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Djokovic and Williams chase new records – 2016 Australian Open preview

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Rod Laver Arena at its best

 

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

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

Djokovic on course for a sixth Australian Open title

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

2014 Champion Wawrinka should make his third consecutive semi

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

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

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

 

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

Radwanska would be a popular first-time winner

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

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Disappointed to be missing out this year!

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

Sharapova kisses her second French Open title

Sharapova kisses her second French Open title

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simona Halep is looking to go the extra step

Simona Halep is looking to go the extra step

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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New champions in Australia and the end of ‘The Big 4’: Winners and losers of 2014’s first major

Stan is the man

Stan is the man

Winner – Stanislas Wawrinka
It’s often said about people who fail to make a breakthrough in the majors that causing an upset is one thing, putting together seven results quite another. Fortunately for the new Swiss number 1, he didn’t have to put seven together. He was aided by a retirement in Round 1 and a walkover in Round 3. However, his achievements over the past six months in particular are not to be downplayed, and they reached their deserved denouement in Melbourne. He knocked out the defending champions in each of the last two majors and negotiated a wounded Rafael Nadal to lift his maiden Grand Slam title. Lesser men would have crumbled completely when faced with a warrior champion refusing to die but Stan held firm and played the better tennis in the first and fourth sets. He becomes the first man in 21 years to defeat both the Number 1 and 2 seeds in the same major, and with that he earns the #3 ranking for himself, but much more importantly he is able to add three words after his name that will live forever more. Stanislas Wawrinka: Grand Slam champion.

Winner – Na Li
As Wawrinka celebrates becoming a Grand Slam champion, Na Li has entered the pantheon of multi-slam winners, and she has done it on two very different surfaces. At the age of 31, she is still tweaking her game, looking for little improvements and goodness what a difference Carlos Rodriguez has made to her tennis. Justine Henin’s former coach has given the Chinese the belief that she can impose her game on whichever match she plays in. Her saved match point in Round 3 served as her wake-up call and she was simply stunning from thereon. The Grand Slam of Asia and the Pacific has its first Asian champion and there is no reason why she can’t add to her tally of majors in the rest of 2014.

Aussie Li

Aussie Li

Loser – Patrick Mouratoglou
The coaching guru. His work with Serena Williams is held up as a shining example of world-class coaching but I simply don’t buy it. Any coach worth their salt could help Serena to a couple of majors a year. His assertion before the tournament that his charge could win all four majors this year was hit into touch by Serena after her 4th round exit to Ana Ivanovic. According to Serena, she had stopped thinking about that particular objective a long time ago. It may be time to have a word with your coach about his very public spouting then.

Winner – Grigor Dimitrov
The next big thing. Sharapova’s squeeze. And finally, potential being realised. A grand slam quarter-finalist and it was richly deserved. His show-time tendencies were largely held in check by his patience in his four-set victory over big hitting Milos Raonic and he gave enough worries to Rafael Nadal in his four-set defeat to suggest good things lay ahead for the former Wimbledon junior champion. Expect him to have a big say on events in the summer and early autumn.

Loser – Vika Azarenka
The two-time defending champion was never at her best in this year’s event. Despite not dropping a set until the quarter-finals, it will be a great worry to her how easily she got lost in Agnieszka Radwanska’s web of trickery. Somehow, she needs to hone her second serve into something that is less of a hindrance to her chances at the business end of tournaments. With Serena’s second serve, she would dominate the game. With her current one, she may struggle to add a further major to her current haul. The rest of her game is explosive, but the second serve needs surgery.

Winner – Dominika Cibulkova
It would have been easy to pick Genie Bouchard as the surprise element from the women’s tournament, but the young Canadian did pretty much what I expected from her, made more possible by Serena’s early elimination. Cibulkova, on the other hand, was a wholly unexpected but very welcome surprise. She picked Maria Sharapova’s game apart with ease before dispatching with last autumn’s form girl Simona Halep within an hour. However, it was her semi-final demolition job on Radwanska that really announced Domi’s arrival on the big stage. She’s only 24 so has time to consolidate this run with more consistent results in the other slams. When her game is firing, there are few who can live with the power of the pocket rocket from Slovakia.

Loser – Agnieszka Radwanska

Always the bridesmaid?

Always the bridesmaid?

Ah yes, Miss Radwanska. One fears that she may be the eternal bridesmaid. I have not seen many finer performances than her quarter-final victory over the defending champion. The variety, the speed, the pace, the power, the defence, the offense. It had everything. To follow that up 24 hours later with her horror show against Cibulkova suggested either a physical or mental frailty or possibly even both; things that could stop her from putting together the seven consecutive wins necessary to win a major.

Winner – Tennis
I wrote at length last week that it is the competitors not the organisers who make the sport what it is, and that was proved in the second week. A grand slam is defined by titanic performances. When was the last time that all of Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Vika Azarenka, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray failed to make it to the semi-final stage? 2010 French Open, that’s when. The emergence of Genie Bouchard, Grigor Dimitrov’s hard work beginning to pay dividends, Na Li peaking in her early 30s, ‘The Big 4’ of the men’s game being a thing of the past as Stan Wawrinka, Tomas Berdych and others insist upon their names being in the reckoning, an Aussie woman making it to the second week, the triumvirate of Federer, Djokovic and Nadal all still looking like forces but ones which have been caught up with by the rest. Yes, as a tennis fan, I’m pretty stoked at how the Aussie Open went!

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Same old brand new you? Favourites hotly fancied in Oz

Defending champions Djokovic and Azarenka

Defending champions Djokovic and Azarenka

Ask most tennis pundits who will be holding the trophies at the end of the coming fortnight, and the general consensus seems to be that the casual fan can skip the first twelve days of the first Grand Slam of 2014 and tune in on finals weekend to see two clashes between defending champions and current world number 1s; Victoria Azarenka taking on Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic up against Rafael Nadal. It’s a depressing thought for the depth of the game, but is there any hope for any other players outside of these four? It’s always hard to tell as you come into Melbourne with so little build-up beforehand, but there are some clues in the draw and build-up.

The beauty of the draw in the tennis majors is that reputation counts for nothing. Bernard Tomic has been cruelly punished for a lacklustre 2013 which left him outside of the seeds here by being paired with Rafa Nadal for Tuesday’s evening session. A disaster for young Mr Tomic, but I hardly think the world number 1 was delighted at the prospect of having to face Australia’s next big hope in his own back yard. It’s the start of a potential run littered with hazards for the Mallorcan, with Gael Monfils, renaissance man Lleyton Hewitt and Juan-Martin Del Potro all possibly awaiting him before he even reaches the final four. Djokovic’s run is ridiculously simplistic in comparison. Only Stanislas Wawrinka should cause him any missed sleep between now and finals weekend.

Andy Murray is an unknown quantity here. He promised he wouldn’t come to Australia if he didn’t feel fit enough to win the tournament but his build-up has been less than ideal. A win against a local Doha wildcard has been followed up with defeats to Florian Mayer and Hewitt. Only Murray himself knows what he is capable of here, and his great record here could stand him in good stead if he gets into some kind of a roll, but I count him out of being involved at the end. I expect Tomas Berdych to have a good ten days and possibly make it to the semi-finals, and John Isner and Fernando Verdasco to make inroads in Murray’s quarter; remember Verdasco has previous in Melbourne from 2009.

So I do expect it to come down to defending champion versus world number one. Nadal has the tougher run to that stage but the bonus for him is that he rarely carries over any fatigue from one round to the next. Team Djokovic will arrive fresh to the final, bolstered by the newest addition Boris Becker. Expect another slobber knocker of a final and Nadal to edge it having come in more battle-ready due to his tough run. It is five years since he won his sole Australian Open, and it’s high time he doubled that tally.

The 2009 champion

The 2009 champion

I have a sneaking suspicion however that the women’s draw will not go as expected. If Sloane Stephens continues on her upward trajectory from last season, she can push defending champion Azarenka all the way in Round 4 and cause a major upset for the second successive year after she ended Serena’s hopes of a Slam season at the first attempt this time last year. To lose the defending champion so early on would open up that draw significantly and give chances to the likes of Agnieszka Radwanska and former champ Maria Sharapova. Radwanska’s game will come up short on this surface as it favours out and out power so I plump for the Siberian to come through that section and head into finals weekend.

Serena’s draw is decent in the respect that it features possible match-ups with the likes of Daniela Hantuchova, Ana Ivanovic and potentially Eugenie Bouchard or Madison Keys if the new guard are to continue knocking at the door, but none of them will unduly worry the 17-time major winner and I certainly wouldn’t expect her to drop a set before the semi-final stage. But therein lays the danger. If twice-beaten Melbourne finalist Na Li can navigate a tough route which could include Sabine Lisicki and Angelique Kerber, I expect her to bring her biggest game to a semi-final against the world’s best player. I’d go as far as to say that Na Li is the most popular player on the women’s side down under since the retirement of ‘Aussie Kim’ Clijsters and that support could tip the semi-final in her favour against a player who struggles to be universally popular because of her occasional ungracious behaviour. The Chinese hits for the lines in all of her matches, and I believe she is due a big result against Serena; after all she is one of the few players that can get inside the American’s head. So I’m sticking my neck on the line and saying that the women’s final will feature neither of the two expected protagonists and will instead be between two women who have four Australian Open finals between the pair of them.

It’s a big call to expect Sharapova to come back from injury and get to the next Slam final, but I believe if other players were to do the dirty work for her by knocking out Williams and Azarenka, then that would really put the bit between Maria’s teeth. It’s a close call to predict a winner between those two but I go with Sharapova to win her second Aussie Open title and Na Li to be the bridesmaid for a third time, with a combination of Sharapova’s tough match play and an inevitable drop in performance from Li after a match with Serena just seeing the Russian through on the day. I’ve got high hopes for a classic Open, I hope I’m not just being an eternal dreamer.

Sharapova could repeat her 2008 triumph

Sharapova could repeat her 2008 triumph

Predictions:
Nadal and Sharapova to each win their second Australian Open title.
Federer to lose in the first week
Murray to lose before the last eight
Neither Serena nor Azarenka to make the final

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Stepping up in the city that never sleeps; time for new Number 1s?

Positive memories

Positive memories

The scores change, the matches change, the years change, even the players change, yet tennis just continues on and on and on. No time to stop to admire Marion Bartoli’s career whose pinnacle came right at the denouement. It was 12 months ago that the sport bade farewell to two Slam champions in Kim Clijsters and Andy Roddick whose bodies finally gave out on them and gave in to the sport. How many passing thoughts have been given to those two in 2013? My point exactly. The wheel trundles on. So let me bask for just a second in the fact that for the first time in 35 years a British player goes into a Grand Slam as the defending champion, as “the hunted” according to John McEnroe. Add into that mix that we have a woman as a seed for the first time since 1988, and it’s nice to be looking forward to a Slam with excitement rather than trepidation. But off come the red, white and blue sunglasses for now.

Who are the form horses coming into the final slam of 2013? Where is the smart money going? It is difficult to look too far beyond Andy Murray, even without British bias. Good memories will be all around him all fortnight. New York is the place he broke through, the place where he won his first Slam by defeating the World Number One in five tough sets. In addition to that, he has appeared in the final of every Slam he’s competed in since and thrashed Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final. I don’t think you can say enough about how much that can do for a person’s game and belief. Okay, he isn’t in fantastic form coming into the event but once he strolls out onto Arthur Ashe Stadium court, I think that will rectify itself pretty quickly. His potential path to the semi-finals is pretty straight-forward and things will hot up at that stage. The winner of the Novak Djokovic v Juan-Martin Del Potro quarter-final tie will pose a hard-hitting threat. I’m taking Del Potro to edge that quarter if he carries his Wimbledon form into the Slam he won four years ago.

Rafael Nadal will be a relieved man to be in the bottom half of the draw. He will fancy his chances in a potential quarter-final clash with Roger Federer (the Swiss maestro will be back to Last 8 form here in my opinion) and will find little trouble waiting for him in the form of compatriot and old friend David Ferrer at the penultimate stage. Nadal’s hard-court record this season is second to none and he will almost certainly feature on Finals day. If Del Potro has managed to beat Djokovic and Murray back-to-back, then Rafael Nadal will be a bridge too far and will pick him off without too many worries in the final. If it’s Murray who comes through from the top half, expect the Scot to get his first major final W against the Spaniard and give himself every chance of finishing the year as the world’s top player.

Roof-less....for now

Roof-less….for now

The women’s draw is depleted by the absence of Maria Sug….errrr Sharapova. The cynic in me wonders why she came to New York at all, and at that I shall leave it. All her absence does in my mind is solidify the expected repeat of last year’s final when Victoria Azarenka pushed Serena Williams to the very limit. And this year, I expect the Belarussian to avenge that particular defeat. She knew that she could live with Serena after that balmy New York night in 2012, and her fighting qualities saw her become a multi-major winner earlier this year in Melbourne. A victory in another of the majors will only reinforce her position as one of the best two players in the world. Her path to the final is easier than Serena’s, much easier. Serena starts off against former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone. Whilst the Italian’s best years are well behind her now, her game of slice and backhands has the potential to upset Serena right from the off. Her route further in could involve match-ups against the up-and-coming stars of the game, the likes of Sloane Stephens and Eugenie Bouchard, who both know what knocking out Serena in New York could do for their careers.

Vika has an easier route through; I would imagine she will have one small scare along the way, possibly against Alize Cornet as she did in Paris but I would be flabbergasted if she wasn’t in the Final in two weeks’ time. After a comparably easier fortnight, I think Azarenka will lift the third major title of her career.
As for the losing semi-finalists, I expect Agnieszka Radwanksa to take her decent Wimbledon form into the final slam of 2013 and get by the likes of Na Li, who in turn should have enough about her to see off a not-100% Laura Robson in Round 3 and thus extinguish any painful memories she has of said player from last year. And the big prediction from the bottom half of the draw is that I see Simona Halep dragging her amazing summer form into a Slam and taking advantage of a kind draw to cement her place in the Top 20. The Romanian has won four titles since June and being in the same quarter as Elena Vesnina, Sara Errani and Maria Kirilenko presents her with an opportunity she really cannot afford to turn down.

Let’s hope that we have a relatively dry US Open, although not too dry that the USTA goes back on their decision to install a roof on Ashe Stadium court! Kudos to them for finally dragging the tournament into the 21st century. In reading former players’ autobiographies, it beggars belief how much more innovative Wimbledon is these days compared with the US Open. Nobody would ever have imagined Wimbledon to be the more forward-thinking of the two. Let’s further hope that at the end of the fortnight, we have two deserving champions after two weeks of superb tennis. Two champions who believe that they belong at the very top. Andy and Victoria, your times are now. Time to seize, before the sport trundles on, passes you by and picks the next champions.

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No French Revolutions here; two irresistible forces to triumph in Paris

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There are two stunning statistics in the world of women’s tennis at the moment, both of which I find equally incredible.  The first is that Maria Sharapova, consistently the second best player in the world over the last seven or eight years, has failed to beat the best, Serena Williams, since 2004. Nine long years and twelve big matches with a lot of those defeats having been thrashings. The other is that the dominant force that is Serena has only emerged victorious on one occasion in Paris, a full 11 years ago in 2002. That is almost unbelievable. No player has been able to get close to Serena consistently in that time –  yet for some reason or another, there has always been somebody ready to played inspired stuff on the red clay of Roland Garros to knock out the Queen Bee. Remember Sam Stosur in 2010, dominating Serena in forehand rallies. And I’m sure no French supporter will ever forget Virginie Razzano’s miraculous display there 12 months ago, when she inflicted on Serena a first ever first round defeat at a Grand Slam. Yes, her first ever first-round defeat in her 47th Grand Slam tournament.

So, one could argue that Serena’s record at Roland Garros is extremely disappointing. In fact, by her superb standards, it is actually woeful. Other than her 2002 triumph, she has actually only reached the last four on one other occasion, the following year. This has to be the year she puts this right. She is out to avenge the shocking defeat in Round 1 last year, which jolted her into action for the rest of the season (Wimbledon and US Open titles to go with an Olympic Gold medal), stunning form which she has now carried well into 2013. Last year’s anomaly will mean she is ready for business from Day 1 here and I’m afraid I see nobody ready to challenge her this year. She has blown away all comers on the clay surface so far this season and lost only a couple of handful of games on her way to the Rome title this past week, comfortably beating Vika Azarenka and Sharapova on the way. Sharapova will be the likely opponent in the final, but I’m afraid her shocking head-to-head record with Williams will mean she is beaten before she even steps onto the court. And that is the biggest testimony you could pay Serena; the fact that the women’s game’s biggest fighter can’t even find a chink in the World Number One’s armour. So, put your life savings on Serena winning her second Paris title to move to within two of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova’s total of 18 major titles. I tip former champions Na Li and Ana Ivanovic to do well here, but all eyes will rightly be on Serena in my opinion from Day 1 right through to Day 14.

The men’s tournament is less cut and dried, but only slightly so in my opinion. Who to discount? Andy Murray is missing through injury, whilst Roger Federer cannot be classed as a genuine title contender in my eyes. Murray really needed to prioritise Wimbledon because he has a real shot of winning his home major, and Federer looks like time has finally caught up with him. That is not to say he won’t reach quarters and semi-finals (and having seen the draw, he has a good shot of reaching the final now), but I simply don’t think he can slug it out with the winner of Nadal and Djokovic  on this surface now. When he hits the relative comforts of SW19, things may swing in his favour ever so slightly, but here in Paris he can’t live with them.

Expect strong showings from Tomas Berdych and Stanislas Wawrinka at the Slam and during the rest of the summer. Berdych is a player who has flattered to deceive during his career really. I group him with the likes of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and, to a lesser extent (due to injuries), Juan-Martin Del Potro as somebody who should have done better consistently at majors, with only his Wimbledon final appearance of 2010 to show for thus far. But his form is solid and he could surprise by reaching a semi-final or even be there on the very last day, if he can first navigate an awful first round match-up with Gael Monfils. Likewise, Stan Wawrinka looks poised to leap out from Roger Federer’s shadow for a dalliance in the spotlight this summer. I tip him for a last eight spot here( and he is unfortunate to be due to meet Nadal at that stage and to be coming in with a slight injury problem or I would rate his chances even higher); he is hitting the ball superbly and his backhand is as good as anything in the game right now. I expect him to be a serious challenger in six weeks’ time at Wimbledon, but an appearance in the second week in Paris is attainable for, by all accounts, one of the nicest guys on tour.

The two with the biggest chance of getting their hands on the trophy on June 9th however are, once again, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Djokovic looks uneasy with fitness concerns, but then again, when are injury concerns ever that far away from the Serb’s mind? He has suffered some surprise losses on the clay courts this spring, notably to rising star Grigor Dimitrov in Madrid several weeks ago. Watch out for Dimitrov and the Renaissance man Tommy Haas to feature into the second week at Porte D’Auteuil, by the way. But it is Rafael Nadal that is the favourite again, certainly in my eyes. He has reached eight consecutive finals since coming back from his eight month lay-off, and has won six of those finals. Stunning. And his demolition of Roger Federer in Rome last week bodes well for the Spaniard. He is almost unbeatable on that Parisian site, with only one defeat in the eight times he has played this tournament. I think Rafa is confident going in here; he knows the other big hitters are struggling with form and/or fitness and he must be licking his lips in anticipation. His durability, stamina, and will-to-win will see him through here and once again Rafael Nadal will stand on top of the clay court tennis world as the King of Roland Garros.

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