Monthly Archives: January 2016

Kerber opening doors, Djokovic slamming them shut- Australian Open review

Australian Open 2016; that’s a wrap!

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Kerber opening doors, Djokovic slamming them shut- Australian Open review

 

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The first major of the tennis season followed a familiar, reassuring course for the duration of the men’s tournament. Novak Djokovic has cemented himself as the man to take tennis to a completely new level and he will now be looking to eclipse more legends with his trophy haul, and possibly even propel himself to the very top of the Roll of Honour. The women’s draw looked a foregone conclusion from the minute Serena Williams eased past Camila Giorgi on Day 1. However, there was a sting in the tail right at the very end. A top class Australian Open, albeit not one of the greatest.

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Our world number one now stands on the precipice of legendary status in my humble opinion. There will not be many who won’t want him to break his Roland Garros duck in June and at this stage, you’d have to be a crazy fan of the other top players to suggest he is incapable of completing the calendar Grand Slam in 2016. If he were dominant last year, quite what are we to make of him this January? He simply steamrolled Roger Federer in the semi-finals, losing only one game in the first two sets. That’s Roger Federer, the great Roger Federer, who is still surely the second best player in the world. You have the feeling that Federer is sticking around in the hope that somebody else takes Nole out of the equation because the Serb has any number Federer wishes to throw at him right now. Djokovic followed up that impressive performance by simply outgunning and outlasting the world number two as he has done so many times in the last few years. Murray tried to be much more aggressive than in the past, a change in tactics he had hinted at leading into the final. To say it didn’t work is an understatement; the Serb never for a second looked like even losing a set never mind the match. He started rapidly again, losing only one game in the first set; this is an interesting development in Djokovic’s game – in the past he was always slow to start in the big matches and his durability would be the important factor in his victories whereas now he isn’t even giving his major rivals a foothold in matches. ‘Catch me if you can’ appears to be the message to his foes at the moment. Having gone level with Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver on 11 Grand Slam titles, Djokovic now stands a serious shot at matching Roger Federer’s record haul of 17; he may have 14 by September.

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The women’s champ will only now be drying off after coming good on a pre-tournament promise to ‘do a Courier’ and jump into the Yarra River if she claimed the title. Angelique Kerber was the cherry on a very satisfying cake of breakout performances in the women’s tournament. I hadn’t even given the German a thought as a potential winner until she reached the semi-final stage, but anyone who hits Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams off the court, ensuring that her oft-criticised bottle held firm in the process, deserves every plaudit coming her way. Having saved match points in her opening round victory over Misaki Doi, she got stronger with each passing round and looks a real force going forward. She is now the world number two and one would hope that she copes well with the added pressure that the ranking and being a Grand Slam champion will bring. For someone who had not been past the quarter-final stage of a major since 2012 (with much of that time spent as a fixture in the Top 10), this was an astronomical leap into the winners’ circle. Kerber looks fitter than ever and her attacking game can be a real threat in the future if her new-found mettle stands the test of time. It was a refreshing change to see somebody stand toe to toe with a fully-fit Serena and slug it out fair and square. There is no doubt that Serena remains the dominant force in the women’s game and she will go onto win more majors but this was a huge shot in the arm for the WTA.

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There were other stand-out break-out performances this past fortnight, along with feel-good tales. Shuai Zhang is the only place to start – the Chinese invited her parents to watch her for the first time ever, feeling that the time had come to retire after losing all of her 14 Grand Slam matches to date. She knocked out former French Open finalist Simona Halep on the way to reaching the quarter-finals; an incredible achievement. Let’s hope she is rethinking that retirement plan. Johanna Konta reinforced her position as British number one and is likely to stay there for a long time if she continues her hard-hitting, big-serving, newly mentally-strong form. Having witnessed Konta crumble many times in the past, she is another who has taken her game to an all-new level by simply getting herself right between the ears, her semi-final berth fine reward for her endeavours at Melbourne Park. How far mental strength can take you in this sport. Milos Raonic is the other stand-out performer for me this fortnight with a second Slam semi-final now under his belt. He will be one to watch as a potential challenger to Djokovic at both Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows this summer.

So, there has been a promising start to the tennis narrative in 2016; there is much to look forward to going forward. The main storyline will centre on Novak Djokovic’s quest to win all four majors in one year but there is hope yet that Serena Williams is not simply an immovable object at Grand Slam level. Let’s hope that tennis makes the headlines for all the right reasons as we progress through the year.

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Djokovic and Williams chase new records – 2016 Australian Open preview

Djokovic to become the greatest ever Australian Open champion but Serena to stutter? AO 2017

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Djokovic and Williams chase new records – 2016 Australian Open preview

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Rod Laver Arena at its best

 

The Australian Open often prompts claims from tennis journalists and pundits alike that it is the least predictable major of the year, yet a look at the roll of honour in recent years suggests that if Novak Djokovic plays, he wins. In the women’s tournament, just like the other majors with the exception of Roland Garros, should Serena Williams come in fully fit and focussed then she too takes the title. There is evidence to suggest that we see some breakthroughs earlier in the draws, with Sloane Stephens, Eugenie Bouchard and Madison Keys making their maiden semi-final appearances in the last three tournaments. Last year’s tournament was also a stellar one for the home favourites, with Nick Kyrgios reaching the quarter-finals, maintaining home interest well into the second week. Whilst Aussie eyes will be on Lleyton Hewitt as he ends his career on Rod Laver Arena, there is plenty elsewhere to whet the appetite for a fab fortnight in the Melbourne sunshine, even if the most likely outcomes do involve Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic retaining their titles.

It is extremely difficult to look beyond the world number 1 from Serbia as he aims to equal Roy Emerson’s record of six titles, Emerson’s haul being achieved before the professional era. Djokovic’s form is imperious; he lost only six from 88 matches in 2015 and has already won the Doha title this year, demolishing one-time nemesis Rafael Nadal in the final, after which the top seed admitted that he was playing the best tennis of his life. It must not be forgotten that that demolition in Doha was over 2016 Nadal, not 2010 Nadal. The Mallorcan endured his first title-free season in more than a decade in 2015 and although his recent form is more promising any claims that he can compete in the last two rounds in Melbourne are nonsensical; the prospect of the unpredictable Ernests Gulbis in Round 3 may already be cutting into Rafa’s sleep.

Djokovic on course for a sixth Australian Open title

I’m hard-pressed to pick anything but a Stan Wawrinka-Andy Murray semi-final in the bottom half of the draw. Wawrinka, the 2014 champion, plays some of his best tennis when he goes down under and there is nothing too scary on the horizon to block a third consecutive appearance in the final four. The likes of Jack Sock, Milos Raonic and Kevin Anderson could come calling but their styles all suit Wawrinka’s game so he should be fine. If Nadal does make it through the first week, I expect him to pose very few problems to the Swiss number 2, who collected a title in Chennai a couple of weeks ago. As for Andy Murray, he will be hoping that it is fifth time lucky as he aims to improve on his record of four runner-up appearances. There is very little to trouble the new world number 2 as he aims to push on from propelling Great Britain to their first Davis Cup title since before World War 2. A semi-final tussle with Wawrinka would most likely be the match of the fortnight with a toss of the coin seeming to be the fairest way of settling it.

2014 Champion Wawrinka should make his third consecutive semi

Roger Federer is the one member of the current Top 4 who could come a cropper before the semi-finals. He’s playing well, with a final appearance in Brisbane under his 2016 belt but there are potential matches against Grigor Dimitrov, Julien Benneteau who has pushed him all the way in a Slam before, and Nick Kyrgios. Dimitrov in particular needs to push on this year as his career is in serious danger of stalling altogether. I think he has the best shot of stopping the 17-time major winner from reaching the last four, but if Federer does come through his tricky run he will not be able to overcome eventual champion Novak Djokovic. Message to the field: do your best but this is Djokovic’s title – I firmly believe he is as close to unplayable right now as I have ever seen anybody.

Whilst Djokovic is the overwhelming favourite to lift the men’s title, his fellow defending champion Serena Williams is an extremely strong one, but not quite overwhelmingly so for the women’s championship. The world number 1 is chasing her 22nd Grand Slam title, which would equal Steffi Graf’s Open Era haul. Serena is no stranger to shock defeats in Melbourne, having lost to Ekaterina Makarova, Sloane Stephens and Ana Ivanovic here in the last four years but it would be a massive surprise to see her lose early as defending champion, even if she did get literally the worst possible first round draw; a match-up against big-hitting Camila Giorgi, the highest-ranked unseeded player in Melbourne. A potential fourth-round match-up with BFF Caroline Wozniacki could be fun; however the Dane hasn’t reached the second week in Melbourne since 2013. From there, Maria Sharapova lies in Serena’s quarter and we have to discount the Russian as her long winless streak against the American simply means that she does not stand a chance.

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Serena is gunning for Slam number 22, but there are others who can outshine her this time

 

Agnieszka Radwanska is one to watch over the next fortnight; her best result came two years ago when she reached the semi-finals but she must be confident of at least matching that record. Whilst she faces a blockbuster encounter with an unseeded yet improving Eugenie Bouchard (finalist in Hobart this week) in the second round, as well as being in the same quarter as a resurgent Sloane Stephens (winner of Auckland) and the emerging Aussie star Daria Gavrilova, the Pole comes into 2016 on the back of a successful week at the End of Season Championships, in which she became the first non-Slam winner to be crowned year-ending champion since Amelie Mauresmo in 2005. Back then, Mauresmo took that momentum into the following season and lifted two majors, starting with the Australian Open title. The ever-popular Pole won the title in Shenzhen earlier this month so comes in carrying form; do not discount her from kicking on and bettering her previous record here, and with a bit of luck lifting the title. A potential semi-final with Serena could be a real classic clash of styles.

Radwanska would be a popular first-time winner

The number of times I have written about how Victoria Azarenka comes into a tournament with as good a chance as any of getting the better of Serena….and here we go again. The former world number one looks like she has finally recovered from her injury time-out, lifting her first trophy since 2013 last week in Brisbane, fair pummelling Top 10 player Angelique Kerber in the final. Vika comes in sharp, confident and with an insistence that she will take it one step at a time. However, with doubts over whether Serena is fully fit (an oft-written phrase) media attention will be fierce on Azarenka’s run. I have a sneaking suspicion that she will reach the final four with very little fuss or effort, largely due to a kind draw despite her lowly seeding of 14; indeed, many higher seeds would gladly swap their draws with Azarenka’s.  The bottom half of the draw is wide open, which plays into the hands of the two-time champion. If form holds, expect her semi-final to not be one for the purists, pitting her against Venus Williams (who would need to see off world number 2 Simona Halep who is aiming to ‘do a Wozniacki’ and change her defensive game into more of an attacking one – this may take some time to reap rewards). The elder Williams sister holds a winning record over Azarenka, but I’d expect the Belarussian to come through in three exhausting sets. Is she capable of defeating Serena Williams in the final? Yes. She came so close last year on three occasions, even holding match points in Madrid. She doesn’t quite have Serena’s number yet, let’s say rather that the last digit is a little bit smudged. Will she have to beat Serena to the title here? If pushed, I’d say no. An Azarenka v Radwanska final looks the most likely, another classic style clash. Whilst Azarenka has more fans in Melbourne than in any other part of the world, most neutrals would love to see Radwanska take the final step that her career has always promised possible.

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Disappointed to be missing out this year!

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