a match Vika eventually won, 6-1, 6-4.
Stephens has the shots, the temperament and the motivation to exact a measure of revenge, and she'll need to be at her best to defend last year's points.
We saw Stephens' vulnerabilities against Ajla Tomljanovic in round 2, and although Azarenka won't serve as big, her placement—especially out wide on the ad court—will be the difference.
The other big match in this quarter should have been Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki in the round of 16. Neither player had been perfect in the first-week heat and both fell during the warmup events—Wozniacki to Lucie Safarova and Radwanska to Bethanie Mattek-Sands, both in Sydney.
But that match won't be, with Wozniacki losing her third-round match against Garbine Muguruza on Saturday. With the former world No. 1 out of the picture, expect Radwanska to cruise into the quarters where she'll lose to Azarenka.
The Final 4
My predictions see Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber meeting in the first semifinal with Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka facing each other in the second.
Kerber did beat Williams in Cincinnati in 2012, but the No. 1 seed has won the other three matches—all on hard courts—without dropping a set. However, while Kerber will probably have to beat Li Na in the quarters, Williams will have a considerably easier run against either unseeded Casey Dellacqua or Genie Bouchard.
In the other section, the prospect of Sharapova-Azarenka is mouth-watering. Sharapova is hunting for her fifth major while Azarenka is trying to defend her title for a second consecutive year.
The Russian got a great scare against Karin Knapp in the second round and she struggled at times in the second set against Alice Cornet. The road to the semis looks relatively straightforward for Sharapova, but her serve remains her biggest weakness (29 double faults already) and it will be her undoing against Azarenka, who will likely need to beat Sloane Stephens and Agnieszka Radwanska.
My money has always been on Williams to win this title and nothing I've seen in the first week has changed my mind. Williams can seemingly cruise at any time and still win comfortably, but Azarenka—who I'm predicting to lose in the final—will have used all her energy navigating the field to reach the last Saturday.
Williams is simply too strong on her serve. She has hit 26 aces already and that has helped her win 86 percent of points on her serve.
Rafael Nadal's Quarter
Not too many people would have expected to see either Grigor Dimitrov or Roberto Bautista Agut in the quarterfinals, but one of them will make it to the second week of competition where Rafa Nadal will presumably await.
Dimitrov beat No. 11 Milos Raonic in the third round, while Bautista Agut toppled No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro and No. 27 Benoit Paire in consecutive matches. It's difficult to guess which one will come through one more round, but luckily it's less difficult to predict the other half.
Top-seeded Nadal could struggle to see off Gael Monfils in straight sets, but you can still pencil him in to the next round to defeat the winner of Donald Young and Kei Nishikori. When he's on his game, few players in the world can hang with him, and for all the energy both players bring to the table, neither has the consistency, serve or guile to upset Nadal.
Nadal caught a break when Bernard Tomic was forced to retire in their first-round match, but even in second gear he will stroll into the semifinals. Expect Dimitrov to end Bautista Agut's dream start to the year, but don't think he'll stand a chance against Nadal, whose hardest pre-semifinal match will have been against Monfils in the third round.
Andy Murray's Quarter
Still the toughest quarter to predict, things are getting interesting in Andy Murray's part of the top half.
Murray and Roger Federer remain on a crash course, but it's the latter who will have the most difficulty making that a reality.
While Murray will meet lucky loser Stephane Robert in the fourth round following his victory over No. 26 Feliciano Lopez, Federer will likely have to face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the round of 16.
Federer has played well so far and has only been on the court for around five hours through his first three matches. But this isn't the Federer of old, and while it would be silly to count him out immediately, the 17-time Grand Slam champion is not a sure bet to beat Tsonga.
Tsonga will need to get past Gilles Simon first, but straight-sets wins over Filippo Volandri and Thomaz Bellucci suggest he's playing well.
I don't see the winner of the tournament coming from this section of the draw, but I can picture a scenario where Tsonga makes it out to the semifinals.
I'm predicting Tsonga to beat Federer and Murray and be the only player in the semifinals in the men's draw seeded outside the top four.
David Ferrer's Quarter
David Ferrer will look to make it into his ninth consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinal when play gets underway this weekend.
He’s been in two semifinals and one quarterfinal here in Melbourne Park in the past three years, so he’s no stranger to deep runs in this tournament.
Florian Mayer has already claimed the scalps of No. 14 Mikhail Youzhny and No. 20 Jerzy Janowicz, but he is an inconsistent player who has also crashed out of majors in the first or second round of five of the last seven tries. Ferrer's all-court game will ensure there's no repeat of another upset.
In the other fourth-round match in this quarter, No. 19 seed Kevin Anderson will hope to build upon his big 2013 season with a victory over No. 7 Tomas Berdych.
Anderson is yet to make the quarterfinals of a major, whereas Berdych has crashed out at that stage in each of the past three years here in Melbourne.
Even though Anderson has been strong on his serve—his 63 aces are the most of any remaining player—Berdych will enjoy the speed of these courts and he will go into the contest as the favorite. He has returned pretty well—he has recorded 14 breaks of serve already—and leads all players with 87 percent of points won on his first serve. That combination means he should emerge victorious.
If Ferrer and Berdych do indeed meet in the quarterfinals, it could go either way. Berdych beat him in the round robin at the ATP World Tour Finals in London at the end of last year and he's won two of their last five hard court matches going back to 2010.
Ferrer's preparation for the Australian Open was not the greatest—he lost to Yen-Hsun Lu in Auckland and to Daniel Brands in Doha—but a favorable draw means he hasn't been tested too heavily in the first week.
I'm predicting Ferrer to advance in five, but I wouldn't be surprised if Berdych finds a way to advance to just his second semifinal in four years.
Novak Djovokic's Quarter
It's difficult to see who will give Novak Djovokic his first serious challenge in his bid to defend his crown.
Fiery Italian Fabio Fognini doesn't have the big-match game to trouble Djokovic, but No. 8 seed Stan Wawrinka could certainly ask questions of him in the quarterfinals.
Wawrinka benefited from the retirement of Andrey Golubev in the first round and was handed a walkover in the third round when Vasek Pospisil pulled the rip cord and removed himself from the tournament.
Wawrinka was made to work for his 6-3, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4 win over Colombian Alejandro Falla in the second round, but he served beautifully and only faced seven break points in total.
Tommy Robredo has already upset No. 9 seed Richard Gasquet to make it to the fourth round, but Wawrinka is as fresh as a daisy and is the superior hard-court competitor.
He won't beat Robredo in straight sets, but he will meet Djokovic—who has won 81 percent of his first-serve points and a ridiculous 70 percent on his second serve—in the round of eight.
The Final 4
I have Rafael Nadal and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga playing in one semifinal and David Ferrer meeting Novak Djokovic in the other.
Let's face it, most fans only want to see one final: No. 1-seeded Nadal and defending champion Djokovic. It's the same on the women's side with Williams and Azarenka.
I predict Songa will be the biggest surprise of the tournament, but there are very few scenarios where I see him beating Nadal. Ferrer is much better paired against Djovokic, but the Serbian is just so strong on hard courts that it's foolish to bet against him.
If the top seeds advance to the final, you're in for a treat. This is the best rivalry in men's tennis right now, and Nadal's 22-17 lifetime edge over Djokovic shows just how often they have met over the years.
Records and head-to-head stats almost go out of the window in a final such as this, but know that 12 of their past 14 matches have been for silverware. Djokovic won the last two—in the World Tour Finals and Beijing—but Nadal has won their last three best-of-five set matches.
We've seen classics between them in the past—Nadal winning the thriller at Roland Garros last year and Djovokic edging Nadal in Melbourne in 2012—and this is no different.
I'm going for Djokovic in four sets.