Day 10: Ones to watch

Features

There seem to be cataclysms, or apparent cataclysms, happening every day at tennis tournaments. And that has been the case with the Australian Open 2019 women’s event; defending champion Caroline Wozniacki was out in the second round, while Maria Sharapova, 2016 AO champion Angelique Kerber and 2017 US Open winner Sloane Stephens were all beaten in the fourth round.

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Still, Serena Williams vs. Karolina Pliskova and Naomi Osaka vs. Elina Svitolina are marquee match-ups in Wednesday’s bottom half quarterfinals and promise much. The career highest ranking for those players is respectively one, one, three and four.

The numbers are also impressive on the men’s side, with Novak Djokovic (a highest ranking of 1), Milos Raonic (3), Kei Nishikori (4) and Lucas Pouille (10). There are no unproven interlopers here, and high-quality tennis should be the result.

To Wednesday’s four quarterfinals: 

No. 8 Karolina Pliskova vs. No. 16 Serena Williams

The Pliskova–Williams quarterfinal at Rod Laver Arena in the afternoon features a clash between two married women. The 26-year-old Pliskova got hitched with Michal Hrdlicka after Wimbledon last year, while 37-year-old Williams married Alexis Ohanian and gave birth to daughter Olympia in 2017.

Williams is certainly the one with greater familial responsibilities – looking after 16-month old Olympia. She said in her post-match interview on Monday that she and her daughter have ‘movie nights’ together and that she has seen ‘Frozen’ “3000 times” and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ “4000 times.”

It might be a distraction to some, but Williams seems to thrive on the dual role of mum and tennis player. After cruising through the first three rounds, she had a tough test against world No. 1 Simona Halep on Monday – pulling away at 3-all in the final set to win 6-1 4-6 6-4.  

“I’m such a fighter, I never give up,” she said, “it’s definitely something that’s innate.”

Williams and Pliskova have played three times, and the American won the first in Stanford, California, in 2014. They have since split two US Open meetings – Pliskova winning 6-2 7-6(5) in the 2016 semifinals and Williams prevailing last year 7-5 6-2 in the quarterfinals.

They are arguably the two biggest hitters and best servers in women’s tennis, so the margins can be thin when it comes to winning points and determining outcomes. Pliskova performed at a high level in a 6-3 6-1 victory over Garbine Muguruza on Monday, and says she looks forward to Wednesday’s match-up.

“We played at the (2018) US Open,” the lanky Czech said. “I didn’t play well that match, so for sure it would be good revenge to play her again. Different conditions here. I think I’m playing a little bit better than I was last year.”

As for Williams, she’s all business especially when it comes to spending precious time away from her daughter. “She’s ready, I’m ready,” the 23-time Grand Slam champion said Monday about taking on Pliskova, “and let’s do it.”

Prediction: Williams in two sets.

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Simona Halep v Serena Williams match highlights (4R)

Halep v Williams 4R

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No. 4 Naomi Osaka vs. No. 7 Elina Svitolina

Osaka and Svitolina first played each other in Naomi’s birthplace, Osaka, Japan, in 2014. The 24-year-old Ukrainian spoiled the party by winning 3-6 6-3 6-1.

Since then they have played four times, with Osaka winning at the Australian Open and Tokyo in 2016 and Svitolina getting 2018 victories in Dubai and Miami – the latter the week after Osaka had her big breakthrough win at Indian Wells.

The unassuming Osaka, the reigning US Open champion, says she can walk around the streets of Melbourne without being recognised. That probably isn’t the case anymore in Haiti, with her father being of Haitian ancestry. “I went to Haiti the first time two years ago,” she said, “and then I started playing well. I think because I started appreciating everything and I didn’t want to complain about anything. Because when you go there and you see people, like literally, they have to walk miles for water and it’s just like, ‘why are you complaining about your life?’”

Both Osaka and Svitolina had career-changing triumphs in 2008 – Osaka at the US Open and Svitolina at the year-end WTA Finals in Singapore.

The Ukrainian is in the top 10 for the third straight year but has yet to crack the final four at a Grand Slam event in 25 tries.

About Singapore, she says, “(it) gave me a huge boost of confidence, so I don’t think about the other (her Grand Slam record), the past anymore. I only look forward. I look for the next challenge. I try to win as many matches as I can, as many titles as I can.”

There has been much social media buzz about the current man in her life – French pro Gael Monfils. She’s not forthcoming on details of the relationship, but did concede about him being in her courtside box, “he’s there to support me. That’s pretty much it.”

Prediction: Osaka in two sets.

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Can Wednesday be the day Svitolina belatedly books a major semi berth?

No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. No. 9 Kei Nishikori

In his post-match interview at Rod Laver Arena after he defeated Daniil Medvedev 6-4 6-7(5) 6-2 6-3 on Monday night, Djokovic claimed he hoped “the other guy” (Pablo Carreno Busta) would have won the round of 16 match that wound up lasting five hours and five minutes and going to Nishikori by the excruciating score of 6-7(10) 4-6 7-6(4) 6-4 7-6[8]. 

That may seem surprising, because the world No. 1 has a 15-2 head-to-head edge over the 29-year-old Japanese and has won their last 14 meetings dating back to 2014.  

How much the Carreno Busta ordeal took out of Nishikori could be a factor in Wednesday’s evening match at Rod Laver Arena. Nishikori won five straight points after trailing 8-5 in the ultimate match tiebreak to clinch the win.

Pretty well exhausted, he didn’t say much afterward except, “I don’t even know how I come back but very happy to win today.”

It was heartwarming to hear Carreno Busta, who got hugely upset leading 8-5 in the match tiebreak by an umpire ruling and wound up not winning another point, comment, “it was very close match, and I think that I played probably one of the best matches of my career.”

The last time Nishikori beat Djokovic was famously in the semifinals of the 2014 US Open 6-4 1-6 7-6(4) 6-3 on a very hot day in New York. Afterward his then coach, Boris Becker, commented “the sun got to Novak first.”

There will essentially be no sun at Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday night, and the 31-year-old six-time champion can be assured of playing, if he keeps winning, all his matches at night until the end of the event. 

Djokovic took extra time to get to his post-match media conference on Monday, citing “a little bit of fatigue, a little bit of back – nothing major. But there are a couple of things that have surfaced, so to say, you know, after a match like this.”

He said that rallies with Medvedev of “40-45 exchanges” exacted a toll.

About Nishikori next up, and despite his dominance, he insisted, “I expect a tough one.”

Prediction: Djokovic in three sets.

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Novak Djokovic on-court interview after fourth round win.

Novak Djokovic on-court interview

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No. 17 Milos Raonic vs. No. 31 Lucas Pouille

Ask a French player if he would like to play Raonic and they will most certainly answer “no merci.” That could have the double entendre ‘no mercy’ because the 196cm Canadian has a 51-14 record against French players – and he is 10-1 in his most recent match-ups. Raonic’s only loss came at the 2017 Canadian Open in Montreal to Adrian Mannarino when he had an injured left wrist that prevented him from hitting two-handed backhands.

Most French players affection more finesse and flourish, while Raonic is all about powering his serve and pulverising his forehand.

Pierre-Hugues Herbert, who lost 6-4 6-4 7-6(6) in the third round to Raonic, was particularly impressed with the Canadian’s second shot – the big forehand if he gets a service return he can attack. “Milos serves intelligently,” Herbert added, “and masters all the zones and spins. His second serve is better and he always sets himself up for a forehand. Only the best service returners in the world can make him play. If you can’t get it to his backhand, it’s over.”

Pouille has told French reporters that he knows he has to serve well himself. One slip-up could result in a service break that decides the outcome.

The 24-year-old Frenchman and the 28-year-old Canadian have played three times – Stuttgart on grass in 2018, and then Brisbane and the Australian Open almost back-to-back in 2016. Raonic won all three without dropping a set.

From the ‘it ain’t bragging if it’s true’ file, Raonic said Monday, “Right now I’m here playing some extremely good tennis.”

Prediction: Raonic in three sets.