Ricky Dimon of The Grandstand and Pete Ziebron of Tennis Acumen preview and pick the four best men’s singles matches on Saturday at the Australian Open. Now that Novak Djokovic is gone, Rafael Nadal hopes to avoid the upset bug when he faces Alexander Zverev.
(24) Alexander Zverev vs. (9) Rafael Nadal
Ricky: No one (or at least not Zverev) will soon forget their only previous encounter. At last season’s Indian Wells Masters, Zverev butchered a forehand volley at match point on his own serve at 5-3, 40-30 in the third set. Nadal ended up prevailing 6-7(8), 6-0, 7-5. A best-of-five scenario would seem to be even more advantageous for an established veteran than a 19-year-old, but that may not be the case. Nadal is always a physical question mark, especially on hard courts, and Zverev bounced back nicely from a five-setter with Robin Haase by destroying Frances Tiafoe 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 in round two. The German is the prototypical Nadal nemesis: huge serve, big groundstrokes, and a two-handed backhand. Nadal has been solid through two matches, but not to the extent that I’m changing my pre-tournament pick. Zverev in 4: 6-3, 5-7, 6-3, 7-6(7).
Pete: Nadal comes into this highly-anticipated match without hitting a double-fault in six sets and serving at 70 percent and 80 percent in his respective straight-set victories. As difficult as it is to fathom, the 14-time Grand Slam champion appears to be flying under the radar as a possibility to win his second Australian Open. Zverev had plenty of opportunities to defeat Nadal in their only meeting last March at Indian Wells. He will feel better about his game with his second-round straight-set win over Tiafoe after having to fight back from a two sets to one deficit in the opening round against Haase. Both Nadal and Zverev will vividly recall their encounter in the California desert for different reasons–Nadal for the mental edge that he had at the very end and Zverev for the squandered chance on match point to record a monumental win. Zverev’s failure to win the first time around against Nadal will continue to ring in his head. Nadal in 4: 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4.
(15) Grigor Dimitrov vs. (18) Richard Gasquet
Ricky: Very little will separate the two competitors in this battle of one-handed backhands that should feature lots of incredible shot-making from the back of the court. Who will get the best of it? Gasquet leads the head-to-head series 5-1 and has been the more impressive through two matches. But Dimitrov won their most recent meeting last fall in Shanghai and is 7-0 this season with a title in Brisbane. The Bulgarian has been riding a wave of momentum since the second half of 2016. This could be the most entertaining match of the tournament other than Denis Istomin vs. Novak Djokovic. Well, that and–of course–Benoit Paire vs. Fabio Fognini. Dimitrov in 5: 4-6, 6-3, 6-7(4), 6-2, 7-5.
Pete: A prime opportunity awaits the winner of Gasquet and Dimitrov, as whoever previals will have an easier than expected passage into the quarterfinals in facing the Denis Istomin vs. Pablo Carreno Busta winner next. Gasquet was sidelined at this time last year, denying him the opportunity to continue his excellent play in majors (semifinals at Wimbledon and quarters at the U.S. Open in 2015). We have been waiting a long time to see if Dimitrov can indeed live up to all of the hype that has accompanied his game. Thus far, one semifinal (Wimbledon 2014) and a quarterfinal (2014 Australian Open) are his best showings. Gasquet owns a 5-1 head-to-head record, but Dimitrov won most recently last October at the Shanghai Masters. Gasquet’s efficient play through two rounds as well as his confident recognition of a potential deep run make the difference. Gasquet in 4: 6-4, 5-7, 7-6(3), 6-3.
(13) Roberto Bautista Agut vs. (21) David Ferrer
Ricky: Ferrer leads the head-to-head series 2-0, but the previous meetings between the fellow Spaniards and Rio Olympics doubles partners came in 2013. Ferrer, now 34 years old, was still in his prime at that point and Bautista Agut had not yet peaked. The tables have now turned drastically, to the extent that Bautista Agut is will ahead of his countryman in the rankings (14th and 23rd)–and deservedly so. Bautista Agut is undefeated this season, with a title in Chennai and two easy wins so far in Melbourne. Ferrer, on the other hand, hasn’t shown any real signs of ending a slump that began in earnest last year. Bautista Agut in 4: 5-7, 7-5, 6-4, 6-3.
Pete: Ferrer boasts a 27-6 record at the Australian Open since 2011 and corrected his game in time last round against the young American upstart Ernesto Escobedo to advance. The tennis world is certainly not used to seeing Ferrer with a double-digit seed–especially not a numeral as high as 21, where he entered the draw this year. Bautista Agut has dropped just 13 games in six sets through two matches and generally performs well in the early rounds of majors. Ferrer knows very well that time is–and has been–ticking on his solid career and this recognition, plus his years of success at the Aussie Open, will all play a part in the end result. Ferrer in 4: 3-6, 6-2, 6-4, 7-5.
(30) Pablo Carreno Busta vs. Denis Istomin
Ricky: Almost no one follows up a monumental, career-defining performance with a win in his next match. Sam Querrey managed to do it at Wimbledon last summer, when he stunned Djokovic and then rolled over Nicolas Mahut before falling to Milos Raonic in the quarterfinals. Still, Querrey is an aberration to the rule. And he is also far more proven with far more Grand Slam experience than Istomin. The Uzbek also endured a much greater physical test in his 7-6(8), 5-7, 2-6, 7-6(5), 6-4 upset of the world No. 2 on Thursday. They played for four hours and 50 minutes–something Istomin did not need heading into a date with a baseline grinder like Carreno Busta who has cruised though two rounds. Istomin will be gone, but he won’t be forgotten. Carreno Busta in 4: 7-6(4), 6-2, 2-6, 6-4.
Pete: Istomin stood toe to toe with the great Novak Djokovic for 288 minutes and ultimately defeated the six-Australian Open champion. Winning two tiebreakers, coming back from a two sets to one deficit, hitting just three double-faults in 29 service games…take your pick, Istomin accomplished all of that in advancing to the thrd round to match his best-ever result at this event. Next up is Carreno Busta, who lived up to his No. 30 seeding by winning his first career matches in Melbourne in this, his fourth appearance. The Spaniard swept aside upstart Brit Kyle Edmund with surprising ease and has spent 39 minutes less time on court in his two matches than Istomin had to play in Rod Laver Arena against Djokovic. The veteran Uzbek recognizes that he has quite an opportunity to keep his feel-good story going for a bit longer and will prevail. Istomin in 4: 3-6, 6-2, 7-5, 6-4.