Tag Archives: Simona Halep

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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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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Australian Open – my Week One recap

Whilst the majority of people will point to Roger Federer’s loss as the highlight of the first Grand Slam week of 2015, I want to quickly forget it. The peril of buying tickets in advance means that I chose Friday as the day to try out Margaret Court Arena for the first time. After witnessing straight-sets victories for Tomas Berdych and Simona Halep, I could only watch helplessly as the scoreboard updated during changeovers of the women’s doubles match on Court 3, a low point to go with my decision on Monday afternoon to leave Rod Laver Arena to venture to the outer courts to watch one of my A-Team in action – Alison Riske. The misery of her subsequent hard-fought three-sets defeat to French youngster Oceane Dodin was compounded by the fact Ana Ivanovic had succumbed to the biggest shock of the women’s tournament thus far on Rod Laver Arena – when I’d left, she was demolishing Lucie Hradecka, having won the first set 6-1. How things quickly changed. Oops!

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Otherwise, my week at Melbourne Park has been utterly (and I rarely use this word sincerely, but here it has never been more so) awesome. I’ve finally ticked off my very own Grand Slam, having previously been to the other three majors and, from free entry to the final two days of qualifying to seeing Maria Sharapova save two match points in trademark fighting fashion, I’ve witnessed some classic tennis – high quality matches from great vantage points. There have been minor and major quibbles but essentially this is a truly exceptional event. The minor quibble: Melbourne has as many ‘tennis tourists’ as the other Slams; from a woman completing a crossword during a tiebreak to a man watching Nick Kyrgios on his IPad whilst ignoring the exciting match on the court he was at. A major quibble: the line-judging has been pretty consistently woeful. There is a definite leap in standard to what I’ve seen previously at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows, and even at Fed Cup and WTA tour level matches. I’m not talking about the TV courts where Hawkeye/Challenge Review can bail them out, but the outer courts where big money is at stake for the World Number 68s – the standard has been unforgivably bad and Tennis Australia must take ultimate responsibility for that.

Maria Sharapova needed all her fighting qualities to prevail on Wednesday

Maria Sharapova needed all her fighting qualities to prevail on Wednesday

It’s interesting how you attach yourself to players when you come to a Slam, players to whom you had no previous affinity. When I watched Lucie Safarova play Yaroslava Shvedova on Monday evening, I was definitely in the Czech’s camp. However, after Shvedova’s tenacious and intelligent play saw her to a three-set victory, we followed her into the second round where she easily defeated rising star Monica Puig. Unfortunately, the Kazakh’s run came to an end on the same court she had played Monday and Wednesday when the talented Shuai Peng had just a little too much for her. Still, a third round appearance and a new fan – can’t be bad! Jerzy Janowicz’s five-set win over Gael Monfils was my highlight men’s match of the week. If people think the Frenchman is good to watch, then I suggest they catch a bit more of Janowicz; here is a man who actually tries to win tennis matches with attacking prowess.

Jerzy Janowicz in fine swashbuckling style

Jerzy Janowicz in fine swashbuckling style

Incidentally, we pretty much double-handedly ended most French interest at Melbourne Park. On three consecutive evenings, our final act in the grounds was to witness French defeats; Malek Jaziri finishing off Edouard Roger-Vasselin, Janowicz’s conquering of Monfils, and Kevin Anderson’s demolition job on Richard Gasquet. Add to that Bethanie Mattek-Sands’ victory over Kristina Mladenovic and I almost completed a clean sweep on my Gallic cousins. Shame the only ‘L’Hexagone’ victory I witnessed was Oceane Dodin’s tussle with my A-team lady Alison Riske. A word for Riske and Russian Elena Vesnina – respect. Both lost in very different fashions on Monday but both took the time to sign autographs for young and old fans. Extra kudos to Riske who agreed to a photo with yours truly on Wednesday despite her doubles defeat with Madison Keys to the aforementioned Vesnina and her partner Kate Makarova. Ali, you’re a star!

A-Team member Alison Riske and I :-)

A-Team member Alison Riske

From the tennis that I’ve seen in the flesh, I still expect Tomas Berdych to make hay this week and Simona Halep to at least reach the final four. Kevin Anderson could cause bother for Rafael Nadal tomorrow should we see Second Round rather than Third Round Rafa. Dominika Cibulkova could come in under the radar should she successfully negotiate a tough match against a resurgent Victoria Azarenka in the Last 16. From TV viewing and report reading, I see no big reason to change my pre-tournament predictions of Bouchard and Murray; there are big chinks in Serena’s, Maria’s and Novak’s games whilst Rafa looks way short of confidence. Berdych v Tomic awaits me tomorrow, followed by, amongst other things, all the women’s quarter-finals and both finals. If they are as good as this last week has been, I’m going to count myself a very fortunate and happy little soul.

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Australian Open 2015 preview – Bouchard and Murray to reign?

Oh really, we’re here already? The tennis off-season whizzed by in a flash, seeming like mere weeks since Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic swept all before them in their respective end-of-season Championships. The big names have taken different warm-up routes prior to arriving in Melbourne but, with the Australian Open’s propensity to throw in one or five surprises, a cracking fortnight of tennis is in store.

The home of tennis for the next two weeks

The home of tennis for the next two weeks

On the women’s side, Serena Williams looked everything but invincible during the Hopman Cup, losing heavily to both Eugenie Bouchard and Agnieszka Radwanska, whilst being pushed to the very limit by Lucie Safarova. She will not like the fact that she faces tricky likely encounters with fast-rising Elina Svitolina and Garbine Muguruza in the first week. I will not be surprised if the latter, who reached the fourth round here last year, springs a big shock. Maria Sharapova beat Ana Ivanovic in a classic Brisbane final eight days ago, both ladies going at it hammer and tongs for two and a half hours with an intensity belying the fact that it was the first week of the new season. Both of them will fancy their chances this fortnight, Sharapova admitting that she is only here to win. If I had to pick though, I’d go with Ivanovic to go deeper into the tournament and match her semi-final appearance of 12 months ago.

Agnieszka Radwanska is a tough one to call. In the past, I’ve been critical of her mental fragility, especially when a draw opens up. She has the game to trouble anybody on tour, as borne out by her demolition job on Victoria Azarenka, the defending champion of the time, in the quarter finals last year. But her mind simply goes AWOL on occasions, which has cost her dear time after time in her career thus far. She has now done well to seek out help in the form of her new coach Martina Navratilova. One can only assume that only good will come out of this partnership. There’s not a lot wrong with the Pole’s physical game, and if she gets it right between the ears, she will end her Grand Slam duck sometime in the near future. Having said that, this fortnight will come too soon; a place in the quarter-finals would seem reasonable reward. Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki will look to carry their fine 2014s into the new season but the latter has the prospect of a mouth-watering clash with Victoria Azarenka on the horizon in the second round. If it’s the Wozniacki of late summer and the Azarenka of the same period, the Dane will be a shoe-in. However, if Wozniacki does not bring her A-game, we all know that it’s power-hitters who have the ability to smash her off the court. Halep will not face too many hurdles en route to the quarters, and I would say anything after that is a bonus for the Romanian who is looking to consolidate her place at the very top table.

My strong suspicion is that it will be the Wimbledon finalists who meet up once again on January 31st; both Genie Bouchard and her conqueror Petra Kvitova have looked tough and uncompromising so far this year. Kvitova has never been fitter and the confidence that she can hit through most of the tour, aligned with her new-found fitness, should see her strike through the field. Bouchard has an inner-steel that sees her through the tough battles. Expect a quarter-final classic against Sharapova – for sheer intensity if not for quality. Despite Kvitova being the bigger and better hitter, something’s telling me that Genie’s time has come.

Inspired by our meeting,  Genie's time has come

Inspired by our meeting, Genie’s time has come

If I’m uncharacteristically writing off Serena Williams, I might as well dismiss Rafael Nadal too.  The Spaniard has of course come into tournaments before when his fitness has looked suspect but this time he appears unfit and off-form. I don’t see any Steve Darcis or Lukas Rosol escapades on the horizon, but I do think the second week will see the 14-time Grand Slam champion come up way short should he have to take on one of the world’s top six. It always amuses me how people immediately start looking to a Roger Federer-Nadal semi-final when the draw is made, almost making the first eleven days of the tournament redundant. Despite the Spaniard’s current shortcomings and the great Swiss’ early season success, I actually see it being Federer who fails to meet the expectation of the draw analysts; he’ll fend off youthful challenges from the likes of Borna Coric and Nick Kyrgios but will likely fall at the Last 8 stage.  Don’t write these two old frenemies off completely just yet – I’d put good money on them sharing the following two majors.

Stan Wawrinka starts his title defence as somewhat of an unknown quantity. He finished the best year of his career atop the shoulders of his victorious Swiss Davis Cup team and may find it tough to live with life as the hunted, rather than the hunter here in Melbourne. On the flip side, he has been given a bobbydazzler of a draw. There is nothing to be afraid of until a potential quarter-final match with his conqueror from the US Open, Kei Nishikori. I’d still anticipate Stan’s feeling of home comfort here to take him over the line in that tough match-up. A semi-final showing wouldn’t exactly match up to last year’s triumph but it would show that he deserves to be respected at the top of the game and can play the big matches well. I wouldn’t be surprised to find Milos Raonic in the Last 8 club, along with Tomas Berdych. Raonic’s game is of course suited to this surface but, against the very best, he needs to find some variety to his game. Berdych arrives in Melbourne looking super-relaxed. He could even spring a minor surprise by ousting Nadal but a quarter-final berth would be a good start to what is an important year for the Czech; the male equivalent of Radwanska, he needs to sort out the mental aspect of his game as his talent deserves at least one Grand Slam.

I sometimes fail to give Novak Djokovic the praise and attention his career deserves. Whilst I didn’t write during Wimbledon, I was genuinely pleased that he added a second All-England Club championship to his trophy cabinet. A man that Nick Bollettieri calls the most-perfect tennis player that ever lived, a man with no weakness, is not a man who should have only a handful of major titles. He is unfortunate to have played during this period but he has made the most of his talent too. He’ll come up against big-servers at pretty much every turn here in Australia, but I expect him to have little trouble negotiating a path to a finals shoot-out with….Andy Murray.  The Brit looks as relaxed as Berdych, appears to be fully fit, in form and, most importantly, free of doubt in relation to his previous injury. He’s a three-time runner-up at the Australian Open, and whilst his potential run to the final is a hazardous one (Dimitrov, Federer, Nadal…) I just think the fact that he could come through under-the-radar will help him immensely. He has the game to win this one day, and I think that day is here right now.

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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.

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The Queen of Clay joins long-reigning King – French Open finals review

Well I love to say I told you so…. A strange French Open was lit up by two absorbing finals this past weekend, and whilst there is no end in sight to Rafael Nadal’s dominance of Paris, it was pleasing to also see Maria Sharapova excelling on the surface on which she once felt like a cow on ice. The finals were both full of drama, but one far outweighed the other in terms of consistent quality.

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

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

Rafael Nadal won his ninth French Open crown. Did anybody ever seriously doubt it? I joked watching the presentations that Bjorn Borg must feel like a chump stood next to him, but seriously Borg must never have imagined that one day somebody would better his Roland Garros tally by 50%! The final was not a classic for the ages, in terms of quality it did not come close to some of their previous encounters. For a set and a half it did, but then for some reason both men’s level fell off and Novak’s level went down a notch or two further. What it didn’t do was take away any of the intrigue. The men’s draw at the French Open has now simply become a spellbinding subplot centring on who can dethrone King Rafa. His run now is up there with the greatest runs in the history of sport. He has won that thing nine times for goodness sake. Over ten years, he has amassed 66 victories and suffered a solitary defeat. This has not been a period of dominance in an era without great players. He’s beaten Roger Federer in four of the finals and now Novak Djokovic in a further two, players with 23 Grand Slam titles between them. I’m so happy for Federer that he capitalised on Nadal’s one slip in Paris to capture the career grand slam because it now looks like it will elude Djokovic.

The post-match tears from Djokovic were real – this is a man who has his place in tennis history, but he wants more. He wants to be one of those men who win majors on all four surfaces; the career grand slam list is a lot shorter when you take out the men who won it when majors were all played on the same surface. He wants desperately to win the French Open for this very reason, but he sees his chances slipping. If we’re brutally honest, he is no closer to beating Nadal in Paris than he has ever been – in fact, he is getting further away. I’ve written before how there is no reason why Rafa can’t go on to ten Roland Garros; it seems absurd right now to see him stopping there.

Sharapova kisses her second French Open title

Sharapova kisses her second French Open title

“A satisfied customer – we should have him stuffed” – a classic line from the 1970s sitcom Fawlty Towers, and it’s what sprung to my mind when watching the women’s final. A classic Roland Garros women’s final, we should have it stuffed. The first time a ladies’ singles final has gone the distance at Roland Garros since 2001. 12 disappointing finals were quickly forgotten as Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep delivered a classic. We’ve sat through one-sided all-Russian, all-Belgian, all-Williams finals, we’ve winced as the then-number one Dinara Safina disintegrated into the red dust and we’ve seen nerves get the better of the likes of Sam Stosur and Sara Errani. This was different, a fitting end to a terrific women’s draw. I never doubted that Sharapova would being her A-game but what a pleasing surprise it was to see the young Romanian live with her at every stage of the three-set tussle, and tussle is the word for it.

I’ve followed Halep’s rise in the rankings from a distance, having not seen her play much recently. Other commitments meant I missed most of her Roland Garros run but boy was I impressed with what I did see. She has developed her game in so many areas over the past 18 months and her mental strength means she stands a chance to win majors – I predicted she would crumble under the weight of pre-tournament expectation, having seen it so many times before, but she delivered in spectacular fashion. Look for her to go close in New York later in the summer.

What is left to say about Maria Sharapova? Well, quite a lot I think. So much has been said in the past about her fighting qualities, her maximising of her talent. However, I think it’s time to recognise just how good that talent is. Her victory here was her finest Grand Slam final performance since she lifted the Wimbledon title in 2004 as a 17-year-old. Yes, that was ten years ago. She has been at the top of the game ever since. Not number one, but pretty much top 5 consistently, save for injury absences. In that time, she had major shoulder surgery and reconstructed her service action (admittedly still her bête noire). Ask other champions how difficult it is to play a full schedule at the top of the modern game for a decade. Ask Justine Henin how difficult it is, ask Kim Clijsters, ask Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport. All great champions who couldn’t do it for ten consecutive years. It’s tough, and yet she does all this amongst a volley of cat-calls, bitchiness and mockery. “She takes way too long between points”. “Her shrieks are intolerable”. Twitter bordered on bullying during the final. These statements flew her as accusations of cheating. Like these things were suddenly new. Who calls Djokovic out on his time-wasting? Who has a go at the ridiculous noises Sara Errani or Francesca Schiavone have always made? It’s 2014 but targeting the pretty blonde girl who is successful is still one of the easiest things to do in sport and in life. As for Maria, she’ll carry on shrieking (yes it’s annoying) and she’ll carry on taking an eternity to prepare for points (not the only one – blame the umpires) but she’ll smile every night as she looks at each one of her five major titles. Not bad for “the new Kournikova”.

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