Roof, good scheduling and great tennis – no grumbles here!

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It’s high up there!

 

Wonders will never cease; the USTA finally had its roof in place and gone were any second-week worries about the tournament finishing on time. In addition, the oft-criticised 3-day first round is now a thing of the past so all that is left to reflect on is the tennis itself. And it delivered in no small doses. We had old favourites returning to form, newbies breaking through and people finally realising their potential, all capped off by a new number one in the women’s game, and THAT doesn’t happen too often.

The men’s tournament had some stellar moments; Stan Wawrinka saved a match point as early as the third round when Britain’s Dan Evans pushed him all the way. I had predicted the Swiss would disappoint in New York so I was licking my lips with relish but the now three-time major winner found a way to get through and go all the way to the winners’ circle. After his tussle with Evans, nobody really laid a glove on Stan until he locked horns with Novak Djokovic on the last day of the event. Djokovic himself will never get an easier route to a grand slam final; two of his opponents retired hurt, one of them didn’t even make it onto court and his semi-final opponent produced the most ridiculous last-four performance I can remember for many a year; Gael Monfils believing that playing at walking pace was going to be enough to get past one of the greatest players of all time. This helped the Serb no end as he had come into the tournament with his own niggling physical and personal doubts. As for the final itself, there was a purveying sense that Djokovic had to get ahead and hope to hold on. He managed to edge that first set tiebreak, which included an epic point for the ages but, from then on in, much like at Roland Garros last year, Wawrinka reeled him in and pounded winner after winner down the lines. There has already been talk of a ‘Big 5’ but Roger Federer hasn’t won a major in over four years and it is two and a half years since Nadal won one or even got to the last four. Those two legacies are intact but they should no longer be talked about in the same breath as Djokovic and now Murray and Wawrinka. Stan has three majors to his name, and more cannot be completely ruled out. When he is on, he really is on.

Three-time major winner

Elsewhere in the men’s draw, we were treated to a fine run from Juan-Martin del Potro, who at one point was looking likely to be the man to come through the draw from the bottom half. As it is, a quarter-final result is likely to please delPo supporters and if he can remain injury-free, he will be a force to be reckoned with in 2017, buoyed by an improved ranking too of course. Lucas Pouille and Rafael Nadal produced a match-of-the-tournament contender, with the young Frenchman coming out on top to make his second successive major quarter-final. It was riveting to see Nadal fight like the champion he is but Pouille’s swashbuckling style had too much on the day. Andy Murray’s summer of exertion finally caught up with him and it was refreshing to see Kei Nishikori take advantage of a temper tantrum from the world number two to book a well-overdue semi-final appearance.

The big problem in the men’s tournament was the number of withdrawals or retirements. Every single round through to the quarter-finals had at least one pull-out with a total of nine. It would appear that the tough summer schedule caught up with some guys here. It is well-documented how well tennis players are paid for each round they progress at a grand slam so it is no surprise to see them taking a chance on their fitness. One wonders if it would be wise in the future to bend the schedule a little in an Olympic year.

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The women’s tournament delivered a strong fortnight. Angelique Kerber became the new world number one, finally putting an end to Serena Williams’ stranglehold on that position which had lasted for three and a half years. Kerber is a deserved leader of the women’s game; she has won more slams this year than any other player and has defeated her old mental demons. The last few days have transformed her career from being very good to great. The way she hangs in points and then produces bullet winners from impossible angles is a joy to watch and her final against Karolina Pliskova was one of the great finals of this century. Their games pushed the other’s to the absolute limit and it was so good to see Pliskova handle the occasion so well. It was difficult to comprehend how she had never gone beyond the third round of a major before this fortnight but she fair smashed through that glass ceiling in New York. Pliskova’s deep crisp hitting is reminiscent of Lindsay Davenport, something which would have made her more fans at Flushing Meadows had she not dumped out both of the Williams’ sisters in the space of three evenings, her final set tie-breaker victory over Venus the match of the tournament for me (Naomi Osaka’s brave performance defeat to Madison Keys was a close second, but the quality didn’t quite match the drama). It will be interesting to see if the Czech continues on this upward trajectory; her game looks particularly suited to both the Australian Open and Wimbledon.

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On top of the world – the new champion is the new world number 1!

 

Caroline Wozniacki rolled back the years and hit fine form once again in New York, her favourite city. The two-time finalist didn’t quite match her previous best but a semi-final appearance will go some way to regaining lost ground in the rankings race. She was on the brink in the first round against Taylor Townsend but did not look back from then on until she hit a Kerber brick wall in the last four. Ana Konjuh had a breakthrough tournament, knocking out two seeds including Agnieszka Radwanska before coming undone against Pliskova in the quarter-finals. Garbine Muguruza once again disappointed early in the fortnight and will need to go back to the drawing board to regain the momentum she built up with her Roland Garros victory, which already seems an awful long time ago. Serena Williams came into the tournament with concerns over her fitness but she had a good tournament. We forget that this woman is 34 and it still requires somebody to play an inspired match to knock her out; this time it was Pliskova who raised her game magnificently but Serena has had another terrific year.

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Holding on tight to a deserved title

 

Overall, a fine fortnight in the new stadium with some unforgettable matches, a new number one in the women’s game and two new US Open champions. I can’t wait to be a part of it all again next year!

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All to play for in New York: US Open 2016 Preview

 

The final Grand Slam of the year rolls around in a few hours’ time with form and fitness concerns hanging over many of the usual suspects. It’s more difficult this year to differentiate the dead certs from the outsiders and the dark horses, made even more challenging by the Olympics disrupting the US Open Series, usually such a reliable barometer of form. All this being said, you’d be a brave person to back anybody from outside of Djokovic, Kerber, Murray and Williams to lift the trophies in two weeks’ time.

 

Huge doubts linger around Novak Djokovic’s chances in New York. He has even been labelled as an unknown quantity coming into this major – these claims are risible. He is not world number 1 for no reason and is the current holder of three of the four Grand Slams. Yes, he went out uncharacteristically early at Wimbledon and was dumped out of the Rio Olympics in tears, but these tears were more the result of him knowing this was his best chance of winning Gold; he will be well past his peak by the time Tokyo 2020 comes around. He obviously has some slight injury concern bothering him but it would be foolish not to expect him to reach the final few days in the Big Apple. Milos Raonic, should he get that far, may well fancy his chances of upsetting the Serb at the semi-final stage, given the big-hitting games of Sam Querrey and Juan-Martin del Potro have caused the Serb problems in his last two top-tier matches. The Wimbledon runner-up comes into this tournament just days after John McEnroe leaving his coaching team – this should prove no problem as Carlos Moya can continue his excellent work with the big-serving amiable Canadian.

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The 2012 champion will be looking to add to his amazing 12 months

 

The bookmakers may disagree but I consider Andy Murray to be the strong favourite heading into the tournament in which he broke his Grand Slam duck four years ago. On that occasion, he defeated Djokovic in five gruelling sets and it is surely only his poor record against the Serb in recent years that is stopping more people marking him as the man to beat here. He is 19-2 in the majors this year and became the first singles player in history to retain Olympic Gold in Rio earlier this month. His absorbing duel with Juan-Martin del Potro in that final will do him more good than any match he played at Wimbledon; he may need to tough it out in New York and that final proved he can not only stand toe-to-toe with one of the biggest sloggers the game has ever seen, but ultimately overcome him. Murray will need to be wary of Lukas Rosol in the first round as we all know he is capable of turning it on every now and again but should then face no troubles until he faces a rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov in the Last 8. His potential semi-final looks easier on paper than the other half of the draw so he could come into the final weekend feeling relatively fresh, which could prove crucial if it is Djokovic on the other side of the net. I may be biased but I see little way past the Scot this fortnight.

Others to watch include two-time champion Rafael Nadal who seemed in much finer form in Rio and is obviously refreshed by his decision to once again skip Wimbledon, del Potro who is still capable of hitting anybody off the court and finally appears to have put his injuries behind him, and Nick Kyrgios whose enforced absence from the Olympics has allowed him to get accustomed to the American hard courts. It remains to be seen which Kyrgios turns up.

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Two more former champs in with a fighting chance

 

Serena Williams comes into her home major aiming for her 23rd Grand Slam. She is the six-time champion in New York but will want to make amends for the aberration that was her inexplicable semi-final loss to Roberta Vinci last year. Williams has some minor fitness concerns coming into the final major of the year but should she successfully negotiate a tough opening round against Ekaterina Makarova (an Australian Open semi-finalist just eighteen months ago), Serena is likely to go all the way through to Finals weekend. Of course one can never fully discount an off-day such as when the resurgent Elina Svitolina thumped her out of the Olympic Games earlier this month but Serena will have a further layer of dominance added to her now she has moved ahead of Steffi Graf in major titles. The biggest roadblock to a potential final could be her elder sister. It is seven years since Venus last lifted the title in New York but she will be the overwhelming crowd favourite were she to get anywhere near the business end of the tournament; tennis loves a fighting ex-champion and Venus ticks every box.

Madison Keys will be delighted she has landed in the opposite side of the draw to the top two Americans. Keys looks the very clear favourite to carry American hopes for the next generation if the Williams sisters ever stop playing. She gives off a Petra Kvitova impression; if her game clicks in any particular fortnight she is going to blow everybody away. A semi-final in Rio will be small comfort to her as she lost out on a bronze medal to Kvitova but a favourable draw here could see her advance all the way to Finals weekend. She has found a way past Venus Williams in the past but is yet to prove she is a match to Serena. If the Williams’ slip, Keys could be the one to capitalise.

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Outsiders: Konta and Svitolina

 

Elsewhere, Angelique Kerber appears to be the non-American who stands the best chance of lifting the trophy. Kerber v2.0 has had a wonderful 2016, currently tied at 1-1 with Williams in their major finals. However, her defeat to Monica Puig in the Olympics final smacked of the old Kerber, failing to beat an inferior opponent due to apparent mental fragility. There is no doubt that Puig played the tournament of her life but Kerber should have had enough wherewithal to get past her when push came to shove. The world number two will come into the Open determined to prove that was an anomaly and a deciding rubber against Serena appears to be the most likely outcome on the women’s side. Backed by a home crowd, one would have to assume that Serena would come out on top again in another closely-fought tussle.

Expect strong tournaments from Dominika Cibulkova as she looks to round off an impressive showing at the year’s majors, as well as Agnieszka Radwanska and Johanna Konta who currently lead the US Open Series. Radwanska can always be relied upon to disappoint but she should seal a quarter-final place, and Konta will be hoping to push towards the Top 10 by matching that performance. A step further than that appears to be a little out of their collective reaches at this moment in time.

Predictions

Murray to beat Raonic in the final

Serena to beat Kerber

Most likely to surprise: Monica Puig, Elina Svitolina, David Goffin and Dominic Thiem

Most likely to disappoint: Stanislas Wawrinka, Petra Kvitova and Borna Coric

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Wimbledon 2016 – how they rated

Andy Murray 9/10

Two-time Wimbledon champion

 

The Brit exceeded pre-tournament expectations but, more importantly, dealt with the burden of becoming favourite over the final nine days of the tournament. His run to the title was stress-free save for a tough two sets against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals. Crucially, the Scot kept his head when so often in the Lendl-free days he would have lost it. A first major for three years is a great way of starting his partnership with Jamie Delgado, with Lendl back in the mix too. Expect Murray to go close in New York after helping Great Britain into the semis of the Davis Cup but don’t rule out an early exit in Rio where he will defend his Olympic crown.

Milos Raonic 8/10

Make no mistake – Carlos Moya is taking this guy to a new level. There’s been a lot of credit given to the latest ‘super coach’ John McEnroe yet it is Moya who is adding steel to Raonic’s game. The Canadian’s rise has been solid and he now finally looks capable of being a Slam winner. He should and will be disappointed with his inability to figure out Murray’s brick wall in the final but he will get another shot in the US Open and his game suits three of the four majors so expect him to win one sooner rather than later. He found a way to get past the legend that is Roger Federer in the match of the tournament and will now feel he belongs in every conversation about possible winners at the next two Slams.

Roger Federer 6/10

This may seem harsh but Federer missed his last chance here. His comeback win over Marin Cilic was dramatic but the chinks in his game were spotted and exploited by Raonic. Federer schooled the Canadian at Wimbledon 2014 but whilst the younger man has moved on, Federer’s body has finally refused him any further progress. It remains to be seen if the Swiss will take part in the 2017 season. Will he still be a major semi-finalist should he decide to go on? Probably. Can he win another? The answer to that is a categorical no. Federer’s joie de jouer may now dip if he feels he cannot make it to Grand Slam #18. One thing’s for sure – a more popular player Centre Court will not see for many a decade.

Federer victorious in 2011

17 and most probably out…

 

Novak Djokovic 6/10

Not as disastrous as it first seems. This guy has been putting his body and mind under insane pressure in his quest for the Calendar Slam. His early exit here coupled with his usual sitting-out of the Davis Cup quarter-finals will give the world #1 the necessary time to recuperate from what has been a stunning year in which he held all four majors. The pressure will have been notched down rather than up for a change so don’t be surprised to see Djokovic return fitter, stronger and just as good as before.

Nicolas Mahut 10/10

The genial Frenchman has ensured that his name will not just be remembered for THAT 2011 match which he lost. As well as reaching the last 16 in the singles, the 34-year-old has found a young doubles partner capable of complementing his game perfectly. They are now holders of two of the four majors and are the best doubles team in the world right now; Pierre-Hugues Herbert can achieve things in singles also but I’m sure most neutrals were more delighted for his partner Mahut as he became a Wimbledon champion on Saturday evening.

Nick Kyrgios 2/10

Everybody knows I’m not a fan so I won’t write too much. Get a grip, Kyrgios. People are paying big money and to tank when you lose a set is pathetic. Hire a coach who will test you, not pander to you. Want to be a champion or not? Talented players without the desire to win are ten-a-penny and are forgotten overnight. Kyrgios has the ability to win Wimbledon but right now he is a million miles away as he has the heart of a pea.

Serena Williams 10/10

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22 not out

 

If Kyrgios wants an example of how it is done, he should look no further than the seven-time Wimbledon champion who now has 22 Grand Slams to her name. At the age of 30, she took the decision to hire Patrick Mouratoglu as her coach and their partnership has reaped gigantic reward. Serena has never lost a mental battle on court and her Wimbledon fortnight is one to be cherished. She was pushed in round 2 by her compatriot Christina McHale but came through in three sets. From there, her route was relatively straightforward but when pushed by Angelique Kerber in the final, she came out on top. This will be of huge relief to the American after losses at the business end of the previous three majors. If I had a mansion, I would put it at stake to back Serena to win #23 in nine weeks’ time.

Angelique Kerber 8/10

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Kerber v2.0 can win more majors

 

The Australian Open champion made serene progress during the first week before knocking out Simona Halep and Venus Williams in consecutive rounds. She could not repeat her feat of defeating Serena but her overall fortnight has lain to rest any lingering remnants of the old mentally-fragile Kerber. Angie v2.0 is a force to be reckoned with. It would be a major surprise if she fails to surpass her previous best of a quarter-final berth in New York in September and she is likely to once again provide the younger Williams with her stiffest competition. Let’s hope the Wimbledon champion’s longevity encourages Kerber that she too can maintain this level for a good few years.

Venus Williams 9/10

There was nothing spectacular about the elder Williams’ run to the semi-finals, defeating nobody that she hadn’t been expected to. However therein lays the sheer quality of her tournament and level; at the age of 36 she is still living with players in the Top 10. She is still capable of winning slams – yes it requires a favourable draw and a Serena slip but Venus is as capable now of winning the US Open or Wimbledon as at any other time in the last five years.

Elena Vesnina 9/10

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Vesnina’s stand-out single performance

 

‘The Vesh’ finally gets a mention on this page for her singles exploits. A multi-slam doubles champion, she went deep into a major for the first time on her own. Knocking out Andrea Petkovic, Ekaterina Makarova and Dominika Cibulkova meant that she deserved her place in the last four. Granted her semi-final appearance was over quicker than it takes to fly from Paris to London but for somebody who has seen her suffer so many tough first-round losses over the past ten years, it is amazing to see somebody like Vesnina get her moment in the spotlight.

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Blushing bride

 

Dominika Cibulkova 10/10 – Wimbledon quarter-finalist and made it out of there in time to get married. Ace fortnight!

Petra Kvitova 2/10 – Must do better, especially on grass.

Garbine Muguruza 5/10 – Early loss will do her good and keep her feet on the ground.

Simona Halep 7/10 – Back to her best, will go deep in the US Open.

Tomas Berdych 6/10 – Perennial semi-finalist.

Sam Querrey 8/10 – Backed up shock win by making the last eight.

Lucas Pouille 9/10 – Making great strides. Not seen him play yet, but surely one to watch?

Marcus Willis 10/10 – Tested Hollywood scriptwriters. We will NEVER see him again but nice story.

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Plenty of early Brexits, but Serena and Djokovic Remain the ones to beat

The Championships

There’s a strong temptation these days to just hand the Wimbledon trophies over to Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic and not bother playing the tournament at all. But with Andy Murray reuniting with Ivan Lendl and Serena not having won a major since this time a year ago, what hope is there for a different name on those trophies in two weeks’ time?

Serena Williams should not have too many issues until next weekend, when she is set for a Centre Court showdown with either Heather Watson, who came so close to defeating her on that very court at the same stage last year or, more probably, with Kiki Mladenovic who pushed her close in Paris last month. If Serena were to come through that potential banana skin, she could race away to her 22nd Grand Slam but I just have a gut feeling that Mladenovic may get the better of her in a big shock.

Still 21 not out

If Serena does fall by the wayside, who are the main candidates for victory? As I so often say, you cannot discount Agnieszka Radwanska from a run at the All England Club and should she benefit from Serena being ousted she would be the most experienced player left in that half of the draw. Of course, Radwanska’s career has been ruined by a niggling lack of bottle when the going gets tough so I wouldn’t make her outright favourite at any stage. Gaby Muguruza is aiming to win back-to-back majors but may find the quick turnaround a little bit too tough emotionally and I wouldn’t be surprised if she too goes out in the first week.

Sabine Lisicki may be unseeded but, as a former finalist here, she can never be ruled out. Her form has been less than desirable for over nine months now but she always brings her best form to South West London. The same applies to Petra Kvitova, the two-time former champ. Can she bring her A game to Wimbledon 2016? Nothing coming in suggests that it is likely and she is going to come up against a dangerous floater in Barbora Strycova as early as the third round so I’d be amazed if she were to complete a hat-trick of titles.

It is Madison Keys who I believe stands the strongest outside bet going into this year’s championships. Her game is improving solidly; she has been to a Major semi-final at last year’s Australian Open and is fresh from a grass court title in Brimingham last two weeks ago. Were she to have to go through Serena Williams in the final, I would make her the underdog and not back against Serena. But should Serena not make it, I expect the Stars and Stripes to still be flying, this time for a new champion in Madison Keys.

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Madison Keys is in fine form

 

In the men’s tournament, there is simply nothing that will scare Novak Djokovic. He must recognise that he is head and shoulders above everybody in the game right now. If he plays to his maximum ability and intensity he will walk away from here just seven match wins away from the Grand Slam, all four majors in the same calendar year. He could face a small test in the Last 16 in the shape of Philipp Kohlschreiber who has caused him trouble in the past but there is nothing to indicate the German could take out the 2016 Djokovic over five sets. After that, Milos Raonic would need to play the match of his life to take out a warmed-up Djokovic and it is just unlikely to happen.

Everything points to a second Wimbledon final between the World number one and Britain’s number one Andy Murray. Murray won their previous final encounter, in straight sets back in 2013 but only the most patriotic Brit or foolhardy gambler would back him to achieve such a convincing victory this time around. Does Murray have a shot? Yes. He has a very favourable draw and I can see him losing no more than two sets on his way to another home Grand Slam final appearance. But he would need to be absolutely on it and hope Djokovic is not at the top of his game for him to take home the title. Having Ivan Lendl back in his camp will be important to him and there was always a sense that these two special characters would end up back together; they’re almost meant to be. But it looks like a third runners-up trophy of the year for the Scot.

On course for the calendar Grand Slam

 

Away from the top two, expect a decent tournament but nothing more from 7-time champ Roger Federer. His season has been too affected by injury for him to string anything more than five matches together at his spiritual home. The Swiss legend should content himself with a quarter-final berth. Of the “next generation”, I’d pick Dominic Thiem to once again go the deepest but a place in the last 16 will probably be the best he can hope for here, which doesn’t quite stand up to his semi-final result in Paris. That said, it would represent real consolidation of an excellent spring for the talented young Austrian. The pack is assembling under Djokovic but there is some way to go before they start snapping at his heels.

My picks:

Women’s champion: Serena Williams

Men’s champion: Novak Djokovic

Break-out star: Madison Keys

Likely to spring a shock: Barbora Strycova, Kiki Mladenovic, Ivo Karlovic and Gilles Simon

Set to disappoint: Garbine Muguruza, Petra Kvitova and Stan Wawrinka

Brit watch: Murray to reach final, no other player to reach the second week.

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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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Grand Slam tennis – I love it! The organisation….less so.

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The view which greeted first-comers on Monday morning

 

It is funny what absence occasionally does – the two year gap between my last fleeting visit to Roland Garros and the present day has allowed it to become one of my favourite getaways; the Slam where most people who attend actually care about tennis in the 50 weeks of the year when it isn’t going on. As so often is the case, I leave a tennis major knowing that tennis was the winner despite, and not owing to, the organisers. I’m sure you would have seen a theme develop in my review of the good and bad of my French Open 2016 without that small precursor to what is to come in my summary of what I experienced in my three days at Roland Garros.

Radek Stepanek used every last drop of the wiliness he has gained over the years to push Andy Murray to the brink of his first opening round defeat since the 2008 Australian Open on Monday night. True, Murray was out-of-sorts but this mustn’t detract from a tremendous showing from the 37-year-old Czech (it is now obligatory to use his age as an adjective at all times when mentioning Stepanek). His persistent use of the dropshot was well-documented but I am glad that Murray acknowledged how well Stepanek volleyed too. I had chickened out and left with the Scot trailing two sets to nil on Monday night so was over-the-moon at getting the chance to see Part 2 on Tuesday. The man from Dunblane (or Glasgow according to the scoreboard) needed every inch of his fight to prevail. The five sets will do him well (the later five sets today against French qualifier Mathias Bourgue less so) but he has big work ahead over the next ten days if he is to trouble Djokovic.

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Lower decks of Chatrier sparsely populated as per usual

 

That match was the only one I chose to watch on Court Philippe Chatrier throughout Monday and Tuesday and the swathes of empty seats do not implore you to come in and join the fun. Whilst the ‘cheap seats’ had filled up towards the end of a titanic tussle, it has to be said that pricing structures continue to make tennis look under-attended on TV. The true tennis fans are pushed to the top but once there it really is difficult to feel a part of things, therefore I frequently sought comfort on the outer courts. It is of course essential to have VIP sections and those people have paid enough to choose when to have their lunch. But Wimbledon has it right (not often you see me write that) with a standard price for the rest of the tickets. How much longer this will be the case remains to be seen now that the Australian Open has joined its French and US counterparts in introducing category pricing.

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Dimitrov needs to find a way to stop his downward spiral

 

The expansion of seedings to 32 rather than 16 15 years ago (thanks Wimbledon!) was a disappointing move; it took away an unpredictability around Grand Slams that will never be fully recaptured. Nowadays, we must wait for a dip in form or an injury to get the first round matches we crave. Grigor Dimitrov’s fall from ‘Baby Federer’ to ‘next big hope’ to ‘also-ran’ appears to be now complete on the surface (and this surface). His five-set defeat to 22nd seed Viktor Troicki was always probable and the latter was simply the more patient of the two. Dimitrov has a tendency to rush points (taking his comparison to Federer to the extreme) and from the moment Troicki levelled at the end of the fourth set having trailed 1-4, he was to be the winner. It wasn’t a classic but it kept the interest of everybody who had stayed on Court 2 for the match duration of three and a half hours, plus a lovely rain delay beforehand.

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Donna Vekic wasn’t best pleased at any point during her defeat to Madison Keys

 

If we are talking about fallen future stars, it’s logical to mention a star that hasn’t quite managed to ascend thus far. Donna Vekic was once hot property on the junior circuit but her on-court petulance and sulkiness appear to be blocking her progress. She was disappointing in her heavy defeat to Madison Keys out on Court 6, her game taken apart extremely effectively by the amiable American. A word on the watching Stan Wawrinka: as sullen as his rumoured girlfriend was petulant. The defending champion arrived flanked by two security guys and refused a polite request for a photo by the guys sat in front of him (they had waited until the changeover). Wawrinka struggled to even be monosyllabic in his response and nobody was upset to see him leave after the first set. I saw different reactions from the likes of Dominika Cibulkova and Elina Svitolina, the latter running across the court to a group of fans desperate for a selfie at the end of her match which finished after 8pm. The defending champions’ behaviour is even more disappointing in comparison. For what my opinion is worth, the young Ukrainian Svitolina looks a Top 10 player, maybe even a Top 5er. Her forehand is matched by her tactical nous, both very evident in her dismantling of Sorana Cirstea 6-1 6-3.

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Rising star Elina Svitolina defending big points here but off to a majestic start

 

Another fine men’s match was Philipp Kohlschreiber’s encounter with Nicolas Almagro, the latter being unseeded after a poor last 15 months. His temper is still burning brightly though! Despite beating the 28th seed, Almagro was involved in a heated five-minute conversation/rant at umpire Carlos Bernardes AFTER the match. I arrived a set and a half into his four-set win so I must have missed what he was complaining about because everything looked spot-on to me. Good to see Mr Aggro living up to his (almost) name. There was plenty of other good tennis on show; a small cameo from my outside tip Svetlana Kuznetsova before rain halted play on Sunday afternoon; Julia Goerges was imperious in her same-dress derby destruction of 28th seed Jo Konta (yes I saw both Number 28s lose); Alison Riske continues to lose every time I go anywhere near her, doubly upsetting as she is my favourite; and Heather Watson and Dominika Cibulkova had solid if unspectacular victories. A fine three days of tennis.

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Nicolas Alm-Aggro!

 

The final word must sadly go on Roland Garros as an organised event. Firstly, ‘all exits are definitive, no re-entry is permitted’. Why? Having paid upwards of 60 Euros for a ticket, I see no reason why I should have to remain in uncovered grounds during periods of prolonged rainfall on a sporting day which can last for ten hours. It is unnecessary and frankly cheapens the event into a money-making exercise for the in-grounds vendors. You can leave every other Slam so why is it not the case at Roland Garros? I often wonder whether the four majors associations ever get their heads together at all! And then we have the security checks. I hoped, and expected, that the security would have been ramped up (Is security the only thing to ever get ‘ramped up’?) in the aftermath of terror attacks in Paris and Brussels in the last seven months. In my past visits to Roland Garros, it has been a rather inadequate bag check. On first inspection, it has improved. However, I fear it is actually no safer and has soured the whole event. Here goes: Step 1 – open your jackets half-way between metro station and front gates (a walk that in the past took 7 minutes). Step 2 – a body scan, done by a human waving a scanner. Step 3 – Bag search and pat down at the gates. All okay in theory, but when you have tens of thousands of people arriving between 10-11am, it is impossible to manage. Next year, Roland Garros must open their gates earlier if they are to properly secure their event. Decent people do not mind vigorous checks if they get into an event or onto their planes on time. What happened on Tuesday was that those who arrived at 10am (the time the gates open) missed the start of play, play they had paid for. Additionally, after the body scan had been conducted by just four people for these thousands of fans, the crowd then bottlenecked into a huge throng that had no order awaiting the next stage of the security check a further 200 metres down the road. It is testament to the people in that crowd and nothing to do with the organisers that they remained polite and calm. It was truly shambolic. I felt the bag search on Tuesday was no more thorough than in previous years due to the staff rushing; faced with huge crowds there is an inclination to speed up the process. To do it better next year, they have to open the gates at 9am. By doing this, the early birds will arrive between 9 and 10, thus easing the rush-hour period significantly. Simple, effective and secure. So overall, security and organisation gets a 5/10 but the tennis gets a whopping 9.5/10! Can’t wait for my next taste of Grand Slam tennis!

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How not to do a security check

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Djokovic must seize his best opportunity yet – French Open 2016 preview

The arguments that Novak Djokovic is the best tennis player to have ever lived get louder and more numerous with each passing year. His place in history is safe but only by lifting the Roland Garros crown will he feel that he’s achieved all that he is capable of. Last year showed signs that the obsession was crippling him, it all getting too much for him once again in a final. Does 2016 provide him with an ever greater opportunity than last year did?

The World Number 1 made a massive breakthrough in Paris last year when he ousted 9-time champion Rafael Nadal in straight sets, as much a mental breakthrough as anything else. Nadal is no longer impregnable at Roland Garros and this will give everybody a boost. Look what happened when Roger Federer’s invincibility started to ebb away; Sergiy Stakhovsky is what happened. Djokovic must take every match as it comes (something at which he is usually so adept) and there is little doubt that he will appear in the final in a fortnight’s time. Who is he likely to face?

Most neutrals will be cheering Djokovic on

The usual suspects will line up, minus one noticeable absentee. This will be the first Grand Slam in 66 that Roger Federer has failed to take his place in. Let’s just be clear about the enormity of that – this is the first tennis major that the Swiss has not appeared at THIS MILLENNIUM! The 17-time major winner has opted to give this one a miss in order to allow his back to fully recover, seemingly with one eye on giving Wimbledon a sizeable tilt at the end of June. His absence means genuine contenders are few and far between. The obvious two candidates are Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. The latter has been in the finest clay court form of his career recently, competing at a high level with both Nadal and Djokovic each time he has met one. His recent victory over Djokovic in the Rome final will have given him a gigantic psychological lift, ending that horrendous losing streak he had been enduring at the hands of the Serb; Murray looks set for a first French Open final. If he slips up, Nadal is sure to take advantage but it is hard to see the Mallorcan finding a way through both the Scot and Djokovic. The winner will certainly come from those three and the smart money is on Djokovic cementing his place in tennis history by completing the career Grand Slam and taking him clear of Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver to achieve his 12th major title.

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Serena will likely have her feet up with the trophy again on June 4th

 

On the women’s side, it is practically impossible to see beyond reigning champion Serena Williams. Her previous closest competitor Maria Sharapova will not be there to seek out her third French Open title and we currently do not know when, or indeed if, we will ever see her on court again after her failed drugs test. As ever, it will take a monumental effort from somebody to topple the 21-time major winner, but recent defeats in the latter stages of Grand Slams will give hope to the field. In the past, once Serena had played her way into a tournament that tended to be it – but she has lost at the semi and final stage of the last two major tournaments and the likes of Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber and even Svetlana Kuznetsova will fancy their chances if they can hit some kind of form in the French capital. Of course, Victoria Azarenka cannot be ruled out from completing her comeback by returning to the winners’ circle and Gabby Muguruza will look to defend her points from her fine Spring of 2015 by matching or bettering her results this time around. Nevertheless, the smart money will be on the younger Williams sister drawing level with Steffi Graf on 22 major titles, as long as she doesn’t get too tempted by the dog food on offer in Paris’ finest brasseries as she did recently in Rome. As for me, I’m off to the first three days so will check in with my experiences sometime next week. Here’s hoping it doesn’t take me an hour to get a coffee this time!

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