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Unquestionable greatness

World Champion and Great Briton

World Champion and Great Briton

I thought long and hard about whether I could get away with writing a blog about the athletics World Championships, whether I was informed enough. But then that particular concern has never stopped me with tennis. I’ve watched all week a sport which is beset with drug concerns, as the sport I love appears to be lumbering into a doping crisis. Or at least it will be if Francophone media have their way. Not content with having eventually been proven justified in their pursuit of Lance Armstrong, they appear to now want to say that any enforced absence or retirement from tennis is down to doping. Nadal, Serena, Bartoli, Clijsters, Henin. 5 Champions. All having their names dragged through mud. This is the sport that chucked Martina Hingis, a five-time major winner, out on her ear for recreational cocaine use, something the Swiss always denied. But the facts are there for me. Tennis does not do cover-ups.

Anyway, the athletics. That is a sport where you cannot trust much of what you see. You have Russians who arrive at major championships and knock three seconds off their personal bests, in the 1500 metres. You have people like LaShawn Merritt who has served two drug bans in the past winning the 400 metres by a full 10 metres and you’re supposed to admire that. No, you can’t. You watch it and you suspect immediately. Shelley-Ann Fraser=Pryce has served a suspension in the past too. How many of the host nation’s athletes have served suspensions in the past five years? How many deserving athletes have been denied their moments on the podium due to cheats initially prospering at their expense. A sport which is currently having to do without Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Kelly-Ann Baptiste and Sherone Simpson. All established stars that fell afoul of regulations for an assortment of reason, none of which are acceptable for top sport stars. I’m just glad that I can watch the sport that I love and not see it through those suspecting eyes, no matter what L’Equipe or the Belgian gutter press say.

What I initially wanted to write about before I got so rudely interrupted by those libellous stories was how we measure greatness in sport. Christine Ohuruogu became World Champion for the second time this week, a full six years after her maiden victory. She followed up her first World title by winning the Olympic title 12 months later, but it has taken her five long years to get back on top of the podium. Yet we didn’t proclaim her a great athlete in 2008, no we waited until this week’s triumph ended her barren spell a couple of Relay gold medals and another Olympic medal, this time silver!). Usain Bolt is on for yet another clean sweep and now there is little doubt that he is the greatest short sprinter that ever competed. It’s because he is going out there and doing it time and time again. Mo Farah was not content with winning the 5000m and 10,000m double in just the Olympics, but has gone and repeated it in Moscow. By doing that, he inches closer to the real greats like Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebreselassie. Only by sticking around in a sport do you achieve greatness. By consistently being close to, if not on, the top of a sport for a sustained period of time.

You can have barren spells, injuries, times when a flash in the pan comes along and beats you to medals. But if you stick at what you do best and you look to continually improve, you’ll be back on top more times than you’re not. That’s why Sir Alex Ferguson was the don of British football. Arsene Wenger may have outwitted him on occasions, Mourinho may have trumped him a couple of times but Ferguson was the best for 20 years at United. That’s what made Michael Johnson the greatest athlete of all time, he was at the very top of his sport for nine years. And he doubled up in that time. That’s what makes Roger Federer the greatest tennis player of all time for me. That consecutive grand slam quarter-final record, the amount of time he’s spent in the Top 5. The way others have had to raise their games to challenge these legends of their sport. By being good, you can win. But by having longevity, you can achieve greatness. Whilst it would be a little exuberant to suggest Christine Ohuruogu is one of the greatest athletes in the world, her victory in Russia this week makes her, for me, one of Britain’s greatest ever. It puts her above the likes of Kelly Holmes and Linford Christie.

Welcome to Club Longevity Christine, you’re a fully paid-up and deserving member.

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The end of an era

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At the time of writing, only one glittering career has officially ended in New York this past week, but at least one more is imminent and two others appear to be nearing their denouement.  Laura Robson has burst onto the major scene by ending Kim Clijsters’ career for good in an incredibly high standard two sets of tennis.  Kim seemed quite relieved to have it all over and done with – I was privileged enough to be in the stands to witness it, and we all wish her the best in the rest of her life – tennis will miss her smile.  The hard-hitting Robson has added movement to her game now and whilst it would be wrong to put too much pressure on her young shoulders, this may not be the last time we see her in the latter stages of a Slam.  She showed all of her best fighting qualities to see off another major winner in the following round when she battled to a 3-set victory over Na Li – an amazing result to follow up on the best win of her career with arguably an even better one.

Elsewhere in the women’s draw, there was serene progress for Serena, Sharapova and Azarenka who have barely dropped a handful of games each.  I saw Serena’s match against Coco Vandeweghe and it was painful to witness – the gulf in class frightening.  The pre-match interview with Vandeweghe suggested that her serve would be better than her opponent’s – I think in reality she served about ten double faults in seven games. Sharapova was equally ruthless in her demolition of Melinda Czink.  I didn’t get a chance to see Vika but her results seem just as emphatic.  Petra Kvitova and Agnieszka Radwanska seemed unseasonably off-colour in their victories over Pauline Parmentier and Carla Suarez-Navarro respectively; it is no surprise to see that they are not featuring in the second week.  The opportunity to check on Angelique Kerber didn’t present itself, but she may have also effectively ended the Grand Slam career of Venus Williams.  if, as I suspect, the sport loses Clijsters and the elder Williams in quick succession, major draws will have an unfamiliar look about the for a while.  Their successes will always be remembered, but time waits for no woman.

And nor does it wait for any man.  Andy Roddick has chosen to follow Kim Clijsters’ example and retire on his own terms.  His announcement that this will be his final tournament is fitting, coming at the place of his only Grand Slam victory, way back in 2003.  History will prove that Andy’s peak came at exactly the wrong time, coinciding with Roger Federer’s dominant years.  If it hadn’t been for Roger, Roddick would be a 3-time Wimbledon champion but Federer always had the American’s number even in the epic 2009 final when A-Rod famously professed that he hadn’t just thrown the kitchen sink at the Swiss maestro, but had thrown “the whole damn kitchen at him”.  Roddick’s respectable showing in New York means he bows out with his head held high.

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Lleyton Hewitt’s Last 32 showing proves that the 2-time Slam winner can still live with the best on his best day.  However, the fact that he has had to rely on wildcard entry to all four majors this season certifies that his best days are few and far between these days.  Whilst his fighting spirit will never die, the smart money would be on the former World #1 hanging up his racquet at the end of the 2013 Australian Open.  Again, Hewitt is unfortunate to have played in Federer’s era but he is somebody who fulfilled every bit of potential in his career.  If he is to follow Roddick into retirment, the game will have lost two very popular characters in a short space of time.

As for the contenders, I stick by my tip for the title.  Andy Murray may not have set the world alight in Week One, but the old adage rings true – you can’t win the title in the first week, only lose it.  His run has been tough and he stepped up the level of his play against Milos Raonic in the last 16.  Federer was imperious in the first week, but nobody seemed willing to really get at him.  Murray will do so in the Last 4. I have not seen a single shot of Djokovic’s tournament so far, but results-wise I have seen nothing yet to change my view that it will be the 25-year-old Brit who lifts the trophy aloft on Sunday night, weather permitting of course.

A word on my overall thoughts on the US Open experience.  Firstly, the bad stuff: Arthur Ashe Stadium.  It is is unsustainable at its current size.  From the cheap seats, you are so far away from the action that it is hard to get involved in a contest.  Huge swathes of empty seats greet the day sessions.  The music from Ashe can be heard on all outside courts, which surely does not offer courtesy to the other competitors.  Above all, the USTA’s over-reliance on its so-called marquee names meant that the same players appeared over and over again on the main court during the first week in ridiculously mismatched, uncompetitive encounters. Take Clijsters v Robson and Malisse v Isner out of the equation and the average set score on Ashe in the first five days was 6-2.  Not good value. Onto the good stuff though, and there is plenty.  The most lively Grand Slam I have been to (I haven’t yet been to Melbourne) with ample crowd capacity on all outside courts.  Ticketing is easy, security is quick (although no body scan/search is conducted, which is worrying given tennis’ history), the transport links are excellent and a ground pass represents excellent value  with $72 giving you access to all courts other than Ashe.  A resounding thumbs-up for the US open from me!

The things that make a Slam special though are the things that may mean nothing to the next person – watching my favourite player Nadia Petrova win three on the spin, watching my favourite male player Fabio Fognini win in the long shadows of a Grand Slam sunset and getting my photo taken with one of my faves,  2009 US Open Junior champ Heather Watson, who proved herself to be approachable and pleasant.  All in all, a great week at Flushing!

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Murray’s time has come

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The power in men’s tennis could be about to shift firmly towards Andy Murray.  The British number one comes into the final major of the 2012 season on the back of an annihilation of Roger Federer in the Olympics final only three weeks ago.  For those who question Federer’s desire in that match, I suggest they read any of the Swiss maestro’s interviews from the previous four years – London 2012 was one of his biggest motivations for continuing at the top of the game and his failure to win a Singles Gold medal will undoubtedly rank as one of the bigger disappointments of his glittering career when he finally hangs up his racket. The plain and simple truth is that Murray outplayed Federer with a ruthless display of aggressive tennis, just 48 hours after seeing off Novak Djokovic in straight sets, albeit in a best-of-3-sets match.  This, coupled with his run to the Wimbledon final earlier in the summer, has now given Murray the self-belief that he belongs with these guys at the very very top in the greatest era of men’s tennis.

I have been one of Andy Murray’s biggest critics over the years.  His rise to the top was filled with missed opportunities and shock defeats in Grand Slams to players that he should never have lost to. There was a stage approximately 18-24 months ago where he looked like his career had already peaked.  Djokovic and Nadal were disappearing into the distance, with Federer hanging onto his younger counterparts’ tailcoats. Drastic action was needed by Murray and it came earlier this year in the shock appointment of  the dour Czech Ivan Lendl as his coach. Opinion was divided at the time as to whether this was inspired choosing or a desperate lunge to the bar in the last chance saloon. The truth probably lies somewhere in between the two.  Lendl knows from his own playing career that patience can be the key; he was the same age as Murray is when he won his first Grand Slam and he went on to win a number.  Murray saw something in Lendl which other players haven’t seen – this was the Swede’s first coaching appointment, a full 17 years after he retired from the game.  Whilst neither would win a happiness contest, it seems that the dour cocktail is proving a positive one and less people than normal would bet against Murray lifting the US Open trophy in a fortnight’s time.  Who knows, if that happens we may even get a smile from the both of them? One smile, not two, let’s not get too carried away.

Nadal’s absence takes away one of the big obstacles in Murray’s way.  I put only Djokovic, Federer and Del Potro as other possible winners.  Djokovic will aim to sign off a slightly less successful year (only the Australian Open in the bag this year!) by proving he is still the man to beat on the ATP Tour.  Del Potro has history here and looks to be almost back to his best and will prove an incredibly tough not to crack on the hard New York courts. Federer has continued his outstanding summer form into the American season and will expect an appearance in the final.  However, Murray stands in his way – your time has come, Andy.

The women’s game desperately needs somebody to take Serena out in a giant-killing act.  If somebody can raise their game to their maximum level and beat the dominant younger Williams sister, then the field would be blown open.  Get a blanket and throw it over about 8 women if Serena loses somewhere along the line.  Maria Sharapova has a shot at the slam where she probably has the most support.  Vika Azarenka has a shot at reasserting her number 1 ranking.  Petra Kvitova has hit good form at just about the right time for a run in the season’s final major.  A word for Maria Kirilenko, who will look to cement her finest season of her career by securing another last four spot and maybe go even further.  But it is Kim Clijsters who jumps out as the big value bet here.  Kim will retire from tennis for a second and surely final time as soon as she hits her final ball in anger or joy in New York.  She will put every ounce of effort she has in her to give this one final shot.  She will be the crowd favourite, no doubt, and if Serena is ousted somewhere along the line, the support and emotion may be enough to give Kim the edge over the rest and carry over the line.  What is encouraging is that with the obvious exception of Rafael Nadal, all the big players in both events are fit and ready to go.  It promises to be a glittering two weeks under the lights of Flushing Meadows.  I am lucky to be going over there for the first five days, with the first five sessions being on Ashe Stadium court – this should give me a chance to see most of the main runners and riders up close over the next 7 days, and I will no doubt blog further upon my return.  But for now, I will leave you with these words; Andy and Kim – you read it here first!

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How to solve a problem with Maria

A Dream realised

That it was Maria Sharapova who stood with the Suzanne Lenglen trophy aloft at the end of the fortnight should come as no surprise; A relief as there have been a few too many surprises in the women’s game over the last 14 days, something which serves as a big problem to the game’s marketing machines. For all of the complaints about the almost-decade-long monopolisation from the Williams sisters, it was good for the sport. Ask people for the name of a top women’s tennis player or a Slam winner and they would invariably opt for one of the Compton girls. Behind them came the good looks of Maria which meant that for a long time the sport did not need to try with marketing and appeal. As the sisters head over the hill to retirement and new careers, where does the women’s game go now and, more importantly, who can it pin its hopes on to appeal to a larger audience?

Even the most devoted tennis fan would hesitate to name the winners of the last 8 slams before this year’s French Open. For what it is worth….Francesca Schiavone, Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters x2, Na Li, Petra Kvitova, Samantha Stosur and Victoria Azarenka. Are any of them equipped to carry the sport forward with mass appeal?

I think it is safe to suggest that Schiavone’s year in the Roland Garros sun is now firmly in the past. She did marvellously to reach the 2011 final in her title defence but now appears to have rediscovered what was her previous career level; a safe bet for the last 16 but not likely to trouble the second week too much. Her fall to Italian number 2 after Sara Errani’s terrific run seems to confirm that Schiavone’s star is descending.

Kim Clijsters recently announced that she will retire for a second time after this year’s US Open. Her return to the sport brought her three Grand Slams, a damning indictment of the women’s game as her heart never seemed fully in it.  Her dream is to win on the grass of the All England Club – this summer presents her with a double dose of opportunity but the smart money would be on the hectic schedule proving too demanding of the working mum.  The loss of her smile and on-court attitude will be another blow to the Tour.

Na Li’s victory at Porte d’Auteuil 12 months ago was heralded as a major breakthrough for Asian tennis. The first Slam winner from the world’s biggest continent won the hearts of tennis fans with her adventurous play and fun bickering with her husband, and her form in the first six months of last season suggested more was to come. Sadly, it hasn’t materialised with Li struggling to stay in the Top 10 and whilst one would not rule out another slam, major domination is unlikely.

There is more hope attached to the winners of the last three Slams.  Petra Kvitova heads into her Wimbledon defence with as good a chance as any of lifting the Venus Rosewater Dish. As she powered her way to victory last July, I was convinced that here was a young woman who could dominate at SW19 for years. I have not changed that opinion. Her game is perfectly suited to the slower grass courts and her power is breath-taking.  An improved showing at Roland Garros this year is good preparation for another assault, this time as defending champion. Can the game use her as a marketing tool? Unlikely.   Her sometimes sullen, sluggish movements are akin to Lindsay Davenport and whilst both have many admirers amongst tennis fans, you need more to lure outsiders; on-court grace, stunning beauty, bubbly personality or continued success in all slams. As harsh as it sounds, none of these are yet true of Petra.

Samantha Stosur’s forehand threatened to blow the women’s game away in the autumn of last year. Her straight sets destruction of Serena in the US Open Final demonstrated great play, as well as the ability to keep calm under pressure as Serena disgracefully lost her cool for a second successive year under the Flushing Meadows floodlights. The spotlight was firmly on Stosur in her home slam in January but she stuttered, she stuttered badly. Call it Mauresmo Syndrome if you wish, but Sam just could not cope with the sudden weight of national expectation on her shoulders, not helped by Lleyton Hewitt’s ageing legs shifting that expectation across the draws.  Her performance in Paris was more assured, less nervous.  After what is likely to be usually early exits on the grass courts of South-West London, Stosur will be a favourite to retain her title in New York. Her modest, shy attitude and her age, as well as the fact that she consistently struggles in two of the four Slams, mean that she is not the face the game needs to take it forward.

Victoria Azarenka’s all-encompassing start to 2012 was something expected, if a couple of years later than envisaged. Her three-month unbeaten streak laid down a marker that she was ready to dominate but her early defeat in Paris showed her frailties are still there.  Her off-court persona makes her a likeable character, but too often her on-court shrieks are open to ridicule. Her looks, tenacity, charm and good play give her a decent chance of being a major marketing force if the audience can get beyond the peacock-esque noise.

The WTA must be disappointed that Caroline Wozniacki lost her way when adapting her game in an attempt to become a major winner.  This was a young lady who had almost everything they wanted in a Number 1 – looks, charm, grace, star appeal, a willingness to fulfil a hectic schedule – but ultimately her game was found to be lacking and it now looks likely that she will never win a Slam as she slips down the rankings.   You sense with Caroline that there will always be somebody just too good for her in each tournament.

So it is to Maria Sharapova that we look once more.  The 17 year old who called home on her mobile phone from Wimbledon centre court to tell her mum she had won is now a 25 year old veteran whose constant will-to-win suggests that she is again ready to lead the sport in this period of transition.  Modelling contracts and sponsorship commitments have never been too far away for Maria, but she has managed to combine them with constantly improving her game like nobody else has managed in the past. The reconstruction of her game following the reconstruction of her shoulder has been a slow, but oh-so-sure one.  She, more than anybody, will know that with the sport being wide-open, she has the ability to add more majors to her collection. The fact that she is now only the sixth woman in the Open era to have won all four majors will only add to her confidence.  Her willingness to scrap until the very last point of every match belie her sweet demeanour and, deep down, that is why most tennis fans have at least begrudging respect for her. Yes, it is over to you Maria – the autumn of your career is charged with carrying the WTA through a period of transition. Your legend is secured, you can only add to it from here. I will be watching with close interest, but admittedly with the volume turned down.

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