Tag Archives: Maria Sharapova

The Queen of Clay joins long-reigning King – French Open finals review

Well I love to say I told you so…. A strange French Open was lit up by two absorbing finals this past weekend, and whilst there is no end in sight to Rafael Nadal’s dominance of Paris, it was pleasing to also see Maria Sharapova excelling on the surface on which she once felt like a cow on ice. The finals were both full of drama, but one far outweighed the other in terms of consistent quality.

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

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

Rafael Nadal won his ninth French Open crown. Did anybody ever seriously doubt it? I joked watching the presentations that Bjorn Borg must feel like a chump stood next to him, but seriously Borg must never have imagined that one day somebody would better his Roland Garros tally by 50%! The final was not a classic for the ages, in terms of quality it did not come close to some of their previous encounters. For a set and a half it did, but then for some reason both men’s level fell off and Novak’s level went down a notch or two further. What it didn’t do was take away any of the intrigue. The men’s draw at the French Open has now simply become a spellbinding subplot centring on who can dethrone King Rafa. His run now is up there with the greatest runs in the history of sport. He has won that thing nine times for goodness sake. Over ten years, he has amassed 66 victories and suffered a solitary defeat. This has not been a period of dominance in an era without great players. He’s beaten Roger Federer in four of the finals and now Novak Djokovic in a further two, players with 23 Grand Slam titles between them. I’m so happy for Federer that he capitalised on Nadal’s one slip in Paris to capture the career grand slam because it now looks like it will elude Djokovic.

The post-match tears from Djokovic were real – this is a man who has his place in tennis history, but he wants more. He wants to be one of those men who win majors on all four surfaces; the career grand slam list is a lot shorter when you take out the men who won it when majors were all played on the same surface. He wants desperately to win the French Open for this very reason, but he sees his chances slipping. If we’re brutally honest, he is no closer to beating Nadal in Paris than he has ever been – in fact, he is getting further away. I’ve written before how there is no reason why Rafa can’t go on to ten Roland Garros; it seems absurd right now to see him stopping there.

Sharapova kisses her second French Open title

Sharapova kisses her second French Open title

“A satisfied customer – we should have him stuffed” – a classic line from the 1970s sitcom Fawlty Towers, and it’s what sprung to my mind when watching the women’s final. A classic Roland Garros women’s final, we should have it stuffed. The first time a ladies’ singles final has gone the distance at Roland Garros since 2001. 12 disappointing finals were quickly forgotten as Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep delivered a classic. We’ve sat through one-sided all-Russian, all-Belgian, all-Williams finals, we’ve winced as the then-number one Dinara Safina disintegrated into the red dust and we’ve seen nerves get the better of the likes of Sam Stosur and Sara Errani. This was different, a fitting end to a terrific women’s draw. I never doubted that Sharapova would being her A-game but what a pleasing surprise it was to see the young Romanian live with her at every stage of the three-set tussle, and tussle is the word for it.

I’ve followed Halep’s rise in the rankings from a distance, having not seen her play much recently. Other commitments meant I missed most of her Roland Garros run but boy was I impressed with what I did see. She has developed her game in so many areas over the past 18 months and her mental strength means she stands a chance to win majors – I predicted she would crumble under the weight of pre-tournament expectation, having seen it so many times before, but she delivered in spectacular fashion. Look for her to go close in New York later in the summer.

What is left to say about Maria Sharapova? Well, quite a lot I think. So much has been said in the past about her fighting qualities, her maximising of her talent. However, I think it’s time to recognise just how good that talent is. Her victory here was her finest Grand Slam final performance since she lifted the Wimbledon title in 2004 as a 17-year-old. Yes, that was ten years ago. She has been at the top of the game ever since. Not number one, but pretty much top 5 consistently, save for injury absences. In that time, she had major shoulder surgery and reconstructed her service action (admittedly still her bête noire). Ask other champions how difficult it is to play a full schedule at the top of the modern game for a decade. Ask Justine Henin how difficult it is, ask Kim Clijsters, ask Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport. All great champions who couldn’t do it for ten consecutive years. It’s tough, and yet she does all this amongst a volley of cat-calls, bitchiness and mockery. “She takes way too long between points”. “Her shrieks are intolerable”. Twitter bordered on bullying during the final. These statements flew her as accusations of cheating. Like these things were suddenly new. Who calls Djokovic out on his time-wasting? Who has a go at the ridiculous noises Sara Errani or Francesca Schiavone have always made? It’s 2014 but targeting the pretty blonde girl who is successful is still one of the easiest things to do in sport and in life. As for Maria, she’ll carry on shrieking (yes it’s annoying) and she’ll carry on taking an eternity to prepare for points (not the only one – blame the umpires) but she’ll smile every night as she looks at each one of her five major titles. Not bad for “the new Kournikova”.

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Money over principles…..Why the IPTL leaves a sour taste

Money money money

Money money money

The inaugural International premier Tennis League will go ahead later this year in the Far East and the organisers will be over-the-moon with the participants they have managed to assemble for the first draft and for the publicity the new format is garnering. There will be five host cities and each tie will be played over five sets, with a set apiece for men’s and women’s singles, mixed doubles, men’s doubles and men’s legends. Not too taxing you would imagine. It will surely attract huge interest in the sport in an area that craves the publicity that tennis brings, and all this in what is traditionally the off-season. The new format will allow is to see how interesting tennis can be shorter bursts, which may mean later restructuring at masters and grand slam level. In addition to this, it will be nice for players of the calibre of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras to really feel a part of things again. All in all, a positive experience. But at the risk of being called a cynic…….

 
We have heard time and time and time again over the past few years that the calendar is too big, that the players are suffering from burn-out, that it’s affecting the longevity of their careers. Players like Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have been at the forefront of this argument. We’ve also got Serena Williams who has spent the majority of her career playing the bare minimum of events. Yet, all three of them have jumped at the chance of adding to their already huge fortunes by playing a bunch of, what in all essence are, exhibition matches in their off-season, involving lots of travelling around between numerous cities. The respective chiefs of the WTA and ATP must be aghast that the biggest critics of their circuit calendars have sold their souls and principles down the river for thirty pieces of silver. Now I know that tennis players’ careers are short in comparison with other walks of life, but these are not players who are struggling to make ends meet. They are multi multi-million pound superstars who have basically made all of their previous arguments defunct by signing up for what is nothing more than a cash-collection ego-boosting three weeks.


It comes as no surprise to me that Roger Federer, one of the few players who doesn’t complain about the hectic calendar, is not one of the names on the initial draft list. The record-busting Swiss has never been one to complain needlessly about the sport and organisation that has given him so much and he clearly recognises the need to take his off-season for him in a way of prolonging his stellar career. Add to this honourable list the name of current Australian Open and fellow thirty-something Na Li. Maria Sharapova is another who clearly values the off-season period and the Russian has declined an invitation to join the IPTL draft. If I didn’t respect these three enough beforehand, I certainly do now.

 
So for me, the IPTL is merely an extravagant sideshow of exhibition matches spread over three weeks of what should be valuable preparation time. For that, I will not be watching or paying it any attention. As for the players who have chosen to take part, good for them. Their play brings a lot of joy to their public and this could open up new doors and a new future for the game. But please don’t think that I will believe that it’s anything more than a self-serving exercise for each player that travels to the inaugural event later in the year. And I’ll never give a single second’s credence to any of those involved should they complain about the unfair schedule of the ATP and WTA seasons at any point in the future.

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Same old brand new you? Favourites hotly fancied in Oz

Defending champions Djokovic and Azarenka

Defending champions Djokovic and Azarenka

Ask most tennis pundits who will be holding the trophies at the end of the coming fortnight, and the general consensus seems to be that the casual fan can skip the first twelve days of the first Grand Slam of 2014 and tune in on finals weekend to see two clashes between defending champions and current world number 1s; Victoria Azarenka taking on Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic up against Rafael Nadal. It’s a depressing thought for the depth of the game, but is there any hope for any other players outside of these four? It’s always hard to tell as you come into Melbourne with so little build-up beforehand, but there are some clues in the draw and build-up.

The beauty of the draw in the tennis majors is that reputation counts for nothing. Bernard Tomic has been cruelly punished for a lacklustre 2013 which left him outside of the seeds here by being paired with Rafa Nadal for Tuesday’s evening session. A disaster for young Mr Tomic, but I hardly think the world number 1 was delighted at the prospect of having to face Australia’s next big hope in his own back yard. It’s the start of a potential run littered with hazards for the Mallorcan, with Gael Monfils, renaissance man Lleyton Hewitt and Juan-Martin Del Potro all possibly awaiting him before he even reaches the final four. Djokovic’s run is ridiculously simplistic in comparison. Only Stanislas Wawrinka should cause him any missed sleep between now and finals weekend.

Andy Murray is an unknown quantity here. He promised he wouldn’t come to Australia if he didn’t feel fit enough to win the tournament but his build-up has been less than ideal. A win against a local Doha wildcard has been followed up with defeats to Florian Mayer and Hewitt. Only Murray himself knows what he is capable of here, and his great record here could stand him in good stead if he gets into some kind of a roll, but I count him out of being involved at the end. I expect Tomas Berdych to have a good ten days and possibly make it to the semi-finals, and John Isner and Fernando Verdasco to make inroads in Murray’s quarter; remember Verdasco has previous in Melbourne from 2009.

So I do expect it to come down to defending champion versus world number one. Nadal has the tougher run to that stage but the bonus for him is that he rarely carries over any fatigue from one round to the next. Team Djokovic will arrive fresh to the final, bolstered by the newest addition Boris Becker. Expect another slobber knocker of a final and Nadal to edge it having come in more battle-ready due to his tough run. It is five years since he won his sole Australian Open, and it’s high time he doubled that tally.

The 2009 champion

The 2009 champion

I have a sneaking suspicion however that the women’s draw will not go as expected. If Sloane Stephens continues on her upward trajectory from last season, she can push defending champion Azarenka all the way in Round 4 and cause a major upset for the second successive year after she ended Serena’s hopes of a Slam season at the first attempt this time last year. To lose the defending champion so early on would open up that draw significantly and give chances to the likes of Agnieszka Radwanska and former champ Maria Sharapova. Radwanska’s game will come up short on this surface as it favours out and out power so I plump for the Siberian to come through that section and head into finals weekend.

Serena’s draw is decent in the respect that it features possible match-ups with the likes of Daniela Hantuchova, Ana Ivanovic and potentially Eugenie Bouchard or Madison Keys if the new guard are to continue knocking at the door, but none of them will unduly worry the 17-time major winner and I certainly wouldn’t expect her to drop a set before the semi-final stage. But therein lays the danger. If twice-beaten Melbourne finalist Na Li can navigate a tough route which could include Sabine Lisicki and Angelique Kerber, I expect her to bring her biggest game to a semi-final against the world’s best player. I’d go as far as to say that Na Li is the most popular player on the women’s side down under since the retirement of ‘Aussie Kim’ Clijsters and that support could tip the semi-final in her favour against a player who struggles to be universally popular because of her occasional ungracious behaviour. The Chinese hits for the lines in all of her matches, and I believe she is due a big result against Serena; after all she is one of the few players that can get inside the American’s head. So I’m sticking my neck on the line and saying that the women’s final will feature neither of the two expected protagonists and will instead be between two women who have four Australian Open finals between the pair of them.

It’s a big call to expect Sharapova to come back from injury and get to the next Slam final, but I believe if other players were to do the dirty work for her by knocking out Williams and Azarenka, then that would really put the bit between Maria’s teeth. It’s a close call to predict a winner between those two but I go with Sharapova to win her second Aussie Open title and Na Li to be the bridesmaid for a third time, with a combination of Sharapova’s tough match play and an inevitable drop in performance from Li after a match with Serena just seeing the Russian through on the day. I’ve got high hopes for a classic Open, I hope I’m not just being an eternal dreamer.

Sharapova could repeat her 2008 triumph

Sharapova could repeat her 2008 triumph

Predictions:
Nadal and Sharapova to each win their second Australian Open title.
Federer to lose in the first week
Murray to lose before the last eight
Neither Serena nor Azarenka to make the final

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Greats of the game

King of clay

There was a moment late on Thursday, June 6th that divides opinion in tennis fans. It came in the 47th minute of a Grand Slam semi-final as Serena Williams powered another winner past last year’s runner-up Sara Errani to complete a 6-0 6-1 demolition job. “Lack of depth” screamed one set of voices; “a class of her own” countered the others. Where is the truth? As in all the best differences of opinion, I would argue that it is somewhere between the two. Sometimes, and this goes for both the male and female winners of the 2013 edition of Roland Garros, somebody is just too good.

Serena remarked this week that when she plays at her best level, she is difficult to beat. For once, this was unequivocal modesty from the dominant force in the women’s game. The truth is that when she plays at her best level, nobody on the tour can beat her. I have written before about how determined Victoria Azarenka is to push herself to Serena’s level but the truth is that at this moment in the former’s career, clay and to a lesser extent grass are not conducive to that chase. Vika’s best chance of upsetting Serena will always come on the harder surfaces of New York and Melbourne. Sharapova gave it her best shot but is simply incapable of living with a 100% Williams. It is a fact that Serena is a marvel, a sporting freak of her generation and fitter than ever before.

But away from her, there is depth. Witness Azarenka’s three set struggle against 31st seed Alize Cornet, unseeded Svetlana Kuznetsova’s surge to a classic quarter-final with Serena, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic’s rediscovered confidence, and then the Americans are coming again. Strong showings from Sloane Stephens (to back up her Australian Open achievements) and Jamie Hampton suggest that the women’s game is in fine nick. A word for Sara Errani too – She is too good a player to be remembered for that semi-final disaster. She was simply the perfect opponent for Serena. Let’s instead remember her run to the final last year and her first five matches this.

Queen of WTA

The men’s tournament also had a predictable ending, and in this assertion lays the sheer enormity of Rafael Nadal’s greatness. The final was not played on Court Philippe Chatrier, it was played on Court Rafa Nadal. He owns that place. This is the man, lest we forget, who missed seven of the last 11 months through injury. Whilst not one of their finest encounters, his semi-final victory over Novak Djokovic is still an all-time classic. His destruction of his good friend David Ferrer in the final cemented his place in tennis history. Forever. Eight championships from his nine appearances in Paris. 59 victories to one defeat. The first to win one of the major tournaments on eight occasions. The man is not of this world. And yet it is still his humility that sets him apart from the rest. He said after the final that of course he has doubts and that a man without doubts is an arrogant man. Well call me arrogant, because I have no doubt that he is the greatest clay court player who has ever played and who will ever play this sport. The word champion was invented for Rafael Nadal.

The word perseverance could have been invented to describe beaten finalist David Ferrer’s career. I previously thought that he had maximised his talent but I was clearly wrong. His career, despite him being in his 32nd year, is still on an upwards trajectory. What a tournament for the 30-somethings. Federer reaching his 36th consecutive major quarter-final barely raised an eyebrow and that in itself is testament to his greatness. In addition to this, the two Tommies rolled back the years. Haas solidified his excellent 2013 by reaching the last eight after outlasting everybody’s favourite marathon man John Isner in a 4th round five-setter, and that at the age of 35. Robredo became the first man in 85 years to come back to win from two sets down in three consecutive matches.

These stories, along with Tsonga’s run to the semis and the single-handed showdown between Wawrinka and Gasquet in the last 16 meant that this was an excellent Slam. The only shame was that both finals were won in straight sets, but that statistic only serves to underline the greatness (and that word is overused in sport but not in these examples) of our two French Open champions. Predictable, but unforgettable.

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No French Revolutions here; two irresistible forces to triumph in Paris

Image

There are two stunning statistics in the world of women’s tennis at the moment, both of which I find equally incredible.  The first is that Maria Sharapova, consistently the second best player in the world over the last seven or eight years, has failed to beat the best, Serena Williams, since 2004. Nine long years and twelve big matches with a lot of those defeats having been thrashings. The other is that the dominant force that is Serena has only emerged victorious on one occasion in Paris, a full 11 years ago in 2002. That is almost unbelievable. No player has been able to get close to Serena consistently in that time –  yet for some reason or another, there has always been somebody ready to played inspired stuff on the red clay of Roland Garros to knock out the Queen Bee. Remember Sam Stosur in 2010, dominating Serena in forehand rallies. And I’m sure no French supporter will ever forget Virginie Razzano’s miraculous display there 12 months ago, when she inflicted on Serena a first ever first round defeat at a Grand Slam. Yes, her first ever first-round defeat in her 47th Grand Slam tournament.

So, one could argue that Serena’s record at Roland Garros is extremely disappointing. In fact, by her superb standards, it is actually woeful. Other than her 2002 triumph, she has actually only reached the last four on one other occasion, the following year. This has to be the year she puts this right. She is out to avenge the shocking defeat in Round 1 last year, which jolted her into action for the rest of the season (Wimbledon and US Open titles to go with an Olympic Gold medal), stunning form which she has now carried well into 2013. Last year’s anomaly will mean she is ready for business from Day 1 here and I’m afraid I see nobody ready to challenge her this year. She has blown away all comers on the clay surface so far this season and lost only a couple of handful of games on her way to the Rome title this past week, comfortably beating Vika Azarenka and Sharapova on the way. Sharapova will be the likely opponent in the final, but I’m afraid her shocking head-to-head record with Williams will mean she is beaten before she even steps onto the court. And that is the biggest testimony you could pay Serena; the fact that the women’s game’s biggest fighter can’t even find a chink in the World Number One’s armour. So, put your life savings on Serena winning her second Paris title to move to within two of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova’s total of 18 major titles. I tip former champions Na Li and Ana Ivanovic to do well here, but all eyes will rightly be on Serena in my opinion from Day 1 right through to Day 14.

The men’s tournament is less cut and dried, but only slightly so in my opinion. Who to discount? Andy Murray is missing through injury, whilst Roger Federer cannot be classed as a genuine title contender in my eyes. Murray really needed to prioritise Wimbledon because he has a real shot of winning his home major, and Federer looks like time has finally caught up with him. That is not to say he won’t reach quarters and semi-finals (and having seen the draw, he has a good shot of reaching the final now), but I simply don’t think he can slug it out with the winner of Nadal and Djokovic  on this surface now. When he hits the relative comforts of SW19, things may swing in his favour ever so slightly, but here in Paris he can’t live with them.

Expect strong showings from Tomas Berdych and Stanislas Wawrinka at the Slam and during the rest of the summer. Berdych is a player who has flattered to deceive during his career really. I group him with the likes of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and, to a lesser extent (due to injuries), Juan-Martin Del Potro as somebody who should have done better consistently at majors, with only his Wimbledon final appearance of 2010 to show for thus far. But his form is solid and he could surprise by reaching a semi-final or even be there on the very last day, if he can first navigate an awful first round match-up with Gael Monfils. Likewise, Stan Wawrinka looks poised to leap out from Roger Federer’s shadow for a dalliance in the spotlight this summer. I tip him for a last eight spot here( and he is unfortunate to be due to meet Nadal at that stage and to be coming in with a slight injury problem or I would rate his chances even higher); he is hitting the ball superbly and his backhand is as good as anything in the game right now. I expect him to be a serious challenger in six weeks’ time at Wimbledon, but an appearance in the second week in Paris is attainable for, by all accounts, one of the nicest guys on tour.

The two with the biggest chance of getting their hands on the trophy on June 9th however are, once again, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Djokovic looks uneasy with fitness concerns, but then again, when are injury concerns ever that far away from the Serb’s mind? He has suffered some surprise losses on the clay courts this spring, notably to rising star Grigor Dimitrov in Madrid several weeks ago. Watch out for Dimitrov and the Renaissance man Tommy Haas to feature into the second week at Porte D’Auteuil, by the way. But it is Rafael Nadal that is the favourite again, certainly in my eyes. He has reached eight consecutive finals since coming back from his eight month lay-off, and has won six of those finals. Stunning. And his demolition of Roger Federer in Rome last week bodes well for the Spaniard. He is almost unbeatable on that Parisian site, with only one defeat in the eight times he has played this tournament. I think Rafa is confident going in here; he knows the other big hitters are struggling with form and/or fitness and he must be licking his lips in anticipation. His durability, stamina, and will-to-win will see him through here and once again Rafael Nadal will stand on top of the clay court tennis world as the King of Roland Garros.

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