Rafael Nadal of Spaincelebrates a point during the "Rally For Relief" charity exhibition match ahead of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 16, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Nadal vs. Cilic:  Far more talented than the Spaniard’s previous victims, the Croat routed him late in 2009 but will find a far more determined opponent this time.  Not quite rising to his vintage brilliance, the top seed still has cruised almost casually through his first three encounters against overmatched opponents.  In the sole exception, Tomic raced to a double-break lead in the second set before discovering what happened to the mouse who pulled the tiger’s tail.  Rafa’s fitness remains somewhat dubious following an illness in Doha that has left him looking a bit wearied at times and seems to have depleted his confidence in his normally superb physical condition.  Yet his lanky foe found himself dragged through five physically and emotionally draining sets in a third-round meeting with Isner, who came within a tiebreak of supplanting Cilic in the second week.  Also raising questions over the Croat are the erratic results that he posted last year as his technique startlingly disintegrated.  Although his forceful two-handed backhand could knock Rafa onto his heels, Cilic’s loopy forehand can fracture under the pressure that a resilient baseliner like Nadal will apply.  Only in the serving department does the challenger hold an advantage over the champion, who has not recaptured the percussive delivery that he unleashed so unexpectedly in New York.

Raonic vs. Ferrer:  The first qualifier to reach the second round of a major since 1999, the newfound pride of Canadian tennis won as many matches to reach this stage (seven) as the eventual champion in Melbourne will require.  Once leading the tournament in aces, Raonic must establish control over their exchanges with that opening shot before the grittier, far more experienced, and far fresher Ferrer subjects him to death by paper cut in a series of endlessly extended rallies.  Successful in the past against mighty servers, the Spaniard seeks to atone for his second-round disappointment here last year, when he surrendered a two-set lead to Baghdatis.  In 2011, by contrast, Ferrer dropped just one set in the first week  as he flung bagels and breadsticks at his hapless foes.  Unless Raonic can assert himself from the outset, one imagines  that his Cinderella run will end rather meekly at the hands of the ATP’s steadiest returner.

Soderling vs. Dolgopolov:  Spared from facing Tsonga at this stage, the Swede will target a charismatic Ukrainian thoroughly unfamiliar to him and to less devout fans.  But Dolgopolov’s commanding performance in the last two sets against the 2008 finalist, befuddled by his curiously timed groundstrokes that resembles swings less than swipes.  In the second week of the season’s first major for the first time in his career, Soderling has preserved the scintillating form that carried him to the Brisbane title two weeks ago, although his previous opponents lacked the baseline firepower to test him.  Instead, he could arrange his clumsy feet and measure his targets with effortless precision, under no pressure to prevent an opponent from regaining the initiative in the rally.  A vicious ball-striker who almost (but not quite) rivals the fourth seed, Dolgopolov will unsettle the Swede with a bit of his own medicine.  The key to this match may lie in Soderling’s superior serve, though, which has befriended him at crucial moments in 2011.

Melzer vs. Murray:  Two years ago at the Australian Open, the counterpunching Scot mercilessly dispatched the volatile lefty.  More intriguing to recall is their surly third-round collision at the 2008 US Open, when Melzer edged within two points of what then constituted a monumental upset over a surly Scot.  Friction sparked between their personalities on that occasion and may again if Melzer maintains the explosive shot-making that will bring him to the top 10 after the tournament ends.  Despite a victory over Nadal in Shanghai and Djokovic at Roland Garros, the Austrian has arrived only recently in the ATP elite after four consecutive second-week appearances at majors.  Troubled by Baghdatis until injury overtook the Cypriot, his audacious gambits reap fewer rewards on this medium-speed court than on the slicker fall surfaces where he prospered.  The fifth seed contrastingly should thrive on a surface with a bounce friendly to his high contact point and a speed suitable to his lithe movement. Winless in four meetings with Murray, Melzer may rest content with yet another sturdy Slam performance rather than pressing himself to reprise that US Open epic.

Peng vs. Radwanska: Conquering the seventh-seeded Jankovic in the second round, the double-fisted Chinese star hopes to walk in the footsteps of 2010 semifinalist Zheng.  Better known for her success in doubles than in singles, Peng has displayed adept net skills and competitive poise throughout her first three victories, not only closing out the Serb with ease but overcoming cramping to defeat Morita a round later.  Once considered unlikely to even play in Melbourne, Radwanska now targets her second quarterfinal at the year’s first major after narrowly eluding Kimiko Date Krumm.  The Pole has grown more confident with each match as she plays herself into the tournament, honing the timing on her artistic style and finding greater depth on her groundstrokes.  Since both players threaten more with their return than their serve, one expects  a match filled with service breaks in which no lead is safe.

Makarova vs. Clijsters:  While the three-time US Open champion lost fewer games than any player in the draw during the first week, the Russian lefty lost more games than any player in the draw.  Apparent in her Eastbourne title run last year, Makarova’s competitive zeal shone through in two upsets over seeded opponents that extended deep into third sets.  The world #49 played well above her ranking to ambush both Ivanovic and Petrova, who found few answers for her ruthless angles and formidable serving.  The clear favorite to win this title, Clijsters must elevate her game from the 41-error performance that disfigured Rod Laver Arena in her third-round victory over Cornet.  Although experience clearly favors the only hard-court Slam champion still in Melbourne, Makarova will exploit the foibles that the Frenchwoman graciously declined to punish.  In her first two victories, though, Clijsters looked virtually invincible as she conceded just four games in four sets; thus, one suspects that the Cornet wobble may have stemmed partly from her loss in the same round here last year.   The Russian has lost 13 games per match on average during this tournament, and Kim needs only 12.

Pennetta vs. Kvitova:  Probably the most evenly matched women’s collision of the day, it features two players who overcame adversity in their last two rounds.  Trailing Stosur 5-3 in the first-set tiebreak, Kvitova regrouped to win the next four points with blistering forehands and never looked troubled again en route to the upset.  Although Pennetta scored only a small upset over the tenth-seeded Peer, she came within four points of defeat in the second set before dominating a tiebreak and battling through a tense final set.  The Italian veteran will have gained confidence from avenging an emotionally fraught loss to the Israeli at the previous major, while her victory over Zvonareva in Sydney reminded audiences of the dangers posed by her deceptively bland style.  But will she allow the quirky, inflammable Kvitova to unnerve her, or will she patiently wait for the lulls that inevitably interrupt the Czech lefty’s brilliance?  Since both players currently smolder outside the top 20, both could gain substantially from a quarterfinal or perhaps semifinal appearance here.

Benesova vs. Zvonareva:  Not unlike Oudin at the 2009 US Open, Kvitova’s compatriot and fellow lefty has ousted two seeded Russians with a determination much less characteristic of the Czech than it was of the American.  After 31 consecutive first-week losses at majors, Benesova finds herself in the second week for the first time in her career and should not be discounted against a fallible world #2 despite the disparity in their rankings.  Shrugging off a lopsided second set against Pavlyuchenkova in the third round, the world #60 refused to succumb in the third set as she fought off multiple break points with fearless forehands and drop shots.  Much less than fearless in the first week, Zvonareva allowed a second-set lead to slip away against Safarova and suffered through a 20-point tiebreak before avoiding a second straight three-setter.  Seeking her third consecutive major final, she has displayed only fleeting glimpses of the intelligent point construction and competitive poise that characterized her achievements at Wimbledon and the US Open.  With recurrent nemesis Pennetta perhaps lurking in the quarterfinals, Zvonareva has one last chance to deliver a statement of intent before the pressure rises.

***

Having previewed every clash on Day 8, we will discuss all of the remaining singles matches at the 2011 Australian Open as the second week unfolds.

Advertisements