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.

Menu item #3 - Main Course: Novak v Andy

Andy Murray had come to this match behind a perfect Aussie summer, undefeated so far, including a tournament win in Brisbane. Novak Djokovic came into the tournament as the world's preeminent player and had done nothing to alter that classification. His taking apart of David Ferrer was disturbing, considering the form of the Spanish world number 5. The gulf exposed between the two was frightening.

Andy last played Novak here 12 months ago in the final that fizzed. This promised a whole lot better. Novak began with an easy service game hold thanks almost wholly to unforced mistakes from Andy. Not until the third point of Murray's first serve did some real tennis hit, when Murray won out after a long and entertaining rally. His mistakes which brought him to 15-40 must have been catching because Novak basically presented him with the rest of the game.

The shot making problems with which Novak had been temporarily beset extended into his second service game, and finally a couple of big serves cleared some of the air and saved a break point for the favourite. 2-1 to Djokovic.

Andy played a shocker, including missing an easy volley at the net then culminating in a double fault to go behind a break. Djokovic lad 40-15 and in cruise mode, but relaxed and let Andy back in the game, finally showing the touch and range of his previous matches this tournament. Novak lost the game with a scintillating Murray winner down the line. Back on serve 2-3 Andy.

The change of ends brought with it a change in fortunes as Andy served up a load of rubbish losing his serve badly. In reply, Djokovic laced an average game with a touch of magic from his forehand plus an ace to reach 5-2.

Andy Murray kept his part of the bargain and this time served a stronger game to force the number one seed to the line and win the set on his own serve. Several rallies full of decent shot making highlighted Novak's attempt to take his first step towards the final, and he delivered enough class to succeed in his attempt. One thing stood out - the Andy Murray from last year's final was long gone and the match would need to be won by Novak tonight not gift wrapped by the Scot and presented to him.

In the opening to set two, Andy relinquished his initial advantage of serving first in a generous gesture which Novak graciously acknowledged by holding his serve to lead 2-0. Murray then showed his maturity by scrambling out of danger to record his first scoreboard evidence of having been present for the second set. 2-1 to Novak.

Andy Murray played his best tennis for the night so far to pressure Djokovic into error and hit some great winners in his own right, levelling it at 2-2. To the strains of "Scotland The Brave" Andy Murray overtook Djokovic on the scoreboard for the first time 3-2 but still on serve. Speaking of serve, the Murray edition had started to make a significant impact, keeping Novak in areas of the court where his damage could be kept to a minimum.

No real surprise to see Andy Murray break again considering the way he was keeping the ball in play and mixing the shots up much in the Djokovic style. The point to bring up break point ended after a rally of about a thousand hits, possibly the point of the match. 4-2 Murray.

Unfortunately two double faults plus an improvement in Novak's choice of shot added up to an ill timed service break for Murray and we had 3-4 to Djokovic. 15-40 after two immense rallies in length and quality, one to each player. Murray broke for the third successive time and now was serving for one set each.

Saving two break points, on his way to taking the set 6-3 gave Murray reason to believe that another final was possible, even against the might of Djokovic. However, never underestimate the world's best, and no doubt the Scot would be the last to do that.

Novak escaped being broken for the fourth straight time but only by the skin of his teeth. Not so lucky the next time and Murray took the match lead by heading the number one seed 2-1. Novak appeared jaded and Andy hardly making a mistake either tacticly or technically.

The high rolling came cluttering to an end with a miserable service performance in the fifth for Novak to begin breathing again at 2-2. Novak survived more break points and a couple of nifty serves borrowed from a friend assisted him to find a way to the scoreline he had cherished for a full 5-10 minutes 3-2.

Neither player seemed too much bothered about touching the others serve for the next stanza and Murray continued the fun at 3-4. Nearing the end of the set, both players held their nerve and their serve and now Andy had to draw on his mental strength as he faced 4-5. Saving three set points with wonderful and courageous tennis Andy put the ball back in Novak's court (sort of) as the Serbian star served at 5-5.

Murray proved too solid for everything that Djokovic threw at him in the eleventh game and now the Scot would be given his chance to take the two sets to one advantage. 6-5. Too much too handle and now the tiebreak would have to arbitrate since the players couldn't agree on who should win the set in normal time.

The players called in to deputise for Murray and Djokovic while they had a rest did pretty well and after eleven points the decision handed down was in favour of the Scottish player; he now led the race to the 2012 Aus Open final 3-6 6-3 7-6.

Don't count out the Djoker or do so at your peril. He could yet lose this one, but breaking Murray in the first two service games that the Scot put together either side of convincingly holding one of his own, meant that a five set match became a distinct possibility if not a likelihood. When 4-0 ticked over after Novak smashed his way through another game, Andy needed to regroup, gather his thoughts and any other cliched actions that may assist in his fourth set recovery.

Holding serve completed step one in the rehabilitation. Taking advantage of a game winning position on the Djokovic serve would have been step two but he didn't. 5-1 to Novak.

By holding serve, Andy would avoid having to serve second in the advantage deciding set. He was broken to love with brilliant passing shots from the world's number one. Two sets all and Novak to serve first in the final set 6-3 3-6 6-7 6-1

Three exciting games to start the last set and each player had reason to be happy with the position Murray serving at 1-2. In the face of many good efforts by the returner, and more break points saved by Murray, we reached 2-3, and Andy again the specimen under the microscope.

Once more he was mighty under the most devilish pressure by Djokovic, saving still more break points, but went to the well just that one extra time to find a water restrictions sign had been erected, and he couldn't save himself. Djokovic led 4-2 which quickly in turn became 5-2.

5-3 and Djokovic serving for a match with Nadal. Not to be and back on serve 4-5 Murray.

5-5 and three break points saved by Djokovic - totally gripping stuff. Novak back from the brink this time and leading 6-5. Coming up to four hours fifty minutes for the match. Lucky it is the weekend.

Novak Djokovic did it once again, breaking Andy Murray in the 12th game to win the semi final 6-3 3-6 6-7 6-1 7-5 Andy Murray superb in defeat. Rafa v Novak for the third Grand Slam singles final in a row.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Menu item #2 - Women's Doubles Final

Italy v Russia - it could be a Fed Cup final doubles rubber. Unseeded but extremely dangerous Russian pair, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva were battling Italian number 11 seeds Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci for the Aus Open Women Doubles title of 2012.

Some doubles theory suggests that serving brings advantage not seen to the same extent in singles. The four finalists went out of their way to trash that school of thought. After a couple of service holds, we reached a point in the first set where serve was broken seven out of eleven times. This statistic by itself may suggest a less than acceptable standard of tennis - on the contrary, the rallies were very even, and once they were started, the receiving team took the final initiative on most occasions.

Roberta and Sara did an Italian job on the others to hold serve and go one set up 7-5.

Svetlana had won this title some years back with Australia's Alicia Molik, so had the experience of the thrill - her doubles probably steadied the Russian team after the disappointment of dropping the first set, and after players made a conscious effort to regard their respective service games with a little more respect, the second set resembled something closer to a textbook version of what a women's doubles final could be.

Having the advantage of serving first, the Russian team at 4-3 placed scoreboard pressure on the Italians, and each of the two chances provided them in the set to break serve was accepted gratefully. In contrast, the Italian team had many opportunities, all but one which went begging, and so the second set could well have been a match winning one but for the resolve of Sveta and Vera to scratch and claw their way through the break point troubles.

Instead we had a third set to determine the 2012 champions. Because they broke to win the second set, the Russians served first in the final set. The fourth game was the crucial point of the set as the Italians lost serve. For the rest of the set, essentially nothing separated the teams, as the doubles on display lifted in intensity and quality.

Once more the Italians created a handful of break chances and could convert none of them. The Russians had no more break points with which to convert, but they already had used the single opportunity to maximum effect. The final game of the match was one of the longest as Sveta attempted to serve it out. A few championship points were saved by Sara and Roberta before Vera and Sveta could finally rejoice, the two highly credentialed singles players but an unseeded doubles pairing the 2012 Women's Doubles winners 5-7 6-4 6-3.

Menu item #1 - Mixed Doubles Appetiser

The final Friday of the Aus Open would feature the first of the major finals that being for the Women's Doubles crown. However, the main interest logically lay with the second of the men's singles semi finals later in the evening. Preceding both of those matches was a semi final in the oft forgotten Grand Slam event - Mixed Doubles. Of the great things the Hopman Cup has done for tennis in Western Australia and the nation, one is to revive interest in mixed doubles at the highest level, and many of the top singles players now dabble in it now and then at the four majors. Today, Indian sixth seeded team Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupathi were pitted against the eighth seeded team of colourful American Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Romanian Horia Tecau.

Horia served first, and while taken to deuce, managed to hang on for the team to lead 1-0. Effective counter punching saw the Romericans also break the Bhupathi effort and extend to 2-0, only for that advantage to be swallowed up by some smart returning from the Indian pair in the third game.

The doubles hotted up in the fourth game, most notably off the racquet of Tecau, and with Bethanie in support, the team knocked over Mirza's serve for 3-1. Bethanie and Horia had taken possession of the net position and volleyed with purpose and precision to leave little room for Sania and Mahesh to attack. Fortunately Mahesh had his service weapon firing properly with his second attempt and this kept the 6th seeds in the set - just.

At 4-2, Mattek-Sands also cleaned her act up on serve to push the 8th seeds to within a single game of the first set. After each player had delivered two service games the Indians trailed 3-5, with the only player yet to have serve broken, Tecau, serving for the set. After some concern at letting the game go to deuce Tecau served an ace to put any doubt away, and the first set 6-3.

The problems for Mirza and Bhupathi did not abate in set number two, where the serving of Tecau and Mattek-Sands provided even less opportunities for breaks. On the other hand, both Mirza early and Bhupathi in the final game failed to hold serve, and the tournament ended for that pairing. Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Horia Tecau won a spot in Sunday's final with the 6-3 6-3 victory. Their opponents would be the winners of the other semi final between Vinci/Bracciali and Vesnina/Paes.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Roger v Rafa - seems like a final really

Semi final number one for the guys and two names that may surprise us have snuck through the draw to reach Thursday night's main fare. Roger Federer has been accused quite rightly of clinically carving up five opponents using elements of slice, spin, power, hands both back and fore, all against a background of pure evil. He has picked on those less equipped and unable to participate in a fair fight.

Rafael Nadal, seeded one above Roger at number two, has by contrast, been called upon to produce more than just a clinical display of dominance. For four matches this proved sufficient, but against 7th seed Tomas Berdych, the Spanish number one lost the first set, and despite wanting to leave his best tennis locked away until the final - assuming he made it - the insensitive Czech player forced Rafa's hand and the best tennis of the tournament by any one male player visited us on Tuesday night in sets three and four. (arguably usurped later by Djokovic against Ferrer)

So who should be favored to win the right to play Novak in the final? (the Joker has the semi final bye against Andy Murray - ok that is unfair but someone asked me to write it)
On the last official meeting criterion, Roger wins, but using the more appropriate measure of head to head contests in Grand Slam tournaments, Rafa has the edge. All that is helpful for trivia nights but has no bearing on this semi final. At this stage of Federer's career, Grand Slam singles titles are difficult to win, and Djokovic has also done no favours for Nadal who was enjoying winning most big things on offer in 2010.

On par with Federer's other matches the start was precise and no bother on the Swiss serve. The Spanish version did contain some flaws however and the surgeon opposite operated to remove Rafa's serve and take it as a reward. 2-1 and the fireworks had come early. The ones of the non metaphoric kind were due a little later in the evening designed to disrupt the tennis annually on this day.

Rafa put a score on the board and some joy in the hearts of fans, but Roger rolled on winning his serve and almost laconically piling up winners from every part. 4-1 to the Swiss great.

Rafa did not want to play lacky to the star of the show for any longer so asserted himself in games six and seven, playing tennis that was too good for everyone else even Roger at this point. 4-3 Federer but Nadal closing in.
Serve was held for the next four games, with most shots feeling they belonged in a match of this importance. At 5-6, a tiebreak appeared almost certain, but Nadal had to do the right thing first. Out of loyalty he did. 6-6.

In a tiebreak decided by mistakes rather than clean winners, it was Federer the more reliable, taking two points from the Nadal serve early, and able to surrender one of those towards the middle before winning it on his third set point seven points to five, Rafa hitting way out of court. Federer the vital first set 7-6.

Roger jumped all over the Nadal serve to give himself a set and break lead, but Rafa steeled himself to immediately turn the tables on Federer, playing an immaculate range of passing shots and forcing error to level 1-1.

Serves settled themselves back to normal for awhile and games were 3-2 to Nadal. The tennis, though was as inspiring as a paint drying championship, with lots of mistakes and little initiative. This couldn't last - one had to switch it up soon.

The one was Rafa and HOW! Breaking Roger with jaw dropping brilliance, the highlight a running forehand crosscourt winner past Roger's nose, with a backhand down the line to win the game coming in a close second - it too centimetres from Roger's none too happy countenance.

4-2 and a serve to follow. A pretty simple hold thanks to an error riddled return effort from Federer left it at 5-2 Nadal, just in time for the Australia Day fireworks, hopefully as exciting as the Nadal forehand.

The fireworks break did no favours for Federer - a double fault followed by a stunning backhand crosscourt winner conspired to ruin the Swiss service game and parcel up the second set for express post to the Nadal camp. 6-2. One set apiece.

Set three saw Federer survive a big scare, trailing 0-40 after two successive double faults - his mind appeared to have returned after its short vacation away from Rod Laver Arena, but there will be stern words within the camp over the poor performance of the remote Federer-body movement controller.

2-2 and the tennis began to resemble the kind which we had expected to be witness to for a much greater percentage of the time. But hell we have been spoilt over the years by these two.

Federer officially announced his return to the match with his break of the Nadal serve in the traditionally important seventh game. Could this short term gain be translated into a set win or could Nadal do one of his conjuring tricks and escape from the shackles?

A definitive affirmative to the latter. What were these two playing at, apart from rollercoaster tennis? 4-4 and serious time. About time for Federer to serve volley just a little more often - he risked being burnt at the baseline. A good group of serves from Roger, plus a point won at the net (following my advice) sent it to 5-5

Saving a set point, Federer forced the second tie break for the evening. Rafa tried to lose the tiebreak from six points to one but served it out 7 to 5 and now led 6-7 6-2 7-6. The point to go up five points to one was special, won with two successive backhands the first to set up Federer where he wanted him, the second to leave him there as he passed him down the line.

The fourth set went with serve all the way to 4-4 and the tennis did improve. Both players, especially Federer had to save break points, and Roger was amazing in the way he struck winners to stay ahead. However the ninth game spelt doom for the third seed as Rafa unleashed the special stuff again, and Roger could not hold back the floodgates one more time. The break came and Rafa served for the match. Roger saved one match point, created a number of break back chances, but finally Rafa was the winner in four sets in just under three and three quarter hours 6-7 6-2 7-6 6-4.

Wimbledon final 2011 revisited

Maria Sharapova has no time for those who defeat her in important matches, and none is so significant as a Wimbledon Final, especially considering that Maria's first Grand Slam singles success came there in 2004. So being defeated last year by someone who, like Maria had been in 2004, was featuring in her first final at the highest level, angered the Russian to her core.

The 2012 Aus Open semi final offered an oportunity to exact some revenge on the world number two from the Czech Republic, and continue the quest for both a second Aus Open crown and the regaining of the world number one ranking.

Petra had the goal of a second Grand Slam title out of the last three, and yes she would assume the world number one ranking too should she take out the Aus Open.

Both girls opened with strong games on serve, but Petra stumbled first with a nervous performance in the third, losing it badly and gifting the advantage to Sharapova 2-1. An advantage lasting one game, in the process highlighting Sharapova's occasional propensity to lapse into the service yips. 2-2 from where Kvitova wasted a game point, compounding by delivering a double fault, and that was a triple treat of service breaks.

Maria stopped the run of games against serve but I didn't run urgently to a thesaurus searching for superlatives; I guess this match had risen to great heights, if the perspective was that of an ant. Kvitova's standard may have been close to that of a first round loser in qualifying, but she probably needed to improve to reach that level. Even an inconsistent Sharapova managed to break the Czech serve three times without any great effort.

The set to Sharapova 6-2, but in contrast to Azarenka v Clijsters, where highlight reels could be put together from just about any portion of the match, here I struggled to think of just a few memorable things about set one.

Hopefully there would be two sets left, and they would be top class.

Not quite top class but things improved markedly, with Petra's ground strokes making some of their first appearances for the match on the way to assisting their designer holding serve. In turn, while Maria's serve was being broken both girls hit some appetizing shots. During game three Petra's offering became closer to cordon bleu than Maria's as she consolidated to lead 3-0, but nothing indicated certainty of anything at this point of the match.

If we had any problems about the quality of tennis in this match, the two games to follow shut us up - the second and fourth seeds would have shot the lights out had there been the need for any, each service game held with sheer class from both sides. 1-4 with Maria to serve again.

Sharapova scraped through her game saving a break point, but the flood of Kvitova winners continued unabated into the seventh game which she held to love for 5-2.
Another love game, this time featuring four fantastic serves, rounded out the set 6-3 for a vastly improved Kvitova, and the second semi promised now to be a third set dog fight.

First blood in the final chapter of the semi was drawn by a still impressive Kvitova as she piled the pressure on a resilient but in the end helpless Sharapova who lost her serve in the third game to fall behind 1-2. However, Petra had to consolidate the break to feel any where near comfortable. No comfort in this environment and Petra played her first poor period of tennis for some time. Ill timed at that and Maria could take charge with her experience.

Another long game but Maria came home with the chocolates and once more had the lead 3-2 with games still on serve. Maria saved break points to lead 4-3 and things seemed to be falling her way. Petra was having to play catch up. The rallies were phenomenal, the winners frequent and fantastic.

Unfortunately Petra could not absorb the pressure of serving second when it mattered most and Sharapova won through 6-2 3-6 6-4. Her ability to withstand multiple break points and several other situations where behind on serve, was the difference.

A noisy final on Saturday against Azarenka is assured, with the winner the new world number one. Kvitova is still a force to be reckoned with in women's tennis and will be vying for the top position all 2012.

The Vika of Belarus - praying for first GS Final

Could Vika overcome that major box yet unticked of never having never made it past the semis of a Grand Slam singles tournament? Multi award winner Kim Clijsters had a definitive strategy to deny the Belarusian her important breakthrough in the first of the 2012 Aus Open women's semi finals.

The early running was Vika's, taking the first break of the match and leading 2-1. Kim then failed to convert a truckload of break points in the fourth game, and Azarenka strode happily to 3-1, a stretch backhand that only permitted the use of a single hand on the racquet clinching the deal.

The group of aircraft brought in partly for Australia Day, but more especially to drown out the noise emanating from Azarenka were successful in their assignment, but would have little hope of repeating that goal when Sharapova entered the scene later on.

Kim had been given only a short time in which to complete her next service game and happily for her and her fans she ended it with sufficient points to constitute another tick in the games column adjacent to her name. 3-2 to Vika became 5-3 to the same lady, and what appeared to be an easy hold for Kim evolved into a long running Belgian soap opera with only the cliffhanger missing.

Clijsters won the game and charged Azarenka with the difficulty of serving for a one set lead. Both girls must have robotic extendable arms because on countless occasions they were able to extend the course of rallies by reaching for backhands and forehands that physically are not capable of such reach by the human body in its natural form. Not only did the players reach the quality shots from the other side of the net, but they produced amazing counter responses which often equated to winners.

Vika remained strong and did win the set 6-4 to be statistically halfway to the final, but with far more than half the work yet to be done.

Kim battled manfully (because I could not think of the gender correct alternative adverb)in the first game of the second set and held on. As so often appears to happen, when opportunities are not taken, the non-takee is burnt the very next game on their serve. This is precisely what beset Vika and she trailed for the first time in the match by a break. Kim pushed the lead to 3-0 with incredible feats of retrieval learned from her days spent with Lleyton - she did gain something out of that relationship after all.

The next break of the Azarenka serve was due more to the inconsistency of the server and Kim now had the set in her pocket 4-0 then quickly 30-0. Mentally Vika now was preparing for the deciding set. She needed desperately to eradicate the errors that had frequented her game, because Clijsters was not making any of which to speak.

0-5 and deuce - Vika had to hold and avoid serving second in the last. She did hold, then once again went through the motions knowing the set was gone, and that the match was tied, with Vika at the line to take first advantage in an advantage final set. Clijsters the second set 6-1.

A break point saved, relief engulfed the third seed who led 1-0 after many searching rallies and clutch shots filled a fascinating entry into the third set. Lightning struck from nowhere and the weather forecasters have some explaining to do to Kim. Azarenka destroyed the Clijsters serve to love, and now had a break to add to her serving first. However nothing stays the same for long, and Kim had three break points of her own to play with only moments later. She picked the third of these as the one with which to force the return break, although the double fault from Vika saved Kim from having to do anything.

1-2 and back on serve, not that serve had anything advantageous associated with it at the moment. Evidence further pointed to that when Kim struggled at 15-40, recovered with fine tennis before finally tripping before the line with a double fault to trail 1-3.

Vika elected to ignore the prevailing protocol and hold onto her next serve which annoyed Kim immensely now that she fell 1-4 behind and felt the compulsion to win a succession of games. One in a row achieved, Clijsters set after the Kvitova delivery. A long service game finally went to Clijsters and she now had it back on serve 3-4.

Vika's disappointment turned to joy when Kim found herself at 0-40. Even some brilliance from the defending champ could not prevent the break and Vika would be serving for a final berth at 5-3. Not even an outstanding performance today from Kim Clijsters was destined to prevent Victoria Azarenka from making her debut Grand Slam singles final. A double fault at 40-0 only added a statistic on the way to a comfortable hold for the Belarusian who won 6-4 1-6 6-3. The match lived up to its billing of a Grand Slam semi final, and the winner of the next semi would be up against a finalist now on a 10 match winning streak in Australia.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Can Ferrer dump the top seed again?

Last year at this stage of the tournament David Ferrer caused a major upset, dumping top seed Rafael Nadal from the Australian Open. Admittedly Rafa was carrying a leg injury but his fellow Spaniard won on merit. The question 12 months on was could he do a similar job on a fully functional world number one Novak Djokovic? The easy response was in the negative and why should one go out on limb and select against the Serbian champion who has dominated men's tennis to such a degree and continues to command near reverence in the circles he moves. Those circles are ones in which mere mortals such as I dare not tread.

I was less certain now of Novak's impregnability in so far as the overall title was concerned, having already been burned with my Serena selection. However, my confidence in his winning the quarter against an in form Ferrer had not wavered, even having seen him drop a set to Lleyton Hewitt. I felt for both players - the draw is ridiculous and offers no rewards to players seeded higher than others where it so obviously should. Novak is seeded one, and by a long way. At the quarter final stage, players seeded 1, 2, 3 and 4 will play those seeded 5, 6, 7 and 8. Logically, the highest of the top group should have the best advantage, and that is to play the lowest ranked of the second group. The same principle should apply throughout so that the match ups would be: 1 v 8, 2 v 7, 3 v 6 and 4 v 5.

In the infinite lack of wisdom of those putting together the draw, we had 1 v 5 tonight. No reward to Ferrer for being the top ranked in the second group or for Djokovic being the top of the tops. This is neither new nor unique to the Aus Open - it is a blight perpetuated in every Grand Slam tournament and many other top events worldwide.

However, when the guys hit the court, none of that off court garbage mattered a bit, because both players were worthy quarter finalists and the winner a strong opponent for the already semi finalist Andy Murray.

In fact Andy would have plenty with which to be concerned when the winner of this was revealed. His tournament really only begins then.

The opening twenty minutes was telling - we managed to see three completed games and David Ferrer did extremely well to survive each of his two service games especially the first where he trailed 0-40. Some of the rallies were no doubt indicative of what we were to see for the entire match - accurate searching powerful ground strokes demanding concentration and fitness of the highest degree. A love game to Novak bucked the trend and maybe things would be a tad more proactive than reactive going forward.

Novak certainly made things interesting by mixing his shot choice and surprising Ferrer at times - the service break came and helped with a couple of scintillating lobs. Ferrer held in the seventh game to love, his first respite all night on serve. Still the advantage lay with the top seed 4-3, although his experiment with the drop shot has been a failure and his only blemish thus far. That and I guess his inability to convert break point opportunities.

Another quick pair of games which included no threat to the ball deliverer set Novak up to serve for the set at 5-4. This he did with no small amount of trouble. One attractive backhand was followed by an unfortunate looking forehand, you would swear coming from different lineage, yet actually born of the same tennis racquet. The set to Djokovic 6-4 sealed with a stunning backhand pass.

Ferrer began set two in the same manner as the start of the match, struggling to hold serve - only difference here he failed. Djokovic during this period of the match had turned up the heat, attempting to make the most of a good run of form. Ferrer held at his next try but not before Djokovic had cemented his break to prevent anyone tripping on it. Amid all the excellence from Novak was this constant and unhealthy preoccupation with the drop shot, an abject failure at each turn, and sure to ultimately cause scoreboard pain and not just a small prick to the ego.

Scoreboard pain arrived in the next game but only because of an all round poor service performance from Novak and now Ferrer felt back in the contest. At 2-3 Djokovic now had the hammer firmly pressed on him and he was not moving particularly well either. (hope that isn't symptomatic) For an inconvenienced player Novak amazingly played himself out of trouble with some ripping crosscourt and down the line winners to tie it up at 3-3.

Djokovic just seemed to go through the motions in the seventh game, losing it to love and games remained on serve Ferrer leading 4-3. No trainer called so Novak was working through this by himself for now. At 4-5 his biggest test of the night needing to hold to stay in the set.

Ferrer had won several free points with aces or unplayable serves in his last two journeys to the line. Novak needed some of the same right here.

A textbook service game to love put the onus back on Ferrer. And what a wonderful effort from Djokovic when he appeared to be struggling to stay with Ferrer. He now summoned the willpower and natural ability to break and afford himself the chance to take a two set lead.

The net and Ferrer conspired to stop the Djokovic charge and we had a tiebreak.

A tiebreak that belonged to Ferrer until 4-2, swung dramatically with Novak winning the final five points full of lavish ground strokes most of which finished superb rallies. Ferrer just had no answer to the tennis of the world's best who in this brief cameo gave yet more evidence why he is at the top of the tree. Djokovic leading 6-4 7-6

Mentally that second set may have hurt Ferrer more than any physical toll taken on him. Novak had two sets plus immeasurable adrenalin on his side to begin the third set, and he did not mess around, serving beautifully to lead and then working studiously to crack open the wound that he had inflicted on Ferrer by winning the tiebreak. A straightforward service game and quickly it said 3-0. Just the single break but when 0-30 appeared next to the game score, signs were far from good for the Spanish 5th seed.

That drama traversed without damage, Novak insisted on maintaining his firm grip around David's neck with a standard form game from his end of the court to lead 4-1. More Serb magic made Ferrer seem tired, and Novak just put the ball wherever he wished breaking again for 5-1.

The glorious procession ended with an ace.

Djokovic 6-4 7-6 6-1 and to meet Andy Murray again this year but one match earlier.

Andy out to destroy Japanese dream

Andy Murray may come across as rather cold in some media portrayals but he must have some mates amongst the players. So far he has avoided having to play 14th seed Gael Monfils and 6th seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and not because of the British attitude towards the French. Those two players were drawn to meet Andy but had misfortune strike in the respective forms of Kukushkin and Nishikori. Andy cashed in on unseeded Kukushkin, and in today's quarter final had weight of punters money on him fixing up his Japanese opponent.

Murray, looking to contest his third straight final at Melbourne Park, (though some would say if he contested one this year, that would be a change from his just turning up on previous occasions) broke away from the peloton and the break was on the Nishikori serve. Serves were held by both players while the peloton tried to chase down the break, but it was to no avail, as the lead stretched to 5-2.

Nishikori did his best to increase the pace at the front of the pack but had little support and while he forced Murray to the line, Andy had enough of a lead to win the stage 6-3. Murray served consistently well, a habit of which he has fallen foul this tournament, and one from which rival players are attempting to assist him recover. His punishing forehand has also become something he is finding difficult to remove from his game.

Nishikori's second set endeavors again landed him in strife with a break of serve early on. Murray's strength on serve almost guaranteed that this break would insure the second set going to the Scot, and everything that that Kei threw at Murray including the kitchen sink and several Japanese electrical goods, had no effect in veering off course the Scottish steam train, heading express to a Friday night semi final.

The final game of the set was a break of serve and most of the third set followed the same script. Kei Nishikori had met his match - the young Japanese player, for all his talent and potential was as out of his depth as Andy must have felt in the past two finals.

This year Murray should provide stiffer opposition to Novak Djokovic were he to play him.

Andy Murray home in three sets 6-3 6-3 6-1. He will play the winner of Djokovic and Ferrer in the semi final.

Battle of the Russian Ovas

In the first match Errani set the scene for some loud vocals and I guess Maria Sharapova would not disappoint on that front. However, Sharapova had more importantly not disappointed on the tennis front at the 2012 Open, stamping her dominance in the first three rounds before steadying when under threat against her toughest opponent Lisicki in the fourth. We expected Sharapova to appear before us today - after all she is seeded four and is a former champion. Her competition for a semi final berth is the surprise element in the lineup. Ekaterina Makarova, who made the fourth round last year, entered this year unseeded and expected to have flown out of Melbourne before now.

Games were one all with Sharapova winning clearly and Makarova needing to save multiple break points. Ekaterina coped with Serena but probably assisted by the American not fully on her game. Today Maria was on from the start. It only took the fourth game for Sharapova to flex her vocal chords and racquet strings and take Ekaterina to the cleaners. 3-1 and almost flying, hitting an exquisite range of shots that only the world's elite dare to attempt and can pull off with repeated success.

Makarova hung in there - by her finger nails - and remained just the one break adrift. Maria was ravenous though and wanted another feed of the tasty Makarova service offering. At 2-5 she again feasted and satisfied her short term hunger with the first set 6-2. The off forehand, in fact any type of forehand you like to mention, came off the Sharapova racquet with the sweetness of a Strauss waltz meshed with the power of a Ferrari engine.

Set two began in similar fashion with the first two games on serve. Against the flow, Makarova achieved the first break and hopes were raised that this match may extend further than the expected straight sets. An angry Maria said no to that suggestion and promptly broke Ekaterina's serve once again, together with her hopes, dreams and heart to lead 4-2 with serve to come.

2-5 and 30-40 but Ekaterina saved a match point and forced the 4th seed to serve for the semis. The attractive young woman with the equally unattractive shriek had few dramas with the task, and won her match 6-2 6-3. Petra Kvitova in the semis, a replay of Wimbledon Final 2011.

Can Errani continue her amazing run?

If Sara Errani, unseeded Italian were to reach the semi finals, she would have to overcome world number one aspirant Petra Kvitova. The Wimbledon champ could be the saviour for the Czech Republic, disappointed at losing Tomas Berdych from the Open the previous night. Kvitova had all the shots at her disposal to manage Errani, but all the fight and determination of the underdog can go a long way to causing difficulties for the hot favourite if not necessarily an upset.

Petra opened as she would have hoped, breaking Errani's first serve of the match, but then Petra lost her compass and map, and without them her direction went haywire, handing Sara a prize opportunity to break back for 1-1. Yet to gain any sense of her usual excellence, Kvitova muddled her way through the third game occasionally donating a wonderful forehand for identification purposes, and aiding yet another failure on serve, the second such disappointment for Errani.

The advantage of serving was not such an asset for the girls today for even as Petra held on and took the set to 5-2, she too suffered the curse, and failed to serve it out. Second time round the attempt reaped success and the set ended in her hands, not convincingly, but Brad Gilbert was a fan of winning ugly if you are not playing to your best. 6-4 Kvitova.

Late in the first game of set two, maybe Petra turned her A game on, as she conjured up two withering down the line shots from deuce and break Errani. That spell of Petra's best lasted the 2 points, because a replica of set one's opening service game from Kvitova began unfolding. The result was the same - another loss of the Czech serve. Clearly the work being put on the ball by Errani concerned Kvitova, and it affected her mentally. Her confidence to play attacking tennis had dissipated and no effective defence contingency seemed prepared.

Errani held serve then increased her volume in line with her tennis to break Kvitova again with wonderful anticipation and returning for 3-1. The next two games went with serve, but Petra was made to work hard to hold and at 4-2 Errani maintained the whip hand in the set. The mental drive to take her into the semi finals helped Kvitova for once give evidence of the difference in rankings when she steadied in the crisis to break back in the seventh game and have the chance to level with her next serve.

Petra in these last few games lifted her game out of the ordinary and into the spectacular and her racquet made tremendous music while her opponent just made noise. Another break with class just oozing from her every movement and each swing of the racquet gave Petra Kvitova the chance to serve out a straight sets path to the semis.

A wonderful finish to the match for the number two seed - a four game stretch for which this match will be remembered. Kvitova 6-4 6-4 will play the winner of Makarova and Sharapova.

Rafa finishes with a flourish

Although 2nd seed Rafael Nadal had won his past 9 matches against 7th seed Tomas Berdych, history mattered little for the Czech player as he interrupted the momentum of the Spanish champion at every opportunity with his big serving and accurate ground strokes.  A number of aces and unplayable serves prevented Rafa from gaining the rhythm with which he can create so much havoc.  Still, enough room was left for Nadal to ply his craft at least to the point of holding his own serve,  precarious at times though it may  have been.

A first set tie break topped off a first set full of high standard tennis, and a contest far exceeding the quarter final owned earlier by Roger.  Players held serve to 4-3 before Rafa stole a point from the tall Czech and had two points off his own racquet to seal the set.  Tomas won both of those and then another to have set point on his serve, a swift change in fortune, within it containing a challenge to an out ball from Berdych disallowed by the chair umpire.  Deemed too late a challenge, Rafa fumed and I feared for the umpire's immediate health but luckily only Nadal's eyes directed physical harm to the gentleman.

Tomas gratefully tucked the set away 7-6 in his tennis bag, and after a short interlude for players to reflect and replenish, he wandered out onto the court once more, making certain not to pass too close to Rafa in the process.

The second set gave chances to Nadal to even up the match when he broke the Berdych serve, and for a time, his game approached a level of consistency associated with him.  At 5-3 and serving for the set, Nadal inexplicably was broken, and one more a tiebreak ultimately decided the fate.  Nadal, as in the first set tiebreak gained the ascendancy, leading 4-1, only to lose the advantage again.  Berdych missed a chance to convert a set point, and it was left to Rafa to prevail 8 points to 6.

The match was a set apiece and we had been going almost two and a half hours.

The standard of the match as already mentioned, was high - Berdych had not ceased in his endeavours to hit every serve into the next postcode, and his down the line winners appeared to be no less frequent.  Rafa had performed enough of his magic to suggest that the remainder of this match would be something to remember from the quarter final stage of the 2012 Aus Open.

Berdych out of the blue broke Rafa in the third set to lead 2-0, and as if someone flicked a switch, the number two seed proceeded to put on a 2 set performance to make Roger Federer choke a little on his brandy while he sat back in his comfortable chair watching these two battle to determine his semi final opponent.

The break back was both immediate and comprehensive, leaving Berdych impotent to react with any purpose.  Rafa wielded his racquet with all the skill and artistry that is his hallmark and Tomas, while maintaining a good level of tennis himself, became secondary at times to the work of the Spaniard.  A second break of serve was all that Nadal required to parcel up the third set 6-4 and make things especially difficult now for Berdych if he wished to make it further in the tournament.

Berdych did most things pretty well in the fourth set, but just could not keep the pace with Nadal who treated us to an hour of wondrous tennis, perhaps of a quality unequalled at the Open to this stage.  He ran faster to everything, reached balls that were never meant to have been caught, let alone turned in to Spanish winners, structured points immaculately, and essentially owned the court he played on.  His tenant from the Czech Republic just had to play out the match and applaud the master class.

It had taken four and a quarter hours to decide a semi finalist from this terrific match, but what placed the contest at the top of the heap had less to do with its longevity and more to do with the fact that the tennis being played at the finish was better than at any other point of the match.  Credit to both players.
Nadal 6-7 7-6 6-4 6-3 will meet Federer and I guess we might find some takers for tickets to that semi.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Roger's first big test

Federer had a score to settle with 1th seed Juan Martin Del Potro. Since the Argentine star dethroned Roger at the 2009 US Open, Roger has failed to win another official Grand Slam singles title, his longest drought since he first won at Wimbledon in 2003. Yes it is true he won the final here in 2010, but Novak and Roger are still fighting to have Grand Slam singles titles won with Andy Murray as losing finalist officially recognised. Of course I am only being serious :)

But seriously Roger has been short of the most important silverware of late, and polishing the increasingly old trophies just doesn't cut it anymore. So crushing Del Potro's hopes and setting up another semi final here in Melbourne will be uppermost in Roger's mind as he wanders nonchantly onto court today. On Juan Martin's mind is anybody's guess, but it probably has something to do with causing the most possible harm to whatever gets in the way of his powerful shot making, whether it be animal vegetable or mineral, or any combination of the aforementioned.

Roger began where he left the Tomic match hitting winners and doing it so far within himself that it was almost impossible to visualize - an absolute headache for line judges. However, line judges for Federer matches are given the same mantra year after year - when in doubt Roger must have won the point. For the first games, doubt never entered the equation for Del Potro suffered the opening blitz afforded Roger's previous four victims, not that I'm concluding that Juan Martin should this early be regarded as a victim, but he surely played victim to a selection of shots from the accurate marksman from Switzerland.

3-0 and one break would probably be enough to take the set, under normal circumstances that is. Juan Martin limited the barrage to a single break then managed to bring some fine tennis of his own to tne court. At 4-2, Federer suffered a small lapse that Del Potro magnified into a service break and with an easy hold brought a symmetry to the stadium 4-4.

Roger just teased - at 4-5 and 15-15 Del Potro received two successive returns off decent serves that were sublime. 15-40 pressured a double fault and the set went Roger's way 6-4.

Federer seemed the more likely to strike in the second set but Del Potro managed to cobble together enough shots into court to earn required points for games on serve. How long he would be able to withstand the Federer pressure, both real and implied, may have been the burning question had anyone dared to ask it.

1-2 30-40 and a timely big serve saved fhe Argentine ace from immediate peril. Ultimate peril could not be avoided, and Roger broke for 3-1. Next game Roger served himself from safety into some trouble then pulled out his big rifle to shoot three rounds at the centre of the target, moving from break point to 4-1 in the process.

Never to be denied, Del Potro fought hard, even having break points as Roger served for the set. However, he couldn't convert any of them, and Federer slipped through his grasp to move to a 6-4 6-3 lead.

A break of Del Potro on his first service game of set three set the scene for the remainder of the match - Federer only had to hold serve, and he did with comfort. Del Potro found the task harder, yet managed it too, until the seventh game where Roger turned the screw one more time to break again and lead 5-2.

The match belonged to Roger Federer 6-4 6-3 6-2 and he became the first semi finalist for the 2012 edition of the Aus Open - he will play the winner of Rafael Nadal and Tomas Berdych.

Caro or Kim - which one to the semis again?

Defending champion Kim Clijsters was handed a free pass from Li Na into this quarter final when four match points were wasted, but that is history and now it had to be the current world number one to be conquered in order for the Belgian dream of two successive Aus Opens to remain alive.

Caro has two aims, and they linked - the major aim is to win her debut Grand Slam singles title and anything else is icing on that wonderful cake. The secondary aim will be achieved by attaining the first. Caroline will be the new Aus Open champ and still world number one.

Any heights the match hoped to reach certainly were not going to be achieved in the early minutes, as the standard was below average in the kindest assessment. Kim Clijsters tried to look important and played some good looking shots to break serve but this disguised a terrible follow-up service game in which Caroline mainly watched. For her part, Wozniacki's tennis dipped below that of Kim's and befitted someone other than the number one seed, or any seed truth be told.

After five games of something occasionally striking a ball as it's meant to be struck, Clijsters led 3-2 with a break in hand. Something had to give, and it did - Wozniacki seemed to regress and instead of attacking her way out of the doldrums, she almost enabled Clijsters to gather her game into a reasonable shape, break once more for 5-2 and serve for an underwhelming set but with an overwhelming advantage.

It took much longer than required thanks to a mini but inadequate fightback from Caro. However, the impotent serve from Denmark ensured that Kim won the opening set 6-3.

The second set gave us nothing new to hope for as Kim held serve easily twice and Caro had to struggle for her opener. 1-2 and then 0-30 spelled or rather enumerated danger for the Danish number one seed. The break occurred but Caro found something extra despite the debilitating conditions and broke Clijsters to love highlighted by a running forehand crosscourt pass. 2-3 and faint signs of life in the Danish camp.

Faint hopes were dashed as the next two games clearly won by Kim over a tiring Caro had the number one seed serving at 2-5 to stay alive a bit longer. More than a bit longer thanks to brave Caroline holding then breaking Kim when the defending champ served for the match. Another solid service game and it was 5-5.

The tiebreaker was employed and surprisingly each of the first nine points went to serve. Caroline Wozniacki, who had fought so valiantly to make a contest of the second set, then lost both of her next two serves and the tiebreak 7-4.

Clijsters through to a semi final to play Victoria Azarenka (currently the virtual world number one)

Caro will now slip to number 3 in the world - maybe number 4 if Sharapova does something stunning.