Tag Archives: Stanislas Wawrinka

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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Roof, good scheduling and great tennis – no grumbles here!

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It’s high up there!

 

Wonders will never cease; the USTA finally had its roof in place and gone were any second-week worries about the tournament finishing on time. In addition, the oft-criticised 3-day first round is now a thing of the past so all that is left to reflect on is the tennis itself. And it delivered in no small doses. We had old favourites returning to form, newbies breaking through and people finally realising their potential, all capped off by a new number one in the women’s game, and THAT doesn’t happen too often.

The men’s tournament had some stellar moments; Stan Wawrinka saved a match point as early as the third round when Britain’s Dan Evans pushed him all the way. I had predicted the Swiss would disappoint in New York so I was licking my lips with relish but the now three-time major winner found a way to get through and go all the way to the winners’ circle. After his tussle with Evans, nobody really laid a glove on Stan until he locked horns with Novak Djokovic on the last day of the event. Djokovic himself will never get an easier route to a grand slam final; two of his opponents retired hurt, one of them didn’t even make it onto court and his semi-final opponent produced the most ridiculous last-four performance I can remember for many a year; Gael Monfils believing that playing at walking pace was going to be enough to get past one of the greatest players of all time. This helped the Serb no end as he had come into the tournament with his own niggling physical and personal doubts. As for the final itself, there was a purveying sense that Djokovic had to get ahead and hope to hold on. He managed to edge that first set tiebreak, which included an epic point for the ages but, from then on in, much like at Roland Garros last year, Wawrinka reeled him in and pounded winner after winner down the lines. There has already been talk of a ‘Big 5’ but Roger Federer hasn’t won a major in over four years and it is two and a half years since Nadal won one or even got to the last four. Those two legacies are intact but they should no longer be talked about in the same breath as Djokovic and now Murray and Wawrinka. Stan has three majors to his name, and more cannot be completely ruled out. When he is on, he really is on.

Three-time major winner

Elsewhere in the men’s draw, we were treated to a fine run from Juan-Martin del Potro, who at one point was looking likely to be the man to come through the draw from the bottom half. As it is, a quarter-final result is likely to please delPo supporters and if he can remain injury-free, he will be a force to be reckoned with in 2017, buoyed by an improved ranking too of course. Lucas Pouille and Rafael Nadal produced a match-of-the-tournament contender, with the young Frenchman coming out on top to make his second successive major quarter-final. It was riveting to see Nadal fight like the champion he is but Pouille’s swashbuckling style had too much on the day. Andy Murray’s summer of exertion finally caught up with him and it was refreshing to see Kei Nishikori take advantage of a temper tantrum from the world number two to book a well-overdue semi-final appearance.

The big problem in the men’s tournament was the number of withdrawals or retirements. Every single round through to the quarter-finals had at least one pull-out with a total of nine. It would appear that the tough summer schedule caught up with some guys here. It is well-documented how well tennis players are paid for each round they progress at a grand slam so it is no surprise to see them taking a chance on their fitness. One wonders if it would be wise in the future to bend the schedule a little in an Olympic year.

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The women’s tournament delivered a strong fortnight. Angelique Kerber became the new world number one, finally putting an end to Serena Williams’ stranglehold on that position which had lasted for three and a half years. Kerber is a deserved leader of the women’s game; she has won more slams this year than any other player and has defeated her old mental demons. The last few days have transformed her career from being very good to great. The way she hangs in points and then produces bullet winners from impossible angles is a joy to watch and her final against Karolina Pliskova was one of the great finals of this century. Their games pushed the other’s to the absolute limit and it was so good to see Pliskova handle the occasion so well. It was difficult to comprehend how she had never gone beyond the third round of a major before this fortnight but she fair smashed through that glass ceiling in New York. Pliskova’s deep crisp hitting is reminiscent of Lindsay Davenport, something which would have made her more fans at Flushing Meadows had she not dumped out both of the Williams’ sisters in the space of three evenings, her final set tie-breaker victory over Venus the match of the tournament for me (Naomi Osaka’s brave performance defeat to Madison Keys was a close second, but the quality didn’t quite match the drama). It will be interesting to see if the Czech continues on this upward trajectory; her game looks particularly suited to both the Australian Open and Wimbledon.

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On top of the world – the new champion is the new world number 1!

 

Caroline Wozniacki rolled back the years and hit fine form once again in New York, her favourite city. The two-time finalist didn’t quite match her previous best but a semi-final appearance will go some way to regaining lost ground in the rankings race. She was on the brink in the first round against Taylor Townsend but did not look back from then on until she hit a Kerber brick wall in the last four. Ana Konjuh had a breakthrough tournament, knocking out two seeds including Agnieszka Radwanska before coming undone against Pliskova in the quarter-finals. Garbine Muguruza once again disappointed early in the fortnight and will need to go back to the drawing board to regain the momentum she built up with her Roland Garros victory, which already seems an awful long time ago. Serena Williams came into the tournament with concerns over her fitness but she had a good tournament. We forget that this woman is 34 and it still requires somebody to play an inspired match to knock her out; this time it was Pliskova who raised her game magnificently but Serena has had another terrific year.

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Holding on tight to a deserved title

 

Overall, a fine fortnight in the new stadium with some unforgettable matches, a new number one in the women’s game and two new US Open champions. I can’t wait to be a part of it all again next year!

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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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French Open wrap – things I learned from Roland Garros

Third  time unlucky - the career Grand Slam still eludes Djokovic

Third time unlucky – the career Grand Slam still eludes Djokovic

The Golden Oldies show no sign of slowing down

Not the usual suspects that get spoken of all the time, but the veterans that rarely get a mention. Two former Roland Garros champs put on one of the matches of the tournament; Francesca Schiavone’s defeat of Svetlana Kuznetsova in the second round had the fans out of their seats on so many occasions. Errors were scarce as each point turned into a mini-classic. Eventually it was the 2010 champion who overcame her 2009 counterpart, just as she had done in the 2011 Australian Open in their 4hour 45 minutes record-breaking encounter. It’s worth noting that this was Schiavone’s 59th consecutive Grand Slam, an absolutely incredible achievement which is great testament to the way the Italian, who turns 35 in a fortnight, has looked after her body over the years. In addition, the titles were won by champions who are both in their fourth decade. On top of all of this, you have the likes of Ana Ivanovic, Lucie Safarova and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga who are playing as well as, if not better, than at any other time in their careers.

Schiavone and Kuznetsova always produce instant classics

Schiavone and Kuznetsova always produce instant classics

There is no Big 3 or Big 4

The golden age of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer all at their peaks is history. Will Federer win another major? Possibly, though you would say that his best chance will come within the next five weeks. Will Nadal will another French Open? Probably. Will Novak Djokovic win more majors? Certainly. But the days of only this triumvirate sharing out the majors are gone for good. Djokovic is deservedly the best in the world right now, his consistency is second to none and if there’s any justice he will win that elusive French Open title – more on that to follow. Andy Murray believes he is back to playing his best tennis and ready to win more majors. His improved clay court performance points to brighter things beyond the 2015 Parisian horizon; he is well-placed to mount serious challenges for that title in the next couple of years and will be one of the two favourites going into the London summer later this month. As much as Djokovic is the most consistent and consistently best player in the world right now, Stanislas Wawrinka’s best tennis is better than anybody else’s best tennis. The way his backhand stood up to scrutiny and pressure during the final on Sunday was immense. His big shot won him a second Grand Slam, and you cannot rule out further titles for the Swiss. Much like Petra Kvitova on the women’s side, when Stan is hot nobody can touch him.

The future’s looking bright too

I believe that tennis is in rude health at this moment in time. The changing of the guard is not so much a dramatic process in the men’s game, rather an evolutionary one. And whilst Serena Williams remains the dominant force on the women’s side, there is plenty of healthy competition underneath her.  As well as the aforementioned ‘veterans’, of which runner-up Lucie Safarova deserves special mention for her magnificent run this past fortnight and her refusal to go away in the final, the new guard are all jockeying for position. You would have got big money if you had predicted that Sloane Stephens, Andrea Mitu, Elina Svitlolina and Alison van Uytvanck would all reach the Last 16 in Paris, but that they did. Stephens had eventual champion Serena on the ropes at 6-1 5-5 before slipping to a three-set defeat and Svitolina hinted at great sporadic things in her future by reaching the quarter-finals. Van Uytvanck is the wild card here; her flat-hitting may see her become a part of the establishment for years to come if she can hit so hard and consistently over the coming years. Of course it’s always a big if when a new name comes through but she definitely has the power to play a big part. On the men’s side, the likes of Jack Sock and Borna Coric are starting to win matches at Grand Slam level, which will hopefully be the next step in their transition into big deals. Sock in particular has done ever so well to overcome years of niggling injuries and it was great to see his name still in the draw as the event entered its second week. With Milos Raonic missing through injury but starting to regularly reach quarters and Kei Nishikori getting closer on a more-regular basis, the men’s game has enough depth to suggest competitive Slams lie ahead of us. The next few years promises to showcase some classic struggles as the likes of Nadal, Federer and eventually Djokovic go out fighting against the best of the rest.

Belgium's next big thing? Van Uytvanck can be proud of her ten days' work

Belgium’s next big thing? Van Uytvanck can be proud of her ten days’ work

Obsession is dangerous

Novak Djokovic must have thought his French Open time had come when he swatted aside the challenge of nine-time champion Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals and the ovation he received after losing his third final will live with him for a long time. It went on and on and on and the Serb did well to hold off his tears – so after all this time, like so often with tennis, the way you get people to like you more is by losing. Tennis fans love the guys who are chasing their own personal holy grail; Borg with Roland Garros and Goran Ivanisevic and Jana Novotna in their pursuit of a Wimbledon crown are the three that spring straight to mind. Unfortunately for Djokovic, you sense that he himself feels his career will be defined by his Roland Garros pursuit now; win it, complete the career Grand Slam and forever be immortalised but fail to do so and forever be remembered as the guy that chased the dream which was always just out of his grasp. As good as Wawrinka was in the final, you did get an overriding sense that the undisputed best player in the world felt the weight of history that was on his shoulders was just too much. I really hope for his sake that he can channel his excitement and eagerness to make history in the coming years or the career Grand Slam he deserves will pass him by.

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World Number 1s standing as tall as ever – winners and losers from the Australian summer

Rod Laver Arena night sessions are pretty special

Rod Laver Arena night sessions are pretty special

I could wax lyrical all day, all night, all week, all month, all year, heck for the rest of my life about how good it has been to truly live through a Grand Slam – to experience the daily ups and downs as I’ve seen each of my favourites bow out one by one, from the very first at approximately 2.30pm on the first Monday on Court 22 to backing the loser in both of the Singles Finals this weekend. Yes, admittedly there were more downs. But along the way, I got to see Madison keys in her breakthrough Slam, bashing Venus Williams into submission. I also was privileged to sit so close to players’ boxes that you really get a feel for how a coach sees a match. I feel lucky that the first two Grand Slam finals I’ve attended were great tussles; they were not the best in terms of quality (far from the worst either) but were both utterly absorbing in different ways. Moreover, they were won by the right people, athletes who wrote another page in their own personal chapters in the history of tennis.  Here I’ll try to sum up the Australian Open by picking my winners and losers of the Australian Open 2015.

Winner- Stan Wawrinka

The Wawrinka backhand - gorgeous

The Wawrinka backhand – gorgeous

So he didn’t defend his points but he gave it a bloody good go. The reigning champion lost just one set on the way to his five-set tussle with his predecessor and now successor Novak Djokovic. His dismantling of Kei Nishikori’s game in the quarter-final bodes well for the rest of the year where he doesn’t have so many points to defend over the next six months. He came closest of anybody to upsetting the eventual champ.

Loser – Agnieszka Radwanska

Radwanska mesmerising her lower-ranked opponent - she needs to find a way of doing it against the top ones

Radwanska mesmerising her lower-ranked opponent – she needs to find a way of doing it against the top ones

There is much work to be done for her new coaching team.  The same old problems persist for the Pole; skipping through the early rounds barely losing a game and then when she comes up against a tougher foe, the chess-brain freezes and she is unable to execute her usual strategy. She simply has to come up with a Plan B or she will never win a Slam. I still think she can do it, but her week here in Melbourne suggests the road is longer than initially thought.

Winner – Victoria Azarenka (no photo 😦 )

Australian Open is ace for fan photo opportunities

Australian Open is ace for fan photo opportunities

Vika is on her way back. She will burst back into the Top 10 before the spring is done as long as she manages her schedule sensibly. The former World Number 1 and two-time champion here did better than expected by reaching the Last 16, dispatching with current Top 10er Caroline Wozniacki along the way. The big groundstrokes were still there, the self-belief is still there in bucket loads and, most importantly, she is playing herself back into peak condition.

Loser – Rafael Nadal

Rafa is showing signs of slowing

Rafa is showing signs of slowing

The Mallorcan has work to do, and lots of it. The fact that a no-hoper like Tim Smyczek came within a fair play point of defeating him suggests there is something amiss with the great Spaniard. The dismantling of his game by Tomas Berdych in the quarter-finals is even more troubling for both he and his legions of fans. At this point in time, I’d even say that he is in danger of losing his grip on the Roland Garros trophy, unthinkable for the last three or four years. What may yet save him there is the fact that he has this aura around him when he steps onto the clay courts of Paris, which means that the majority of his opponents are defeated before they even step onto the court, onto his court. This force shield of invincibility is not present on other courts anymore, and Rafa will have to get used to many more struggles in earlier rounds elsewhere on tour this year.

Winner – Madison Keys

Keys should have a big future

Keys should have a big future

After Sloane Stephens and Eugenie Bouchard in the two previous years, it was the young American who became this year’s teenage semi-finalist. Her defeats of Wimbledon champions present and past in Petra Kvitova and Venus Williams suggests that Keys has the mental prowess to slug it out with the big guns of the women’s game but it remains to be seen whether her body will hold up to the rigours of regularly getting to the business end of tournaments. What is clear is that the decision to appoint the coaching team of Lindsay Davenport and Jonathan Leach has reaped instant rewards for Keys; her conditioning has improved immeasurably over the off-season. Look for Madison to solidify her place in the upper echelons of the game – she could do serious damage by the time the US Open comes round.

Losers – Australian Open security

I’ve said it before about major tennis events so I’ll reiterate it: allowing me to show you the compartments of my bag that I want to show you, and simply asking “You haven’t got any weapons with you today, have you?” is not effective security. Protestors are now getting onto tennis courts way too often. Two of the last three Roland Garros finals have been interrupted due to it, and now it was the turn of the Australian Open. Yes you don’t want a sporting event to become a 40-minute airport security check, but I do not want to see another Monica Seles incident. I sometimes think it’s only a matter of time before a lunatic causes serious damage to another player. Let’s hope the Slams get their heads together and beef up security before it’s too late, but I will not hold my breath.

Winners and losers – Andy Murray and Maria Sharapova

Both of the losing finalists showed that they are the best of the rest at the moment. Sharapova is still second to none in her steely determination – in her eleven years at the top of the game, I have still to see her give in during a match. Her game is all about brutal power and a willingness to hit harder and deeper when things are going badly. The only real difference between her game and that of Serena’s is the serve. Whilst Serena’s is rock solid, Maria’s still has a tendency to go AWOL at key moments in a match. When asked questions of for nearly two hours in a match against the American, it will always come up short. The same frustrations will be being felt by Murray. His fortnight in Melbourne is one to be proud of; he had a rotten draw, but he came through relatively unscathed. His victories over Grigor Dimitrov, Nick Kyrgios and Tomas Berdych suggested that his mental resolve was back, and he certainly gave evidence here that he is the second best player in the world right now. But there he will stay if he doesn’t work harder to remove the nagging doubts in his mind, the inner black cloud that still manifests itself at the crucial moments. Sunday’s final was there to be won at 2-0 up in the third set, but Murray let doubts and Djokovic into his head, he blinked a few times and then collected a fourth runner-up trophy.

Winners – Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams

Grand Slam Number 19 - only Margaret Court and Steffi Graf have won more

Grand Slam Number 19 – only Margaret Court and Steffi Graf have won more

There is nothing left to say about Serena Williams that I haven’t said before. She is simply unbeatable when she is on it. Time after time on Saturday evening, Sharapova got to 0-30 only to watch helplessly as four Serena bombs flew past her. Simply the best.  I do have lots to say about Novak Djokovic though. The final was the first time I have seen Djokovic in the flesh at his peak, against a worthy opponent. It’s simply unbelievable to watch the amount of balls the Serb gets to. I lost count of the number of times Murray would have won points easily against other lesser tennis mortals. Djokovic is the undisputed best player in the world right now, and his Grand Slam tally of eight and counting in an era when Nadal and Roger Federer have been playing is simply stunning.  I have no doubts in putting him as the finest defensive player I have ever seen on a tennis court and his mental toughness, aligned with his amazing physical stamina, will see him remembered as one of the all-time greats. Murray is right to question his consistent injury niggles during finals, but he should look to solve the problems on his side of the net first.

Australian Open Number 5 - no man has won more in the Open era

Australian Open Number 5 – no man has won more in the Open era

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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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The Slammy Awards

It’s time for the second annual Slammy Awards, decided by me alone.

The ‘Roger Federer time-at-the-top longevity award’: Roger Federer

The Swiss just refuses to go away quietly. If he had had a slightly better final week than Novak Djokovic, he would have ended the season as World Number 1 for a record-equalling sixth time at the age of 33. Not bad for someone who was written off for the first time in 2010. He will not be happy that he failed to win a major in 2014, meaning his Slam-less run goes back to Wimbledon 2012 but the fact that he ended the season by winning his first Davis Cup means he is now just an Olympic gold medal short of a career sweep. He will look to add another Slam to his career tally in 2015 before going for Gold in Rio the following year.

The ‘Marion Bartoli/Francesca Schiavone late-bloomer’ award: Stanislas Wawrinka

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Stan the Man became the first man to win his first Slam, first Davis Cup and first Masters 1000 title all in the same season, and he is now in his thirtieth year. There was a time little over a year ago when the Top 4 seemed like a mythical far-away land for the rest of the ATP tour, but the Swiss number 2 ridiculed that notion when he gate crashed the top table party in Melbourne in January by stunning both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in the space of a few days. Wawrinka’s year after that was solid rather than spectacular and he’ll be disappointed with his showing in the Finals in London, but, like his compatriot Federer, he ended the season by performing tremendously in the Davis Cup final.

The ‘Svetlana Kuznetsova world-is-yours-for-taking’ award: Petra Kvitova

For the second time in four years, the big-serving Czech leftie captured the Venus Rosewater dish in South London, and she once again has the world on her racket. Can she kick on from here, having failed to do so at the end of 2011? My initial reaction was to analyse that after the US Open and, having failed to deliver in New York, it is a big ask to expect her to live up to these high expectations. However, she did end the season pretty well and, with a good off-season behind her, she can push on. She must target a better showing at the Australian Open – only one semi-final appearance is not good enough. I’ll be deeply disappointed if she doesn’t win a different Slam in the next nine months, but it wouldn’t be the first time Kvitova has disappointed. With Serena surely winding down at some point in the near future, Kvitova is the one player who has the ability to hit every other people off the court.

The ‘Juan-Martin Del Potro it’s-a-long-way-back-from-here’ award: Andy Murray

Andy Murray won 17 matches at Grand Slams last year. Most players would give their forehand for a record like that; however for a man who had the tennis world in his grasp when he won that elusive Wimbledon title in July 2013, it was a frustrating year. The 27-year-old Brit/Scot knows full well how hard it is to come back from major surgery. Rafael Nadal was an exception to the rule that dictates that players who undergo such surgery fail to ever recapture their previous level and form. Even the great Mallorcan has failed to recapture his very best form, but most players fall well short. The truth is that Murray had a great year. He almost ended the year back in the Top 4 and by the end of the calendar, he was beating all the players around him in the rankings. However, there is a chasm now between him and Nadal, Djokovic, Wawrinka and Federer and it gets shown starkly when they meet at major level.

The saddest goodbye: Elena Baltacha

As a British sport fan, it’s still hard to fathom that Bally announced her retirement only 13 months ago. In the following six months, she was diagnosed with liver cancer, she married her husband Nick Saviano, and she finally lost that fight with liver cancer. The fact that she had been playing at Wimbledon in 2013 and at the same event in 2014 people were wearing ‘Rally for Bally’ memorial wristbands really hammered the point home that life is fragile, even for sport stars who we hold in high esteem, like some kind of immortals. Elena Baltacha was never World Number 1, she never got past the third round of a Grand Slam but she was somebody who left everything on court every time she played.  The tennis fighter had to succumb in a fight so many cannot win. Her legacy will be felt for years to come through the Elena Baltacha Tennis Academy. The kids that come through there will surely learn how important it is to never give in in a tennis match.

Predictions for 2015

Roger Federer will win one more Grand Slam title, which will ultimately prove to be his last.

Petra Kvitova will retain her Wimbledon title.

Eugenie Bouchard will win the Australian Open.

Serena Williams will win two Grand Slam titles, as will Rafael Nadal.

Agnieszka Radwanska’s collaboration with Martina Navratilova will lead her to a major final, at the very least.

Novak Djokovic will spend most, if not all, of the year at the top of the ranking charts.

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