MUST SEE VIEWING FOR ALL TENNIS FANS! Sunday should turn out to be a scintillating day for tennis (as well as a great football day too for the sports fan, with the conference championship games being played) from Melbourne as all four men's 4th round matches are intriguing. In fact, I would rank these 4 matches as perhaps the best day of round of 16 contests I have seen in quite some time in a Grand Slam.
The entire lower half of the draw - seeds 2, 3, 5, 8, 10, 12, 13 and 15 - have advanced according to design. This is highly unusual in contemporary Grand Slam tennis. And the matches that will be played in the late evening and early morning (East Coast time) should provide ample drama for the sleep-deprived American tennis fan.
Perhaps the most anticipated match of the four is that of 2nd seed Rafael Nadal taking on 15th seed Andy Murray. Murray's coach, and ESPN employee, Brad Gilbert has apparently designed a game plan for Murray to deal with the muscular Spaniard. This will be interesting to watch as I'm sure part of the game plan is to shorten points significantly against Nadal. Though Murray has improved his fitness and overall competitive instincts, if the match goes deep into a fourth and fifth set, I see Nadal outlasting the Scot. I expect Nadal to also be aggressive and not be content with just hoping to exhaust Murray, being aggressive with any short balls and making sure to keep Murray on the defensive. This should be the start of a several year rivalry between the two.
One other note about this match - much has been made, as I've noted above, about Gilbert's influence on Murray's rapidly improve game, both fitness and strategy-wise. If Nadal were to lose this match and not adjust accordingly to Murray's strengths, then the calls will be louder for Rafa to seek additional coaching advice.
Prediction- Nadal in 4 sets
If Nadal were to defeat Murray, he would take on the winner of the James Blake-Fernando Gonzalez match. This one could easily go the distance, as their past history indicates. They've met six times, with each man claiming three victories, although Gonzalez has won the last three contests. The last time they played was a thriller in Davis Cup with Gonzalez defeating Blake on grass in California in five thrilling sets.
If there was ever a match to showcase the modern style of tennis, this is it - powerful first serves and even more powerful forehands. These two should put on a brilliant display of shot-making, however inconsistent.
Prediction: I find this one truly impossible to call but I'll go with Blake in 5 sets. Barely.
Tommy Haas and David Nalbandian will square off in the "top half" of this quarter. This contest is quite difficult to call as neither man really holds a significant advantage. The two have faced each other just twice, with Haas taking both matches. David Nalbandian has proven time and again that he is willing to go the distance. His many 5 set matches in big tournaments make picking against Nalbandian always a tricky proposition. If Haas doesn't serve at an exceedingly high rate, I expect Nalbandian to win. The Argentine must also return well and consistently try to hit with misdirection, wrong footing the German.
Prediction: Nalbandian in 4 sets
Perhaps the most overlooked player in the entire draw is Thomas Berdych. He is one of the few men in the world to claim victories over both Nadal and Federer. And he poses serious danger to the hopes of Nadal advancing to the final if he were to beat Davydenko. But Davydenko has taken all four matches against Berdych and has in fact only lost one set in the process. But I see Berdych putting up much more of a fight against the steady and consistent Russian. After all, he demolished Davydenko's tempermental countryman Dmitry Tursunov in the 3rd round in straight sets.
Prediction - I see this being an odd match with Berdych firing away with inconsistency yet playing well enough on big points to win in 5 sets.
To note - Roger Federer has benefited from a relatively easy draw while his probable semi-final opponent Andy Roddick has played two brilliant matches in a row against formidable foes in Marat Safin and Mario Ancic. I see this actually helping Roddick if he plays the Swiss genius as his attacking game is looking more refined with each match he plays.