Day 4: Ones to watch

  • Tom Tebbutt

By the end of Thursday, the women’s and men’s fields will be reduced to 32, and seeded players will begin facing each other.

But not many matches going forward will have the star power of Thursday’s confrontations between Serena Williams and social media phenom Eugenie Bouchard (1.7 million Twitter followers), or world No. 1 Novak Djokovic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

MORE: Day 4 preview – Familiar foes

The broad tennis audience needs personalities to identify with, and these four have the charisma to connect with people beyond the circle of hardcore fans. But profiles decline if players are not in the spotlight, and the careers of Bouchard and Tsonga would get tremendous boosts if they were somehow able to pull off the upsets.  

To Day 4. 

No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. No. 177 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

A vivid image from the 2008 Djokovic–Tsonga Australian Open final was Tsonga’s father Didier standing and celebrating after his son won the first set. Unfortunately it was not to be, and Djokovic rallied to win 4-6 6-4 6-3 7-6(2) for his maiden Grand Slam title.

Tsonga is now 33, married and the father of an almost two-year-old son named Shugar. He’s making a comeback from yet another knee surgery – this one on his left last April – and looked good in reaching the Brisbane semifinals two weeks ago.

In 2010 at Melbourne Park, Tsonga gained a measure of revenge, beating Djokovic in five sets in the quarterfinals. But Djokovic is 16-6 overall against the Frenchman, and has won their past five meetings in Grand Slam events. Also a father – four-year-old son Stefan and one-year old daughter Tara – Djokovic has been a champion reborn after he finally bit the bullet and had right elbow surgery after last year’s Australian Open.  

Prediction: Djokovic in four sets.

No. 17 Milos Raonic vs. No. 59 Stan Wawrinka

Raonic burst the bubble of Nick Kyrgios and his Aussie fans on Monday evening when he beat the home favourite 6-4 7-6(5) 6-4. Kyrgios later said the 28-year-old Canadian’s serve was virtually untouchable – 30 aces, just one double fault and no break points to defend were impressive stats.

Wawrinka, 33, is still working his way back from left knee surgery in August 2017. He had a sketchy first round on Monday – losing the first set to No. 83 Ernests Gulbis before the Latvian had to withdraw with a back problem leading 7-5 2-4. 

Roger Federer claims his compatriot Wawrinka is like a diesel – once he picks up steam, he’s hard to stop. The champion at Melbourne Park in 2014 went 2-1 at the ATP event in Doha two weeks ago and then had the abridged outing with Gulbis in the first round. Will that be enough to get him rolling against an in-form Raonic, who has won their last two meetings – at the 2016 Aussie Open and the 2018 US Open? 

Prediction: Raonic in four sets.

Raonic's serve was close to perfection against Kyrgios

No. 9 Kei Nishikori vs. No. 69 Ivo Karlovic

It’s always a stark contrast when the 211cm Karlovic plays any opponent – but the match-up with 178cm Nishikori presents one of the greater disparities in height. In the past that hasn’t bothered the 28-year-old Japanese against the beanpole Croat’s heavy ammunition on serve. He has won their past three meetings – in Memphis in 2014-15 and in 2016 at the US Open – and all without dropping a set.

After a right wrist injury plagued him in 2017, Nishikori came back in 2018 playing Challenger events to gain confidence instead of the Australian Open. With his ranking falling as low as No. 39 last April, he made a strong comeback to the top 10 – at No. 9 by year’s end. 

Karlovic, 40 next month, is a comeback story of his own. Ranked No. 138 last October, he is up to No. 69 helped by reaching the final in Pune, India, two weeks ago. He lost, not surprisingly, by the score of 7-6(4) 6-7(2) 7-6(5) to No. 6-ranked Kevin Anderson.

Prediction: Nishikori in four sets.

No. 16 Serena Williams vs. No. 79 Eugenie Bouchard

A lot can happen in five years. In 2014, Williams won her 18th Grand Slam title, tying Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, and Bouchard reached the semifinals of the Australian and French Opens and the final at Wimbledon as well as a career-high ranking of No. 5.

Last June she fell as low as No. 194, but has more than halved that with solid results over the past six months and is now No. 79. 

Williams’ on-court career has not suffered nearly as much, and off-court she’s now the world-famous mother of 16-month-old Alexis Olympia, and on the verge of tying Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 for Grand Slam titles.

She’s 2-0 career against Bouchard, but the 24-year-old Canadian did beat her in Hopman Cup in 2015 when Serena was a little travel weary and using coffee to perk herself up during in matches in Perth. Back at Melbourne Park for the first time since carrying foetal Alexia two years ago and winning the title, Williams said about Bouchard, “I really like that she doesn’t quit. You know people write her off and she doesn’t let that bother her.” 

Prediction: Williams in three sets.    

No. 18 Garbine Muguruza vs. No. 38 Johanna Konta

Muguruza against Konta is a match-up of two women who have had their highs and lows on the tennis court the past two years. Muguruza is a two-time Grand Slam champion – having won the French Open in 2016 and Wimbledon in 2017 – as well as getting to No. 1 in the rankings.

Konta has played brilliantly at times – like two years ago when she blasted through the field to the title in Sydney and reached No. 4 in the rankings a few months later.

It’s something of a mystery that Muguruza – who beat Serena Williams in the French Open final and Venus Williams to take the title at Wimbledon – could drop from No. 2 to No. 18 in 2018, and get no further than the second round at Wimbledon and the Australian and US Opens. Konta’s drop was more precipitous – falling from No. 4 in 2017 to as low as No. 50 last July. This could be an important redemption match for both players.  

Prediction: Konta in three sets.

Downing Muguruza would do wonders for Konta

No. 36 Venus Williams vs. No. 46 Alizé Cornet

A year ago Venus was the answer to a trivia question ‘who was the women’s prize money leader in 2017?’ In that year she earned $US 5,468,741 and finished the season ranked No. 5 with the help of runner-up finishes at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon. But she had regressed to No. 40 by the end of 2018.

The 38-year-old American has had a remarkable career, and Halloween day in October will mark the 25th anniversary of her first professional tennis match (at 14) in Oakland, California.

She had to fight hard in a 6-7(3) 7-6(3) 6-2 win over No. 26-ranked Mihaela Buzarnescu on Tuesday, and is now up against the fiery Cornet in an evening match at Margaret Court Arena. Williams won their first six encounters, but the 28-year-old Frenchwoman can take hope in having prevailed in their most recent meeting in Hong Kong in 2016. 

As for the approach of an experienced seven-time Grand Slam champion like Williams to the match-up with Cornet, she said, “I’ll probably be less focused on what she’s doing and more focused on what I’m doing.”

Prediction: Cornet in two sets.