Top dogs have stern quarterfinal tests

1/26/2009 - Tennis
Roger Federer is a win away from advancing to his 19th straight Grand Slam semifinal. Paul Crock/AFP/Getty Images

MELBOURNE, Australia -- It's crunch time at the Australian Open, and the stakes couldn't be higher for the leading contenders. One more Grand Slam title and Roger Federer ties Pete Sampras' men's record of 14. Rafael Nadal hopes to capture an inaugural major on hard courts, while Novak Djokovic wants a repeat. How right Federer and Djokovic were when it came to denouncing Andy Murray as a favorite, incidentally.

The first big step is the quarterfinals, and here's a preview of the four clashes:

No. 2 Roger Federer vs. No. 8 Juan Martin del Potro

Tomas Berdych's handshake and postmatch comments after stretching Federer to five sets Sunday revealed all: He was just happy to give Federer a tough time.

Del Potro, who won four straight tournaments last summer as part of a 23-match winning streak, thankfully has a little more fire.

"I want to be in the semifinals," the Argentine said.

Whether he has more weapons is another matter. An inch taller than Berdych at 6-foot-6, Del Potro lacks the Czech's sheer athleticism and mobility. Federer exposed those weaknesses in the quarterfinals of October's Madrid Masters, comfortably progressing 6-3, 6-3 without dropping serve.

Federer detractors point out that going five sets against Serb Janko Tipsarevic in the third round here last year forewarned danger -- the Swiss lost in the semis to eventual champion Novak Djokovic. Federer, though, struggled with mono.

Don't forget, Federer went five against Russian Igor Andreev in the fourth round of the U.S. Open, then conceded only one more set in making it five straight titles at Flushing Meadows.

Federer praised Del Potro while throwing in a caveat.

"I mean, he's had a great run after Wimbledon," he said. "I think he won four tournaments in a row, two on clay and two on hard court. Yeah, kind of out of the blue. They were not the biggest tournaments in the world, but still, he was able to dominate some good players. It's going to be an interesting match for me."

Del Potro overcame Croatian Marin Cilic in a battle of 20-year-old young guns Sunday to reach a second straight Grand Slam quarterfinal.

Prediction: Federer in three.

No. 1 Rafael Nadal vs. No. 6 Gilles Simon

Once his playing days are over, Simon should venture into comedy. A mischievous grin never far away, this is how the Frenchman replied when asked about his tactics against Nadal: "I have to run five hours to win," he said. "I have no choice."

All kidding aside, he's not far from the truth.

In their last meeting, in the semifinals of the Madrid Masters in Nadal's extended backyard, Simon prevailed 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (6) in a grueling 3 hours, 23 minutes. Not one to antagonize, he handled the crowd beautifully and beat Nadal at his own game.

Simon hung with Nadal from the baseline, winning all the key points. Indeed, the stats made for interesting perusing: Nadal registered a higher winning percentage behind first and second serves, and did the same returning first and second serves. However, he went a paltry 5-for-22 on break points, and it cost him.

Nadal was dealing with a knee injury, no doubt provoked by a hectic schedule, and the Madrid appearance turned out to be his final 2008 event. He is better now, and the world No. 1 has eased into the quarters despite having a tough draw.

Nadal blitzed dangerous German Tommy Haas in the third round and Fernando Gonzalez in the fourth. (OK, so Gonzalez had to be a little weary following his five-set exertion Saturday.)

"I have to be ready for everything," Nadal said. "But I am playing well."

Prediction: Nadal in four.

No. 3 Novak Djokovic vs. No. 7 Andy Roddick

Defeating the likes of Bjorn Rehnquist, Xavier Malisse, Fabrice Santoro and Tommy Robredo is one thing. Taking out Djokovic is quite another.

Roddick failed to prosper from home-field advantage and a mentally drained Djokovic in September, losing in four sets in a highly charged U.S. Open quarterfinal.

The good news for the longtime U.S. No. 1 is that he is fitter -- dropping about 15 pounds in the offseason -- and claims he's refreshed after combining with veteran coach Larry Stefanki.

Stefanki worked wonders with the likes of Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Marcelo Rios, and most recently, Fernando Gonzalez. Stefanki tempered Gonzalez's aggression, and the Chilean found himself in the 2007 Australian Open final.

He wants to do the opposite with Roddick, making him more aggressive returning serve and during baseline rallies in general.

"It's a lot easier when two guys talk as much as we do," said Roddick. "I've known Larry for a long time."

Djokovic lapsed slightly against Italian qualifier Andrea Stoppini in the first round and downright struggled against U.S. lucky loser Amer Delic in the third. He turned a corner Sunday, new Head racket in tow, ousting unpredictable 2006 finalist Marcos Baghdatis.

"I'm really happy that things are going well with the racket," Djokovic said. "I'm feeling much better on the court mentally and physically, and gamewise."

Prediction: Djokovic in four.

No. 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. No. 14 Fernando Verdasco

After Baghdatis, Gonzalez and Tsonga, could Verdasco be the next unlikely finalist in Melbourne?

If the Spaniard plays like he did against Murray on Monday, there's no reason why not. Verdasco dictated with his forehand and let rip on serve rather than simply spinning in his first delivery -- as he's frustratingly done in the past. Equally as vital, he didn't fold when it mattered, another knock against the lefty in the past.

Verdasco said that clinching the Davis Cup title last month in Argentina boosted his confidence, and he put in ample offseason training in Las Vegas with the larger-than-life figure of Gil Reyes, Andre Agassi's former conditioning coach, while others enjoyed the season of good will.

Agassi produced a few words of wisdom before embarking on a skiing holiday with the family, wife Steffi Graf included.

"I don't want to say what he told me, because that's secret," Verdasco said. "But he really helped me so much. Right now, I'm so happy that I took the decision to go to Las Vegas and practice with Gil."

Tsonga is proving last year's sprint to the final was no fluke. Coping with a back injury sustained in the buildup to the tournament, he has overcome blips by making the big shots when needed. "Fear," at least on court, doesn't seem to be in his vocabulary.

Prediction: Verdasco in four.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.