Preview: Will Berrettini Hold Off Alcaraz's Australian Open Charge?

  • Posted: Jan 20, 2022

It’s the kind of heavyweight slugfest that usually starts with the ringing of a bell. Two of tennis’ biggest hitters will square off in the Australian Open third round on Friday, when Matteo Berrettini and Carlos Alcaraz meet for the second time in three months.

The 18-year-old Spaniard scored the knockout in the pair’s quarter-final meeting in Vienna this fall, winning a third-set tie-break before falling to Alexander Zverev in the semis. Since then, Alcaraz won the Intesa Sanpaola Next Gen ATP Finals title before entering Melbourne as the youngest Grand Slam seed in more than 30 years.

“I think I grew up since that match,” he said of that encounter with Berrettini, who he called one of the best servers on Tour. “All I can say is I’m going to have fun [in Friday’s meeting]. I’m going to play my match, and let’s see what happens.”

What happened in Alcaraz’s first two Melbourne matches was nothing short of domination, as he eased past Alejandro Tabilo and Dusan Lajovic in a sleeveless shirt and all-red kit. In his Rod Laver Arena debut, Alcaraz will look to keep his game and his attire consistent.

“I’m really comfortable playing without sleeves,” he said with a smile when asked about a potential wardrobe change. A clay-courter by nature, he’s also growing comfortable — perhaps even moreso — on the ATP Tour’s hard courts.

Carlos Alcaraz
Photo Credit: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
In the Italian corner, Berrettini may be in for an initial shock against the youngster, who Stefanos Tsitsipas called the hardest-hitting player he’s ever seen following their US Open third-round tussle (Alcaraz won in a fifth-set tie-break).

The seventh seed faced a polar opposite in style in the second round, when he beat wild card Stefan Kozlov, 6-1, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1.

“He’s not hitting the ball, I think on purpose, sometimes not that hard,” Berrettini said of the American. “So then your feet are going to go slower and then, I think he did his web, like a spider. And I fell into it.”

Fully recovered from stomach issues that bothered him in the first round, the Italian will have to weave his way through an entirely different puzzle in Alcaraz.

Thursday’s Rod Laver Arena nightcap will see Rafael Nadal take on 28th seed Karen Khachanov. Separated by 10 years of age (35 vs. 25), they are familiar opponents. Nadal is familiar with victory against the Russian, holding a 7-0 edge in their ATP Head2Head record with the loss of just one set in their history.

But that statistic does not account for some very tight sets between the two. Five of their past six sets were decided by tie-breaks, all five going Nadal’s way, spanning matches at the 2018 US Open, 2019 BNP Paribas Open and the 2019 Davis Cup Finals.

The Spanish sixth seed is a perfect 5-0 and has yet to drop a set in 2022, including his title run at the Melbourne Summer Set earlier this month. But Khachanov will be his first Top 60 opponent of the new year as Nadal looks to step up his comeback from a left-foot injury that kept him out of the US Open.

“As I said before the tournament, things are not going to be perfect, but every day that I spend on court, the chances to play better are higher,” Nadal said following his 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 win over Germany’s Yannick Hanfmann in the second round. “Things that I can improve I have to improve. Winning today allows me to practise again tomorrow, to be ready for another match. After two matches it’s the moment to make a step forward.”

Rafael Nadal
Photo Credit: Peter Staples/ATP Tour
With seeded opposition clashing for the first time at the Australian Open in the third round, two more such matches are on the Day 5 slate: Denis Shapovalov against Reilly Opelka in Margaret Court Arena, and Cristian Garin against Gael Monfils in Kia Arena.

Shapovalov, seeded 14th, and 23rd seed Opelka have taken contrasting paths into the third round. The Canadian has played five tie-breaks in nine Melbourne sets, and needed to come from behind in the second round against South Korea’s Soonwoo Kwon, ultimately surviving, 7-6(6), 6-7(3), 6-7(6), 7-5, 6-2.

Opelka is 2-0 in tie-breaks on the tournament and has not dropped a set in wins over Kevin Anderson and Dominik Koepfer. He’s been broken just once, compared to eight times for Shapovalov.

It’s a similar story for 17th seed Monfils and Garin. While the Frenchman dropped just five games in each of his first two matches, Garin needed five sets to advance each time. The 16th seed has spent over nine hours on court compared to just over three hours for Monfils. The 25-year-old Chilean will see what he has left in his young legs against the veteran, 10 years his elder.

As the draw whittles down, there are just eight men’s singles matches on the Friday slate. Third seed Alexander Zverev will face Moldovan qualifier Radu Albot, while 18th seed and 2021 AO semi-finalist Aslan Karatsev takes on France’s Adrian Mannarino, who upset 10th seed Hubert Hurkacz in straight sets in the second round. Rounding out the Day 5 action are 19th seed Pablo Carreno Busta’s meeting with American Sebastian Korda and 25th seed Lorenzo Sonego’s matchup with Serbia’s Miomir Kecmanovic.

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