Serena Williams’ surprising exit dominated the headlines on Day 7 of the 2014 Australian, and with some enticing encounters lined up for Day 8, another upset or two certainly isn’t out of the question. I will have an eye on the following matches as the round of 16 draws to a close.
Dominika Cibulkova (20) vs. Maria Sharapova (3)
This match has all the makings of a real cracker for the fans at Rod Laver Arena. Sharapova shades the head-to-head 3-2, and the two occasions the two have met in grand slams, they split absolute thrashings at the quarterfinal stage. Sharapova is clearly the better player, however the Russian is just returning from injury, and she is nowhere close to her best despite making it to the fourth round. Cibulkova on the other hand is in sizzling form. After defeating veteran Francesca Schiavone in straight sets in the first round, the Slovak has dished out two consecutive 6-0 6-1 thrashings. Cibulkova doesn’t hold back when going for her groundstrokes and manages to generate tremendous power off both wings. This match is too close to call, and a lot will depend on Sharapova’s serve. If the Russian gives Cibulkova a look at her second serve, an upset will certainly be on the cards. If Sharapova was match fit, I would predict a routine win in her favour, but as things currently stand, its just too close to call.
Sloane Stephens (13) vs. Victoria Azarenka (2)
A rematch of last year’s semifinal sees Victoria Azarenka take on Sloane Stephens in the round of 16. Azarenka has looked in fine fettle after a tricky first round, with her forehands down the line generating consistent winners. Now that Serena has departed, the Belorussian will know in the back of her mind that she is the clear favourite to win her third successive Australian Open. Stephens has all the right tools to be a top player, but her poor starts often hinder her. Recovering from a bad start against the also-rans that populate the women’s draw is one thing, doing so against the top five is another matter altogether. Sloane’s time will come soon, and she will probably even crack the top ten this year. However, this match has come too soon for her, as I believe Azarenka’s desire and experience will take her to the quarters after a tough match.
Jelena Jankovic (8) vs. Simona Halep (11)
The most improved player of 2013 takes on the breakout star of 2013 in a battle between Jelena Jankovic and Simona Halep. The 11th seed leads the head-to-head 2-1, but tellingly all three matches have gone three sets, highlighting how evenly matched the two players are. Jankovic was slightly unconvincing in her third round win over Karumi Nara, hitting many unforced errors and losing her serve five times. After a slight hiccup in the first set of her second round match against Varvara Lepchenko, Halep has been almost flawless. The Romanian is one of the best players currently on tour at moving forward to finish points, and this match in essence will come down to Halep’s offence versus Jankovic’s defence. I think this contest will stay true to their history and go the distance with the outcome impossible to predict.
Rafael Nadal (1) vs. Kei Nishikori (16)
I could just as easily copy and paste the paragraph I wrote before Nadal’s last match against Gael Monfils. The world no.1 seems to playing on a different planet right now, and one wonders whether he and rival Novak Djokovic are engaged in a competition to see who can hand out the more decisive thrashing in each round. Djokovic lost only five games against Fabio Fognini, and something tells me Nishikori will give Nadal a better fight. A better fight is all one can expect though, as the Japanese simply doesn’t have the offensive weapons in his game to hurt Nadal. There is the possibility of a tie-break, but I see Nadal winning in straight sets.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (10) vs. Roger Federer (6)
After playing four grand slam quarterfinals and one grand slam semi against each other, it seems surreal for Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to meet in the round of 16 at the Australian Open. Last year Federer came out on top in a titanic five-set tussle in the quarters, before Tsonga claimed his revenge by winning in straight sets at Roland Garros. That defeat was Federer’s last appearance in the last eight of a grand slam. Both players have yet to lose a set and come into the match in excellent form. Federer seems to have adjusted to a larger racquet frame, and under the guidance of Stefan Edberg is looking to finish points faster. Tsonga knows he can beat Federer having done it twice before in grand slams. I am expecting plenty of fireworks and some sublime tennis from the two in a very unpredictable match. Due to the cooler conditions in the second week, I think Federer has a slight advantage as he can generate more spin through the air, but I wouldn’t bet on the outcome of this encounter.