Thursday, 21 November 2013

The 2 Best Served Out the Year

Whatever 2013 may have offered us in the way of tennis delights, no one dare deny with a straight face that 3 players stood on a tennis court far beyond the reach of the rest of those wielding racquets in various fashion.  Things will continue to be said and written concerning the place in the game that belongs to Serena Williams, and I am fortunate enough to be among those battling to find the words to adequately describe her eminence.

Today though I pay overdue recognition to the year's dominant 2 male exponents of the wonderful art of tennis ball persuasion.  Although he finished 2013 ranked number 2, Novak Djokovic displayed truck loads of stoicism and wizardry, not losing a single match following the shattering Flushing Meadows result.  For anyone else second prize in New York would be a joy, but of course Nole knows that on hard courts he is best placed to win against Nadal.  Given that he came to the absolute brink of knocking off Rafa in Paris on the surface in which the Spaniard eats and sleeps, another loss in Grand Slam tournament play was doubly agonising.

Rafa, for his part, entered the 2013 fray having missed the Australian Open and doubts still lingered over his ability to withstand a full season with the troublesome knee.  However the only thing troublesome was Rafa himself if you as a player happened to run into him in a tournament draw.  The guy won practically everything - Wimbledon was a blip in proceedings - including 2 of the year's GS titles, making him the best, and Novak was the first to hand him that accolade after the US Open.

The 2 arrived in London for the ATP Tour finale, as the top 2 seeds, and proceeded to demonstrate that to be a true measure of where they sit in Men's tennis.  Cruising through to the semis undefeated in their groups, they had Swiss opponents with which to contend next.  Neither had difficulty - Rafa dispatched Federer as he does most times, and Stan Wawrinka could not contain the excellence and consistency of Djokovic to the same degree he had shown in 2 classic encounters earlier in the year. 

The final was as it should have been in terms of the participants, if not in competitiveness (Djokovic too strong indoors) - both had extraordinary years and one can only hope that the 2012 Australian Open final can be relived in 2014, because these 2 are at the peak of their powers and managing their duties to serve and ancillary obligations so much better than the next tier of players.

2013 belonged to 3 players and Rafa and Nole join Serena to take the chocolates. 

Friday, 18 October 2013

WTA Championships or Serena Benefit ?

The 2013 season finishes for the top women players with the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships beginning on 22 October.  The field is missing Maria Sharapova through injury, allowing 9th ranked Angelique Kerber to take her place in the field of 8 for the second successive year.

In fact the only new face from the 2012 draw is the "comeback kid", Serbia's Jelena Jankovic, who has qualified 7th (8th had Sharapova competed).
Serena Williams qualified third for the event last year and cleaned up the field in no uncertain manner.  This year she has dominated, and will enter as the top qualifier by a street, safe in the knowledge that she will hold the number one ranking irrespective of results in Istanbul.

How the two groups are shaped will determine to a large extent predictions for who might be the second finalist because only someone who has just entered this cosmos would not select Serena Williams to appear in the final and in the same breath claim an ounce of sanity.

Let's consider the cold facts.  Only one player in the Istanbul field has beaten Serena in 2013 and Vika Azarenka has done the job twice.  The first time was the Doha final coming on the back of Azarenka's second Aus Open triumph.  The second meeting between the pair this year - the Rome final - (all their clashes in 2013 have been for titles) saw Serena win in straight as she dominated the clay season en route to her second Roland Garros crown.
Vika impressed on hard courts approaching the US Open winning another three set thriller in Cincinnati.  However it was to be Serena levelling the ledger for 2013 by taking out the US Open appropriately in three sets over the only woman on the planet to regularly trouble her on a tennis court.  It has taken about a dozen matches of constant pain of failure against Williams to reach this level of competitiveness, so props to the screamer from Belarus.

Since the US Open Vika has found it difficult, losing her only two matches, whereas Serena has won yet another title in her only outing.  Momentum is going to have to shift next week in order for Azarenka to win overall, but it would be foolish to think that anyone else has a better chance of challenging Serena.

Against Aga Radwanska Serena has won all 7 times including the three semi finals this year, most recently in Beijing.

Li Na beat Serena in 2008 but failed in her other 9 attempts, three of those this year including a semi final thrashing at Flushing Meadows.

Petra Kvitova has lost all her four matches to Serena, although their 2013 contest in Doha was a tight 3 setter.

All six encounters with Sara Errani have seen Serena successful, among those 2013 clay court semi wins in Madrid and significantly Roland Garros.

Bucking the trend somewhat Jelena Jankovic was 4-4 in career meetings with Serena after defeating her in Rome 2010.  However Serena has won the past three, including 2 finals in 2013, the latter being the Beijing title.

Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber have only played three times, the first way back in 2007.  Kerber lost that but won the next one which was Cincinnati last year.  Serena balanced the books by winning a round robin match at the year end championships, but there is no 2013 head to head form line here.

Based on what we have seen, and not knowing how the two groups will fall, I rate Azarenka as the prime threat to Serena at the WTA Championships, but more realistically the favourite to take the second finalist position.  I think that Jankovic and possibly Radwanska are playing well enough to push through to the semis of the event.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Wimbledon success a curse ?

Success at Wimbledon this year has not necessarily been a springboard for immediate further glory for those women that reached the semi finals and beyond on the hallowed grass.
Women's Champion Marion Bartoli defeated a qualifier in Toronto before bowing out in the round of 16, and then lost her only match in Cincinnati before announcing her retirement.

Runner up to Bartoli at Wimbledon was Sabine Lisicki and the German star's only entry in the records since was a first round exit, also in Cincinnati.

Agnieszka Radwanska, beaten semi finalist at Wimbledon, has come closest to victory after that performance with her finals loss at Stanford to Cibulkova, and she has made two quarters and a semi as well, but considering her seeding at the tournaments  that is probably under achieving.

The other losing Wimbledon semi finalist was Kirsten Flipkens, and her progress has seen a round of 16 exit in Toronto and a first round farewell from Cincinnati.  

Of the 4 male semi finalists at Wimbledon, only Del Potro has won a tournament since, with the others struggling to recapture the London form.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Greatest of our Generation

Greatest player of all time is too subjective but the best of their generation is something more palatable to discuss.
Since we began the new millennium there have been two stand out players, one who has almost all of the attention when handing out "greatest" accolades.  For me, Roger Federer for now remains the best male player of his time, although the longer he pursues his career, the likelihood increases that Rafa Nadal may prosecute just as compelling case.  I still believe Roger will edge the clay court king based simply on the percentage of GS titles won at Roland Garros by the Spaniard.  Federer's are a more even spread.

Until a few years ago Federer may even have been the best player, irrespective of gender of the past 20 years.  However, Serena Williams decided to give tennis another shot after a shocking injury run and a life threatening health scare.  I was fortunate enough to be at Eastbourne in 2011 to see the champion play her first tournament upon returning, and then again courtside at Wimbledon as she made it through to the fourth round.

Serena was back fit and enjoying her tennis but could she again reach those scary heights where the 13 time GS winner would intimidate all her opponents with the power and athleticism unmatched in the women's game?

A final at the US Open and 3 GS titles out of the last 4 contested, including her second at Roland Garros on Saturday night has answered that emphatically and given me just cause to argue strongly for Roger's mantle to be handed to Serena.  She is indeed the greatest player I have seen of her generation.  Given her interruptions through injury and fitness concerns, her record could even have been more imposing and that is just frightening.

16 Grand Slam singles victories from 51 attempts gives Serena a 31.37% success rate, compared with Roger Federer 17 from 56 at 30.35%.  Rafa Nadal is ahead of them both on percentages but having only played 34 GS tournaments we need to be guarded on that.

Serena Williams is achieving wonderful things as her career is approaching its end but how long that approach will actually be is anyone's guess.

I only hope that she continues to enjoy what she is doing on the court because as long as she does she will give us even more joy with her outstanding tennis prowess.


Monday, 3 June 2013

Week One down - Favourites cruising

Paris has been rather wet but not enough to dampen the hopes of the top players after the first week of clay court Grand Slam action.

Rafa Nadal, despite losing the first set he contested at this year's French Open, has done everything to suggest that an eighth title is only a Serbian away from fruition.  A quarter final against either Wawrinka or local favourite Gasquet will provide exactly the quality match practise required to be ready for the Djokovic assault on Friday.

Roger Federer is into another quarter final but that is nothing new - the five sets that he took to ease past Gilles Simon was more of a surprise.  Another French star Gael Monfils set the crowd alight with his first round win over highly fancied Tomas Berdych, but unfortunately the inconsistency remains and Tommy Robredo stopped the run in the third round.

We have two veteran Tommys flying their respective flags, Robredo through to the quarters, and Tommy Haas with a chance to join him there if successful over Youzhny in the fourth round.

Novak has saved his scariest form for this fortnight, dismissing dangerous first round opponent David Goffin in straight sets before dispensing uncaringly of the next two pretenders for the loss of just 11 games.  The third round victim was Grigor Dimitrov, who had the nerve to actually defeat the world number one in Madrid a few weeks back.  Now the Bulgarian will have to content himself watching his girlfriend defend her singles title.

Yes Maria Sharapova is looking good, and her tennis is rather appealing too, certainly at a level out of reach of her first 3 match ups.  Even Zheng Jie could not sustain a seemingly set winning position against the Russian, who seeded second has her sights on a second straight final.  Her toughest match could be a quarter final against a rejuvenated former number one Jelena Jankovic who is in terrific 2013 form, and is fresh off a tough three set win over previous finalist and last year's semi finalist Samantha Stosur.

Surprisingly we have lost 2011 winner Li Na, courtesy of a rampant Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the American's quarter final berth up for grabs with Maria Kirilenko.  Another pair of previous winners are due to play a quarter final, Svetlana Kuznetsova winding back the clock to her triumphant year of 2009, but in need no doubt of plenty of luck and all of her skill to push Serena Williams who is attempting to repeat her success of 2002.

Yet another past champion is alive into the second week - Francesca Schiavone, who has been desperately out of form for quite some time, is in a fourth round clash with Aus Open title holder Vika Azarenka.

Semi finalists predictions from me:

Mens Singles:

Djokovic/Nadal & Ferrer/Tsonga

Womens Singles:

Williams/Errani & Azarenka/Sharapova  

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Draw Stupidity costs us possible Dream Final

The fascination of Grand Slam tournament organisers have with random shuffling of seeds in the draw, just to seemingly satisfy their own useless whims has cost the fans big time at Roland Garros this year.
With Rafa doing all he needed to grab one of the top 4 seedings thanks to a superlative week in Rome, topped off with a routine thrashing of Federer in the final, and the unfortunate withdrawal of Andy Murray from proceedings in Paris, we had the follwing:

1: Novak Djokovic
2: Roger Federer
3: Rafa Nadal
4: David Ferrer

Sensible developers of a tournament draw would place these seeds in a way that would result in Djokovic playing Federer in the final, should they win all their 6 preliminary matches.  Job done by the French Open crew with Novak and Roger at the top and bottom of the draw respectively.

Logic should also suggest that the top seed be set to play the lower seeded player in the semis should all 4 players win their 5 preliminary matches.  Then we would be fortunate enough to avoid the 2 best players in the world playing each other prior to the final, which is where they should meet.

But no - once again we are privy to the stupid situation where Roger Federer, the second seed, who is in fact the most poorly performed player of the top 4 seeds this year (the only one yet to win a title) has the privilege of not having to play the best player on clay, and 7 times winner of this Grand Slam title, in the semis.  That burden goes to the top ranked player in the world, and the only player from the top 4 yet to lose to Nadal this year.

Djokovic will have to meet and beat Nadal in the semis before he even has a chance to play another final and perhaps claim the last leg of a career Grand Slam.

It used to be a tournament organiser's dream to have a possible Federer Nadal final, but these days those potential match ups are virtual no contests.  It is the thrill that a marathon fight between the 2 finest in the game - Rafa and Nole, the 2 leading points scorers on tour this year by a street - provides that we will more likely receive 2 days earlier in Paris in 2013 than we should have. 

Thursday, 25 April 2013

JJ Continues a Career Revival

While Tommy Haas has received the well deserved plaudits for resurrecting his tennis fortunes - back at 14 in the world with a victory over Novak Djokovic to his credit this year and recently turned 35 -credit must be generously afforded former WTA ranked number one Jelena Jankovic for her highly unexpected return to the consistent results she had been achieving around 5 years ago.

After early losses in Sydney and the Australian Open - to higher ranked players - Jelena reached a low point in Doha, losing a first round encounter to Niculescu, not even ranked in the top 50.

Many believed that the fine career of the Serbian star was just winding its way down to maybe a retirement within the next year or so, and the results reflected an inability to adjust to changes in the game.

However, as the backdrop against which to prove that notion totally off the mark, Jelena chose South America.  In Bogota, as top seed, she tore through the draw losing just 2 sets, admittedly against lowly ranked opposition, but with the determination of winning successive matches and lifting a trophy at the end.

A setback at Indian Wells with a first round exit at the hands of Kuznetsova was more than compensated with a great Miami tournament.  Here the Jankovic court coverage covered four players including Petrova, Cirstea and Vinci (avenging her loss to the Italian in Sydney) on the way to a semi final with WTA second ranked Sharapova.  The tournament ended for Jelena here but her fighting efforts at Charleston propelled her into her second final of 2013, and again it took a Grand Slam title holder to stop her winning run.  Serena Williams even surrendered the first set of that final.

As it stands, the Stuttgart tournament has seen Jelena draw top ten player Samantha Stosur in the first round, and her response?  A straight sets win no less.

After 3 losses in her first 6 matches of the year, Jelena Jankovic has now strung together 15 match wins from her last 18 starts.  Although her ranking is still only 18, she is 12th in the points race for the calendar year and a return to the top ten is increasingly a likelihood rather than a possibility.

This is exciting for womens tennis as Jankovic adds much needed colour to the game.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Djokovic and Azarenka set stunning pace

As we begin to start the serious part of Indian Wells, the undisputed world's best male tennis player and maybe the current best female player (if not, certainly part of a duo way above the rest) have yet to experience defeat in 2013.

Nothing new for the pair - Vika began her 2012 with victories in Sydney, the Australian Open, Doha and Indian Wells, while Novak in 2011 blitzed everyone, especially Nadal, on his way to Roland Garros without a mark on his record.  These two players have the art of consistency ingrained in their game, and have proved that they should be favourites once again to take home the Masters and Premier titles on offer at Indian Wells.

Just a few statistics on Djokovic in his relatively few outings this year:

This is only his third tournament of the year.  He won 12 matches to capture his fourth Australian Open and his third Dubai event, 5 of those against top ten players.  The player ranked number two in the world is the great Roger Federer.  He had played 3 tournaments in 2013 prior to Indian Wells, and played  13 matches, only three of those against top ten players, with only the one success (Tsonga in the Aus Open quarters).  That illustrates the gap that Djokovic has managed to eke out between himself and the rest.  Of course Nadal is seeded to play Federer in the quarter finals and either of those players is still equipped to bring Novak's run to an end, if Andy  Murray hasn't already done it in the semis.  However, these days any win by the others in the "fab four" against Novak is deemed an upset.

Vika Azarenka has had her problems against Serena Williams, but not against any other female player during her glittering run since the beginning of 2012.  Safe to say that the WTA rankings merely caught up with reality when Serena displaced Azarenka at the top of the list.  The WTA rankings never pretend to proclaim that the woman with the most points is the "best" player in the world.  How can that be the case when undoubtedly by all valued measures, Serena Williams when fit and playing has been that virtually throughout her stellar career?

The irony of Vika surrendering her lead in the ranking points table, is that she did it in the same week that she overcame the Williams curse and said to the world "I can now beat anyone, all things being equal."

Serena in my opinion still deserves her title of world's finest player, but as this year rolls on, the Azarenka claim may become more deserving, especially if she keeps winning relentlessly in the style of Djokovic.  Each battle between Serena and Vika is now as eagerly awaited as any "head to head" in female tennis since Henin and Williams, Clijsters and Williams or Williams and Williams.  

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Barthel shakes off Aus Open blues

Germany's Mona Barthel began 2012 in style winning in Hobart and with other promising results appeared set to become one of her nation's top players.  However, things stalled somewhat for her, and she ended the year ranked 39 after reaching a career high of 31 in April.

Again this year Hobart proved kind, and while not repeating the victory, her effort to make the final was worthy of praise.  Melbourne Park saw a first round departure, losing in three to Pervak, and we may well have dismissed Mona from our list of players to watch for the time being.

However, the work ethic of all the German WTA players is a credit to them, and in Paris, Mona combined this with her undenied talent to sweep aside her opposition, including world number six Sara Errani in a most impressive final performance.

Now back in the top 30 at a new personal high of 28, the promise of early 2012 is ready to be realised in a big way for Mona Barthel in 2013.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Novak v Andy - writing another chapter

Last time they met here, Murray gave Djokovic a five set work out before falling in a semi final. Later in 2012, Murray edged the world number one in semi finals in Dubai and at the Olympics, but in finals, Djokovic won in Miami and Shanghai, while Murray broke through with his epic US Open win.  The final clash was at the season ending Championships where Djokovic beat all comers including Murray on the way to the final.

The form of both as they forged respective paths to this year's Aus Open final has been terrific, with Murray dominant over Federer but not able to put him away earlier than five sets.  Djokovic on the other hand was playing in another universe from David Ferrer when he gave us a demonstration of the best three sets of tennis by an individual seen on this court in a long time.

My pick for the title from the start has been the world's best player and top seed Novak Djokovic, and nothing has happened in two weeks to change that selection.  It would not surprise to see Andy Murray greet the judge, but at their best I still believe Novak has the slight but diminishing edge.

After winning the toss, Murray gave Djokovic the honour of serving first, hoping to take advantage of early nerves.  After a rifled forehand Murray winner , Djokovic answered with an ace and a backhand winner to easily hold the opening game.  Three ground strokes hit long showed that Djokovic had still to find his range, and Murray equalled at 1-1.
A couple of drives by Djokovic to Murray's backhand proved relaxing and he put the car back in the garage with two forced errors.  Even a Murray forehand winner received an ace in reply and Novak led 2-1.

A Murray overhead to start and ace to finish made it 2-2, and in the first decent rally of the match in game 5 Murray won out, the error coming off the Novak racquet.  Other mistakes brought him to an unwanted deuce before finally a new rally of the match was won with a stunning Djokovic backhand winner down the line and the game was safe.

The sixth game was all about catch up for Murray right from the first cross court forehand winner from Djokovic and saving multiple break points the third seed won himself a moral victory - games were 3-3.

At 15-15 in game seven, Novak's diving stretch forehand to ultimately win a point all but gone was magical and gave him massive momentum to run out that game to lead 4-3.
Murray saved another break point thanks to a great serve and based the eventual winning of the game on more of the same from the line. 4-4.

As the set neared its conclusion the standard of shot making hit a flat spot with nearly all points decided on errors in the ninth game.  A rare exception was the ace Djokovic served to win the game and edge to 5-4, asking Andy to serve to stay alive in the set.

Murray held firm behind a couple of good serves and the set lingered on.  A fine forehand winner highlighted a Djokovic service game where he continually pushed Murray wide to his backhand side.
5-6 and tie break likely.  At 15-30, Djokovic committed some uncharacteristic unforced errors and we did have the tie break.

Double fault from Djokovic unacceptable but Murray enjoyed it.  So much so that he hit a forehand winner to celebrate 2-0.  This became 4-0 after two Djokovic mistakes long, and things looked bleak for the top seed.  On the board eventually after a long rally, Novak, who for much of the set had looked the stronger and more likely to break serve, still appeared certain to be down a set.  Murray had played a Federer-like tie break and hardly made a mistake.  6-1 and running hot.

Nothing miraculous happened for the top seed and the first set was Murray's 7-6 (7-2).
Now the come back capabilities of Djokovic would be put to the test once more.  In general play he was creating opportunities, but now he had to deal with the momentum that Murray had harnessed.

The opening game of Set 2 showed that Murray was now willing to attack more in the vein of the
Federer match and that narrowed the opportunities for Djokovic to push the Scot around the baseline.
Easy hold for a 1-0 lead.  The deflation from dropping the first set reflected in the shot selection and execution of Djokovic which for the moment had slipped slightly enough to have him in trouble even on serve.  Three break points to Murray.  Slowly the champion scratched and clawed his way to the temporary safety of deuce.  A couple of clean winners assisted him over the line and his serving record remained intact.  1-1 and no small amount of drama.

Not even a clean forehand return winner could faze Murray whose serve now took on the untouchable look that it picked up in the semi final.  2-1
Andy was returning the Novak serve quite well now but he couldn't do much with the aces.  Novak needed a few more of them because he still was taken to deuce.  A rare netted forehand then a forced backhand long gave Novak an escape to 2-2.

Andy was winning the extended rallies with the frustration apparent in Novak's court demeanour, now less than super cool.  Aces acted as bookends to the game which gave Andy 3-2.
A far more impressive serving exhibition from Novak plus better choice of shot placement proved a better method of levelling the game score 3-3.

Despite a double fault Andy sailed along to another service hold with a suite of Novak errors on board. 4-3.  Two Murray forehands, one a winner, the other into the net, plus some fine Djokovic net play set things up for a 4-4 score.

Again a double fault at 40-0 did nothing to stop the juggernaut into which the Murray serve had now developed.  Djokovic now had to hold to stay in the set.
A Murray forehand passing winner had a big serve reply followed by another and 30-15.  The Djokovic backhand down the line was not a clean winner but it deserves the same accolade if not more.  Games were 5-5 but what else would you expect from these two?

At 15-15 Andy found an ace in his back pack which worked a treat, and enabled him to find his way to 6-5.  A forehand volley winner from Andy at the net was a surprise and not a welcome one for Novak.  He responded appropriately with good serve and follow up shots to pressure Andy into mistakes until he himself blundered with a double fault.  He found some reliable tennis in his bag of tricks to move away from 30-30 and force a second tie break.

Novak began this tiebreak much better, winning both his opening two points on serve.  Then inexplicably Murray double faulted leaving the window slightly open for Djokovic.
4-2 at the change of ends with another Novak serve to come following the Murray shot wide.
A service this time which Andy could only put into the base of the net.  After a short point which Andy won, Novak claimed bragging rights after winning the long one for 6-3 and three set points, two on his own delivery.  He only needed one.  The second set to Djokovic after Murray had looked the better throughout 7-6 (7-3). One set all and this was just about to script.

The Andy Murray medical time out was not in my forecast of how the match might play out.
Wonder what that is about?

Not much at all I'd suggest and back to what really matters - the third set, and the Djokovic opener.
Except for one point where Murray capitalised after pushing Djokovic wide with an overhead winner, the top seed cruised with a couple of aces and a generally fine service game.
Although Murray had two points taken from his serve, he never appeared troubled and games were 1-1 and still no service breaks in the match.
Djokovic continued the service dominance to lead 2-1 and the ground strokes of both players also stayed in the elite class.

Both players held with ease until we reached 3-3.  Errors, the second one long from Murray, gave Djokovic 30-0 before a backhand cross court winner was a better performer for Scotland.  Djokovic threw in a backhand thriller of his own to give himself a couple of points for 4-3 and he did it thanks to an amazing (for all but Novak I guess) defensive lob.

A long rally which the players contributed at this point to enable patrons to top up with refreshments, ended with a Djokovic forehand then a sharp backhand volley forced Murray to hit wide and the third seed face 0-30.  A forehand winner set up off a great return gave Djokovic 3 break points, the first two which he wasted with poor execution.  The break did come though, courtesy of a Murray netted forehand.

5-3 to Djokovic who had just achieved the first break of serve for the match.

The next game was almost textbook - service winner, backhand down the line setting up forehand volley put away, another service winner to create three set points.  The first was used, and the defending champion won 6-3 to lead two sets to one.

Andy Murray, in trying to keep pace early in the fourth set, found it difficult as he saw another backhand winner from Djokovic pass by to take it to 0-30, but a big serve dragged a point back.  Novak's returning and retrieval were becoming an even greater concern than normal.  Fortunately Andy clipped the baseline to have it back to 30-30, and a superb volley dug him out of a small hole at deuce. 1-0.

A loose shot by Djokovic didn't make him feel too well at 0-30 but Andy gave him some first aid with 2 poor shots, one way long.  However, a second wide shot from Djokovic gave Murray a break point, fleeting though the moment was.  An uncontrolled return off a big serve saw to that.  Another great serve wasn't spoiled by a wide forehand, instead complemented by a sizzling winner from that side, and the third of a trio of timely serves elicited an illegal return and games were 1-1.

An excellent return from Djokovic had Murray sprawling and the scoreboard changing to 15-15, and the double fault made it 15-30.  Murray's pain grew with Djokovic's commanding forehand down the line winner.  A big serve save one break point but Murray clearly grimaced despite the success.  Could he be in some injury trouble?  We should soon know because Djokovic is the best player to move an opponent around the court sufficiently to test a possible injury.
The second break point was not saved after Andy netted a backhand following a searching long rally.  With the first service break of the set, Novak led 2-1 with a serve to come.

A poor drop shot attempt by Djokovic hit the top of the net and fell over for a lucky point to someone somewhere.  Following a wide backhand, the ace came in handy to stretch the advantage to 30-15.  A long forehand from Novak kept Andy interested.  Djokovic's stress left after a netted forehand and a long return from the Murray racquet.  3-1 in the fourth to Novak.

A backhand beauty down the line left Andy stranded and at 0-15.  Two Serbian backhand failures allowed Murray to retrieve the situation to 30-30 but still in bother. At 40-30 a good smash from Novak led Andy to a wild forehand and deuce.  Gaining a game point (decent serve), deuce was revisited after Djokovic tested Murray with a drop shot, but he could not keep it in play despite reaching it in time.

Another awesome defensive lob kept Djokovic in the point and  ultimately he won the exchange to have break point.  A tragic double fault left the writing clearly on the wall for all to see .  Djokovic 4-1.

Two errors and Djokovic was 0-30; not wanting to waste the luxury of a double break he hit a forehand winner for 30-30 despite missing regularly with his first serve.  When he landed one it was good and the backhand volley was put away as a consequence.  With the Murray netted ground stroke Djokovic was a game away from his fourth Aus Open.

Not worrying too much about Murray's service game, Djokovic still played a delightful deft backhand at the net and later a forehand blinder to keep in shape ready to serve for the title at 5-2.

Losing the first two points due to the efforts of Andy Murray - the backhand for 0-30 was sublime - Djokovic steadied and with the first championship point Murray found the net with his backhand.

Novak Djokovic had won his fourth Australian Open 6-7 (2-7) 7-6 (7-3) 6-3 6-2 and become the first male player in the Open Era to win it three times in succession.

The world number one undoubtedly is that with exclamation marks added, while Andy Murray and he will continue to battle in finals at the highest level.  Tonight was not quite right for Andy but the gap between his and Novak's respective best tennis has reduced markedly in the past 18 months.

Aussie wild cards land the Mixed title

Two unseeded teams made it through to the final of the Mixed Doubles and Australia was represented which is always a bonus, especially this year with the singles disappointments of our players.  Jarmila Gajdosova and Matthew Ebden certainly did not allow that individual let down interfere with the success of their doubles combination, knocking over the second seeds on the way.  The opposition today came from the Czech Republic represented by Lucie Hradecka and Frantisek Cermak.  Neither partnership had won a Grand Slam Mixed title before although Lucie had shared the 2011 Women's Doubles spoils at Roland Garros.

The first five games included all the nerves that one should expect from players fighting for a piece of Grand Slam silverware, and a break apiece contributed to a 3-2 lead for the Australians with the Cermak serve to come.

A series of errors from the Aussies helped the Czech Republic pair even the match at 3-3 before Gajdosova introduced some winning tennis with a quality off  forehand pass at the net and an ace to seal her serve and keep the lead but this time at 4-3.

The Australians grabbed the initiative assisted in a major way by some long Czech backhands and a double fault form Hradecka. 5-3 and serving for a one set advantage.

Two aces from Ebden made the job easier than might have been and with the first set won at 6-3, one giant step had been made towards the trophy by he and Jarmila.

Cermak served to open Set 2 and not at all convincingly began with a double fault.  Poor backhand returns, one from each Australian, who were sharing the poor shots well, put the advantage back with Frantisek, but Ebden's forehand lob winner set up a break point which Cermak celebrated with another double fault, ending the game the way he began it, and putting the Czech team a break down.

Ebden consolidated, interrupting the errors with an occasional ace and overhead winner to extend the lead to 2-0, placing great pressure on Lucie who was up next.
She responded well, throwing in an ace before locking away the game with a slashing cross court backhand winner.

Jarmila served and held strongly thanks to volley winners both back and forehand from Ebden, and an ace from Jarmila.  3-1 Australia.

A key game from the Cermak serve could have sealed the fate of the match as it reached deuce after an errant volley, but it was saved and the score was 2-3.
Similarly the next Ebden serve could have gone against serve after looking comfortable at 40-15.
In the end Australia survived from deuce to lead 4-2.

The games on the Hradecka and Gajdosova serves also went to deuce, Lucie benefitting from two Aussie errors to save a break point, but Jarmila suffering the brilliance of Lucie's backhand to lose her serve and games were 4-4.

The Czech team lifted and took the scoreboard lead in the set with Frantisek holding serve for 5-4.
Ebden finally put a stop to the bleeding, and the Australians drew level again at 5-5, errors from the opposition gladly accepted.

At 30-30 in the eleventh game Lucie double faulted, and when she netted on the following point, the match was suddenly in the hands of the Australian team, specifically on the racquet of Jarmila Gajdosova as she prepared to serve at 6-5.

Three successive errors made the task appear simple for Jarmila with 40-0.  However a slashing groundstroke from Cermak forcing a mistake from the Aussies then a double fault made 40-30 seem a whole lot tighter.  Thankfully when Jarmila had missed her first serve on the next point, her second serve ended with a shot hit long by the Czech team.

The Aussies had won 6-3 7-5 and began smiling for an indefinite period to come.

Bryan Brothers grab Aus Open number 6

The Mens Doubles final had as one of its teams the American Bryan brothers, Mike and Bob, which these days and for many days now, tends to be a given in Grand Slam tournaments.
Beaten last year in the final here, the top seeds were hot favourites over a Dutch pair playing as a team for the first time at Grand Slam level.

It was appropriate that Robin Haase and Igor Sijsling be in the final of the Aus Open, an event where the most famous and successful team from that country - Jacco Eltingh and Paul Haarhuis - had this year entertained fans in the Legends Doubles.

No expectations were placed on the unseeded combination and they were able to swing freely from the start, effecting a surprise break on the left handed Bob's opening serve to lead 1-0.

The unforced errors from the twins in that game were the last to be seen for the night as we treated to an almost flawless exhibition from the soon to be statistically most successful mens doubles combination at Grand Slam level, passing Newcombe and Roche.

Volleying superbly, the top seeds were able to rectify the problem immediately and force themselves on top in the match.  With both teams hitting plenty of winners the difference came with the knowledge of where to be on court both in relation to the opponents and especially partner.  Naturally the Bryans had a huge advantage virtually knowing what each other is about to do with a tennis racquet, how and from where.

In a flash 0-1 was 3-1 and a the break advantage was with the Americans.

The rest of the set played out on serve, and the crowd were treated to great doubles - the brothers' work had been done and serving out at 5-3 not a difficult ask.

Immediately breaking the Dutch pair in the second set was the goal and the top seeds achieved that one too on a night which was providing everything they wished for.

More winners, no sign of an unforced error, and amazing success on serve proved irresistable, and ultimately too much for Robin and Igor who battled manfully but were only ever destined for runner-up glory.

Number 13 Grand Slam doubles title (an incredible 6 Aus Opens among them) for the Bryans who now seek to win a second French Open, the only Grand Slam event which they have failed to win more than once.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Winner to move to 2 GS Singles Titles

Ok here we are about to witness the Women's Singles final for 2013 and I am hearing commentator after commentator selecting Li Na on the basis of Victoria Azarenka not doing the 'right thing' one game from the finish on the way to a straight sets win over Sloane Stephens.

Well that was over 48 hours ago.  Azarenka is fully fit, is a better all round player, is the defending champion, who also knows how to destroy Maria Sharapova on this court (and that was in a final), and has won the last four battles over Li Na, 3 of those on hard courts.

This final will be decided not by who is the crowd favourite.  Roger Federer may have had the lion's share of support in his semi final with the sum result that he had more shoulders to cry on once he lost.

So call my selection outlandish but I am basing it on tennis and am picking the top seed and defending champion who also reached the final of the last contested Grand Slam tournament, and pushed the great Serena Williams to the limit.  Azarenka has only lost one set early this tournament and has not been faced with a set point since.

Of course the final should provide the contest we did not receive last year because Li Na always gives her all and she has plenty to donate, both heart and skill.  There is room for an upset, but it would require a form reversal from Azarenka.

As the players arrived on court, the greetings were loudly pro Li Na as predicted, but thankfully not overtly negative towards Victoria Azarenka, polite applause or silence indicating the feelings of many people.

Li Na served first.   A double fault was not the ideal first point but the forehand down the line winner steadied her nerves, before Azarenka won the early battle of ground strokes to break a tight struggle and lead 1-0.

The errors continued in the second game and another serve was broken, not due to anything special from the returner, whereas game three gave us initial signs that we were watching a Grand Slam tournament final.  Li Na played a forehand winner to end a fine rally which seemed to trigger both girls into playing some decent tennis, and Li Na to finally do enough to take a 2-1 lead to the sit down.

After engaging in ball bashing for a few points, Li Na caressed a forehand up the line past a bemused Azarenka to set up break points in the fourth game, the first of which she converted for a 3-1 lead.  After reaching 30-30 following a slashing backhand down the line, Azarenka had to return the first serve of Li Na consistently.  However, the sixth seed sprayed too many ground strokes and lost her way and the serve.

Loose shots by Vika together with a fine backhand return by Li and another down the line for a winner and the break gave her the edge again 4-2.  Having seen her excellent serving percentages, Li decided it was about time to take advantage of them and she did by running Vika ragged in the next game to consolidate the break for 5-2.  Semi final form was being brought to court for the big one so far.

Adrenalin seemed to assist a few of Li Na's shots long in Vika's next service game and that outweighed the good placement on others which was clearly worrying the top seed.  5-3.
Serving for the set was proven again to be one of the most difficult tasks assigned a player, with Li Na soon at 0-40.  One point was saved with a great winner, but too little too late and we were back on serve with Vika serving to stay in the set 4-5.

Unfortunately the set was lost on a double fault, but before that we had a forehand winner from Li off a second serve from Vika, a forehand approach and follow up volley from Vika to save a set point, and another forehand winner from Li to give her a set point.  It was the best quality game of the match, with the most disappointing method of finish.  6-4 to Li Na.

Game one of Set 2 reverted to errors as the prime means of point decision for both players.  Li Na appeared to want to provide less of the poor shots but in the end was over generous and it cost her the serve, and Vika led 1-0.  Then for the first time Azarenka took a clear advantage despite the constant winners from Li Na.  Luckily for the top seed, these had been interspersed recently with several errors and it was finally an Azarenka gem touching the line but not the Li racquet that won her the game and 2-0.

The third game saw glimpses of the all court game from Vika, and Li Na being pushed wide on both sides, as another serve form the Chinese star was dropped.  3-0 Azarenka.

Those glimpses fast became a distant memory; Vika was all at sea serving for a big lead, instead being broken for a more manageable (for Li) 3-1 advantage.  At 30-15 on the Li Na serve Azarenka looked to have won the point by wrong footing Li behind the base line.  However, immediately it was obvious that the sudden movement had done serious damage to the ankle area of her left foot.  Li took weight of the leg and we thought the worst.

She took to the court again with some serious strapping and we awaited nervously.  40-30 after she negotiated the first point post injury with a winner.  The next point ditto.  3-2 Azarenka and maybe the extent of the injury short term would not be an inhibiting factor.  One could only hope.

Vika played the first 3 points of the next game as if she was the one injured before realising that she hadn't been and rattled off some fine shots including brilliant recoveries, to hold serve and lead 4-2.
Two successive double faults had Li at 15-40 and in danger of going down a double break.  Vika helped her find her way back to deuce which inspired a backhand passing shot from the sixth seed's racquet followed by another into open court for the service hold.  Azarenka now up 4-3.

Azarenka had regrouped a little from a dangerous position on serve before pursuing this preoccupation with the drop shot that all top players seem to have. It was a disaster, and have Li break points of which she used one and brought games back to 4-4.

Not even a beautiful forehand winner from Li Na in the ninth game could cover up the cracks made with a plethora of errors all over the court which together negated all the previous good work and gave Vika the chance to level the match.

Victoria Azarenka served out the set 6-4 and we had a third set decider to come.  Li Na's foot now appeared to be alright and not in need of surgery or replacement.  It may have just been a bruise to a toe nail.

The third set began with two breaks of very nervous serving efforts before Li Na safely held on before the Australia Day fireworks untimely delay.  Then it was fireworks of the Li Na kind as at 15-0 on Vika's serve the sixth seed crashed to the ground hitting her head hard.
As we should expect that would be insufficient to stop the warrior and she fought off the medicos to come back and even achieve break point, Vika denying that one and proceeding to 2-2.

Azarenka now appeared to have the measure of Li Na's serve and was at least her equal around the court once the rallies commenced.  Another break arrived and Vika took the advantage to 3-2.

A couple of errors by Li Na contributed to a comfortable hold by Azarenka in the sixth game and she eked the lead out to 4-2 with the title ever closer.  Li kept within a single break by holding in the seventh highlighted by further winners from both sides.

In the eighth game, Li Na had Azarenka at 0-30 and 30-40 before the top seed fired in her best quality tennis to drive home the final points of the game and at 5-3 be touching distance now from 2 of these titles in succession.

In the ninth game, Li Na serving, The sixth seed played backhand winners to move from 0-15 to 30-15 and then at 40-30 she committed a trio of unforced errors and the match was over.

The 2013 Womens Singles Champion was the defending champion Victoria Azarenka in 3 sets over a battered and bruised but still smiling and gallant Li Na 4-6 6-4 6-3.

Vika will retain her number one ranking by virtue of the win, leading marginally over new number two Serena Williams, while Sharapova drops to three.  Li Na moves up to five, but gains enough points to be a serious challenger to Radwanska at four later this year.

Battle of last 2 GS title winners in 2nd semi

Roger Federer has won only one Grand Slam title (and made one other final) since his last Aus Open victory in 2010.  In that time Novak Djokovic has won four and made three other finals (not including this year) while Rafa Nadal has won five and made three other finals.  Little wonder Roger is hungry for success here in 2013.

His opponent in tonight's semi final, Andy Murray has made the past two Grand Slam tournament finals, losing to Federer at Wimbledon and defeating Djokovic at the US Open for his maiden major victory.  In many respects Murray deserves at least equal favouritism for the semi final here; his exploits at Grand Slam level are on the increase while Roger's have waned, Wimbledon last year aside.

However, let us throw the stats and recent history out the window because judging this match on what we have seen so far this tournament is the best method.  Federer managed to defeat Tsonga in what was probably the best match of the tournament to date, and he did that even though the better tennis was arguably played by the French talent.  It proves as it has countless times through Federer's career that he can find a way to gather his best and apply it on the key points.  For the two tie breaks against Tsonga, Federer was focused more than at any other stage of the match.  Hopefully Tsonga will learn from that.

Murray is further advanced in the focus stakes and Roger would require all his unmatched powers of concentration to match it with the third seeded Scot.

No secret about the respective basic tactics employed from the very start with Andy Murray prepared to attack to create his opportunities while Roger Federer preferred a more defensive risk mitigation strategy attempting to draw Murray into error.

Together an attractive tennis match was supplied, and as early as the second Roger Federer service game the proactive Murray reaped rewards.  His variety of shot making set up multiple break points following one which was saved by a Federer winner in the opening game.

This time Federer could only escape three before being forced into a mistake by Murray who now led 2-1.

Federer could not convert his chance in the following game as Murray saved with an ace, continuing his healthy output of winners.

Federer appeared to have no answer to Murray's game, and made no discernible adjustment where necessary to his own, having to fight off more break points in the seventh game to avoid being down 5-2 with Murray serving for the set.  That he did says volumes for his mental fortitude and ability to respond under extreme pressure.

However, Murray kept persisting and with winners off both sides again in the eighth game he led 5-3.  Federer could only do what was within his direct control and that was hold serve which he did comfortably, but he could not prevent Murray from serving out the set and confirming an impressive start to the semi final.  Of concern apart from the obvious loss of the set must have been Federer's failure to win enough points on his first serve, something that Murray was able to rely on as a weapon with a good percentage of legal first deliveries.

Whereas Federer had to deal with a number of break points in the opening set, the second set was notable for its complete absence of one for either player.  The set was played on the server's terms and the number of winners was high, Roger lifting his rate in this area as well.  Nothing could prevent the need for a tie break and Murray must have been aware of Federer's success with these deciders especially at this Aus Open.

Federer lost the first point on his own serve, then Murray joined in losing the next two on his, all with nervous mistakes.  Federer maintained the mini break until at 4-3 his backhand failed and it was 4-4.  Murray at 4-5 held one of his serves for 5-5 but a Federer backhand winner set up set point which the Swiss star swallowed gleefully.
One set all and the tie break king reigns still.

Murray served first in the third and angry from his failure in the previous set used the energy to good effect with a strong serving display.  His first serve percentage was reasonable but it didn't matter because Federer made no impact on his second delivery whenever it was needed.  Federer, however, could not string a decent set of first serves together, and when he missed he was easy fodder for Murray who won most times on the second ball.

Murray could not press his serving advantage into scoreboard pressure for most of the set but at 2-3 the number two seed did face break points, one of which he side stepped successfully before crashing to a 2-4 deficit.

The next few games were flushed with winners, but even though Federer could claim a relatively easy hold in game eight, both the seventh and ninth were just as simple for Murray, with two aces in both, the final one finishing the set 6-3.

Now Federer needed five sets as he did against Tsonga in the previous match.

The potency of the Murray first serve dissipated in the fourth set, as Federer managed to win quite a few points off it, and in doing so lifted the competitiveness of his whole game.  Murray missed out on a chance for an early break due to a Federer forehand winner which helped the second seed gain a 1-0 lead.

Murray played a shocker in the fourth game with three terrible shots setting up as many break points for Federer.  Two were saved with Murray retribution in the form of an ace and a heavy ground stroke, but he blew the comeback with another failed forehand and Federer had a 3-1 advantage with serve in hand.

At 4-2 and 30-15 on his own serve Federer appeared to be sailing smoothly, but forehand winners from Murray highlighted a string of points which ended with him up breaking back for 3-4 and with a chance to level the set.

The eighth game lasted several deuces and Federer had a break point which would have given him a chance to serve for the set.  However, Murray ground his way to the end of the game and 4-4 was the result.

At 5-5, Federer repeated Murray's fourth game disaster with a trio of errors of his own creation.  The break for 6-5 in Murray's favour appeared to be the final nail, with the Scot's serve to come.

At 30-15 the finish line could be almost touched but Federer attacked hard for one of the few times in the match and it broke through Murray's defence, winning three straight points for the break and 6-6.
Tie break territory in which Federer revels and which Murray sometimes can lose his bearings.

Federer dominated the tie break, never giving the rattled Murray a look in.  Centimetres from victory the third seed now had to face up to a fifth set;  the only good news was that he would be first to serve.

For the final set, Murray switched his serving efficiency back on and he was once again impregnable on both first and second attempts.  Federer immediately was vulnerable, relying on second serve almost half the time and failing to win with it most of those times.

Additionally the errors all over the court contributed to a difference between the players while not truly representative of the gap over the entire match, certainly was a better reflection of the dominance of Murray than the five set win about to occur.  That result would owe more to Federer's unequalled skill to take the tiniest opening and yank it wide open into a game or set winning scenario, than to a particularly close on court contest.

Andy Murray won the semi final, his first win over Roger Federer in a Grand Slam tournament, and the score will always read 6-4 6-7 (5-7) 6-3 6-7 (2-7) 6-2.

The final will be between the two who contested the last Grand Slam tournament final - the 2012 US Open, and indeed the two most successful players at Grand Slam level of the past year - Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Italians in three for Womens Doubles crown

Today's Womens Doubles final featured the world's best team in Italians Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani against surprise finalists unseeded Australians Casey Dellacqua and Ashleigh Barty.  For 16 year old Barty an amazing feat in her fledgling career and for Casey another fine achievement in doubles for the 2011 French Open Mixed Doubles Champion.

The second and third games gave Australia some hope after a wobbly nervous start.  Casey dropped the first game of the match with some poorly judged doubles shots setting up the Italian girls for easy put aways.  Vinci was in serious trouble after a gorgeous lob from Casey and a great cross court pass from Ashleigh but inconsistency from the Australians let Vinci eventually hold that serve.

Ashleigh redeemed the situation with an impressive service game and the Aussies hit the board to trail 1-2.  Sara Errani had no difficulty holding serve for 3-1, and Casey was travelling in a similar direction before strangely deciding to take a short cut and running into trouble, ultimately dropping what looked a secure hold of serve and the Italians were in complete command 4-1.

Vinci consolidated for 5-1 but Ashleigh ensured that the top seeds would need to serve for the set by again holding her serve for 2-5, including a massive forehand winner.

Errani felt little pressure from the Aussies perhaps because there was none, as she served the first set out 6-2 with a beautifully rifled down the line pass to finish it.

Disappointing for Casey and Ash but not a surprise given where the respective teams are in the world of doubles in terms of experience talent and teamwork.

Ashleigh opened the second set with a hold of serve after a tense struggle, saving break points in doing so.  Vinci strolled through another game for the Italian team then Casey found a new way to drop serve, this time after leading 30-0 before Italian lob and volley winners preceded elementary errors from an Australian team under immense pressure.

The Italians had made some mistakes today but not in a cluster as in the fourth game on the Errani serve.  Poise at last from both Ashleigh and Casey simultaneously,achieved the break and it was 2-2.
Ashleigh played some terrific doubles in the next game, as did Casey and it was service hold number four from four for the sixteen year old.  3-2 the Aussies.

The next two games were exasperating as well as exhilarating.  Both Vinci and Dellacqua had every reason to drop serve but held on, and for Casey it was particularly sweet given she had been broken each time until then.  Ashleigh continued to blossom as her talent shone on court throughout many pressure exchanges.  4-3 to ABCD.

A stunning return game on Errani's serve by both Australians but especially noteworthy for Barty's shot making, resulted in another break and it was Ashleigh who had the honour/pressure of serving for a set apiece.  Incredibly, and after some nervous moments, the set went to the home side 6-3, Casey settling a lot of the nerves with some savvy shot selection.

The roll continued for Australia as they broke the Vinci serve first up in the decider, only for that advantage to be wiped out when the Barty serve was lost for the first time in six attempts.  Errani also found conditions difficult but managed to make it without the need for a deuce and the Italians led 2-1 but games on serve.

Casey now more confident on serve levelled at 2-2 with some nice half volleys to complement the excellent net work from Ashleigh, and then the Vinci serve gave us evidence of why the top seeds have that mantle.  It was text book doubles and the Australians would need to on their mettle to match that quality.

Sadly the rock solid Barty serve was broken for the second time in succession due essentially to unforced errors excceeding occasional safe volleying, and from 15-30 on the Errani serve another three basic mistakes from the Aussies gave the game to the Italians without the top seeds needing to do a thing.  5-2 and closing in.

The next game turned out to be the final game as the inevitability had seeped through to the Australian subconscious.

The Australian Open Women's Doubles Champions for 2013 were deservedly the top seeds Italians Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani 6-2 3-6 6-2.

However, the Australians Casey Dellacqua and Ashleigh Barty can be justly proud of their tournament and indeed their debut final at this level.

Aussies fight for Mixed finals berth

Both disappointed following first round singles losses, Australia's Jarmila Gajdosova and Matthew Ebden have embraced the rest of the Australian Open and enjoyed success in the Mixed Doubles event, culminating, so far, in today's semi final against the pairing of Yaroslava Shvedova from Kazakhstan and Denis Istomin from Uzbekistan.

Both teams were unseeded, and the Australians had defeated the second and fifth seeded teams to reach the semi stage.

The first set featured some terrific tennis from both teams with the volley exchanges that crowds love to see leaving none disappointed.  A break apiece for both until the twelfth game when the Australians broke once more to take the important advantage 7-5.

An early break of the Australians in Set 2 caused some worries for spectators but not as much as for Jarmila and Matt, but they stuck at their game plan and held serve staying within range.  At 2-4 concerns arose when Jarmila ran into trouble on serve - another break would have Yaroslava and Denis serving for the set.

The Aussies held firm and turned the pressure back on Yaroslava who served next.  Again she dropped serve and the games were back even.  At 5-5, Jarmila put her team within a game of victory, but Yaroslava served strongly winning every point with help from Denis where necessary, to force a tie break.

Before long, the Australians had raced to a six points to two lead, and despite some loose shots leading to the evaporation of three match points, Jarmila finally put away a winner on the fourth to put the team in the final - the victory 7-5 7-6 (7-5)

Ferrer far off the best of Djokovic

Perennial Grand Slam tournament second week contributor David Ferrer, according to Novak Djokovic, would have the the world number one battling for a long time to prevail in the semi final between the two.

Maybe they were the right words to say, and the true thoughts of Novak were more confident, but I don't suspect such confidence extended to him performing at a standard to which we were privileged to witness on a balmy Melbourne Thursday night.

Almost immediately,  the Ferrer ability to gather up tennis balls like few others in order to maintain the life of rallies was put to an extreme test with Djokovic at his most inventive, accurate and ruthless certainly for this year and possibly for any match played at this level this deep in the draw.

The Serb serve was totally on point, with Ferrer unable to make a statistical dent in its effectiveness, whereas the Spanish equivalent was hardly that, easily picked off for outright winners off both wings.
Ferrer could reach several Djokovic ground strokes but when Novak introduced subtle spin or slice to the mix, just merely reaching the ball became insufficient and errors began piling up in the Spanish column.

Djokovic does not approach the net often but when he does he usually has a good motive, and the times tonight were for point winning, as were most of his movements of leg and racquet.

The score book will show that Ferrer lost serve twice in the first set - it won't show the way in which Novak Djokovic dominated the match, manoeuvring his opponent around the court as if manipulating a marionette.  It won't show how debilitating it was for David Ferrer to have his best efforts made to look almost inept as he shot little arrows into the oncoming full scale artillery.

At 2-2 paper barely covered the yawning gap before a couple of forehands ripped it asunder and all hell broke loose.

6-2 the first set raced by, and for the crowd an ace was the set winning shot.   Yet the respect in which David Ferrer is held allows for the idea, fanciful though it sometimes may be, of a comeback in any match where he is still on court and moving, regardless of current scoreline.    

So in a best of five set match Djokovic needed to continue his wizardry (for us) and heartache (for Ferrer) a while longer.  He did just this.

In Set 2 the dominance of the Djokovic serve continued unabated, again placing immense pressure on Ferrer when he was asked to hold his.  His second serve, too often required, was pulverised by the best returner arguably since Agassi. 

Ferrer could not keep rallies alive at his command, Djokovic deciding to end them in a variety of ways, increasing his ventures to the net to gather successes, as if he hadn't been successful everywhere else.

As if by design, and to be blunt the delivery of tonight's total package from Novak was akin to rolling out the latest iPad app, another two breaks of the Ferrer serve were the score book's stark record of the divide between the players.

The 6-2 margin was repeated and now five sets would be the necessary distance for the match to run if Ferrer were to win through to the final.  Of course that would happen only if Novak Djokovic were replaced at this point with an exponent of the game with merely human capabilities.

Set three and Djokovic improved if anything, assisted it must be said by a naturally despondent Ferrer.  The Spanish forth seed's errant backhand gifted the first game to Djokovic and with that service break the party could begin.

Holding serve was so much a certainty for Novak tonight that it could have been avoided and just placed as a game in the Serb column.  However he did as he was told and won for 2-0 before we had what I believe was the OMG game of the night featuring the OMG shot of the night.

Ferrer had forced Djokovic wide on the deuce side out of court on the first point of the Spaniard's second service game, when Novak played an astonishing forehand that was always out of court while in the air and only decided to come into play as it landed, becoming a down the line winner to behold.
Not content to leave it there, the top seed gave his backhand a chance in the spotlight - once with a slashing winner to set up break point and again to break the Ferrer serve.

This was the peak of a glorious exhibition of tennis from Novak Djokovic and if he takes this sort of form with him to Sunday then his opposition will need something special to overcome the two time defending champion.

6-2 6-2 6-1 the final scoreline

For Ferrer, these things happen on occasion, and he would know that when an opponent is on fire you can only sit back, hope for a miracle and if it doesn't come just admire.  Next time for David hopefully the roles could be reversed.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Vika wins right to defend

If Victoria Azarenka was asked before the tournament whether she expected to be playing Sloane Stephens in the semi final, unofficially I expect the questioner would have been put in the nuthouse.
Yet here she was, the amazingly talented teenager who had shattered the dream of Serena Williams continuing her quest for another "Serena Slam" in a gutsy quarter final win full of class and attractive shot manufacture.

There is something else about Sloane Stephens that needs to be investigated.  In her quarter final, Williams left the court at one point to seek medical attention.  So indeed did Vika Azarenka in the semi final.  What does Sloane do that has such an effect on these very best female players?  Is she that much of a threat?

From the moment the match started no earthly creation was going to help Sloane deal with the vast artillery that Azarenka had at her disposal.  It is not about power with the top seed but about variety and the all court game that added to her pace and movement makes her unstoppable in stretches at a time.
Admittedly this Aus Open Vika has been slightly below the awesome level of 2012 but peaking for Saturday night is what counts and her first set today appeared to be on the perfect trajectory.

The ground strokes had Stephens constantly off balance and put of position, mitigating any power that the American had intended to employ with a number of shots.  The forehand strength was balanced beautifully with the occasional backhand lob or drop shot emphasising the variety needed when aiming for the elite rankings.

Azarenka broke again to lead 4-1 and a slashing backhand won the set when the Stephens serve was dropped for a third time.  6-1 Azarenka and not much doubt about Li Na's final opponent so far.

The score in Set 2 was 2-0 and the interview room was being prepared for the winner with questions framed for Azarenka surrounding her preparation for the final in two days time.  Then Sloane Stephens intervened breaking back for 1-2 and soon games were 3-2 and on serve, the conclusion of the match less defined.

The serve for each of the players became a liability and four times in succession it was dropped. Significantly, each time that Sloane achieved a break it was to effectively stay alive in the quarter final, which says volumes for her determination and ability at such an early stage of her career.

The eighth game was a real treat with Stephens battling off several match points and spending overtime at deuce before Azarenka was the first to crack.

At 4-5, with Stephens set to serve, Azarenka left the court for medical treatment, the timing rather interesting and worth a question or two just for clarification.

Whether this had an adverse impact on Stephens we may never know.  We do know that it stopped the momentum, she failed to hold serve yet again and the match could no longer continue.

Victoria Azarenka won the right to defend her title with a 6-1 6-4 victory over the revelation of the tournament Sloane Stephens.

Maria falls to Li in another GS semi final

Li Na defeated Maria Sharapova in the 2011 French Open semi final in straight sets on the way to winning her first Grand Slam title.  That day in Paris Maria had a serving disaster.  Since then Sharapova has played and beaten Li 3 times, all on 2012.  Today was the first time the two had met in a Grand Slam tournament match since Paris.

Sharapova had been in irresistible form all tournament and deserved tournament favouritism with Serna's departure.  Li Na had given the previously unbeaten in 2013 Agnieszka Radwanska a slap down straight sets education in the quarters, announcing herself as one of which to be very wary in the final days of this Aus Open.

Memories of Roland Garros 2011 must have flooded back for Maria as her first five attempts to serve legitimately failed and she was 0-3 with a second serve to come.  A string of unforced errors from both players told a story of nerves, but eventually it was the Sharapova fragility that was exposed at the heaviest cost, and she lost serve.

The scene had been set for the most worrying set of tennis yet encountered this year by Sharapova as she failed to read the weight of shot from Li.  Not only that, the winners that were concocted by Maria and her racquet tended to come in ones rather than the runs that quickly give a player two or three game or break points.

Li was handling the Maria serve fairly well, although her own first serve percentage of around half was appalling and deserved harsher treatment than that which Maria handed out in the first part of the match.  Li Na to no one's great surprise given Maria's demeanour and form today broke for the second time to lead 4-1, and only a set back of her own when trying for a consolidation of the break gave us any cause to wonder about the set going anywhere but China.

Li Na appeared to enter the match without a meal the way she was feasting on the Sharpova second serve.  That, along with other court management skills including error minimisation on a very hot day, served her well in her quest to take this match on her own personal journey.

Sharapova was all but finished in the first set when she was broken for the third time to trail 2-5, and no matter how hard she tried to deny Li Na the serve was safe and the set was the 6th seed's 6-2.

Now we awaited the Russian response.

In the second game of Set 2 Sharapova had her chance to be back in the match but could not take advantage of either of the two break points afforded her.  Such was Li Na's attention to detail, only one more would become available for the rest of the match.

In the fifth and seventh games it was clear that no one could solve the problem that was Maria's.  She lost serve on both occasions and lethargy looked to be her only companion.

Li Na won this match 6-2 6-2.  Knocking over the top seeds can also keep the bookies happy, and today's result will leave a number of them sleeping well.

Bryan brothers aiming for another final

The headline could be a cut and paste from dozens of reports through the years, such has the dominance of men's tennis been by the Bryan brothers, Mike and Bob.  To make it true today the win would  have to come against a pairing made in Italy, so there was a real Davis Cup feel about the contest.

Simone Bolelli and Fabio Fognini comprised the American pair's opposition and for the better part of Set 1 it was quality opposition.  The doubles entertained as it should by the semi final stage, and the habit  which the Americans have developed of finding a break point from thin air was evident again today.  A single break point delivered the sole service break, and the Americans were half way to the finals winning the set 6-4.

The second set shifted with the Italian team picking up the tempo quicker than the Americans.  They were hitting winners everywhere from both sides, volleying, overhead, passing or just finding spare open court.  All a great show for the crowd, but in practical terms of not much value as the Bryans had contingencies for all kinds of teams and all changes in team tactics.  Only one break point was garnered by the Italians for all their sweet shot making and style and glamour.

The miserly Americans normally dispense with the occasional break point against them but on this occasion it slipped through the cracks and caused not only the loss of the game but eventually the set too.  6-4 to each team and a third set to decide a finalist.

The brothers Bryan knuckled down to the task and with an amazing service percentage and hitting with greater precision around the court than at any phase of the match, they mauled the Italians.  Only two breaks of serve were made but of course that was entirely sufficient.

Mike and Bob finalists yet again 6-4 4-6 6-1.

Two Aussie Women to contest the Final

Ok it sounds good but we are only referring to womens doubles and the team of Casey Dellacqua and Ashleigh Barty, which had knocked over the number three and number fourteen seeded teams on the way to the semi final which followed the hard act to follow Federer / Tsonga delight.

To reach the final the Aussies had to defeat the team of American Varvara Lepchenko and China's Saisai Zheng, also unseeded, and then would face the might of the number one seeded Italians once there.

All four girls held their respective first serves, but then the match made its first major directional selection with first Varvara, then Saisai, dropping their serves, handing the first set to the Aussies 6-2.
Casey was the best player on court with her well timed and well placed lobs, chopping off volleys and general team leading.  The Chino-American alliance was in trouble with its lack of communication at times leading to half court overage on occasion, poor choice of shots when in defensive mode and what appeared to be lack of an overall plan.

Similar stuff happened in the early stages of the second set, with Ashleigh holding serve for the now named (courtesy of a crowd wit) ABCD team, then assisting Casey to break Varvara once more.

At 3-0 things appeared set for the Aussies and the promotional material began to be prepared for the final.  Then the good ship ABCD sprung a leak.  Ashleigh committed atrocities on serve and will have to walk the plank, Saisai taught herself how to hold serve and Casey forgot all of the good material on which she had mentored Ashleigh then blew her own service game.

Suddenly the visitors were in front 4-3 with the now scarily reliable serve of Varvara to come.  It did not stay reliable for longer than the one game and the ABCD broke back to 4-4.

The girls then tacked well to sail home on the breeze and advance to the women's doubles final with the comprehensive 6-2 6-4 victory.

Saving the best quarter final till last

Roger Federer is destined to have great battles with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga these days, and the matches they play at Grand Slam tournaments seem to be the ones they produce on an extra special level.

Based on the form of the two in this year's Open, the quarter final on Wednesday night promised another beauty.  We were not disappointed.

Tsonga started the show with a few nervous moments and Federer doesn't mind capitalising on those so he stole what Tsonga believed should have been his - the 1-0 lead.  Roger offered Jo-Wilfried chances to break back but he was too slow to commit, the offer was withdrawn and the games were 3-1 in Federer's favour.

Already some of the factors in the match were becoming apparent.  Federer would be spending a great deal of time using his forehand to dictate rallies as they lengthened, pushing Tsonga as wide as possible for the open court or down the line winner.  Tsonga would attack with his ground strokes, trusting his ability to accelerate the racquet speed within a rally and not lose control - he would also try to lob Federer and that policy would need to be reviewed judging by its initial lack of success.

The entertainment value added factor was very high for both but Tsonga had the edge, but that rings true in most of his matches.  In the sixth game Tsonga came from the clouds with some winners to set up break point again on the Federer serve, until tonight a rock solid fortress.  Roger relented and he found himself at 3-3.

"Shot of the night" was a tag that the crowd was assigning to many strokes as the evening progressed, occasionally even "shot of the tournament".  This was the match Federer had to have if he was to be properly prepared for the final few days, although he would claim that an easy 3 setter works better.

Tonight he still may receive the 3 set match but it would be anything but simple.  A Federer error made a break point in Tsonga's fifth service game redundant and the pair exchanged series after series of wonderful shots in readiness for what clearly would be a vital tie break.

Tsonga thought he had won the first point with a big serve, but a challenge showed it to be a fault and the point ultimately went to Federer following the second serve.  This hurt the seventh seed who instead of taking the lead on serve was now behind, and stayed that way throughout the break, Federer playing it very professionally.
With great relief, for the third match in succession, Roger Federer won a tie break and time would tell how decisive this one might be.

The second set was tight again on the scoreboard but it was clearly Tsonga's set.  He won virtually everything on his own serve, and only the brilliance of Federer to stay in touch once the rallies were underway kept his serve safe for the most part.

However in the seventh game it was the overall pressure of Tsonga that drove Federer to the edge and the second seed played a couple of bad shots to lose serve and put Jo-Wilfried in the drivers seat.  Happily grabbing the keys, Tsonga tore off into the distance picking up the second set 6-4 on his way and leaving a disturbed Roger Federer behind with just the first set to comfort him.

Nothing to choose between the two once more as the third set threatened to become a repeat of the first with not much damage done to either serve.  Yes each player dropped serve in the second and third games but that was net nothing and odd things tend to occur at front ends of sets.

Great stroke play, still dominated off each of their forehands, and Roger finding space on a few occasions where space didn't exist to exquisitely pass Tsonga.  Of course it had to be a tiebreak and for this one Roger volunteered to open with a serve he had been designing for a few months.  Released to the public tonight for the first time it successfully won a point, and plenty of applause to follow.

Tsonga put himself into a tangle again, not yet able to handle these tie break thingamabobs as easily as the tiebreak master.  Never looking likely, Jo-Wilfried lost the set 6-7 and now required five sets to reach the semi final.

Another brilliant set of tennis from Tsonga in the fourth was salivating stuff for the crowd but for Jo-Wilfried still too close for comfort in the scorebook. 

This set featured break points in over half the games played - the third game saw Tsonga save a trailer load before holding,  then Federer save a couple in the next.

Tsonga for once appeared to have a handle on the Federer serve and he used it to pick it up and smash it in the 6th game.  4-2 the lead.
Federer bounced back in the following game, breaking the Tsonga serve , seemingly against the run of play.

For the fourth set, that was Federer's final hurrah, because a tremendous rally, signed off with a super backhand volley from the Tsonga racquet, also signed over the eighth service game to Tsonga and Co. together with a Swiss bank account.

Jo-Wilfried served out that phase of the match to have the scoreline read 6-7 6-4 6-7 6-3

Roger Federer, in the one set sprint to determine the quarter final result, had too much for even Jo-Wilfried to handle.  With the serve back to near impregnable, and his relaxed shot making back in a moment of national crisis,  Roger cruised through the final set, breaking Tsonga in the fourth game.  Jo-Wilfried saved many match points in his final service game and made Roger serve for the match.

Federer triumped 7-6 (7-4) 4-6 7-6 (7-4) 3-6 6-3 in a terrific quarter final full of several twists and overflowing with hotshots.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Andy in semi without fanfare

Andy Murray apparently expressed his concern to Tournament Director Craig Tiley that he had not played a night match whereas 2nd seed Roger Federer had played all but one of his under lights on Rod Laver Arena.

Well the ramifications of that are just coming to the surface.  Because of the alleged expression of concern, Craig informed Andy that scheduling decisions are actually made by his boss, tennis supremo R.Federer, and that the issue should be taken up with him.

Taken aback Andy approached Roger who accomodated him by granting him a special venue for his quarter final with surprise opponent Jeremy Chardy from France.

Armed with Cabcharge vouchers and accompanied by a spare ball boy, the players journeyed out to Oak Park where the second court was free for 2 hours.  The ball boy would be happy to fill the central umpire role and call the lines provided the players could pick up the balls whenever the server needed them.

Is there no end to Roger's thoughtfulness?

Until now Andy had not lost a set, and he had thrashed the 14th seed Gilles Simon, another from France, in the previous round.  Chardy had provided the Open with a huge upset, dumping 6th seed Juan Martin Del Potro in a 5 set marathon round 3 match before dealing with 21st seed Italian Andreas Seppi in the round of sixteen.

Set 1 began ominously for Chardy as he served a double fault on the first point. He followed this gem with a forehand failure and later another double fault set up a break point which was converted without any assistance from Murray who just witnessed the disaster.

In the third game Murray fired three successive forehand winners to move from 30-15 down on Chardy's serve to break the French player again and lead 3-0.

A win for Murray would at last see him on Rod Laver Arena at night (first time in 12 months) and he had started in the best way towards achieving that goal.  More forehand success for the Scot and some good serving from Chardy coloured the next couple of games and then Andy became careless, losing his serve in game 6 on the back of poor backhands, to now only lead 4-2.

The single break advantage proved enough, holding firm until the end of the set which was awarded to Andy Murray 6-4.  The Oak Park court was certainly generating some pace, and was a step up in class from the ones on which he had practised back home in Scotland.

Chardy served first in the second set and at 1-1 he made several unforced errors to lose that serve and trail 1-2.  Murray meantime was spreading all his winners across the board in a concerted effort to squash any comeback attempt from Chardy.  Another break in the fifth game plus a Chardy double fault on set point in the seventh game gave the 2 set lead to Murray 6-4 6-1.

Andy's forehand generated several stylish winners in the third set and the third seed ripped into the too often inadequate serve of Chardy.  The second and sixth games were service games that were dropped and Murray forced Chardy into error in the eighth game to give up yet another break of serve and the match 6-4 6-1 6-2.

Andy Murray had won through to another semi final and if he could only find his way back from Oak Park he may even have the chance to participate in it.