Tag Archives: Madison Keys

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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Birmingham tennis – a true Classic!

I had the opportunity to spend a day at the Aegon Classic in Birmingham on Friday, the first time I’ve ever attended a Wimbledon warm-up event. I had such a good time that I’ve booked up for next year already! Here’s a brief synopsis of my nine hours in Edgbaston.

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This is such a good event; granted I was fortunate to be on the good side of bad weather for a change; rain delays throughout the week had meant a backlog of matches to be caught up on Friday. There were plenty of top names in action; defending champion Angelique Kerber had to perform double jeopardy on Friday by playing both her second round and quarter-finals matches. She was not alone; Carla Suarez-Navarro, Yanina Wickmayer, CoCo Vandeweghe and Barbora Strycova all had to complete the same task. The event centres on the impressive Ann Jones Centre Court but the other secondary courts are so quaint it is impossible not to adore the tranquillity of them.

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The outside courts

 

The club is walking distance from Birmingham city centre and is in a beautiful part of the second city. As well as this, and crucially, it is competitively-priced; £40 for what would have ostensibly been four quarter finals is very good value in the current UK sports market. Birmingham is working hard to attract better players and with the calendar now being a lot fairer and allowing an extra week of grass court tennis in the build-up to Wimbledon, this event is surely going to continue to grow. I think that in the next couple of years, you might get more and more of the very top players choosing to come here instead of Eastbourne which immediately precedes SW19; Petra Kvitova, Simona Halep, Agnieszka Radwanska and Kerber had all made the decision to come this year.

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Konta struggling in my presence, as per usual

 

As it happened, of those four headliners only Kerber survived until the Friday. She safely negotiated a three-set victory over Australian Dasha Gavrilova in a fun, feisty match before later succumbing to Carla Suarez-Navarro. I missed the entire latter match bar the last game as I was watching another quarter-final out on Court 1, but the game I did see allowed me to see the Suarez-Navarro backhand in all its beauty – my one regret from my day in Birmingham is that I missed this match. Jo Konta, the British number one fresh from arriving in the top 20, was dismantled by Yanina Wickmayer in a delayed second round match; when the Belgian hits this hard and this accurately it is hard to fathom why she hasn’t achieved more in her career. The reason why she hasn’t achieved was evident a couple of hours later when her shots were clearing the lines rather than hitting them in her straight-sets defeat to CoCo Vandeweghe. Vandeweghe reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon last year and could go deep again if she continues to feel at ease on grass. Just to go back to Jo Konta briefly, I’ve now seen her play in Budapest, New York, Paris and Birmingham and she has lost each time. Barbora Strycova is always one-to-watch on grass, as is former Wimbledon semi-finalist Tsvetana Pironkova and they produced a highly-competitive two-set match out on the same court, with Strycova rightly coming out on top. No seed will want to see either of those in the first two rounds at Wimbledon.

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Jelena Ostapenko hits a backhand return

 

The match I had been really looking forward to seeing was Madison Keys up against teenager Jelena Ostapenko. I’d seen Ostapenko play years ago on the junior circuit at the Astrid Bowl and she looked like one to watch then. She has gone on to win Junior Wimbledon in 2014 before rising into the Top 40 at the time of writing. Put plainly, her star is ascending. Keys has got two years on her in terms of experience and game, and it showed. I often forget that Keys isn’t into her mid-20s such is the maturity she shows on court. Ostapenko matched her every inch of the way in the first set and looked the likely winner when she took it, but Keys figured her game out and found a way to win pretty comfortably in the end. It was no surprise to see her go on and lift her second WTA title earlier this afternoon (the other was on grass in England too), beating Suarez-Navarro and Strycova in the latter stages. She’s been rewarded for her run here by entering the Top 10 for the first time and she is finding the consistency to mean she can stay here.

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Late-evening doubles is always fun

 

The day was topped off by a fun doubles match, including two of my favourites Heather Watson and Elina Svitolina on opposite sides in a match that didn’t conclude until 8.25pm. Watson’s team of her and Naomi Broady came out on top – Svitolina’s partner? Jo Konta of course! I really ought to give Konta a break for a while.

Nine hours of tennis, my idea of a good day out. Thanks, Birmingham Classic!

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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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