Tag Archives: Melbourne

Australian Open 2017 – runners and riders ready to race for title

Whilst both draws have been hampered by injuries and doubts over form and fitness, the wise money would be on a repeat of 2016’s finals in Melbourne although it is hard to pick a winner in either tournament. Here’s a by-no-means comprehensive rundown of who to look out for in the next 14 days:

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Andy Murray (I’m not calling him Sir whilst he remains an active sportsperson) comes into this year riding the crest of a wave. There was no doubt that he was the man to beat in the second half of 2016, nobody managing to beat the indefatigable Brit during the final four months of the season. He lost to former number one Novak Djokovic in Doha two weeks ago but he will expect to reach his sixth Australian Open final. Don’t forget that age-old idiom…sixth time lucky?! Djokovic himself is almost impregnable in Melbourne – he has already won the title on six prevous occasions and it takes an almost-superhuman effort to even come close to challenging him on the Rod Laver Arena. His split with coach Boris Becker could cause him problems, the German having cast doubt on Djokovic’s recent hunger but the Serb looked pretty hungry to me in Doha, appearing to be revitalised after the winter break. Let’s also be clear that Djokovic did not play badly in the final six months of 2016 – save for his two off-days againat Sam Querrey at Wimbledon. The ATP Tour was ripped apart by Murray and Djokovic’s level dropped slightly; he was still the second best player over the final part of the year.

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Angelique Kerber comes into the defence of what was her breakthrough Slam in shaky form. She lost early to an inspired Daria Kasatkina in Sydney last week but arrived in Melbourne with almost a week to spare and I expect her to go deep again in the year’s first major. She should draw as much inspiration from her opening round last year as the final itself; the fact she came back from match points down ought to give her strength to come through any tough matches. Her route to a second final looks relatively stress-free but if Serena Williams is waiting in the final, the world number one will have to produce a similar display to her stunning performance in last year’s final if she is to stop the American winning her 23rd Grand Slam. Serena has an extremely tough first round against Belinda Bencic, only unseeded due to an injury lay-off, but this usually results in the former number one kicking into top gear right from the start. If she does get through to the final, I tip Serena to take Melbourne revenge on Kerber and get one notch closer to Margaret Court’s all-time record.

Ones to watch

There is no Madison Keys, Petra Kvitova, Juan-Martin del Potro, Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka for a variety of both pleasant and unpleasant reasons but there is a sense that anybody could come through and challenge last year’s finalists. Could it be a fourth year in five that a teenager reaches the women’s semi-finals? I can’t see it but then not many predicted Sloane Stephens, Genie Bouchard or Keys in 2013-2015. If Venus Williams hits the ground running, she could reach the semi-finals and expect Agnieszka Radwanska to reach the same stage. Johanna Konta had an incredible rise up the rankings over the last 18 months and put paid to both Radwanska and Bouchard easily in Sydney but a quarter-final may be the best she can hope for here. Karolina Pliskova is the wildcard here; she seems to be playing with extreme confidence since she dispatched both Williams sisters in the US Open. If she serves so well again, she can be a big danger to the top two.

The Wawrinka backhand – gorgeous

Don’t anticipate a second-week appearance for Roger Federer – nobody will want to see the 17-times major winner in their section but he will have to beat Tomas Berdych and Kei Nishikori in successive rounds merely to make it to the quarter-finals and he isn’t capable of doing that at 35 after a six-month injury lay-off. Rafael Nadal is a different kettle of fish altogether and a favourable draw could see him into the last four for the first time since 2014; a third round showdown with Alexander Zverev would be a real inter-generational blockbuster but Nadal should still just about have enough, for the moment. Stan Wawrinka will reach the semi-finals and, as we all know, nobody can stop him if he is on. He’s coming into the tournament a little under the radar which suits him down to the ground. Remember he is the only man to have beaten Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open since 2010. Should he squeeze past Murray in the semi-finals, another classic chapter of Djokovic v Wawrinka would await.

Home hopes

The Aussie fans are desperate to see their players go the distance and despite a talented group of young men, the dream still looks a way off realisation. Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios could both reach the second week but tough draws mean that their challenges would hand at the ends of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Wawrinka respectively. As for the women, Sam Stosur will hope to reach the fourth round for only the second time but you cannot expect her to get the better of Radwanska. Likewise, feisty Dasha Gavrilova will harness the energy of the crowd although that would not be enough to see her past Pliskova in the last 16. The wait for a winner, or even a finalist (Lleyton Hewitt in 2005 the last person to do so), will go on.

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Predictions

Semis – Kerber v Venus Williams and Radwanska v Serena Williams, Murray v Wawrinka and Nadal v Djokovic

Final – Serena to beat Kerber and Djokovic to beat Murray

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The Tennis Hunger Games: Catching Fire in Melbourne

I love tennis. I have the greatest respect for the dedication of all those crazy people who devote the best part of half a life to it. I’ve been to all but one of the Grand Slams and will tick the final one off next year. 15 Grand Slams attended, a third of the total that Roger Federer has played consecutively. I had the pleasure of seeing him beat Pete Sampras at Wimbledon and also saw him during his years of dominance. I’ve had the honour of watching most of the top players of this century up close; Nadal, the Williams sisters, Hewitt, Djokovic, Roddick, Kuerten, Clijsters, Hingis, Azarenka, Tim Henman of course and then some of those players that you just like but nobody else thinks are that big a deal; Fabio Fognini, Nadia Petrova. Then you can always try to spot an up-and-coming player before they make the big leap; Eugenie Bouchard looks set fair for the top but I’m still waiting for Ernests Gulbis to come good on my prediction.

Therein lies my point; I go to Grand Slam events to watch the players. I go to be entertained by the finest that the WTA and ATP tours have to offer. I go to watch them perform to their maximum capability. I’ve never once been to a Grand Slam to watch the tournament director. I recognise and respect how difficult it is to seamlessly organise an event which not only showcases the sport’s top talents but also caters for hundreds of thousands of visitors. But I’m not talking about shoddy US Open scheduling this time, I’m not talking about Roland Garros’ feet-dragging over building a roof, I’m not even talking about Wimbledon’s vague ‘outdoor daytime’ insistence. I’m talking about endangering the health of the participants that bankroll your event. The Australian Open and Tennis Australia by association have fallen way short of expected standards. They’ve failed the sport’s stars and they’ve failed the spectators who’ve paid top dollar to see this event.

Craig Tiley AKA President Snow

Craig Tiley AKA President Snow

When I go to a tennis event, I want each player to play to their best, and I want the best players to be left at the end of the fortnight. What we’ve witnessed during the first five days at Melbourne Park has been more akin to the macabre Hunger Games franchise, a survival of the fittest; and that is all it has been: survival. What are the defining images of the week? Sure, Roberto Bautista-Agut bust a gut to knock out the number 5 seed Juan-Martin Del Potro and Casey Dellacqua has given the Aussies a rare Melbourne treat by reaching the fourth round for the second time but that’s about it on the tennis front. No, we can remember pictures of well-travelled pro Frank Dancevic fainting on court, all of the top players being forced to wear ice vests and helmets, ball kids keeling over too. Yeah, ball kids. Because when you play on in these conditions, it’s not just the players who suffer, it’s the team around the court too. Money shouldn’t come into it here but at least the athletes are rewarded, what of the ball kids frying in that heat?

These conditions are nothing new for Melbourne but this wishy-washy response to it must be changed and done so in time for next year. The Wet Bulb Global Temperature reading is nonsense. Trust your athletes to tell you when it’s too hot to play. Andy Roddick has basically said players should just suck it up. He’s got clearly got selective amnesia. Roddick was always the first one to start crying out about any kind of injustice, obviously 18 months out of the game has made him forget that he would have been at the front of the queue to cry to the press. Old pros need to support their modern counterparts here. We’ve got Novak Djokovic praising ball kids, line judges and spectators for toughing it out these last four days. We’ve got Serena Williams, for goodness sake, telling us she’s not equipped to respond to a comment made by the tournament doctor that ‘man evolved on the high plains of Africa chasing antelope’ so the players are able to survive. This is not about surviving; it’s about giving your sport’s protagonists the chance to shine. Head of ATP Chris Kermode, the usual sole voice of reason, states that players need to be communicated to correctly and need to have a definite temperature indicator for when it’s time to stop play. Not a complicated equation, a simple temperature reading. How hard is that? And then when it reaches that, play should be stopped. How can you say the current conditions are too dangerous to start a match but the players who are currently playing and suffering must continue? That is illogical, inconsistent and, quite frankly, grossly inhumane.

Another victim of the extreme weather policy

Another victim of the extreme weather policy

The top players need to regroup with their respective organisations after this tournament and signal some kind of player revolt to make the changes to the extreme weather conditions rules. The Australian Open needs the ATP and the WTA. If the likes of Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic were to actually make a stand and say that, as champions there on multiple occasions, they’d support players putting rackets down and refusing to play on in such dangerous conditions then that would say way more than a ‘no comment’ or a nice tweet to the fans. Would the Australian Open really come down hard on Serena and Djokovic thus risking the wrath of the sport’s fans, who’ve been deprived of the very best game of so many players these past few days? Maybe I’m dreaming again, but I reckon both of them together could form one brilliant mocking jay to stop Craig Tiley and his team from putting on such an absurd spectacle of suffering for the masses. That way, this tournament would be the very last edition of the tennis Hunger Games.

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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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