Saturday, 30 July 2011

Simon impresses post Wimbledon

Frenchman Gilles Simon is an accomplished player as evidenced by his history as a top ten player for 12 months consecutively from October 2008 to October 2009.  Injury and inconsistency throughout 2010 saw the ranking drop as low as 52 before ending the year around the 40 mark.
Gilles Simon at the French Open 2011
This year has seen the revival of his career - Simon is an exciting player to watch in full flight and his performances at the French Open capped off an excellent comeback into the world's top 20.  He won in Sydney, made the quarters in the Miami Masters event before retiring against Federer, and bowing out to Soderling in the 4th round at Roland Garros was no disgrace.

A third round exit at Wimbledon should be placed in context also, given that he lost the first two sets in close tie breaks, and his opponent was the ever dangerous floater in the draw - Juan Martin Del Potro. 

First outing after the grass courts was in Stuttgart where a tough 3 setter went to Spain's Albert Montanes, a disappointing but not totally unexpected result given the ability of his opponent on the surface.

However one week later, still in Germany, the Hamburg tournament presented Gilles with his finest collection of wins for the year - following a bye in the first round, he proceeded to knock over Stakhovsky and Nieminen (both around the top 50) before 3 set wins over the tournament's top seed Gael Monfils, 4th seed Russian Michael Youzhny, and in the final world number 14 and 3rd seed Spain's Nicolas Almagro.

With the tournament triumph, Simon is now back to 11 in the world, and is every chance to be within the top ten by the time the US hard court season swings into gear.  Another demonstration of how commitment to a responsible training discipline invariably will see the best players return to their rightful place in the rankings after injury, because talent is not lost overnight.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Back from Overseas and reporting again

Apologies for the delay in correspondence since the Wimbledon finale but then you probably needed a rest from my constant ramblings.
Back in Australia, I'm paying particular interest to the cycling event which happens to be finishing in Paris where I just spent a wonderful part of my trip, but I of course cannot miss out on the important events in the world of tennis now that those minor tournaments in London and Paris have been done and dusted.

Davis Cup ties were played seemingly straight away with Spain charged with an away challenge to overcome the USA, something it would have to achieve minus one Rafael Nadal.  Such is the depth of Spanish mens' tennis,  they could have dragged a trainee matador from a third rate bull fight to play singles and still the Americans would have only the Bryan brothers doubles partnership as a start up favourite to win a match.

Australia battled through another stage in its attempt to make it back to the World Group, and with Bernard Tomic continuing to shine from his Wimbledon form, the Aussies remain alive and have earned the right next to meet Switzerland (which I found out last night is the country with the longest name to not contain any repeated letters).

Robin Soderling continues to dominate all the smaller tournaments he plays, the most recent of these being his home comp.  If only he could convert that winning form - 4 titles this year alone - into significant results at grand slam and masters level.

Not only the Spanish men are dominating the tennis rankings at present but the girls are in fine touch too - Maria José Martínez Sánchez and Anabel Medina Garrigues, who have had enjoyed doubles success together of late, both won singles titles subsequent to Wimbledon which puts each of their rankings into the top 40, and as they approach 30 years of age, the trend for women to play career best tennis as they mature continues.

Italian Roberta Vinci defeated Australian Jelena Dokic prior to Wimbledon on grass, and backed that result up with another title in Palermo, Sicily - she also won the doubles with fellow Italian Sara Errani.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Novak now a Grass Master

Even given the wonderful success that Novak Djokovic has enjoyed this year, especially the four Masters final victories over Rafa Nadal on hard court and clay, the edge for the potentially classic 2011 Wimbledon Final still was the Spaniard's, earned legitimately through his four finals and two wins on this very court.

My heart was with Djokovic because he was the last man who could exact revenge for what Nadal did to Roger in Paris but my wallet suggested the extremely talented Spaniard in four maybe five close sets.

I had one thing correct in the opening stages - it indeed was tight.  Novak served first and confidently placed the first game on the board.  The ground strokes from both players was no less than you would expect from the two best players in the world, and service comfortably held all the way to 4-4.  One thing was noticeable though.  Djokovic was playing from the baseline while Nadal swung from a metre behind.  This gave the Serbian more options for placement of his shots and created greater margin for error on any wide swipes cross court from the Spaniard.  Nadal's all round class managed to cover for this in his first four service games, but after Novak once again held serve to lead 5-4 and place the scoreboard pressure heavily on Rafa, the problems of court positioning caught up with the champ, and he surrendered a 30-0 lead with some uncharacteristic errors, a combination I'd suggest of Djokovic consistency and Nadal mental lapse.  The shot to lose serve and set would normally be a forcing shot to the Serbian forehand demanding an effective response; instead it meekly floated out and the first time finalist led 6-4.

Not only did Djokovic now have a set lead and momentum, he had the first serve in the second set and could again place the pressure on Nadal to play catch up tennis, providing his solid serve maintained it's reliability.  Well it took some time and effort but Novak won his serve to take the 1-0 lead in the second set, and then it became Nadal to fall victim again to errors thrown in just when ill advised.  As Sharapova had done in her final, a number of Nadals's mistakes came from desperately going for winners and instead finding the net.  2-0 to Djokovic and this now deserved to be analyzed as vastly more serious than the Murray poor start that Rafa experienced in the semi final.  He could feel himself being pushed up against the ropes and copping lefts and rights to the body, most of them scoring punches.

Although Novak raced to 3-0, Rafa needed quickly to register in his head that this was just a single serve break, and also realise that he was the defending champion and could mount comebacks of the grandest style.  Maybe he did understand these things, but his opponent clearly did not allow the understanding to be translated into a scoring comeback.  The placement of the Serbian serve was immaculate, and limited the Spaniard in what damage he could inflict with his potentially lethal returns.  Despite Rafa holding his serve, it still became 4-1 to Novak with huge importance on the next Nadal serve if this set had any chance of changing it's direction from east to Serbia all the way south to Spain.

Djokovic sensed his chance to grab a double break, and with some generosity from Rafa early  in the game, then ripped some returns to set up a break which virtually sealed the set.  Rafa knew the score well enough not to fight the impossible in the next game, and Novak rolled through to take a two set lead 6-4 6-1.  The Spaniard was saving any reserves he had for a three set masterpiece that he now required to display to the shocked fans if a third Wimbledon were to come his way today.

Vitally, for the first time today, Rafa had first serve in a set.  Taking full advantage of this he raced through the game to take a lead in a set for the first time 1-0.  Some of the regular Rafa could be seen in the brief microcosm that was this game and fans had a feeling that perhaps a famous comeback could be underway.
For the first time, the Serbian ice man showed signs of a melt down as his shot making went astray, and coupled with some luck with the net that Rafa enjoyed all match, the break occurred, and it was the Spaniard now with a lead and a break and the crowd fully behind this mini comeback that most wanted to develop into a five set classic.

For awhile Novak stay with Rafa, still a break of serve behind but knowing he had the sets on the board and any slip by the Spaniard could mean disaster, but a mirror image of the second set developed with Nadal growing in confidence by the minute, his shots finding the mark as they should, and the antithesis the case for Novak.  Whether or not this was just a drop of concentration from the Serb was irrelevant.  Two things were happening - Nadal was emerging from a rut into the dangerous player we know he is, and Djokovic was becoming the victim.

The second break of serve came as almost a relief in hindsight because it put beyond doubt where the third set was going to be assigned and Novak could once again devote himself to a single set where he would have first crack at serving.  If solid on his own serve, then ultimately Rafa would be serving to stay alive.  So 6-1 Rafa the third and the crowd erupted, now assured of four sets between these warriors and possibly even a fifth.

Novak opened proceedings in the fourth and with every ounce (I should use the imperial measure whilst in London) of care held his serve to place the first morsel of scoreboard pressure on the Spanish star.
Nadal faltered immediately with a double fault followed by an unforced error and then some out of this world returning by Djokovic confirmed the break and a 2-0 lead.  The Championship was so close he could almost taste it.

Rafa took the simmering saucepan away when he broke straight back for 1-2 and held firmly for 2-2.

What could the Serb do in this pressure cooker situation?  Hold serve may be a good place to start, and this he did and did again, as did his adversary, and the crowd was holding its collective breath awaiting the next shift in course in an amazing final.

All the while we were captivated by not just the drama of a final at Wimbledon between the best in the business, but by the almost unprecedented ability of two players to turn shots that appeared to be winners against them into damaging return threats in their own right.  Never has such desperation been converted into brilliance on such a regular basis by two players in the one match.  Nadal does it time and again in matches against hapless opponents but today both were doing it and we were the paying beneficiaries.

Almost unexpectedly at 3-4, Rafa stumbled.  It happened at the worst possible moment of the match, because serving second any lapse after the sixth game would give Djokovic the opportunity to serve out the match.

No guarantees of course when serving for such a prize but apart from a very nervous first point, Novak did the job like a champion should, and the new World Number One confirmed that position by unseating the former number one on the biggest stage of them all - Wimbledon.

Djokovic in four entertaining sets 6-4 6-1 1-6 6-3 and this rivalry could be the one in men's tennis for years to come.   One thing is certain - Nadal will be back fighting harder to regain his former position.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Petra solves the problem that's Maria

This time last year, Petra Kvitova from the Czech Republic won her first grass court match at the highest level and the another four on the way to becoming a Wimbledon semi finalist. This year, she improved sufficiently to reach the final, proving that her lead up form as runner-up at Eastbourne was genuine and reliable.

However, her opponent in the final had done this before - as a 17 year old in 2004, against Serena Williams no less and apart from that Wimbledon has won twice since at Grand Slam tournament level. Clearly Maria Sharapova began this final as favorite, but it promised to be an attractive match, with the best current left hander playing one of the best stroke makers in the women's game with a return to negate most powerful serves.

In the semis Petra gained a flying start against Azarenka while Maria was slow out of the blocks against Lisicki. In the final, Petra served first and nervously, dropping her opening game, an action repeated immediately by Sharapova who proved in the beginning that she hadn't exhausted her plentiful supply of double faults, and the question was raised as to whether they may play a part in her ability to hold serve at crucial times. In the semi she covered the deficiency beautifully with all other parts of her game working to perfection against a slightly lesser opponent. The final would be a greater test.

Petra served for the second time with authority and led the match 2-1, delighting the crowd with what have become almost signature forehands but also looking more solid off the other side. Now feeing in a position to attack, the Czech girl did, and Maria was caught off guard going down a break of serve confirming the momentum shift to Petra had indeed been established.

As Sharapova settled onto her rhythm, both girls put on a display worthy of a Ladies Final at Wimbledon, and to her credit the more experienced Russian pressured Kvitova all the way. Plaudits then to the debut finalist for soaking up the pressure and handing as much back as the ground shots from both racquets continued thrilling the crowd.

The expectation of a Sharapova interlude to play herself back into the set was an undercurrent within many in the crowd born mostly of hope rather than logic, especially given the application that Kvitova was devoting to the important task at hand. Unfortunately errors from Maria found the net a little often to maintain sufficient heat on the Czech serve, and the first set played out 6-3 in Petra's favour.

A wonderful first set in her first final, absolutely littered with winners off her forehand, but surprising Maria with a few more than expected off the opposite backhand wing. Tactically I noticed Petra change up her forehand a few times - when going for the winner it has usually been down the line and sensational, and players including Maria have come to expect that - today Petra on occasion went cross court, not always successfully, but enough to set a doubt in Sharapova's mind, and add another string to the bow for the young rising star.

For the Centre Court crowd she perhaps had become a star on this very day, a set up and then a break up in the second set. Now we knew Maria would not go away peacefully - she would be here for the dog fight if necessary. A careless Petra let the break advantage at 2-0 slip from her grasp and a more fluent and clear thinking Maria levelled things in the set at 2-2.

Then for awhile neither girl wanted to hold serve - after the terrific effort to return games back on serve, Maria failed once more and Kvitova pounced over everything to achieve the lead 3-2. What Sharapova needed was to consolidate a break and take the lead in the set but the younger player was denying her the chances in a most mature exhibition, something like what Sharapova showed against Serena Williams seven years ago as a teenager.

Once more the occasion and exuberance forced an adrenalin rush on Petra's serve, while Maria's calculating tennis brain found another method of breaking down the efficient spin serve problems she had faced for most of the match. 3-3 and Maria to serve for the lead. Suspicions were growing that this could go to three sets and that scenario may favour the Russian markedly.

Yet again Kvitova rose to the challenge and with assistance from a poor handful of shots from Maria at the inopportune time, another break of serve set the scene for a final sprint to the line with Petra leading 4-3 and serving.

Just to be different serves were held for the next two games, most courageous of these Maria Sharapova when serving at 3-5 to stay in the match. However, this left the door open for Petra Kitova to create history and become the first Czech girl to win at Wimbledon since Jana Novotna in 1998, coincidentally the last year I visited London.

No drama in this service game especially the last delivery which was an ace, the perfect finish to the fairytale tournament for the player Fred Stolle has termed appropriately the breath of fresh air for women's tennis.

Both girls should be proud of their achievements in the tournament - Maria, though disappointed in defeat was most gracious and will continue to improve after her return from shoulder problems.

Petra Kvitova is going places fast and with some fine tuning and improved shot selection may very well challenge for the pinnacle of the women's game over the course of the next few years.

Rafa rolls on - Brits must wait again

Much anticipation over the second semi final and nearly all of it to do with Andy Murray and his quest to win a grand slam tournament. Here it is virtually a preoccupation of people to discuss the latest in the Murray assault on Wimbledon, and now that he faced the world's number one and reigning champ Rafa Nadal the interest was at fever pitch.

Andy began the match impressively, holding serve confidently - a habit he needed to very quickly fall into if wished to maintain some pressure on the top seed. The two players both predictably were strong off the ground and the points were intense and hard hitting. Andy particularly impressed with his forehand and his willingness to attack the Nadal serve. For eleven games, though, no returning could achieve a break for either of the two.

Twas 5-6 when Nadal strode to the service line that Andy pounced. Aided by some unexpected and unprecedented unforced errors off the Spanish racquet, Andy broke serve to take the opening set 7-5 and the Centre Court crowd went absolutely delirious with joy.

That delirium may well have continued early into set two had the Scot - who on Wimbledon semi final day is adopted by all Brits it seems - converted a relatively simple chance to go ahead 15-40 on a Nadal serve and maybe taken the game to lead 3-1. However, he didn't and if you don't take the rare chances made available to you in a match like this, it can hurt.

Nadal did the hurting in no uncertain terms. Going on a game winning spree and treating the Scottish serve with contempt almost, the world number one took little time to even the match by winning the second set 6-2. Murray's frustration was palpable as the struggle to stop the Spanish Armarda continued into the third set. Because Nadal had decided to close his unforced error production factory early, Andy felt the need to push for winners but inevitably went either too soon, too big or too wide, or a combination.

The match that began with such promise now was slipping away from Murray and rather quickly. The third set had gone 6-2 as well to Rafa, and the termination of the match came ever closer as Andy dropped serve in the opening fourth set game. Most of the crowd were now resigned to Murray's fate, although a glimmer of hope flickered when he had break points on Nadal's second service game to try and level at 2-2. The glimmer was blown out with Rafa remaining steady through that long game, as he did for the rest of the match, and the 2010 champion earned the right to defend his crown as king of Wimbledon after a stylish 5-7 6-2 6-2 6-4 victory over a plucky Andy Murray.

The Scot's challenges each year do not diminish his potential to one day win this title.
There are some weaknesses in his game that can be addressed, and tactically he is just a little behind the top three in executing some of these matches.

So we have a mouth watering Sunday main course featuring the top two seeds and two best performed players of the year. Novak Djokovic will be statistically number one irrespective but would rather prove it on court and take the title - his first at Wimbledon, while Rafael Nadal would dearly love to make it grand slam tournament number 11, equalling the likes of Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

A new number one - now the chance to justify !

The nature of ranking points now has Novak Djokovic as World number one at the conclusion of Wimbledon irrespective of the outcome of Sunday's final. No one would dispute his entitlement to the top dog tag if he can claim to have won two of the first three grand slam titles, made the semis in the other, and won everything else entered for this year including four Masters finals against Rafa Nadal.

Why are we speculating in this fashion. It is because of what happened on men's semi finals day at 2011 Wimbledon.

First combatants on Centre Court were Swiss killer Jo-Wilfried Tsonga attempting to do another shock assassination on the most successful player so far this year Serbian Novak Djokovic. The brilliance with which the Frenchman disposed of Federer over the final three sets of their quarter final was still stirring within the strings of his racquet in the opening stanza of the semi final and Novak suffered a service break early, in fact his very first attempt. From that point he felt a similar frustration to that suffered by Roger - unable to dent the French serve.

Not until Smokin' Jo actually served for the set did the doubts begin to appear, and the canny Serbian seized on these and returned everything possible to place immense pressure on Tsonga, a quantity to much for him to absorb, and the break of serve materialised. 5-5 and it may have been chance gone for Tsonga.

However, the two reached a compromise and the terms included completing a tie break to determine the first set result. With the French serve, who knows what a lottery this would be?
The Serbian serve held strong throughout and the consistent Djokovic, who had yet to unleash the supreme form of his 2011 season in the match so far, managed to escape with the first set which for the most part "belonged" to Tsonga.

The ll of a first set coming his way and being stolen at the last breath seemed to be a weight as heavy as London's peak hour traffic around poor Jo-Wilfried's neck. The second set was a mere walk through Kensington Park for Novak, as he'd grown tired of wandering the golf course at Wimbledon during the early rounds. Jubilation displayed by Tsonga, a rejoice only too happily shared in by his fans, turned quickly to regular bouts of desolation, precipitated by inaccuracy and injudicious shot selection from the French player.

Two sets to love, and the memory wound back 48 hours to the Federer comeback, but dismissed it as a mere one-off and not a possible precedent given Tsonga's current state of misery. 7-6 6-2, and Novak assured, it seemed of a debut final on the hallowed grass. More so once the break in the fourth set came, this time on the back of a woeful service game from Tsonga. No revival anywhere in neighboring villages to be cited let alone near Centre Court where the weather change was required most.

Still the French player could stun with some magical tennis and at 4-3 as Djokovic was serving for the second last time, he assumed, Tsonga ripped through a pretty ordinary game from the Serb and it was 4-4. Serves were held and then Tsonga reverted to his lesser self in order for Djokovic to achieve a break and serve for the match and the final at 6-5.

Once more, he tightened, and some free hitting from the excited and exciting Tsonga led to a tie break. This eventually became one of the most exhilarating tie breaks of the tournament lasting twenty points and giving match points to Djokovic and set points to Tsonga, many saved with brilliance and rallies of length and class. The last element of class belonged to the Frenchman who stole the set just as he might feel he had had set one stolen from him.

We now had a match with Tsonga starting his quest for a repeat of the Federer conquest.

The utterly undisguised manner with which Tsonga showed his delight at winning set three may have proven a little too much and premature. Ever consistent and confident, if not a little annoyed at letting a chance slip, Djokovic simply went back to the hard work of winning games, and began with the first three of set four, effectively placing the match beyond the reach of a gallant Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

7-6 6-2 6-7 6-3, and the crowd was entertained because both players were willing to go for everything, and sometimes the impossible worked. Rallies reached fever pitch at times given the increasing velocity with which the balls were rebounding off both racquets and the variable directions they were taking.

If Tsonga can ever introduce some consistency to his raw talent, he can be a giant at the very top of the men's game, while Djokovic could very well win Wimbledon at least once and maybe even this year.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Petra and Maria Ova whelmingly

Yes the women's final field of two was decided and the Ovas have it between them. Petra Kvitova from the Czech Republic improved from her semi final last year to reach her maiden grand slam tournament final with an enthralling performance against fourth seed Belarusian Victoria Azarenka. Seeded eighth herself, and runner up at the lead up Eastbourne tournament, Petra blasted out of the blocks, firing her left handed serve to great advantage and drilling forehand winners at will, many down the line which thrilled the crowd. The screaming from Vika was as expected, the only screaming from the silent assassin's end was from the brutalized tennis balls which will be charging Petra with willful assault.

The first set was a rout to be fair and 6-1 within the half hour gave no positive sign of things to come for Azarenka. Fickle is defined in some dictionaries as "the game of women's tennis", and so the hard hitting Belarusian began hitting her mark with the ground shot armoury we know she has, while Petra started to loosen her grip on the match with unnecessary heroics where simple rallying was the order of the moment.

The second set featured shot making from both women that exhilarated the crowd yet at times exasperated it for the brazen risk taking involved. Some of the errors were child like. On balance though the entertainment won through as did Vika, showing fine resolve to square the match at one set apiece. Could Petra find the first set momentum once again or was Victoria now going to be famous for reaching the final of Wimbledon in addition to be being David Beckham's wife and the second most populous State of Australia?

The answer arrived swiftly courtesy of the racquet of Petra Kvitova, who pounded countless more winners in a virtuoso display of tennis in the deciding set - it appeared that the second set represented a mere hiatus for the developing Czech star, and as much as Azarenka could throw at her, it was insufficient to prevent the inevitable 6-1 3-6 6-2 semi final win and an encounter on Saturday with either Maria Sharapova or Sabine Lisicki.

Lisicki started as well as Kvitova had, and Maria's double fault horrors from the semi finals at Roland Garros appeared early. 3-0 up and looking capable of running out the first set, Lisicki then became caught up in the Sharapova web spun with a combination of poise, experience, better choice of shot, and better execution.

Despite the regular shaky serving, Maria soon displayed why she remains favorite to take out the title this year. Returning the powerful German serve was always a key to this match and the Russian did it to perfection, breaking back twice and easing to a first set win 6-4.

The occasion then became too much for Lisicki whose confidence when serving deserted her for the rest of the match. This proved a bonus for Maria who herself was not immune from troubles at the delivery line. Even at 5-1, no one was putting money on the match ending soon. Sabine managed to hold and ask Maria if she could kindly do the honours and serve out the match. The tall Russian could not. The priority for Sharapova was to break the Lisicki serve and win the match and not have to try and serve for it again.

With some assistance from the German girl, and some tidy tennis of her own, three time Grand Slam tournament champion Maria Sharapova agreed to a date with destiny, with Petra Kvitova tagging along, on Saturday. 6-4 6-3

Nevertheless a great tournament for Sabine Lisicki.