To say the least, Day 7 of the Australian Open could feature some serious fireworks.
No. 3 Roger Federer vs. Bernard Tomic
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 4
In terms of pure hype, Day 7 of the Australian Open will feature one of the bigger, more anticipated fourth-round matches you'll ever see: Roger Federer, grand champion, "best ever" candidate, takes on 19-year old Aussie Bernard Tomic. Federer is … Federer: mercilessly creative, seasoned and, to say the least, used to spotlight matches like this one. On the flip side, Tomic is tall and strong, a gangly mix of awkward beauty and just awkwardness. He has handled extra press and hype well so far this week (and oh, has there been hype of all kinds), but it's only been three matches. The real tournament begins now.
Tomic is capable of any shot at any time -- on both forehand and backhand, he mixes a powerful topspin shot with quite a bit of slice and the occasional, almost knuckleball-esque flat strike. He outlasted Alexandr Dolgopolov on Day 5, his second seeded victim of the week, but to say the least, there is quite a leap between Dolgopolov and Fed. Tomic was consistently able to keep Dolgopolov off-balance with his array of shot-making, but getting, and keeping, Federer off-balance takes both power, creativity and quite a bit of endurance.
These two competitors have met once before, and while Federer won in four sets (6-2, 7-5, 3-6, 6-3) … it did take him four sets. (You can find highlights here.) Tomic was able steal one set and keep another one awfully tight. He can give Fed a run today, especially with what is likely to be a wonderfully active, excitable crowd in his corner. But giving Fed a run and actually beating him are two different things. Regardless, this one should be really fun. Quite a few outlets have already written "passing of the torch" articles about this match, but the onus will be on Tomic to show he's ready for such hype and expectations.
No. 7 Tomas Berdych vs. No. 10 Nicolas Almagro
Hisense Arena, Match No. 3
While most of the coverage will focus on Federer-Tomic and a couple of interesting women's matches, there is an intriguing Top-10-versus-Top-10 match taking place on the another court. Two well-established 26-year olds will fight to take on the Nadal-Lopez winner in the quarterfinals. Tomas Berdych have played six times before, and while Berdych leads the series 4-2, they have split 12 sets overall. Berdych did smoke Almagro in their only hard-court matchup (6-2, 6-2 in Cincinnati last August), riding an untouchable first serve (he won 22 of 23 points on his first serve and faced only one break point) to an easy victory.
In general, the two players have very similar service numbers -- on hard courts in 2011, Berdych won 67 percent of his service points, Almagro 66 percent -- but Berdych typically returns better on hard courts. Almagro made some serious noise during last year's clay court season, as he does every year -- all 10 of his tournament titles have come on clay, including three last year -- but while he is improving on other surfaces (this is his third straight Round of 16 appearance at the Aussie Open), Berdych probably holds the advantage here.
Berdych is an interesting player overall. He only wins about one tournament per year, and he has never really been a threat to crack into tennis' top tier (his highest ranking is sixth, and he has made the semis of only two slams, each in 2010), but he is very consistent, and among other things he has cracked the Federer code -- Berdych has strangely won three of the last five matches between the two. Unfortunately, he has lost his last nine versus Rafael Nadal, so even if he gets past Almagro, it will probably be his final win of the 2012 Aussie.
No. 2 Rafael Nadal vs. No. 18 Feliciano Lopez
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 2
In what is basically serving as the undercard for Tomic-Federer, Rafael Nadal takes on countryman Feliciano Lopez. The two lefties are both similar in that they are fully functional on all surfaces, not just clay (granted, Nadal also has that whole "potentially the best clay court player ever" thing in his back pocket), but Nadal's is still a more complete skill set. He leads the all-time series, 8-2, and one of Lopez's two wins came nine years ago, when Nadal was just 17. Since then, Nadal has taken 16 of 18 sets and allowed Lopez to win even five games in just three of the 18 sets.
Under normal circumstances, Nadal holds a significant advantage in this one, so the match, then, becomes watchable simply as a form check for the former No. 1. Nadal has proven himself mortal in recent years, battling both injuries and an injured psyche throughout much of 2011. He won the final three slams of 2010 and looked like he would rather easily surpass Federer's career totals; but despite winning his sixth French Open in seven years (he is now 45-1 all-time at Roland-Garros), he took a step backwards in 2011. He dinged a hamstring in the Aussie quarterfinals last year, then spent most of the rest of the season getting pummeled by Novak Djokovic. To win his second Aussie open, he will have to get past Lopez, the winner of Berdych-Almagro, then potentially Federer and Djokovic. To say the least, top form will be key.
Other matches: No. 11 Juan Martin del Potro vs. Phillipp Kohlschreiber
No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki vs. No. 13 Jelena Jankovic
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 5
It's funny: even as we enter the second week of the tournament, with No. 1 Carolina Wozniacki having lost more than two games in just one of six sets so far, we all just kind of assume she isn't going to win the Aussie Open. When you hear favorites discussed on the women's side, you almost certainly hear the names of No. 2 Petra Kvitova (who has, admittedly, played ridiculously well so far this week), No. 11 Kim Clijsters, No. 12 Serena Williams, and perhaps even No. 5 Na Li before you hear Wozniacki's. The reason, of course is simple: they've won slams, and she hasn't. But that is almost too simple. She has still won 299 matches in just a little over four years as a pro, and she has made at least the semis in four of the last five hard-court slams. At 21, she still has quite a bit of time to figure out how to put a full two weeks together.
As I mentioned earlier in the week, however, Wozniacki does still have a pretty big hole in her game, especially for a No. 1: her offense is minimal. To make a sustained breakthrough in slams, she will have to figure out how to become more aggressive instead of serving as an (admittedly rather brilliant) human backboard. Her opponent today, former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, has enough offense to do some damage in this one. The two have met five times in the last three years, and while Wozniacki has won the last three matches, dropping just one set, it hasn't been that long since Jankovic pummeled her twice in six months (6-2, 6-2, in Qatar in October 2009; 6-2, 6-4 in Indian Wells in March 2010). Jankovic simply destroyed American Christina McHale in Round 3 (6-2, 6-0), and this could be a very high-caliber match if both play with a good amount of their oft-quixotic upside.
No. 5 Li Na vs. No. 11 Kim Clijsters
Rod Laver Arena, Match No. 3
Today's fun fact: somehow, Li Na is older than Kim Clijsters. It only feels like Na is an up-and-comer; in fact, she has been an incredibly late bloomer. While Clijsters was getting hurt, coming back, getting hurt, coming back, retiring, coming back, and winning multiple slams along the way, Na was slowly but surely pawing her way up the rankings. She was 277th at the end of 2002 (Clijsters: fourth), 57th at the end of 2005 (after taking nearly two years off from the sport), 29th at the end of 2007, 15th at the end of 2009, and fifth at the end of 2011. She has fewer miles on her odometer than Clijsters, but when both are healthy, they are incredibly even. They played twice last January, with Li winning in straight sets in the Sydney finals, then Clijsters taking the Aussie finals in three sets.
Tournaments take shape in such odd ways. While Petra Kvitova needs to just defeat No. 21 Ana Ivanovic and an unseeded opponent to make the semifinals, and while No. 3 Victoria Azarenka could face unseeded Iveta Benesova and either the No. 8 or No. 22 seed, perhaps five of the six favorites face off in the other two quadrants. The Li-Clijsters winner will face Wozniacki-Jankovic, while Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova are on a crash course to meet in the other quarterfinal. This is what happens when a) some of the best players (Clijsters, Williams) are injury-prone and poorly-seeded, and b) tennis insists on only truly seeding the top four players. Instead of a strict 1-16, 8-9, 5-12, 4-13, etc., format that Americans are used to seeing in most of their playoffs (NCAA basketball, in particular), tennis is structured loosely enough that No. 1 Wozniacki can play No. 5 in the quarterfinal and No. 3 in the semis. But that's another complaint for another time. From a viewer's perspective, it's potentially great; you get quarterfinal-worthy matches in the fourth round and potentially finals-worthy matches (Williams-Sharapova) in the quarters.
Other matches: No. 3 Victoria Azarenka vs. Iveta Benesova, No. 8 Agnieszka Radwanska vs. No. 22 Julia Goerges.