Saturday, 17 November 2012

2012: Andy Arrived, Serena Thrived

2012 posed many questions in the world of tennis.
How much of his amazing 2011 could Novak Djokovic hope to emulate?
Would this be the year for Caroline Wozniacki to place a Grand Slam title next to her number one ranking? Could Samantha Stosur ride the US Open triumph to finally reap some home GS benefits?  Would the year end championship wins of Petra Kvitova and Roger Federer roll into spectacular runs in the new year?  Would Andy Murray finally break through at the highest level and would Serena Williams exert her dominance again?
Unfortunately for Caroline and Samantha, the answers were in the negative, for Petra signs were promising with semi final appearances at the first 2 Grand Slam tournaments but the end of the year fizzled with erratic form and inadequate fitness.
Roger did have a great year, not spectacular by his standards but a Wimbledon win was memorable, the return to number one ranking notable if only for the statistic.  The true number one remained Novak Djokovic despite failing to defend his US Open and Wimbledon crowns.  He reached 3 finals at the highest level and won the year end championships defeating 5 top ten players in a week.

The second best performed male player at Grand Slam level in 2012 was Andy Murray.
Semi finalist at the Australian Open, finalist at Wimbledon and breakthrough winner of the US Open, Andy at last had laid claims to a place among the elite.  The Olympics provided a nice postscript with successive wins over Djokovic and Federer to take gold.

With Nadal sidelined, Murray has taken a temporary grip on the number 3 spot in the rankings; in fact David Ferrer is closing on his countryman for the number four seeding in Melbourne 2013.
A surprising dominator in women's tennis in early 2012 was Victora Azarenka.  Undefeated for several tournaments, including her first GS title at the Australian Open, it appeared that a battle for second may be of most interest.
Then Maria screamed NO! and dominated the clay not least that on Philippe Chatrier in Paris when she completed her career Grand Slam with the French Open.  In the process, the number one ranking moved back to Russia, and the two women would largely fight amongst themselves for the top two spots for the remainder of the year.

Realistically though these were only numbers,  just as Roger's number one ranking belied the truth.  The second part of the year was the possession of Serena Williams, the greatest player, male or female, of the past 15 years.  Serena tore through the field at Wimbledon twice to take out her 14th Grand Slam title and an Olympic gold medal.
Then in New York, the number one seeded Azarenka fought gallantly but couldn't deny the talent and determination of the now 15 times GS champ.  To put the finish on an incredible year, Serena cleaned up everyone she met in straight sets to win the season ender in Istanbul.
Serena is undeniably the best female player and she will be that for as long as she retains fitness and motivation.  Andy Murray will begin 2013 from a different place in his tennis time line.  He is, like Serena, the most recent winner of a singles Grand Slam crown, but is new to the feeling and knows that his best years lay ahead.  Serena could very well complete her illustrious career any time soon, and immediately be counted amongst the handful of greatest ever.  No one would blame her for walking away while at the top.
However, she is as fit as she has been for many years, and with her sister winning her final event of the year, the desire to play tennis is still very much alive in the Williams fold.
Players of the year Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic
Victoria Azarenka very close.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Serena and Vika set for US Open rematch

After only two days of the season ending WTA Championships in Istanbul, it has become clear that the number one ranked player in the world is in the right frame of mind and showing the necessary form and determination to again feature in the finale of the finale.  Victoria Azarenka is finishing 2012 in much the same way she began - winning everything.

However, the best player in the world, if not often ranked that these days, is just as threatening, and Serena Williams has dispensed with both Angelique Kerber and Li Na in straight sets.  True her win against China's number one failed to thrill, but if the opponent is offering little, even the finest can be dragged down a level or two in performance.  Pity the next opponent who is on the receiving end of an adequate Williams serving exhibition, let alone a Wimbledon or Olympics repeat.

The 1 and 3 seeds are set to meet in a round robin match before the semis are decided, but Serena has already qualified for one of those 4 spots, and Vika need only defeat an out of sorts Li Na to join her.

One of the semi finalists from the other group will be Maria Sharapova, having won both her matches so far.  Agnieszka Radwanska will complete the final four and fittingly see the top 4 ranked players fighting for the riches but only if she accounts for Sara Errani in her final round robin clash.  Her form suggests that this will occur, having pushed Sharapova to the absolute limit in their epic 3 setter.

Sara Errani can make it through should she defeat Sam Stosur and Radwanska.  Sam Stosur, who replaced Petra Kvitova following the Czech star's withdrawal due to illness, can also reach the semis, but must beat Errani first up, repeat her recent success over Sharapova, and hope that Errani defeats Radwanska.

My feeling is that all of this will count for little, because Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka should win their respective semi finals, regardless of the opposition they face, and we will have another clash between the two in a final to savour.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Djokovic Defiant

Nothing, not even winning all the remaining tournaments of 2012, would compensate Novak Djokovic from the disappointment of losing the US Open final to Andy Murray, especially after drawing level at two sets all and appearing to have the momentum.  However, as he has done all year, the world's best hard court player and best returner on any surface displayed to the Shanghai tennis fans, and those fortunate to be watching on their televisions at home that irrespective of world rankings, that the only important match is the current contest.

Andy Murray, forehand blazing, continued his Federer-conquering semi final form to rattle Djokovic in the first set, and at 5-4 30-0 in the second had the record books ready for a third successive entry of his name to the champions' honour roll.  Then, as in Melbourne where the Australian Open semi final and final featured the fighting qualities of the Serbian star at levels never before envisaged,  the match changed direction with a master class of innovation, skill and courage.

The deliberate between the legs shot from the baseline was stunning but not as delightful as the point winning, almost McEnroe-ish drop shot that brought the house down, and with it Andy's prospects.  Although Novak still needed to win the set to extend the match, most of those watching could see where this one was heading.  Or thought we could at least.

The tie break that eventuated was epic, and so it had to be if it wanted to be remembered as part of this great battle, and Andy again took charge with a handful of set points at various stages.  Djokovic played with daring and brilliance to save his skin, and when he had his third chance, won the set with a positive volley into the open court.  13-11 and Andy for all his winning ways could only show equality on the scoreboard.

Novak owned the third set, and after the longest three set match of the men's tour of 2012 he emerged with his third Masters title and an even firmer grip on the race to the ATP end of year Championships,  and End of Year number one ranking.

If Djokovic achieves the top position at the finish of a great year it will be fully deserved - he has won one Grand Slam title and been runner up twice - won 24 matches through those 4 tournaments, more than anyone else.  He has now won three of six finals in the Masters Series, again winning more matches than anyone else in that second tier category of tournament.

At no stage of 2012 has Novak Djokovic experienced a real trough of poor form - in 2011 his awesome feats up to and including the US Open and Davis Cup told on his body and he limped over the finish line with poor results in Paris and the ATP Championships.  This year has been ever consistent and at the end of the year we see him on a 10 match 2 tournament winning streak, looking the superior player on tour.   A final word for Andy Murray though - he is showing signs of becoming not just a threat for more major triumphs but 2013 may see him challenge for more than number three in the world.  He knows how to beat Federer now, and has the shots to place Djokovic in trouble.  If Rafa can come back fighting fit then  the best player in the world may be a true battle in four.

Right now the best player is certainly the winning Novak.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Spain v Serbia - Take 2

Yes, for all of the fighting tennis produced by Spanish 4th seed David Ferrer, on his way to overcoming a defiant Janko Tipsarevic in the quarter finals at Flushing Meadows, another stumbling block from Serbia awaits him in the semis.  Not a minor obstacle this one - only the best hard courter and best returner in the world - Novak Djokovic.

For Ferrer to make his Grand Slam tournament final debut, he has to be the first player this year in New York to take a set off Novak, and then two more after that.  Of course this is possible, but given the sheer consistent brilliance of his racqetwork over the past week or so, Djokovic poses a challenge maybe too large for even the most resilient of players, and Ferrer has real claims to that title.

What enabled Ferrer to prevail in his quarter final was his consistency of weighted groundstroke when the match was in the balance.  While the Tipsarevic serve was on song, Ferrer was unable to dictate sufficient points and so he could only watch and hope for a decline in the effectiveness of the Serbian first delivery.  Once it occured, and it happened when Janko was serving for a 5-2 lead in the fifth set, the momentum turned for a final time, and control of the match stayed with David.  Ultimately it took a tie break to give Spain a presence in the semis, but even if it went the distance surely the same result would have been achieved.

Janko Tipsarevic can consider himself unlucky - he made the running for most of the match, and was only a few agonising minutes from the finishing line before the fatal stumble.  However, David Ferrer has a history of picking up the pieces of these stumbles and furnishing them into personal success.

He cannot rely on a similar stumble from the super slick Djokovic who played a fantastic match against Del Potro in his quarter final, where the standard of tennis grew throughout.  Straight sets belied the closeness of the contest.  If you were to rank the 4 quarter finalists from this part of the draw in terms of tennis played it would be Djokovic clearly atop, Del Potro clearly second, and a tie for third.  This is Ferrer's challenge - to raise his game sufficiently to give the world number 2 cause for worry, because victory will not be his by waiting for a drop in standard from Djokovic.  

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Vika & Sam supply the quality

As has become tradition rain in 2012 serves to frustrate organisers of the US Open, a privilege once the domain of Wimbledon for bragging rights amongst the majors.  Before the schedule was significantly affected, one of the highlights of the event was delivered to us.  It became a two course affair - pre and post rain - but the post rain piece of the quarter final between Vika Azarenka and Samantha Stosur consisted of some of the best contested women's tennis for some time.

Stosur's woeful record against the world number one continued with a first set dominated by Azarenka 6-1, and against all that momentum and history the defending champion drew on her well of reserves to match it with the talented Belarusian in most departments.  Casting self doubt aside, Stosur attacked with her forehand, knowing full well that some of her risk taking would be met with rifled winners either side of her because that is what Azarenka can do better than most.

However the risk can have a reward and the percentages began to favour Stosur as she pursued her revised game plan.  Increasingly the Azarenka serve appeared breakable, not dramatically but at least to the point where this became a contest.  Sam broke to lead 1-0 in the second set and led 40-15 on serve only for Vika to immediately strike back.  The stakes were high and the standard just as elevated for the remainder of the set and it was the Australian who managed to achieve the vital break in the ninth game.  The serve served her well and the match sat at a set apiece.

The final set unfortunately at the US Open is always decided by a tie-break should it reach 6-6.  It is the only Grand Slam tournament to abbreviate in this fashion and something that annoyingly denies us of some thrilling finishes in normal time by throwing in a lottery to free the impasse.

Of course some tiebreaks can be wonderful cameos and for this small mercy we have to be thankful.

For most of set three Azarenka looked assured of sprinting to the line and avoiding the tie-break.  She broke Stosur in the fourth game and served for a 4-1 lead.  Failed there thanks to a determined and skillful returning performance from the 7th seed.  Again Vika forced the issue to lead 4-2 with serve to come.  Once more Sam pushed it back with another thoughtful and effective returning game.

Then the players decided that holding serve had some merit and so 3-4 with Stosur at the line became 5-5 through this method.  Stosur pressured Azarenka to break point and asked the most serious question of the match yet of the Australian Open champion.  Vika answered clearly enough with her first ace, and with that flowed on to 6-5.  Disappointed at not capitalising on the break point, Sam steadied to take the match to a deciding tie-break which in my opinion favoured Azarenka.  Had the match gone to advantage Stosur may have had the legs to outlast Azarenka.

Quickly Stosur was down 4-0 and the court interviewer was preparing for Azarenka to answer questions surrounding her victory.  However, as had been the pattern for the whole match Stosur fought hard to level at 5-5.  With her next serve Sam would be holding match point on Vika's serve or be defending Vika's serve for the semi final spot.  The latter prevailed, and with the first match point for either player, the number one seed emerged victorious to reach her first US Open semi final.

6-1 4-6 7-6 (5) A top quality quarter final, one which concluded Samantha Stosur's honourable defence of her title, and announced Victoria Azarenka as the best bet from the top half of the draw to offer some resistance to the irresistible Serena Williams.    

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Early Exit as Kim bids another farewell

As the balls continue to be hit with menacing power and deft touch to various parts of Queens, the first few days of US Open 2012 have provided little to suggest that the major spoils at the end of the fortnight won't be shared amongst the very elite in both the women's and mens draws.
Roger and Novak are on winning runs of one match each, convincing their luckless opponents that an early surrender was the best way to secure a first round loser's cheque.  Of course the magnitude of that prize is in the news and to be fair to the 64 players who spoil us with displays of classical shot making on their polished routes to defeat, surely more money needs to be thrown at failure and mediocrity.  I suspect we will see the full field of men in Melbourne in January - this is an empty threat.

After her last three attempts to win the US Open were all successful, Kim Clijsters finally had her sequence of wins at Flushing Meadow terminated in the second round courtesy of Brit Laura Robson.  Clearly the two tie break success had come upon the left over Olympic spirit which British athletes are riding for all that it is worth.  Sad to see Kim retire in this fashion but Laura has saved her the problem of a third round clash with the shockingly in-form 9th seed Li Na.

Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick are into the second round, and the two former winners of this title are playing enough quality tennis to proceed a bit further until they run into serious trouble - David Ferrer is seeded number four due to Rafa's absence, and is waiting to eat the Australian in round three should they both reach that match up.

Tonight is the second round match from hell for Venus Williams and Angelique Kerber.  For fans it is potentially the match of the tournament so far - Kerber in stellar form all year and Venus finding much of her old magic just in time for her home major.  A three setter has to be the only way to find the winner from this, and I suspect  the big crowd will be disappointed as last year's semi finalist knocks the 2000-2001 champ out of the race.

Last year's surprise winner Samantha Stosur has begun her defence splendidly, dropping only 5 games in her first two matches and with it showing everyone some form and consistency sorely missing from most of her year.  Naturally it will be a more testing assignment should she reach the fourth round and a likely clash with Li Na.  However the head to head record is heavily in Stosur's favour.

Big name casualties from the first round have included men's 10th seed Juan Monaco, who surrendered a two set lead to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.  Also gone is 2010 French Open champ Francesca Schiavone, although her star has faded somewhat over the last several months together with her ranking.

My predictions for the singles remain as they were - Djokovic to successfully defend, and Serena Williams to go one better than last year.  Now that she and her sister have decided to enter the doubles comp, they will be my best bet to take that title as well, and if not certainly cause the most havoc along the way.

Friday, 24 August 2012

A Long Year It's Been BUT One Major To Go!

Well the show has begun and the first act consisted of the live draw - only the Internet age could allow something as simple as drawing names out of a US Open trophy to be as riveting as it was.

Copious amounts of press photographers on hand to zoom in on shots of an ever evolving Men's Singles Draw soon to be followed by... yes you guessed it the Womens Singles sheet.  I was hooked - in the early morning Australian Eastern time staring at the computer screen wondering whether Andy Murray would feature in the Federer or Djokovic half of the draw.  Who were going to face the dreaded floaters like Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters?  Both ranked lower than their capabilities (Venus unseeded altogether), but funnily enough the last 2 women to have won successive US Open crowns and not a joyful sight at the other end of the court for the top seeds early in the event.

The answers came quickly, and Roger could be heard somewhere swearing that the wretched Serb had received the better end of the stick by avoiding the Murray factor until the final, should both reach that far.  Mind you I don't believe that Andy poses too much of a threat to either of the 2 top seeds because the depth in mens tennis, whatever spin you might try to put on it, is fairly thin at the elite level.
True Murray played out of his skin at Wimbledon to reach his first final and then wipe out both Novak and Roger to win Olympic gold at the same venue.  However this is hard court and the ones that have actually won at Flushing Meadows love it to death.

Del Potro won here in 2009 and is playing well but unluckily again is under an injury cloud coming into this year's event.  Novak should dispense with him quite swiftly should he so be required.  I really cannot see anything else in this 128 field to change the final from being a number 1 and 2 seed benefit - Ferrer, Tsonga, Isner and the like will be mere sideshows along the way and the fun will be to see what upsets occur before the semis.

Novak will eventually exact his revenge on Roger for the Cincinatti incident - that bagel was not nice to taste even if it was made from Swiss ingredients - but more so for the Wimbledon semi defeat.  Defending his title will be a proud day for Mr Djokovic.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Olympics continue Wimbledon horror for Sam

With another early exit from the grass court major only a matter of weeks ago, women's world number 5 Samantha Stosur was hopeful that the return trip to SW19 draped in the flag of Australia would produce some intangible to assist with a result more befitting her ranking.

The first full day of competition at the 2012 Olympics only offered further evidence of the extreme allergy to grass from which Sam has suffered all her career, an affliction for which no medical breakthrough has yet arrived.
Even Spanish clay-courter Carla Suarez Navarro, Stosur's first round Wimbledon victim in June, has been able to add her name to those able to reverse seemingly irreversible trends in matches featuring the enigmatic Queenslander.

Sam has an amazing record in Grand Slam tournaments - where she has won the first set she has never lost a match.
The Olympics first round battle saw her take the opener 6-3 and have a chance to break at 4-3 in the second.  However the fight in the Spanish game guaranteed that the Stosur Grand Slam stat would not find its way into her Olympic CV, that fight ultimately rewarded with a 10-8 epic third set decider in Carla's favour.

As defending US Open champion, and with plenty of other points to defend from a productive US summer in 2011, Stosur is in danger of dropping not only from the top 5 but even from the top ten unless she can find some consistency in her game - she cannot keep losing to players ranked way below her, especially after manufacturing winning positions, and expect to retain an elite place in the women's game.

Her coach David Taylor rightly took many accolades for what Sam achieved late last year - he now must work even harder with the Australian number one as she recovers from her grass court trauma and transfers her attention and energy to a more comfortable surface.   

Saturday, 7 July 2012

It's All Been About Roger - Time to Credit Serena

Yes Roger Federer is statistically the best performed player in Mens tennis with 16 Grand Slam titles, and quite possibly a 17th on Sunday with a 7th Wimbledon.  Clearly he is the best male player of his generation, although I am one observer who will await his final sliced backhand or precisely angled forehand before handing him the "greatest I've ever seen" award.  Having watched Sampras, McEnroe, Borg et al, and then assessing the quality of their respective contemporaries, it's clear that raw statistics do not determine who belongs at the top.  The "greatest ever" is pure folly for I never enjoyed seeing Lew Hoad live or Rod Laver at his peak, and there are others who from many accounts would surely rate with the modern day greats including maybe Federer.  However, one opinion is not subjective - Roger Federer has provided some of the greatest tennis that one could wish to see, and over a sustained period.

I challenge tennis followers to continue comparing the best male players through the years, but not be so preoccupied with ranking them - just rejoice in the knowledge that we continue to be blessed by their presence.

I also implore people to give more credit to the one player of Roger's generation that is at least his equal in terms of dominance - Serena Williams.  Wimbledon 2012 has seen a preoccupation with the "will Federer win another GS title and reclaim the world number one spot?" question at the expense of another wonderful story which has unfolded.  Serena Williams is on the verge of claiming her own 5th Wimbledon and 14th overall GS title.  Her story is remarkable given that unlike Federer her career at the highest level has seen interruption through injury and illness sufficient to curtail any exploits of a normal athlete.

Serena does the impossible - winning the Australian Open unseeded and unfit and making the fourth round of Wimbledon 2011 on the back of one tournament since her return from a serious operation are just 2 examples - and throughout she has been regarded - by experts and players alike - as the true number one women's player on the planet, whatever her actual ranking may be.  This year at Wimbledon she has played 3-setters against players way below her in talent as tune ups for glorious straight set displays in defeating defending champ Kvitova and reigning Aus Open champ Azarenka.  Her serving is a major weapon, and it is is firing as well as it ever has on the eve of her final.

Serena has won 4 GS titles in succession (2002-2003), the only player of her generation to do so.

Roger has a great story to tell, but could we please delay the umpteenth repeat telling just to allow the world to rejoice in Serena's epic and have her grace the front page conversation for a change?


Saturday, 30 June 2012

Rafa's Exit Raises Murray's Final Hopes

The first 4 days of Wimbledon provided the usual share of upsets, with seeded players falling by the wayside, most notably in the womens draw 9th seed Marion Bartoli, 2011 quarter finalist.  5th seed Samantha Stosur also left in round 2 but given her abysmal record here, not such a shock to the tournament.  Top ten players Tomas Berdych and John Isner, potential later opponents of Djokovic and Federer respectively, both were dismissed in round one.  Of course all that paled into insignificance once the final ace had been served past Rafa Nadal under the Centre Court roof late on Day 4 by Czech player Lukas Rosol, never ranked higher than 65 and entering this event at 100.
The second round departure by the 7 time French Open champ stunned the world, and denied patrons the possibility of a fifth straight GS tournament final between he and Novak.

What it has done is to open one side of the draw for 4th seed Andy Murray to finally achieve his ambition to play in a Wimbledon final.  The likely quarter final now is Murray v Tsonga, and the form of both after 2 matches is consistent with that line of thought.  Ivo Karlolic in the second round was a dangerous proposition and Murray handled it very well,  returning serve competently whenever he could see it or be anywhere near it, above all exhibiting a patience not always identified with the Scot's approach to big occasions.

At time of writing, Maria Sharapova has literally screamed into the fourth round and continued captivating all with her racquet work while annoying most with her gratuitous noise.  The WTA in its "wisdom" is investigating the possibility of introducing formal measures to measure the noise levels of its players in an effort to dial down the decibels.  The "grunt-o-meter" would not be applied to the current generation of players for fear of it damaging their game.  What a load of rubbish.  We would have the ludicrous situation of the 2 top ranked players in the world allowed to scream to their hearts delight while any newcomers would be subject to the new rules.  The WTA should be using their top players as examples to the new generation of players and force them to stop screaming.  It is not an asset to Sharapova or Azarenka - both win points because of their tennis skills and the noise is just to take unfair additional advantage.  Thankfully for those watching at home there is the mute button.

Back to actual tennis and we have the chance to re-evaluate the predictions made pre-tournament.  One change that won't be made by me is that of seeing Djokovic in the final.  For all of Federer's winning ways against opponents that should be being taken to the cleaners by a player of his ilk, he just has not played to the level exhibited by the world number one.  Ryan Harrison lost in straight sets to Novak but played a terrific match, his tennis probably sufficient to defeat most other players in the draw.  The serving and ground shots of Djokovic were sublime.  He hadn't peaked either - despite losing the first set against a determined Radek Stepanek, there was never a doubt that a fourth round spot would be Novak's.  This time the clinic given over the final 3 sets centred on return of serve and it featured some of the best seen at Wimbledon in years.  Two Davis Cup mates meet in the round of 16 but Viktor Troicki will need to be exponentially better than his polished performance ousting Juan Monaco if he is to rid us of the defending champ.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Grass Court Heroics To Come

Djokovic takes flight for a BH in the 2011 Final 
Wimbledon is many kilometres away this year - last year just a train ride from Paddington.  However, I will enjoy the exploits of the best players live on the big screen and its only an hour or so from now.  Predictions are fun so I should throw mine in for what they are worth.  Last year I managed to select both singles champions - this year I am less confident which can only mean an open event.

On the mens side, the big three appear to have the tournament to themselves, but last year, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga upset that with a sensational comeback win over Federer in the quarters.  This year his draw is relatively friendly on the way to a potential quarter final against Nadal.
The sixth seed Tomas Berdych made the final 2 years ago, having knocked out both Federer and Djokovic en route there.  He could again be trouble for the world number one should they play to their seedings and meet each other in the final eight.  Getting there is no guarantee for the Czech star though - his performances at Grand Slam level since the 2010 final have been less than glorious, with 2 quarter finals at the Aus Open the best he has offered.

Seriously, Djokovic and Federer should be one semi final, and Roger must overcome plenty of demons to pass this test.  The winner of 16 GS titles has made only 1 final in his last 9 attempts, and not passed the final 8 in his last 2 trips to Wimbledon.  Novak has made the semis at least in his last 8 GS events, of course winning 4 times.

Unless we see a blast from the very best of Roger's past, I cannot see anything Swiss preventing yet another Nadal v Djokovic finale at the highest level.

Maria Sharapova is clearly the best player in womens tennis at the moment, and her second Wimbledon title would take her past Kim Clijsters to 5 GS titles in total.  Nothing other than a Williams sister or a sharp reversal of form from the defending champion can prevent Maria from taking the running Roland Garros Wimbledon double.  I still believe that Petra Kvitova has the perfect game for the SW19 surface and may survive deep into this draw.  However she does appear to have lost some confidence since last year - losing first round at Eastbourne didn't help.  Maybe the semi final in Paris will be the boost for her to push for back to back glory on the hallowed grass.  If she can manage to deal with Serena in the quarters watch out for Petra.

Well the outside courts have action soon so I'd better start my viewing preparations.

The first day will provide entertaining propositions:  unseeded Kim Clijsters plays Jelena Jankovic who is sending hate mail to those who manufactured this draw.  8th seed Janko Tipsarevic is up against Mr Popularity David Nalbandian so expect line judges to be wearing helmets and protective padding for that match.  Looking for a seed to fall first up?  Court 16 could be it - 12th seed Nicolas Almagro never does well at Wimbledon and he is facing little terrier Olivier Rochus who nearly took out Del Potro last year in the second round.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Novak Slam - Will Rafa Spoil The Party?

The semis are over and for the fourth successive Grand Slam tournament it will be Djokovic v Nadal for the glory.  Rafa has not lost a set while mercilessly destroying each of his 6 victims and treating us to a vintage array of shots that only a racquet placed in his hands can produce.  David Ferrer was made to look inadequate just 2 days after showing us that he actually is top 5 standard.  There lies the harsh truth.  The gulf in men's tennis between the top 3 and the remainder is immense and not looking like diminishing any time soon.

Another piece of reality that his legion of fans will not want to accept but may have to sooner rather than later, is the increasing gap between Roger Federer and the 2 best players in the world - certainly at Grand Slam level.  Novak Djokovic thrashed Roger Federer in the semi final over which everyone was salivating pre-match.  Unfortunately the dizzy heights of  the 2011 version could not be repeated, and yes the fickle wind did not assist the players to produce their best tennis.  The world number one, though, managed both the conditions and Federer to put a lie to any fatigue he may experience following successive 5 set struggles against Seppi and Tsonga.

Although insufficient credit was given Djokovic by the Australian TV commentators - everything seemed to be about how Roger's single handed backhand was a disadvantage for the poor guy - the classy Serb champion displayed the purpose and smarts and downright skill as the best in his sport to run one of the best ever totally ragged.  Even when Roger threatened in the second set, and clearly he remains too good not to do this at some stages, Novak came up with the answers, just as he did when seemingly out for the count against Tsonga.

This will now be the ninth Grand Slam singles crown to be decided since Federer last took one - January 2010 was number 16 and at that point Rafa had won 6 and the Joker a mere 1.  On Sunday it will either be number 11 for Nadal, placing him equal on Grand Slam singles titles with the likes of Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg (and breaking clear of Borg with 7 Roland Garros wins) or number 6 for Djokovic, completing a career Grand Slam, and becoming the first man since Laver to hold all 4 major trophies at the same time.

Rafa still deserves his favouritism, no question, but one can never discount the fighting capabilities of Novak, and the final promises to be another wonderful contest between the best 2 players on the planet.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

A New Womens Champion - But Who?

Down to four women, and although the raging favourite for several good reasons is Maria Sharapova, legitimate cases can be mounted for any of the 2012 semi-finalists to raise the trophy on Saturday at Roland Garros.

The routes taken to reach this stage of the tournament have been varied, and notable for the early and then consistent upsets of top seeded players.

The first semi final to be considered has the surprise pairing of 21st seed Sara Errani and 6th seed Samantha Stosur, one of 2 players left who is a reigning Grand Slam singles champion, and the only player who has experienced a women's singles final at this event.

Stosur has won each of the 5 matches against the Italian beginning as far back as the last Olympic Games, but Errani is enjoying a much more successful year than the Australian with 3 titles already.  Still in the only clash between the two in 2012 it was Samantha who took home the chocolates, on clay.  To rub salt into the wound it was a straight sets win in Sara's back yard - the Rome Premier tournament.

Stosur had the good fortune firstly not to have to play a seeded player in the fourth round, with 12th seed Lisicki and 24th seed Cetkovska bowing out before inflicting any damage.  Dominika Cibulkova then provided Stosur with a gift to beat all else by cancelling the visa of world number one Vika Azarenka in the fourth round.  Sam was extremely appreciative not to have to fight the odds against Vika and she thanked Cibulkova by dispensing with the Slovakian dream in their quarter final in straight sets, the only mode of victory employed in her 5 matches so far this French Open.

So how come Errani managed to make it to her first Grand Slam singles semi final?  Well her wins from round 3 were pretty impressive - Sara knocked out the 13th and 28th seeds in successive rounds, and they just happened to be Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova, the 2008 and 2009 Roland Garros champions respectively.  To seal the deal, Errani conquered top ten player and German number one Angelique Kerber in the quarters.

The path for Errani was cleared somewhat with the removal of obstacles in the form of 18th seed Flavia Pennetta, 8th seed and semi finalist from 2011 Marion Bartoli, and 3rd seed Agnieszka Radwanska.

The manner in which Stosur has played and won her matches has been highly impressive this year, perhaps even greater than when she captured her US Open title.  All things being equal, the Australian has too many weapons available on clay for Errani to counter, but before declaring the winner of the semi final, just remember the last time Stosur entered a big match at Roland Garros against an Italian player.  Yes - 2010 saw the fighting qualities of Francesca Schiavone overcome Samantha in the final.  Sara need look no further than that display to believe she is a real chance to reach the final.

The marquee semi final (on paper at least) consists of the 2 players who fought out a wonderful final at Wimbledon last year, and blessed us with another 3 set battle to remember in Melbourne in this year's Australian Open.  Petra Kvitova triumphed at Wimbledon, but it was the Russian who claimed the points away from the grass.  Significantly on the clay in the Stuttgart semis in April, Maria once again proved the stronger of the two, and has continued that form through to the Paris version of the surface.

The number 2 and number 4 seeds were drawn to meet here in a semi final, but the opponents they  encountered on the way did not always fit expectations.

Petra has defeated players ranked no higher than 61, avoiding the matches she would have pencilled in with 32nd seed Niculescu, 14th seed and last year's finalist Schiavone, and 7th seed and defending champion Li Na.  If Federer enjoyed a charmed run to the quarters, then Kvitova's stroll to the semis is heaven sent.

Of course Sharapova has also managed to miss out on potential trouble, not yet having seen anyone on the other side of the net from the top 20.  Other women saved Maria from the worry of 16th seed Kirilenko and 5th seed Serena Williams as she marched freely to the second Thursday.

On the basis of clay court form, head to head recent history, and overall experience and success in Grand Slam tournaments, I have to agree with the majority and predict Maria Sharapova to taste the Paris clay on finals day for the first time, in the process regaining the world number one ranking and keeping alive the dream of completing a career Grand Slam.

Sharapova v Stosur is my prediction for the final and if it does come to pass it may be closer than history between the two would suggest.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Federer's Dream Run

Roger Federer must have done a lot of things right to have had favours returned the way they have at Roland Garros this year.  He has dealt with his opponents in mostly his skilled surgeon manner and only a few minor scalpel slips have occurred, none threatening serious injury.

He has however been assisted by the presentation of those opponents - in succession ranked 78, 92, 89 and 109.  Yes, hardly any more than a comfortable relaxing walk in the park with the kids.  The only test for Roger thus far would be the match up in the quarter final - the winner of the highly anticipated Berdych and Del Potro clash loomed as a serious warm up for the likely Djokovic semi final.

Although having winning records against both, it is Del Potro that the Swiss champ has owned this year, already dispensing of the Argentine giant 4 times without bleeding a single set.  Tomas has been more of a bother to Roger, as recently as Madrid having the gall to force Federer to 3 sets in the final and delaying valuable alone time with the wife and kids.  Then there is the still burning hatred of the Czech world number 7, fuelled by his failure to bow to the Grass God in the Wimbledon quarters in 2010.

So the second most delighted person to receive the news of Juan Martin's success in 4 sets over Berdych was Federer, who now was guaranteed a straight sets path to what we all wanted anyway - the dream semi final against the world's best.  Of course out to prove me wrong is Del Potro, who after being taken apart in the second set against Berdych, displayed the sort of fortitude and skill on clay to give it straight back and more for one of the more impressive wins in the men's draw in 2011. 

If he can bring that attitude to his Federer assignment, then maybe we could receive the benefit of something like the 2009 US Open final rather than the white flag efforts of earlier in 2012.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Unfair Expectations of Venus

As we venture deeper into the Women's Singles Draw in Paris, and prepare for a possible showdown between the world's top 2 ranked players in the final - although last year's finalists and another previous winner may have something to say about that - I'm sparing some time to commend, not dismiss, the efforts of Venus Williams.

Although the 7 time Grand Slam title winner was convincingly beaten in the second round, some supposed experts seem to regard this exit like any early departure from a tennis tournament by Venus as shocking as those made (rarely) by her sister.  Let us rejoice in the fact that Venus is actually playing tennis at the top level at present.  Given her awful run of injuries post 2010, compounded by the diagnosis of Sj√∂gren's syndrome, one could understand Venus choosing to retire from the game in which she has nothing more to prove.

For our benefit, and through her courage, Venus has battled the adversity and achieved significant results - in 2012 she has beaten top 5 players Kvitova and Stosur, and lifted her ranking to top 50.  Roland Garros has never been a happy tournament for Venus (her one finals appearance was 10 years ago) so when the number 3 player in the world defeated her in straight sets in the second round, the appropriate response should have been: "Expected loss on clay - but useful warm up for another crack at Wimbledon".

Instead, many observers have bundled this result with some other early losses to signal the repatriation of Venus Williams into the tennis players retirement home.  How about we just relax and allow one of the best advertisements for women's tennis in our time, and tennis in general, to play while she is physically able, because based on performances this year, we will continue to enjoy some of the old magic.  Don't expect what we received at the height of the Venus era - be pleasantly surprised if and when it arrives.      

Friday, 1 June 2012

Rafa and Novak Cruising in Paris

Just 2 rounds in and the 2012 edition of France's contribution to the Grand Slam has provided little indication of a final four much different from last year.  Nadal is luxuriating in the red clay which he prays Madrid may use in future instead of the blue variety that he and others abhor.  This year Rafa has actually managed to defeat Djokovic in 2 Masters event finals, both on clay, something he failed to achieve in 2011.  His favouritism is more than warranted to take home French Open number 7, and the ruthless nature of his first 2 wins here has merely underscored the practise match status of week one for the amazing left-hander.

Novak this year is free of the "when will he lose his first match of the season?" tag which he carried throughout Roland Garros 12 months ago, until Federer answered "Now" in the epic semi final.  Still playing at the top of his game, the world number one, with a recent clay court victory over the Swiss legend should have an opportunity of reversing the 2011 semi final result, and reaching his first Roland Garros final.

Highlights from the Mens Singles Draw over the first few days included another lengthy 5 setter between American John Isner and a French player.  This time it wasn't Nicolas Mahut, and it wasn't on grass, but the match went to 34 games in the decider, before Paul-Henri Mathieu upset the tenth seed in a memorable comeback from a career threatening injury.  This was one for the fans but more for the spirit of the game.  Mathieu is ranked 275 but once was near the top ten.

Interesting to reflect on 3 players who are greats of the game and true contemporaries.  Andy Roddick failed to pass the first round which is not as shocking given the surface, but these days the American tends to lose early in many of the tournaments he enters.  At least he has had the capacity to play tennis, something that Australia's Lleyton Hewitt cannot equally claim.  Finally free from his troubling foot, the 2 time major winner - his last being 10 years ago - grabbed a wild card for this event, and although losing the first round match showed that he could match it with many come the grass court tournaments.

Roger Federer started around the same time as Andy and Lleyton yet his fortunes still flourish - he is still in the top 3 players in the world and way beyond the rest.  The only thing Roger has lacked in the last couple of years is a Grand Slam title,  and he is in the sort of form that doesn't necessarily rule out number 17 from occurring this year.  Maybe Wimbledon.


Saturday, 28 April 2012

Highs and Lows of Womens Tennis in Germany

Germany has been the centre of women's tennis in the past weeks with a home tie in the Fed Cup and currently the Stuttgart event boasting the world's top 8 players in the post qualifying draw of 28.

Unfortunately for the German crowd, results have not fallen the way anticipated or at least hoped.  Australians Sam Stosur and Jarmila Gajdosova stunned the favourites and earned their team a return spot in next year's elite world group.  Neither player had posted great results against top 20 players this season - Gajdosova in fact had lost just about all remaining confidence in her game.

Yet Sam won both her singles - the first against a very in-form Angelique Kerber, and Jarmila contributed one of her best ever performances at the highest level when overcoming big serving Julia Goerges, giving the Aussies a 2-0 advantage on Day One of the tie.

Andrea Petkovic, returning from injury, was Stosur's second victim, and 3-0 was sufficent for the big upset to come to fruition.

Come Stuttgart, and Goerges was defending her title at home.  She was joined in the draw by fellow Germans Petkovic, Kerber, and wildcards Kristina Barrois and fast rising star Mona Barthel (already a winner in Hobart this year).

The good news for the locals focused on Barthel and Kerber - Barthel knocked Ana Ivanovic out in the first round, then thrashed last years Roland Garros runner-up Marion Bartoli to reach the quarters.  The trouble Mona had previously caused Azarenka at Indian Wells (third set tie break for Vika to win) repeated itself as the world's best player battled her way to another three set win, 7-5 in the third.  Some of the best tennis to watch made itself available in this contest, and Barthel will likely become her nation's highest ranked player if not sometime this year, very soon after. 

Angelique Kerber also took a liking to disposing of a former number one when she surrendered a mere 3 games on route to embarrassing Caroline Wozniacki in the second round.  Only Petra Kvitova prevented the Kerber run from continuing to the semis, as the reigning Wimbledon champ extended her indoors success to 27 wins in a row in the quarter final.

The disappointment for Germany began with Julia Goerges losing to Sam Stosur in the second round - although the match was close, Julia would have wanted her title defence to last a little longer.

However the low light came with the nasty injury to Andrea Petkovic, who had been locked in a tense second set with Vika Azarenka before damaging an ankle badly enough to sideline her for 3 months and miss both the French Open and Wimbledon.

Yes, right at this moment not the best results for Germany, but plenty to look forward too with 4 players in the top 20, plus Mona Barthel not far behind.  The top ten by year end may well see 2 German faces.  


Thursday, 22 March 2012

Roger's Rebirth

My predictions for 2012 included the rise in rankings back to the top 5 of Juan Martin Del Potro, and to a certain extent that has occurred, but he has been consistently dogged by the presence of Roger Federer.

After losing to Baghdatis in Sydney, Del Potro has looked the goods, except the four times he has faced the revitalised Swiss sensation.  Federer has smashed the Argentine in straight sets on each occasion, including the two big ones so far - Aus Open and Indian Wells.  What does this tell us, apart from the fact that Roger has not completed his plan of revenge for the 2009 US Open defeat?

Simply that:
1. Del Potro has the game, once fully fit, to return to the top, and perhaps threaten the increasingly boring existence of the "top 4" or more correctly "top 3 + Andy".
2. Roger Federer is now playing the type of tennis that he we know he can, at a level of consistency lacking in the past couple of years.  He is the form player on tour without doubt, and right now would warrant favouritism in any match up, even with Novak Djokovic.

The true test with Djokovic in 2012, though, is not the win loss record as compared with his unprecedented 2011.  There is no secret that the ambition of the Serbian champ is to focus on the 4 Grand Slam events, and he is 1 for 1 in those thus far.

Federer is a real possibility of regaining the number one ranking not because he is suddenly playing any better - his tennis at the end of 2011 was as good as anyone - he did win the ATP Masters Cup don't forget.  What makes him especially dangerous as of now is the belief that he is the best being once more translated onto the court.  Immediately, opponents look less likely to pierce the veneer of the Swiss legend.  Even Nadal looks less convincing - only back in January it seemed that he had a demoralised Roger covered with his semi final win in Melbourne.  Now the clay courts seem the only chance for Rafa to again take the edge over Federer.

Form is fleeting for most, but history has shown that this sort of tennis from Federer is the stuff that generates a season to savour.  Watch out Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows - it could be the 17th and 18th GS success for the master.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Equal Money for Equal Status

Now that the dust has settled on another terrific Australian Open, it is my turn to offer an opinion on the Grand Slam singles money debate.  The same old proponents of the dark age theory that men should be paid more than women seem to roll out their tired cries for monetary discrimination each time a five set classic is played before us, most recently the epic Men's Final at Melbourne Park.

Of course these same people, seemingly led by a number of high profile ex male players (many ironically who played in the days where men were financially rewarded  to a larger extent than their female counterparts) remain conspicuously silent when a best of five sets match is the antithesis of the Djokovic-Nadal classic.  Voices were notable by their absence after the two Australian Open Finals immediately preceding the 2012 version were won in straight sets, but effectively finished as a spectacle long before the final points.

The argument over monetary reward is misplaced and hides what truly could be debated in a much clearer atmosphere.

The reason why singles champions, and as a corollary all other participants in the draw, are awarded equal prize money is because the same weight of prestige is given to the achievement of winning a Grand Slam singles tournament, irrespective of gender.  Try telling me that you rate any of Martina Navratilova's Wimbledon titles as less prestigious than one of Roger Federer's famous victories.  Do all of Chris Evert's runner-up performances pale in significance to that of say David Nalbandian or Mark Philippoussis?  Of course not.

Equal reward for an equal achievement.  How many sets that achievement took or how many minutes spent on court to determine a title has no bearing on the USD, AUD or Euros that each of the Grand Slam tournaments apportions to the players.  God forbid if we tried that for sport in general - I guess we would end  up dishing out higher level gold medals for 800 metre runners due to completing more laps than the 400 metre winners. 

The debate, if it is to be had, is about whether best of three sets is still the best method for deciding women's singles matches at Grand Slam level.  Remember, for all the trumpeting of how good men must be for needing to win three sets to advance, it only occurs (outside of the Davis Cup which is a team event and not a prize money issue) at the four Grand Slam events.  Elsewhere the men play best of three, just as the women.

The alternative then is for men's singles at Grand Slam tournaments to be decided in best of three matches.  I am not proposing this, but the Australian Open 2012 offers some interesting statistics concerning the necessity of playing best of five sets, and why the women could possibly say "why go to those lengths when we can reach a decision more efficiently".  My opinion is pretty much the "if it's not broke, don't fix it" variety. 

Anyway for your numerical pleasure.

Of the 127 Main Draw men's  singles matches played at the Australian Open this year, 76 matches had players leading two sets to love (matches which ended due to retirement are excluded).  Of these 60 were won in straight sets, 6 in four sets and 5 in five sets.  Only 5 saw the player leading after 2 sets proceed to lose in five sets.

Further, of the matches where a player led two sets to one after splitting the opening two sets, only 8 saw that player eventually lose, and 7 of those matches were in the first or second rounds.  (Yes the other one was quite significant - Djokovic in the semi final against Murray came back from a two sets to one deficit to win and ultimately win the title)

However my point is not to argue that the configuration of men's matches at Grand Slam level be changed, but that to change the design of women's matches to best of five would do little to change results of matches currently decided by winning the first 2 sets or by winning 2 of three.  Empirical evidence suggests that playing longer does not guarantee significant changes.

And finally, to those that argue that time on court should be the measure of earnings, I suggest that quality of time on court be considered above all else.  Sustained excellence over five sets as exemplified in the 2008 Wimbledon masterpiece between Nadal and Federer is rare, and having to strive for that third set can often diminish the standard of tennis on show, as matches drag into the third and fourth hours.

Why should first round thrashings handed out by top female players be extended to three set models of the same thing.  The mercy rule applied to Azarenka's early victims in Aus Open 2012 after two sets saved her opponents from another 15-20 minutes of embarrassment, whereas Djokovic's unfortunate first, second and third round prey had a torturous three sets before the white flag could be raised.

Let the men do what they do to achieve Grand Slam singles glory, but don't ever question the women's worth purely on length of matches.  Some of the most famous matches have been best of three set encounters of which no one complains - e.g. 1981 US Open Final where Tracy Austin came from a 1-6 first set against Martina Navratilova to win two tie break sets and the title.

The money for Grand Slam tournament should always be based on the prestige of the tournament concerned, and for tennis at the highest level that must remain free of gender bias.

The separate question of whether matches should be decided by best of three or best of five is seemingly a seasonal poser, based on the occasional blockbuster five setter witnessed at a Grand Slam tournament, one such as the Men's Final so pleasurably experienced on 29-30 January 2012.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Saving the Best for Last - Novak v Rafa

Well the fortnight had come to this - the two best players in men's tennis featured in a match to decide the 2012 Australian Open champion. Rafael Nadal endeavouring to snap the run of finals losses to Novak Djokovic who in 2011 defeated the previous number one in four Masters events and Wimbledon and the US Open. In fact this was to be the third straight Grand Slam men's singles final between these two stars.

Both had played stunning tennis to reach the final - Rafa falling behind Federer before pulling out some of the most thrilling shots to silence the Fed Express, and Djokovic taking almost five hours to quell Andy Murray in a semi final, the same opponent that he annihilated in last year's final. To predict the winner of this year's final was not difficult. To justify why one player should be selected over the other was the tough task. My selection before the tournament was Novak to defeat Roger, and I saw no reason to change my mind just because the opponent was different. That does not mean I was supremely confident in that selection. It was just an educated guess.

Fresh as a daisy - unaware of what was to come
First victory for the evening went to Djokovic who correctly picked the coin toss and elected to serve first. The roof now open, everything appeared in readiness for a night to remember.
Two netted errors from Novak and three long or wide from Rafa were countered by a Serbian off forehand winner, in sum total giving Djokovic the 1-0 lead.

Easy response for Nadal with the one notable shot being an ace. 1-1. In the third game, a forehand down the line winner by Nadal for 0-30 followed by one which just about exited the stadium. An ace then a forehand stunner of Novak's own making took the number one seed out of imminent danger, a second of those forehands forcing a Spanish mistake and the scoreboard to change to 2-1.

Nadal comfortable on serve again levelled at 2-2, including a scary moment for Novak where he turned awkwardly on his ankle. Three aces were not enough to counter two brilliant forehands from Nadal and unforced errors from Novak, and Rafa had the first break for a 3-2 lead. Novak threw his racquet and enrolled in anger management classes.

A classy dink backhand cross court by Djokovic and a touch of luck with the net received a brilliant down the line winner by Rafa in reply to save a break point. Then a forehand winner coupled with a Rafa error long created another. This one saved by a Djokovic mistake. After deuce was reached for the four hundredth time Nadal lost patience and called in the Inquisition which promptly dragged Novak away while Nadal won the last two points and held serve for 4-2.

The seventh game saw glimpses of the real Djokovic for the first time in the match with attractive passing shots and looks of assurance. He may have considered using this version of himself at other stages of the match should his fancy be the title. 4-3 Nadal.

Another deuce game on the Nadal serve and these two appeared determined to have us here very late. Two more break points saved and the trend continued. Not the third, as the Djokovic tactic of pushing Nadal to the sidelines worked a treat in that game. 4-4.

"A final damnit and the balls won't bounce!"
Both players could not drag themselves out of the unforced error mire. That is until Rafa picked a cross court winner out of his pocket to gain 0-30 on the Djokovic serve. Later that game Novak found a backhand that he liked and decided to show it to Rafa who did not like it as much - did not touch it in fact. Novak held for 5-4.

Fine serving by Nadal brought the scores together at 5-5, despite Novak rallying from 40-0 down to pressure the number two seed.

Nadal played the perfect return of service game pushing Djokovic to every part of the court, and playing the perfect final point or forcing the final error. Finally Novak was pushed too close to the edge and fell over dropping serve to trail 5-6. Rafa would serve for set one.

Two set points saved bravely by Djokovic before Nadal closed the door and locked it behind him 7-5. At least that was quick - breezed by in a matter of eighty minutes. Nadal off to a great start in his quest to equal Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg as winners of eleven grand slam singles titles.

Novak kindly received permission to serve first once again in the second set. Well he held OK so he learnt from yesterday's Sharapova disaster. Nadal's first performance at the line could only be described as erratic - extremely ordinary until 0-40, excellent all court tennis to save the break points and earn a game point then spasmodic until he wandered over the line to take the roses. 1-1.

Djokovic put together an acceptable game that featured his standard backhand forcing shots and plenty of useful defence, even a touch of forward movement to shorten points, but the spark for this final had yet to be lit. Or maybe we had just been spoilt by what these two had provided us previously. 2-1 Novak

Some of the kind of tennis we expect came in the fourth game with excellence from both players, including down the line winners, but especially the returning of Djokovic who managed to retrieve some monsters from Rafa. The break came with a shot landing on the baseline and Novak led 3-1.

At 30-30, Djokovichander who was forced into error. Novak consolidated his break to extend the numerical advantage to 4-1.

Nadal steadied to hold onto his next serve and games were 4-2 Djokovic. Novak looked confident as he served his way to 5-2, making sure to keep the ball in play and minimising his error count. He understood that Rafa had to take the risks at this point.

Now to stay in the set Nadal to serve. Djokovic would be hard to work with in the Post Office. His policy is return everything to sender, and that is practically what he did in the eighth game. However, Nadal managed to survive a set point and win the game to trail 3-5.

At 30-15 Djokovic produced the most exquisite stop volley off a wonderful Nadal retrieval to give him two set points. The first one he wasted, pushing it wide, the second was lost to a Rafa screamer down the line. A fabulous rally went the way of Nadal and the break point was converted through a double fault. 5-4 Djokovic. He had wasted several break points and a set point on the Nadal serve and now had wasted set points on his own serve. These could be telling in the final result.

Yet another deuce game on a Nadal serve - and Novak played a smashing backhand down the line for set point. Double fault and that seemed to be the only way for Djokovic to convert an important break point, in this case winning him the second set 6-4 to tie the match.

With winning the set on Nadal's serve, Djokovic had gained the advantage of serving first for the third set straight. And he did not let the chance go by, winning it to love, capping it off with a signature down the line winner. Rafa clearly loved serving because he had been spending a lot of the time in this match practising in the hope that he may finally do it correctly. He went to deuce several more times in the third set's second game, and on coming back to Melbourne Park from the town of Deuce he had collected himself another game similar in configuration to the one Novak had purloined sometime earlier.

"Hey this line judge gig ain't half bad"
At 30-30, Djokovic extracted a netted error from Nadal then put some extra power behind a ground shot into the Nadal forehand forcing another mistake, avoiding a trip to Deuce in order to take another game and lead 2-1. Brutal pressure from Djokovic conspired to grind the Nadal service game into the dirt once more. Leading 30-15, a combination of pure consistency then awesome shot selection for winners, won Novak the break to lead 3-1.

Following up with efficient serving, highlighted by placement rather than power, the world number one cruised through his game to eke out the advantage to 4-1, a repeat of the second set progression. Nadal, sporting the latest national colours of Spain - white with fluorescent green - must have been thinking of reverting to the old red and yellow that his "behind the times" fans were waving in his support.

Rafa escaped a break point thanks to some kindness from his opponent - from deuce Djokovic played a couple of careless shots, a rarity in recent memory. 4-2 Novak. Whereas Novak was reading the Spanish serve as if it was written in Serb, Nadal just could not find a handle on the Djokovic delivery, and another love game passed by, the score to 5-2.

Whatever troubles Nadal had on serve and at 0-40 he had many, nothing could have prevented the shot to win the third set. Yet another ripping Djokovic forehand whistled past a frustrated Rafa as he watched it and the set sail away. Novak Djokovic led 5-7 6-4 6-2.

Appreciation for a fighter from the greatest
Not content with moving Rafa from side to side and front to back before throwing in a stunning sweeping winner, Djokovic would even perform the occasional sneaky drop shot for entertainment value. It appeared that this formula would easily win him game one of the fourth, but Rafa replied with some of the magic we know he can conjure on a regular basis to take Novak to deuce for one of the few occasions. The end remained the same however, and Djokovic took the early lead 1-0.

Good signs for Nadal in another game in which he was at deuce. A solid rally won with a strong overhead followed with a confidence building ace levelled the set at 1-1. No effect on Djokovic who calmly fired down four biggies to lead 2-1 and send Rafa straight back to the line.

Some handy serving from Nadal where he put some extra something on the ball made the returning a little more difficult for Djokovic and errors occurred, sufficient to make the hold comfortable and the scoreline 2-2.

From 15-30 and one particular stunning passing shot by Rafa, Djokovic steadied with good serving to prevail and maintain the lead 3-2, still with no breaks. A classy backhand sewed up the sixth game for Nadal after a hairy 30-30 position was traversed without incident.

After winning the first point, Nadal took the pressure off Djokovic who merely served into play for Rafa to lash out in vain attempts at return winners. The lead now 4-3 to Novak and a critical time of the set and match.

Some of the best tennis for the match in the one game - first from Djokovic with a brilliant returning and passing exhibition to have three break points, then a seriously spectacular fightback with just as much brilliance from Nadal to win five points in a row and hold for 4-4.

Then just to add to the drama we had rain - an interruption to play and the roof would be closed for the remainder of the match.

The first rally back was long and searching and the search found Novak safe at 15-0 following confirmation of Rafa in the net. At 40-0 and in no real need for heroics, Djokovic hit a magical forehand passing shot which I don't think Rafa actually saw. 5-4

Nadal serving to stay in the match. Not appearing to feel the pressure, Nadal reached 40-15. He did hold on and the struggle continued 5-5. If Nadal won the set in a tiebreak, he would be serving first in the decider. Novak did not want the lottery of a tiebreak so desperately craved the next two games. He found himself stressed at 30-30 due to his unforced error but served his way clear to 6-5 and again Rafa had the job to do.

The task looked easy enough - done to love in fact and a tie break would decide the future of the match.

3-3 with one point against serve each. Forehand winner for a 5-3 lead to Novak but he missed wide the next one and back on serve at 5-4 with two to come from Nadal. Netted by Djokovic and 5-5.
5-6 and Djokovic to serve to stay in the set. Pushed wide and the set to Nadal 7-6.  Seven points to five in the tie break.

Nadal to serve first in the fifth set. And it had ticked over four hours forty minutes.

Rod Laver makes the moment special for the 3 time champ
Now it was Rafa hitting winners and the first of the last set was his. Not the second however, as he was passed by a Djokovic backhand. An ace closed out the opening game and in the one set sprint Nadal led 1-0.

Both the next two games went with serve so Djokovic would be next to try at 1-2. Worrying times at 15-30 for Djokovic but good first serving saw him allude the danger and hold for 2-2.
Five hours of match time now elapsed. 3-2 Nadal after another easy game for the second seed. Pressure really now on Djokovic as the player in the catch-up role.

30-40 after pressure of Nadal making him play that one extra ball forced Djokovic to go for too much and he missed wide. The break came as no surprise and Nadal looked the winner at 4-2 and serving. A crisp Djokovic backhand winner off a second serve and it was 15-15. However, the Nadal serve was switched on now and nothing could stop this momentum. Or could it? 30-40 after a netted Nadal attempt. And out of nowhere, the defending champion received a life line. Still behind 3-4 but at least back on serve and with the knowledge that the Spanish serve was not impregnable.

0-15 and alarm bells, but a brave game from Djokovic including coming into the net to cut off a Nadal shot. 4-4. An ill timed Djokovic drop shot attempt gave Nadal 30-0 and breathing space but errors on the next two points from the Spaniard made things tight. Deuce arrived, and so did a wide backhand from Nadal. Big serve saved break point. Another helped give him game point. The game was Nadal's and now Djokovic had to hold to keep the match going.

Two fine shots, one to start and one to finish the game, and enough other stuff assisted Djokovic to level at 5-5.

The break came and it was to Djokovic, on the second opportunity he received. Now he had the chance to serve for the title at 6-5.

Novak's cup runneth over with joy
An excellent serve on the second point for 30-0 but a shot long made it 30-15 and closing up. 30-40 and this could go on forever.   He survived that and now had match point. One was all it took and it was won with a clean winner.

In five hours fifty three minutes of amazing, gritty, at times sensational tennis, Novak Djokovic defended his Australian Open Men's Singles Title in the process winning number four of the last five Grand Slam singles titles available. Rafael Nadal can consider himself unfortunate but through the disappointment he did not at any stage drop his bundle - the match could have gone either way and in the end a few points decided the result. 5-7 6-4 6-2 6-7 7-5 Novak Djokovic 

A great climax to a great fortnight.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Mixed Doubles Final

After his contribution towards the Men's Doubles triumph with Radek Stepanek, Leander Paes was backing up the next day with partner Elena Vesnina from Russia to form the dynamic fifth seeds in the 2012 Aus Open Mixed Doubles Final. Feeling just as dynamic were the eight seeded line-up comprising Horia Tecau from Romania and Bethanie Mattek-Sands from the USA.

The latter mentioned team had already given packing orders to the sixth seeded Indian team of Mirza and Bhupathi, and so would not be fazed by facing another higher ranked team in the final. Vesnina had additional motivation - if she and Leander tasted success it would also mean a clean sweep by Russia of all doubles trophies able to be won by women here at Melbourne Park, with Kuznetsova and Zvonareva already in possession of the Women's Doubles prize.

"Bethanie - this secret must remain with you - understand?" 
Tecau opened the match with a positive vibe, serving strongly, successful first deliveries assisting with a love game. Paes encountered difficulties with his first trip to the line, including a lob by Bethanie and a pass down the middle by Horia, another love game the result, and 2-0 for the Tecau/Mattek-Sands combo. The first two points for Paes/Vesnina came on Bethanie's serve including a shot to her solar plexus for which only her racquet prevented a hospital visit. A great return off a second serve sealed the game for the 5th seeds and they were on the board at 1-2 and on serve.

A sensational return down the line from Bethanie followed by some excellent net work by Horia had Elena in strife in her first service game, and that strife was confirmed on the scoreboard when Bethanie repeated the first shot to win the game and put her team ahead 3-1.

Once more it was Horia to serve and he didn't let us down, still to lose a point, and taking he and his team mate to a position of comfort 4-1. Leander now had to come to the party. He tried but the party spoiler Bethanie returned his first effort for a winner, then Elena could not handle the double attack from the back of the court and 0-30 resulted. Great returning forced Paes to net one for three break points, the first two which were saved due to errors. Deuce came from another shot hit long, and Vesnina's skills at the net showed up just in the nick of time to win the game and keep the team within a single break at 2-4.

Vesnina had the pressure of serving to stay in the set and she began well. 30-0 with two solid serves. Horia stopped that run in its tracks with a definitive volley put away, but missed with a poor return off a second serve and Elena had two game points. Only needing one, games were 5-3 with Horia the reliable to serve for the set.

His run of points on his own serve ended at 10 with a double fault, but that was a minor blip. Although taken to 40-30, Tecau decided to finish his first set ride there, and the eighth seeds had won the first set of the final 6-3 in most impressive fashion, both players contributing well to the result.

Vesnina served first in the second, and shared the opening two points on the back of mistakes. A superb backhand volley brought some class to the occasion courtesy of Paes, before another error from his partner killed the moment. She redeemed herself somewhat with a terrific serve to force a return error from Bethanie, but deuce arrived when Bethanie played a delicate shot from virtually underground to which the 5th seeds were powerless to reply. The deciding point went to the eight seeds, and the break, so the outlook appeared dark for Paes and Vesnina. 0-1.

Tecau serving and yet to drop his serve failed to do so again, with the winning point a great overhead from Bethanie splitting the opposition team in half. 2-0 to the eight seeds.

Bethanie's exemplary returning began a poor service game for Leander who at 15-40 had to save two break points. One saved with an ace. The second with a top serve. The deciding point another great delivery and the game score read 2-1 with Bethanie next to be called upon.
No drama for Bethanie, winning to love 3-1.

An overhead gem from Bethanie began the assault on Elena's next serve, stalled by an errant shot on the next point. 30-30 and precariously placed, Elena escaped with an overcooked smash from Bethanie. An excellent unreturned serve to Tecau confirmed the game for Paes/Vesnina and we were nearing the critical stage of the set. Tecau/Mattek-Sands 3-2 still with a break.

"Oh dear - hope the balls bounce OK for Rafa and Novak"
An exchange between Horia and Elena was won by the Russian and scores were 15-15 on Horia's serve. Paes put away one to place the first bit of pressure on the Romanian serve all match. A double fault brought another dimension to the match before two huge serves brought it back to deuce. The deciding point saw Horia and Bethanie covering the net and they were not letting this game slip away. A big scare but 4-2 the lead.

On the next PaesPaes chipped in to make it 40-15 with a strong serve. Paes completed the game with a nice pass from the back of the court and the team trailed 3-4.

Bethanie to serve. A double to start with after the break to close the roof (yes rain on the final day), followed by an error was not promising, and for the second game in a row the team faced 15-40. No escape this time and a wayward drive long gave the break to the fifth seeds to even it up at 4-4.

Troubles of her own faced Vesnina when a netted volley brought her team to 15-30. A netted return from Horia eased the situation and a poor effort by Bethanie on a second serve produced game point. Vesnina held with a terrific serve and she and Leander had the set lead 5-4.

An ace from Horia clinched the tenth game and 5-5. Vesnina continued her fantastic recent form at the net to bring up 30-0 on the Paes serve before the Indian veteran served a double fault and Bethanie dissected them with a forehand. Finally a baseline was shaved by Paes to win the game and edge his team ahead 6-5.

Bethanie serving to stay in the second set. 0-30 and a super tiebreak warming up in the corner. Two wild misses from the fifth seeds and 30-30. An overhead at the net by Paes brought it to deuce and set point. (just reminding that once deuce is reached the next point decides the game for mixed doubles) Paes volleyed away the winner for the set and the 10 point match tiebreak was rolled out to decide the championship. (again this applies for mixed doubles)
Horia gives marching drill to Bethanie

Paes served first. An awesome running forehand winner from Bethanie put the first point on the board and against serve. Tecau won his first with an ace and second with a stop volley. 3-0.
Vesnina needed to win her two points. She half did the job. 4-1 to the eight seeds.

A net put away from Tecau ensured one of two points went to Bethanie's serve. 5-2. Half the points on serve was the trend and Paes observed it too. 6-3. Tecau served well and Bethanie complemented at the net to scoop both points on his serve. 8-3.

Six match points after Vesnina netted her shot. Only one required for the eighth seeds and the 2012 Australian Open Mixed Doubles Champions are Horia Tecau from Romania and Bethanie Matek-Sands from USA. Great to see the match go to a decider, but the better team did win.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Bryan brothers a finals fixture

Bob and Mike Bryan are breaking all kinds of doubles records around the world, including those at Grand Slam level. Now it seems any records they break are their own. In the Men's Doubles Final at the 2012 Aus Open, they would face a new pairing - old doubles stager Leander Paes and competent doubles exponent but also renowned singles player Radek Stepanek.

Men's doubles at this level is a game you need to keep a careful eye on because it is quickfire stuff, with several volley exchanges at the net exciting the crowd.

The Bryan twins opened well for the Americans holding safely, and the Czech/Indian combo replied in kind. The serve looked on track for a simple hold in the fourth game before from 15-40 down the Bryan receivers pressed hard, and following one of those famous net exchanges gained a break point. Cool in the crisis, the break was averted but the game took another number of points before being declared safe by authorities. 2-2

Not bad - we beat them without racquets!
Good returns from Stepanek on the Bob Bryan serve made it 30-30, and another return from Paes brought up break point. Mike had enough of this and put away the next shot at the net. The twins held for 3-2.

Stepanek for the non doubles specialist had been playing some of the best tennis so far and his service game to level it at 3-3 impressed. Leander Paes was out to restore Indian pride following the failure of the cricket team losing its test series against Australia. Radek Stepanek was disappointed that he was the only Czech player to reach any final, after Hopman Cup winners Petra Kvitova and Tomas Berdych left their events prior to their respective big ones.

Bob's next service game was a pronounced improvement and the last point a beautiful put away from Mike to seal it. 5-4 the twins.

Stepanek's awesome reflex forehand winner highlighted his service game to love and 5-5 saw the odds of a tiebreak shorten even further. Mike enjoyed a love game of his own, and now Leander had the task of forcing the first set into a tiebreak.

Third straight game without a point against serve and the 6-6 scoreline meant? You guessed it the old tiebreak. After so many successive points on serve, it was rather surprising to see the first two points go against the serve, in fact four of the first five. Bryan's down 1-4.

Quality overhead from Stepanek gave the United Nations team a 5-1 lead with one more serve to come from Paes. The return was hit out and 1-6 faced Bob at the line. Stepanek's poise from the back of the court won the first of Bob's serves and he wasn't required to deliver any more because the set was gone 7 points to one in the breaker. Unseeded Paes/Stepanek ahead 7-6.

The second set trended dramatically away from the Bryan's with the opening service game comfortably being held by the increasingly confident Paes and Stepanek before the unforeseeable break of the Bryans. Paes then held for consolidation reasons, before Mike endured the pain of his twin brother falling behind 0-30. The rhythm and cohesion had left the pair.

Recovery began with some effective serving and the game was saved leaving the harder task of the match to be rescued. 3-1 the lead to the composite team.

A little tight at 30-30, Leander put away a smash to keep the breathing space. 4-1 the lead and an upset looming. At deuce on Bob's serve things looked dangerous but a spectacular pass and a solid serve won the game and kept the brothers in touch at 2-4.

A glorious return winner from Bob brought the score to 40-30 on the serve of Paes and another pass up the line by the same twin made it deuce. From the back of the court, Bob gave Radek a constant battering at the net until the Czech player folded and break point ensued. Paes saved with a difficult volley causing the error. This he followed with a standard serve volley point to take the advantage and a Stepanek volley took it to 5-2.

The pressure on Mike as he served to stay in the match was too intense and 15-40 came in a flash. One good serve saved one match point but a double fault put a halt to everything except the absolute joy displayed by the 2012 Australian Open Men's Doubles Champions Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek. The Bryans had a rare off night but will feature in all the big events this year, and at the business end of each of them. Tonight was all about the unseeded Leander and Radek.

Women's Singles Final

OK let us rid ourselves of the stats. The last female debut Grand Slam singles finalist to win was Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon last year against Maria Sharapova. Victoria Azarenka is appearing in her first GS singles final and also against Sharapova. Therefore she wins.

Little concerning Maria at the start
On the other hand, Maria Sharapova won her first GS singles title at Wimbledon in 2004, an Olympic Year, and in her only GS final for the year. In 2008, the next Olympic year, the Russian won again, this time the Aus Open, her single GS final for that year. 2012 is the latest Olympic year and so therefore by appearing in a GS final Sharapova must win.

Statistics cannot definitively determine the winner, so we can only be as objective as we can and just guess. The number three and number four in the world have won their way through to the final thanks to consistently impressive tennis, and when confronted with the utmost pressure from semi final opponents, came out tops by winning points rather than hoping and praying for errors at the other end.

My tip at the start of the tournament was for a Williams win over Azarenka in the final so I must stick with the player that I correctly selected to make it this far. She did knock out the defending champion coming back after losing the second set 6-1; her backhand amongst a great array of shots plus a steely nerve filled me with confidence that the Belarusian could create some more history down under in 2012.

Maria Sharapova has to be commended for her comeback from career threatening shoulder injury to now be one match away from top player in the world once more. Her ability to stave off multiple break points in her semi against Kvitova was a credit to her, considering her record of falling away under that intense pressure as recently as Roland Garros, and Wimbledon to a lesser degree last year. Her credentials to win here are just as sound.

Azarenka served first in her first GS Singles Final and it turned out to be a combination of two double faults and unforced errors from both players, the only shot of any quality a forehand from Vika forcing an error from Maria, but all to no avail. 1-0 Maria.

Attacking the backhand of Azarenka paid dividends for Maria in the second game as she consolidated the break and the "smart" remarks from elements in the crowd could not be heard.

From 0-30, a couple of forehands from Vika seemed to settle her down after one of Maria's set the court alight. On the board at 1-2 and the match had probably just started. A signature backhand winner from Azarenka collaborated with a number of Sharapova mistakes to organize the overthrow of the Russian serve in the fourth game and stabilise the world at 2-2.

Vika couldn't keep her feet on the ground
Supporters of the new Azarenka regime sent Maria to exile for a game though she didn't leave quietly, going with a parting winning backhand shot to remind us of her latent power. 3-2 Vika.
Back from her one game suspension, Maria began her attempt to ascend to what she believed was her rightful position in the queens court, using her knowledge of the court to move Vika around to her disadvantage. 3-3

The seventh game was a showcase to the tennis world of the Azarenka backhand, not only its power to drive winners cross court and down the line, but also it's finesse to draw Sharapova forward and out of her comfort zone, and to top it off with a magical lob. 4-3 Vika.

The forehand and serve helped facilitate the communciation of the Maria message to her loyal masses, no better exemplified than in game eight where Vika joined in, seemingly impressed by the effect of the forehand in particular. A FH winner from Vika, double fault from Maria and soon 40-15 became a break point against the Sharapova delivery. Like in her semi final, she stopped the rot, at least temporarily, but not ultimately because here was an opponent who had another string to her bow. Now she seized the chance to come into the net and put away points early in rallies. The break was clear. 5-3 Vika.

In serving for the first set Azarenka fell victim to a stunning backhand from Sharapova yet it was only a little stumble and paled when compared to the backhand damage inflicted by Vika. A very comfortable hold for 6-3 and now Maria had the work to do.

Discussing tactics with new coach
Maria lost serve first up in the second set, but it will be remembered for the fascinating read on a Maria overhead - Vika caught it flush with a forehand which turned into a crosscourt pass for the break.    1-0 Azarenka.

Maria, champion that she is, forced Vika to a break point, but even with the uplift in her tempo and standard, Vika showed she could absorb all the additional pressure and remain calm and so self assured to hold serve and retain the edge 2-0.

The errors bled from the open wound which Vika had widened on Maria's game with her latest winner, and with that another break inevitably coincided. 3-0 with the double break and a set in hand set the scene for either the comeback of the ages or a sensational debut Grand Slam success for one Belarusian girl.

Attempting to hit her way out of trouble with winners was a tactic borne of frustration and highly unlikely to succeed for Maria; it did not, and the service hold came a whole lot simpler for Vika as a result. 4-0 and not far away at this rate.
"Can I have your autograph Vika?"

The winners at Vika's end and the disaster at Maria's kept on coming and the third break for the set arrived for 5-0 and Vika to serve for the title.

Maria played some tremendous tennis in the final game, as you would expect, even having break point at one stage, but nothing could stop an absolutely spectacular performance from Victoria Azarenka who served out the match and won the 2012 Australian Open Womens Singles title, in the process claiming the number one ranking in the world. 6-3 6-0 Azarenka.

"2 more and you will be as good as me"

Sadly for the tournament the match itself was one-sided but we did have a treat in what we received from Vika. 2012 will be big for her and I suspect Maria will have a large say in what happens along the way as well.