Tag Archives: Serena

Djokovic and Williams chase new records – 2016 Australian Open preview

16227_10153539046662388_2416064034933043631_n

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.

988472_10153539040887388_5468590145991981200_n

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.

IMG_2514

Disappointed to be missing out this year!

3 Comments

Filed under Australian Open

Bad for tennis – the tarnished legacy of Serena Williams

I’m going to start this piece by reminding people that I have been the biggest fan of the World Number 1 for well over a decade now. I’ve slowly, surely, and now suddenly come to the realisation that I can’t avoid the fact that what comes with her is bad for tennis and it has nothing to do with her dominance of the game. It’s the ongoing illnesses, the lack of grace when winning, the disgraceful background that sits behind some of her biggest losses and her general on-court demeanour. Forget the Williams Sisters story and where they came from (that will always be a model to follow) but look instead to how she behaves now at the pinnacle of the sport and ask yourself the question – would you want a child of yours to behave like that when in a position to inspire new generations? Some of you will answer yes, and point to the fact that winners are made of different stuff. But I say right here that in my opinion Serena Williams is a stain on the current game and her legacy will be forever stained.

It’s often said that we hold sport stars to different moral codes to the rest of the population. There are arguments to either side of that but I’m going to suppose here that we do and look at the incidents away from Serena’s incredible haul of Grand Slam and Olympic titles. There are very few champions that go through a whole career without putting a foot wrong or occasionally erring on the wrong side of a moral code but then there others where it becomes more of a pattern. For me, Steffi Graf will always have an asterisk against her Grand Slam total for the point in her 1999 French Open Final in which she pointed the incorrect mark on the clay court to the umpire. This was not a wily old champ showing gamesmanship; this was a desperate act of cheating to hold off the new guard. Couple this with Graf’s desire to remove Monica Seles’ protected ranking when the American was recovering from BEING STABBED ON COURT and this is why I don’t hold Graf in fond memory, despite how we have all been seduced with her ‘love match’ with Andre Agassi.  I love tennis and I don’t like anything that goes with it which makes me dislike the sport.

And this is the thing that is now impossible to ignore with Serena Williams – there are just way too many things that she does that makes the experience of watching the sport I love a thoroughly unpleasant one. Let’s go through the big ones first, the ones we all know about; namely the 2009 and 2011 US Opens. In the 2009 US Open, Serena Williams was correctly given a code violation and lost a point on match point after threatening to shove a tennis ball down the throat of a line judge who had correctly called a foot fault on Williams’ serve. Our distinguished World Number One denied this and then refused to apologise until audio evidence was produced to confirm that she had indeed made that threat. So not only did she bully a line judge, but she also lied. The fact that the Grand Slam Committee chose to issue the biggest possible fine instead of suspending her from Slams serves only to show that top players are treated differently, which is not the main idea behind this piece. Fast forward two years to her appearance in the final of the 2011 US Open. The chair umpire correctly called a hindrance when Williams shouted ‘come on!’ after hitting a shot which her opponent Samantha Stosur still had a chance of reaching. Again, Williams showed the lack of class and grace (look away from the twirls and the kiss-blowing, for goodness sake) that has blighted her career by launching into a tirade on the chair umpire, including telling her that she was ‘ugly inside’ and should ‘look the other way if you see me coming’. She later went on to passive-aggressively claim in the trophy presentation that she “hit a winner but I guess it didn’t count”. Her refusal to accept when she breaks the rules does not do her any favours.

Threatening to hurt a line judge

Threatening to hurt a line judge

And then there are the ‘minor’ quibbles. The disgraceful use of ‘Fuck’ in all its variations throughout the second set in yesterday’s final is something we don’t want to see from a professional athlete. I note Andy Murray takes criticism like this and apologies for it and realises that it’s a bad example to set to watching kids. However, to date Serena hasn’t bothered to apologise for the example that her foul-mouthed audible conversation with herself yesterday sets to the generation of future players she often talks about inspiring.

For a professional athlete, she does tend to get ill a hell of a lot. I would suggest she looks into her training and fitness regime because for somebody at the very top of her game to come into two successive Slams grumbling about her body’s ails is at best suspicious and at worst for her, extremely worrying. The tennis Twitterati went into meltdown when British Number 9 Tara Moore claimed that Serena is one of the best actresses to ever play the game. I mention the fact that Moore is the British Number 9 because the people who ridiculed her seemed to think that because Moore is ranked lowly in the tennis world she is somehow not allowed an opinion (despite her being a better tennis player than all those disagreeing with her and claiming she was unqualified to comment due to her ranking). Nobody is questioning Williams’ ability; her serve is the best that the women’s game will likely ever see and her groundstrokes and power play have taken the game to a level unthinkable even ten years ago.

What I am questioning is how many times has Serena Williams genuinely given praise to an opponent who has beaten her without somewhere along the line hinting that she was in some way ill, whether that be pre-match, post-match or worse of all during the match? 2004 was the first sign of this when she suffered an abdominal injury mid-match to Maria Sharapova in the finals of the End of Season Championships. She limped around like a sulking child and gave Sharapova minimal praise, either in verbal form or body language. One could argue that as a fighting champion she doesn’t believe in retiring mid-match but a series of retirements and withdrawals in the few years that followed, including in the semi-final of the same event two years later, put paid to that line of defence. She also missed three months due to dental surgery; something which I guess would have less effects than stomach cramping and acute muscle spasms. The assumption can be made that Serena knows the age-old adage that an injured player is difficult to play against and sticks out there to get in her opponents’ heads when she is injured – if she is injured, of course. The Australian Open of 2007 is perhaps her biggest triumph when she came into it overweight and written off but claimed the title for the loss of just three games in a final with Sharapova. But again, the footnote reads: struggled on-court with a cold during the first six rounds. Yes, a 12 day cold for a professional athlete. No further comment.

One of many on-court collapses, this time during Wimbledon 2007

One of many on-court collapses, this time during Wimbledon 2007

Fast forward five months to her Wimbledon third round match with Daniela Hantuchova when at a set down and 5-5 in the second set, Williams collapsed on court, later citing an acute muscle spasm. She could barely walk for the next three games but managed to force a third set. It was horrendous to watch and little knows what it was like for both players to experience. The fact that she managed to come through this has more to do with the fact that her opponent was left stunned, like she was having to put a dying animal out of its misery and couldn’t stick the injection in. Serena refused to withdraw and limped around in the following match where the more-ruthless Justine Henin didn’t have the problems that Hantuchova had. If you’re so unfit that you can’t walk, surely as a professional athlete you make a decision thinking about long-term consequences? These are the stand-out injury performances over the years, most Slams are littered with at least one match in which Serena visibly struggles with her fitness. There is this underlying current in which Serena almost forces an opinion on the watching audience that no opponent on tour is capable of beating her unless she is seen to be struggling with an illness. It’s happened numerous times in non-Slam events and happened in Paris against Sloane Stephens and Timea Bacsinszky; it does appear to happen more regularly against players who are not used to playing on the stage on which they are playing ie Bacsinszky’s first semi-final appearance. Again, no further comment.

Finally, I take you back to one of the things that tarnished Graf’s legacy in my eyes. In the third round of this year’s French Open, the line umpire called for a point to be replayed after an incorrect call had been made. It was at a vital stage of the match; Azarenka leading a set and 5-6. The point should not have been replayed as Serena knew it was a clear winner from Azarenka. So this 20-time Grand Slam champion that is often hailed as a fair and sporting champion chose to carry on without pointing that out. She is quick at other times to overrule the umpire for her opponents, but not at crucial points against women she knows are capable of bettering her. A chance to be truly virtuous missed.

The illnesses are increasing in frequency - problem with the training regime or something more sinister?

The illnesses are increasing in frequency – problem with the training regime or something more sinister?

Only Serena Williams herself knows how often she is ill, and what leads to all of these badly-times illnesses. Only Serena Williams herself knows why she chooses to inspire a generation with fighting ability but doesn’t care if she drops the F bomb numerous times and doesn’t have a problem in doing so. Only Serena Williams herself knows why she so rarely gives credit to opponents without it being qualified with her own health issues. Only Serena Williams herself knows what lies behind the anger that spills over towards officials when they make correct decisions which go against her. Only Serena Williams herself knows how much of her on-court antics and lack of sportsmanship are genuine, gamesmanship or simply cheating. Her book when she retires could be a gruesome insight into all of this, except here’s the thing – I wouldn’t believe a word she said in it. And that will always be Serena Williams’ legacy: the greatest of all time? Possibly, maybe even probably. Unbelievable? Yes, on so many different levels.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

WTA’s week in the spotlight – we need a stellar week

All eyes are on Singapore over the next week or so as the WTA season ends with its round-robin event; a format that seems to now be the accepted way on both WTA and ATP tours alike to settle the year’s champion. Six of the eight different Grand Slam finalists from the year line up in Asia, with Dominika Cibulkova missing out due to her failing to capitalise on her early-season momentum and of course the event and the tour from hereon will be a much lesser place for the lack of the recently-retired Na Li. The Chinese had an on and off-court personality which very few out there can come close to matching and her legacy will not be fully known for an other decade or so.

The three later Grand Slam finals of the year are all represented with potential rematches of Maria Sharapova v Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova v Eugenie Bouchard, and Serena Williams v Caroline Wozniacki all possible. In addition, Agnieszka Radwanska and Ana Ivanovic will aim for their first Finals trophy, coming into this event after differing seasons. hat we have to hope for is that neither of the alternates Angelique Kerber and Kate Makarova are pressed into action. Too often in the past, this tournament under its different names has been ruined by the withdrawals and retirements of players, making a mockery of the format. The season is a long and gruelling one and it’s always hard for players to come into the tournament fully fit, which leads me nicely onto……

Eugenie Bouchard really shouldn’t be playing this tournament. There are massive concerns over her fitness coming into Singapore and the strapping on her during practice sessions is most unlike her. However, I simply feel like withdrawing wouldn’t have been an option for Genie due to commercial reasons. She’s a big draw, the biggest out there in tennis right now and I feel like if this was her third or fourth WTA Finals, she maybe wouldn’t be under so much pressure to play. Simona Halep also sees to be struggling with injury but she will think her hard work and fabulous results over the last 15 months merit her a place in Singapore so she will give it a shot. Alas, I expect neither of them to make it out of their group, even if they do manage to fulfil their fixtures.

Agnieszka Radwanska has had a hugely frustrating season, which peaked with her quarter-final dismembering of Vika Azarenka’s game in Melbourne in January. Whilst she has been known to throw in the odd shock result somewhere along the line, I have no qualms in writing off her chances here. Caroline Wozniacki, on the other hand, has had a summer of rejuvenation and her all-new attacking game has taken her back into the world’s Top 8. She’ll use these last few months as a mental springboard onto an even better 2015 in my opinion but she’ll find it a touch call to get out of the group.

Maria Sharapova comes into this event as an elder stateswoman but fresh as a daisy. She’s had a solid year, adding to her Grand Slam collection and playing some of her best fighting tennis of her career in Paris. She’ll be glad she’s not in the same group as her nemesis Serena Williams and should come through her group comfortably. Her round-robin match with Petra Kvitova will prove crucial in determining who avoids the World Number One in the last four . Ana Ivanovic should come through the other group at the expense of the less-than-fully-fit pair of Halep and Bouchard, and Ana is another who has been riding the wave of rejuvenation this year. Her forehand is working wonderfully and her aggression is tuned in at the right moments these days. She has a new-found belief that she belongs at the top of the women’s game going into 2015 and she fully deserves her time in the Singapore spotlight. Expect her to make the knock-out stage.

Petra Kvitova is the second best player in this tournament and her result here will match it. The now-2-time Wimbledon champion has the ability to hit most players, even Serena , off court and will fancy her chances of adding to the Finals trophy she won back in 2011. I expect her to claim four victories on her way to a Final showdown with the reigning US Open champion and it’ll be a blockbuster affair going down to the very wire. But, as so often in these previews, I have no option but to back Serena Williams to once again come out on top. Nothing seems so fitting in tennis as Serena standing atop the game at the end of a calendar year and I expect her to bring the form, fitness and motivation here to take away her fifth, and third successive , WTA Finals championship. Let’s just hope we get some fantastic three-set matches after some lacklustre latter stages of the Slams this year, as the women’s game has the full spotlight to itself this week.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

My 2013 Grand Slammy awards

To tide me over the horrible tennis off-season I thought I would look back on the year before we get ready to do it all again in 2014. So I give you my very own Slammy awards: (NB there will be a lot of bias in here and the categories may not be so mainstream)

The ‘Oh I say! tennis day of the year’ award: Friday, July 5th

I thought at the time that this was one of the best days of tennis a Grand Slam had offered up in two decades; the four months in between have done nothing to dilute that view. When a British player reaching a Wimbledon final isn’t the highlight of the day, you know you’ve had a treat. The nine sets of men’s tennis served up in the Wimbledon men’s semi-finals will stand the test of time for their drama and for their incredible level of quality. As a side-note, don’t count Juan-Martin Del Potro out of winning that tournament one day.

The ‘Errrr crikey, what do we do for the rest of the tournament?’ award: Wimbledon Day 3

Wimbledon's Black Wednesday

Wimbledon’s Black Wednesday

Ah yes, the day that eight players withdrew through injury either before or during their matches, the day that six former World number 1s bowed out of the tournament. Not only were Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic all eliminated on the women’s side, but the 21st century’s King of Centre Court finally succumbed to an opponent he shouldn’t have lost to; Federer’s four-set loss to Sergiy Stakhovsky a fitting finale to a day that tennis enthusiasts will never forget. Exit stage right half of the tennis world protagonists.

The ‘Handbags at twenty paces’ award: Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova

Whilst the Siberian cannot live up to the World Number 1 on the court (remember it is almost a decade now since Maria has defeated Serena), their public falling-out was at least a more even match-up. Quite what seemed to cause the until-then good friends to fall out is open to interpretation but it did seem that the age-old “I don’t like your boyfriend” stance added fuel to the fire. It’s not quite what women’s tennis wants to be known for but it did get tabloid inches. I’d pay good money to see the stare-down between these two on a grand stage next year?

The ‘You’re tossing a potentially good career’ award: Bernard Tomic
So much raw talent but will somebody please get a hold of the Aussie before it’s too late? The 2011 Wimbledon quarter-finalist lost in woeful fashion to Britain’s Dan Evans in New York in August and looked like he wanted to be anywhere else in the world but on a tennis court. The ‘kid’ has talent but his will-to-win and desire to put in the training hours looks at very best suspect. He needs to cut himself loose from his father and get a seasoned experienced coach to put him back on the right track. Photos of him in a nightclub receiving lap-dances during the offseason do not suggest he is knuckling down just yet. Next year is vital for him, almost make-or-break. He has the talent, but then so did Jelena Dokic….

The ‘Duracell bunny’ award: Marion Bartoli
Her effervescent never-say-never attitude finally paid dividends in the summer of 2013 when, at her 47th attempt, she finally won a Grand Slam title. She took full advantage of the draw opening up with all of the withdrawals and shock losses and marched through to the Venus Rosewater Dish without losing a set. Her name will always be there on that plate and despite the fact that it was not a stellar tournament on the ladies’ side, her example goes alongside Francesca Schiavone’s from recent years with the maxim to kids that if you leave everything out there on the court, then you really can reach the highest of highs. Her decision to retire shocked many but not as many as you would first think. Bartoli was always a scientist, a mathematician. She left no stone unturned in her career and she logically concluded that Wimbledon 2013 would be the pinnacle of her career. Nothing left to achieve, merci and adieu! Well played Bartster!

The ‘Why are you still playing? Ah, that’s why!’ award: Radek Stepanek

Davis Cup trooper

Davis Cup trooper

The 35-year-old Czech can still be a nuisance on the singles tour. He gets into the heads of the very top players, albeit temporarily but struggles now to stick runs together at ATP level. He’s dropped down to play a few lower-level tournaments but it is the Davis Cup that he lives for these days. In November, he helped the Czech Republic to a successful defence of their title by overcoming Novak Djokovic’s Serbia, a year after they defeated Spain. Keep on running, old man – it’s clearly worth it!

Early predictions for 2014
Serena Williams to win less Grand Slam tournaments – whilst she is the undisputed Queen of the WTA, this was her year to capitalise. Next year Victoria Azarenka will win at least another Grand Slam and the youngsters will all be a year wiser and a year fitter. But Serena will still win one or two.
Juan-Martin Del Potro will win a second Grand Slam title. If the big man can ensure he gets amongst the top 4 seeds at the big tournaments, he is capable of adding to his solitary major.
Roger Federer will end the year in the Top 5. Not as many points to defend as in previous years, a switch of coach and a switch of mentality = dangerous maestro!
Slaone Stephens and Eugenie Bouchard will become established members of the WTA Top 10, Grigor Dimitrov and Jerzy Janowicz will crack the top ten on the men’s tour. Bernard Tomic will not.

Career crossroads

Career crossroads

From a British point of view, Andy Murray will add to his Slam collection, most probably in Melbourne at the year’s start. Heather Watson will battle back into the world’s top 50 due to her new attacking game but Laura Robson’s immediate future will depend on how quickly she settles into working with her new coach. Jo Konta will make it three British women in the Top 100 once again. Dan Evans should get into the Top 100 by the time the US Open series comes around.
Oh, and just so he doesn’t go without a mention…Rafael Nadal to end the year by winning the World Tour Finals and as World Number 1.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Unquestionable greatness

World Champion and Great Briton

World Champion and Great Briton

I thought long and hard about whether I could get away with writing a blog about the athletics World Championships, whether I was informed enough. But then that particular concern has never stopped me with tennis. I’ve watched all week a sport which is beset with drug concerns, as the sport I love appears to be lumbering into a doping crisis. Or at least it will be if Francophone media have their way. Not content with having eventually been proven justified in their pursuit of Lance Armstrong, they appear to now want to say that any enforced absence or retirement from tennis is down to doping. Nadal, Serena, Bartoli, Clijsters, Henin. 5 Champions. All having their names dragged through mud. This is the sport that chucked Martina Hingis, a five-time major winner, out on her ear for recreational cocaine use, something the Swiss always denied. But the facts are there for me. Tennis does not do cover-ups.

Anyway, the athletics. That is a sport where you cannot trust much of what you see. You have Russians who arrive at major championships and knock three seconds off their personal bests, in the 1500 metres. You have people like LaShawn Merritt who has served two drug bans in the past winning the 400 metres by a full 10 metres and you’re supposed to admire that. No, you can’t. You watch it and you suspect immediately. Shelley-Ann Fraser=Pryce has served a suspension in the past too. How many of the host nation’s athletes have served suspensions in the past five years? How many deserving athletes have been denied their moments on the podium due to cheats initially prospering at their expense. A sport which is currently having to do without Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Kelly-Ann Baptiste and Sherone Simpson. All established stars that fell afoul of regulations for an assortment of reason, none of which are acceptable for top sport stars. I’m just glad that I can watch the sport that I love and not see it through those suspecting eyes, no matter what L’Equipe or the Belgian gutter press say.

What I initially wanted to write about before I got so rudely interrupted by those libellous stories was how we measure greatness in sport. Christine Ohuruogu became World Champion for the second time this week, a full six years after her maiden victory. She followed up her first World title by winning the Olympic title 12 months later, but it has taken her five long years to get back on top of the podium. Yet we didn’t proclaim her a great athlete in 2008, no we waited until this week’s triumph ended her barren spell a couple of Relay gold medals and another Olympic medal, this time silver!). Usain Bolt is on for yet another clean sweep and now there is little doubt that he is the greatest short sprinter that ever competed. It’s because he is going out there and doing it time and time again. Mo Farah was not content with winning the 5000m and 10,000m double in just the Olympics, but has gone and repeated it in Moscow. By doing that, he inches closer to the real greats like Kenenisa Bekele and Haile Gebreselassie. Only by sticking around in a sport do you achieve greatness. By consistently being close to, if not on, the top of a sport for a sustained period of time.

You can have barren spells, injuries, times when a flash in the pan comes along and beats you to medals. But if you stick at what you do best and you look to continually improve, you’ll be back on top more times than you’re not. That’s why Sir Alex Ferguson was the don of British football. Arsene Wenger may have outwitted him on occasions, Mourinho may have trumped him a couple of times but Ferguson was the best for 20 years at United. That’s what made Michael Johnson the greatest athlete of all time, he was at the very top of his sport for nine years. And he doubled up in that time. That’s what makes Roger Federer the greatest tennis player of all time for me. That consecutive grand slam quarter-final record, the amount of time he’s spent in the Top 5. The way others have had to raise their games to challenge these legends of their sport. By being good, you can win. But by having longevity, you can achieve greatness. Whilst it would be a little exuberant to suggest Christine Ohuruogu is one of the greatest athletes in the world, her victory in Russia this week makes her, for me, one of Britain’s greatest ever. It puts her above the likes of Kelly Holmes and Linford Christie.

Welcome to Club Longevity Christine, you’re a fully paid-up and deserving member.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Britain's big hopes

Britain’s big hopes

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

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

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

Favourites for the crown

Favourites for the crown


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

Leave a comment

Filed under Wimbledon

The best tournament in the world

Henman Hill, June 2012

Henman Hill, June 2012


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

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

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

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

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

Pete Sampras exits Wimbledon stage right

Pete Sampras exits Wimbledon stage right

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Wimbledon