Tag Archives: Kei Nishikori

The King is on the ropes – could it happen? French Open preview

Sharapova kisses her second French Open title

Sharapova kisses her second French Open title

Grand Slam tennis rolls back into the City of Love later today and, whilst my attention is uncharacteristically elsewhere for at least the first 30 hours of the tournament (Championship Play-off Final!),  I have nevertheless tried to make some sense of the draws for the second major of 2015. The reigning women’s champion Maria Sharapova comes in as one of the hot favourites but on the men’s side, the nine-time champ Rafael Nadal arrives finding himself in the unfamiliar territory of not being favourite, in fact being far from it. The French Open has thrown up some surprise finalists on both sides in the 21st century and you can never completely rule out it happening again in spite of the superstar era we find ourselves watching. So who will be standing tall in Porte d’Auteuil after fifteen days of high-class tennis?

King of Spain, King of France, King of Clay, The King.

King of Spain, King of France, King of Clay, The King.

The women’s competition promises to be a fabulous celebration of in-form tennis. The top four seeds Serena Williams, Sharapova, Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova have all had very good clay-court results recently, and the underdogs section looks pretty competitive too; Andrea Petkovic, Carla Suarez-Navarro, former world number one Victoria Azarenka and 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova are all capable of going deep into the Parisian fortnight. In addition to that, you’ve got Grand Slam pedigree in 2008 winner Ana Ivanovic and Eugenie Bouchard who always saves her A-Game for the majors. It’s a difficult task to pick a winner and made even harder when you struggle to be objective sometimes – we all have our favourites. However, I will try.

For all the talk of how dominant Serena Williams is and how she brings her best form to the majors when she has a difficult draw, I do believe she will bow out of the French Open in the first week. There’s no doubt that the younger Williams sister is the dominant player of this era, and the era before it for that matter. She has been at the very top since the dawn of the new millennium BUT……her tussles with Victoria Azarenka are always titanic encounters – who can forget their consecutive US Open Finals in 2012 and 2013? Azarenka’s ranking is now down to 27 after the year she lost to injury, but Serena will not have wanted to see her name so early on. Azarenka recently double-faulted on three consecutive match points against the world number one, perfectly illustrating how close these two are. I take her to finally get over the line in a big match against Williams and go deep into the tournament.

From the top half of that draw, I actually think that Andrea Petkovic and Petra Kvitova will fill the semi-final spots. Petkovic would have to come past the likes of Azarenka and former finalist Sara Errani, but the German would be a popular returnee to the semi-final circle she reached last year. I watched Petra Kvitova take apart Svetlana Kuznetsova’s fine clay-court game so resoundingly in the Madrid final recently, a performance the Russian described as the best she’d ever played against. I’ve said it before but it really is time that the Croatian takes her Wimbledon form into other slams, and she looks well set to do that in Paris.

It’s hard to look beyond a Halep-Sharapova semi-final in the bottom half of the draw; a repeat of last year’s final looks certain due to them both being in fine form. The Romanian would need to come past the likes of home favourite Alize Cornet, out-of-form Agnieszka Radwanska and her Australian Open conqueror Ekaterina Makarova but her spellbinding progress is sure to see her right. The two-time champion Sharapova has an easier route to the semis but will need to avoid complacency if she comes up against former finalist Samantha Stosur in the third round. Their semi-final will be every bit as good as last year’s final, and then better. You can never rule out the Russian but I have got to believe that if Halep is to get over the line against her anywhere, it would still be on clay. Sharapova’s a clay-court expert these days of course, but Halep is as close to Justine Henin that we’ve had since the diminutive Belgian retired.

Simona Halep is looking to go the extra step

Simona Halep is looking to go the extra step

A Kvitova-Halep final would be great for tennis, a final not involving any of the typical old-guard. A classic of punch-counterpunch tennis, of that tall swinging left forehand of Kvitova’s with the chess-style game of Halep. You can never be sure in women’s finals but I’d love it to go three sets. I’d tip Halep to edge the final and become the newest member of the Grand Slam club.

In the men’s draw, eyes immediately go to the quarter which houses both nine-time champion Rafael Nadal and the world number one and in-form Novak Djokovic. Does a 128-man, 15-day tournament really boil down to just one match on Day 11? You would hope not, but then as long as it’s as titanic a struggle as we expect it would be we could deal with that. Both of these men arrive in Paris in unchartered territory; Rafa as an underdog for the first time in a decade and Nole as THE favourite. How will they cope with their new tags? I’d be absolutely amazed if they didn’t both reach the quarter-finals. Djokovic may come up against Bernard Tomic and Richard Gasquet but if either of them takes a set from him, they will have done well. Rafa is coming into this tournament at his most vulnerable since he first stepped foot on Court Philippe Chatrier for the first time in 2005 but then this is Roland Garros, this is Court Philippe Chatrier, this is his house. Nobody will take him out in a best-of-five sets match in the first week. Despite all of the form books pointing to a comfortable win for Djokovic, I think it will be an extremely tight match between the two gladiators but, if pushed into a corner, I’m backing the Serb to prevail.

Whatever happens, it’ll take a lot out of the victor, which will be ideal for their semi-final opponent, with the sensible money predicting that to be Andy Murray. Murray has won two clay court titles this year and finally feels at home on the surface. I’ve always thought the Brit is capable of winning the French Open but his best chance may lie in the future when Djokovic is not so hot. That said, the two-time slam champion would have a good shot if Djokovic is underpar following a huge quarter-final with Rafa. His counter-punching style is actually a really good fit for the Roland Garros orange and he now appears to have the belief that this is indeed the case. Once again, it could be a cigarette paper to separate that semi-final – one thing is for sure though, it would not be pretty.

The bottom half of the draw can be summed up in one word: Opportunity. 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer will look at the names before him and fancy his chances of his first final appearance in Paris since 2011. However, there’s a name there that may well just take him out and that name is Gael Monfils. The exuberant Frenchman has come close to beating the great Swiss at Roland Garros before and this time I expect him to get the job done. That would completely blow open the whole half, and it would be Kei Nishikori that would be left licking his lips. I see shocks all throughout the fortnight in the bottom half and names like Monfils, Ernests Gulbis, Fabio Fognini and Roberto Bautista-Agut could all have parts to play at the quarter-final stage. Nevertheless, it is the Japanese Nishikori who I think has what it takes to take advantage of a kind draw and reach his second major final. He will hope to give a better impression of himself than he did in New York last September and I anticipate that he’d provide stiffer opposition this time around but ultimately fall short again.

Djokovic wants to complete the Career Grand Slam - this could be his year

Djokovic wants to complete the Career Grand Slam – this could be his year

In short, I predict two new champions for Roland Garros to add to its exquisite roll of honour: Simona Halep and Novak Djokovic.  But if they slip up against the two reigning champions, those champions will continue to reign supreme……

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Cilic Bang! Croat enters exclusive club whilst Serena continues unique brand of dominance

For about eighteen months now, people have predicted that the days of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic at the top of men’s tennis were numbered. Eventually, they were always going to be proven correct. Has that day finally come? How many Grand Slam titles will Serena win if she fancies it? These were the two big questions left in my head at the end of another cracking tournament, albeit one that was a little lop-sided on the WTA side. My biggest rant will, once again, be directed at the organisers of the tournament, something of an annual tradition!

Saturday could well prove to be a pivotal moment in the changing of the guard, but I don’t think it necessarily announces that the changing has already taken place. Kei Nishikori had an amazing fortnight; to take out Milos Raonic, Stan Wawrinka and Djokovic in successive rounds will do wonders for his confidence. It’s such a shame that he suffered from nerves in the final, and be in no doubt about that – Kei got tight and it ruined his shot at this title. However, his dismantling of Djokovic’s game in the final two sets of their semi-final suggests that the pack have caught up with Djokovic, on their best day. But therein is the key for the moment; Djokovic will still beat the rest of the field on his best day regardless of what they do. He looked lethargic in the latter stages of his semi-final, and Nishikori just ground him down before dismantling the game, something which his coach would be mightily proud of.

Marin Cilic played exemplary tennis in the second week of the season’s last major, a surprising breakthrough but not wholly illogical. Boris Becker stated during the final that Djokovic had knocked the big Croat out of the last two Slams but in really tough battles, and that they’d both felt that Marin was beginning to knock louder on the door of the tennis dynasty. Cilic has pushed them close before in the past but his game was prone to imploding in moments of pressure. His liaison with Goran Ivanisevic seems to have righted that wrong. The former Wimbledon winner looks to have had the same effect on his compatriot as Ivan Lendl had on Andy Murray’s game two years ago. Perhaps Cilic’s moment in the sun will be a fleeting one, but after the way he tore through the quarters, semis and final in New York there is hope that he can genuinely challenge in majors from herein. The newest Grand Slam champion has everything in his game, the depth he achieves off the ground is unreal and coupled with the booming serve (not dissimilar to his or Djokovic’s coaches), he has everything he needs to mount an assault on the top of the rankings.

Roger Federer is in a different place to Novak Djokovic in that his best is no longer always good enough to beat the likes of Cilic’s best. Sure, he is still a contender and I still make him, at this point, one of if not the favourite to win Wimbledon in 2015 but on other surfaces his A-game is not always going to beat the A-game of a Monfils, a Dimitrov, a Cilic. Weirdly enough, his record of 17 Slams looks more secure now than it did a fortnight ago. The breakthroughs this year of Wawrinka and now Nishikori and Cilic mean that it will be tougher for Rafael Nadal to inch closer to Federer’s total, but this small crumb of comfort will not seem too palatable for the ever-competitive Swiss number 1.

A usual sight in the opening ten days - not one you expect for the men's final though

A usual sight in the opening ten days – not one you expect for the men’s final though

The women’s tournament lacked a quality match in the second week. It’s becoming a depressing pattern; first weeks full of promise and high-quality tussles which then fizzle out in the second week, the popcorn week. The casual viewer of women’s tennis probably tunes into the latter stages and wishes they hadn’t bothered. It’s not the participants’ faults of course, just Sod’s Law but I remain glad that I follow the first week as much as I do the latter stages. There’s still depth there in the women’s game, highlighted by the eight different Grand Slam finalists this year but there’s no getting away from the fact that if Serena Williams really goes after a title then it’s her whose name will be on the trophy at the end of the fortnight. I find it a little frustrating to see Serena on ONLY 18 majors, because if she had given it her all throughout the career, her total would be closer to, if not greater than, Steffi Graf’s Open-era record of 22 Slams. Chrissie Evert and Martina Navratilova achieved their 18 majors in direct competition with each other. Since Venus went past her peak, Serena has had no serious competition to speak of and she has failed to capitalise, particularly this year.  I know it’s churlish to criticise the woman who just decimated the field, losing no more than three games in any set during the fortnight, but it really hit home to me what she hasn’t done. I’ve been her biggest fan but she could have taken the major records to untouchable heights. Her impact on tennis will live forever, but she could have been truly immortal if she had channelled correctly at all times.

My annual US Open rant is based again on the scheduling and pretty shoddy display by fans on final day. Luckily, we are going back to a Sunday final next year which should take away the ridiculous image of starting a major final in a stadium that was less than half full. Having a final on a workday is ludicrous, but to have it start at 5pm is downright crazy. The minute that we knew the final was between two new names on the block, it was evident that tennis tourists would not leave work early to get there. I won’t hold too many of them to account, but what I found disgustingly disrespectful was the fact that only 50% of the crowd stuck around for the presentation. This doesn’t happen in the other majors, what was so pressing at 7pm on a weekday evening that 14,000 people had to do a runner the minute Cilic entered the Grand Slam club? Such a shame. But a scenario not helped by the Monday final scheduling.

All in all, a great fortnight of tennis. Caroline Wozniacki returned to prominence and relevance, the trio of Shuai Peng, Kate Makarova and Kei Nishikori all made major breakthroughs and Croatia has a new sporting superstar. The Grand Slam year ended as it had begun, with a new name being able to forever call himself a Grand Slam champion. Pa učinio Marin!

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