Ricky Dimon of The Grandstand and Jared Pine of The Second Serb preview and pick the four best men’s singles matches on Thursday at the Australian Open. The schedule includes what could be a wild affair between Benoit Paire and Fabio Fognini.
Benoit Paire vs. Fabio Fognini
Ricky: The only thing better than Paire vs. Fognini would be Paire vs. Fognini in something like the first round of a Challenger event. You would expect both guys–even these guys–to be relatively motivated in the second round of a Grand Slam, but the shenanigans will still be plentiful. Additionally, the tennis will at times be jaw-dropping (in a good way) and at other times (likely the majority of the time) vomit-inducing. Fognini posted an encouraging straight-set win over Feliciano Lopez in round one, while it’s hard to gauge Paire’s level after he got a virtual bye against Tommy Haas. Of two mercurial competitors, Fognini–yes, Fabio Fognini–is the more reliable. Fognini in 5: 6-7(6), 6-1, 1-6, 7-5, 6-2.
Jared: As the rankings suggest (Paire is 47th in the world; Fognini is 48th), this could be a very competitive match. It could also be a straight-set blowout. These are arguably the two most unpredictable players in tennis right now, so picking a winner in this one isn’t an easy task. They’ve both beaten each other twice and the last time they played the match was decided in a final-set tiebreaker. That ‘breaker went Fognini’s way, which makes me think Paire will be more emotionally invested in this match. That could be the difference, because the Frenchman has the tools in his game to win. It’s just a question of being able to execute his game. Paire in 5: 7-6(4), 6-2, 4-6, 3-6, 7-5.
(24) Alexander Zverev vs. (Q) Frances Tiafoe
Ricky: Zverev faced one of the other up-and-coming Americans last summer in Washington, D.C. and it was beatdown city, as the German drubbed Taylor Fritz 6-4, 6-2. Now he’s going up against one who is not as proven as Fritz but arguably has even more talent. Tiafoe is in the midst of the best slam of his brief career, having qualified for the main draw before taking out Mikhail Kukushkin in four sets. The 18-year-old is a heavy underdog on paper, but he is in fine form and Zverev is coming off a surprisingly tough five-set battle with Robin Haase. This could be more competitive than many expect. Zverev in 4: 7-6(4), 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.
Jared: These two players don’t have the combined age of Radek Stepanek, who is still in the draw. The two have actually never played each other before professionally or on the junior circuit except for one doubles match. Zverev won that match 7-6(7), 6-7(4), 10-8 four years ago at the Orange Bowl. Both players have improved drastically since then, but Zverev has been the one that has made the bigger strides. The German is clearly the best of the teenagers right now and he’s the clear favorite in this match. Zverev in 4: 7-5, 6-4, 1-6, 6-3.
(15) Grigor Dimitrov vs. Hyeon Chung
Ricky: This could be a Grand Slam semifinal in three years or so, depending on how Chung develops and if the up-and-down Dimitrov continues to progress in the right direction. At the moment, however, this belongs exactly where it is: in the second round. Chung endured a bit of a “sophomore slump” last season and currently registers outside the top 100. Dimitrov, on the other hand, heated up dramatically throughout the second half of 2016 and maintained momentum by capturing the Brisbane title earlier this month. The Bulgarian has a clear edge here, but it should be entertaining. Dimitrov in 3: 6-2, 7-6(5), 6-3.
Jared: Dimitrov came into this tournament as one of the hottest players in tennis after having beaten three top 10 opponents in Brisbane. Throughout the Bulgarian’s career, however, he has struggled to build upon the success of one event going into the next one. That’s why I’ve been hesitant to jump on the Dimitrov bandwagon at the Australian Open this year. The one thing in Dimitrov’s favor is a nice draw for the first two rounds. Chung is one of the best young players, but he has been in a slump for a long time now. It would be a big upset for the Korean to beat Dimitrov in a best-of-five match. Dimitrov in 4: 6-4, 6-2, 1-6, 6-3.
(6) Gael Monfils vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov
Ricky: When these guys are at their absolute best, this is worthy of a Grand Slam semifinal. Monfils has been at his absolute best over the past year–at least when healthy. The Frenchman was a question mark heading into Melbourne, but he appeared to be just fine physically in a straight-set destruction of Jiri Vesely on Tuesday. Dolgopolov, however, had not won a match since mid-July until he beat Borna Coric (who has not won a match since mid-August) in a tough first-rounder. Not unlike Dimitrov-Chung, this does belong in the second round right now. And Monfils will treat it as such, likely advancing in mostly routine, no-nonsense fashion. Monfils in 4: 6-2, 7-6(2), 3-6, 6-2.
Jared: These are two of the more athletic players on tour and there will be some points for the highlight reel in this one. Monfils played a business-like match in the first round, while Dolgopolov took the scenic route to the second round. Monfils is often criticized for being too defensive, but he’s going to need to be patient against Dolgopolov. The No. 6 seed will be able to force Dolgopolov to beat himself if he can just be patient from the back of the court. Monfils in 3: 7-5, 6-3, 6-2.