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Australian Open Round One Preview

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The draw is out and it’s an interesting one – the bottom half is stacked with heavy contenders while Djokovic seemingly has a clear road to the final having won the “Ferrer Lottery” as some have taken to calling it. Rather than make bold predictions as to who will win the tournament, Tactical Tennis will instead highlight a handful of interesting match-ups each round and provide a background from which to view these matches. In doing so we’ll skip those that look to have an obvious outcome, and instead focus on matches that provide interesting tactical situations or show promise of an upset. So without further ado, let’s take a peek at what the first round of the men’s draw has in store for us:

David Goffin vs Fernando Verdasco

At 22 Goffin is a talented up-and-comer who at 50 in the ATP standings is sitting just off his career high of 42 obtained late last year. He comes up against one of the biggest forehands in the game in Fernando Verdasco, the timidly serving left-hander from Spain. It is their first meeting, and one of the more intriguing matches in the first round. With Verdasco’s ranking at 22, this should be a comfortable win for the 29 year veteran, especially given this is the site of his best grand slam performance ever. However the water has been muddied by two things: Verdasco has just come off a Hopman Cup appearance where his sole win in 4 singles matches was a 7-6, 6-3 victory over a 16 year old budding professional from Australia who only played as a last-minute stand-in for the injured John Isner. This only compounds the rough finish Verdasco had to 2012, where he was unceremoniously dumped out of tournaments in the first round no less than 5 times since June. Meanwhile Goffin went 11-3 against left-handers in 2012. His only losses to the lefties came at the hands of Michael Llodra and Jurgen Melzer, suggesting that he does struggle somewhat with the more aggressive style of play. Look for Verdasco to dictate play with the forehand, and Goffin to use his mobility and try to redirect pace on the counterpunch. Verdasco will do his best to lose, but has too many weapons for the youngster.

Prediction: Verdasco in five sets

Julien Benneteau vs Grigor Dimitrov

Another example of a seasoned veteran against a promising young talent. Eyes have been on Dimitrov (nicknamed “Baby-Fed” by some for his game’s visual similarities to Federer) for some time now as they have waited for his obvious talent to flourish. His strong performance in making the finals in Brisbane (where he dictated play for much of the match against Murray) was marred by a first-round exit just days later in Sydney. Benneteau is something of an enigma. Possessed of one of the smoothest two-handed backhands on tour, he is volatile on the court and it is that volatility rather than his game that has seen him bounce between 35 and 100 or so for the last 5-6 years now. He had a solid year in 2012, but that same year saw him lose twice to Dimitrov late in the season (both times in 3 set matches). Dimitrov will overpower Benneteau on the serve, posting up close to double the aces of the Frenchman. The big difference between the two however will be their ability to defend their second serve. Dimitrov will do a better job of this than Benneteau, who suffers from the unfortunate confusion of thinking his forehand is his better shot. For Benneteau to win he must get a high % of first serves in play and find ways to stop Dimitrov controlling play with his forehand.

Prediction: Dimitrov in four sets.

Gael Monfils vs Alexandr Dolgopolov

On paper this is the best match of the first round on the men’s side. The always fascinating Alexandr Dolgopolov (the subject of a very recent profile here on Tactical Tennis) takes on the perennially disappointing Gael Monfils (the subject of an article here several months back). Dolgopolov is close to his career high and on the upswing, while Monfils finished last season outside the top 20 for the first time since 2007 due to knee problems. After missing 3.5 months, Monfils came back late in the year to mixed results. These two have never met before, and it is a fascinating matchup. Monfils is possessed of a fairly big serve, but plays mostly defensive, counter-attacking tennis (more defensive than counter-attacking). Dolgopolov has been called “aggressive to the point of psychosis”. The down side for Doglopolov is that Monfils isn’t really a rhythm player, per se. Used to playing scrambling, defensive points he isn’t a susceptible to the changes of pace and spin as many of his peers. The matchup really favors Monfils overall, but the big question is whether or not Monfils has fully recovered from his injury. Regardless, look for Dolgopolov to control the pace of the match, mixing underspin shots, angled topspin and flat drives while Monfils scrambles and slides, waiting for the error.

Prediction: Assuming Monfils still isn’t 100%, Dolgopolov in 4.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs Michael Llodra

Tactical Tennis recently did a piece on Llodra as a part of a series on serve and volley in the pro game. Michael Llodra is probably the only true serve and volley player remaining in the top 100, and as such this match will provide a refreshing change of pace compared to the lateral grind-fest to be found on most of the other courts. Tsonga plays his own brand of entertaining all-court tennis, and this promises to be a flashy, winner-filled affair. Tsonga is clearly stronger off the ground, and will use his size and physicality to try to dominate Llodra and keep him pinned deep in the court. Meanwhile Llodra will chip and charge, and take even the slightest lack of depth from Tsonga as an invitation to come to the net. The pair have played five times, with Tsonga winning all five. However three of those victories came from retirements mid-match and the two matches they finished were both tight affairs (one Tsonga won in three sets, the other 7-5, 7-6). The big problem for Llodra is he has no answer for Tsonga’s first serve and will win an abysmally low share of the points when his hefty compatriot gets his first delivery in. Tsonga himself has trouble breaking Llodra, but his overall record against Lefties is good and I can’t see Llodra breaking his losing streak to Tsonga in this match.

Prediction: Tsonga in 3 (although Llodra may win one in a tie-breaker).

Lleyton Hewitt vs Janko Tipsarevic

On paper this should be a blowout for Tipsarevic. Hewitt is on the comeback trail from yet another injury and consequent surgey, and at 31 is past his prime (someone tell that to Tommy Haas and Roger Federer). Hewitt holds a 3-1 head to head lead over Tipsarevic but those matches were all played between 2007 and 2009. Since then Tipsarevic has risen to become a constant presence in and around the top 10. It should be a blowout for Tipsarevic… but Hewitt had some surprisingly strong results towards the end of 2012. He extended Djokovic to three sets at the Olympics, took a set off Ferrer in the 3rd round of the US Open then beat #10 Juan Monaco in straight sets in Valencia. These performances have been shadowed by some inexplicable losses but what can’t be denied is that Hewitt is playing at a level much higher than his current ranking of 82 would suggest. In fact, he finished 2012 bringing a level of play much more consistent with someone ranked closer to 30 or even 20. Will it be enough? Sadly for those fans of the combative Aussie, probably not. Tipsarevic is younger, healthier and a while he tends to underperform slightly at the slams he should live up to his seeded expectations.

Prediction: Tipsarevic in 4.

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