Tag Archives: Australian Open

Simply the best – what a fortnight Down Under

Time didn’t stand still in Melbourne over the past fortnight, it went back almost a whole decade. 3 of the semi-finalists were surprise contenders and the other shows no sign of slowing down. A fortnight that lost both defending champions and the men’s world number one before the first week was out delivered two dream finals along with a semi final that will be remembered for many a year.

The Williams sisters contested their first final on opposite sides of the net since Wimbledon 2009, which was also Venus’ last major final. In that time, her younger sister Serena had won an incredible 11 of 14 Slam finals she had appeared in. Serena is the oldest Grand Slam champion of all time and there is no longer any doubt in my, or indeed many, minds that she is the greatest woman to ever play the sport. The fact that she still cites Venus as her inspiration, her reason for playing, and her greatest opponent must be taken seriously. Serena has never really had a long-standing rivalry at any point during her career but the fact she struggles to mentally take on Venus gives weight to the elder being her toughest opponent. Venus has done so well to play so regularly and so late into her thirties, especially given her health worries but she will always be second fiddle on the roll of honour in the Greatest Sporting Siblings of all time. Serena will get 25 majors now, at least. The fact that she didn’t lose more than four games in any of her 14 sets shows she is head and shoulders above the rest once again. It will take monumental efforts to defeat her at Wimbledon and the US Open if she maintains this sense of purpose.

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Whilst on the subject of longevity, I look back at my first ever trip to Wimbledon in 2001. The first match I saw on Centre Court was Serena Williams in majestic form against Jelena Dokic. Williams was already a US Open champion at that point and booked a quarter-final berth in straight sets. The following match on the oldest stage of them all saw seven-times champion Pete Sampras come up against the young up-and-comer from Switzerland, Roger Federer. I have always stated my presence at that match as the reason behind my almost-obscene admiration for Federer. To see him lift his 18th major sixteen years on, and five years after his previous one, has overwhelmed me slightly. I had consistently believed he would win another one but, after his six-month injury lay-off, I had finally written him off two weeks ago. Instead, he rolled back the years to defeat Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and his old nemesis Rafael Nadal to deservedly claim the title. He has looked after his body like no male player I have known in my twenty-five years of following the sport and this is just reward for his determination to hang in there whilst the ravages of time seemed to fatally weaken him. The two-slam swing that happened earlier today will surely ensure that Nadal does not now match his haul of 18 majors. The first four sets were good, but not classic. There was always a sense that it would come down to a fifth set (breakfast and cups of tea had to be strategically planned). The fifth set had it all, vintage Federer and Nadal going at it hammer and tongs for maybe one final time in a major final. For 30 minutes, we were all transported back to 2008, when Rafa finally overcame Federer on his Centre Court in a match for the ages. But this time, it was to be the Swiss who held the ‘young’ pretender off, defeating him in a Grand Slam for the first time in a decade. No two players out there bring the best out of each other quite like those two do; their styles are so polar opposite that it just feels right. This fortnight will give Nadal so much heart: he saw off Alexander Zverev, Milos Raonic, Gael Monfils in varying degrees of ease but his defeat of an inspired, rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov in the semi-finals is the true stand-out match of the tournament. Dimitrov looked every inch the Grand Slam champion, ready to smash through his own personal glass ceiling. Unfortunately, he had not counted on Nadal’s double-glazing defence, a real throwback to the Spaniard of four or five years ago. Such was Nadal’s form here that he should be odds-on favourite to claim his tenth Roland Garros in the spring, a real shot in the arm for the rest of the game.

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As for the others, it was a sobering tournament for Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Simona Halep, Agnieska Radwanska and Angelique Kerber who all massively underachieved. Murray will hope it is merely a post-Knighthood blip but Djokovic needs to take time away to reassess the lie of the land. Kerber will come back strongly in the next few months but the other two ladies have now missed the Grand Slam title boat, the ship has definitely sailed. It is dangerous of course to write people off; Roger Federer proved that and only nine months ago I wrote about how Grigor Dimitrov was wasting his talent but you do really sense that neither Radwanska or Halep have the necessary steel. What a tournament for Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, reaching her first semi-final since 1999, a feat she personally accepted made up for all her tough times. Who would have thought Mischa would be the Zverev to go deepest in the men’s tournament; he was, however, full value for his four-set victory over Murray.

Whatever happens in the rest of 2017 surely cannot provide nearly as many stories as these last fifteen days in Melbourne have. The Williams sisters hugging it out on the final evening and the two greatest male players of all time having what will probably prove to be one last five-setter final.  You sensed tears weren’t far from any of their eyes and your heart goes out to the losers but goodness, when there is so much misery and hate in the world right now, didn’t tennis do an awful lot of good for us old romantics.

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Australian Open 2017 – runners and riders ready to race for title

Whilst both draws have been hampered by injuries and doubts over form and fitness, the wise money would be on a repeat of 2016’s finals in Melbourne although it is hard to pick a winner in either tournament. Here’s a by-no-means comprehensive rundown of who to look out for in the next 14 days:

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Andy Murray (I’m not calling him Sir whilst he remains an active sportsperson) comes into this year riding the crest of a wave. There was no doubt that he was the man to beat in the second half of 2016, nobody managing to beat the indefatigable Brit during the final four months of the season. He lost to former number one Novak Djokovic in Doha two weeks ago but he will expect to reach his sixth Australian Open final. Don’t forget that age-old idiom…sixth time lucky?! Djokovic himself is almost impregnable in Melbourne – he has already won the title on six prevous occasions and it takes an almost-superhuman effort to even come close to challenging him on the Rod Laver Arena. His split with coach Boris Becker could cause him problems, the German having cast doubt on Djokovic’s recent hunger but the Serb looked pretty hungry to me in Doha, appearing to be revitalised after the winter break. Let’s also be clear that Djokovic did not play badly in the final six months of 2016 – save for his two off-days againat Sam Querrey at Wimbledon. The ATP Tour was ripped apart by Murray and Djokovic’s level dropped slightly; he was still the second best player over the final part of the year.

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Angelique Kerber comes into the defence of what was her breakthrough Slam in shaky form. She lost early to an inspired Daria Kasatkina in Sydney last week but arrived in Melbourne with almost a week to spare and I expect her to go deep again in the year’s first major. She should draw as much inspiration from her opening round last year as the final itself; the fact she came back from match points down ought to give her strength to come through any tough matches. Her route to a second final looks relatively stress-free but if Serena Williams is waiting in the final, the world number one will have to produce a similar display to her stunning performance in last year’s final if she is to stop the American winning her 23rd Grand Slam. Serena has an extremely tough first round against Belinda Bencic, only unseeded due to an injury lay-off, but this usually results in the former number one kicking into top gear right from the start. If she does get through to the final, I tip Serena to take Melbourne revenge on Kerber and get one notch closer to Margaret Court’s all-time record.

Ones to watch

There is no Madison Keys, Petra Kvitova, Juan-Martin del Potro, Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka for a variety of both pleasant and unpleasant reasons but there is a sense that anybody could come through and challenge last year’s finalists. Could it be a fourth year in five that a teenager reaches the women’s semi-finals? I can’t see it but then not many predicted Sloane Stephens, Genie Bouchard or Keys in 2013-2015. If Venus Williams hits the ground running, she could reach the semi-finals and expect Agnieszka Radwanska to reach the same stage. Johanna Konta had an incredible rise up the rankings over the last 18 months and put paid to both Radwanska and Bouchard easily in Sydney but a quarter-final may be the best she can hope for here. Karolina Pliskova is the wildcard here; she seems to be playing with extreme confidence since she dispatched both Williams sisters in the US Open. If she serves so well again, she can be a big danger to the top two.

The Wawrinka backhand – gorgeous

Don’t anticipate a second-week appearance for Roger Federer – nobody will want to see the 17-times major winner in their section but he will have to beat Tomas Berdych and Kei Nishikori in successive rounds merely to make it to the quarter-finals and he isn’t capable of doing that at 35 after a six-month injury lay-off. Rafael Nadal is a different kettle of fish altogether and a favourable draw could see him into the last four for the first time since 2014; a third round showdown with Alexander Zverev would be a real inter-generational blockbuster but Nadal should still just about have enough, for the moment. Stan Wawrinka will reach the semi-finals and, as we all know, nobody can stop him if he is on. He’s coming into the tournament a little under the radar which suits him down to the ground. Remember he is the only man to have beaten Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open since 2010. Should he squeeze past Murray in the semi-finals, another classic chapter of Djokovic v Wawrinka would await.

Home hopes

The Aussie fans are desperate to see their players go the distance and despite a talented group of young men, the dream still looks a way off realisation. Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios could both reach the second week but tough draws mean that their challenges would hand at the ends of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Wawrinka respectively. As for the women, Sam Stosur will hope to reach the fourth round for only the second time but you cannot expect her to get the better of Radwanska. Likewise, feisty Dasha Gavrilova will harness the energy of the crowd although that would not be enough to see her past Pliskova in the last 16. The wait for a winner, or even a finalist (Lleyton Hewitt in 2005 the last person to do so), will go on.

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Predictions

Semis – Kerber v Venus Williams and Radwanska v Serena Williams, Murray v Wawrinka and Nadal v Djokovic

Final – Serena to beat Kerber and Djokovic to beat Murray

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Djokovic and Williams chase new records – 2016 Australian Open preview

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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 – my Week One recap

Whilst the majority of people will point to Roger Federer’s loss as the highlight of the first Grand Slam week of 2015, I want to quickly forget it. The peril of buying tickets in advance means that I chose Friday as the day to try out Margaret Court Arena for the first time. After witnessing straight-sets victories for Tomas Berdych and Simona Halep, I could only watch helplessly as the scoreboard updated during changeovers of the women’s doubles match on Court 3, a low point to go with my decision on Monday afternoon to leave Rod Laver Arena to venture to the outer courts to watch one of my A-Team in action – Alison Riske. The misery of her subsequent hard-fought three-sets defeat to French youngster Oceane Dodin was compounded by the fact Ana Ivanovic had succumbed to the biggest shock of the women’s tournament thus far on Rod Laver Arena – when I’d left, she was demolishing Lucie Hradecka, having won the first set 6-1. How things quickly changed. Oops!

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Otherwise, my week at Melbourne Park has been utterly (and I rarely use this word sincerely, but here it has never been more so) awesome. I’ve finally ticked off my very own Grand Slam, having previously been to the other three majors and, from free entry to the final two days of qualifying to seeing Maria Sharapova save two match points in trademark fighting fashion, I’ve witnessed some classic tennis – high quality matches from great vantage points. There have been minor and major quibbles but essentially this is a truly exceptional event. The minor quibble: Melbourne has as many ‘tennis tourists’ as the other Slams; from a woman completing a crossword during a tiebreak to a man watching Nick Kyrgios on his IPad whilst ignoring the exciting match on the court he was at. A major quibble: the line-judging has been pretty consistently woeful. There is a definite leap in standard to what I’ve seen previously at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows, and even at Fed Cup and WTA tour level matches. I’m not talking about the TV courts where Hawkeye/Challenge Review can bail them out, but the outer courts where big money is at stake for the World Number 68s – the standard has been unforgivably bad and Tennis Australia must take ultimate responsibility for that.

Maria Sharapova needed all her fighting qualities to prevail on Wednesday

Maria Sharapova needed all her fighting qualities to prevail on Wednesday

It’s interesting how you attach yourself to players when you come to a Slam, players to whom you had no previous affinity. When I watched Lucie Safarova play Yaroslava Shvedova on Monday evening, I was definitely in the Czech’s camp. However, after Shvedova’s tenacious and intelligent play saw her to a three-set victory, we followed her into the second round where she easily defeated rising star Monica Puig. Unfortunately, the Kazakh’s run came to an end on the same court she had played Monday and Wednesday when the talented Shuai Peng had just a little too much for her. Still, a third round appearance and a new fan – can’t be bad! Jerzy Janowicz’s five-set win over Gael Monfils was my highlight men’s match of the week. If people think the Frenchman is good to watch, then I suggest they catch a bit more of Janowicz; here is a man who actually tries to win tennis matches with attacking prowess.

Jerzy Janowicz in fine swashbuckling style

Jerzy Janowicz in fine swashbuckling style

Incidentally, we pretty much double-handedly ended most French interest at Melbourne Park. On three consecutive evenings, our final act in the grounds was to witness French defeats; Malek Jaziri finishing off Edouard Roger-Vasselin, Janowicz’s conquering of Monfils, and Kevin Anderson’s demolition job on Richard Gasquet. Add to that Bethanie Mattek-Sands’ victory over Kristina Mladenovic and I almost completed a clean sweep on my Gallic cousins. Shame the only ‘L’Hexagone’ victory I witnessed was Oceane Dodin’s tussle with my A-team lady Alison Riske. A word for Riske and Russian Elena Vesnina – respect. Both lost in very different fashions on Monday but both took the time to sign autographs for young and old fans. Extra kudos to Riske who agreed to a photo with yours truly on Wednesday despite her doubles defeat with Madison Keys to the aforementioned Vesnina and her partner Kate Makarova. Ali, you’re a star!

A-Team member Alison Riske and I :-)

A-Team member Alison Riske

From the tennis that I’ve seen in the flesh, I still expect Tomas Berdych to make hay this week and Simona Halep to at least reach the final four. Kevin Anderson could cause bother for Rafael Nadal tomorrow should we see Second Round rather than Third Round Rafa. Dominika Cibulkova could come in under the radar should she successfully negotiate a tough match against a resurgent Victoria Azarenka in the Last 16. From TV viewing and report reading, I see no big reason to change my pre-tournament predictions of Bouchard and Murray; there are big chinks in Serena’s, Maria’s and Novak’s games whilst Rafa looks way short of confidence. Berdych v Tomic awaits me tomorrow, followed by, amongst other things, all the women’s quarter-finals and both finals. If they are as good as this last week has been, I’m going to count myself a very fortunate and happy little soul.

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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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