Tag Archives: Agnieszka Radwanska

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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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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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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World Number 1s standing as tall as ever – winners and losers from the Australian summer

Rod Laver Arena night sessions are pretty special

Rod Laver Arena night sessions are pretty special

I could wax lyrical all day, all night, all week, all month, all year, heck for the rest of my life about how good it has been to truly live through a Grand Slam – to experience the daily ups and downs as I’ve seen each of my favourites bow out one by one, from the very first at approximately 2.30pm on the first Monday on Court 22 to backing the loser in both of the Singles Finals this weekend. Yes, admittedly there were more downs. But along the way, I got to see Madison keys in her breakthrough Slam, bashing Venus Williams into submission. I also was privileged to sit so close to players’ boxes that you really get a feel for how a coach sees a match. I feel lucky that the first two Grand Slam finals I’ve attended were great tussles; they were not the best in terms of quality (far from the worst either) but were both utterly absorbing in different ways. Moreover, they were won by the right people, athletes who wrote another page in their own personal chapters in the history of tennis.  Here I’ll try to sum up the Australian Open by picking my winners and losers of the Australian Open 2015.

Winner- Stan Wawrinka

The Wawrinka backhand - gorgeous

The Wawrinka backhand – gorgeous

So he didn’t defend his points but he gave it a bloody good go. The reigning champion lost just one set on the way to his five-set tussle with his predecessor and now successor Novak Djokovic. His dismantling of Kei Nishikori’s game in the quarter-final bodes well for the rest of the year where he doesn’t have so many points to defend over the next six months. He came closest of anybody to upsetting the eventual champ.

Loser – Agnieszka Radwanska

Radwanska mesmerising her lower-ranked opponent - she needs to find a way of doing it against the top ones

Radwanska mesmerising her lower-ranked opponent – she needs to find a way of doing it against the top ones

There is much work to be done for her new coaching team.  The same old problems persist for the Pole; skipping through the early rounds barely losing a game and then when she comes up against a tougher foe, the chess-brain freezes and she is unable to execute her usual strategy. She simply has to come up with a Plan B or she will never win a Slam. I still think she can do it, but her week here in Melbourne suggests the road is longer than initially thought.

Winner – Victoria Azarenka (no photo 😦 )

Australian Open is ace for fan photo opportunities

Australian Open is ace for fan photo opportunities

Vika is on her way back. She will burst back into the Top 10 before the spring is done as long as she manages her schedule sensibly. The former World Number 1 and two-time champion here did better than expected by reaching the Last 16, dispatching with current Top 10er Caroline Wozniacki along the way. The big groundstrokes were still there, the self-belief is still there in bucket loads and, most importantly, she is playing herself back into peak condition.

Loser – Rafael Nadal

Rafa is showing signs of slowing

Rafa is showing signs of slowing

The Mallorcan has work to do, and lots of it. The fact that a no-hoper like Tim Smyczek came within a fair play point of defeating him suggests there is something amiss with the great Spaniard. The dismantling of his game by Tomas Berdych in the quarter-finals is even more troubling for both he and his legions of fans. At this point in time, I’d even say that he is in danger of losing his grip on the Roland Garros trophy, unthinkable for the last three or four years. What may yet save him there is the fact that he has this aura around him when he steps onto the clay courts of Paris, which means that the majority of his opponents are defeated before they even step onto the court, onto his court. This force shield of invincibility is not present on other courts anymore, and Rafa will have to get used to many more struggles in earlier rounds elsewhere on tour this year.

Winner – Madison Keys

Keys should have a big future

Keys should have a big future

After Sloane Stephens and Eugenie Bouchard in the two previous years, it was the young American who became this year’s teenage semi-finalist. Her defeats of Wimbledon champions present and past in Petra Kvitova and Venus Williams suggests that Keys has the mental prowess to slug it out with the big guns of the women’s game but it remains to be seen whether her body will hold up to the rigours of regularly getting to the business end of tournaments. What is clear is that the decision to appoint the coaching team of Lindsay Davenport and Jonathan Leach has reaped instant rewards for Keys; her conditioning has improved immeasurably over the off-season. Look for Madison to solidify her place in the upper echelons of the game – she could do serious damage by the time the US Open comes round.

Losers – Australian Open security

I’ve said it before about major tennis events so I’ll reiterate it: allowing me to show you the compartments of my bag that I want to show you, and simply asking “You haven’t got any weapons with you today, have you?” is not effective security. Protestors are now getting onto tennis courts way too often. Two of the last three Roland Garros finals have been interrupted due to it, and now it was the turn of the Australian Open. Yes you don’t want a sporting event to become a 40-minute airport security check, but I do not want to see another Monica Seles incident. I sometimes think it’s only a matter of time before a lunatic causes serious damage to another player. Let’s hope the Slams get their heads together and beef up security before it’s too late, but I will not hold my breath.

Winners and losers – Andy Murray and Maria Sharapova

Both of the losing finalists showed that they are the best of the rest at the moment. Sharapova is still second to none in her steely determination – in her eleven years at the top of the game, I have still to see her give in during a match. Her game is all about brutal power and a willingness to hit harder and deeper when things are going badly. The only real difference between her game and that of Serena’s is the serve. Whilst Serena’s is rock solid, Maria’s still has a tendency to go AWOL at key moments in a match. When asked questions of for nearly two hours in a match against the American, it will always come up short. The same frustrations will be being felt by Murray. His fortnight in Melbourne is one to be proud of; he had a rotten draw, but he came through relatively unscathed. His victories over Grigor Dimitrov, Nick Kyrgios and Tomas Berdych suggested that his mental resolve was back, and he certainly gave evidence here that he is the second best player in the world right now. But there he will stay if he doesn’t work harder to remove the nagging doubts in his mind, the inner black cloud that still manifests itself at the crucial moments. Sunday’s final was there to be won at 2-0 up in the third set, but Murray let doubts and Djokovic into his head, he blinked a few times and then collected a fourth runner-up trophy.

Winners – Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams

Grand Slam Number 19 - only Margaret Court and Steffi Graf have won more

Grand Slam Number 19 – only Margaret Court and Steffi Graf have won more

There is nothing left to say about Serena Williams that I haven’t said before. She is simply unbeatable when she is on it. Time after time on Saturday evening, Sharapova got to 0-30 only to watch helplessly as four Serena bombs flew past her. Simply the best.  I do have lots to say about Novak Djokovic though. The final was the first time I have seen Djokovic in the flesh at his peak, against a worthy opponent. It’s simply unbelievable to watch the amount of balls the Serb gets to. I lost count of the number of times Murray would have won points easily against other lesser tennis mortals. Djokovic is the undisputed best player in the world right now, and his Grand Slam tally of eight and counting in an era when Nadal and Roger Federer have been playing is simply stunning.  I have no doubts in putting him as the finest defensive player I have ever seen on a tennis court and his mental toughness, aligned with his amazing physical stamina, will see him remembered as one of the all-time greats. Murray is right to question his consistent injury niggles during finals, but he should look to solve the problems on his side of the net first.

Australian Open Number 5 - no man has won more in the Open era

Australian Open Number 5 – no man has won more in the Open era

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Australian Open 2015 preview – Bouchard and Murray to reign?

Oh really, we’re here already? The tennis off-season whizzed by in a flash, seeming like mere weeks since Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic swept all before them in their respective end-of-season Championships. The big names have taken different warm-up routes prior to arriving in Melbourne but, with the Australian Open’s propensity to throw in one or five surprises, a cracking fortnight of tennis is in store.

The home of tennis for the next two weeks

The home of tennis for the next two weeks

On the women’s side, Serena Williams looked everything but invincible during the Hopman Cup, losing heavily to both Eugenie Bouchard and Agnieszka Radwanska, whilst being pushed to the very limit by Lucie Safarova. She will not like the fact that she faces tricky likely encounters with fast-rising Elina Svitolina and Garbine Muguruza in the first week. I will not be surprised if the latter, who reached the fourth round here last year, springs a big shock. Maria Sharapova beat Ana Ivanovic in a classic Brisbane final eight days ago, both ladies going at it hammer and tongs for two and a half hours with an intensity belying the fact that it was the first week of the new season. Both of them will fancy their chances this fortnight, Sharapova admitting that she is only here to win. If I had to pick though, I’d go with Ivanovic to go deeper into the tournament and match her semi-final appearance of 12 months ago.

Agnieszka Radwanska is a tough one to call. In the past, I’ve been critical of her mental fragility, especially when a draw opens up. She has the game to trouble anybody on tour, as borne out by her demolition job on Victoria Azarenka, the defending champion of the time, in the quarter finals last year. But her mind simply goes AWOL on occasions, which has cost her dear time after time in her career thus far. She has now done well to seek out help in the form of her new coach Martina Navratilova. One can only assume that only good will come out of this partnership. There’s not a lot wrong with the Pole’s physical game, and if she gets it right between the ears, she will end her Grand Slam duck sometime in the near future. Having said that, this fortnight will come too soon; a place in the quarter-finals would seem reasonable reward. Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki will look to carry their fine 2014s into the new season but the latter has the prospect of a mouth-watering clash with Victoria Azarenka on the horizon in the second round. If it’s the Wozniacki of late summer and the Azarenka of the same period, the Dane will be a shoe-in. However, if Wozniacki does not bring her A-game, we all know that it’s power-hitters who have the ability to smash her off the court. Halep will not face too many hurdles en route to the quarters, and I would say anything after that is a bonus for the Romanian who is looking to consolidate her place at the very top table.

My strong suspicion is that it will be the Wimbledon finalists who meet up once again on January 31st; both Genie Bouchard and her conqueror Petra Kvitova have looked tough and uncompromising so far this year. Kvitova has never been fitter and the confidence that she can hit through most of the tour, aligned with her new-found fitness, should see her strike through the field. Bouchard has an inner-steel that sees her through the tough battles. Expect a quarter-final classic against Sharapova – for sheer intensity if not for quality. Despite Kvitova being the bigger and better hitter, something’s telling me that Genie’s time has come.

Inspired by our meeting,  Genie's time has come

Inspired by our meeting, Genie’s time has come

If I’m uncharacteristically writing off Serena Williams, I might as well dismiss Rafael Nadal too.  The Spaniard has of course come into tournaments before when his fitness has looked suspect but this time he appears unfit and off-form. I don’t see any Steve Darcis or Lukas Rosol escapades on the horizon, but I do think the second week will see the 14-time Grand Slam champion come up way short should he have to take on one of the world’s top six. It always amuses me how people immediately start looking to a Roger Federer-Nadal semi-final when the draw is made, almost making the first eleven days of the tournament redundant. Despite the Spaniard’s current shortcomings and the great Swiss’ early season success, I actually see it being Federer who fails to meet the expectation of the draw analysts; he’ll fend off youthful challenges from the likes of Borna Coric and Nick Kyrgios but will likely fall at the Last 8 stage.  Don’t write these two old frenemies off completely just yet – I’d put good money on them sharing the following two majors.

Stan Wawrinka starts his title defence as somewhat of an unknown quantity. He finished the best year of his career atop the shoulders of his victorious Swiss Davis Cup team and may find it tough to live with life as the hunted, rather than the hunter here in Melbourne. On the flip side, he has been given a bobbydazzler of a draw. There is nothing to be afraid of until a potential quarter-final match with his conqueror from the US Open, Kei Nishikori. I’d still anticipate Stan’s feeling of home comfort here to take him over the line in that tough match-up. A semi-final showing wouldn’t exactly match up to last year’s triumph but it would show that he deserves to be respected at the top of the game and can play the big matches well. I wouldn’t be surprised to find Milos Raonic in the Last 8 club, along with Tomas Berdych. Raonic’s game is of course suited to this surface but, against the very best, he needs to find some variety to his game. Berdych arrives in Melbourne looking super-relaxed. He could even spring a minor surprise by ousting Nadal but a quarter-final berth would be a good start to what is an important year for the Czech; the male equivalent of Radwanska, he needs to sort out the mental aspect of his game as his talent deserves at least one Grand Slam.

I sometimes fail to give Novak Djokovic the praise and attention his career deserves. Whilst I didn’t write during Wimbledon, I was genuinely pleased that he added a second All-England Club championship to his trophy cabinet. A man that Nick Bollettieri calls the most-perfect tennis player that ever lived, a man with no weakness, is not a man who should have only a handful of major titles. He is unfortunate to have played during this period but he has made the most of his talent too. He’ll come up against big-servers at pretty much every turn here in Australia, but I expect him to have little trouble negotiating a path to a finals shoot-out with….Andy Murray.  The Brit looks as relaxed as Berdych, appears to be fully fit, in form and, most importantly, free of doubt in relation to his previous injury. He’s a three-time runner-up at the Australian Open, and whilst his potential run to the final is a hazardous one (Dimitrov, Federer, Nadal…) I just think the fact that he could come through under-the-radar will help him immensely. He has the game to win this one day, and I think that day is here right now.

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WTA’s week in the spotlight – we need a stellar week

All eyes are on Singapore over the next week or so as the WTA season ends with its round-robin event; a format that seems to now be the accepted way on both WTA and ATP tours alike to settle the year’s champion. Six of the eight different Grand Slam finalists from the year line up in Asia, with Dominika Cibulkova missing out due to her failing to capitalise on her early-season momentum and of course the event and the tour from hereon will be a much lesser place for the lack of the recently-retired Na Li. The Chinese had an on and off-court personality which very few out there can come close to matching and her legacy will not be fully known for an other decade or so.

The three later Grand Slam finals of the year are all represented with potential rematches of Maria Sharapova v Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova v Eugenie Bouchard, and Serena Williams v Caroline Wozniacki all possible. In addition, Agnieszka Radwanska and Ana Ivanovic will aim for their first Finals trophy, coming into this event after differing seasons. hat we have to hope for is that neither of the alternates Angelique Kerber and Kate Makarova are pressed into action. Too often in the past, this tournament under its different names has been ruined by the withdrawals and retirements of players, making a mockery of the format. The season is a long and gruelling one and it’s always hard for players to come into the tournament fully fit, which leads me nicely onto……

Eugenie Bouchard really shouldn’t be playing this tournament. There are massive concerns over her fitness coming into Singapore and the strapping on her during practice sessions is most unlike her. However, I simply feel like withdrawing wouldn’t have been an option for Genie due to commercial reasons. She’s a big draw, the biggest out there in tennis right now and I feel like if this was her third or fourth WTA Finals, she maybe wouldn’t be under so much pressure to play. Simona Halep also sees to be struggling with injury but she will think her hard work and fabulous results over the last 15 months merit her a place in Singapore so she will give it a shot. Alas, I expect neither of them to make it out of their group, even if they do manage to fulfil their fixtures.

Agnieszka Radwanska has had a hugely frustrating season, which peaked with her quarter-final dismembering of Vika Azarenka’s game in Melbourne in January. Whilst she has been known to throw in the odd shock result somewhere along the line, I have no qualms in writing off her chances here. Caroline Wozniacki, on the other hand, has had a summer of rejuvenation and her all-new attacking game has taken her back into the world’s Top 8. She’ll use these last few months as a mental springboard onto an even better 2015 in my opinion but she’ll find it a touch call to get out of the group.

Maria Sharapova comes into this event as an elder stateswoman but fresh as a daisy. She’s had a solid year, adding to her Grand Slam collection and playing some of her best fighting tennis of her career in Paris. She’ll be glad she’s not in the same group as her nemesis Serena Williams and should come through her group comfortably. Her round-robin match with Petra Kvitova will prove crucial in determining who avoids the World Number One in the last four . Ana Ivanovic should come through the other group at the expense of the less-than-fully-fit pair of Halep and Bouchard, and Ana is another who has been riding the wave of rejuvenation this year. Her forehand is working wonderfully and her aggression is tuned in at the right moments these days. She has a new-found belief that she belongs at the top of the women’s game going into 2015 and she fully deserves her time in the Singapore spotlight. Expect her to make the knock-out stage.

Petra Kvitova is the second best player in this tournament and her result here will match it. The now-2-time Wimbledon champion has the ability to hit most players, even Serena , off court and will fancy her chances of adding to the Finals trophy she won back in 2011. I expect her to claim four victories on her way to a Final showdown with the reigning US Open champion and it’ll be a blockbuster affair going down to the very wire. But, as so often in these previews, I have no option but to back Serena Williams to once again come out on top. Nothing seems so fitting in tennis as Serena standing atop the game at the end of a calendar year and I expect her to bring the form, fitness and motivation here to take away her fifth, and third successive , WTA Finals championship. Let’s just hope we get some fantastic three-set matches after some lacklustre latter stages of the Slams this year, as the women’s game has the full spotlight to itself this week.

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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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