On Day 5 of the Australian Open, a local up-and-comer, Bernard Tomic, stole the show by stealing a third-round, five-set win from No. 13 Alexandr Dolgopolov. On Day 6, one of the headline matches will be a local versus an up-and-comer.
No. 23 Milos Raonic vs. Lleyton Hewitt
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 5
A tall, young Canadian (via Montenegro) with a big forehand and a bigger serve, Milos Raonic is, along with Bernard Tomic, square in the middle of the Next Big Thing™ list. Like Tomic, he stands at 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, and while his game is a bit more conventional than Tomic, he, too, has shown quite a bit of promise this month. A hip injury cost him a key portion of 2011, but he is undefeated thus far in 2012. He dispatched of Nicolas Almagro (ranked 10th in the world) and Janko Tipsarevic (ninth) in India and has dropped one set in two wins thus far in Melbourne. His opponent, meanwhile, knows all about injuries. Faltering limbs have cost 30-year old Lleyton Hewitt some years throughout his career, and an injury to Andy Roddick on Day 4 helped him to advance to play Raonic.
While his groundstrokes are coming along, Raonic's game is still mostly based around his monstrous serve. He won 90 percent of his service games on hard courts last year, had a nearly seven-to-one aces-to-double-faults ratio and saved 68 percent of the break points he faced. Meanwhile, he won just 14 percent of his return games in that same sample. A decent serve can dominate him -- on hard courts, Raonic only won 24 percent of points when opponents got their first serve in -- but it is difficult to determine what Hewitt has to offer at this point. Hewitt has served just three aces in all of 2012 so far and has won just 62 percent of his service games and 46 percent of his overall points. Roddick was handling him relatively easily before injury.
Perhaps the biggest battle of this match will be Raonic versus a very pro-Hewitt crowd. Tomic had full support while he attempted the upset of Dolgopolov, but the crowd will be completely behind Hewitt. That might be a bit much for a 21-year old to handle. Hewitt will attempt to play steady, error-free tennis and hope that Raonic folds in the moment. Will it work?
No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. Nicolas Mahut
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 3
In the words of Chris Traeger, it LIT'RALLY feels like Nicolas Mahut has been around forever. Not Hewitt-level 'forever,' I guess, but a long time. He also LIT'RALLY played in a match that lasted forever, the tragicomic, 11-hour match versus John Isner at Wimbledon in 2010. He has spent most of the last nine years in the Top 200, grinding out a decent career despite never ranking higher than 40th. He has made the finals of two tournaments (both in 2007, both on grass), but for the most part, he just grinds out a living. He went 11-11 in singles matches last year, and while he is playing well in Melbourne -- he took out No. 29 Radek Stepanek in straight sets in the first round -- he probably doesn't have much to offer Novak Djokovic, despite the fact that the two have split their all-time series, 1-1. They haven't played since 2006, and to say the least, Djokovic has improved a bit since then.
Still, this match makes the watch list for the simple fact that Novak Djokovic is just clinical against lesser opponents. Seemingly without having to kick into even fourth gear, he has dropped eight games in six sets thus far this week. His defense is so good that he can let you punch yourself out in a given point, then easily flip away a winner, but his offense is so good that he doesn't even have to let you punch yourself out if he doesn't want to. Mahut is a solid, respectable pro, but he will have to play out of his mind to give Djokovic a run.
No. 14 Gael Monfils vs. Mikhail Kukushkin
Margaret Court Arena, Match No. 4
For different reasons, Monfils is, like Djokovic, always incredibly watchable. For all intents and purposes, Monfils plays tennis like the most amazing eighth-grader you've ever seen. He is both entertaining and incredibly undisciplined, the Tin Cup of tennis. Throughout the course of a match, announcers will alternate between raving about his ball-striking abilities and scolding him for not knowing when to forego the driver for a Five Wood. He goes for huge shots when he doesn't have the angle, he will leap in the air to strike a ball when he doesn't need to, and he will make you yelp out loud at least once in a given match ... and when he plays somebody really good, he will probably lose. In the Day 4 preview, I said you will both root for him and mutter to yourself about him like he is your younger brother. He is most likely more than good enough to take out 24-year old Mikhail Kukushkin (unless Bad Gael makes an extended appearance), but we will see what damage he can do against (probably) counter-puncher extraordinaire Andy Murray (if Murray gets past Monfils' French country-mate Michael Llodra) in Round 4.
Other matches: No. 4 Andy Murray vs. Michael Llodra, No. 6 Jo-Wilifried Tsonga vs. Frederico Gil, No. 5 David Ferrer vs. No. 27 Juan Ignacio Chela, No. 9 Janko Tipsarevic vs. No. 17 Richard Gasquet, No. 24 Kei Nishikori vs. Julien Benneteau
No. 2 Petra Kvitova vs. No. 27 Maria Kirilenko
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 1
Petra Kvitova won six tournaments in 2011 and plowed through Maria Sharapova to win Wimbledon last July. At one point over the summer, she had won 21 of 23 matches. But the Wimbledon breakthrough exposed her to the same thing seemingly every other women's tennis player has faced in recent years: a post-breakthrough slump. She lost in the third round in Toronto and Cincinnati in August and in the first round of the U.S. Open. For one reason or another, top women's players cannot seem to break through in slams and stay broken through. (Hence how Carolina Wozniacki can stay ranked No. 1 in the world for over a year without winning a slam.)
To her credit, however, Kvitova seems to have rebounded in a major way. She won Linz in October, then took out five top players in a row to win the WTA Championships in Istanbul. She finished 2011 on a 12-match win streak, and she is now 4-1 in 2012, with only a loss to defending French Open champion Li Na (who, yes, fell into a post-French funk herself) spoiling the streak. She briefly tripped up versus Carla Suarez-Navarro in the second round (she lost the second set before rallying in the third), but she is still clearly one of the hottest players remaining in the tournament.
Kvitova's opponent is one of the more consistently decent players on the tour. Maria Kirilenko has made just one slam quarterfinal (2010 Aussie), but she has advanced to the second round in 11 straight slams, and to at least the third round in nine of ten. She has not won a decent tournament since 2008 (the Korean Open), and she has made the finals of just two since then, but she always hangs around. The two faced off in the Fed Cup in November, however, and Kvitova won easily (6-2, 6-2).
No. 21 Ana Ivanovic vs. Vania King
Hisense Arena, Match No. 2
If there were a name for the post-Slam slump many women have faced recently, it could probably just be called Pulling An Ivanovic. The 24-year old from Serbia was perhaps the tour's best player over a 12-month span, making the finals of the 2007 French Open, the semis of 2007 Wimbledon, the finals of the 2008 Aussie, and finally breaking through by winning the 2008 French. She was No. 1 in the world, dominant, aggressive, consistent, beautiful ... to say the least, she had a lot going for her. And then she basically forgot how to play tennis.
In the 15 slams following the 2008 French, Ivanovic has yet to advance beyond the fourth round and has only four times advanced beyond the third. She has made the final of just one premier tournament (2009 Indian Wells) in the last three years and has won just two tournaments of any kind (2010 and 2011 Tournament of Champions in Bali). She fell to fifth in the rankings by the end of 2008, and a year later, she was 22nd, where she also currently resides.
When she locates her confidence, she is staggering. She can blow you off of the court with either her forehand or backhand. But the strategy for defeating her is typically pretty simple: just keep returning the ball until she makes an error. And when she makes one, another is never far behind. In theory, American Vania King has little chance of competing here, but a) King has exactly the type of defense-and-speed game that could send Ivanovic into a major funk, and b) King just took out a higher-ranked opponent, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, in the second round. This match should be watchable, either because Good Ivanovic is incredible or because King can take out Bad Ivanovic.
Other matches: No. 14 Sabine Lisicki vs. No. 18 Svetlana Kuznetsova, No. 4 Maria Sharapova vs. No. 30 Angelique Kerber, No. 12 Serena Williams vs. Greta Arn, No. 7 Vera Zvonareva vs. Ekaternia Makarova, No. 9 Marion Bartoli vs. Jie Zheng, Sorana Cirstea vs. Sara Errani.