Tag Archives: Rafael Nadal

Tennis is back – runners and riders for Australian Open

It’s still a novelty to come into a Grand Slam without Andy Murray being one of the favourites, definitely so with Novak Djokovic seeded as low as 14, with Serena Williams still missing and the unrepentant Maria Sharapova remaining a dangerous floater. That being said, there is solace for the nostalgics amongst us to have Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer as the top seeds and Venus Williams to be amongst the favourites in Melbourne. Whatever, there is a lot to be both intrigued and excited by with the 2018 edition of the Australian Open starting in a couple of hours. Here are a few of the main protagonists to look out for.

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Dimitrov faring much better these days

 

Both Rafael Nadal and Grigor Dimitrov will be very happy with life right now. The Spaniard, after enjoying his most successful season in many, yet recovering from injury, is rightly the top seed. His capture of Grand Slams number 15 and 16 last year clearly reignited his passion and desire to create more history. He will go to Paris in spring as the most scorching favourite and has landed in an incredibly light half of the draw in Melbourne. Only Marin Cilic could lay claim to causing the marvellous Mallorcan’s sleep any trouble before he reaches the final four. Yet it is there that, if proceedings go to form, he will come up against a rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov. 18 months ago, the Bulgarian appeared to be going nowhere. I watched him bundled out of the first round of Roland Garros and he looked helpless, hopeless and listless; a European Bernard Tomic, if you like. Fast forward a year and a half and he comes to Melbourne the third seed and winner of the ATP Finals, having triumphed on his first appearance in the showpiece event. Granted, there was no Federer, Nadal, Murray, Djokovic, Raonic, Nishikori, or Wawrinka but the level Dimitrov showed indicates he is finally ready to fulfil his major-winning potential.

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Two Kings embrace

 

Will ‘Baby Federer’ have to dispose of the real deal if he is to win his first major? The strong likelihood is yes. Whilst the 36-year-old 19-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer is playing down his status as favourite, it is very apparent that he remains one of the two men to beat. His 2017 renaissance saw a serene Federer dealing impeccably with his previous anxiety to make history time and time again. This is a new, relaxed maestro, a man who finally believes that he has Nadal’s number. It will be of little concern to him that he has barely played since the US Open , showing himself to be in fine fettle in the recent Hopman Cup. He may have to see off an ever-more consistent Dominic Thiem to reach the final, which would take a lot out of him and leave him easier picking for his final opponent but I do expect the Swiss to line up on the final day of the fortnight, gunning for Grand Slam number 20. As for the rest, the bottom half of the draw could well have match-ups of Thiem v Wawrinka, Djokovic v Zverev, and Goffin v Berdych in the Last 16. What a treat we are in for!

Serena Williams has decided she is not yet ready to return so the scamper for majors for the top tier of women goes into an extra bonus tournament. The American sounded an ominous warning this week, stating she does not need more majors but simply wants them. Her desire is greater than any other so the field have been put on notice. In Serena’s absence, six different players reached the three Grand Slam finals last year; Simona Halep, Madison Keys, Garbine Muguruza, Jelena Ostapenko, Sloane Stephens and Venus Williams. In addition, Caroline Wozniacki won the WTA Tour Finals, rising back up to number two in the world. With the exceptions of Stephens and Keys, any one of other five women are in with genuine hopes in the coming fortnight. Simona Halep responded in positive fashion to what must have been a crushing French Open final defeat, rising to finish the year as World Number 1 and she has already struck gold in 2018, winning in Shenzhen. She does, however, have a tough draw; Petra Kvitova, Ash Barty and Karolina Pliskova await before any thoughts of a semi-final appearance.

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Melbourne city skyline

 

Garbine Muguruza’s toughest opponent may prove to be her thigh. She is scheduled to face up against Maria Sharapova in Round 4 which could end up being the match of the fortnight but if her body is right and her game clicks, nothing can stop the two-time major winner adding a third trophy to her collection. Later on, her big game would surely be too much for Halep to handle in the semi-finals. Speaking of big hitters, Jelena Ostapenko is no flash in the pan. A potential final for the Latvian against Muguruza would not be for the faint-hearted – it may not be full of the touch and guile to delight the tennis purists but my goodness would they smack the hell out of those poor balls. Her Round 4 opponent is projected to be CoCo Vandeweghe which would prove to be a fine warm-up for a hard-hitting final and surely Caroline Wozniacki could not live with a an in-form Ostapenko in between. However, if Ostapenko is slightly off, expect Wozniacki to give her enough rope to hang herself with. It is, however, tough to see.

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Ostapenko loves giving the ball a good thwack

 

Further to this, an Ostapenko-Venus Williams semi-final would be fun. The Latvian had just turned three when Venus Williams won her first Wimbledon title in July 2000 and most in tennis are rooting for the elder Williams to crown her career Indian Summer with one more major; she was the chief bridesmaid in Melbourne and Wimbledon last year as well as at the WTA Tour Finals. Expect her to go deep here again, but to not quite match last year’s achievement. She should however have a little too much nous for Elina Svitolina in the last eight. The Ukrainian is in blistering form having already won in Brisbane and has a shot at stealing the World Number 1 slot in the next fortnight, albeit along with Wozniacki, Pliskova, Ostapenko, Muguruza and Venus. Svitolina does seem to falter when the pressure is on, and with the pursuit for her first major and the ranking firmly in her head, it will all get too much.

Even thought there are four former champions in the men’s draw (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Wawrinka) and another two in the women’s (Sharapova and Angelique Kerber), there may well be two new names considering a dive into the Yarra River in two weeks’ time. I wonder if Grigor Dimitrov and Garbine Muguruza have packed their wetsuits?

 

Quick predictions

Grigor Dimitrov to beat Roger Federer in the final

Garbine Muguruza to beat Jelena Ostapneko in the final

Most likely to disappoint: Jo Konta, Madison Keys and Stan Wawrinka.

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Wide-open Wimbledon: my pre-tournament thoughts

There’s been an extra week of the grass court season this year but it still barely feels like we have caught breath since Jelena Ostapenko smashed her way to her first major title and Rafael Nadal bludgeoned his way to a tenth Roland Garros trophy and here we are ready to embark on the next Grand Slam on the green green grass of the home of tennis. It’s really tough to pick a winner in either tournament with much conviction but here’s a quick rundown on the main contenders.

Hat-trick hero?

In the men’s draw, Andy Murray is the defending champion and world number one but comes into the fortnight as the hunted and in relatively poor form, whilst there are also concerns about a sore hip. His first-match defeat to Jordan Thompson at Queen’s should not be something to overplay but his road to a potential third Wimbledon title is rocky to say the least. He would have to get past Stanislas Wawrinka, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer to get his hands on the cup but he could come a cropper as early as the 4th Round when he takes on the erratic, but supremely capable Nick Kyrgios. Don’t be surprised if Kyrgios blows hot and destroys Murray’s hopes of a hat-trick.

Can Stan Wawrinka complete the career Slam by adding a Wimbledon title to his haul? There is little doubt that he has the game to beat anybody on the surface on his notorious hot days but the shame is that the little doubt there is seems to lie in Wawrinka’s own head; he never seems completely at ease and confident in his own ability on the green stuff. It will be interesting to see how he reacts if he has to face Nadal for the first time since he was schooled in the Roland Garros final.

Rafael Nadal himself is a strange one here; he has won only five matches at Wimbledon since 2011 yet is a lot of people’s pick for his third title on the lawns of South-West London. It is certainly true that he was in imperious form in Paris and looked as good as ever but his struggles at Wimbledon over the past five years should not be underestimated. An early defeat cannot be ruled out, but it is hard to confidently predict who will be the next Lukas Rosol, Steve Darcis or Dustin Brown. In fact, for all the potential to fall to a shock, the Mallorcan may well reach the final here but to lift the title will be beyond him.

Novak Djokovic was very sensible to ask for a wildcard into the Eastbourne Championships this past week. He has given himself a much-needed injection of confidence and just as importantly, match practice on grass. The tournament was not particularly stacked but a run to Saturday’s final against Gael Monfils means Djokovic comes in finely-tuned and takes away the likelihood of a repeat of the early exit he suffered in 2016. If he can safely negotiate a third round test against either Juan-Martin del Potro or Thanas Kokkinakis, there is no reason why the former number one and two-time champion won’t make the semi-finals. However, there it will get more difficult…

Green green grass

 

Roger Federer is striving to make Wimbledon history. Were he to win here in a fortnight’s time, he would go clear of Pete Sampras and William Renshaw to take his eighth SW19 crown, more than any other player in history. Of course, that quest has been the same every year since he lifted number 8 in 2012 and he went close in 2014 and 2015 to doing just that. Nevertheless, this is his best shot. We have not seen the Swiss since the American spring season but if his rest has done him as much good as it did before the Australian Open (and his ninth win in Halle indicates it has), then he has to be considered favourite. His path to further history will not be easy – a potential run to glory goes past Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, Djokovic and Nadal but if he brings his Australian Open game to his favourite court, then Wimbledon immortality awaits.

If the men’s tournament is difficult to predict, at least it is the usual suspects who are clouding the picture. The women’s field is ridiculously difficult to fathom. You could make cases for Johanna Konta, CoCo Vandeweghe, Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki and even Elena Vesnina given current and/or previous Wimbledon form due to the absence of former champions like Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova and the continued struggles of the world number one Angelique Kerber. So which ladies have the best shot at lifting the Venus Rosewater Dish?

Lucie Safarova is a former semi-finalist and was in great form at Edgbaston recently before she had to pull out of her semi-final with a leg injury. The Czech is in Angelique Kerber’s section but she may not even have to dispose of the world number one if Kerber were to lose early again. Agnieszka Radwanska, the 2012 finalist, could test her but Safarova is hitting freely and accurately and has the power game to reach another semi-final. Her doubles career really feels like it has strengthened her singles game and it is lovely to see her enjoying her tennis at her relatively-veteran age.

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Safarova is enjoying her game

 

If Safarova can be described as a veteran, what does that make Venus Williams? The five-time champion has not won the big one on her Centre Court home since 2008, and has not reached the final since the following year but her run to the semi-finals here last year as well as to the same stage in Melbourne in January means she is one of the biggest to beat here. She could have been the main one to beat until only a few days ago but it remains to be seen how she fares mentally amid rumours that she will be filed with a lawsuit due to her role in a fatal road collision. In purely tennis terms, her biggest obstacles to a further semi-final appearance would be Dominika Cibulkova and the in-form former Wimbledon junior champion Ash Barty.

Petra Kvitova would be a tremendously popular champion in the tennis world. Just seven months ago, her career looked in grave danger after being stabbed in her playing hand by an intruder to her Prague home. Her appearance at Roland Garros was already a remarkable achievement but she quickly followed this up by winning her second tournament back on tour when she lifted the title at Edgbaston one week ago. I was fortunate to be there for quarter-final day and she looked incredibly strong both physically and mentally in overcoming Kristina Mladenovic in straight sets. Her draw is an excellent one with no tough tests on the horizon until a potential semi-final with Venus. Can she win a third Wimbledon title?

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Kvitova would be a popular three-time champ

 

We could well see the first ever all-Czech final at Wimbledon. Karolina Pliskova has really kicked on in the last twelve months, her game is perfectly suited to grass and she comes in fresh from an appearance in the final at Eastbourne. A potential tussle with CoCo Vandeweghe in the quarter-finals has the makings of the match of the tournament but Pliskova’s huge serve will come good in the end and she would have the firepower to get past Safarova or Radwanska in the final four. A battle between her and Kvitova in the final would be a fantastic slog, come down to who holds their nerve and be decided by a few points either way. Kvitova would be the fans’ choice but it is important that Pliskova grabs this opportunity to shine and take her career to the next step.

Predictions:

Federer to beat Nadal to win men’s title.

Karolina Pliskova to beat Kvitova to win women’s title.

Andy Murray to go out before the quarter-finals.

Ash Barty to make quarter-finals.

A crowd to inexplicably laugh when a seagull lands on the court.

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Winners and losers from Roland Garros

From the very first match on Philippe Chatrier to the very last second of the tournament, the year’s second major delivered in fabulous fashion. I’ve picked out a few of the winners and losers as the clay season came to a denouement.

Winner: Rafael Nadal

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The Perfect Ten

 

There is nowhere else to start. The King of Clay quite simply became a tennis god of clay when he claimed his tenth French Open title. His record of only two defeats in 13 years is unlikely to be ever repeated. There are some very good players who fail to win ten titles in their entire career yet here is a man who has won ten at THE SAME MAJOR. His form in the semis and final against Dominic Thiem and Stanislas Wawrinka respectively, losing a grand total of 13 games, was nothing short of breathtaking. Shame on any of us who wrote this colossus off as past his best. Maybe the 15-times Grand Slam winner will rest his body at Wimbledon for a good go at the hardcourt season but one thing is certain, he sits as overwhelming favourite for Roland Garros 2018.

Loser: Angelique Kerber

A terrible claycourt season for the world number 1. For the second successive year, she crashed out in the first round of Paris so will be looking forward to getting back on the grass. The sad fact is that her opening day defeat to Ekaterina Makarova was greeted with nothing more than a slight shrug of the shoulders by the tennis world. Kerber needs to re-engage and do so quickly if last year is to prove to be nothing but a flash in the pan.

Winner: Jelena Ostapenko

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What a way to turn 20!

 

The women’s draw was earth-shatteringly open and wow did the 20 year old Latvian hurricane take advantage, blowing her way through the tournament, hitting over 300 winners. What a joy it was to see her so free of pressure in Saturday’s final. The experienced Simona Halep simply had no answer to the force of nature that was exploding from Ostapenko’s racket. I saw the new champion play in a junior tournament five years ago and she looked like a possible future star back then. However, we all know what can go wrong transitioning from junior to pro, and there was nothing in her 2017 results to suggest anything like this was close to coming off; it was not just her opponents that were caught off-guard but every single pundit too. The opportunity was there for every player and Ostapenko reached up and grabbed it firmly

 

Losers: Simona Halep and Elina Svitolina

If Jelena Ostapenko reached up and grabbed the golden crown, Simona Halep and Elina Svitolina wasted perfect chances to win their first majors. You never know when the opportunities come around on the WTA and simply put, this perfect storm may never appear for these two again. Svitolina was coming into Roland Garros as the form horse and led Halep by a set and 5-1 in their quarter-final before capitulating and squandering a match point in the process of a crushing defeat. You have to believe that chances will come again for the young Ukranian and that the mental scars will heal quickly and thoroughly. Halep, on the other hand, is a major worry. Her tactic of hoping that Ostapenko would choke in the showpiece could haunt her at the end of her career. Clay is her favoured surface but the cards may not fall correctly like they did in 2017 ever again and younger, stronger powers are coming through. She probably deserves to win a Slam but her passivity in the Paris final meant she did not deserve this one.

Winner: The women’s semi-finals

So often the women deliver a top-class tournament and then the final two rounds fall flat; this time they excelled with nine sets of unrelenting drama and all of the women turning up to the ball. In both the semis and the final itself, the rightful winner came through but that is not to downplay any of the ladies involved; they all worked so hard to produce tennis of the highest quality to close out the tournament – a welcome sight.

Loser: Novak Djokovic

It is almost unbelievable that just twelve months ago Novak Dokovic stood on top of the tennis world having just completed the career Grand Slam whilst also then holding all four major trophies. What’s followed has been well-documented struggles with form and speculated personal issues but I wrote two weeks ago that he should be applauded for ripping up his coaching team and starting again. His pathetic collapse in the final set of his straight-sets quarter-final defeat suggests tougher times are ahead for the Serb as it looked like the last six or seven years had not actually happened and echoed previous collapses as a relative youngster on tour. There is a lot of work to be done for Team Djokovic v2.0.

Loser: Alexander Zverev

Alex Zverev seemed to freeze under the pressure of coming in as one of the favourites. Whilst a first-round match-up with Fernando Verdasco is never one to be relished by any seed, it is the type of tie that a future slam winner should be winning at this stage in his career. There is little doubt that the young German will win a major, and probably several, but this is a fortnight when he was to be expected to go deep. Verdasco got the job done pretty comfortably in the end and Zverev has serious questions to ask himself and the loss of points from last season will not lighten his mood either.

Winner: Juan-Martin Del Potro

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Brothers in arms

 

 

For all the fantastic tennis that was played over the fifteen days, it is Juan-Martin Del Potro’s show of human compassion that will stick long in my mind. When Nicolas Almagro collapsed into a ball and burst into uncontrollable tears on court as he had to retire from their second-round encounter, the big, friendly Argentine was first on the scene to offer a helping hand and comforting hug to his on-court rival. Whlst Almagro was crying, I’m sure many more in the crowd welled up at the sight of Del Potro’s love and support. Well played, DelPo!

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New names to feature but surely the King is back?

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It’s bird’s eye view in Paris!

 

The tennis season’s second major starts in Paris this weekend with big names missing from the women’s draw and one major omission from the men’s tournament. It’s a chance for lesser lights and up-and-comers to showcase their talents but there will probably be at least one very familiar name on a trophy in fifteen days’ time.

Men’s favourites

The absence of Roger Federer won’t be felt too keenly. His resurgence in the early part of the year should not be underestimated or discredited but he simply would not be the threat on clay that he was on the early hard courts of the year; the Swiss clearly recognises this himself hence his decision to skip in preparation for Wimbledon. Instead, it falls to his oldest and longest rival Rafael Nadal to draw the biggest crowds to Roland Garros where the popular Mallorcan will go for his tenth French Open crown. Nadal has a tricky opening match against the once-touted-future-number-one Benoit Paire but no serious money should be put on the Frenchman to get a set never mind the win. From there on, it is not until the semi-finals that Rafa will face a stiff test when he will be expected to come up against Novak Djokovic. The Serb is in fairly decent form as he comes into his first tournament working alongside new coach Andre Agassi but would come up short against the King of Clay again. Djokovic should be applauded rather than condemned for ripping up his coaching team in an attempt to get back into the majors picture but positive results will come later on in the year if at all.

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Federer’s absence won’t detract

 

Where will the challenge come from the other part of the draw? There is a potential blockbuster third round tussle on the horizon between Andy Murray and Juan-Martin del Potro, with the Argentine possibly slight favourite at this time. Murray has admitted his bemusement at his current lack of form on the orange dirt and don’t forget that whilst he reached the final last year, he twice had to come from two sets down in the early rounds. Add into that the savage battles these two have had in the past and del Potro might be ready to take another step back to the top. It is 20 year old Alexander Zverev who could provide the fireworks in the top half of the draw. The German has long been predicted to reach the top and his form going into this event (wins in Munich and Rome) point to him as Nadal’s biggest threat. A run to the final would be a minefield, but it would not be a shock if he successfully negotiated matches against Del Potro, Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka. Wawrinka can never be counted out as he is capable of beating everyone on his day but there is nothing in his current form to suggest a second Roland Garros title is in his grasp – worth remembering though that his other title wins have all come from under the radar too. The only other guy in with a shout is Dominic Thiem; the young Austrian reached the semi-final last year but was found lacking when up against Djokovic; another year of experience will see him as a bigger threat and a recent runner-up display in Madrid serves notice of his chances here. Expect him to put up a better shout this year but still go down to Djokovic in the quarters.

The women

The women’s tournament is lacking traditional star power but has the allure of unpredictability written all over it. Last year’s champion is here but Serena Williams is pregnant, Victoria Azarenka is not yet ready to return after childbirth and Maria Sharapova’s ranking is not yet high enough to qualify after her doping ban. Those three names are all top draws for fans but it is up to the women who are there to put their names and games to the forefront.

2016 champion Garbine Muguruza will be fairly confident that she can win a second major in Paris as she has been gifted a fairly stress-free draw but there is a potential banana skin in the form of in-form Kiki Mladenovic in the Last 16. The French doubles specialist has really upped her singles game in the last nine months much like Sam Stosur once did and with the backing of a fervent Parisian crowd she could cause major trouble for the defending champion. If Muguruza comes through that, expect her to make her way into her third Slam final.

Lazy Paris days 🙂

 

Simona Halep has a niggling ankle injury which may cause her to pull out before her first round match but if she is cautious with it over the first few rounds she has time to play herself into fitness. A finalist in 2014, Halep would fancy her chances against the likes of Dasha Kasatkina and Carla Suarez-Navarro, before a possible winner-takes-all quarter-final clash with the bang-in-form Elina Svitolina, which would be a repeat of the recent Rome final, Svitolina coming out on top on that occasion. I am reticent to predict a first major for the Ukrainian as she is one of my favourite players, but bookmakers make these two the favourites so there has to be something in that. Halep, however, won the Madrid final, besting Kiki Mladenovic so, fitness permitting, definitely looks the one to beat in Paris. Karolina Pliskova will be well-placed to take advantage should these favourites fail to live up to their tags, but it must be said that clay is not her preferred surface and her golden time should come later in the year. Spare a thought for Petra Kvitova too. Just six months after being attacked by a knifeman in her Prague home, she is set to open up proceedings on Philippe Chatrier Court tomorrow morning. There were fears that she would never play again so this will be her biggest victory so far in an already-stellar tennis career.

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Is Svitolina really ready to win a major? 🙂

 

Predictions: Nadal to beat Alex Zverev in final.

Halep to beat Muguruza in final.

Most likely to disappoint: Andy Murray and Dominika Cibulkova

French players to go furthest: Kiki Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia

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Simply the best – what a fortnight Down Under

Time didn’t stand still in Melbourne over the past fortnight, it went back almost a whole decade. 3 of the semi-finalists were surprise contenders and the other shows no sign of slowing down. A fortnight that lost both defending champions and the men’s world number one before the first week was out delivered two dream finals along with a semi final that will be remembered for many a year.

The Williams sisters contested their first final on opposite sides of the net since Wimbledon 2009, which was also Venus’ last major final. In that time, her younger sister Serena had won an incredible 11 of 14 Slam finals she had appeared in. Serena is the oldest Grand Slam champion of all time and there is no longer any doubt in my, or indeed many, minds that she is the greatest woman to ever play the sport. The fact that she still cites Venus as her inspiration, her reason for playing, and her greatest opponent must be taken seriously. Serena has never really had a long-standing rivalry at any point during her career but the fact she struggles to mentally take on Venus gives weight to the elder being her toughest opponent. Venus has done so well to play so regularly and so late into her thirties, especially given her health worries but she will always be second fiddle on the roll of honour in the Greatest Sporting Siblings of all time. Serena will get 25 majors now, at least. The fact that she didn’t lose more than four games in any of her 14 sets shows she is head and shoulders above the rest once again. It will take monumental efforts to defeat her at Wimbledon and the US Open if she maintains this sense of purpose.

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Whilst on the subject of longevity, I look back at my first ever trip to Wimbledon in 2001. The first match I saw on Centre Court was Serena Williams in majestic form against Jelena Dokic. Williams was already a US Open champion at that point and booked a quarter-final berth in straight sets. The following match on the oldest stage of them all saw seven-times champion Pete Sampras come up against the young up-and-comer from Switzerland, Roger Federer. I have always stated my presence at that match as the reason behind my almost-obscene admiration for Federer. To see him lift his 18th major sixteen years on, and five years after his previous one, has overwhelmed me slightly. I had consistently believed he would win another one but, after his six-month injury lay-off, I had finally written him off two weeks ago. Instead, he rolled back the years to defeat Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and his old nemesis Rafael Nadal to deservedly claim the title. He has looked after his body like no male player I have known in my twenty-five years of following the sport and this is just reward for his determination to hang in there whilst the ravages of time seemed to fatally weaken him. The two-slam swing that happened earlier today will surely ensure that Nadal does not now match his haul of 18 majors. The first four sets were good, but not classic. There was always a sense that it would come down to a fifth set (breakfast and cups of tea had to be strategically planned). The fifth set had it all, vintage Federer and Nadal going at it hammer and tongs for maybe one final time in a major final. For 30 minutes, we were all transported back to 2008, when Rafa finally overcame Federer on his Centre Court in a match for the ages. But this time, it was to be the Swiss who held the ‘young’ pretender off, defeating him in a Grand Slam for the first time in a decade. No two players out there bring the best out of each other quite like those two do; their styles are so polar opposite that it just feels right. This fortnight will give Nadal so much heart: he saw off Alexander Zverev, Milos Raonic, Gael Monfils in varying degrees of ease but his defeat of an inspired, rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov in the semi-finals is the true stand-out match of the tournament. Dimitrov looked every inch the Grand Slam champion, ready to smash through his own personal glass ceiling. Unfortunately, he had not counted on Nadal’s double-glazing defence, a real throwback to the Spaniard of four or five years ago. Such was Nadal’s form here that he should be odds-on favourite to claim his tenth Roland Garros in the spring, a real shot in the arm for the rest of the game.

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As for the others, it was a sobering tournament for Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Simona Halep, Agnieska Radwanska and Angelique Kerber who all massively underachieved. Murray will hope it is merely a post-Knighthood blip but Djokovic needs to take time away to reassess the lie of the land. Kerber will come back strongly in the next few months but the other two ladies have now missed the Grand Slam title boat, the ship has definitely sailed. It is dangerous of course to write people off; Roger Federer proved that and only nine months ago I wrote about how Grigor Dimitrov was wasting his talent but you do really sense that neither Radwanska or Halep have the necessary steel. What a tournament for Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, reaching her first semi-final since 1999, a feat she personally accepted made up for all her tough times. Who would have thought Mischa would be the Zverev to go deepest in the men’s tournament; he was, however, full value for his four-set victory over Murray.

Whatever happens in the rest of 2017 surely cannot provide nearly as many stories as these last fifteen days in Melbourne have. The Williams sisters hugging it out on the final evening and the two greatest male players of all time having what will probably prove to be one last five-setter final.  You sensed tears weren’t far from any of their eyes and your heart goes out to the losers but goodness, when there is so much misery and hate in the world right now, didn’t tennis do an awful lot of good for us old romantics.

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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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All to play for in New York: US Open 2016 Preview

 

The final Grand Slam of the year rolls around in a few hours’ time with form and fitness concerns hanging over many of the usual suspects. It’s more difficult this year to differentiate the dead certs from the outsiders and the dark horses, made even more challenging by the Olympics disrupting the US Open Series, usually such a reliable barometer of form. All this being said, you’d be a brave person to back anybody from outside of Djokovic, Kerber, Murray and Williams to lift the trophies in two weeks’ time.

 

Huge doubts linger around Novak Djokovic’s chances in New York. He has even been labelled as an unknown quantity coming into this major – these claims are risible. He is not world number 1 for no reason and is the current holder of three of the four Grand Slams. Yes, he went out uncharacteristically early at Wimbledon and was dumped out of the Rio Olympics in tears, but these tears were more the result of him knowing this was his best chance of winning Gold; he will be well past his peak by the time Tokyo 2020 comes around. He obviously has some slight injury concern bothering him but it would be foolish not to expect him to reach the final few days in the Big Apple. Milos Raonic, should he get that far, may well fancy his chances of upsetting the Serb at the semi-final stage, given the big-hitting games of Sam Querrey and Juan-Martin del Potro have caused the Serb problems in his last two top-tier matches. The Wimbledon runner-up comes into this tournament just days after John McEnroe leaving his coaching team – this should prove no problem as Carlos Moya can continue his excellent work with the big-serving amiable Canadian.

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The 2012 champion will be looking to add to his amazing 12 months

 

The bookmakers may disagree but I consider Andy Murray to be the strong favourite heading into the tournament in which he broke his Grand Slam duck four years ago. On that occasion, he defeated Djokovic in five gruelling sets and it is surely only his poor record against the Serb in recent years that is stopping more people marking him as the man to beat here. He is 19-2 in the majors this year and became the first singles player in history to retain Olympic Gold in Rio earlier this month. His absorbing duel with Juan-Martin del Potro in that final will do him more good than any match he played at Wimbledon; he may need to tough it out in New York and that final proved he can not only stand toe-to-toe with one of the biggest sloggers the game has ever seen, but ultimately overcome him. Murray will need to be wary of Lukas Rosol in the first round as we all know he is capable of turning it on every now and again but should then face no troubles until he faces a rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov in the Last 8. His potential semi-final looks easier on paper than the other half of the draw so he could come into the final weekend feeling relatively fresh, which could prove crucial if it is Djokovic on the other side of the net. I may be biased but I see little way past the Scot this fortnight.

Others to watch include two-time champion Rafael Nadal who seemed in much finer form in Rio and is obviously refreshed by his decision to once again skip Wimbledon, del Potro who is still capable of hitting anybody off the court and finally appears to have put his injuries behind him, and Nick Kyrgios whose enforced absence from the Olympics has allowed him to get accustomed to the American hard courts. It remains to be seen which Kyrgios turns up.

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Two more former champs in with a fighting chance

 

Serena Williams comes into her home major aiming for her 23rd Grand Slam. She is the six-time champion in New York but will want to make amends for the aberration that was her inexplicable semi-final loss to Roberta Vinci last year. Williams has some minor fitness concerns coming into the final major of the year but should she successfully negotiate a tough opening round against Ekaterina Makarova (an Australian Open semi-finalist just eighteen months ago), Serena is likely to go all the way through to Finals weekend. Of course one can never fully discount an off-day such as when the resurgent Elina Svitolina thumped her out of the Olympic Games earlier this month but Serena will have a further layer of dominance added to her now she has moved ahead of Steffi Graf in major titles. The biggest roadblock to a potential final could be her elder sister. It is seven years since Venus last lifted the title in New York but she will be the overwhelming crowd favourite were she to get anywhere near the business end of the tournament; tennis loves a fighting ex-champion and Venus ticks every box.

Madison Keys will be delighted she has landed in the opposite side of the draw to the top two Americans. Keys looks the very clear favourite to carry American hopes for the next generation if the Williams sisters ever stop playing. She gives off a Petra Kvitova impression; if her game clicks in any particular fortnight she is going to blow everybody away. A semi-final in Rio will be small comfort to her as she lost out on a bronze medal to Kvitova but a favourable draw here could see her advance all the way to Finals weekend. She has found a way past Venus Williams in the past but is yet to prove she is a match to Serena. If the Williams’ slip, Keys could be the one to capitalise.

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Outsiders: Konta and Svitolina

 

Elsewhere, Angelique Kerber appears to be the non-American who stands the best chance of lifting the trophy. Kerber v2.0 has had a wonderful 2016, currently tied at 1-1 with Williams in their major finals. However, her defeat to Monica Puig in the Olympics final smacked of the old Kerber, failing to beat an inferior opponent due to apparent mental fragility. There is no doubt that Puig played the tournament of her life but Kerber should have had enough wherewithal to get past her when push came to shove. The world number two will come into the Open determined to prove that was an anomaly and a deciding rubber against Serena appears to be the most likely outcome on the women’s side. Backed by a home crowd, one would have to assume that Serena would come out on top again in another closely-fought tussle.

Expect strong tournaments from Dominika Cibulkova as she looks to round off an impressive showing at the year’s majors, as well as Agnieszka Radwanska and Johanna Konta who currently lead the US Open Series. Radwanska can always be relied upon to disappoint but she should seal a quarter-final place, and Konta will be hoping to push towards the Top 10 by matching that performance. A step further than that appears to be a little out of their collective reaches at this moment in time.

Predictions

Murray to beat Raonic in the final

Serena to beat Kerber

Most likely to surprise: Monica Puig, Elina Svitolina, David Goffin and Dominic Thiem

Most likely to disappoint: Stanislas Wawrinka, Petra Kvitova and Borna Coric

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Djokovic must seize his best opportunity yet – French Open 2016 preview

The arguments that Novak Djokovic is the best tennis player to have ever lived get louder and more numerous with each passing year. His place in history is safe but only by lifting the Roland Garros crown will he feel that he’s achieved all that he is capable of. Last year showed signs that the obsession was crippling him, it all getting too much for him once again in a final. Does 2016 provide him with an ever greater opportunity than last year did?

The World Number 1 made a massive breakthrough in Paris last year when he ousted 9-time champion Rafael Nadal in straight sets, as much a mental breakthrough as anything else. Nadal is no longer impregnable at Roland Garros and this will give everybody a boost. Look what happened when Roger Federer’s invincibility started to ebb away; Sergiy Stakhovsky is what happened. Djokovic must take every match as it comes (something at which he is usually so adept) and there is little doubt that he will appear in the final in a fortnight’s time. Who is he likely to face?

Most neutrals will be cheering Djokovic on

The usual suspects will line up, minus one noticeable absentee. This will be the first Grand Slam in 66 that Roger Federer has failed to take his place in. Let’s just be clear about the enormity of that – this is the first tennis major that the Swiss has not appeared at THIS MILLENNIUM! The 17-time major winner has opted to give this one a miss in order to allow his back to fully recover, seemingly with one eye on giving Wimbledon a sizeable tilt at the end of June. His absence means genuine contenders are few and far between. The obvious two candidates are Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. The latter has been in the finest clay court form of his career recently, competing at a high level with both Nadal and Djokovic each time he has met one. His recent victory over Djokovic in the Rome final will have given him a gigantic psychological lift, ending that horrendous losing streak he had been enduring at the hands of the Serb; Murray looks set for a first French Open final. If he slips up, Nadal is sure to take advantage but it is hard to see the Mallorcan finding a way through both the Scot and Djokovic. The winner will certainly come from those three and the smart money is on Djokovic cementing his place in tennis history by completing the career Grand Slam and taking him clear of Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver to achieve his 12th major title.

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Serena will likely have her feet up with the trophy again on June 4th

 

On the women’s side, it is practically impossible to see beyond reigning champion Serena Williams. Her previous closest competitor Maria Sharapova will not be there to seek out her third French Open title and we currently do not know when, or indeed if, we will ever see her on court again after her failed drugs test. As ever, it will take a monumental effort from somebody to topple the 21-time major winner, but recent defeats in the latter stages of Grand Slams will give hope to the field. In the past, once Serena had played her way into a tournament that tended to be it – but she has lost at the semi and final stage of the last two major tournaments and the likes of Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber and even Svetlana Kuznetsova will fancy their chances if they can hit some kind of form in the French capital. Of course, Victoria Azarenka cannot be ruled out from completing her comeback by returning to the winners’ circle and Gabby Muguruza will look to defend her points from her fine Spring of 2015 by matching or bettering her results this time around. Nevertheless, the smart money will be on the younger Williams sister drawing level with Steffi Graf on 22 major titles, as long as she doesn’t get too tempted by the dog food on offer in Paris’ finest brasseries as she did recently in Rome. As for me, I’m off to the first three days so will check in with my experiences sometime next week. Here’s hoping it doesn’t take me an hour to get a coffee this time!

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Djokovic and Williams chase new records – 2016 Australian Open preview

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Rod Laver Arena at its best

 

The Australian Open often prompts claims from tennis journalists and pundits alike that it is the least predictable major of the year, yet a look at the roll of honour in recent years suggests that if Novak Djokovic plays, he wins. In the women’s tournament, just like the other majors with the exception of Roland Garros, should Serena Williams come in fully fit and focussed then she too takes the title. There is evidence to suggest that we see some breakthroughs earlier in the draws, with Sloane Stephens, Eugenie Bouchard and Madison Keys making their maiden semi-final appearances in the last three tournaments. Last year’s tournament was also a stellar one for the home favourites, with Nick Kyrgios reaching the quarter-finals, maintaining home interest well into the second week. Whilst Aussie eyes will be on Lleyton Hewitt as he ends his career on Rod Laver Arena, there is plenty elsewhere to whet the appetite for a fab fortnight in the Melbourne sunshine, even if the most likely outcomes do involve Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic retaining their titles.

It is extremely difficult to look beyond the world number 1 from Serbia as he aims to equal Roy Emerson’s record of six titles, Emerson’s haul being achieved before the professional era. Djokovic’s form is imperious; he lost only six from 88 matches in 2015 and has already won the Doha title this year, demolishing one-time nemesis Rafael Nadal in the final, after which the top seed admitted that he was playing the best tennis of his life. It must not be forgotten that that demolition in Doha was over 2016 Nadal, not 2010 Nadal. The Mallorcan endured his first title-free season in more than a decade in 2015 and although his recent form is more promising any claims that he can compete in the last two rounds in Melbourne are nonsensical; the prospect of the unpredictable Ernests Gulbis in Round 3 may already be cutting into Rafa’s sleep.

Djokovic on course for a sixth Australian Open title

I’m hard-pressed to pick anything but a Stan Wawrinka-Andy Murray semi-final in the bottom half of the draw. Wawrinka, the 2014 champion, plays some of his best tennis when he goes down under and there is nothing too scary on the horizon to block a third consecutive appearance in the final four. The likes of Jack Sock, Milos Raonic and Kevin Anderson could come calling but their styles all suit Wawrinka’s game so he should be fine. If Nadal does make it through the first week, I expect him to pose very few problems to the Swiss number 2, who collected a title in Chennai a couple of weeks ago. As for Andy Murray, he will be hoping that it is fifth time lucky as he aims to improve on his record of four runner-up appearances. There is very little to trouble the new world number 2 as he aims to push on from propelling Great Britain to their first Davis Cup title since before World War 2. A semi-final tussle with Wawrinka would most likely be the match of the fortnight with a toss of the coin seeming to be the fairest way of settling it.

2014 Champion Wawrinka should make his third consecutive semi

Roger Federer is the one member of the current Top 4 who could come a cropper before the semi-finals. He’s playing well, with a final appearance in Brisbane under his 2016 belt but there are potential matches against Grigor Dimitrov, Julien Benneteau who has pushed him all the way in a Slam before, and Nick Kyrgios. Dimitrov in particular needs to push on this year as his career is in serious danger of stalling altogether. I think he has the best shot of stopping the 17-time major winner from reaching the last four, but if Federer does come through his tricky run he will not be able to overcome eventual champion Novak Djokovic. Message to the field: do your best but this is Djokovic’s title – I firmly believe he is as close to unplayable right now as I have ever seen anybody.

Whilst Djokovic is the overwhelming favourite to lift the men’s title, his fellow defending champion Serena Williams is an extremely strong one, but not quite overwhelmingly so for the women’s championship. The world number 1 is chasing her 22nd Grand Slam title, which would equal Steffi Graf’s Open Era haul. Serena is no stranger to shock defeats in Melbourne, having lost to Ekaterina Makarova, Sloane Stephens and Ana Ivanovic here in the last four years but it would be a massive surprise to see her lose early as defending champion, even if she did get literally the worst possible first round draw; a match-up against big-hitting Camila Giorgi, the highest-ranked unseeded player in Melbourne. A potential fourth-round match-up with BFF Caroline Wozniacki could be fun; however the Dane hasn’t reached the second week in Melbourne since 2013. From there, Maria Sharapova lies in Serena’s quarter and we have to discount the Russian as her long winless streak against the American simply means that she does not stand a chance.

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Serena is gunning for Slam number 22, but there are others who can outshine her this time

 

Agnieszka Radwanska is one to watch over the next fortnight; her best result came two years ago when she reached the semi-finals but she must be confident of at least matching that record. Whilst she faces a blockbuster encounter with an unseeded yet improving Eugenie Bouchard (finalist in Hobart this week) in the second round, as well as being in the same quarter as a resurgent Sloane Stephens (winner of Auckland) and the emerging Aussie star Daria Gavrilova, the Pole comes into 2016 on the back of a successful week at the End of Season Championships, in which she became the first non-Slam winner to be crowned year-ending champion since Amelie Mauresmo in 2005. Back then, Mauresmo took that momentum into the following season and lifted two majors, starting with the Australian Open title. The ever-popular Pole won the title in Shenzhen earlier this month so comes in carrying form; do not discount her from kicking on and bettering her previous record here, and with a bit of luck lifting the title. A potential semi-final with Serena could be a real classic clash of styles.

Radwanska would be a popular first-time winner

The number of times I have written about how Victoria Azarenka comes into a tournament with as good a chance as any of getting the better of Serena….and here we go again. The former world number one looks like she has finally recovered from her injury time-out, lifting her first trophy since 2013 last week in Brisbane, fair pummelling Top 10 player Angelique Kerber in the final. Vika comes in sharp, confident and with an insistence that she will take it one step at a time. However, with doubts over whether Serena is fully fit (an oft-written phrase) media attention will be fierce on Azarenka’s run. I have a sneaking suspicion that she will reach the final four with very little fuss or effort, largely due to a kind draw despite her lowly seeding of 14; indeed, many higher seeds would gladly swap their draws with Azarenka’s.  The bottom half of the draw is wide open, which plays into the hands of the two-time champion. If form holds, expect her semi-final to not be one for the purists, pitting her against Venus Williams (who would need to see off world number 2 Simona Halep who is aiming to ‘do a Wozniacki’ and change her defensive game into more of an attacking one – this may take some time to reap rewards). The elder Williams sister holds a winning record over Azarenka, but I’d expect the Belarussian to come through in three exhausting sets. Is she capable of defeating Serena Williams in the final? Yes. She came so close last year on three occasions, even holding match points in Madrid. She doesn’t quite have Serena’s number yet, let’s say rather that the last digit is a little bit smudged. Will she have to beat Serena to the title here? If pushed, I’d say no. An Azarenka v Radwanska final looks the most likely, another classic style clash. Whilst Azarenka has more fans in Melbourne than in any other part of the world, most neutrals would love to see Radwanska take the final step that her career has always promised possible.

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Disappointed to be missing out this year!

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The King is on the ropes – could it happen? French Open preview

Sharapova kisses her second French Open title

Sharapova kisses her second French Open title

Grand Slam tennis rolls back into the City of Love later today and, whilst my attention is uncharacteristically elsewhere for at least the first 30 hours of the tournament (Championship Play-off Final!),  I have nevertheless tried to make some sense of the draws for the second major of 2015. The reigning women’s champion Maria Sharapova comes in as one of the hot favourites but on the men’s side, the nine-time champ Rafael Nadal arrives finding himself in the unfamiliar territory of not being favourite, in fact being far from it. The French Open has thrown up some surprise finalists on both sides in the 21st century and you can never completely rule out it happening again in spite of the superstar era we find ourselves watching. So who will be standing tall in Porte d’Auteuil after fifteen days of high-class tennis?

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

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

The women’s competition promises to be a fabulous celebration of in-form tennis. The top four seeds Serena Williams, Sharapova, Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova have all had very good clay-court results recently, and the underdogs section looks pretty competitive too; Andrea Petkovic, Carla Suarez-Navarro, former world number one Victoria Azarenka and 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova are all capable of going deep into the Parisian fortnight. In addition to that, you’ve got Grand Slam pedigree in 2008 winner Ana Ivanovic and Eugenie Bouchard who always saves her A-Game for the majors. It’s a difficult task to pick a winner and made even harder when you struggle to be objective sometimes – we all have our favourites. However, I will try.

For all the talk of how dominant Serena Williams is and how she brings her best form to the majors when she has a difficult draw, I do believe she will bow out of the French Open in the first week. There’s no doubt that the younger Williams sister is the dominant player of this era, and the era before it for that matter. She has been at the very top since the dawn of the new millennium BUT……her tussles with Victoria Azarenka are always titanic encounters – who can forget their consecutive US Open Finals in 2012 and 2013? Azarenka’s ranking is now down to 27 after the year she lost to injury, but Serena will not have wanted to see her name so early on. Azarenka recently double-faulted on three consecutive match points against the world number one, perfectly illustrating how close these two are. I take her to finally get over the line in a big match against Williams and go deep into the tournament.

From the top half of that draw, I actually think that Andrea Petkovic and Petra Kvitova will fill the semi-final spots. Petkovic would have to come past the likes of Azarenka and former finalist Sara Errani, but the German would be a popular returnee to the semi-final circle she reached last year. I watched Petra Kvitova take apart Svetlana Kuznetsova’s fine clay-court game so resoundingly in the Madrid final recently, a performance the Russian described as the best she’d ever played against. I’ve said it before but it really is time that the Croatian takes her Wimbledon form into other slams, and she looks well set to do that in Paris.

It’s hard to look beyond a Halep-Sharapova semi-final in the bottom half of the draw; a repeat of last year’s final looks certain due to them both being in fine form. The Romanian would need to come past the likes of home favourite Alize Cornet, out-of-form Agnieszka Radwanska and her Australian Open conqueror Ekaterina Makarova but her spellbinding progress is sure to see her right. The two-time champion Sharapova has an easier route to the semis but will need to avoid complacency if she comes up against former finalist Samantha Stosur in the third round. Their semi-final will be every bit as good as last year’s final, and then better. You can never rule out the Russian but I have got to believe that if Halep is to get over the line against her anywhere, it would still be on clay. Sharapova’s a clay-court expert these days of course, but Halep is as close to Justine Henin that we’ve had since the diminutive Belgian retired.

Simona Halep is looking to go the extra step

Simona Halep is looking to go the extra step

A Kvitova-Halep final would be great for tennis, a final not involving any of the typical old-guard. A classic of punch-counterpunch tennis, of that tall swinging left forehand of Kvitova’s with the chess-style game of Halep. You can never be sure in women’s finals but I’d love it to go three sets. I’d tip Halep to edge the final and become the newest member of the Grand Slam club.

In the men’s draw, eyes immediately go to the quarter which houses both nine-time champion Rafael Nadal and the world number one and in-form Novak Djokovic. Does a 128-man, 15-day tournament really boil down to just one match on Day 11? You would hope not, but then as long as it’s as titanic a struggle as we expect it would be we could deal with that. Both of these men arrive in Paris in unchartered territory; Rafa as an underdog for the first time in a decade and Nole as THE favourite. How will they cope with their new tags? I’d be absolutely amazed if they didn’t both reach the quarter-finals. Djokovic may come up against Bernard Tomic and Richard Gasquet but if either of them takes a set from him, they will have done well. Rafa is coming into this tournament at his most vulnerable since he first stepped foot on Court Philippe Chatrier for the first time in 2005 but then this is Roland Garros, this is Court Philippe Chatrier, this is his house. Nobody will take him out in a best-of-five sets match in the first week. Despite all of the form books pointing to a comfortable win for Djokovic, I think it will be an extremely tight match between the two gladiators but, if pushed into a corner, I’m backing the Serb to prevail.

Whatever happens, it’ll take a lot out of the victor, which will be ideal for their semi-final opponent, with the sensible money predicting that to be Andy Murray. Murray has won two clay court titles this year and finally feels at home on the surface. I’ve always thought the Brit is capable of winning the French Open but his best chance may lie in the future when Djokovic is not so hot. That said, the two-time slam champion would have a good shot if Djokovic is underpar following a huge quarter-final with Rafa. His counter-punching style is actually a really good fit for the Roland Garros orange and he now appears to have the belief that this is indeed the case. Once again, it could be a cigarette paper to separate that semi-final – one thing is for sure though, it would not be pretty.

The bottom half of the draw can be summed up in one word: Opportunity. 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer will look at the names before him and fancy his chances of his first final appearance in Paris since 2011. However, there’s a name there that may well just take him out and that name is Gael Monfils. The exuberant Frenchman has come close to beating the great Swiss at Roland Garros before and this time I expect him to get the job done. That would completely blow open the whole half, and it would be Kei Nishikori that would be left licking his lips. I see shocks all throughout the fortnight in the bottom half and names like Monfils, Ernests Gulbis, Fabio Fognini and Roberto Bautista-Agut could all have parts to play at the quarter-final stage. Nevertheless, it is the Japanese Nishikori who I think has what it takes to take advantage of a kind draw and reach his second major final. He will hope to give a better impression of himself than he did in New York last September and I anticipate that he’d provide stiffer opposition this time around but ultimately fall short again.

Djokovic wants to complete the Career Grand Slam - this could be his year

Djokovic wants to complete the Career Grand Slam – this could be his year

In short, I predict two new champions for Roland Garros to add to its exquisite roll of honour: Simona Halep and Novak Djokovic.  But if they slip up against the two reigning champions, those champions will continue to reign supreme……

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