Expect smash-ball tennis in this one
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and James Blake are two of the most unassailable power hitters in tennis. Expect a taut, in-your-face battle when these two meet on Day 8 Down Under.
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Here's a look at a few notable matches on Day 8 of the Australian Open:
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (5) vs. James Blake (9): When these crowd favorites clashed on Tsonga's home turf in November -- well, Blake wasn't exactly cheered back then -- the score didn't reflect the lopsidedness of the affair: Tsonga prevailed 6-4, 6-3. Blake, not a shabby returner, didn't manufacture a break point in their Paris Masters semifinal, and out went his chances of reaching the Masters Cup in Shanghai. He won only eight return points altogether in nine games.
"Jo played great in Paris," said Blake's longtime coach, Brian Barker. "I don't know if anyone's played much better against James than that. That was one of the toughest matches James ever played as far as the other guy's level. The guy served unbelievable, hit his forehand, backhand, volleyed. He didn't do anything wrong."
Will Tsonga be as potent Monday? That's the question.
Tsonga sustained a slight lapse against pint-sized Israeli qualifier Dudi Sela in the third round before recovering to triumph in four sets, and the 23-year-old lingered against Croat Ivan Ljubicic, whose better days are behind him, in the round of 64. Tsonga advanced in four, although he might have departed in three. Mind you, he showed little fear on key points and executed brilliantly.
Blake senses a bit of an opportunity, too.
"I have a feeling this time, in a three-out-of-five-set match, I'll get my chance," he said after extending his mastery over Igor Andreev. "I'll get some opportunity, maybe looks at some second serves, get an advantage. Take a little time away from him. He does a good job of doing that to his opponents. It's going to be kind of first to the punch, first to hurt the other guy a little bit."
Blake did just that against Andreev, which is scarcely new, and won his sixth straight match against the tenacious, fit Russian with a monstrous forehand. Nearing the watershed age of 30, he prepped for a week in Melbourne prior to the tournament and vows he's reinvigorated after taking an extended break post-Flushing Meadows. Blake also had good memories of his previous visit Down Under, when he landed in the quarterfinals.
A win for Tsonga would move him a step closer toward ending France's excruciatingly long Grand Slam drought -- among the men, that is. He's realistically competing with pals Gilles Simon, Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet. Yannick Noah, like Tsonga, an athletic showman, won the French Open in 1983.
"I think for us, it's good if one Frenchman can win a Grand Slam," Tsonga said.
Prediction: Tsonga in five.
Serena Williams (2) vs. Victoria Azarenka (13): Williams raises her game against better opposition, and Azarenka fits the description. A former world junior champion, Azarenka slowly but surely progressed last year. She continues to improve, starting off this year's campaign by winning a title in Brisbane. More impressively, the 19-year-old from Belarus hasn't dropped a set in 2009.
"Obviously, she's young and desperate to win, and hungry, all the qualities that it takes to be pretty good," Williams conceded.
Williams hasn't dropped a set through three rounds, either, but stuttered in the second set of her previous two matches.
Prediction: Williams in two.
Andy Murray (4) vs. Fernando Verdasco (14): Remember what happened to Mario Ancic after he won the decisive fifth match for Croatia against the Slovak Republic in the Davis Cup final four years ago? Ancic had a breakthrough season, bursting into the top 10. Verdasco is on a similar path. Verdasco clinched Spain's Davis Cup title in Argentina last month and has lost only once in 2009. In three rounds at the Australian Open, Verdasco has conceded only 12 games. On Saturday, he steamrolled Czech Radek Stepanek, his conqueror in the Aussie Open tune-up. The bad news is that he is 0-5 against Murray and has won a solitary set.
"He's a very good player, so complete in all aspects of the game," said Verdasco, predominantly a baseliner with a big forehand. "I think I need to do my game anyway, and try to beat him like this."
Prediction: Murray in four.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
2009 AUSTRALIAN OPEN
Women's singles: Serena Williams, United States
Rafael Nadal, Spain
Men's doubles: Bob and Mike Bryan, United States
Women's doubles: Serena and Venus Williams, United States
Mixed doubles: Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupathi, India
Official scoreboard: Scores
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