With two full rounds of the Australian Open complete, the contrast between the state of the two main singles draws is stark, but also intriguing.
While the men have a host of dangerous contenders, including some young guns, those two titans — top-seed Rafael Nadal and longtime rival Roger Federer — cast a long, ominous shadow of inevitability over the draw.
On the women’s side, the most recent results just add further credibility to the notion that it’s anyone’s tournament to win. Admit it: The big surprise would be, say, Simona Halep living up to her No. 1 seeding by winning the event. That’s the WTA these days.
Here are our three most-tantalizing matches for Day 6 in Melbourne:
That the only Australian Open singles champions in the draw are meeting in a third-round match despite each being in the prime of their athletic life speaks volumes about the recent unpredictability of the WTA. Both Kerber and Sharapova are healthy, playing well and bringing a rich competitive history to the fray.
Kerber appears to have rediscovered her ability to counterpunch with purpose and confidence. She’s riding an 11-match winning streak (four of those wins were in the Hopman Cup, an exhibition) and feeling exuberant — a far cry from the confused and tentative competitor who had so much trouble defending her No. 1 ranking (and two Grand Slam titles) through 2017.
“You know, it’s just the beginning of the year, but I’m feeling the tennis again,” Kerber, who turned 30 on Thursday, told the press after her last win. “I know what to do on court.” She smiled as she added, “It’s in my mind just [more] similar to 2016 than to 2017.”
That could be bad news for Sharapova, who can be outmaneuvered and made to look flat-footed by Kerber at her best. But the Russian, also 30, has been getting in touch with her A-game, advancing by virtue of straight-sets wins over her first two opponents. Sharapova has the heavy artillery as well as the courage to take control of rallies when she’s serving, and can attack the vulnerable Kerber serve when she’s receiving.
Sharapova said earlier in the week that she looked forward to “playing against opponents [who are] former Grand Slam champions.”
Our reply: Be careful what you wish for.
No. 2 Roger Federer vs. No. 29 Richard Gasquet (Federer leads series, 16-2)
What do Denis Istomin, Tennys Sandgren, Marc Gicquel and Andreas Seppi have in common? Answer: All of them have beaten Australian Open champions. So don’t let that overwhelming head-to-head edge Federer has over Gasquet make you too complacent.
Besides, it would be criminal not to count this as a highlight match, partly because it’s old-school satisfying in so many ways. Gasquet is 31 now, but he was one of the game’s great prodigies (he qualified for the Monte Carlo Masters two months before his 16th birthday and subsequently won a match in the main draw). His one-handed backhand is a thing of beauty, often compared favorably with Federer’s own. Gasquet has enormous shot-making flair, versatility and a nice touch around the net.
Unfortunately for him, a desire to attack isn’t part of his DNA. One reason he’s likely never made the breakthrough to the elite level where Federer lives is his tendency to play from too far behind the baseline. It’s a habit he acquired growing up on clay and which he maintained because his backswings are so big and lengthy, especially on that backhand side. That makes it much easier to take time away from Gasquet, which is the great advantage a player with Federer’s compact game has always had on the Frenchman.
Gasquet seems to be over the back injuries that have plagued him in recent years. He won his first two matches in Melbourne with ease, and when he gets on a roll, he’s quick, explosive and creative enough to blow anyone off the court. Caution is advised, Mr. Federer.
For a certain kind of player, the most daunting and anxiety-inducing opponent of all is the one who comes out of nowhere, like the dreaded hanged-man card in the Tarot deck. Keys is that kind of player, and Bogdan is that kind of opponent.
Keys, the American Grand Slam champion-in-waiting, is prone to freezing up or simply failing to hit the requisite level of consistency against opponents who, at least on paper, are inferior. That makes this a critical test for her. Bogdan is a 25-year-old Romanian who has never reached the third round of a major. She has a standard-issue baseline game, but she will undoubtedly be encouraged, advised and inspired by the handful of fellow countrymen in Melbourne, including the world No. 1 Halep.
At 22, Keys would like to lock that woeful final she played at the US Open last September into the “learning experience” vault, and what better way than by winning this title? But being a Grand Slam champion doesn’t just mean beating a Halep or Caroline Wozniacki in the final, it also means beating a Bogdan in the third round. We’ll soon see if she’s ready to fulfill that less glamorous requirement.
Radwanska has struggled through matches against journeymen opponents, while Hsieh is coming off a convincing upset of No. 3 seed Garbine Muguruza. Radwanska isn’t as consistent as she once was, so don’t be surprised if another seed bites the dust.