Day 6: Ones to watch

  • Tom Tebbutt

There’s something special about the middle Saturday of the Australian Open – and nothing was more special, or memorable, than the Lleyton Hewitt/Marcos Baghdatis 2008 marathon that started late on Saturday night and ended after 4.30am on Sunday.

With Karolina Pliskova v Camila Giorgi being the late match at Rod Laver Arena on Saturday, it’s entirely possible it goes past midnight, but a crazy hour Sunday morning finish is unlikely – although Garbine Muguruza and Johanna Konta did finish at 3.12am on Friday morning at Margaret Court Arena.

MORE: Day 6 preview - Standing firm

Highlighting the men’s action on Saturday will be dashing Denis Shapovalov of Canada showcasing his explosive game against the top-ranked player in the world, Novak Djokovic. On the women’s side it’s ageless Venus Williams – actually 38 – taking on the women’s best, No. 1-ranked Simona Halep. 

To the matches to watch on Day 6: 

No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. No. 27 Denis Shapovalov

The 19-year-old Shapovalov isn’t spending as much time these days explaining it, but his pronunciation guide for his surname has been ‘Shapo,’ as in the French word ‘chapeau’ for hat, followed by ‘valov.’

He had his big breakthrough at the 2017 Canadian Open in Montreal by upsetting Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal. Since then the tennis world has been aware that the left-handed ‘Shapo’ is something of a human highlight reel featuring a glorious one-handed backhand.

It will be a first meeting between Shapovalov and Djokovic, but the shot-making talents of both players should make it a match to remember from an aesthetics point of view. Neither player has lost a set in the first two rounds, so both appear fresh and ready for a Saturday afternoon rendez-vous at Rod Laver Arena.

Prediction: Shapovalov in four sets.
 

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Is the Canadian poised for an upset against the top seed?

No. 4 Alexander Zverev vs. No. 155 Alex Bolt

It would be too easy to make puns with the last name of South Australian Bolt, who will face Zverev first up at Rod Laver Arena on Saturday night. The 26-year-old wildcard actually gave up on tennis in 2016 – working in construction building fences and playing Aussie Rules football with his mates. But early in 2017, after nine months of barely touching a racquet, he came back to the sport, and an ultimate consequence of that is that he has found his way to a spot in the third round at Melbourne Park following a five-set win on Thursday over French veteran Gilles Simon.

“The big thing was I didn’t want any regrets when I was older,” Bolt said about his comeback. “I didn’t want to say in 10 years, ‘I could have done this in tennis, I could have done that.’”

Zverev comes from a big-time tennis background – his father Alexander Sr. played at a high level representing the former Soviet Union and had wins over Henri Leconte and Mats Wilander in his day. His older brother Mischa is a pro ranked No. 70. He even has tennis royalty – Ivan Lendl – as a coach. As for Bolt, he has his bleached hair, done on a whim. “A bit of a good luck charm at the moment, so I might have to keep it around,” he said. 

Prediction: Zverev in four sets.

No. 13 Fabio Fognini vs. No. 23 Pablo Carreno Busta

In a rather strange twist, the Italian Fognini began the 2018 Aussie Open via a retirement win versus a Spaniard – Jaume Munar – and the Spaniard Carreno Busta started his tournament with a win by retirement against an Italian, Luca Vanni. Fognini is one of the most temperamental and inscrutable players on the tour, while Carreno Busta is ‘put-your-head-down-and-soldier-on’ kind of competitor. 

Now age 31, Fognini ranked as high as No. 7 in 2015 and is 10-11 lifetime at the Aussie Open. Carreno Busta, 27, has a best ranking of No. 10 in 2017 and is 7-5 at Melbourne Park.

Somewhat shockingly, the self-effacing Spaniard holds a 5-0 career head-to-head advantage over the irascible Italian.

Prediction: Carreno Busta in four sets.

No. 1 Simona Halep vs. No. 36 Venus Williams

There were doubts about both players entering Australian Open 2019. A herniated disc in Halep’s back kept her out of action from last September until the Sydney event last week, where she lost her opening-round match to Ashleigh Barty.

Williams, who finished 2017 at No. 5, slipped to No. 40 last year and was upset by 18-year-old Canadian sensation Bianca Andreescu two weeks ago in Auckland.

Both players have needed three sets and lots of grit and determination to advance in their first two matches. Williams, 38, leads the head-to-head 3-2, but her wins were before 2014. Halep has prevailed convincingly in their most recent meetings – 6-2 6-2 at the Canadian Open in 2018 and 6-2 6-1 on clay in Rome in 2015.

Williams was runner-up at Melbourne Park in 2017 and Halep a finalist last year. The 27-year-old Romanian was once a little faint-hearted on court, but that has definitely changed. “I like to fight till the end and to play with no regrets,” she said after her win on Thursday, when she trailed 4-2 in the final set against 20-year-old American Sofia Kenin.

Prediction: Halep in three sets.
 

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Williams will need to turn around her recent performances against Halep to advance

No. 18 Garbine Muguruza vs. No. 145 Timea Bacsinszky

A pro since 2004, the 29-year Bacsinszky has had an unconventional tennis life. She took a break from the grind of the tour in 2013 planning to work in the hospitality industry. Her love for that field was obvious a few years ago at the French Open, when she virtually gave a tutorial about food trucks in her native Switzerland during a media conference.

More recently, a hand injury requiring surgery and a calf problem have derailed her career – her ranking dropped to No. 761 in July 2018. But she’s back, and upset tenth-seeded Daria Kasatkina in the first round. She has ranked as high as No. 9 in 2016.

Muguruza, after a French Open title in 2016 and a Wimbledon triumph in 2017, has not quite lived up to expectations. Her ranking has dropped from No. 2 to No. 18 over the past year. At 25, the stylish Spaniard should be in her prime. She leads the head-to-head with Bacsinszky 4-1, but the Swiss won their last meeting 6-1 6-3 in Madrid in 2017. 

Maybe that’s why a weary Muguruza remarked about Bacsinszky, after two hours and 42 minutes on court early Friday morning, “she’s a very tricky player. She has a lot of talent. We played many years ago, I think.”

Prediction: Muguruza in two sets.

No. 14 Elise Mertens vs. No. 17 Madison Keys

These 23-year-olds have something in common. Both have been Australian Open semifinalists – Keys in 2015 and Mertens last year. Both entered the 2019 Open a little short on match play. Mertens was 2-2, losing to No. 9-ranked Kiki Bertens in Brisbane and No. 15 Ashleigh Barty in Sydney. Keys, who struggled with a knee injury at the 2018 year-end WTA event in Zhuhai, China, did not play any pre-Aussie Open tournaments.

In their only previous meeting, Keys prevailed 6-3 7-6(6) at the 2017 US Open. Her new coach Jim Madrigal has emphasized that she be more aggressive returning second serves.

When it was mentioned to Keys that her previous coach, Australian David Taylor, would be coaching Mertens on Saturday, the American reacted, “I think at some point we have all played someone who we used to be coached by.”

Prediction: Keys in three sets.