Serena Williams (left) and Sloane Stephens will meet for the second time this month. (AFP/Getty Images)
Day 10 at the Australian Open brings the second set of quarterfinals in both singles draws. Here’s a look at Wednesday’s four marquee matches (click here for the order of play).
• No. 3 Serena Williams vs. No. 29 Sloane Stephens (second match, Rod Laver Arena): This is the first time since 2008 that two American women are meeting in the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam tournament. One is a 31-year-old 15-time major champion who has won 20 consecutive matches and 39 of 40 and could regain the No. 1 ranking in Melbourne; the other is a 19-year-old contesting her first major quarterfinal.
But don't write off Stephens' chances. She was competitive against Williams in their first career match nearly three weeks ago, losing 6-4, 6-3 in the Brisbane International quarterfinals. Stephens gave Williams her toughest test of the tournament, using her defense and easy power out of the corners to force Serena to elevate her game. That combination of defense and power is a rarity on the WTA Tour, where most players seem to skew one way or the other. Williams came away impressed, labeling Stephens a future No. 1, and the five-time Australian Open champion knows that she'll have to play some of her best tennis to avoid the upset.
"Like I said after the match [in Brisbane], she can be the greatest player," Williams said after her fourth-round victory at the Australian Open. "It will be another good match and a good opportunity for both of us. Definitely one of us will be in the semifinals, which I think is awesome. So it's going to be good."
For Stephens, who will crack the top 20 for the first time in her career after the tournament, the Brisbane match at least gave her a firsthand look at Williams' game.
"There won't be that first time [thinking], 'Oh, my God, I'm playing Serena.' That's kind of out of the window now," Stephens said. "So that's good."
Stephens' serve will be critical. While she typically averages around 100 mph on her first serve, she's capable of popping it in the 115-mph range. She did well in holding serve against Williams early in sets in Brisbane, putting pressure on Serena to protect her own serve. (Williams held throughout and broke Stephens twice, at 5-4 in the first set and 4-3 in the second set.) Stephens also has to manage her nerves in order to execute her game plan. When the teen feels pressure, her legs tend to get heavy and she stops making the small adjustments to prepare for shots. Stephens is a big-match player, though, and she should relish her first visit to Rod Laver Arena.
Another thing to watch is the health of Williams' ankle. She spent more than two-and-a-half hours on the court Tuesday afternoon contesting a doubles match with sister Venus, a three-set loss to No. 1 seeds Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci. The result isn't what's worrisome. Serena looked to have tweaked the right ankle that she rolled in her first round and was walking gingerly on it throughout the match.
PREDICTION: Williams in two sets.
• No. 1 Victoria Azarenka vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova (first match, Rod Laver Arena): Kuzentsova has never been one to mince words. Or let herself off the hook. Here's the brutally honest Russian on her last hard-court match against Azarenka: "The time I played in Indian Wells [last year] was totally [a] disaster. I got my a-- kicked very badly" in a 6-1, 6-2 loss.
On a more positive note, Kuznetsova has played well to make the quarterfinals in Melbourne, including a three-set victory against No. 10 Caroline Wozniacki in the fourth round. She has also beaten Azarenka four times in seven meetings, though the Belarusian won both of their 2012 clashes in straight sets.
"She's No. 1," Kuznetsova said. "I have nothing to lose. She has all the pressure. I know I got the game to give her some problems, and I will just do my best and just try to enjoy it."
Those aren't the words of a player who necessarily believes she's going to win, but that's just how Kuznetsova is. She's absolutely right that she has the game to bother the defending champion; the question is whether she can execute consistently. Azarenka's second serve is vulnerable, and if Kuznetsova can get to the net frequently and finish her volleys the way she did against Wozniacki, she can put this match back on even terms. But if the two-time major winner believes that she can outrally Azarenka from the baseline, she may be in for an Indian Wells redux.
PREDICTION: Azarenka in three sets.
• No. 2 Roger Federer vs. No. 7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (first night match, Rod Laver Arena): In the latest installment of High-Profile Roger Federer Matches That Turn Out To Be Duds ...
OK, hopefully not, but no man has been sharper than Federer in Melbourne. Despite all of the headlines screaming about his "Group of Death" type draw, Federer hasn't dropped a set or been broken once. In fact, he's faced only four break points in the tournament, winning 84 percent of his first-serve points (second best in the Australian Open) and 61 percent of his second-serve points (seventh best). Tsonga, a 2008 finalist, has looked good (he's serving quite well, too) and he's defeated Federer three times (including a memorable best-of-five match at Wimbledon in 2011), but it's going to take a herculean effort to rattle the Swiss.
I mean, the guy is so relaxed he's making jokes about his arm muscles.
PREDICTION: Federer in three sets.
• No. 3 Andy Murray vs. Jeremy Chardy (third match, Rod Laver Arena): Murray will be playing during the day for the fifth consecutive match, which has reportedly rankled his camp. The reigning U.S. Open champion has yet to play a night match at Rod Laver Arena, while Federer on Wednesday will be playing his fourth straight match under the lights. As the logic goes, Murray's camp is concerned that should the two meet in the semifinals, Federer will have an unfair advantage of being used to the conditions. Fair point, I suppose. But here's my question: Would Murray have rather pulled Federer's draw and played Benoit Paire, Nikolay Davydenko, Bernard Tomic, Milos Raonic and Tsonga at night on RLA? Or would he prefer his own path of playing Robin Haase, Joao Sousa, Ricardas Berankis, a completely exhausted Gilles Simon and now the unseeded Chardy at various times during the day (when, yes, it tends to be hotter)? I'm thinking he really has nothing to complain about here.
Not that Chardy is a walkover. The 25-year-old Frenchman has truly earned his spot in the quarterfinals after beating three straight seeds, Marcel Granollers, Juan Martin del Potro and Andreas Seppi. He'll draw confidence from upsetting Murray in their last match, a straight-set shellacking in Cincinnati last year. How much we can read into that result is questionable. That was Murray's first match since winning the gold medal at the Olympics and he struggled with his rhythm on hard courts after spending the summer on clay and grass. But Chardy has the weapons to hit through Murray and at least force the Scot to play more than three sets for the first time in the tournament.
PREDICTION: Murray in four sets.