While the tennis world is still buzzing about Novak Djokovic’s shock defeat to Denis Istomin, time won’t stop for the rest of the players as Day Five of the Australian Open sees third round action in play. Two of the key match-ups on Friday in Melbourne feature seeds versus seeds. Here are my thoughts on what to expect in those two matches.
(10) Tomas Berdych vs (17) Roger Federer
This used to be a quarterfinal match-up, but obviously comes earlier due to Roger Federer’s fall in the rankings. Berdych hasn’t been troubled much, only playing four sets of tennis through two rounds. He benefited from Luca Vanni’s retirement after one set in round one and then ousted a flu-ridden Ryan Harrison in straights in round two. The Czech was solid regardless of Harrison’s situation, winning 90 percent of his first serve points in the second round encounter. He thrashed 15 aces and had 36 winners to go against 29 unforced errors. He would break the American fives times on 15 break points and took advantage of 54 miscues in Harrison’s ground game.
Federer has had a more difficult time, but the tight matches will have helped him after the long injury layoff. Fed dropped a set in his opener against Jurgen Melzer, but came through round two in straights over Noah Rubin. Federe’s serve was the big weapon in round two against Rubin, winning 82 percent on first serve and 52 percent off his second. Fed had 17 aces and time and time again, used those big first serves to bail himself out. Federer saved five of six break points. He had a slew of unforced errors with 41 to off-set 48 winners. That’s the biggest issue for Federer right now, hitting those groundies with consistency. His forehand surprisingly was the bigger letdown in round two.
This is the 23rd all-time meeting between Berdych and Federer. The Swiss leads the series 16-6 and has won the last five dating back through the 2014 season. Their last meeting coincidentally came at last year’s Australian Open in the quarterfinals. Federer eased past Berdych 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-4. The Czech had a rough all-around day with 27 winners and 27 unforced errors in that match. His first serve only provided him with 68 percent of the points won, a low number for him. He was broken five times on ten chances. Federer was cleaner with the first serve winning 83 percent of the points. His second was a bit leaky as Berdych won 52 percent of the points. Fed saved the big points though, broken twice on six break chances. Federer was more precise off the ground with 26 unforced errors, but 48 winners.
Federer admitted after beat Rubin that he would need to raise his game against Berdych, but admitted to not knowing much about the 10th seed’s form right now. Federer said the courts are playing fast and he knows that Berdych can excel in these conditions. That makes both serves a major weapon to get cheap points. For Berdych to reverse the trend in the head-to-head, he’s got to have his first serve controlling points. If the percentage of points won off his first is closer to 70 rather than 80 or above, he’s likely going to be in a losing position. Vice versa, Federer will feel he’s got control of the match off his racquet if he is winning 80 percent or better off his first serve and getting it in consistently. Combing through the numbers, Fed has hit that number more often than not when he beats Berdych.
The shaky or rusty part of Federer’s game has come off the ground so far. He’s been error prone on shots that you’re accustomed to seeing him make. Whether it is rust, nerves or age, he’ll need to find better consistency there against Berdych. The forehand is still what he would prefer to hit, but the Federer backhand is still a shot that packs plenty of pop to it. I think his backhand still holds an edge over Berdych’s. The Czech uses a two hander that is solid, but Federer’s seems to be more handy for banging those down-the-line or cross court winners. Forehand to forehand exchanges will be about power and precision, something both excel at when on top of their game.
The Pig’s Bottom Line
This match will be a measuring stick for Federer in his return. This is where the rubber hits the road so-to-speak as he finds out if he’s got a lot more rust to work off, or if he’s in position where he can contend for deep runs at tournaments right now. Right now, his game seems caught in between those levels. I think his serve will surely keep him with Berdych in this one and it could come down to the Czech’s mentality in this one. Does he have belief that Federer is not the same guy who has beaten him time and time again? I’m not sure he does. Berdych seems to have mental blocks against certain players and he’ll need some early success I think to convince himself otherwise in this match. If Federer gets away to a quick start, it could be doom and gloom time.
Keep an eye on the weather. This is a prime time match, so the rain may be cleared by the start. Wind could be a big factor though if the roof stays open at Rod Laver Arena and I think that effects Berdych just a bit more on serve, but could wreak havoc on both of their ground games.
Prediction: Federer wins in four sets
(12) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs (23) Jack Sock
These two are meeting for the third time and second straight Grand Slam. Last year, it was Tsonga who ended Sock’s U.S. Open via a 6-3, 6-3, 6-7 (2), 6-2 win. The Frenchman also beat him on clay in Madrid in 2015 in straights. Sock is arguably in much better form this time around as his summer in 2016 was not the best. He came to Melbourne off the heels of winning the ASB Classic in Auckland and has taken care of his first two opponents in straight sets. Against Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Karan Khachanov, the American has been a rock on serve. He’s won 80 percent or better off his first serve in both matches and been broken just twice on 15 chances. One thing that will be of concern is his unforced error count which rose above the amount of winners he played against Khachanov last round.
For Tsonga, the 31-year-old has been mostly in control of his first two matches. He did slip up and drop a set in round one to qualifier Thiago Monteiro, but came back and pounded Dusan Lajovic 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 in round two. Like Sock, Tsonga’s first serve has been a massive helper in his victories. The 12th seed won 88 percent off his first serve in the opening round and 84 percent against Lajovic. He’s been broken twice on far less chances with just eight break points against his serve. Per usual, he’s going big off the ground with his power forehand as he’s racked up 87 winners and just 61 unforced errors through two rounds. He has 35 aces, while Sock has just 17 in his two matches.
There is nothing contrasting really about the two games here. It’s rather a mirror version of a younger Tsonga playing the current version. Sock is quick and athletic with the power serve and the huge forehand. Despite that power on his serve though, Sock does seem to face his fair share of adversity while serving. That was a big issue in their U.S. Open meeting where Tsonga broke him six times on 13 chances. Sock won just 68 percent of the points off his first serve, while Tsonga was controlling with his first serve that won 83 percent of the points. The perplexing thing for Sock in that one is that the Frenchman was only getting 53 percent of his first serves in, so he got plenty of second serve opportunities. The American won 56 percent of the points off Tsonga’s second, but still only managed to get four break points. He needs to do better there if that is a recurring theme in this match-up.
In the ground battle, it seems as if Tsonga has been able to find more clean winners against Sock than Sock finds against Tsonga. They both want to hit their forehands as much as possible, but I think Tsonga is still a bit more confident on the backhand side. Sock has made some strides with his backhand over the last year, but you can still tell it’s his least comfortable shot. Too often, he simply goes backhand to backhand on the exchanges without much thought seemingly on possibly using that wing to craft a winner and take a chance. The other problem for Sock has been match tactics at times, where he seems to stay too much with the same things over and over. Whether that is court positioning or shot selection, he needs to show variety in these big matches.
The Pig’s Bottom Line
There is a reasonable chance that this winds up being played indoors at Margaret Court Arena due to scheduled rain showers during the day. Both have good win rates indoors with Tsonga obviously having a vast experience edge in those conditions due to his age. I don’t think it would necessarily add or detract from either player’s game, it could just give them both more pristine and nicer playing conditions with a windy day expected. This is a “changing of the guard” type match with Sock at age 24, looking to consistently make a name for himself in the latter stages of Grand Slams. Tsonga has been there, done that and looks about as healthy as he’s been in the last couple of years. That should make this one competitive.
I think if Tsonga is moving well and able to target the Sock backhand enough, then the Frenchman has reason to believe he can fend off his younger counterpart. Sock is capable of simply zoning out and hitting lines with the forehand and serve (see Cilic match at last year’s U.S. Open), but that consistency over five sets has not always been on his side. It would not surprise me for Sock to win, but the gut says Tsonga’s healthy and able to do the deed.
Prediction: Tsonga wins in five sets