Wizards of Oz (VIII): Federer, Serena, Murray, Azarenka, Tsonga, and More on Australian Open

Tsonga braces himself for a battle with a fellow Frenchman today.

On Monday, the rest of the quarterfinals take form in both the men’s and women’s draws.  The action shrinks to Rod Laver and Hisense, by which we divide the previews.

Rod Laver Arena:

Wozniacki vs. Kuznetsova:  Fans may remember their pair of US Open three-setters, both of which Wozniacki won when her retrieving skills and superior fitness outlasted Kuznetsova’s fiery shot-making and athleticism.  Those victories formed part of a four-match streak for the Dane against the Russian that halted abruptly last week in Sydney, where the latter astonished the former in a three-setter played under sweltering conditions.  All but irrelevant last year, Kuznetsova appeared to have regained her motivation during the offseason before charging back into contention with one of her best results to date here.  For her part, Wozniacki recovered from a dismal first-round effort to play cleaner tennis through her next two matches, albeit less impressive than what she produced as world #1.  Long rallies and service breaks should await as both players focus on what they do best in this strength-on-strength matchup:  offense for Sveta, defense for Caro.

Azarenka vs. Vesnina:  On the surface, this match would seem like a rout in the making, and it might well turn out that way in reality.  But Vesnina has played some of her best tennis in recent memory this month, starting an eight-match winning streak with her first career singles title last week.  Meanwhile, Azarenka has looked vulnerable in two of three matches and staggered through an unexpected three-setter against Jamie Hampton, who likely would not have trouble the Vika who swaggered to last year’s title.  Unable to hold serve consistently, the defending champion has relied on her return to break opponents regularly, possibly a more difficult task against Vesnina than the three before her.  Still, Azarenka has won all six of their previous sets.

Tsonga vs. Gasquet:  If the passivity of Simon and Monfils bored you, rest assured that this pair of Frenchman will not produce the same lethargy.  Outstanding shot-makers each, they shine most in different areas.  Whereas Tsonga unleashes titanic serves and forehands, often rumbling to the net behind them, Gasquet favors one of the ATP’s most delicious one-handed backhands.  He ventures to the forecourt often as well, displaying a fine touch that has contributed to his success in their rivalry.  Gasquet has won four of their seven meetings, but Tsonga looked the sharper player during the first week.  Not dropping a set in three matches, he has maintained the focus and discipline lacking from his disappointing 2012, so he will fancy his chances of halting Gasquet’s eight-match winning streak.

Serena vs. Kirilenko:  Apparently recovered from her ankle scare, Serena remains the favorite to win a third straight major title here.  Outside an odd three-game span in the second set of her last match, she has ravaged a series of overmatched opponents while reaffirming the dominance of her serve.  The competition does elevate in quality with the 14th-seeded Kirilenko, much improved in singles over the last year or two.  Serena has won all five of their previous meetings, though, and the weight of her shot should leave the Russian struggling to match her hold for hold.  Only on an especially erratic day for the 14-time major champion would Kirilenko’s balanced all-court game and high-percentage brand of tennis threaten her.

Raonic vs. Federer:  Perhaps useful in preparing him for the titanic serve across the net was Federer’s previous match against Tomic, who regularly found huge deliveries when it mattered most.  As brilliant as the Swiss looked in other aspects of his game, he struggled to convert break points and nearly lost the second set as a result.  Nevertheless, Federer did not lose his serve in the first week or even encounter significant pressure on his service games.  That trend should continue against the unreliable return of Raonic, while the veteran’s struggles to break should as well.  Combining those two threads, one can expect some tiebreaks to settle sets that should hinge upon just a handful of points.  All three of their previous meetings, on three different surfaces, reached final sets—and two a final-set tiebreak, illustrating Raonic’s ability to trouble Federer.  The younger man’s belief fell slightly short last year, but he has looked more assured in his status as a legitimate threat by brushing aside his first-week opponents here.

Hisense Arena:

Chardy vs. Seppi:  A match of survivors pits the man who defeated Del Potro in five sets against the man who defeated Cilic in five sets.  Spectators who expected to see two baseline behemoths dueling today may feel surprised to see one of the ATP’s most asymmetrical games square off against a baseline grinder.  Striking nearly 80 winners to topple the Tower of Tandil, Chardy produced nearly all of his offense from his forehand and at the net, where he will want to travel frequently again.  A clay-courter who has enjoyed his best result here to date, Seppi wore down Cilic by staying deep behind the baseline, absorbing pace, and extending the rallies.  That positioning leaves him vulnerable to someone as adept moving forward as Chardy, but the main theme of this match may revolve around who can recover more effectively, mentally and physically, from their notable but exhausting victories in the last round.

Jovanovski vs. Stephens:  Somewhat surprisingly, Stephens enters her first fourth-round match here as a clear favorite.  Probably the most unexpected member of the last sixteen, Jovanovski upset Safarova and weathered the distinctive game of Kimiko Date-Krumm to record a potential breakthrough.  She plays an orthodox power baseline style, more raw than the game honed by Stephens, and she has struggled at times to contain her emotions.  That said, one wonders how the young American will respond to the pressure of the favorite’s status at a stage where she has little more familiarity than her opponent.  This match marks the first meeting of what could become an intriguing rivalry.

Simon vs. Murray:  After his epic battle with countryman Monfils, which nearly reached five hours, Simon should have little energy left for the Scot.  He tellingly said that he would appear for the match but estimated his probability of winning it as slim.  Despite the issues with holding serve that Murray has experienced here, and his troubles with timing in the third round, he probably needs to play no better than his average level—or even below it—to advance.  Even a rested Simon would have few weapons to harm an opponent who has defeated him nine straight times, much less this battered version.