Jan 24, 2023

2023 Australian Open ATP & WTA Quarterfinals Day 1

Khachanov vs Korda :

Scrambling around,

dreaming big of title time,

why did you zip me?

We’ve reached a point in the tournament where everyone is playing at or near their peak level of tennis. Margins are thin and the victor on the day does involve tactics and physicality but it also rests heavily on who plays the big points best. We’ve seen some incredible marathons and some crushing defeats. Somehow, in the midst of all this, we’ve seen a guy get zipped. Twice. Nishioka didn’t particularly play poorly or implode for the majority of these sets, he just couldn’t get anything done. Yoshihito uses a lot of shoulder and tries to get the spin up high on his opponents backhand when he’s trying to gain control of a rally, but this leaves the ball in Khachanov’s strike-zone. It seems like Karen is rally only willing to swing fully from waist-height or above, but you can easily picture him blasting forehands from there and sending backhands down the line. He spread the court admirably, and for once his slightly too defensive approach paid off. In the points where Nishioka was in control, a guy up 4-0 or 6-0, 2-0 generally is going to just push the issue and go for something big. Khachanov doesn’t though, and his willingness to just keep rallying and defend made the hill look too tall for Nishioka to climb. In the third things got messy, and the crowd got behind Nishioka to make a game of it. Slight concerns for me in gauging his next match as far as the way the third set ended. Khachanov finally got a bit flat with his focus and Nishioka looked like if he won the third he’d have a decent chance in the fourth. Khachanov showed a lot of grit to get things done in the tiebreaker though, as he had in the 4th against Tiafoe the round before.

We got a lot of histrionics and disbelief from Nishioka in this one, and while 6-0, 6-0 isn’t going to bring out cupcakes and whiskers, it is Nishioka’s temperament that needs to improve in these moments if he wants to stay at the top level he’s recently been reaching. There’s a slight shift between “can you believe this?” and “can you believe he’s playing like this against me?” that needs to be mad. If the situation is surprising, you can accept it, regroup, and make a push to change it. If you’re taking it personally, it’s easy to get caught up in a bs story about what bad luck you have, or how the umpires were against you that time, or how everyone plays their best against you. Tiafoe and Fritz have/had issues with this in the past, staring at their box like “wow can you believe it?” while the match was still ongoing. It doesn’t help, and you have to step outside the role of narrator if you want to fully enter the moment where the competition is still ongoing.

turn on your TVs,

the ents are going to war,

some are wearing hats

Hurkacz and Korda was pretty exciting. These two gentle giants played 3 and a half hours of tennis, with the outcome never really being clear. By the time they got to the fifth set, both their games had faltered a lot. 17 points were played in the 5th set tiebreaker, and 9 of them went against the server. It was a rough one to watch, as the tension seemed to get to both players. I do think that Korda’s ability to produce offense safely in neutral rallies was a big difference. Against Medvedv, his production of angles and depth gave him control and the volume of the offering got him through. Here, Hurkacz went sort of into pushmode late in the match. It’s a good plan to force your opponent to come up with a shot, but the top tennis players are (supposed to be) good enough to execute in these situations. Nerves are conceptual, and skill lets you execute even in difficult conditions. Hurkacz’s shots lacked depth and Korda was able to get across the finish line eventually.

It was a bit similar to the Rune/Rublev match. Rune saw good success in slowing the pace and playing defense from the deepcourt, but it just made it a little too easy for Rublev since there was no pressure about picking the wrong shot. If my opponent is on the baseline and hitting full, i lose control of the rally if he reads my shot. If he’s behind the baseline my only concern is to work safer but more aggressive targets on every consecutive shot. It becomes a practice drill, and I question the mental strength/work ethic of the pros sometimes but they have had a lifetime of working these generic drills in practice. Muscle memory coupled with experienced success (winning a point) can instantly bring out the best in an athlete, and the pushmode plan is best reserved for isolated points rather than employed as a blanket strategy at the highest level.

I get a few wrong every round, but at this stage it almost feels disingenuous to try to guess what’s going to happen. I bought a year’s subscription to the alphabet though, so I might as well get my money’s worth. Korda and Khachanov have met three times, with Khachanov winning at Wimbledon 2021 in 5 (we can toss this result out somewhat since both players are different today), and Korda winning their last two hardcourt meetings in straight sets. This is the best version of Khachanov I’ve seen, but he seems to go down against these real title contenders in these spots. Korda will have a worse year than Khachanov almost every season, but his best level in his successful weeks will exceed Khachanov’s. Their serving is about equal, and both are adept returners so there should be a lot of good rallies. Khachanov is more aggressive/powerful than Medvedev so Korda will have a bit more pressure against him, but Karen is still a bit conservative about his approach so Korda will get a chance to hang around and find himself in the match even if he’s down in the scoreline. Korda did get a bit puffy in the later stages of his previous match, which is something to keep an eye on if this goes deep. He was still hitting good shots and serving well, but the RPMs dropped and part of Korda’s early set success has been the zip on his forehand and his backhand depth rushing his opponent.

It feels like Khachanov is the more solid player technically, but Sebastian is the one whose approach to tennis is more fluid. He gets to net more often, he’s a bit more comfortable executing in a big moment, and I think he’ll get to a 4th set no matter what which gives him a decent chance since Khachanov has shown a few times that his level drops slightly in the second half of the match. I’m expecting a completely even contest, with Khachanov’s big task being exorcising demons that linger from his past losses at this stage. Is he the gatekeeper? Felt like it for a few seasons, but Khachanov is still working and still improving. This is his best chance so far. For Korda, I’ll be looking at his physical state. If he loses one of the first two sets, it feels like this might turn into a baseline battle rather than a server’s contest, and I like Khachanov in a slugfest. If Korda has a lead, I don’t know if Khachanov can turn it around. He’s a bit ABC in his approach, and I think Korda will have less scrambling to do as a result if he can get up 2-1 or 2-0. So basically, I don’t know. Khachanov in 5.

Lehecka vs Tsitsipas :

ooh an easy one,

seems there’s only one problem,

where is my backhand?

Jiri Lehecka! Norrie and Auger-Alliassime are guys who you’d expect to beat a 21 year old Challenger tour champ at a major, but they just didn’t seem as complete against him. There isn’t an area where Lehecka swings poorly. His backhand is easily repeatable and technically sound. His forehand is measured but creates really sharp angles crosscourt from the middle (bit like Korda’s). He mixes up his serve really well even though it’s not the biggest delivery. Felix just made too many errors, and his backhand still needs work (lacks variation and and gets a bit fluffy at times). Norrie’s backhand also struggled against an opponent who wasn’t trying to force it into errors but was content to continue the rally. It’s a good thing Tsitsipas doesn’t have any glaring issues with one of this swings.

Stefanos looked great in the early going, dominating with his serve and forehand. Sinner wasn’t really at his best in this event, with early 5 set matches and errors racking up. In the 3rd and 4th though Tsitsipas’ backhand almost completely disappeared. He lost range with it and started spraying it long, and when he tried to play safe he lost depth and started getting the ball hit right by him. For some reason, Sinner didn’t isolate that wing. I really feel that it was time for the ‘ol junior tennis strategy of just burying your opponent in their backhand corner. Tsitsipas had lost confidence in it to the point of it becoming an open dialogue with his coaching box, and the announcers had even gone as far as indicating they’d never instruct a player they were coaching/teaching to adopt a one-hander. I think the one-hander is a commitment to active footwork, and Tsitsipas’ footwork can get a bit more complacent late in a match. You need to be early to the spot you’re going to plant and swing from so that you get the full mechanics. If your one-hander is hitting the ball softer than the opponent, you’re just going to lose the battle eventually unless you go to a slice. Tsitsipas didn’t seem to think of this though, although in his defense his slice had also seemed like a nervy shot, with him kind of watching the ball across the net more than focusing on the technique. He ended up serving great in the 5th and getting by, but I’m looking at him as a one-armed bandit going forward.

Lehecka isn’t expected to win this match, but him and his team will have seen the previous match and will be aiming at attacking Stef’s backhand. It should work. Tsitsipas should dominate this behind his first serve and forehand, and his aggressive play and energy early in matches is something Jiri won’t have dealt with coming from matches against Norrie and FAA who are enthusiastic but not particularly believable. I think Lehecka is more technically sound on his backhand, and the pressure of an easy win not being so easy will make things tough on Tsitsipas. I don’t think Lehecka gets to the business end the way Sinner did, because he just doesn’t trade with as much power as Sinner which means Tsitsipas will get to balls quicker, but if he gets late in the match I think Stef’s swings break down first. Tsitsipas in 4 or Lehecka in 5.

Rybakina vs Ostapenko :

Tiny lil nugget,

put down that racquet right now,

i’m getting upset!

Upset city. I used the word can’t regarding the Ostapenko match, and she proved me right and wrong. My prediction was wrong (I thought Gauff would find a way regardless), but insisting that “can’t win” felt wrong was accurate. Ostapenko and Rybakina actually had pretty similar approaches. They played hyper-aggressively from 0-0. With nothing to lose, they were the type of free they needed to be, and the results came. Ostapenko was a terror on Gauff’s second serve, and the pressure gradually got her the edge in rallies. The points being short made the match seem short, and before 2 hours were up Ostapenko had come through in straight sets. Not a bad loss for Gauff, but a match that was definitely hers to win. She only landed 50% of her first serves, and was a bit unlucky on break points (saved 0/3 while Ostapenko saved 7/8). Ostapenko was again around 80% on first serves won and she arrives in the quarterfinals of a major with no expectations and in great form.

Rybakina shuffled the entire draw on Saturday. Swiatek was the one player in the draw that I thought could level up and mak herself a clear favorite, but she got blitzed. Rybakina was hitting clean past her early off of both wings, and Swiatek tried to hang in on the baseline and trade power. She lost almost all these exchanges, and I actually have to fault her box a bit for this one. Rybakina hit like 95% of her forehands cross-court, but Swiatek kept heading back to the middle of the court and getting caught by this. It’s not like you can just hang out there, but it really looks like Rybakina has just settled into focusing on that pattern and as a coach you need to point that out. Swiatek made her usual run in the second to go up 3-0, but she played this whole match at a frantic pace and it made the points short and the pressure high. It’s weird but some of the WTA matches in later rounds at grand slams feel like sprints. It’ll be 2-0 in the first set of 0-30 on someone’s serve and you get the feeling that the match is hinging on the next point. Here it just seemed like Swiatek never got settled in, so credit to Rybakina I suppose for making the door seem like it was closing early.

Rybakina should beat Ostapenko. It isn’t a guarantee though, as they’re both kinda employing the same approach. Reminds me a little of this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZSoJDUD_bU . Rybakina’s serve is bigger, but Ostapenko’s delivery has been more efficient. Rybakina’s forehand and backhand are firing, but only cross-court whereas Jelena has taken the ball down the lines nicely. She really does have a good way of choosing the right shot for the situation, and her tennis IQ is extremely high when she’s keeping the ball in court. This just really has the feel of “whomever hits bigger wins” and I think early on we’ll see which player that is. My gut is that it’s Rybakina, but Ostapenko has won their two previous meetings so it’s not a guarantee. Rybakina has beaten Collins and Swiatek, who are two players I’d definitely have besting Ostapenko. Siding with the Wimbledon champ, but beating Swiatek and only sitting at -250 here is a testament to the danger of Ostapenko. Rybakina in 3.

Azarenka vs Pegula :

likable duckling,

can you resist the wa-hee?

pls win a major

Jessica Pegula could win a major. I’d watch it. How can someone be so likable? Pegula is such a nice kid that when I heard she was an ultra-rich heiress to the Buffalo Bills/Sabres my first thought was “good for her”. She’s put in some serious work on training. She already had no stamina issues on tour and was having top tier results at the majors, but she looks fit to run an Iron Man currently and the improvement in her tennis is visible. This match has all the makings of a classic, but I think Pegula will be a bit better throughout. Azarenka has been winning with excellent variety and an over-arching consistency. Basically, her opponents have had to come up with a bit more offense than they really possess, and Azarenka’s Novak-like ability to smoothly hit to difficult places during rallies has made that task doubly impossible. It’s hard to read her shots, she mixes in the dropshot well, and her serve is a bit weak at times but it’s located well in key moments.

I don’t want to rush through this but Pegula feels like a big favorite here. She got by Krejcikova who I’d have at a pickem with Azarenka, and she did it in straights. The 7-5 first set is a little concerning because she was broken serving for it, but she turned things around immediately with a second break to close out the set. Pegula hits a bit bigger than Vika overall, and her results in the H2H are not bad at all (she’s won 2/3 of their hardcourt matches including the last one). I don’t like to establish early rounds performances as a guaranteed level when a player is surging (it’s easy to ball when you know you’re going to win), but Pegula’s improvement makes an already winnable match a bit simpler. Zhu heading to 3 with Azarenka also means that Pegula’s B level of hitting could have a chance. Pegula in 2.