Equal prize money is one thing, equal coverage is better – an open letter to Wimbledon

 

Dear All England Club,

First of all, let me start by saying how much I love your tournament. I attended the first two days of this year’s Championships, seeing players such as Nick Kyrgios, Elina Svitolina, Milos Raonic and Karolina Pliskova on my thirteenth separate visit. It remains the jewel in the tennis crown, the special atmosphere it creates by allowing pay-on-the-day sales is to be commended. The commitment to continuous improvement of the facilities for both fans and players alike is exceptional. The pure concept of Manic Monday, the only day in the tennis calendar that all remaining 32 singles competitors battle it out across the grounds is fabulous, allowing even ground pass ticket holders the chance to see top-quality business-end matchups., however this amazing concept has highlighted a deep-seated problem within your organisation of the tournament.

 

The one thing that continues to spoil your tournament is the lack of exposure given to the women’s game. Either it is a joint ATP-WTA event or it is not. The disparity in coverage has been well and truly highlighted on Day 7 of this year’s tournament but has been going on for years. I am sure you are aware of tennis fan Mark Leyland who has presented you with statistical data over the last few years showing you this very evident difference in the amount of men’s matches scheduled on the main two courts with those of the women. I shall not go over this excellent data analysis but a quick Google search will highlight it for you. Last year appeared to signal a change in the tide with the gap between men’s and women’s matches closing but this year you have returned to the 2:1 ratio on both main courts. I discount TBA matches as whilst these often appear on the show courts, the mere fact they are TBA means they must be taken out of scheduling data.

I am fully aware of the sound reasoning for scheduling only three main matches on the show courts but I have to be honest and say I never feel like the women are under-represented in other Slams principally owing to the fact that on each of the first eight days of the tournaments, there is a 50/50 split on both show courts; two men’s matches and two women’s. A move to this type of scheduling, with an earlier start, would surely end all discussion on this type of bias. Bias is a strong word so I will provide the startling evidence from Day 7 only. Days 1-6 had a schedule of 2:1 in favour of the men on each day across the two show courts.

Bias is merely throwing together six matches and doing everything in your power to put on the top four players in the men’s game. I have little doubt that you will not listen to me as you have failed to listen to women’s world number ones in the past; Caroline Wozniacki has played on Court 2 in the past when she was the top player in the world, Jelena Jankovic on Court 18 when she was, 5-time winner Venus Williams played on that same court, and Serena Williams has played on Court 2 on more than one occasion. Goodness me, Serena Williams – the winner of 23 majors, 7 Wimbledon titles and the figurehead of a tennis generation. This is not a Pete Sampras 2002 situation, when the 7-time champ was put on Court 2 at the end of his career, Serena has been there when she is at the top of her game. Today will see a Court 2 battle between the last two runners-up,  world number one Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza followed by the world number two Simona Halep against multi-slam winner Victoria Azarenka. The French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko will take on the world number five Elina Svitolina out on Court 12. What a treat for ground pass holders, but please don’t platitude me by saying this is to allow all fans to see top-class tennis. I have no issue with Venus Williams being granted the respect she deserves by appearing on Centre Court or that the British number one Johanna Konta is also on one of the principal show courts. What I have issue with is matches like Novak Djokovic v Adrian Mannarino being on Court 1, the same goes for Rafael Nadal v Gilles Muller. There is no such thing in sport as a dead cert but most pundits would be mightily surprised if those two matches aren’t finished in three sets. Can anybody truly say the matches featuring the world numbers one and two in the women’s game on Court 2 will be so heavily one-sided?

Andy Murray has not played a single match on anything but Centre Court and Court 1 since he became British number one. Roger Federer has played on those courts in every one of his matches since the 4th Round in 2003. I don’t have statistics to hand for Rafael Nadal but I am extremely confident in stating he will not have played a match on Court 2 in the last ten years and the same can be said of Novak Djokovic since the turn of the decade. Those four players have achieved a hell of a lot in their careers yet so have the top women. I believe it will be easy for you to say that a lot of factors must be taken into account each day when putting together the schedule and I know that to be true. However, a decade of prioritising those four men at the expense of great champions like Serena and Venus Williams, of successive number ones in the women’s game and of now saying that Djokovic v Muller is a bigger pull and prospect than Muguruza v Kerber or Halep v Azarenka is the biggest slap in the face of the women’s game you could ever wish to supply. Talk about giving the fans what they want by putting the men’s top four can only be considered a worthy retort if you allow equal exposure for the women’s game. If the audience do not see the top players in that sport, how will they ever choose to watch?

The move towards equal scheduling in 2016 was clearly a false dawn and your lack of coverage of the women’s game not only demeans the sport but sullies your tournament.

 

I look forward to the day when you supply a tournament that is equal in exposure, not merely in prize money.

 

 

Your faithfully,

 

Mark McElvaney

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Wide-open Wimbledon: my pre-tournament thoughts

There’s been an extra week of the grass court season this year but it still barely feels like we have caught breath since Jelena Ostapenko smashed her way to her first major title and Rafael Nadal bludgeoned his way to a tenth Roland Garros trophy and here we are ready to embark on the next Grand Slam on the green green grass of the home of tennis. It’s really tough to pick a winner in either tournament with much conviction but here’s a quick rundown on the main contenders.

Hat-trick hero?

In the men’s draw, Andy Murray is the defending champion and world number one but comes into the fortnight as the hunted and in relatively poor form, whilst there are also concerns about a sore hip. His first-match defeat to Jordan Thompson at Queen’s should not be something to overplay but his road to a potential third Wimbledon title is rocky to say the least. He would have to get past Stanislas Wawrinka, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer to get his hands on the cup but he could come a cropper as early as the 4th Round when he takes on the erratic, but supremely capable Nick Kyrgios. Don’t be surprised if Kyrgios blows hot and destroys Murray’s hopes of a hat-trick.

Can Stan Wawrinka complete the career Slam by adding a Wimbledon title to his haul? There is little doubt that he has the game to beat anybody on the surface on his notorious hot days but the shame is that the little doubt there is seems to lie in Wawrinka’s own head; he never seems completely at ease and confident in his own ability on the green stuff. It will be interesting to see how he reacts if he has to face Nadal for the first time since he was schooled in the Roland Garros final.

Rafael Nadal himself is a strange one here; he has won only five matches at Wimbledon since 2011 yet is a lot of people’s pick for his third title on the lawns of South-West London. It is certainly true that he was in imperious form in Paris and looked as good as ever but his struggles at Wimbledon over the past five years should not be underestimated. An early defeat cannot be ruled out, but it is hard to confidently predict who will be the next Lukas Rosol, Steve Darcis or Dustin Brown. In fact, for all the potential to fall to a shock, the Mallorcan may well reach the final here but to lift the title will be beyond him.

Novak Djokovic was very sensible to ask for a wildcard into the Eastbourne Championships this past week. He has given himself a much-needed injection of confidence and just as importantly, match practice on grass. The tournament was not particularly stacked but a run to Saturday’s final against Gael Monfils means Djokovic comes in finely-tuned and takes away the likelihood of a repeat of the early exit he suffered in 2016. If he can safely negotiate a third round test against either Juan-Martin del Potro or Thanas Kokkinakis, there is no reason why the former number one and two-time champion won’t make the semi-finals. However, there it will get more difficult…

Green green grass

 

Roger Federer is striving to make Wimbledon history. Were he to win here in a fortnight’s time, he would go clear of Pete Sampras and William Renshaw to take his eighth SW19 crown, more than any other player in history. Of course, that quest has been the same every year since he lifted number 8 in 2012 and he went close in 2014 and 2015 to doing just that. Nevertheless, this is his best shot. We have not seen the Swiss since the American spring season but if his rest has done him as much good as it did before the Australian Open (and his ninth win in Halle indicates it has), then he has to be considered favourite. His path to further history will not be easy – a potential run to glory goes past Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, Djokovic and Nadal but if he brings his Australian Open game to his favourite court, then Wimbledon immortality awaits.

If the men’s tournament is difficult to predict, at least it is the usual suspects who are clouding the picture. The women’s field is ridiculously difficult to fathom. You could make cases for Johanna Konta, CoCo Vandeweghe, Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki and even Elena Vesnina given current and/or previous Wimbledon form due to the absence of former champions like Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova and the continued struggles of the world number one Angelique Kerber. So which ladies have the best shot at lifting the Venus Rosewater Dish?

Lucie Safarova is a former semi-finalist and was in great form at Edgbaston recently before she had to pull out of her semi-final with a leg injury. The Czech is in Angelique Kerber’s section but she may not even have to dispose of the world number one if Kerber were to lose early again. Agnieszka Radwanska, the 2012 finalist, could test her but Safarova is hitting freely and accurately and has the power game to reach another semi-final. Her doubles career really feels like it has strengthened her singles game and it is lovely to see her enjoying her tennis at her relatively-veteran age.

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Safarova is enjoying her game

 

If Safarova can be described as a veteran, what does that make Venus Williams? The five-time champion has not won the big one on her Centre Court home since 2008, and has not reached the final since the following year but her run to the semi-finals here last year as well as to the same stage in Melbourne in January means she is one of the biggest to beat here. She could have been the main one to beat until only a few days ago but it remains to be seen how she fares mentally amid rumours that she will be filed with a lawsuit due to her role in a fatal road collision. In purely tennis terms, her biggest obstacles to a further semi-final appearance would be Dominika Cibulkova and the in-form former Wimbledon junior champion Ash Barty.

Petra Kvitova would be a tremendously popular champion in the tennis world. Just seven months ago, her career looked in grave danger after being stabbed in her playing hand by an intruder to her Prague home. Her appearance at Roland Garros was already a remarkable achievement but she quickly followed this up by winning her second tournament back on tour when she lifted the title at Edgbaston one week ago. I was fortunate to be there for quarter-final day and she looked incredibly strong both physically and mentally in overcoming Kristina Mladenovic in straight sets. Her draw is an excellent one with no tough tests on the horizon until a potential semi-final with Venus. Can she win a third Wimbledon title?

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Kvitova would be a popular three-time champ

 

We could well see the first ever all-Czech final at Wimbledon. Karolina Pliskova has really kicked on in the last twelve months, her game is perfectly suited to grass and she comes in fresh from an appearance in the final at Eastbourne. A potential tussle with CoCo Vandeweghe in the quarter-finals has the makings of the match of the tournament but Pliskova’s huge serve will come good in the end and she would have the firepower to get past Safarova or Radwanska in the final four. A battle between her and Kvitova in the final would be a fantastic slog, come down to who holds their nerve and be decided by a few points either way. Kvitova would be the fans’ choice but it is important that Pliskova grabs this opportunity to shine and take her career to the next step.

Predictions:

Federer to beat Nadal to win men’s title.

Karolina Pliskova to beat Kvitova to win women’s title.

Andy Murray to go out before the quarter-finals.

Ash Barty to make quarter-finals.

A crowd to inexplicably laugh when a seagull lands on the court.

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Winners and losers from Roland Garros

From the very first match on Philippe Chatrier to the very last second of the tournament, the year’s second major delivered in fabulous fashion. I’ve picked out a few of the winners and losers as the clay season came to a denouement.

Winner: Rafael Nadal

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The Perfect Ten

 

There is nowhere else to start. The King of Clay quite simply became a tennis god of clay when he claimed his tenth French Open title. His record of only two defeats in 13 years is unlikely to be ever repeated. There are some very good players who fail to win ten titles in their entire career yet here is a man who has won ten at THE SAME MAJOR. His form in the semis and final against Dominic Thiem and Stanislas Wawrinka respectively, losing a grand total of 13 games, was nothing short of breathtaking. Shame on any of us who wrote this colossus off as past his best. Maybe the 15-times Grand Slam winner will rest his body at Wimbledon for a good go at the hardcourt season but one thing is certain, he sits as overwhelming favourite for Roland Garros 2018.

Loser: Angelique Kerber

A terrible claycourt season for the world number 1. For the second successive year, she crashed out in the first round of Paris so will be looking forward to getting back on the grass. The sad fact is that her opening day defeat to Ekaterina Makarova was greeted with nothing more than a slight shrug of the shoulders by the tennis world. Kerber needs to re-engage and do so quickly if last year is to prove to be nothing but a flash in the pan.

Winner: Jelena Ostapenko

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What a way to turn 20!

 

The women’s draw was earth-shatteringly open and wow did the 20 year old Latvian hurricane take advantage, blowing her way through the tournament, hitting over 300 winners. What a joy it was to see her so free of pressure in Saturday’s final. The experienced Simona Halep simply had no answer to the force of nature that was exploding from Ostapenko’s racket. I saw the new champion play in a junior tournament five years ago and she looked like a possible future star back then. However, we all know what can go wrong transitioning from junior to pro, and there was nothing in her 2017 results to suggest anything like this was close to coming off; it was not just her opponents that were caught off-guard but every single pundit too. The opportunity was there for every player and Ostapenko reached up and grabbed it firmly

 

Losers: Simona Halep and Elina Svitolina

If Jelena Ostapenko reached up and grabbed the golden crown, Simona Halep and Elina Svitolina wasted perfect chances to win their first majors. You never know when the opportunities come around on the WTA and simply put, this perfect storm may never appear for these two again. Svitolina was coming into Roland Garros as the form horse and led Halep by a set and 5-1 in their quarter-final before capitulating and squandering a match point in the process of a crushing defeat. You have to believe that chances will come again for the young Ukranian and that the mental scars will heal quickly and thoroughly. Halep, on the other hand, is a major worry. Her tactic of hoping that Ostapenko would choke in the showpiece could haunt her at the end of her career. Clay is her favoured surface but the cards may not fall correctly like they did in 2017 ever again and younger, stronger powers are coming through. She probably deserves to win a Slam but her passivity in the Paris final meant she did not deserve this one.

Winner: The women’s semi-finals

So often the women deliver a top-class tournament and then the final two rounds fall flat; this time they excelled with nine sets of unrelenting drama and all of the women turning up to the ball. In both the semis and the final itself, the rightful winner came through but that is not to downplay any of the ladies involved; they all worked so hard to produce tennis of the highest quality to close out the tournament – a welcome sight.

Loser: Novak Djokovic

It is almost unbelievable that just twelve months ago Novak Dokovic stood on top of the tennis world having just completed the career Grand Slam whilst also then holding all four major trophies. What’s followed has been well-documented struggles with form and speculated personal issues but I wrote two weeks ago that he should be applauded for ripping up his coaching team and starting again. His pathetic collapse in the final set of his straight-sets quarter-final defeat suggests tougher times are ahead for the Serb as it looked like the last six or seven years had not actually happened and echoed previous collapses as a relative youngster on tour. There is a lot of work to be done for Team Djokovic v2.0.

Loser: Alexander Zverev

Alex Zverev seemed to freeze under the pressure of coming in as one of the favourites. Whilst a first-round match-up with Fernando Verdasco is never one to be relished by any seed, it is the type of tie that a future slam winner should be winning at this stage in his career. There is little doubt that the young German will win a major, and probably several, but this is a fortnight when he was to be expected to go deep. Verdasco got the job done pretty comfortably in the end and Zverev has serious questions to ask himself and the loss of points from last season will not lighten his mood either.

Winner: Juan-Martin Del Potro

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Brothers in arms

 

 

For all the fantastic tennis that was played over the fifteen days, it is Juan-Martin Del Potro’s show of human compassion that will stick long in my mind. When Nicolas Almagro collapsed into a ball and burst into uncontrollable tears on court as he had to retire from their second-round encounter, the big, friendly Argentine was first on the scene to offer a helping hand and comforting hug to his on-court rival. Whlst Almagro was crying, I’m sure many more in the crowd welled up at the sight of Del Potro’s love and support. Well played, DelPo!

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New names to feature but surely the King is back?

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It’s bird’s eye view in Paris!

 

The tennis season’s second major starts in Paris this weekend with big names missing from the women’s draw and one major omission from the men’s tournament. It’s a chance for lesser lights and up-and-comers to showcase their talents but there will probably be at least one very familiar name on a trophy in fifteen days’ time.

Men’s favourites

The absence of Roger Federer won’t be felt too keenly. His resurgence in the early part of the year should not be underestimated or discredited but he simply would not be the threat on clay that he was on the early hard courts of the year; the Swiss clearly recognises this himself hence his decision to skip in preparation for Wimbledon. Instead, it falls to his oldest and longest rival Rafael Nadal to draw the biggest crowds to Roland Garros where the popular Mallorcan will go for his tenth French Open crown. Nadal has a tricky opening match against the once-touted-future-number-one Benoit Paire but no serious money should be put on the Frenchman to get a set never mind the win. From there on, it is not until the semi-finals that Rafa will face a stiff test when he will be expected to come up against Novak Djokovic. The Serb is in fairly decent form as he comes into his first tournament working alongside new coach Andre Agassi but would come up short against the King of Clay again. Djokovic should be applauded rather than condemned for ripping up his coaching team in an attempt to get back into the majors picture but positive results will come later on in the year if at all.

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Federer’s absence won’t detract

 

Where will the challenge come from the other part of the draw? There is a potential blockbuster third round tussle on the horizon between Andy Murray and Juan-Martin del Potro, with the Argentine possibly slight favourite at this time. Murray has admitted his bemusement at his current lack of form on the orange dirt and don’t forget that whilst he reached the final last year, he twice had to come from two sets down in the early rounds. Add into that the savage battles these two have had in the past and del Potro might be ready to take another step back to the top. It is 20 year old Alexander Zverev who could provide the fireworks in the top half of the draw. The German has long been predicted to reach the top and his form going into this event (wins in Munich and Rome) point to him as Nadal’s biggest threat. A run to the final would be a minefield, but it would not be a shock if he successfully negotiated matches against Del Potro, Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka. Wawrinka can never be counted out as he is capable of beating everyone on his day but there is nothing in his current form to suggest a second Roland Garros title is in his grasp – worth remembering though that his other title wins have all come from under the radar too. The only other guy in with a shout is Dominic Thiem; the young Austrian reached the semi-final last year but was found lacking when up against Djokovic; another year of experience will see him as a bigger threat and a recent runner-up display in Madrid serves notice of his chances here. Expect him to put up a better shout this year but still go down to Djokovic in the quarters.

The women

The women’s tournament is lacking traditional star power but has the allure of unpredictability written all over it. Last year’s champion is here but Serena Williams is pregnant, Victoria Azarenka is not yet ready to return after childbirth and Maria Sharapova’s ranking is not yet high enough to qualify after her doping ban. Those three names are all top draws for fans but it is up to the women who are there to put their names and games to the forefront.

2016 champion Garbine Muguruza will be fairly confident that she can win a second major in Paris as she has been gifted a fairly stress-free draw but there is a potential banana skin in the form of in-form Kiki Mladenovic in the Last 16. The French doubles specialist has really upped her singles game in the last nine months much like Sam Stosur once did and with the backing of a fervent Parisian crowd she could cause major trouble for the defending champion. If Muguruza comes through that, expect her to make her way into her third Slam final.

Lazy Paris days 🙂

 

Simona Halep has a niggling ankle injury which may cause her to pull out before her first round match but if she is cautious with it over the first few rounds she has time to play herself into fitness. A finalist in 2014, Halep would fancy her chances against the likes of Dasha Kasatkina and Carla Suarez-Navarro, before a possible winner-takes-all quarter-final clash with the bang-in-form Elina Svitolina, which would be a repeat of the recent Rome final, Svitolina coming out on top on that occasion. I am reticent to predict a first major for the Ukrainian as she is one of my favourite players, but bookmakers make these two the favourites so there has to be something in that. Halep, however, won the Madrid final, besting Kiki Mladenovic so, fitness permitting, definitely looks the one to beat in Paris. Karolina Pliskova will be well-placed to take advantage should these favourites fail to live up to their tags, but it must be said that clay is not her preferred surface and her golden time should come later in the year. Spare a thought for Petra Kvitova too. Just six months after being attacked by a knifeman in her Prague home, she is set to open up proceedings on Philippe Chatrier Court tomorrow morning. There were fears that she would never play again so this will be her biggest victory so far in an already-stellar tennis career.

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Is Svitolina really ready to win a major? 🙂

 

Predictions: Nadal to beat Alex Zverev in final.

Halep to beat Muguruza in final.

Most likely to disappoint: Andy Murray and Dominika Cibulkova

French players to go furthest: Kiki Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia

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Simply the best – what a fortnight Down Under

Time didn’t stand still in Melbourne over the past fortnight, it went back almost a whole decade. 3 of the semi-finalists were surprise contenders and the other shows no sign of slowing down. A fortnight that lost both defending champions and the men’s world number one before the first week was out delivered two dream finals along with a semi final that will be remembered for many a year.

The Williams sisters contested their first final on opposite sides of the net since Wimbledon 2009, which was also Venus’ last major final. In that time, her younger sister Serena had won an incredible 11 of 14 Slam finals she had appeared in. Serena is the oldest Grand Slam champion of all time and there is no longer any doubt in my, or indeed many, minds that she is the greatest woman to ever play the sport. The fact that she still cites Venus as her inspiration, her reason for playing, and her greatest opponent must be taken seriously. Serena has never really had a long-standing rivalry at any point during her career but the fact she struggles to mentally take on Venus gives weight to the elder being her toughest opponent. Venus has done so well to play so regularly and so late into her thirties, especially given her health worries but she will always be second fiddle on the roll of honour in the Greatest Sporting Siblings of all time. Serena will get 25 majors now, at least. The fact that she didn’t lose more than four games in any of her 14 sets shows she is head and shoulders above the rest once again. It will take monumental efforts to defeat her at Wimbledon and the US Open if she maintains this sense of purpose.

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Whilst on the subject of longevity, I look back at my first ever trip to Wimbledon in 2001. The first match I saw on Centre Court was Serena Williams in majestic form against Jelena Dokic. Williams was already a US Open champion at that point and booked a quarter-final berth in straight sets. The following match on the oldest stage of them all saw seven-times champion Pete Sampras come up against the young up-and-comer from Switzerland, Roger Federer. I have always stated my presence at that match as the reason behind my almost-obscene admiration for Federer. To see him lift his 18th major sixteen years on, and five years after his previous one, has overwhelmed me slightly. I had consistently believed he would win another one but, after his six-month injury lay-off, I had finally written him off two weeks ago. Instead, he rolled back the years to defeat Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and his old nemesis Rafael Nadal to deservedly claim the title. He has looked after his body like no male player I have known in my twenty-five years of following the sport and this is just reward for his determination to hang in there whilst the ravages of time seemed to fatally weaken him. The two-slam swing that happened earlier today will surely ensure that Nadal does not now match his haul of 18 majors. The first four sets were good, but not classic. There was always a sense that it would come down to a fifth set (breakfast and cups of tea had to be strategically planned). The fifth set had it all, vintage Federer and Nadal going at it hammer and tongs for maybe one final time in a major final. For 30 minutes, we were all transported back to 2008, when Rafa finally overcame Federer on his Centre Court in a match for the ages. But this time, it was to be the Swiss who held the ‘young’ pretender off, defeating him in a Grand Slam for the first time in a decade. No two players out there bring the best out of each other quite like those two do; their styles are so polar opposite that it just feels right. This fortnight will give Nadal so much heart: he saw off Alexander Zverev, Milos Raonic, Gael Monfils in varying degrees of ease but his defeat of an inspired, rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov in the semi-finals is the true stand-out match of the tournament. Dimitrov looked every inch the Grand Slam champion, ready to smash through his own personal glass ceiling. Unfortunately, he had not counted on Nadal’s double-glazing defence, a real throwback to the Spaniard of four or five years ago. Such was Nadal’s form here that he should be odds-on favourite to claim his tenth Roland Garros in the spring, a real shot in the arm for the rest of the game.

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As for the others, it was a sobering tournament for Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Simona Halep, Agnieska Radwanska and Angelique Kerber who all massively underachieved. Murray will hope it is merely a post-Knighthood blip but Djokovic needs to take time away to reassess the lie of the land. Kerber will come back strongly in the next few months but the other two ladies have now missed the Grand Slam title boat, the ship has definitely sailed. It is dangerous of course to write people off; Roger Federer proved that and only nine months ago I wrote about how Grigor Dimitrov was wasting his talent but you do really sense that neither Radwanska or Halep have the necessary steel. What a tournament for Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, reaching her first semi-final since 1999, a feat she personally accepted made up for all her tough times. Who would have thought Mischa would be the Zverev to go deepest in the men’s tournament; he was, however, full value for his four-set victory over Murray.

Whatever happens in the rest of 2017 surely cannot provide nearly as many stories as these last fifteen days in Melbourne have. The Williams sisters hugging it out on the final evening and the two greatest male players of all time having what will probably prove to be one last five-setter final.  You sensed tears weren’t far from any of their eyes and your heart goes out to the losers but goodness, when there is so much misery and hate in the world right now, didn’t tennis do an awful lot of good for us old romantics.

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Australian Open 2017 – runners and riders ready to race for title

Whilst both draws have been hampered by injuries and doubts over form and fitness, the wise money would be on a repeat of 2016’s finals in Melbourne although it is hard to pick a winner in either tournament. Here’s a by-no-means comprehensive rundown of who to look out for in the next 14 days:

Favourites

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Andy Murray (I’m not calling him Sir whilst he remains an active sportsperson) comes into this year riding the crest of a wave. There was no doubt that he was the man to beat in the second half of 2016, nobody managing to beat the indefatigable Brit during the final four months of the season. He lost to former number one Novak Djokovic in Doha two weeks ago but he will expect to reach his sixth Australian Open final. Don’t forget that age-old idiom…sixth time lucky?! Djokovic himself is almost impregnable in Melbourne – he has already won the title on six prevous occasions and it takes an almost-superhuman effort to even come close to challenging him on the Rod Laver Arena. His split with coach Boris Becker could cause him problems, the German having cast doubt on Djokovic’s recent hunger but the Serb looked pretty hungry to me in Doha, appearing to be revitalised after the winter break. Let’s also be clear that Djokovic did not play badly in the final six months of 2016 – save for his two off-days againat Sam Querrey at Wimbledon. The ATP Tour was ripped apart by Murray and Djokovic’s level dropped slightly; he was still the second best player over the final part of the year.

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Angelique Kerber comes into the defence of what was her breakthrough Slam in shaky form. She lost early to an inspired Daria Kasatkina in Sydney last week but arrived in Melbourne with almost a week to spare and I expect her to go deep again in the year’s first major. She should draw as much inspiration from her opening round last year as the final itself; the fact she came back from match points down ought to give her strength to come through any tough matches. Her route to a second final looks relatively stress-free but if Serena Williams is waiting in the final, the world number one will have to produce a similar display to her stunning performance in last year’s final if she is to stop the American winning her 23rd Grand Slam. Serena has an extremely tough first round against Belinda Bencic, only unseeded due to an injury lay-off, but this usually results in the former number one kicking into top gear right from the start. If she does get through to the final, I tip Serena to take Melbourne revenge on Kerber and get one notch closer to Margaret Court’s all-time record.

Ones to watch

There is no Madison Keys, Petra Kvitova, Juan-Martin del Potro, Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka for a variety of both pleasant and unpleasant reasons but there is a sense that anybody could come through and challenge last year’s finalists. Could it be a fourth year in five that a teenager reaches the women’s semi-finals? I can’t see it but then not many predicted Sloane Stephens, Genie Bouchard or Keys in 2013-2015. If Venus Williams hits the ground running, she could reach the semi-finals and expect Agnieszka Radwanska to reach the same stage. Johanna Konta had an incredible rise up the rankings over the last 18 months and put paid to both Radwanska and Bouchard easily in Sydney but a quarter-final may be the best she can hope for here. Karolina Pliskova is the wildcard here; she seems to be playing with extreme confidence since she dispatched both Williams sisters in the US Open. If she serves so well again, she can be a big danger to the top two.

The Wawrinka backhand – gorgeous

Don’t anticipate a second-week appearance for Roger Federer – nobody will want to see the 17-times major winner in their section but he will have to beat Tomas Berdych and Kei Nishikori in successive rounds merely to make it to the quarter-finals and he isn’t capable of doing that at 35 after a six-month injury lay-off. Rafael Nadal is a different kettle of fish altogether and a favourable draw could see him into the last four for the first time since 2014; a third round showdown with Alexander Zverev would be a real inter-generational blockbuster but Nadal should still just about have enough, for the moment. Stan Wawrinka will reach the semi-finals and, as we all know, nobody can stop him if he is on. He’s coming into the tournament a little under the radar which suits him down to the ground. Remember he is the only man to have beaten Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open since 2010. Should he squeeze past Murray in the semi-finals, another classic chapter of Djokovic v Wawrinka would await.

Home hopes

The Aussie fans are desperate to see their players go the distance and despite a talented group of young men, the dream still looks a way off realisation. Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios could both reach the second week but tough draws mean that their challenges would hand at the ends of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Wawrinka respectively. As for the women, Sam Stosur will hope to reach the fourth round for only the second time but you cannot expect her to get the better of Radwanska. Likewise, feisty Dasha Gavrilova will harness the energy of the crowd although that would not be enough to see her past Pliskova in the last 16. The wait for a winner, or even a finalist (Lleyton Hewitt in 2005 the last person to do so), will go on.

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Predictions

Semis – Kerber v Venus Williams and Radwanska v Serena Williams, Murray v Wawrinka and Nadal v Djokovic

Final – Serena to beat Kerber and Djokovic to beat Murray

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2016 Slammies

The end of the tennis season is finally here, time for at least four weeks of non-competition. It all never seems to stop but let’s take a deep breath and look back at some of the biggest moments of 2016 before we get ready to go again.

Biggest dope of the yearMaria Sharapova

No other place to start the piece but to acknowledge that the WTA tour has been a poorer place without the intensity of Maria Sharapova. Her two year ban has been reduced to fifteen months and, rightly or wrongly, events will be falling over themselves to hand her wildcards come April. What message that sends out to up-and-coming players remains to be seen, but you do feel that Sharapova has been, and will continue to be judged differently to lesser-marketable players. She argues that she has been made an example of, whilst others will see it as her using her name and image to get a smoother transition back to the sport. The sport has missed her this past ten months, and the overriding admiration people have always held for her in the past will never quite be there again.

Moment of the yearMonica Puig winning Olympic Gold

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There have been some amazing moments this year; a rejuvenated Juan-Martin Del Potro leading Argentina to the Davis Cup final, Sam Querrey ousting Novak Djokovic from Wimbledon with a huge-serving display, Angelique Kerber both becoming World number one and lifting the US Open within a matter of days and Andy Murray seeing off Djokovic in the ATP Tour Finals to make it to the end of the year as World Number 1. But it is the Puerta Rican Monica Puig’s stand-out Olympic Games run that trumps the lot. She had been knocking on the door of a major breakthrough for a few years, seemingly hitting a brick wall of being ranked around the top 30, but in Rio she defeated Garbine Muguruza and Petra Kvitova to reach the final where she came up against Angelique Kerber. The look on Puig’s face as she won Gold, coupled with Murray and Del Potro’s slugfest final should see tennis safe as part of future Games.

Struggling to cope with superstardomGarbine Muguruza

Where has the brave, free-hitting Muguruza of Wimbledon 2015 and Roland Garros 2016 gone? Since winning the French Open in majestic manner in June, the Venezuelan-born Spaniard has only won two Grand Slam matches, going out in the second rounds of both Wimbledon and the US Open. She seems to be struggling with being a Grand Slam champion to the extent that Petra Kvitova did in 2011. Hopefully, the malaise will be temporary, and she will go on to achieve as much as her game is capable of.

The ‘Isner v Mahut is this ever going to end?’ awardJo-Wilfried Tsonga v John Isner

I’m not sure that anybody with a weak bladder should go anywhere near a John Isner match in South-West London. It’s a slight understatement to say that this didn’t come close to his 2010 marathon with Nicolas Mahut but Isner’s 17-19 defeat at the hands of Tsonga has to be the match of the year. There’s a style difference between the two, and Tsonga’s reputation as fan-favourite meant that this match had the atmosphere to match the play. They are two players that leave everything on the court in attempts to get to the latter stages of majors and the sheer drama of the final set has to make this the match of the year.

Rivalry of the yearAndy Murray v Kei Nishikori

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The smart money would be on either Murray v Djokovic or Serena Williams v Kerber here, with maybe Del Potro v Murray as a possible shout too. But the fact that these guys played 13 supremely competitive sets out of a possible 13 across the Davis Cup, US Open and ATP Tour Finals edges it. I wouldn’t necessarily say they bring the best out of each other’s games but they do match up pretty damned well. Nishikori managed to get past Murray in New York but the new world number one edged the Japanese on home territory in Birmingham and London. If you get the chance to see these two at a major level, settle down and bring plenty of snacks because you’re in for the long haul.

Player of the yearAngelique Kerber

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This was a tough call as Andy Murray won a Grand Slam, Olympic Gold and the Tour Finals whilst finishing the year as World number one, having a truly stunning final seven months of the season, overhauling Djokovic’s huge lead in the rankings race. Kerber has to be the player of the year though as she has been pretty faultless from the moment she saved two match points in the first round of the Australan Open back in the middle of January. The only real blips were a first round defeat to Kiki Bertens in Paris and having to settle for Olympic silver when she succumbed to the inspired Puig. Other than that, she reached the Wimbledon final and won her first two Grand Slams in Melbourne and New York, ending the year as a richly-deserved number one in the world. It’s both intriguing and exciting to see how she will fare in 2017 but whatever happens, 2016 will always be Kerber’s year.

 

 

 

 

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