Australian Open 2011: Predicting the Men's Quarters, Semis and Final
Four rounds have passed, and we find ourselves in the quarters. As usual, the men's field isn't exactly ripe with surprises and early upsets.
The exception being a 22-year-old Ukranian named Alexandr Dolgopolov, who sent both Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Robin Söderling packing in impressive five-set displays and is now set to meet Andy Murray in the quarters.
Roger Federer was many a pundit's favourite prior to the tournament, whereas the former champions, including Federer himself, hailed Rafael Nadal as the pre-tournament favourite.
If anything, the tournament so far has only confirmed that picture.
Question marks have surrounded Nadal's health prior to and during the first week of play. He's sweating more than usual and he complains about being more tired than usual, though he did feel perfect in yesterday's match against Cilic.
Whatever the state of his health, he's been lucky not to run into someone who's made him work for it. His first two matches were as close to walkovers as you get and though Tomic's unorthodox style had Nadal down 4-0 in the second, the tournament favourite and world No. 1 just went on to win seven of the next eight games.
From what I've seen, he looks good, especially against Cilic. Moreover, he's spent less time on court than everyone else, which is better than he could have wished for given issues with his health.
Next up is is David Ferrer, who has beaten Nadal two times on HC, including at the US Open in 2007. But let's be real. Nadal on HC in 2007 and now in an entirely different species. Nadal has won their last seven encounters, including two on HC and Ferrer neither has a big weapon nor does he take the ball particularly early. In short, it's hard to see what he can bring to trouble the world No. 1.
Expectation: Nadal in three, one of them being close.
Murray's been as impressive as one would expect him to be, but his opponents haven't looked that good either. That may, of course, be ascribed to Murray, but last night's Jürgen Melzer was certainly below his capabilities.
Nevertheless, only 22 games lost over the course of four matches demand respect.
Next up for Murray is this year's dream run down under, the unorthodox Alexandr Dulgopolov.
It may look like a gimme to meet the No. 46 in the quarterfinals of a Slam, but it isn't. The two have only met once, in 2006 on clay in Davis Cup, a match which Murray won in straights, so we hardly have a record to go by.
In only his fourth slam, the Ukranian has taken out two hot and seasoned players in a row. Mind you, Dolgopolovs first service percentage was at 53 and 50 percent respectively. For a player hitting as offensive as he can and often does, he makes impressively few unforced errors, 26 against Tsonga and 23 against Söderling. Couple that with 38 and 50(!) winners and you get a picture why the match went as it went.
The Ukranian says he's good at exploiting his opponent's weaknesses as his angled shots and low slices were proof of against the tall Swede. So what will he do with Murray? Make him play offensively?
Both are thinking players. Both can come up with incredible shots. But I doubt that Dulgopolov's shots can do as much damage against the much more mobile Murray.
Prediction: Murray in four, going at five.
Djokovic and Berdych's quarter
Now this one is hard to pick. Berdych's form was questioned coming into the event having had a lacklustre second half of 2010. But let there be no doubt, he's back at his best.
Both of them have only lost a set and haven't been pushed too much. Whereas Berdych was in a slump in the second half of 2010, Djokovic had one of the most successful periods of his career, beating Federer in the US Open semis and winning the Davis Cup.
Djokovic's serve seems to be clicking, but I'm not sure where to put the advantage. Berdych has been mighty impressive, against a somewhat ailing Verdasco against whom Berdych made four times as many winners as errors.
Berdych serves well and has some of the heaviest ground strokes in the game. Djokovic has one of the best, if not the best, return game in the game. And some of the cleanest groundies when he's at his best. It's really a toss-up for me.
Prediction: Berdych in five—simply because he has impressed me more.
Federer has looked like anything but a tournament favourite in the latter three of the first four rounds. Old time nemesis Giles Simon had him on the ropes in a second-round thriller, where the Swiss finally clawed back, limited his errors and added more variety to his game in the decider.
Especially in the first match, we saw Paul Annocone's Federer. Aggressive, clean and mighty impressive. However, there's no denying that he hasn't been at the level showed at the WTF in London nor at Doha earlier this month.
He's shanking more shots at both wings. He's making ridiculous mistakes on overheads and put aways. And his confidence in his backhand is not as high as it has been. Against Simon in the fifth, he was still to hit a winner with it, whereas Simon had hit 11 with his. In the end, Federer did trust his backhand and came up with some good shots at deciding points.
His serve out wide is clicking and he's still charging the net more. However, he's not very aggressive on the returns, not even the second serve, and seems happy just to put them back in play. This tactic can prove dangerous once he runs into real opposition—and from Stan, the man, Wawrinka's play, he seems able to give him just that.
Federer leads him something like 7-1 and should prevail. But Stan just beat Roddick in a very no-nonsense matter and has got nothing to lose against his more accomplished compatriot and friend. With Federer's concentration blips and Wawrinka playing some of the best he's ever played, I expect another tough round for Federer.
Prediction: Federer in four or five, leaning towards five.
Rafael Nadal vs. Andy Murray
Murray beat Nadal very convincingly at this stage last year and stands a good chance if he can repeat his form. The trouble for Murray is: who's improved the most since they last met Down Under—the world's No. 1 or the world's No. 5?
In my mind, there's no doubt that Nadal gets the honour. Nevertheless, Murray is a stern test and by far the sternest he'll have met in the tournament. He does have the tools to trouble Nadal and can create the upset. I just don't expect it to happen.
Who Will Win the Australian Open?
Nadal in four, leaning towards five.
Berdych vs. Federer
Can Berdych repeat his Wimbledon win? Can Federer raise his level and sustain it long enough to win the match? If both play up to their potential, Federer wins. But if he dips just a little, Berdych won't have mercy on him. Federer has a history of raising his level when it counts as we saw in last year's tournament in the latter half of the quarters against Davydenko and then again in the semis and final against Tsonga and Murray, where Federer was at his clinical best.
I hope he finds that level, so we can have the dream final. But I have to say, I lean slightly towards Berdych from what I've seen so far.
Berdych in five, hoping that I'm wrong.
Nadal has only been beaten in a Slam final by one man, that man being Roger Federer. This time, he's got history on the line and failure is not part of his vocabulary. The surface is perfect for him and his will alone should be enough to carry him through against the less experienced opponent, who also might be emotionally and physically drained after wins over Djokovic and Federer.
Prediction: Rafa-slam in three—possibly four.
In this scenario, Federer does raise his level and prevails against both Stan and Berdych, and we fans get our dream final. Federer fighting to preserve and add to his legacy with the possibility of having won three slams five times or more, plus five WTFs. Nadal, well, to close the gap on Federer and become the first man since Laver to possess all four.
Rafa would still be the favourite, but I expect a closer final. I expect a five-setter. The outcome would depend on how well Federer's backhand answers to Rafa's relentless attacks, how well both of them, but especially Roger, serve and how much Roger is able to attack the second serve, charge and take time away from Rafa.
I'm not predicting the winner.
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