Monthly Archives: January 2014

New champions in Australia and the end of ‘The Big 4’: Winners and losers of 2014’s first major

Stan is the man

Stan is the man

Winner – Stanislas Wawrinka
It’s often said about people who fail to make a breakthrough in the majors that causing an upset is one thing, putting together seven results quite another. Fortunately for the new Swiss number 1, he didn’t have to put seven together. He was aided by a retirement in Round 1 and a walkover in Round 3. However, his achievements over the past six months in particular are not to be downplayed, and they reached their deserved denouement in Melbourne. He knocked out the defending champions in each of the last two majors and negotiated a wounded Rafael Nadal to lift his maiden Grand Slam title. Lesser men would have crumbled completely when faced with a warrior champion refusing to die but Stan held firm and played the better tennis in the first and fourth sets. He becomes the first man in 21 years to defeat both the Number 1 and 2 seeds in the same major, and with that he earns the #3 ranking for himself, but much more importantly he is able to add three words after his name that will live forever more. Stanislas Wawrinka: Grand Slam champion.

Winner – Na Li
As Wawrinka celebrates becoming a Grand Slam champion, Na Li has entered the pantheon of multi-slam winners, and she has done it on two very different surfaces. At the age of 31, she is still tweaking her game, looking for little improvements and goodness what a difference Carlos Rodriguez has made to her tennis. Justine Henin’s former coach has given the Chinese the belief that she can impose her game on whichever match she plays in. Her saved match point in Round 3 served as her wake-up call and she was simply stunning from thereon. The Grand Slam of Asia and the Pacific has its first Asian champion and there is no reason why she can’t add to her tally of majors in the rest of 2014.

Aussie Li

Aussie Li

Loser – Patrick Mouratoglou
The coaching guru. His work with Serena Williams is held up as a shining example of world-class coaching but I simply don’t buy it. Any coach worth their salt could help Serena to a couple of majors a year. His assertion before the tournament that his charge could win all four majors this year was hit into touch by Serena after her 4th round exit to Ana Ivanovic. According to Serena, she had stopped thinking about that particular objective a long time ago. It may be time to have a word with your coach about his very public spouting then.

Winner – Grigor Dimitrov
The next big thing. Sharapova’s squeeze. And finally, potential being realised. A grand slam quarter-finalist and it was richly deserved. His show-time tendencies were largely held in check by his patience in his four-set victory over big hitting Milos Raonic and he gave enough worries to Rafael Nadal in his four-set defeat to suggest good things lay ahead for the former Wimbledon junior champion. Expect him to have a big say on events in the summer and early autumn.

Loser – Vika Azarenka
The two-time defending champion was never at her best in this year’s event. Despite not dropping a set until the quarter-finals, it will be a great worry to her how easily she got lost in Agnieszka Radwanska’s web of trickery. Somehow, she needs to hone her second serve into something that is less of a hindrance to her chances at the business end of tournaments. With Serena’s second serve, she would dominate the game. With her current one, she may struggle to add a further major to her current haul. The rest of her game is explosive, but the second serve needs surgery.

Winner – Dominika Cibulkova
It would have been easy to pick Genie Bouchard as the surprise element from the women’s tournament, but the young Canadian did pretty much what I expected from her, made more possible by Serena’s early elimination. Cibulkova, on the other hand, was a wholly unexpected but very welcome surprise. She picked Maria Sharapova’s game apart with ease before dispatching with last autumn’s form girl Simona Halep within an hour. However, it was her semi-final demolition job on Radwanska that really announced Domi’s arrival on the big stage. She’s only 24 so has time to consolidate this run with more consistent results in the other slams. When her game is firing, there are few who can live with the power of the pocket rocket from Slovakia.

Loser – Agnieszka Radwanska

Always the bridesmaid?

Always the bridesmaid?

Ah yes, Miss Radwanska. One fears that she may be the eternal bridesmaid. I have not seen many finer performances than her quarter-final victory over the defending champion. The variety, the speed, the pace, the power, the defence, the offense. It had everything. To follow that up 24 hours later with her horror show against Cibulkova suggested either a physical or mental frailty or possibly even both; things that could stop her from putting together the seven consecutive wins necessary to win a major.

Winner – Tennis
I wrote at length last week that it is the competitors not the organisers who make the sport what it is, and that was proved in the second week. A grand slam is defined by titanic performances. When was the last time that all of Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Vika Azarenka, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray failed to make it to the semi-final stage? 2010 French Open, that’s when. The emergence of Genie Bouchard, Grigor Dimitrov’s hard work beginning to pay dividends, Na Li peaking in her early 30s, ‘The Big 4’ of the men’s game being a thing of the past as Stan Wawrinka, Tomas Berdych and others insist upon their names being in the reckoning, an Aussie woman making it to the second week, the triumvirate of Federer, Djokovic and Nadal all still looking like forces but ones which have been caught up with by the rest. Yes, as a tennis fan, I’m pretty stoked at how the Aussie Open went!

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The Tennis Hunger Games: Catching Fire in Melbourne

The Tennis Hunger Games: Catching Fire in Melbourne.

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The Tennis Hunger Games: Catching Fire in Melbourne

I love tennis. I have the greatest respect for the dedication of all those crazy people who devote the best part of half a life to it. I’ve been to all but one of the Grand Slams and will tick the final one off next year. 15 Grand Slams attended, a third of the total that Roger Federer has played consecutively. I had the pleasure of seeing him beat Pete Sampras at Wimbledon and also saw him during his years of dominance. I’ve had the honour of watching most of the top players of this century up close; Nadal, the Williams sisters, Hewitt, Djokovic, Roddick, Kuerten, Clijsters, Hingis, Azarenka, Tim Henman of course and then some of those players that you just like but nobody else thinks are that big a deal; Fabio Fognini, Nadia Petrova. Then you can always try to spot an up-and-coming player before they make the big leap; Eugenie Bouchard looks set fair for the top but I’m still waiting for Ernests Gulbis to come good on my prediction.

Therein lies my point; I go to Grand Slam events to watch the players. I go to be entertained by the finest that the WTA and ATP tours have to offer. I go to watch them perform to their maximum capability. I’ve never once been to a Grand Slam to watch the tournament director. I recognise and respect how difficult it is to seamlessly organise an event which not only showcases the sport’s top talents but also caters for hundreds of thousands of visitors. But I’m not talking about shoddy US Open scheduling this time, I’m not talking about Roland Garros’ feet-dragging over building a roof, I’m not even talking about Wimbledon’s vague ‘outdoor daytime’ insistence. I’m talking about endangering the health of the participants that bankroll your event. The Australian Open and Tennis Australia by association have fallen way short of expected standards. They’ve failed the sport’s stars and they’ve failed the spectators who’ve paid top dollar to see this event.

Craig Tiley AKA President Snow

Craig Tiley AKA President Snow

When I go to a tennis event, I want each player to play to their best, and I want the best players to be left at the end of the fortnight. What we’ve witnessed during the first five days at Melbourne Park has been more akin to the macabre Hunger Games franchise, a survival of the fittest; and that is all it has been: survival. What are the defining images of the week? Sure, Roberto Bautista-Agut bust a gut to knock out the number 5 seed Juan-Martin Del Potro and Casey Dellacqua has given the Aussies a rare Melbourne treat by reaching the fourth round for the second time but that’s about it on the tennis front. No, we can remember pictures of well-travelled pro Frank Dancevic fainting on court, all of the top players being forced to wear ice vests and helmets, ball kids keeling over too. Yeah, ball kids. Because when you play on in these conditions, it’s not just the players who suffer, it’s the team around the court too. Money shouldn’t come into it here but at least the athletes are rewarded, what of the ball kids frying in that heat?

These conditions are nothing new for Melbourne but this wishy-washy response to it must be changed and done so in time for next year. The Wet Bulb Global Temperature reading is nonsense. Trust your athletes to tell you when it’s too hot to play. Andy Roddick has basically said players should just suck it up. He’s got clearly got selective amnesia. Roddick was always the first one to start crying out about any kind of injustice, obviously 18 months out of the game has made him forget that he would have been at the front of the queue to cry to the press. Old pros need to support their modern counterparts here. We’ve got Novak Djokovic praising ball kids, line judges and spectators for toughing it out these last four days. We’ve got Serena Williams, for goodness sake, telling us she’s not equipped to respond to a comment made by the tournament doctor that ‘man evolved on the high plains of Africa chasing antelope’ so the players are able to survive. This is not about surviving; it’s about giving your sport’s protagonists the chance to shine. Head of ATP Chris Kermode, the usual sole voice of reason, states that players need to be communicated to correctly and need to have a definite temperature indicator for when it’s time to stop play. Not a complicated equation, a simple temperature reading. How hard is that? And then when it reaches that, play should be stopped. How can you say the current conditions are too dangerous to start a match but the players who are currently playing and suffering must continue? That is illogical, inconsistent and, quite frankly, grossly inhumane.

Another victim of the extreme weather policy

Another victim of the extreme weather policy

The top players need to regroup with their respective organisations after this tournament and signal some kind of player revolt to make the changes to the extreme weather conditions rules. The Australian Open needs the ATP and the WTA. If the likes of Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic were to actually make a stand and say that, as champions there on multiple occasions, they’d support players putting rackets down and refusing to play on in such dangerous conditions then that would say way more than a ‘no comment’ or a nice tweet to the fans. Would the Australian Open really come down hard on Serena and Djokovic thus risking the wrath of the sport’s fans, who’ve been deprived of the very best game of so many players these past few days? Maybe I’m dreaming again, but I reckon both of them together could form one brilliant mocking jay to stop Craig Tiley and his team from putting on such an absurd spectacle of suffering for the masses. That way, this tournament would be the very last edition of the tennis Hunger Games.

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Same old brand new you? Favourites hotly fancied in Oz

Defending champions Djokovic and Azarenka

Defending champions Djokovic and Azarenka

Ask most tennis pundits who will be holding the trophies at the end of the coming fortnight, and the general consensus seems to be that the casual fan can skip the first twelve days of the first Grand Slam of 2014 and tune in on finals weekend to see two clashes between defending champions and current world number 1s; Victoria Azarenka taking on Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic up against Rafael Nadal. It’s a depressing thought for the depth of the game, but is there any hope for any other players outside of these four? It’s always hard to tell as you come into Melbourne with so little build-up beforehand, but there are some clues in the draw and build-up.

The beauty of the draw in the tennis majors is that reputation counts for nothing. Bernard Tomic has been cruelly punished for a lacklustre 2013 which left him outside of the seeds here by being paired with Rafa Nadal for Tuesday’s evening session. A disaster for young Mr Tomic, but I hardly think the world number 1 was delighted at the prospect of having to face Australia’s next big hope in his own back yard. It’s the start of a potential run littered with hazards for the Mallorcan, with Gael Monfils, renaissance man Lleyton Hewitt and Juan-Martin Del Potro all possibly awaiting him before he even reaches the final four. Djokovic’s run is ridiculously simplistic in comparison. Only Stanislas Wawrinka should cause him any missed sleep between now and finals weekend.

Andy Murray is an unknown quantity here. He promised he wouldn’t come to Australia if he didn’t feel fit enough to win the tournament but his build-up has been less than ideal. A win against a local Doha wildcard has been followed up with defeats to Florian Mayer and Hewitt. Only Murray himself knows what he is capable of here, and his great record here could stand him in good stead if he gets into some kind of a roll, but I count him out of being involved at the end. I expect Tomas Berdych to have a good ten days and possibly make it to the semi-finals, and John Isner and Fernando Verdasco to make inroads in Murray’s quarter; remember Verdasco has previous in Melbourne from 2009.

So I do expect it to come down to defending champion versus world number one. Nadal has the tougher run to that stage but the bonus for him is that he rarely carries over any fatigue from one round to the next. Team Djokovic will arrive fresh to the final, bolstered by the newest addition Boris Becker. Expect another slobber knocker of a final and Nadal to edge it having come in more battle-ready due to his tough run. It is five years since he won his sole Australian Open, and it’s high time he doubled that tally.

The 2009 champion

The 2009 champion

I have a sneaking suspicion however that the women’s draw will not go as expected. If Sloane Stephens continues on her upward trajectory from last season, she can push defending champion Azarenka all the way in Round 4 and cause a major upset for the second successive year after she ended Serena’s hopes of a Slam season at the first attempt this time last year. To lose the defending champion so early on would open up that draw significantly and give chances to the likes of Agnieszka Radwanska and former champ Maria Sharapova. Radwanska’s game will come up short on this surface as it favours out and out power so I plump for the Siberian to come through that section and head into finals weekend.

Serena’s draw is decent in the respect that it features possible match-ups with the likes of Daniela Hantuchova, Ana Ivanovic and potentially Eugenie Bouchard or Madison Keys if the new guard are to continue knocking at the door, but none of them will unduly worry the 17-time major winner and I certainly wouldn’t expect her to drop a set before the semi-final stage. But therein lays the danger. If twice-beaten Melbourne finalist Na Li can navigate a tough route which could include Sabine Lisicki and Angelique Kerber, I expect her to bring her biggest game to a semi-final against the world’s best player. I’d go as far as to say that Na Li is the most popular player on the women’s side down under since the retirement of ‘Aussie Kim’ Clijsters and that support could tip the semi-final in her favour against a player who struggles to be universally popular because of her occasional ungracious behaviour. The Chinese hits for the lines in all of her matches, and I believe she is due a big result against Serena; after all she is one of the few players that can get inside the American’s head. So I’m sticking my neck on the line and saying that the women’s final will feature neither of the two expected protagonists and will instead be between two women who have four Australian Open finals between the pair of them.

It’s a big call to expect Sharapova to come back from injury and get to the next Slam final, but I believe if other players were to do the dirty work for her by knocking out Williams and Azarenka, then that would really put the bit between Maria’s teeth. It’s a close call to predict a winner between those two but I go with Sharapova to win her second Aussie Open title and Na Li to be the bridesmaid for a third time, with a combination of Sharapova’s tough match play and an inevitable drop in performance from Li after a match with Serena just seeing the Russian through on the day. I’ve got high hopes for a classic Open, I hope I’m not just being an eternal dreamer.

Sharapova could repeat her 2008 triumph

Sharapova could repeat her 2008 triumph

Predictions:
Nadal and Sharapova to each win their second Australian Open title.
Federer to lose in the first week
Murray to lose before the last eight
Neither Serena nor Azarenka to make the final

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