Tag Archives: Novak Djokovic

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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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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Equal pay, shambolic scheduling and greatness at work; things we learned from New York

Queen of Queen's

Queen of Queen’s

The equal prize money debate refuses to go away. When you have one of the top 3 male players continuing to raise the issue, it’s not going to disappear quietly. Andy Murray is right to say that men’s tennis is a different sport to the women’s game. But his call for either the women to play best-of-five sets at Slams or men to play best-of-three is reactionary and not thought-out. Women’s matches would go on forever if it went to best-of-five, and I do not mean that in a derogatory manner. They just would. This would have severe consequences for any scheduling of Slams. We’d certainly be looking at Slams over 17 or 18 days in my opinion. As for the men slugging it out over three sets; well then we would see some new faces in the final four I guess. Only Djokovic really comes out of the traps hard at all times in the early rounds. Nadal and Murray would be up against it from the off.

And whilst we cannot hide from the fact that currently the women’s game rides the coat-tails of the men’s in terms of ticket income, sponsorship etc., this does not mean it will always be like that. Men’s tennis has been blessed for five years now. Djokovic, Nadal and Federer have been total box office, guaranteeing bums/asses on seats wherever they go around the world. Only Serena Williams really commands the same attention on the women’s side. Sharapova did one time over but I’m afraid her noise put paid to a lot of her admirers. Victoria Azarenka should also have that box office appeal but, as much as I like her, again her noise turns people away. But this will not always be the case. The new generation coming through have learned not to scream and grunt and this will help the women’s game. Incidentally, how fitting that it was Monica Seles who presented the trophies to Serena and Azarenka – I’m sure she was proud of that noisy final! Looking at the players coming through, I have a sneaking suspicion that the women will more than hold their own against the men in the next five years. There is not an awful lot coming through on the men’s side but the women will be fine.

The US Open continues to get scheduling so badly wrong that it’s almost incomprehensible. During the first week, you don’t really have to check the schedule for Arthur Ashe Court. They don’t look for potentially good matches. They just rotate Serena, Venus, Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, Murray and inexplicably Caroline Wozniacki. Wimbledon put Andy Murray out on Court 1 for his third round match this summer. Serena Williams has not played on anything other than Arthur Ashe Stadium in the last six years. I can’t access the schedules from before that date, it may stretch even further. From somebody who has sat through a night session involving Serena and Novak Djokovic dropping a total of four games between them, I can’t fathom how this is attractive day in, day out. And the fact that the defending men’s champion had to wait until last thing on Day 3 to begin his campaign is rotten, rotten to the very core.  And a 5pm Monday start benefits who exactly? The West coast who are still at work? Sleeping Europe where the finalists were always likely to hail from? I would implore the USTA to sort it out but they are well past caring about fans or players.

Tennis is becoming more and more of a veterans sport. Five of the women’s quarter-finalists were in their 30s and on the men’s side the likes of Stan Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet enjoyed their best turnouts so far, both into their late 20s. Add onto this Tommy Robredo making the quarters after his marathon-man showing in Paris, David Ferrer playing the best tennis of his career in his 30s and Mikhail Youzhny playing as well as he has ever done aged 31, and then there’s Lleyton Hewitt. Ah yes, the man I expected to retire last January. He insists that he just couldn’t do it, no matter what his body was telling him to do. And boy is he being rewarded. Many argue that it’s the increased prize money that is keeping players from retiring. And for some that will be true. If your body isn’t giving up on you, then why turn your back on pay-checks. But for the likes of Hewitt, sporting glory and love of what he does will always come first. You’re a long time retired in this sport and fair play to these boys and girls for not wanting to be airbrushed out of history just yet.

Serena Williams is incredible. She won her first Grand Slam tournament in the 90s, she has won three of the four majors on five separate occasions and has now seen off challenges from her sister Venus, Justine Henin, Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters, Jennifer Capriati and Maria Sharapova, whilst continuing to stave off Victoria Azarenka.  She’s now won 17 majors, which puts her one behind Martina Navratilova and Chrissie Evert, and I’m starting to think she even has her sights on Steffi Graf’s 22. More tellingly for me, it puts her level with Roger Federer. Whilst she may not have had to play five sets, I would wager that the level of competition in front of her has been tougher long-term than that which Federer faced for a long period of his dominance between 2003 and 2008. So, if we talk about Federer as the greatest and put him ahead of the more competitive eras of Connors, Borg, McEnroe etc, then I argue that we put Serena on the same pedestal.

King of Clay...and Hard

King of Clay…and Hard

Which brings me to Rafael Nadal; he definitely has his sights set on catching Federer’s total of 17 majors. Not that he’d admit it of course, and not that he probably believes he can achieve it, such is his modesty. I always felt that the reason Federer tried so desperately for one more major was that he didn’t quite think 16 would be out of reach of Nadal and that 17 would prove to be. But it’s suddenly looking very achievable for the man from Mallorca. His renaissance is one of sport’s great tales – none of us could have imagined at the start of 2013 that he would come back from serious injury and win two of the three majors, go undefeated to date on hard courts and outlast Novak Djokovic, the indefatigable Novak Djokovic, on that surface. Rafa was in the zone during that final; it’s been a long time since we’ve seen him as pumped up as he was at the end of the decisive third set when he saved three consecutive break points at 4-4. As Djokovic watched those points sail by, he knew he couldn’t compete with this man over two more sets. The match was won and lost right there. Djokovic of course played his part as he always does but 2013 is Nadal’s year just as 2011 was the Serb’s. Were the Spaniard to carry this form into early-2014 and win in Melbourne, I would make him odds-on to at least match Federer’s 17 major titles. When you consider the likes of Becker, McEnroe, Lendl and Connors all ‘failed’ to reach double figures, you fully realise how great this last six years has been for men’s tennis. Golden age, enjoy every slam they give us.

 

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A wonderful Wimbledon

King of Britain

King of Britain


Followers of men’s tennis have been spoiled in the last few years. The Federer and Nadal rivalry took the sport to new heights before Novak Djokovic came along and stole the show from 2011 onwards. Andy Murray quietly battled away, improving his game bit by bit before adding Ivan Lendl to his coaching team, a move which gave him the extra push to look those three in the eyes as their equal. We’ve been treated to incredible finals or semi-finals in practically every major of the last five years, to the extent that we’ve come to expect that level in the latter stages.

But I don’t think there’s ever been a day like Friday. Eight hours and 45 minutes of pure drama, it had everything; a gentle Argentinean giant pushing the World Number 1 to his absolute limit and a hard-hitting virtual unknown playing the role of panto villain attempting to thwart the hometown hero. The level reached by Djokovic and Juan-Martin Del Potro in their five set match-for-the-ages was at times almost literally unbelievable. The first match point that JMDP saved will live with me forever – what courage and confidence in your game. His obvious exasperation with the Serb’s stubbornness means that Wimbledon found a new favourite. But eventually it was Djokovic that came back from the brink when it looked like he had nothing left to give – how many times have we said that in the last three years? At four hours and 43 minutes, the longest men’s semi-final in Wimbledon’s long history. And the organisers had deemed that the starter!

Surely the world’s second best player Andy Murray would have no problem seeing off the unheralded Jerzy Janowicz in the main course. The first problem was when the 6ft8inch Pole pulverised the man from Dunblane in a devastating first set tiebreak. Cue audible gasps from the reserved Centre Court crowd. Things got better for the Brit when he took the second set but Janowicz broke early in the third set. This is when the crowd woke up and, inspired by their support, Murray played wonderfully to go into a two sets to one lead. No problems now.
Except what Wimbledon does best is attempt to screw their own players. They are so afraid to be seen to give home-town advantage that they go the opposite way. It was at this juncture (after Murray had won the last five games) that they decided to close the roof, despite there being tons of bright sunshine, despite it being an outdoor summer event. I think this was the first time the BBC haven’t endlessly fawned over that bloody roof. Murray was furious (maybe his gran is a big EastEnders fan and this controversial decision was further delaying the start of the dour drama). But he channelled his anger and he used the crowd to motivate, to cajole, to rouse himself. In short, he did everything he could and should do in order to take advantage of it being his home Slam. He reached his second consecutive Wimbledon final, but no thanks to the referee’s office. Poor Tim Henman was having flashbacks to 2001 – he did really well not to have a very public breakdown in the commentary box! All in all, possibly the best day’s tennis in 20 years!

Marion la Magnifique

Marion la Magnifique


A word on the winners: Marion Bartoli is a deserving champion. Her belief in her game has never wavered – she may not have so many modelling contracts, because she ain’t “a looker”, isn’t that right John Inverdale? But as she herself said, she has never dreamed of getting modelling contracts but she has absolutely always dreamed of winning Wimbledon. Double-handed off both sides, you never forget watching her play. She handled the big occasion better than the new Wimbledon darling Sabine Lisicki, who will also be better for her fortnight in SW19. But Bartoli did not lose a set in London. Her style and character may not be to everybody’s liking but she deserves her new place in tennis history.

Andy Murray is now a multiple Slam winner. He currently holds more glitter than any other man in the game. He is the reigning Olympic champion, reigning US Open champion and became the first British player since Virginia Wade 36 years ago to win our home Grand Slam. He played sublimely in the first week but I felt that he looked flat in both his quarter-final and semi-final victories. But he did what Federer and Nadal could not do; he got through on his tough days. And in the final he blew Novak Djokovic away. The comeback king had no answer to Murray’s game. Murray made more winners, made less unforced errors and served better under pressure. Lendl has had the exact effect Murray will have hoped for when they first talked about linking up. There’s a new top two in tennis, and Murray is one of them.

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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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