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Monday, January 23, 2012

Australian Open: Quarterfinals Fully Loaded

Quarter 1: Wozniacki v. Clijsters

Aussie Kim is at it again Down Under, overcoming a rolled ankle and four match points in her sweet-16 marathon against Li Na. The four-time grand slam champion and former no. 1 will hit the court against the world's current no. 1 in hopes of defending her title in Melbourne, but winning will be no easy feat. Still looking for her first slam title, Wozniacki will be just as determined, if not more so than the Belgian veteran.

Photo by Cameron Spencer, Getty Images
While Clijsters' tiebreak heroics against Li Na will surely be one of the tournament's biggest stories, Wozniacki's strong performances can't be overlooked. She hasn't dropped a set in her first four matches and she even earned a bagel against Jelena Jankovic— an opponent who once dominated the pair's head-to-head 4-0 (now leveled 4-4).

In her semifinal match last year, Wozniacki held match point but watched her Aussie dreams crumble as Li pummeled a short Wozniacki forehand down the line. This year, the Dane has been pushing shots deeper and trying to add the aggression her game has lacked but so desperately needs. Still, her forte is defense, and she will need to be on-point against Clijsters. The Belgian might not always hit the ball as hard as the Sharapovas of the WTA, but she can light up the court with brilliant movement and deadly precision. Should Wozniacki choose to play too passively, Clijsters will surely fire winners at will.

The big question: what's the status of Clijsters' ankle?

Prediction: Clijsters in 3.

Quarter 2: Azarenka v. Radwanska

Victoria Azarenka has all but coasted into the quarterfinals this year, steamrolling an unlucky string up opponents along the way. The Belarusian has dropped a total of 12 games in four matches (losing more than 2 games in a set only once, against a hot-handed Barthel) and looks deadly from both wings. She has had a number of grand slam runs crushed in the quarters, meeting against Serena Williams on multiple occasions, but she snapped the curse at last year's Wimbledon and has a good shot of going forward in Melbourne.

Her opponent, Agnieszka Radwanska, is sure to put up a fight, but lacks any sort of firepower of her own. The Pole will look to use rock-solid defense to ricochet Azarenka's blasts back into the court, waiting for errors or the occasional short ball. Unfortunately for Radwanska, Azarenka seems to have reeled in her aggression, keeping unforced errors to a minimum and building momentum with controlled offense. Agnieszka will have to work the angles to bully Azarenka around the court and, when possible, lay-in to the backhand that has given Radwanska such great success.

The last time these two met was in this year's Sydney tournament, where Azarenka prevailed despite dropping a set 6-1. In Melbourne, Radwanska has seesawed between lackluster (round 1 v. Mattek-Sands) and brilliant (round 4 v. Goerges), but she'll need to be perfect to beat Azarenka. Otherwise, she's going to get blown off the court.

Prediction: Azarenka in 2.

Quarter 3: Makarova v. Sharapova

Of the remaining eight players, the most shocking competitor is Ekatarina Makarova. Arguably, one could say Sara Errani's appearance is equally as surprising, but Makarova has been the tournament's giant-slayer, downing Kaia Kanepi, Vera Zvonareva and Serena Williams in consecutive rounds and all in straight sets. Comically, the Russian's most difficult match was against Tanasugarn, where she dropped the second set but still earned two bagels for the win.

If she wants to continue her dream run, Makarova will have to conjure up some more magic as she takes on her most famous countrywoman: Maria Sharapova. Sharapova has looked terrifyingly sharp on her Melbourne quest, drilling her opponents with laser-like shots accompanied by shrill screams and intimidating Come on!s In her fourth round match against Sabine Lisicki, Sharapova's game faced its first true test of the tournament, but the Russian rose to the occasion, upping her play to a level unseen since reaching the Wimbledon final last year. Finally, Sharapova's serves were hitting the box and even second serves rained down with unfamiliar power. Combined with her brutal groundstrokes, Sharapova was just a tad too good for Lisicki and looks to be a tad too good for anyone left in the tournament who isn't named Kvitova.

Still, Sharapova isn't consistent. The service woes, head-scratching errors and over-eager offense are always lurking somewhere in the back of Sharapova's game—she just needs to keep them there. Should Makarova find her range and Maria tighten up, we could have quite a match, but Sharapova is known for her fight. She just can't spend time fighting herself.

Prediction: Sharapova in 2.

Quarter 4: Errani v. Kvitova

What can you say about Sara Errani? One thing is for sure: she's playing better tennis than we knew she was capable of. Sitting down to watch her match against Zheng Jie, I expected a rather easy win for the craft Chinese woman, but felt my jaw hit the floor as Errani let loose an array of blistering winners. The Italian used masterful topspin to trap Zheng behind the baseline and showcased her double skills with superb volleying.

Although her performance was stellar, Errani will need to do even more as she steps on court against world no. 2 and player-to-beat, Petra Kvitova. The Czech has had a number of moments this tournament when she looked frazzled and lost, including two second set breakdowns against Suarrez Navarro and Ivanovic, but on each occasion she regrouped and slapped ferocious winners in order to secure victory. Maybe it's her maturity, or maybe it's her bark-like cheers, but something about Kvitova's game never lets her stray too far off course.

Against anyone seeded, you might almost anticipate Kvitova to have some spotty play in her upcoming match, but Errani's style should give Kvitova good batting practice for later-round challenges. The best tool at Errani's disposal against the Czech will be her net-play, but if Kvitova's groundstrokes are as flat and furious as usual, then it could be over rather quickly. It all depends on whether or not Petra feels like having yet another mental walkabout.

Prediction: Kvitova in 2.


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