Third round play continues on Day 6 of the Australian Open. There are a couple of marquee matches on the schedule, including Rafael Nadal taking on Alexander Zverev. The nightcap at Rod Laver Arena could be interesting as well with Richard Gasquet continuing a rivalry with Grigor Dimitrov that saw Dimitrov end a five match losing skid to the Frenchman last year in Shanghai.
(9) Rafael Nadal vs (24) Alexander Zverev
I had this marked as a highlight match if seeds held in this part of the draw. It could be fantastic with the young German looking to make his mark at a Grand Slam, while Rafa hopes to recapture past glory. For Nadal, it’s been easy going so far in Melbourne. He’s battled veterans Florian Mayer and Marcos Baghdatis, coming through in straight sets against both players. While Rafa’s serve numbers still reflect that he’s vulnerable, one thing he has done exceptionally well thus far is avoiding having to put too many second serves into play. Through two rounds, just 39 second serves have been put in play out of 156 total serves. That is a marvelous number and key to Rafa’s success in moving forward. He’s been broken just once on five tries, all coming against Baghdatis. His ground strokes have been pretty solid, but he figures to be put to task to keep the errors in check against Zverev.
For the 24th seed, he showed great improvement in his second match. After struggling for consistency in a five set win over Robin Haase, he was on point in a straight sets destruction of Frances Tiafoe in round two. He showed his power with his big first serve routinely setting him up for winning points. He would win 75 percent of his first serve points, but seemingly got the big point any time he needed it. His second serve was very good too, winning 59 percent of the points. He was not broken on five chances, while converting on four of eight break opportunities against Tiafoe. His unforced error to winners count still wasn’t great with 33 UEs and 28 winners, but the depth and angles he created with his ground strokes really could not be matched by the American. Overall, an impressive performance.
This will be the second time that Nadal and Sascha have locked horns. Rafa won their lone battle last year at Indian Wells 6-7 (8), 6-0, 7-5. The slower courts at Indian Wells helped negate Zverev’s power advantage some with the Spaniard cracking Zverev’s serve seven times off ten break points. Zverev also had eleven double faults that day. Rafa again did well to keep his second serves to a minimum as he put 73 percent of his first serves into play. Zverev will know that he can beat Nadal though as he had a match point in this one, leading 5-4 in the third. That mentally will be big for him, but he’ll also have to contend with nerves if he’s in a similar position.
That match should provide a blue print for what to expect in this clash. Nadal said he was most concerned about Zverev’s big serve to start the Indian Wells encounter. As such, he took to standing well behind the baseline more often than not to get some sort of a return on the missiles flying at him. If Rafa employs a similar strategy, it’s up to Zverev to make the adjustments to make Nadal pay. Zverev should know he’ll face break points due to Nadal’s return and he has to come up big in those moments as he did against Haase and Tiafoe.
As for the other side, Nadal will be Nadal. He’s not going to blister big serves in like Sascha can. He’s going to try and get his first serve in play consistently with decent pace and then outwork Zverev in rallies. Nadal is going to hug the baseline as he is prone to do and that is something Zverev does as well. There will be plenty of longer exchanges between the two. Zverev has to contend with the top spin on Nadal’s forehand of course, while the Spaniard has to absorb the pace that the German can provide off both wings in almost any position on the court.
The Pig’s Bottom Line
The line is drawn in the sand for this one. It’s the savvy veteran trying to ward off Father Time for another round, while Zverev is looking to announce his arrival with a signature win at a Grand Slam. He’s afforded himself reasonably well already against Top 10 players with a 4-9 mark in his young career. The 19-year-old has not yet been past the third round at a Slam however, so this marks a big step in not only beating Nadal, but also making it to round four. For Nadal, this is the tricky match-up against a player who can simply overpower him both in serve and ground strokes. It’s an Istominian (copyright @tennispig) set up in that regard and certainly Nadal knows that too.
That makes this a fascinating mental battle for both players. Rafa’s results in the past year against players who can bring the combination of power that Zverev does is not great, especially with a faster surface than what these two met on last year. I previewed this as an upset spot in my preview of the men’s draw and I am sticking with that thought. Zverev will earn every point he gets and I think it’s time for this young man to shine on the big stage.
Prediction: Zverev wins in four sets
(15) Grigor Dimitrov vs (18) Richard Gasquet
The final match on Rod Laver for Day 6 could be one of the best of the tournament if both players can carry forward their current form over the course of five sets. Dimitrov has been on fire early this season, winning the Brisbane title and now running his win streak to seven with two wins in Melbourne. His second round clash with Hyeon Chung was a tough one as the Korean jumped on Dimitrov in the opening set for a quick 6-1 result. Dimitrov showed the response you want to see though as he broke Chung early in the second set en route to a 1-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 win. It was a very competitive and physical match for the Bulgarian. I think that serves him well to come through though.
His serve is still a bit concerning to me though as he allowed 15 break chances to Chung with the Korean converting on five of those. Dimitrov won under 70 percent of his first serve points. A lot of that can be attributed to have a good returne on the other side, but it’s still a part of Dimitrov’s game that I think gets exploited too often. His ground game was good, but there were some moments of the old Grigor where he seemed unsure on finishing off rallies. His winners to unforced ratio is right around 1:1 for the tournament.
Gasquet has brutalized his first two opponents at the AO. He has yet to drop a set and has faced just three break points. He beat Blake Mott 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 in round one and then crushed Carlos Berlocq 6-1, 6-1, 6-1. None of his numbers are overpowering and that is pretty much what you get with Gasquet. He’s winning just over 70 percent of his first serve points and more impressively, taking care of business by winning 67 percent of his second serve points so far. His ground game has been typical Gasquet. Sweet one handed backhand, decent forehand. Gasquet is a craftsman. He isn’t going to “go big or go home” – it’s not how he plays, so he relies on working his opponent with angles and then using that backhand as a real weapon to finish off rallies.
This is meeting number seven between the two. Gasquet had suffocated Dimitrov in their first five meetings with the Frenchman winning 12 of the 14 sets played. That includes a four set win over Dimitrov at the 2012 French Open and a straight sets thumping at Wimbledon in 2015. Last October, they met for the first time since that Wimbledon clash and it was Dimitrov who turned the tables. He would secure his first win over Gasquet 6-4, 6-4 at the Shanghai Masters event.
Gasquet had serve problems all match in that won, winning just 55 percent of the points on serve. Dimitrov broke him seven times on eleven chances to help overcome some of his own service deficiencies for the match. The Bulgarian won despite taking just 58 percent of the first serve points. The match came on the heels of Dimitrov losing in the Beijing final just a few days prior to Andy Murray, so he might have been a bit worse for the wear. This time though, his fitness looks like it might be the smallest of questions in this match.
This really shapes up to be a great match to watch if you enjoy watching two players craft points and work on longer exchanges. There won’t be much ball bashing on display in this one, but more of seeing the changes in pace on shots and angles worked on to try and win points. It will be more of the art of tennis than simply over powering your opponent. The problems for Dimtirov usually stem around his serve consistency and then his inabiltiy at times to choose the proper shot at the proper time. What has basically been admitted to as much as Dimitrov forgetting his game plan in crucial moments. That has improved of late.
So what does this come down to? Dimitrov being the Dimitrov of the present for starters. If he continues to stick with his game plan and show the athleticism that has always been there, he’s going to put himself in positions to win. If he hovers too close to the “old” Dimitrov that abandons the game plan at key times, then Gasquet is likely to make this six wins in seven tries. For Gasquet, patience looks a key. If he serves along his normal level, he’ll find himself engaged and working his ground game against Dimitrov. He seems to know better when the end a point in the rallies these two normally take part in over the course of a match. Gasquet normally has flashed enough patience to wait for his opportunity and taken advantage.
The Pig’s Bottom Line
Dimitrov’s serve has been better early this season, but there was definitely some stress on it against Chung in the last round. The positive spin is Dimitrov played the key points well in that match. The negative spin is that a more experienced player might have made him pay for dishing out that many break chances. I tend to think Gasquet won’t get as many as his return is decent, but he’s not as athletic as Chung. Gasquet has shown few weaknesses and his early season play in the Hopman Cup and in Melbourne have yielded solid results. I think the surface here helps Dimitrov a little bit more as Gasquet generally beats the lower ranked players he faces in Melbourne, but goes out against the first step up in competition. This should be close and no result would be shocking, but I’m going with Dimitrov to make it two in a row over the Frenchman.
Prediction: Dimitrov wins in four sets