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By Richard Pagliaro | Sunday, January 25, 2015

 
Venus Williams

Venus Williams is 5-4 lifetime vs. fourth-round opponent Agnieszka Radwanska.

Photo credit: corleve

Each day we'll preview and predict results for four must-see Melbourne matches. Day 8 previews are here.

(5) Kei Nishikori vs. (9) David Ferrer
Rod Laver Arena (third match)
Head-to-head: Nishikori leads 6-3


The Happy Slam can get gory when Ferrer is in full fight mode. The strong-willed Spaniard sputtered and bled a bit in a grueling a three hour, 37-minute battle with Gilles Simon. Ferrer only likes it better when the suffering starts, but he's been hurt by Nishikori's backhand before. He'll need to find an antidote to reach his fifth consecutive Australian Open quarterfinal.

Nishikori won all four of their meetings in 2014; each encounter went the distance. Ferrer will want to test the U.S. Open finalist in grinding rallies and hit the high ball at times to move the Japanese off the baseline. But Nishikori is a much fitter and more assertive player now than he was when he managed just six game against Ferrer at this stage of the 2013 Australian Open.

Ferrer is at his best running around his backhand and cracking his forehand, but Nishikori's quickness around the court, his ability to take the ball on the rise and his superior balance off both forehand and backhand give him the edge in baseline rallies. If Nishikori is striking with confidence, his baseline attack should beat Ferrer's counter-attack.

The 25-year-old Nishikori is on the ascent: He has won four of his last five major matches against seeded opponents. The 32-year-old Ferrer is fighting to retain his Top 10 spot while facing advancing age and declining results against the elite: He has lost six straight Grand Slam matches to Top 5-ranked opponents.

The Pick: Nishikori in four sets


(8) Milos Raonic vs. (12) Feliciano Lopez
Hisense Arena (last match)
Head-to-head: Tied 2-2


The NFL has "deflate-gate" and Melbourne's tennis balls could face compression issues when two punishing servers with the power to deconstruct the ball square off for the fifth time. Both men favor the serve-forehand combination so finding — and defending — the backhand will be a key to this match.

Because of his neutral backhand, serve-and-volley skills and affinity for old-school chip-and-charge returns, Lopez is sometimes cast as an archaic contender. He's a dangerous server, shrewd at drawing opponents into net exchanges, extremely fit and experienced finding solutions in long matches. Lopez owns a 19-9 career record in five-setters; Raonic is 4-3 in five-set matches. The left-handed Spaniard's slider on the ad side is his best weapon and one that's more effective when he's willing to expand the box by banging serves down the middle.

Given the fact three of their four matches have featured tie breakers, it's quite possible breakers will come into play here. Raonic boasted an ATP-best .750 winning percentage in 2014 tie breakers; he's 8-1 in tie breakers this season. Lopez owns a 3-0 record in breakers this season. Raonic's massive serve and menacing forehand are the two biggest shots on the court. He hasn't dropped a set in this tournament, he knows Lopez's attacking style will force him to produce passes and he will be eager to reach his first Australian Open quarterfinal.

The Pick: Raonic in 4 sets

(1) Serena Williams vs. (24) Garbine Muguruza
Rod Laver Arena (second match)
Head-to-head: Tied 1-1


It's said the toughest task in women's tennis is beating Serena Williams in a Grand Slam.

Actually, there's a challenge far more demanding than that: Beating Serena in a Grand Slam rematch after pounding her in your last major meeting. Such is the assignment Muguruza faces here.

The good news for the powerful Spaniard is she knows she can beat the world No. 1 because she deconstructed Williams in an impressive 6-2, 6-2 thrashing in the Roland Garros second round last May. Muguruza has been both streaky and strong here, going three sets in her last two matches, but dishing out three bagels in eight sets. Look for the six-foot Spaniard to try to impose the same strategy she used in Paris: Play deep and heavy down the middle to deny Williams angles and step in the court to attack every second serve she sees.

The top seed has sputtered to slow starts in her last two matches, facing three set points vs. Vera Zvonareva in round two and losing the opening set to Elina Svitolina in the third round. Williams responded with shutout sets to close out comeback wins. Though her footwork has been suspect and her serve lacked its usual sting in the early stages of those matches, Serena should be pumped for a fast start against a very dangerous opponent. Williams can take the ball earlier than Muguruza, who requires more time to generate her bigger backswings, and that will help her beat the Spaniard to the punch on this hard court.

Williams must move her feet quickly when Muguruza tries to jam her, work the wider angles to make the slower Spaniard hit on the run and use her slice serve to spread the court.

The Pick: S. Williams in two sets

(18) Venus Williams vs. (6) Agnieszka Radwanska
Rod Laver Arena (first night match)
Head-to-head: Williams leads 5-4


Take Willliams' explosive attacking style and volatile first serve and mix it with Radwanska's exquisite feel and ridiculously creative angles. Add the energy of their first Australian Open meeting. Blend it at high speeds and savor the buzz it can bring.

Venus used her power to blow Aga away at times winning five in a row from 2008 to 2010, but Radwanska has reversed the course of this rivalry lately. Relying on her accurate return, shrewd counter attack and ability to mix up the pace, Radwanska has won their last three meetings, including a 6-4, 6-2 decision in the Montreal final last August.

Defending the second serve is essential as Radwanska can float soft, sub 75 mph second deliveries under pressure, while Williams predictably slices her second serve wide on the deuce side.

Fresh off winning her 46th career title in Auckland, the 34-year-old Venus is playing some of her best tennis in years, she will return to the Top 15 and will be primed to reach her first Melbourne quarterfinal in five years. Radwanska has not dropped a set so far, she's won three sets at love and has been effective exploiting Venus' weakness — the low ball to the forehand — in their recent encounters. Radwanska can confound with her clever use of angles and off-pace shots and if she can defend her second serve, she should advance to her sixth Australian Open quarterfinal.

The Pick: Radwanska in three sets


 

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