Tag Archives: Murray

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Britain's big hopes

Britain’s big hopes

Every now and again you get a major tennis tournament that beats itself up so badly in the first week that you wonder just what it’s got left to give in the second week. Wimbledon 2013 falls firmly into this category. The women’s tournament lost two of its top triumvirate on Weird Wednesday, but alas there was only ever really one winner anyway. It is the men’s tournament that has it all to do to ensure we still have a spectacle in a few days’ time.

Not since the 2002 Australian Open (when none of the top 5 seeds and only five of the top 16 seeds reached the Last 16) has a men’s draw been decimated like this so early on. Back then it was unheralded 16th seed Thomas Johansson that eventually strode through the draw to claim the only Slam of his solid career. Will somebody as relatively unknown to casual tennis fans be victorious on Sunday at the All-England Club? Unlikely, bordering on impossible. What Wimbledon 2013 has to its advantage that week two of Australia 2002 didn’t possess is two stellar big-time hitters. The defeats of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were cataclysmic for tennis. There’s no denying that but it’s wrong to suggest either of them were completely unexpected, especially the defeat of the latter. Nadal’s record since his victory here in 2010 is one win and two defeats. That’s not a trophy record, it’s a match record. He put so much into retaining his Roland Garros crown that a let-down was almost inevitable. Federer’s quarter-finals record will stand forever but he was looking shakier and shakier in the early rounds over the last 18 months that eventually it had to come. That it would come in the grounds of his castle is upsetting but as previously stated, not entirely unexpected.

There may be some one-sided affairs to come this week, but what will salvage the latter stages will be a final for the ages. Andy Murray is in terrific form. He’s playing with confidence, assuredness but it is not straying into arrogance. He is mindful of each dangerous step across the SW19 minefield and is affording each opponent the respect that they deserve. Added to this, the support from his home crowd has never been as fervent as it is this year. He’s a champion in the making, the first British man to win Wimbledon in forever…..if it wasn’t for Novak Djokovic. The Serb made three unforced errors in his third round victory over the 28th seed Jeremy Chardy. That’s an insane statistic at any level, not least in the Last 32 of a major. I don’t care if Chardy wasn’t playing so well, all it does is reinforces my belief that what happened to Federer and Nadal out there last week has sharpened Murray and Djokovic up so much that their final showdown is bordering on certainty. There may well be some minor shocks along the way this week, but I’d stake all I own on those two bringing the curtain and the house down next Sunday afternoon. For what predictions are worth at the moment, their likely semi-final opponents for me would be Juan-Martin Del Potro for the Serb and huge-serving Jerzy Janowicz for the boy Murray. But stand by for another classic Wimbledon final, their third Grand Slam final in the last 12 months.

Favourites for the crown

Favourites for the crown


On the women’s side, Serena’s final is effectively on Magic Monday – the best day of Grand Slam tennis, in which all 16 men’s and women’s 4th round matches are played. The imperious American comes up against Sabine Lisicki, the girl who just can’t get enough of Wimbledon. A semi-finalist and quarter-finalist in the last two years, the German has already seen off two grand slam winners and the reigning Eastbourne champ in the first week. Her reward is a date with destiny. Topple Serena on Centre Court tomorrow and the path opens up to a maiden major. She poses the biggest threat to knocking Serena off her untouchable perch. The biggest problem for the Lisicki is Serena knows this. Williams will bring her A Game to Centre Court, knowing that Lisicki is the biggest obstacle to her lifting her sixth Wimbledon title. Expect Serena to come through in two tough sets. What the women’s tournament really needs is Laura Robson to win her fourth round tie with Kaia Kanepi. That would lead to a quarter-final match-up with Williams the following day, watched by a sure-to-be raucous crowd. Only that will save the women’s tournament from being a forgettable yawn from the second Monday onwards. The young Brit will need to minimise her mistakes against a good player in Kanepi but if she brings her best game, the fearless Brit will keep her nerve where Kanepi’s will fail. Serena will win her sixth crown; again I am certain of that. I have a sneaky suspicion she will face Marion Bartoli in the final, six years after the Frenchwoman was defeated in the final by Venus. Nobody is playing really good stuff in that bottom half, hence the reason I give the nod to the experience of Bartoli.
We may have dull days ahead this week, but after the seismic shocks of last week, I think there’ll be no surprise names on either trophy. Tomic, Stephens, Robson, Del Potro….prove me wrong if you can!

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The best tournament in the world

Henman Hill, June 2012

Henman Hill, June 2012


To celebrate Rafael Nadal becoming the first ever eight-time winner of a single major, I thought I’d give you eight reasons why the tournament starting on Monday is the best tournament in the world. I may be biased, but I’m also right.

1) The dress-code
I had an awful dream last week that Wimbledon had abolished the ‘predominantly white’ dress code. I think short of dreams in which monarchs die I have never had a scarier dream in my entire life. Of course, it will never happen. Wimbledon is a traditional place, but it’s smart too. Its whiteness is part of its brand, its image, its marketing appeal. There is no finer sight on a tennis court than pristine white on the lush green grass at 11.30am on the first day.

2) The queue
Some consider it a major inconvenience but Wimbledon prides itself on being one of the very few major sporting events (the only one?) where you can rock up on the day and get top-class tickets. Granted, the popularity of Centre Court and Court 1 means you now need to bring a tent to ensure you get one of those golden 1,000 every day but turn up early morning and you’re guaranteed ground pass tickets. If the weather is good, get yourself a paper, take a coffee and bacon butty from the burger vans and sit in the Wimbledon Park morning sunshine whilst waiting for the grounds to open. In the company of 7,000 other tennis fans. Bliss really!

3) Defending champions
Whilst there is nothing wrong with the current incumbents, it is not the identities of Roger Federer and Serena Williams that I refer to. Instead, it’s another nod to tradition. 1pm on the first day of the tournament, Centre Court play is opened by the defending Gentlemen’s Singles Champion, and the following day by the defending Ladies’ Champion. This should be the case at all majors; they deserve that honour for their endeavours the previous year. But for now, this sets Wimbledon apart.

4) The ‘Graveyard of Champions’
McEnroe, Connors, Cash, Stich, Agassi, Krajicek, Martinez, Venus, Serena, Hingis. All of them lost on the old Court 2, now the ‘new’ Court 3. All in matches they were expected to win easily. There’s a certain trepidation that hangs around that part of the famous old grounds, no seed really wants to be put out to play there. It even did for the first man to lift this title seven times, Pete Sampras. His Wimbledon career was ended out on Court 2 by Swiss journeyman George Bastl in 2002. I’m not sure Pistol Pete has fully forgiven Wimbledon for putting him out to grass on that court. But with only three matches per day on each of Centre and Court 1, some big names have to walk the plank on the Graveyard of Champions. Which brings me nicely onto…

Pete Sampras exits Wimbledon stage right

Pete Sampras exits Wimbledon stage right

5) Scheduling
Yes, they may only have three matches a day on Centre and Court 1, but do you know what? Barring ridiculous rain, they get the job done. No need for 15 days here, in fact the All England Club laughs in the face of 14 days and instead opts for a day off in the middle of it all. And the second the draw is made, the players know what days they will be playing throughout the fortnight – none of this ridiculous business of playing the first round over three days. And if the weather is atrocious during the first week, there’s always the prospect of catching up with a People’s Sunday, when all 35,000 tickets are put on sale to the general public. It’s only happened on three occasions, but Tim Henman will tell you it’s a whole lot of fun when it does happen.

6) The weather
Now, it’s true that there is the odd occasion when Wimbledon gets the occasional drop of the wet stuff. Oh okay, it happens a fair bit. That’s all part of the fun. The centre Court roof spoils it a bit to be honest; I miss the re-runs of the 1980 Borg-McEnroe tie-break during rain delays!

7) The 4-week season
It really hit home how different grass is to clay when I switched Queen’s on the day after Nadal won in Paris. It was like watching a completely different sport. For the very best players to have to fine-tune their games within the space of just 28 days is an incredible, unenviable task, but one which they are up to. With the rapid turnaround from Paris to London, one wouldn’t be surprised if you got fluke results here. But you don’t. It’s credit to the players at the very top of tennis that they are able to adapt completely to this surface. In many ways, it is the ultimate test of a player’s character and game. It’s why grass will always have its place on the Slam circuit. How best to prepare? It’s oh-so-tough to go from a gruelling 15 day work-out in Paris and to triumph a fortnight later in London – the only men to have done it being Borg, Federer and Nadal. Neither Nadal nor Djokovic has chosen to play a warm-up event, whilst defending champion Federer looked a little shaky as he acclimatised to the surface in Halle, his warm-up tournament of choice….

8) The quest for a British champion
But it is maybe Andy Murray who comes into this as favourite. He sensibly skipped the French Open to rest his back and had a jump-start on his leading competitors with grass-court practice. He won solidly last week at Queen’s and arrives in SW19 as fresh as any player in the draw. It seems like for every one of the last 15 years, the British crowd has thought that this will be the year we end our now-36-year wait for a winner in either of the single’s events here, a hope and an expectation that has brought an almost-constant buzz to this tournament. During that time, the hopeful cries of “Come on Tim!” died down just in time to be replaced by the more expectant “Come on Andy” chants. And each year it has ended in disappoint, at various stages and in various circumstances. But now that Andy Murray is an Open winner, now that he has picked up an Olympic Gold medal on that Centre Court, now this time more than any other time, we really do think this is our year…..

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Why must we use men’s tennis as a stick with which to beat the women’s game?

Champ and dazed runner-up

So, the men’s final was another classic and the women’s final was error-strewn. So read the match reports of some hacks that doubtless have it on copy and paste these days. After all, there are some tabloids and broadcasters whose main tennis faces seem to rather enjoy pouring scorn on the leading women. They cover the Grand Slam events and the women merely get in the way of the matches and the faces they are really there to see. Superlative after superlative greets Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Roger Federer but indifference greets any achievement by a tennis-playing female who doesn’t have the surname Williams.

“There’s just no depth in the women’s game right now, compared with the men’s”. Men’s tennis is blessed right now with four of the greatest players to have ever played the game. Federer held the sport together for several years before Nadal came along to raise the bar. Federer went with him, and eventually Djokovic caught them both and overtook them both too. Now Murray is scampering to keep pace with the Serb. But…….David Ferrer was the number four seed here and in the prolonged period of Nadal’s absence is the number four player in the world. He lost to Djokovic in less than 90 minutes and won only five games in the process. That is not good enough and hardly points to a multitude of depth beneath the Top 3 or 4. The women’s game hardly covered itself in glory though at the same stage. World Number 1 Vika Azarenka caused a furore by appearing to indicate she took a medical time-out for fear of choking to her American teenage opponent Sloane Stephens. In the end Vika won through in straight sets, and beaten finalist Na Li comfortably took care of Maria Sharapova for the loss of a couple of games in each set. But the final was high in tension, drama and not low in quality either. Yes, there were many unforced errors but they came at the end of long rallies, errors caused by the gradual erosion of somebody’s game, rather than a lack of mental strength or quality. Whilst we praise Djokovic’s resilience and never-say-die attitude now, the thought that a bump to the head like Na Li suffered on Saturday evening would have put paid to Novak earlier on in his career was not lost on me. Yes, he would have been forfeiting that match right there and then.

But that’s not fair to compare players of a different gender and of essentially a different sport, right? Well, no it’s not. But respected organisations do so all of the time to bitch on the women’s game. Vika Azarenka’s shrieks? Old news, get over it. You don’t get that in the men’s game. Well you don’t get shrieks, no. They’re men, but some of the guttural grunts that come from Djokovic in most rallies would put you off tennis. The women are mentally fragile, and it takes a little something to knock them off their stride completely. True of lower-ranked players for sure. But not for the likes of Azarenka, Sharapova, Serena and Na Li. They have the mental toughness of the men’s top 4. Ask Nicolas Almagro where he went to once David Ferrer came back to level at 2 sets all. There are more service breaks in the women’s game. True again, it’s simply down to power. Men are more powerful than women, wow what a shocker.

I don’t want to knock men’s tennis because I have never been more interested in it than I am right now. The rivalries at the very top are fascinating and we are incredibly lucky to be witnesses to them. But then if I lazily pass judgment on one part of the sport, you know I may just get called upon by ESPN or the BBC to offer my expert opinion. BBC TV’s commentary team spent chunks of the women’s final discussing one member of the team’s previous marriage to a top female player, like that is relevant. It’s an old boy’s club that refuses to go with the times; their knowledge of the men’s game outside the top 10 is flaky to say the least but their knowledge of the top women is non-existent. I honestly do not believe that either of the men in the commentary box yesterday would choose to watch a women’s match in the privacy of their own home. So don’t let them near the commentary box. Statistics and facts only take you so far, and the line “there’s such a difference here between the women’s game and the men’s game” is unacceptable. Yes because they are two separate competitions. When Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis were trying to fend off the Williams sisters, I heard none of these so-called experts bemoaning the fact that the men’s game was sterile and lacked any of those rivalries that the women’s game had at the turn of the century. Men’s tennis is privileged to have Djokovic and Murray, will be privileged to have Nadal if he comes back, and is privileged to have Federer refusing to go away quietly. But we do not have to make it better by beating up on the women so much. It’s not a stellar era by any means, but let’s give credit to the likes of Azarenka and Na Li for rising to challenges and standards set down by the great Serena. And please let’s not put the good results of Serena, Sharapova and Azarenka down to them having new boyfriends, as one leading broadcaster article did this past week.

Instead, let’s praise a decent Grand Slam on both sides of the gender divide. Not the best, far from it. Not the worst, far from it. But decent, all the same. And let’s remember that only one of the finals went the distance……

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The Greatest Year: most competitive SPOTY in history

The prize

Next weekend sees the climax of the British sporting year, as the best of the best compete to be crowned the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. It’s always hard to predict, and later even harder to justify, how the public vote but I wanted to pay my own personal tribute to the 12 on the list and offer some words of recognition to a few who amazingly missed out on the shortlist when any other year they would have probably been crowned the winner.

Nicola Adams created Olympic history by becoming the first ever woman to claim a gold medal in the Olympic boxing ring and what an amiable character she appears to be. Always smiling and joking out of the ring, her persona obviously changes when she steps inside it. If women’s boxing needed a poster girl, this Leeds lass ticks all the required boxes. She will inspire many other girls to put on a pair of gloves, but I would think that the sport does not yet possess the wider appeal to make her a candidate for this award.

Ben Ainslie has been at the very top of his sport for twelve years. He has delivered gold medals in every Olympic Games there has been in the 21st Century. No mean achievement, he is out there on the water on his own and every time has found the inner strength to find a way to beat his opponents. His mean streak came to the fore going into the last day of his race this year after his opponents had made him angry. Big mistake. There’s certainly a case to describe Ainslie as Britian’s greatest ever Olympian but, as with Adams, his sport is not mainstream enough even in an Olympic year to win a public vote.

Jessica Ennis is the darling of British athletics. She’s the girl with the pretty face and adorable personality who just happens to possess tons of Sheffield steel in her track-and-field persona, which meant that she was always likely to succeed in 2012. Doubtless she would have won Gold in Beijing four years earlier but for a cruel injury. But the expectations were massive on Ennis’ shoulders; more pressure was put on her than any other British athlete in the London Games. She triumphed and we all shared in her success. She has an outside chance of winning this award but there are greater champions this year.

Mo Farah became the first British athlete to win the 5,000m-10,000m Olympic double, in the same year that he became the first man in history to defend a European 5,000 metres crown. All this whilst his heavily-pregnant-with-twins wife watched on nervously. The Somalian-born immigrant made the Olympic stadium his own by winning Gold medals on consecutive Saturday nights and is a triumph for multi-cultural Britain. For these reasons, I think he will come out on top of the public vote. The personal sacrifices he has made with his career are all worth it now as he stands as one of the finest athletes in the world today.

Katherine Grainger. Pleased with rowing silver in Sydney. Less so with silver in Athens. Absolutely crestfallen with silver in Beijing, after which she considered giving up for good. Then along came Anna Watkins to create a perfect pairing ahead of the London Games. They went out hard, they went out strong and won by an absolutely huge distance. The tears were real alright, personal redemption. A message to all kids worldwide not to give up on your dream. It ranks as great an achievement as there has been in British rowing history and for a nation which produced Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, that is praise indeed. She has a shot at a top 3 placing here but produced my personal moment of the Games, one which will always ranks as one of my favourite sporting moments.

Sir Chris Hoy is like Fedex when it comes to the Greatest Show on Earth; he always delivers. He secured two more Olympic titles this summer to reach six in total. And yet, he is not expected to feature amongst the top 3 next week. Why? Simply put, he is a victim of his own successes and expectations in the eyes of the public. We expect him to deliver and he does so, so we almost think it’s too easy. It is far from so. But he has won this award in the past and does not need it to add anything to his career. His perfect swansong will hopefully come in his home Commonwealth Games in 2014.

Rory McIlroy has had another superb year in his sport and is worthy of his spot on the shortlist, the only competitor who didn’t step foot in London this summer. He added another major to his maiden one from last year and has had spells as the world number one. At his age, he could well go on to dominate the sport and win close to ten majors. There I will stop, as I haven’t got a clue about golf!

Andy Murray would be a shoe-in for this award in any other year. He ended Britain’s 76-year wait for a Grand Slam champion, to add to the Olympic Gold and Silver medals he won five weeks earlier. In doing so, he defeated two of the greatest players to have ever played tennis in the finals. His will-to-win has shone through this year, but his lack of popularity when compared to the others on the shortlist will still count against him. Top 3 is an outside bet.

Ellie Simmonds is still a teenager and has four Paralympic swimming titles to her CV. Not bad, not bad at all. She is probably the face of the British Paralympic team and delivered again, just as she did in Beijing as a 14-year-old. Her two gold medals this summer were accompanied by a silver and a bronze, meaning she will have to pay hefty luggage fees if she plans on travelling with budget airlines anytime in the future.

Sarah Storey now has 22 Paralympic medals across two sports, swimming and cycling. An incredible achievement. Four Gold medals this summer puts her at the very top of the deserving list. She has 11 Gold medals in her Paralympic career and the recognition that being on this shortlist brings will possibly mean just as much to her as any of those individual titles. In my reckoning, she would be top three but I think she may fall short. For me, her career matches anything anybody else has ever achieved in sport.

David Weir added four Paralympic titles to the sixth London marathon he won earlier this year and received as much fervent home support as any British sport star. The Weirwolf masks went down a storm and, along with the successes of stars like Storey and Simmonds, Weir’s achievement helped the Paralympics reach almost- parity with the Olympics in terms of media exposure and recognition. This is the greatest success for those three this year. Simmonds has the best chance of getting on the SPOTY podium but, whatever happens, there are three Paralympians on the shortlist, unimaginable in the past.

Bradley Wiggins is the apparent no-brainer for victory in this contest. He was the first British man to win the Tour de France and followed it up with yet another Olympic Gold medal a few weeks later. Sporting immortality. His feet appear firmly on the pedals as he refuses to let celebrity take over his life. However, I think his dour personality may just count against him in this award, and maybe the public won’t want to see another cycling champion after Mark Cavendish in 2011.

So, if I am to predict the public vote I will go for Mo Farah-Bradley Wiggins-Ellie Simmonds. If I was to be given the sole responsibility of choosing the victor, I would go for Katherine Grainger-Mo Farah-Sarah Storey as my preferred trio. But I suppose every sport fan in Britain would choose a different three. What is for sure is that no other British sporting year has ever come close to matching this one. There are Olympic champions galore who have missed out on even being nominated. Every single name is deserving of being on the list. Spare a thought for the likes of Jade Jones (Britain’s first ever Olympic Taekwondo champion) , Victoria Pendleton who ended her stunning career with another Gold and silver medal to add to her haul, and double Olympic champion Laura Trott who claimed Gold in the most difficult cycling event, the Omnium. As well as those ladies, spare a thought for all of the athletes who gave their very best and achieved to the best of their ability this year. What is for certain is that all of these athletes put the Great in Great Britain and Northern Ireland this year. Let’s all celebrate them next Sunday and relive those great memories from Great Britain’s greatest sporting year one last time before it comes to an end.

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All eyes back on London for one last 2012 time

8 of the world’s top 9 players descend on the Artist-formerly-known-as-the-Millennium-Dome this weekend as the ATP Tour Finals take place. This year’s finale comes two weeks earlier than usual; great news for those who have long campaigned for a shorter season.  Let’s hope this change is justified and that the players arrive in much sharper fitness than in previous years. It would be nice if next Monday night’s final was between the best two players, rather than merely the last two standing.

Rafael Nadal’s absence gives opportunity to Jarko Tipsarevic, who performed well last year as an alternate. It is just reward for a man who continues to perform more and more consistently every year – he always had the talent and was always a dangerous floater in any draw but his performances over the last 18 months mean he is now becoming a contender to be the best of the rest. His swashbuckling style will mean that all of his matches this week will be well worth a watch for any neutral.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was the other player who left it late to book his London spot. His year has been solid enough but not as successful as his 2011 season.  Tsonga has failed to kick on in a year when I fully expected him to at least reach a Grand Slam or Olympic final. The cold hard facts for Tsonga are that he is getting no younger and Murray and Djokovic look likely to continue being better than him and being much more consistent than him. The gap has not narrowed – it has got much, much wider.

Tomas Berdych arrives in Britain on the back of an impressive autumn. After first round defeats at Wimbledon and in the Olympics, Berdych looked in danger of slipping down the rankings. But he has steadied the ship and was unfortunate to have to play Murray in the New York semis on a ridiculously windy day which unfortunately spoiled what would have been a classic. The slower indoor courts in London may well suit Berdych’s game and I do not rule him out from a final appearance nine days from now, despite being put in the same group as Murray and Djokovic. If he comes out of that group, expect him to reach that final.

Juan-Martin Del Potro is back to full fitness and could have a massive 2013 ahead of him. He is the man with the game to take it to Murray, Federer, Djokovic and a fit Nadal. If Nadal continues to struggle next season, the smart money is on JMDP to be a staple of the last 4 in Grand Slam events. As things stand now, I put him as one of three men who can win the Australian Open next month, along with Murray and Djokovic. His recent victory over Federer in Basel leaves him in good fettle and one had to marvel at his delight at coming out victorious over Djokovic in the Olympics Bronze Medal match. JMDP has the ability to knock any of the top guys off the court – is he capable of doing it back-to-back? When fully fit and confident, yes I think he is.

David Ferrer is the sport’s Mr Consistency; 2 Grand Slam semi-finals this year with appearances in the last eight in the other two are testament to this. He is enjoying as fine an Indian Summer in his career as he could have dreamed of. His durability is the key to his game – I sometimes wonder what he could achieve if he actually thought he could beat the Top 3 or 4. After a favourable draw, Ferrer could feature in the last 4 this week, which will represent a solid end to another impressive year for the 30-year-old Spaniard.

I get the impression that Roger Federer is not going to pull up trees this week in London.  His year has been an unqualified triumph.  He won his 17th Grand Slam title and regained the Number 1 spot, before going on to become the man who has held that slot for the longest in Open history, a figure which now stands at over 300 weeks. Incredible. He is going for a hat-trick in London – he has not lost a match at the Championships since 2009. However, if anybody will come into this tournament feeling drained from his year’s efforts, it will be Federer. But it would be foolish to completely write him off (he has been placed in the weaker group which will help his cause) and I would be delighted to be eating my words in a week’s time if Federer poses with his 7th Tour Finals trophy. Yes, it would be his 7th. Incredible is often the best word to fully appreciate this man’s career.

Andy Murray will count on more home support than ever as he attempts to cap off a remarkable year for British tennis. His summer success seems to have inspired the country’s top 2 women with Laura Robson and Heather Watson both reaching WTA finals, the latter winning hers, since Murray lifted the US Open trophy. His early loss in Paris last week will have actually served him well. He will arrive in London fresh and ready to win his first Tour Finals. Murray has a difficult draw in Group A alongside Djokovic and Berdych but if he gets out of the group, which he should, he can take his place in his first final at the event. One thing is for certain, he arrives in better shape than he did a year ago, when he pulled out after his first match loss to David Ferrer.

Novak Djokovic is the man to beat in this tournament.  He will end the year back on top of the world when he takes over from Federer in the rankings during the tournament.  His year has been a resounding success. In an era where we are blessed with so many fantastic players, he was never going to be able to match his amazing 2011, but he has backed it up this season with one Grand Slam and two final appearances in others. Whilst Federer and Murray shared the summer plaudits, and rightly so, it is right and fitting that the Serb will finish the year as the top-ranked player in the world. He is there to be fired at, he knows that a victory in London will validate that spot but also knows that a victory for Murray or Federer will give that player scope to believe that they are the best player in the world right now. Like Murray, Djokovic lost early in Paris and should be fresh. It may not be the bravest of predictions but I tip Djokovic to prove he is still the best player in the world for now and end 2012 as Number 1 and with his second ATP Tour Finals trophy in his locker.

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The end of an era

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At the time of writing, only one glittering career has officially ended in New York this past week, but at least one more is imminent and two others appear to be nearing their denouement.  Laura Robson has burst onto the major scene by ending Kim Clijsters’ career for good in an incredibly high standard two sets of tennis.  Kim seemed quite relieved to have it all over and done with – I was privileged enough to be in the stands to witness it, and we all wish her the best in the rest of her life – tennis will miss her smile.  The hard-hitting Robson has added movement to her game now and whilst it would be wrong to put too much pressure on her young shoulders, this may not be the last time we see her in the latter stages of a Slam.  She showed all of her best fighting qualities to see off another major winner in the following round when she battled to a 3-set victory over Na Li – an amazing result to follow up on the best win of her career with arguably an even better one.

Elsewhere in the women’s draw, there was serene progress for Serena, Sharapova and Azarenka who have barely dropped a handful of games each.  I saw Serena’s match against Coco Vandeweghe and it was painful to witness – the gulf in class frightening.  The pre-match interview with Vandeweghe suggested that her serve would be better than her opponent’s – I think in reality she served about ten double faults in seven games. Sharapova was equally ruthless in her demolition of Melinda Czink.  I didn’t get a chance to see Vika but her results seem just as emphatic.  Petra Kvitova and Agnieszka Radwanska seemed unseasonably off-colour in their victories over Pauline Parmentier and Carla Suarez-Navarro respectively; it is no surprise to see that they are not featuring in the second week.  The opportunity to check on Angelique Kerber didn’t present itself, but she may have also effectively ended the Grand Slam career of Venus Williams.  if, as I suspect, the sport loses Clijsters and the elder Williams in quick succession, major draws will have an unfamiliar look about the for a while.  Their successes will always be remembered, but time waits for no woman.

And nor does it wait for any man.  Andy Roddick has chosen to follow Kim Clijsters’ example and retire on his own terms.  His announcement that this will be his final tournament is fitting, coming at the place of his only Grand Slam victory, way back in 2003.  History will prove that Andy’s peak came at exactly the wrong time, coinciding with Roger Federer’s dominant years.  If it hadn’t been for Roger, Roddick would be a 3-time Wimbledon champion but Federer always had the American’s number even in the epic 2009 final when A-Rod famously professed that he hadn’t just thrown the kitchen sink at the Swiss maestro, but had thrown “the whole damn kitchen at him”.  Roddick’s respectable showing in New York means he bows out with his head held high.

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Lleyton Hewitt’s Last 32 showing proves that the 2-time Slam winner can still live with the best on his best day.  However, the fact that he has had to rely on wildcard entry to all four majors this season certifies that his best days are few and far between these days.  Whilst his fighting spirit will never die, the smart money would be on the former World #1 hanging up his racquet at the end of the 2013 Australian Open.  Again, Hewitt is unfortunate to have played in Federer’s era but he is somebody who fulfilled every bit of potential in his career.  If he is to follow Roddick into retirment, the game will have lost two very popular characters in a short space of time.

As for the contenders, I stick by my tip for the title.  Andy Murray may not have set the world alight in Week One, but the old adage rings true – you can’t win the title in the first week, only lose it.  His run has been tough and he stepped up the level of his play against Milos Raonic in the last 16.  Federer was imperious in the first week, but nobody seemed willing to really get at him.  Murray will do so in the Last 4. I have not seen a single shot of Djokovic’s tournament so far, but results-wise I have seen nothing yet to change my view that it will be the 25-year-old Brit who lifts the trophy aloft on Sunday night, weather permitting of course.

A word on my overall thoughts on the US Open experience.  Firstly, the bad stuff: Arthur Ashe Stadium.  It is is unsustainable at its current size.  From the cheap seats, you are so far away from the action that it is hard to get involved in a contest.  Huge swathes of empty seats greet the day sessions.  The music from Ashe can be heard on all outside courts, which surely does not offer courtesy to the other competitors.  Above all, the USTA’s over-reliance on its so-called marquee names meant that the same players appeared over and over again on the main court during the first week in ridiculously mismatched, uncompetitive encounters. Take Clijsters v Robson and Malisse v Isner out of the equation and the average set score on Ashe in the first five days was 6-2.  Not good value. Onto the good stuff though, and there is plenty.  The most lively Grand Slam I have been to (I haven’t yet been to Melbourne) with ample crowd capacity on all outside courts.  Ticketing is easy, security is quick (although no body scan/search is conducted, which is worrying given tennis’ history), the transport links are excellent and a ground pass represents excellent value  with $72 giving you access to all courts other than Ashe.  A resounding thumbs-up for the US open from me!

The things that make a Slam special though are the things that may mean nothing to the next person – watching my favourite player Nadia Petrova win three on the spin, watching my favourite male player Fabio Fognini win in the long shadows of a Grand Slam sunset and getting my photo taken with one of my faves,  2009 US Open Junior champ Heather Watson, who proved herself to be approachable and pleasant.  All in all, a great week at Flushing!

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Murray’s time has come

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The power in men’s tennis could be about to shift firmly towards Andy Murray.  The British number one comes into the final major of the 2012 season on the back of an annihilation of Roger Federer in the Olympics final only three weeks ago.  For those who question Federer’s desire in that match, I suggest they read any of the Swiss maestro’s interviews from the previous four years – London 2012 was one of his biggest motivations for continuing at the top of the game and his failure to win a Singles Gold medal will undoubtedly rank as one of the bigger disappointments of his glittering career when he finally hangs up his racket. The plain and simple truth is that Murray outplayed Federer with a ruthless display of aggressive tennis, just 48 hours after seeing off Novak Djokovic in straight sets, albeit in a best-of-3-sets match.  This, coupled with his run to the Wimbledon final earlier in the summer, has now given Murray the self-belief that he belongs with these guys at the very very top in the greatest era of men’s tennis.

I have been one of Andy Murray’s biggest critics over the years.  His rise to the top was filled with missed opportunities and shock defeats in Grand Slams to players that he should never have lost to. There was a stage approximately 18-24 months ago where he looked like his career had already peaked.  Djokovic and Nadal were disappearing into the distance, with Federer hanging onto his younger counterparts’ tailcoats. Drastic action was needed by Murray and it came earlier this year in the shock appointment of  the dour Czech Ivan Lendl as his coach. Opinion was divided at the time as to whether this was inspired choosing or a desperate lunge to the bar in the last chance saloon. The truth probably lies somewhere in between the two.  Lendl knows from his own playing career that patience can be the key; he was the same age as Murray is when he won his first Grand Slam and he went on to win a number.  Murray saw something in Lendl which other players haven’t seen – this was the Swede’s first coaching appointment, a full 17 years after he retired from the game.  Whilst neither would win a happiness contest, it seems that the dour cocktail is proving a positive one and less people than normal would bet against Murray lifting the US Open trophy in a fortnight’s time.  Who knows, if that happens we may even get a smile from the both of them? One smile, not two, let’s not get too carried away.

Nadal’s absence takes away one of the big obstacles in Murray’s way.  I put only Djokovic, Federer and Del Potro as other possible winners.  Djokovic will aim to sign off a slightly less successful year (only the Australian Open in the bag this year!) by proving he is still the man to beat on the ATP Tour.  Del Potro has history here and looks to be almost back to his best and will prove an incredibly tough not to crack on the hard New York courts. Federer has continued his outstanding summer form into the American season and will expect an appearance in the final.  However, Murray stands in his way – your time has come, Andy.

The women’s game desperately needs somebody to take Serena out in a giant-killing act.  If somebody can raise their game to their maximum level and beat the dominant younger Williams sister, then the field would be blown open.  Get a blanket and throw it over about 8 women if Serena loses somewhere along the line.  Maria Sharapova has a shot at the slam where she probably has the most support.  Vika Azarenka has a shot at reasserting her number 1 ranking.  Petra Kvitova has hit good form at just about the right time for a run in the season’s final major.  A word for Maria Kirilenko, who will look to cement her finest season of her career by securing another last four spot and maybe go even further.  But it is Kim Clijsters who jumps out as the big value bet here.  Kim will retire from tennis for a second and surely final time as soon as she hits her final ball in anger or joy in New York.  She will put every ounce of effort she has in her to give this one final shot.  She will be the crowd favourite, no doubt, and if Serena is ousted somewhere along the line, the support and emotion may be enough to give Kim the edge over the rest and carry over the line.  What is encouraging is that with the obvious exception of Rafael Nadal, all the big players in both events are fit and ready to go.  It promises to be a glittering two weeks under the lights of Flushing Meadows.  I am lucky to be going over there for the first five days, with the first five sessions being on Ashe Stadium court – this should give me a chance to see most of the main runners and riders up close over the next 7 days, and I will no doubt blog further upon my return.  But for now, I will leave you with these words; Andy and Kim – you read it here first!

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