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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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Birmingham tennis – a true Classic!

I had the opportunity to spend a day at the Aegon Classic in Birmingham on Friday, the first time I’ve ever attended a Wimbledon warm-up event. I had such a good time that I’ve booked up for next year already! Here’s a brief synopsis of my nine hours in Edgbaston.

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This is such a good event; granted I was fortunate to be on the good side of bad weather for a change; rain delays throughout the week had meant a backlog of matches to be caught up on Friday. There were plenty of top names in action; defending champion Angelique Kerber had to perform double jeopardy on Friday by playing both her second round and quarter-finals matches. She was not alone; Carla Suarez-Navarro, Yanina Wickmayer, CoCo Vandeweghe and Barbora Strycova all had to complete the same task. The event centres on the impressive Ann Jones Centre Court but the other secondary courts are so quaint it is impossible not to adore the tranquillity of them.

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The outside courts

 

The club is walking distance from Birmingham city centre and is in a beautiful part of the second city. As well as this, and crucially, it is competitively-priced; £40 for what would have ostensibly been four quarter finals is very good value in the current UK sports market. Birmingham is working hard to attract better players and with the calendar now being a lot fairer and allowing an extra week of grass court tennis in the build-up to Wimbledon, this event is surely going to continue to grow. I think that in the next couple of years, you might get more and more of the very top players choosing to come here instead of Eastbourne which immediately precedes SW19; Petra Kvitova, Simona Halep, Agnieszka Radwanska and Kerber had all made the decision to come this year.

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Konta struggling in my presence, as per usual

 

As it happened, of those four headliners only Kerber survived until the Friday. She safely negotiated a three-set victory over Australian Dasha Gavrilova in a fun, feisty match before later succumbing to Carla Suarez-Navarro. I missed the entire latter match bar the last game as I was watching another quarter-final out on Court 1, but the game I did see allowed me to see the Suarez-Navarro backhand in all its beauty – my one regret from my day in Birmingham is that I missed this match. Jo Konta, the British number one fresh from arriving in the top 20, was dismantled by Yanina Wickmayer in a delayed second round match; when the Belgian hits this hard and this accurately it is hard to fathom why she hasn’t achieved more in her career. The reason why she hasn’t achieved was evident a couple of hours later when her shots were clearing the lines rather than hitting them in her straight-sets defeat to CoCo Vandeweghe. Vandeweghe reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon last year and could go deep again if she continues to feel at ease on grass. Just to go back to Jo Konta briefly, I’ve now seen her play in Budapest, New York, Paris and Birmingham and she has lost each time. Barbora Strycova is always one-to-watch on grass, as is former Wimbledon semi-finalist Tsvetana Pironkova and they produced a highly-competitive two-set match out on the same court, with Strycova rightly coming out on top. No seed will want to see either of those in the first two rounds at Wimbledon.

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Jelena Ostapenko hits a backhand return

 

The match I had been really looking forward to seeing was Madison Keys up against teenager Jelena Ostapenko. I’d seen Ostapenko play years ago on the junior circuit at the Astrid Bowl and she looked like one to watch then. She has gone on to win Junior Wimbledon in 2014 before rising into the Top 40 at the time of writing. Put plainly, her star is ascending. Keys has got two years on her in terms of experience and game, and it showed. I often forget that Keys isn’t into her mid-20s such is the maturity she shows on court. Ostapenko matched her every inch of the way in the first set and looked the likely winner when she took it, but Keys figured her game out and found a way to win pretty comfortably in the end. It was no surprise to see her go on and lift her second WTA title earlier this afternoon (the other was on grass in England too), beating Suarez-Navarro and Strycova in the latter stages. She’s been rewarded for her run here by entering the Top 10 for the first time and she is finding the consistency to mean she can stay here.

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Late-evening doubles is always fun

 

The day was topped off by a fun doubles match, including two of my favourites Heather Watson and Elina Svitolina on opposite sides in a match that didn’t conclude until 8.25pm. Watson’s team of her and Naomi Broady came out on top – Svitolina’s partner? Jo Konta of course! I really ought to give Konta a break for a while.

Nine hours of tennis, my idea of a good day out. Thanks, Birmingham Classic!

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

Australian Open 2016; that’s a wrap!

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

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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

Source: Djokovic and Williams chase new records – 2016 Australian Open preview

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On top of the world – Dunblane delivers the dream

Andy Murray loves his history, or at least he must do, as he has spent his whole career rewriting it.

Source: On top of the world – Dunblane delivers the dream

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On top of the world – Dunblane delivers the dream

Great Britain this week stands on top of the tennis world. There’s a sentence I wouldn’t have dared to dream to write until a few years ago. That I started to firmly believe that I would one day write it is testament to the persuasive and tactical nature of Captain Leon Smith, but of course the majority of the praise must lie on the racquet of the number two player in the world, Andy Murray.

 

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How proud Will and Judy Murray must have been over the weekend as their sons singlehandedly won the Final for Dunblane, for Scotland, and for Great Britain. Ably supported by Dom Inglot, James Ward, Dan Evans and Kyle Edmund throughout the year, it was the brothers Murray that took on Belgium on their own. How fortunate Team GB are to have a doubles player of the calibre of Jamie on whom they can rely each second day of a tie. The fact that we have been able to select from several doubles specialists over the last few years has certainly helped our cause from the minute we re-joined the World Group. If that pool of resources has been fortunate, being able to regularly call upon the services of the world’s second best player is pure fortune itself.

Make no mistake; this is the pinnacle for Jamie Murray, as well as for Inglot, Ward and Evans. Kyle Edmund can hope that the taste of this event will spur him on to achieve his career ambitions. However, it is time that we stop to admire just what Andy Murray has achieved in his. Andy loves his history, or at least he must do, as he has spent his career rewriting it. He was the first Brit to ever win an Olympic Gold medal in tennis. He followed that up six weeks later by winning our first Grand Slam tournament in 35 years. Fast forward 10 months and he became the first British man to win the Men’s Singles at Wimbledon in 77 years. And now this; Great Britain’s first Davis Cup triumph in 79 years. And whilst we are looking at the statistics, let’s go a little deeper into this year’s Davis Cup.  You need a minimum of 12 points to win the competition; the British number one has won 11 points. He has won every single singles rubber that he could possibly have won this year and pulled triple duty (playing both singles rubbers and the often-decisive doubles) in the quarters, semis and Final. Needless to add, he won on every single occasion.

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Critics point out that Great Britain has been fortuitous this year due to Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka and Roger Federer sitting out the event. This assertion is churlish in the extreme. Federer opted out for most of his career so to state that we got lucky this year means that every Davis Cup in the last ten years has little importance attached. Murray would have defeated Rafael Nadal on any surface this year over five sets, of that I have no doubt. Recall how the tennis world marvelled at Switzerland’s achievement last year but it is worth noting that both Federer and Wawrinka lost points on the way to that title, something Murray has not done and which he only looked close to doing on a couple of occasions. Gilles Simon had an exhausted Murray on the ropes at Queen’s Club in July, but Murray battled nerves and cramp to come through a match in which his younger self would have crumbled into a painful mess. After that, the little and large team of Lleyton Hewitt and Sam Groth pushed the Murray brothers all the way in Glasgow in September but again GB won through. These two tests aside, Andy Murray has cruised through the 2015 Davis Cup; last weekend’s final being a fitting end to back up that claim. He dropped just 21 games over the course of his two singles victories and he was by far the best player on the court in the decisive doubles encounter. Andy’s game is one of tireless defence but it is apt that he won the trophy for his country with his trademark running passing lob; a shot I would pay admission fee to watch on loop.

It is my firm belief that Leon Smith’s greatest victory lies not in the lifting of this famous old trophy but goes back instead to the day he made a top priority out of persuading Andy Murray that the Davis Cup was not some far-flung unachievable fancy. Smith should carry on in his role into the new season and have a tilt at defending this title. I maintain that Great Britain have as good a chance as any nation of winning the trophy in 2016. After that, the LTA must ensure that both Smith and Judy Murray continue to be involved at the highest level here. These are tennis people who are only comfortable wearing suits of the track variety. I trust the future of tennis in Great Britain when we have figureheads like those. But for now, let’s rejoice that thanks to a small town in Scotland, British tennis no longer has to be associated with the world ‘doldrums’ and instead can rightly acclaim to being the world champions. Enjoy the off-season!

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London sun shines on two all-time greats – Wimbledon 2015 Review

London sun shines on two all-time greats – Wimbledon 2015 Review.

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