Tag Archives: Maria Sharapova

2016 Slammies

The end of the tennis season is finally here, time for at least four weeks of non-competition. It all never seems to stop but let’s take a deep breath and look back at some of the biggest moments of 2016 before we get ready to go again.

Biggest dope of the yearMaria Sharapova

No other place to start the piece but to acknowledge that the WTA tour has been a poorer place without the intensity of Maria Sharapova. Her two year ban has been reduced to fifteen months and, rightly or wrongly, events will be falling over themselves to hand her wildcards come April. What message that sends out to up-and-coming players remains to be seen, but you do feel that Sharapova has been, and will continue to be judged differently to lesser-marketable players. She argues that she has been made an example of, whilst others will see it as her using her name and image to get a smoother transition back to the sport. The sport has missed her this past ten months, and the overriding admiration people have always held for her in the past will never quite be there again.

Moment of the yearMonica Puig winning Olympic Gold

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There have been some amazing moments this year; a rejuvenated Juan-Martin Del Potro leading Argentina to the Davis Cup final, Sam Querrey ousting Novak Djokovic from Wimbledon with a huge-serving display, Angelique Kerber both becoming World number one and lifting the US Open within a matter of days and Andy Murray seeing off Djokovic in the ATP Tour Finals to make it to the end of the year as World Number 1. But it is the Puerta Rican Monica Puig’s stand-out Olympic Games run that trumps the lot. She had been knocking on the door of a major breakthrough for a few years, seemingly hitting a brick wall of being ranked around the top 30, but in Rio she defeated Garbine Muguruza and Petra Kvitova to reach the final where she came up against Angelique Kerber. The look on Puig’s face as she won Gold, coupled with Murray and Del Potro’s slugfest final should see tennis safe as part of future Games.

Struggling to cope with superstardomGarbine Muguruza

Where has the brave, free-hitting Muguruza of Wimbledon 2015 and Roland Garros 2016 gone? Since winning the French Open in majestic manner in June, the Venezuelan-born Spaniard has only won two Grand Slam matches, going out in the second rounds of both Wimbledon and the US Open. She seems to be struggling with being a Grand Slam champion to the extent that Petra Kvitova did in 2011. Hopefully, the malaise will be temporary, and she will go on to achieve as much as her game is capable of.

The ‘Isner v Mahut is this ever going to end?’ awardJo-Wilfried Tsonga v John Isner

I’m not sure that anybody with a weak bladder should go anywhere near a John Isner match in South-West London. It’s a slight understatement to say that this didn’t come close to his 2010 marathon with Nicolas Mahut but Isner’s 17-19 defeat at the hands of Tsonga has to be the match of the year. There’s a style difference between the two, and Tsonga’s reputation as fan-favourite meant that this match had the atmosphere to match the play. They are two players that leave everything on the court in attempts to get to the latter stages of majors and the sheer drama of the final set has to make this the match of the year.

Rivalry of the yearAndy Murray v Kei Nishikori

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The smart money would be on either Murray v Djokovic or Serena Williams v Kerber here, with maybe Del Potro v Murray as a possible shout too. But the fact that these guys played 13 supremely competitive sets out of a possible 13 across the Davis Cup, US Open and ATP Tour Finals edges it. I wouldn’t necessarily say they bring the best out of each other’s games but they do match up pretty damned well. Nishikori managed to get past Murray in New York but the new world number one edged the Japanese on home territory in Birmingham and London. If you get the chance to see these two at a major level, settle down and bring plenty of snacks because you’re in for the long haul.

Player of the yearAngelique Kerber

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This was a tough call as Andy Murray won a Grand Slam, Olympic Gold and the Tour Finals whilst finishing the year as World number one, having a truly stunning final seven months of the season, overhauling Djokovic’s huge lead in the rankings race. Kerber has to be the player of the year though as she has been pretty faultless from the moment she saved two match points in the first round of the Australan Open back in the middle of January. The only real blips were a first round defeat to Kiki Bertens in Paris and having to settle for Olympic silver when she succumbed to the inspired Puig. Other than that, she reached the Wimbledon final and won her first two Grand Slams in Melbourne and New York, ending the year as a richly-deserved number one in the world. It’s both intriguing and exciting to see how she will fare in 2017 but whatever happens, 2016 will always be Kerber’s 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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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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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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WTA’s week in the spotlight – we need a stellar week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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