Monthly Archives: January 2017

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:

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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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