Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Novak - 2014's best, whatever the ranking points

The recent hype surrounding a "battle" for year end number one ATP ranking between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer is purely statistical and unfairly has overshadowed the clear fact that once again Novak has been the player of the year.

Yes, the great Federer may have gathered sufficient points here and there to have challenged the Serbian tally, but even if Roger did surpass Novak in London next week (though after Paris that appears most unlikely) nothing could change the stark comparison of the two seasons at the highest level.

Djokovic won Wimbledon against Federer on the Swiss champ's favourite and most prolific Grand Slam court.  He also was runner-up at Roland Garros, semi finalist in New York and quarter finalist in Melbourne.  Novak also won four Masters titles, across two different surfaces, and both indoor and out.

No one is denying that Roger also had a terrific year, but once again he failed to add to his Grand Slam tournament tally.  One final, two semis and a fourth round at the four GS tournaments and two Masters successes form the basis for statistically a good year, but certainly not warranting consideration of Player of the Year.  So let us not be carried away by the mere total ATP ranking points when judging 2014.
An interesting fact - if Federer finished 2014 ranked number one he would be the first in the Open Era to do so without winning a major in that year, since John McEnroe in 1982.

I sense a double standard because while there would be nothing but praise and adoration for Roger being number one ranked at the end of 2014, despite winless at Grand Slam level, just think back to the WTA Tour when Jelena Jankovic (2008) and Caroline Wozniacki (2010 and 2011) were mercilessly criticised for finishing the year as the highest ranked on the WTA Tour, simply for not having won a major.

It wasn't the first time - for example Lindsay Davenport finished both 2004 and 2005 ranked number one on the WTA tour, yet won no majors in those years; yes she had proved herself as a major winner, but those were in 2000 and earlier.

And while it's true Roger has won 17 big ones, it is over two years since he tasted that success, and the currency of those 17 when discussing 2014 is wearing thin.

But if the credibility of finishing the year number one according to the rankings does not require a Grand Slam tournament win for Roger Federer, and I am not advocating either way, then nor should it for any other player who has similarly been consistent enough to rake up the most points without the spoils of one or more of the big four.

The ATP and WTA ranking points will always be what they are, and just once in awhile the best player in a calendar year, male or female, may not coincide with the one having the highest points tally.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Serena and Caro - new Friendly Rivalry

Serena Williams, by her own unmatched standards, had a roller coaster 2014, but did tie up a few loose ends in the later stages, capturing a sixth US Open crown and eventually her third straight season ending WTA Finals.

However, while it was Maria Sharapova chasing Serena for the number one spot, and Simona Halep contesting the champion in the Singapore finale, the real rivalry created in the latter half of the year was a truly friendly one with Caroline Wozniacki.  Caro has revitalised her tennis since Wimbledon, and can lay serious claim to being the fittest player on tour.

While training for tennis tournaments throughout the world, Caro has also been preparing for a tilt at the New York marathon, and her performance level on court has not suffered, in fact has blossomed.

A record since the London grass of 28 match wins against 8 losses and a finishing ranking of 7 in the world are fine stats in isolation, but further analysis suggests greater credit is due the Danish star.

Twice she defeated the 2014 Roland Garros champion Sharapova, once at the US Open, and again in the WTA Finals.  In the WTA Finals she also swept aside the 2014 Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova and the third player seeded above her in her group Agnieszka Radwanska. (She had Radwanska's measure again earlier in the Cincinnati quarters in August)

A title winner in Istanbul and a finalist in Tokyo, Caro was clearly one of the top players based on matches won, but when you consider that half of her losses experienced from August to October were to Serena Williams, three of them after taking the first set from the best, and the other in the US Open final, the record is immediately seen in a different light.

Caroline Wozniacki will not take pleasure in the successive failures to overcome Serena, but she now knows that instead of just being cannon fodder for the world number one, a Wozniacki match up will in future continue to present a serious challenge for Williams.  The Australian Open final has materialised as a realistic target for which to aim.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Finals create history with little contest

Unfortunately the two singles finals in the 2014 US Open were no more than exhibitions by Serena Williams and Marin Cilic.  Luckily the tennis from these two champions was of a high enough calibre, not only in the finale, but in preceding matches to warrant the trophies and prodigious amounts of money headed their way.

Serena, a "mere" five time winner this year prior to Flushing Meadows, and a poor performer at each of the majors, spared her good friend Caroline Wozniacki any torture by slamming her with brutal winners on the back of brilliant serving to secure her sixth New York Grand Slam tournament success - the last half of them in successive years.  She now sits atop any player, man or woman, in the game today, with eighteen major single titles from 56 attempts, an astonishing 10 from the last 22, and she has the desire to improve and win more.  Once she reaches a final, who can seriously stop her?

A word on Caroline Wozniacki.  The former world ranked number one has revived her career in no uncertain terms, and has proven to be second only to Serena on the North American hard courts this season.  Her turn to win a Grand Slam title may yet come, and soon.  One of those times that Serena isn't hell bent on squashing the hopes of 127 others in the draw.  The win over Sharapova is especially something to savour from these past two weeks,  and Caro has flown back into the top ten with fire.

The unexpected men's final gave us the fourth different winner of a major this calendar year, and two of them newbies.  Marin Cilic now has to prove he can mix it on a regular basis with the Novaks and Rafas of the world, something that Del Potro hasn't managed since his 2009 triumph (injuries have not helped) and Wawrinka is yet to do since Melbourne this year.

Cilic has the firepower to trouble the very best, and maybe he will take a greater level of confidence into matches with the US Open crown his.  Kei Nishikori, while disappointed at being outclassed in straight sets in the final, must use his wins over Raonic, Wawrinka and especially Djokovic to advantage as he forges a path forward possibly into the worlds top five by the end of 2014.  

Both the finalists, together with Dimitrov and Raonic, and possibly Tsonga, must capitalise on the diminishing effect of Federer (his ranking in the world belies the fact that he does not make finals at Grand Slam level much these days - Wimbledon this year was the first in two years), the injury prone Nadal, the question marks over Murray, and a lesser return from Djokovic.

If they don't cash in while they can, we will revert to what we have seen over the past five years:

Fourteen Grand Slam titles won by the top tier of Nadal and Djokovic and four by the next level of Federer and Murray.  

2014 has been different with Stan and Marin breaking through and that is the trend we want to see into 2015 and beyond.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Serena the constant as we welcome surprise finalists

Well after a fortnight of upsets, it appeared that things were back on track with Serena Williams cruising through to yet another Flushing Meadows final, and Djokovic and Federer with seemingly straightforward tasks to be completed on men's semi final day.

Nothing could prepare us for what was to occur.

Yes Serena had provided Ekaterina Makarova with confirmation of her dominance by taking only an hour of her time to dismiss the Russian 6-1 6-3.  Makarova should be rapt with her performance over the whole tournament, and the final match is not indicative of her rise in the game this past year or so.

Earlier, Caroline Wozniacki prevailed in circumstances no one wanted, when Peng Shuai, after courageously battling the punishing heat, collapsed on the court and eventually had to retire.  The tenth seed Wozniacki had fought back from a break down to win the first set tie breaker and was serving at 3-4 when the match finished prematurely.

The two highest remaining seeds in the women's draw would now be battling each other for the title.

Not so with the men.

Firstly, Kei Nishikori, with his damaging forehand causing the top seed all sorts of trouble, broke twice in the opening set to win it 6-4.  Shock waves reverberated around Queens and Japanese fans wondered if the impossible could happen.  Novak retaliated immediately, dominating from the baseline and hardly making a mistake as he raced through set 2 for the loss of only a single game.
At a set each, bookies were feeling much more comfortable.
However, the form that saw him dispatch Raonic and Wawrinka came back to Nishikori in the third set, and he outgunned the Serbian star at his own game, eventually breaking in the eighth game, earning the right to serve for the set.

Djokovic proved again that he is best at extracting himself from desperate situations, and broke back.  A tiebreak was required, and once more the Japanese hotshot put the pressure on, opening up a 4-0 lead.  He had two serves at 5-2 to win the set, but Novak won both to give his fans hope as points were back on serve.
There was no stopping the irresistible surge from Nishikori, though, and he won the remaining points to  establish a two sets to one lead 6-4 1-6 7-6.

Djokovic appeared tired, and Kei Nishikori, running on adrenalin and the knowledge that his tennis was the better this match, pushed for and achieved an immediate break to lead 2-0 at the start of what would be the final set.  Serving at 5-4 for the match, Nishikori found his opponent had little more to give, and an appearance in the US Open final, his first major final, was reward for his sensational upset of the best hard court player in the world. 

With Nadal out injured, and Ferrer, Dimitrov, Berdych and Djokovic all beaten, it looked like the dream run for Roger Federer would result in him winning a sixth US Open.  Marin Cilic was not informed of this plan and proceeded to serve the Swiss ace off the court for two scintillating sets of tennis 6-3 6-4. Cilic was winning almost 100% of points on his first serve and more than half on his second delivery.  He hit twice as many winners as Federer in sets 1 and 2, and despite Roger not playing badly, the Croatian game just overwhelmed the former number one.  

When Federer broke serve in the third, murmurs of a comeback like that against Monfils did the rounds, in hope more than anything.  Once Marin broke back, the sense of inevitability of result returned.  Federer pushed hard, but at 3-3 he stumbled again, and was broken for the final time to trail 4-3.  
Serving for glory at 5-4, Cilic began with two aces to effectively put beyond doubt the result.
Cilic won 6-3 6-4 6-4 and the US Open final for 2014 will be contested between players not including Federer, Nadal or Djokovic - the first such Grand Slam tournament final since the 2005 Australian Open.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Debut Semi Finalists join old hands

2014 has been more of the same for Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic as the respective number one seeds have claimed semi final spots in the US Open for the fourth straight year (Serena) and eighth straight (Novak).  Serena has actually made the semis for the last six years she has played at Flushing Meadows, having been unavailable in 2010.  

Novak has converted those semis into five finals, winning in 2011, while Serena has made the final for the past three years winning the last two.

So much for the reliable top seeds.  The support acts amongst the top ten have taken a fearful battering this past week or so, especially the women.  We lost seeds 2 through 9 before the quarter finals, and two players will feature in their first semi finals at Grand Slam level.  

Ekaterina Makarova has continued a wonderful season, and the 17th seed is rewarded with a match against Serena Williams after dispensing with the runner up from the last two years Vika Azarenka in one quarter final.

Peng Shuai will enjoy her battle with 10th seed Caroline Wozniacki in the other semi final after the unseeded Chinese player successfully accounted for surprise packet Belinda Bencic in another quarter final.

Sara Errani will hopefully be remembered for her four quality victories at this years event and not her inglorious exit, thrashed by Wozniacki who seems set to meet Williams in the final - a repeat of their recent clashes in Montreal and Cincinnati.

Not to be outdone, the men's draw has seen Kei Nishikori sneak by without too much fanfare until his victories over 5th seed Milos Raonic in the fourth round, and in another tough five setter over 3rd seed Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarters.

On the other side, the exciting 20th seed Gael Monfils has put together one of his best majors, winning a quarter final spot without dropping a set, and taking out countryman and 12th seed Gasquet in the third round before dumping Wimbledon semi finalist and seventh seed Dimitrov in the fourth round.

Normally, a win against his next opponent Roger Federer would be deemed highly unlikely but the chances are reasonable this time, and the match should be one of the best to watch in the tournament thus far.

The remaining quarter final features sixth seed Tomas Berdych, who has gained form and confidence with each match.  He will try and prevent Marin Cilic, the 14th seed, from gaining his second semi final appearance at a Grand Slam tournament.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Women provide the excitement in Week One

As 2014 has entered its second half, and we are in the Labour Day weekend phase of the US Open, evidence continues to mount that women's tennis is where we can regularly look to find exciting young unheralded players taking it to the very top ranked stars, and having the goods to upset them at the highest level.

Let us survey the damage inflicted on the seeds as the first Saturday comes to its conclusion.

Men's Singles - Of the top 20 seeds, only Ernests Gulbis (11), John Isner (13) and Fabio Fognini (15) have lost.

Conversely, this is what has happened with the top female seeds - 

Simona Halep (2), 2014 Roland Garros finalist, exited thanks to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in the third round.

Petra Kvitova (3), 2014 Wimbledon champion, also lost in the third round to 145th ranked Serbian qualifier Aleksandra Krunic.

Agnieszka Radwanska (4), 2012 Wimbledon finalist, was given her marching orders by Peng Shuai in the second round.

Angelique Kerber (6), 2012 Wimbledon and 2011 US Open semi finalist, lost her third round encounter with Swiss teenager Belinda Bencic.

Ana Ivanovic (8), 2008 Roland Garros champion, failed in her second round match against the Czech Republic top fifty player Karolina Pliskova.

So, of the eight players seeded to make the quarter finals, only three are left standing after the third round.  We still have Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Jelena Jankovic from the old guard, and the excitement machine that is Genie Bouchard is alive, albeit just surviving her most recent three set tussle.  Add to that in form Caro Wozniacki, and 2012/2013 finalist Vika Azarenka, and you can see that women's tennis has a depth to survive the massacre of seeds that we have witnessed.

Monday, 25 August 2014

No new winner likely at Flushing Meadow

Without Rafa Nadal to defend his US Open title this year, you could be forgiven for thinking that the draw has opened up for a number of players in the men's singles in New York.  It has potentially cleared the path somewhat for top seed Novak Djokovic and the player he overcame in the Wimbledon final, Roger Federer.  Federer comes into the final Grand Slam tournament of 2014 as the number two seed, thus avoiding Djokovic until the final should he reach that far.  Even Andy Murray, the 2012 winner, is on the opposite side of the draw from Federer.

The hard court tournaments leading into the US Open have been confusing more than definitive.  Toronto was spectacular for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who smashed Djokovic on the way to a final in which he outplayed Federer to take the Masters title.  Sadly, the form did not continue in Cincinnati, and the exciting French player fell at the first hurdle.

Djokovic not only lost to Tsonga in the third round in Canada, but suffered an even greater shock when given his marching orders by Tommy Robredo at the same stage in Cincinnati.  Federer won Cincinnati defeating a gallant David Ferrer in the final and on that form, and with a generous draw, should be a hot favourite to make the US Open final and stand a great chance of winning.

However, Djokovic brings his best to the majors, and having made the past four finals at Flushing Meadows, and the finals of the last two majors this year, it would be foolish to discount his chances of a second success here in two weeks time.

Tsonga, of those yet to taste success at this level, could be the one to give most cheek this year, and  I suspect he may have too much for Murray if they clash in a fourth round match.  That should ensure another encounter with Djokovic who may well have Wawrinka awaiting in a semi final, and the memory of their last battle here will endure for many a day.

Federer needs to beware of Berdych should Tomas be switched on, as he has been upset by him in the past in the US Open.  A semi final between the two is entirely possible, although Dimitrov and Ferrer respectively represent stern opposition prior to that eventuality.

For what it is worth, and with no real confidence, I believe that Djokovic will defeat Wawrinka in one semi final and Federer will prevail over Berdych in the other.  Only his better record at Grand Slam level in the past few years sways me to select Novak Djokovic to win the 2014 US Open over the great Roger Federer.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Hard to pick Hard court form

As we near the US Open, we should forget what happened on the grass at Wimbledon as a form guide.  Certainly the ladies who played the final in London have left their best tennis behind there.  

Since Petra Kvitova scared everyone with her dominating effort in capturing a second Wimbledon crown, she has won just one match.  She proceeded then to lose to Makarova in the third round in Montreal and then bow out to Svitolina after a first round bye in Cincinnati.  Not the sort of match practice a player would be seeking prior to the years final major.  Connecticut, where she won in 2012 and was a finalist last year, is the last opportunity to gain confidence for Flushing Meadows.
Not that we should expect amazing things from Petra at the US Open, given that her record is only 10 match wins and 6 losses from her previous attempts - she lost in the opening round the year she first won Wimbledon, which is not a precedent to follow.

Wimbledon runner-up Eugenie Bouchard has fared even worse since her break through Grand Slam final, losing to a qualifier in her first match at her home nation event in Montreal, before being defeated in Cincinnati, again in her first hit out.  

But enough of the poor form - who has been firing on the hard courts and giving us something serious to think about in a week or so?

Well there is always Serena, despite her indifferent form (by her supreme standards) this year, especially in the Grand Slam events.  On hard courts in the American summer she usually thrives, and since her grass court failure she is 10 from 11 matches, including the Stanford tournament win and a semi final to be played in Cincinnati this weekend.  In between Serena made the Montreal semis where her older sister turned back the clock to register a rare victory over the world number one.

A few other players have certainly given Serena some tough contests of late, one being good friend Caroline Wozniacki, who is in some of her best form for years.  Although ranked outside the top ten currently, her 11 wins from 12 starts since Wimbledon, with a win over Vinci in the Istanbul final, a three set loss to Serena in the Montreal quarters, and a return date with the younger Williams in the Cincinnati semis, sees her as one of the players to watch in the last part of 2014.  Her fourth round result at Wimbledon last month was her best performance at a Grand Slam event for over a year so she is on the right path with her tennis.
Caro is a former US Open finalist, and I'd expect her to be featuring come the second week this year.

Of the remaining former winners of the US Open still playing, Samantha Stosur is well below her level of 2011, whereas Sveta Kuznetsova is enjoying a mini revival ten years on from her maiden triumph at Grand Slam level, winning the Washington DC event and making the third round before losing to in form Ana Ivanovic in Cincinnati.  Seeded around twenty, Sveta will be troublesome for the higher seeds in this years US Open.

2006 winner Maria Sharapova was upset by Carla Suarez Navarro in the third round at Montreal, but is back in the frame with a semi final to come against Ivanovic in Cincinnati, on the back of yet another come from behind win, this one against world number two Simona Halep.

Halep herself is a strong contender for the US Open title, with the number two seeding, the Bucharest title and excellent Cincinnati form.  Ana Ivanovic also must be considered, given her quarter final result at Stanford, losing to eventual winner, Serena Williams, and of course her current Cincinnati showing.

Finally, Venus Williams has returned to the top twenty thanks to her wonderful Montreal runner up finish.  With her health issues and best tennis surely behind her it shows a tremendous commitment and willpower to play to the level she is, including defeating her sister for the first time in years.  Sentimental favourite at Flushing Meadows without a doubt.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Novak and Roger deliver a classic

Too rarely the final match of a Grand Slam tournament is an anti climax to what has gone before, but no need for concern with the Gentlemen's Singles Final at Wimbledon 2014.
Promising plenty, Roger Federer was attempting to win his eighth at the All England, and pass Pete Sampras - it was the great man's first visit to a GS final since his last Wimbledon success two years previous, and on the way to that success he knocked over Novak Djokovic in the semi final.
Novak won here in 2011, but had not tasted major success since the Australian Open in 2013, despite making three finals in that time.  He ached for this one at least as much as Roger.

The match began at a high standard, Djokovic holding serve easily through three tries, while Federer had a couple of deuce games, due not to his serving woes - he was doing very well from the line - but to the incredible returning and passing efforts of Djokovic.  Already the policy of coming to the net, while necessary and largely successful, needed a little tempering.

Federer served increasingly better as the set rolled on, and at the back end it became Djokovic who struggled to hold.  In the tie break, which was always going to be the only means of deciding the opener, Roger cracked the first hole in the Serbian scorecard with a mini break.  Still the terrier in Novak wouldn't let the Swiss star slip away, and in fact gathered two set points, each time thwarted by a smart serving Federer.  An unexpected error from the top seed was the moment where Roger was able to wrest the set to his advantage, and he took the lead 7-6.

The second set was the stage for a Djokovic revival, not that he had been missing for much.  He created many chances on the Federer serve with crisp ground strokes and the invention of angles which will cause trigonometry and geometry textbooks to be rewritten.    
The break came in the third game, assisted by a Federer double fault, but mainly caused by the pressure of groundstrokes consistently finding their way back to Roger's side of the net.

Games went to serve and that left Novak to serve it out which he nearly failed to do, needing to save a break point.  The two were locked at a set apiece.

Federer served brilliantly again in the third, and Djokovic had to hold each time to stay level.  He managed to do that with some wonderful tennis of his own, before the inevitable tiebreak reared it's head.  This time Novak claimed the lead with the first mini break, and reached 4-2 with his second serve to come.
Roger intervened and in the blink of an eye the advantage was gone.  Unperturbed, Djokovic ran out the final few points to take a two sets to one lead 6-7 6-4 7-6.

The fourth set was strange - after three more holds of serve, what followed was a major surprise.  Novak all of a sudden had three break points on a faltering Federer, and although those were saved with fantastic serving, the immense pressure from the Djokovic racquet proved too much and he led 3-1.  Roger did as a champion does and broke straight back, but could not hold back the burgeoning Serbian flood and with a break and hold Djokovic was playing all his favourite shots plus some that we didn't know he had in his arsenal. 5-2 and only a game away.

Federer simply wouldn't lay down, winning the next five games, including staving off one match point.  The sudden and timely reversal of the tide was unpredictable but added another chapter to an epic tale.  Two sets each and all the momentum now with Roger, but the first serve in the final set to be delivered by Novak.

The final phase of a stunning match did not lack for any of the class which had been the hallmark of the four sets already done and dusted.  For six games the server was in charge and with no tie break available in the fifth the stalemate could proceed for ages.  Djokovic had to pull out some vintage tennis to save break point in the seventh, just as Roger's volleying assisted him from the danger of break point down in the eighth.

Down 4-5 Federer unfortunately played his worst game of the match at the worst possible time, and finally the pressure of groundstrokes from Djokovic had taken its toll.  The match was over, and it was one of the best seen by me, certainly one of the two best Wimbledon Finals in over forty years of watching.

Djokovic has taken another significant step in his Grand Slam career, having now beaten one of the best ever grass court players in a final on the surface.  Federer is back in a Grand Slam final after a two year hiatus, and that augurs well, considering the unhealthy dominance of Nadal and Djokovic over the past five years (14 of the past 19 majors)

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Petra's brilliant 2nd Wimbledon Crown

Value for money can be judged a number of ways - if it's about closeness of contest or length of match, then spectators present at the 2014 Wimbledon Ladies Singles Final would have left short changed.  However if you wanted to see one of the best exhibitions of grass court tennis seen in many a year, then Petra Kvitova repaid the cost of your ticket several times over.

Soon after Genie Bouchard tossed the ball in the air to deliver the first serve of the final, it was never going to be anything but a second title for the extraordinarily talented Czech left hander, and to the 20 year old Canadian's credit, she did as well as most human beings could hope to have performed against a player who was at the very top of her game at the perfect time.

It took only until the third game for the scoreboard to reflect the dominance of Kvitova, whose quality serving and powerful and accurate ground shots were another world away from the previous Bouchard contests with which she had little problem, up to and including the semi final dismissal of Halep.

Genie fought hard, putting that break of serve behind her and holding with her next attempt, even taking Kvitova to deuce in the fourth game.  Petra just continued hitting winners though, and inevitably another break came - at 5-2 it was a chance to serve for the set.
Never an easy task, and not so today with a momentary lapse of concentration allowing Genie to grab one of the breaks back.

That was all she wrote for Bouchard as Kvitova, annoyed at spoiling her own statistics, won the remaining seven games of the match.  Over half the points won by Petra were either clean winners or aces, which lets Genie off the hook somewhat.  She did not do a hell of a lot wrong, apart from being on the wrong side of the net on the wrong day.

Petra Kvitova has won two of the last four Wimbledons, and the momentum from this victory I'm sure will carry her career into a more consistent phase of excellence.  She is only 24 and ready to take on the best in the world with a renewed confidence in her game, one which has a number of weapons not carried by others in the top ten.  Genie Bouchard is ready for her share of Grand Slam glory and it may not be far away, just not against Petra on grass.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

The New Generation again falls short

For all the talk about how the men's game is being revitalised with the exciting new group of young players threatening the long and increasingly mind numbing reign of the "Fab Four", we have another final at Wimbledon featuring two of the four.  It will be Novak Djokovic in the final for the third time in four years, and attempting to take home his second grass court Grand Slam title, in the process avenging his loss to Roger Federer in the 2012 semi final here.
For Federer, this will be his first Grand Slam final since his 2012 Wimbledon win, and only his third such appearance since he won the 2010 Australian Open.  Djokovic in that same period has experienced eleven finals, winning five.
Based on that trend data, this could be one of Roger's last chances to add to his large trophy haul at the highest level.

So how did the two finalists finally achieve their spots in the Sunday finale?

Novak had the first semi final with which to deal, and his problems were provided by Andy Murray's conqueror, Grigor Dimitrov.  The first set issues were handled with apparent comfort, as the Serbian game was put on show for all to enjoy,  apart from the Bulgarian and his supporters, who frankly found it a damn nuisance.
The Djokovic serve was superb, for three games not needing to call on a second delivery, and the ground shots were hit with variety of pace and bounce, asking for all the skill that Grigor could muster just to remain even on the scoreboard.

Even it was, except for the disastrous fifth game, in which Dimitrov lost focus, direction, his mind, and four points, gifting the break of serve to the number one seed.  The rest of the set was played just to make up the numbers because the rules say so, and Grigor produced his best in these five games; sadly for him so too did Novak, and the latter wrapped it up 6-4.

Although Dimitrov made headway on the Djokovic serve in the early part of set two, it was not sufficent to prevent the resourceful Serb from fighting off break points and in turn breaking the Bulgarian effort. At 3-1 Novak must have felt secure.  Then a Wimbledon weirdness wafted over the court, announcing itself with five straight games to Grigor.  His second love behind tennis, Maria Sharapova, might have screamed in delight, but she only does that on court to annoy and obstruct, so I guess she just smiled for photographers, while the players box went wild.

Djokovic had left the set unlocked for only a moment and it was stolen away from him 6-3.

The third and fourth sets were close affairs, each going to a tie break.  At times Novak looked vulnerable to the serve and forehand combination of Dimitrov which was working more consistently now.  The breaker in set three saw Djokovic up the ante and Dimitrov simply was left at the start, and when he double faulted, the set was effectively gone.

At two sets to one up, the Djokovic win was close, and when he broke early (based on multiple double faults, not anything special from Novak) in the fourth for a 2-1 lead the next two players began walking out from the dressing room.  
They quickly turned back the next game as Novak lost his concentration and serve.

Djokovic scrambled for most of the rest of the set, saving break points and even a set point at 4-5 before eventually forcing the second tie break.  Dimitrov dominated to take a 6-3 point lead and have three chances to tie the match.  However, another amazing effort from the 2011 champ extinguished those opportunities, and ultimately the likely set win for Grigor turned horrifically into a match win for Novak 6-4 3-6 7-6 7-6

Roger Federer had nowhere near the bother with his semi final opponent, beginning by breaking the much lauded Milos Raonic serve in the opening game.  Federer's variety of shot making and ability to return enough of the Canadian's thunderbolts had Raonic searching for a Plan B almost immediately.

That service break was enough for the seven time winner of this title, although at 4-3 Federer had to defend a break back point.  The 6-4 scoreline was the same as the first set in the first semi, but the gap between the players in this match was in fact much larger.

Although Raonic managed to hold his serve with consistent ease in the second set for the most part, it only required a few minutes of class from Federer to turn the situation on its head.  A couple of lovely Swiss backhands interspersed with some errant ground strokes from Raonic created a break in the ninth game, and another 6-4 set was picked up by Federer on the way back to his chair.

The symmetry was complete when in the ninth game of the third and final set, Raonic's last resistance crumbled, his once mighty serve was broken again, and the highly successful tournament was over for this Canadian 6-4 6-4 6-4. 

Roger can expect far more pressure from the Novak racquet in a Wimbledon final which promises much.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Genie and Petra - keeping it young

The Ladies Singles semi finals promised much but each delivered only one competitive set.  Petra Kvitova was first to forge her way into the final (her second at Wimbledon), but had to endure Lucie Safarova testing her every move and shot over a first set full of highlights.  After trading early service breaks, it was Petra playing catch up and Lucie creating the real moments of danger for her less experienced but more decorated opponent.  Safarova approached the net enough to suggest that she knew variety was the best chance of unsettling the ground stroke competence of her fellow Czech racqueteer.

Very few mistakes were committed off the racquet of Safarova, unless induced by the shot making from the other side, yet a tie break was achieved with a minimum of fuss.
Kvitova opened the breaker quickly, serving beautifully and whipping forehands all over the court for winners to take a 4-2 lead.  Safarova responded with a stunning backhand and an ace and then 4-4 proceeded to 6- before the 2011 champ knocked over Safarova with a hard to handle retrieval shot from behind the baseline.  First set Kvitova 7-6.

Energised and supremely confident in her ability to close the deal, Petra went on a second set rampage, issuing ground shots with no return address and serving immaculately to push Lucie further away from the final than felt possible for most of the first set.  2-0 after breaking the Safarova serve, Kvitova consolidated the position with another collection of clean winners and at 3-0 the end was near.  The cruise to the final was stalled momentarily when Lucie stood firm on serve to stay arithmetically in touch, then managed to reach break point on the Kvitova serve in the fifth game.  However, from there the throttle was released to its maximum, and Lucie had won her last game for Wimbledon 2014.

Petra Kvitova would contest the final and hope to become a dual winner of the Wimbledon Ladies Singles crown.

Her opponent?  The winner of the Simona Halep / Genie Bouchard semi final.  Both girls had brought their fine form from the clay of Roland Garros, where Simona had run Sharapova a good race in the final, and Genie had gone down fighting just as hard in the semis.
This time, it was hard to predict as both players began somewhat impressively before stumbles in their respective second efforts at the service line.  After four games it was all square, with Simona owning one sore ankle thanks to a stumble adding further hurt to the service break just inflicted.

In contrast to the previous semi final, the shot making, while of similar quality to the Czech girls, resulted in repeated struggles to hold serve.  Still, hold serve they did, all the while the Romanian ankle being tested with clever placement by Bouchard.  Halep held together, as did her game, and every break point was saved, mostly with good tennis on her part.  Bouchard treated her worries on serve equally well, and following the script the combatants delivered a tie break.

Genie began best but was swiftly overtaken by Simona who gained a 4-2 advantage with some smart tennis.  However not to be denied the young Canadian rattled up four straight points to give herself two shots at the set.  She decided against using the first but then put away a volley to take the opening chapter of this story 7-6.

Simona seemed to have moved on from the obvious disappointment of dropping the first set as she easily held serve to lead 1-0 in the second.  However, it was a slippery slope down for her beyond that point.  Her focus appeared to drift and her timing was way off;  Genie happily picked up the pieces of what was once an effective Romanian game, and broke twice, stretching out a lead of 5-1 in the process.  One last effort by Simona in the seventh was sufficient to stave off three match points, but her resistance ended there, as the bottle was unplugged and Genie released to the final, winning clearly 7-6 6-2.

We now have ourselves the first Grand Slam singles final featuring players both born in the 1990s.  What's more, six different women have featured in the three Grand Slam tournament finals in 2014.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Canada Day extended

Canada Day was celebrated on 1 July, and in London it was eighth seed Milos Raonic who waved the maple leaf flag proudly on his way to victory over Nishikori in the fourth round.  However, the real Canuck craziness was let loose the following day when both Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard recorded terrific quarter final successes on the grass.

Raonic served even better than his opponent, Nick Kyrgios, had done the previous day against Nadal, on his way to providing one of the two semi finalists for Canada.  For Kyrgios the end was not where many may have hoped, but it was in fact the reality check needed, and at the right time.  His future seems assured, but there is much development to go before occasional upsets over top players become a more regular thing.

Raonic, though, has proven that top ten is his true place of residence.  If he can defeat Roger Federer in the semi final, the weight of expectation will be shifted squarely onto his broad shoulders, and maybe he can join Wawrinka as a major winner from outside the greedy four who have kept Grand Slam title winning to themselves for so long.  If Raonic serves up to the standard shown in his quarter final, Federer will need to draw on all his powers to break through.  Similarly, Federer displayed a consistency and variety after dropping the opening set against his countryman that would trouble anyone left on the draw, maybe with the exception of Djokovic.

The second Canadian through to the semis has made a habit of featuring at this stage of the Grand Slam tournaments in 2014, and Genie Bouchard will be hoping that her stellar form carries her into the first final at this level in her fledgling but exciting career.  The defeat of Angelique Kerber, Sharapova's vanquisher, was decisive and worthy of someone with far more experience and credits on this surface. This is only Genie's sixth main draw appearance at Grand Slam level, including making the third round at Wimbledon last year.  She did win the Girls title in 2012, though, so she knows how to accept a winners trophy at the home of tennis.

In the way of a final for Canada's favourite is Simona Halep, at 3, the highest ranked player remaining, and the ultra impressive finalist from Roland Garros less than a month ago.  Hardly a word has been spoken about Simona this tournament - more has been written about the defeats of those more favoured to fare well at the event.  Still she stays, slaying her rivals with ruthless precision, last years runner up Sabine Lisicki, the latest to suffer, 6-4 6-0.

However, for the moment it is all about Canada, and in Ottawa legislation is probably being prepared as we speak to declare a public holiday in honour of two of its finest modern day sports people.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Nick heads Young Gun charge

Most media reports have neglected to report this but the second Tuesday of Wimbledon 2014 featured two women's quarter finals.  Ordinarily these would be treated as the most significant matches of the day in terms of progressing the event.  Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova are the first semi finalists booked for this year, and the all Czech match up ensures one of the finalists at the weekend will come from the Czech Republic.  

However, the exploits of teenager Nick Kyrgios have all of Australia cheering, and much of the rest of the tennis loving world agog.  His dismantling of the number one player Rafa Nadal was devastating in its planning and execution.  The plan was simple - serve big and attack.  When receiving serve, attack.  When in trouble, be anything but conservative.  Nadal brought what he thought was sufficient to blunt the precocious teenager's obvious weapons, and apply his vast reserves of experience and range of shots to the situation.

After taking the second set 7-5 and levelling the match, it seemed as though Nadal had done enough to absorb the initial battering, and for the third set it was the Australian playing catch up.  However, Nick did not flinch at any point, even when precariously placed when serving.  His serve was reliable - dare I say it, a little Sampras-like in its ability to force him out of dangerous positions.

Nadal is normally a safe bet in tie breaks, and having lost one, even more likely to win the next one he contests, and yet his efforts were made almost redundant because Nick Kyrgios and his booming serve would win or lose this match, while Rafa played support.

The fourth set, with several doubters (admittedly me being one) waiting expectantly for the Spanish revival, only displayed an increasingly confident new kid on the block running over the top of a weary veteran, battered and bruised as much as the racquets he had used in vain to defend the indefensible.

A single break of serve enabled Kyrgios to serve the match out at 5-3, and he did for the loss of no further points, signed off with his 37th ace.

Win or lose against Milos Raonic in the quarters, Nick Kyrgios has established a decent foothold on the mountain he is climbing to reach the top echelons of world tennis.  Australia can expect big things, if not straight away, certainly in the short term, and hopefully over a long career.

In other news, rather pedestrian in relative terms, the screaming Maria Sharapova was dumped from Wimbledon by Angelique Kerber, the German number nine seed hitting the ball as well as I have seen her since she rocketed into the top ten a few years back.  She has earned the right to play Canadian star on the rise, Genie Bouchard, and if Bouchard wins that match it will be three semi finals in all three Grand Slam events in 2014.

The Kerber/Sharapova clash featured some of the best women's tennis of the tournament to date, but sadly again raised the spectre of the Sharapova noise factor.  Thankfully, Angelique was not intimidated, but that does not make Maria's abhorrent and unnecessary actions any more palatable.

Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka comfortably won fourth round matches, and an all Swiss quarter final is now upon us - no deferring to the natural order anymore, especially as Stan is the current holder of a Grand Slam title and Roger has not won one since 2012.  This will be a no holds barred clash between one who knows how to win here, and often, and one who prior to this year knew only too well how to lose early.  Several questions will be answered.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

2011 Revisited for the Ladies ?

As we manage our way through the London rain into the second week of Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray continue their respective paths towards a shared semi final.  Djokovic is playing the best tennis of anyone, and mostly necessitated thanks to the high standards displayed by his opponents, the latest Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who forced the number one seed to champagne levels of returning.

One wonders whether he can maintain the quality or has he peaked a little early?

As certain as the semi final line ups appear to be shaping for the men, nothing is sure for the women - Serena has gone, and she has been joined on the 2014 scrap heap by fellow 2012 finalist Agnieszka Radwanska, soundly thrashed by grass court specialist Ekaterina Makarova in the fourth round.  Young Eugenie Bouchard has reached the quarter finals for the third major out of three this year and will play the winner of the Sharapova/Kerber clash.

Caro Wozniacki failed in her attempt to make her first quarter final at this event, leaving sixth seed Petra Kvitova the sole seed in her quarter, and the highest seed still alive in the bottom half of the draw.  My pick as the losing finalist at the start of the tournament is now looking an extremely good bet, not just to reach the final, but to have a real shot at repeating her 2011 triumph.

I was fortunate enough to be in the crowd when Maria Sharapova was outgunned by the outstanding Czech left hander in 2011, and I am sensing that a reprise of that final is the most likely outcome, now that six of the top ten seeds have disappeared.

Sharapova's semi final victim from that year, and last year's runner up, Sabine Lisicki, is a possible semi final opponent for Maria again, and she will be wanting blood, so don't pass the German chances over without serious consideration.

Of course Genie Bouchard wants to make the semis here as she did in Melbourne and Paris, so nothing is set in stone.  And I have deliberately left till last the highest remaining seed, Simona Halep, who consistently performed over most peoples expectations on the clay of Roland Garros, and has done precisely the same on the hallowed grass of Wimbledon.

She could well win the whole thing, but I am sticking to my Kvitova final, now opposed to Sharapova (amended from S Williams), and instead with Petra holding the trophy aloft.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Novak and Radek light up London

EIt took until the third day and the second round for Wimbledon 2014 to ignite, and it was veteran Radek Stepanek who played a major role.  His performance in presenting top seed Novak Djokovic with one of his more challenging second round matches at Grand Slam level was a joy for the grateful crowd.

As expected the attacking game of the Czech player could not prevent the Serbian capture of the opening two sets, but the standard of the match belied the scoreboard differential.  A competent serve volleyer battling the supreme returner in men's tennis had many people on their feet many times.  Seeking treatment for a sore knee after falling behind two sets, Stepanek signalled an early finish to proceedings, but the injury time out must have inspired rather than expired the Czech hopes.

The two traded service holds throughout an entertaining third set, with Stepanek holding under extreme pressure in the seventh and ninth games.  Djokovic was managing to hold fairly comfortably and when the tie break arrived most believed he had the goods to run it out, and with it the match.  At 5-4 with two serves to come the end was nigh.  Well not quite as nigh as we thought due to Stepanek out-rallying the superior rallyer, winning the final three points and the set 7-6.

The fourth set was even tighter, and Djokovic could not break through the Czech serve.  Another tie break was required, but before we reached it, another example of the wonderful Djokovic sportsmanship was exhibited.  At five games all and game point on the Djokovic serve Stepanek successfully challenged a call which normally would require the point to be replayed.  Djokovic conceded the point instead, pointing out that he would have had no chance of returning Stepanek's shot.

The tie break reached 5-2 and Novak again lost points in a row after having the match on his racquet.  At 5-5, Djokovic received a netted volley from Stepanek and then hit a return on the line, initially called out before a successful Serb challenge handed Novak Djokovic the match 6-4 6-3 6-7 7-6.

At 35 Stepanek gave as many spills as thrills in his endeavour to give Djokovic the match practice he didn't really want but perhaps in retrospect needed.

Other second round action saw 7th seed David Ferrer lose while the other top men's seeds cruised, Nadal once more taking four sets to complete his work.  Ernest's Gulbis could not reprise his Roland Garros form though and the 12th seed is out of the tournament, losing to Roger Federer's conquerer from last year Stakhovsky.
The top women did what was required of them, except for Vika Azarenka, 8th seed and Flavia Pennetta 12th seed.
Nick Kyrgios, the youngest left in the men's draw caused the greatest discussion, dispatching 13th seed Richard Gasquet, after dropping the opening two sets and saving nine match points in a long fifth set decider.  This incredibly was only the Austrlain's second main draw match ever at Wimbledon.

The other Aussie left in the singles is Lleyton Hewitt and his second round match was suspended at one set down and 4-4 in the second, against Janowicz, the semi finalist from last year from Poland.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Jankovic the major 1st round casualty

The early carnage witnessed at Roland Garros has yet to be experienced at Wimbledon, at least among the top seeds, although 7th seed Jelena Jankovic again fell victim to the grass in a first round match here, three times in the past four years now.  Her conqueror on this occasion was Kaia Kanepi, the Estonian former world number 15, who often lifts for the majors, including quarter final appearances at Wimbledon in 2010 and last year where she bowed out to eventual finalist Sabine Lisicki.

Before we mention other prominent losers, it may be wise to comment on the form of those expected to be prominent deep into the tournament.

Continuing with the ladies, Maria Sharapova donated one game to her luckless opponent, Samantha Murray, in a demonstration of her quick adaptation from clay court dominatrix to grass court queen.  Serena Williams was less frugal but no less dominant in her squashing of Anna Tatishvili.
Second seed Li Na began nervously but gained traction within a few games to win in straight sets, belying her recent patchy form, and Agnieszka Radwanska put her Eastbourne demons to bed with a confidence rebuilder against Andreea Mitu, showing signs of the game that put her into the 2012 final and last years semis.

Simona Halep and two of the players I have selected to play a big part this year, Petra Kvitova and Sabine Lisicki, all impressed as they found their respective ways into the second round.

Not so impressive were 14th seed Sara Errani and 18th seed Sloane Stephens, while Samantha Stosur lost as per usual.  In a match between players on the rise, Coco Vandeweghe, winner of her maiden WTA title at the weekend, defeated Roland Garros star Garbine Muguruza.  We are sure to see those two clash in matches much later in big tournaments as their careers blossom.

On the men's side, not much drama as Andy, Roger, Novak and Rafa all comfortably made tracks for the second round, Rafa carelessly dropping the first set of his match before taking things seriously.

All the major contenders did ok, with the highest profile casualty being 18th seed Fernando Verdasco, who succumbed to in form Australian Marinko Matosevic, who refreshingly did not make another disparaging comment about women's tennis, instead letting his racquet do the talking.

Keep an eye on Feliciano Lopez.  He has made three Wimbledon quarter finals, and just before landing here this year, made the final at Queens, with wins over Hewitt (2002 Wimbledon winner) and Berdych (2010 Wimbledon runner up) along the way, before falling to Dimitrov.  He then defeated Gasquet to win Eastbourne.

He should face Isner in the third round, and the American has a lousy Grand Slam record.  Win that and he possibly will have Wawrinka, whose Wimbledon record is appalling.  After that it should be another quarter final against Federer who is more vulnerable these days even on grass.

Second round matches begin tonight and things promise to heat up.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Harder to find the Ladies Singles winner

Yes I know that Serena Williams should be the choice to win Wimbledon this year - her record is tremendous and despite her lowly returns in Melbourne and Paris, Serena revels on grass.  Her draw in 2014 is hardly friendly though.

Her likely quarter final opponent will be Maria Sharapova, and despite her amazing record against the recent Roland  Garros champ, Serena will need to be at her best to win through.  

Simona Halep is the third seed and drawn to meet Williams in the semis but it may be elsewhere in this part of the draw that  the real danger lies.  A mouth watering third round clash is set to occur - Ana Ivanovic, winner on grass just a week ago, and Sabine Lisicki, finalist at Wimbledon last year.  It was Sabine who ousted Serena on the way to the runner up trophy, and Ana who stopped the world number one at this years Aus Open.
The winner of this match could well find a way into the semi final at the expense of seventh seed Jankovic, and Halep.

The other side of the draw sees out of form players Li Na and Agnieszka Radwanska seeded second and fourth respectively, and I fancy that 2011 winner and sixth seed Petra Kvitova can be the beneficiary and take one of the semi final spots.
Aga should bounce back from her poor Eastbourne showing and a clash with Azarenka in the quarters could be a match to savour, with Vika on the comeback after a long injury layoff.

Dangerous unseeded players with wins just posted on grass are US pair Madison Keys and Coco Vandeweghe.  Their isn't any limit to what they may achieve this Wimbledon, and quarter finals are not beyond their capabilities.

My predictions are for Serena Williams to play Sabine Lisicki in one semi final, and Agnieszka Radwanska to meet Petra Kvitova in the other.  Although I wouldn't be all that surprised to see a completely different set of semi finalists, such is the increased evenness of the women's game.

I can't pick against Serena in any tournament she plays, providing she is fit, and so I fully expect her to prevail at Wimbledon 2014, in a difficult match provided by the left handed Petra Kvitova.

Surface changes but not the men's favourites

Wimbledon 2014 is upon us and previewing the Men's Singles is pretty much a repeat of the 2013 preview.  Yes, Roger is most peoples favourite to win because they like him the most, but he is struggling to win majors these days, 2012 Wimbledon a rare triumph for one of the best we have seen, certainly on grass.

Andy Murray is a different story this time round, thanks to him breaking the drought for Britain and winning the 2013 Championship, but he still has the pressure of the nation upon him to successfully defend.

Novak Djokovic, with Murray, has been the most consistent performer at Wimbledon over the past few years, winning in 2011 but now desperately wanting to break his run of runners up trophies in Grand Slam finals - the last three finals appearances have been losses, two to Nadal, the other to Murray at Wimbledon last year.

Nadal himself won Wimbledon in 2010 and 2008 but has struggled here of late, and is seeded to meet Federer in the semis should they both reach that far.
Sadly the depth in men's tennis while not as poor as in previous years, still lacks for adequate consistent competition for the top few, especially Rafa and Novak
I cannot see a threat to the one and two seeds reprising their 2011 final, and continuing their fabulous rivalry which as recently as last month in Paris saw them again rise above everyone else.

Sure, other names will make some sort of mark as the fortnight passes by - Raonic is having a breakout year, Wawrinka is laying legitimate claims to being the number one Swiss player, Berdych is consistent like Ferrer and Nishikori is exciting.  And the battle will most likely be for quarter final spots against the top four seeds who should put an end to those runs and form the semi finals.

Roger will be valiant and lose yet another match at the highest level to his Grand Slam tournament nemesis, and the Djokovic Murray semi final will quite possibly be a five setter over four hours and the best match of the tournament, Murray not quite back to top form, surrendering his title bravely.

Novak to win in my opinion - he is comfortable on grass and to his enormous relief does not have what he had in Paris - the biggest handicap in tennis: playing Rafa on Rafa's surface.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Rafa's record keeps growing

Rafa and Novak yet again produced some of the best men's tennis in a match truly worthy of the 2014 Roland Garros final.  Far and away the two finest exponents of the game began in style, having little difficulty holding respective serves through the first seven games.  However this did not prevent some delightful rallies from being created featuring the precision timing and placement and deft touch that we have come to expect, but are still amazed, as it is repeated so often and from out of seemingly any adverse situation.

It was the challenger from Serbia who struck the initial statistical blow when in the eighth game he capitalised on some relatively clumsy work from the clay court king, earning the third of three break opportunities with a sizzling down the line winner, and converting it on the back of a crosscourt mistake from the reigning champ.

Always difficult to serve out a set, and Djokovic stayed true to this adage, and in an instant, Rafa had break back points.  Novak absorbed the immense pressure and pushed back hard to take the game and the first set throwing out a serious challenge to the player who had won eight from eight finals on this court.

The second set, not wishing to be a poor relative to the first, was responsible for more champagne tennis, and the most expensive drop too.  The winners were flowing swiftly and any mistakes were mostly derived from the pressure exerted from both players either playing shots or just moving in preparation for the shot.

Nadal, whose accuracy in finding corners and lines underscored his intimate knowledge of every centimetre of this court, broke the Djokovic serve for the first time in the sixth game, and his sense of relief lasted only moments before he surrendered the break in the very next game.

Paris was heating up but would not reach the temperature of this contest.  At 5-6, Novak became victim to some vintage Nadal racquet work.  A most unfortunate Serbian double fault assisted, but Nadal's winning shot on set point, following a magical rally, deserved all the applause it received.  7-5 to Rafa and one set all.

Taking full advantage of the momentum swing, Nadal upped the ante and raced to a 3-0 lead in the third set, the second game containing more highlights than many complete matches from earlier in the tournament.  The exchanges were extraordinary, possibly even for these two, and the Spanish skills won the battle and the break.  The third game was classic consolidation of a break and Novak was clearly showing the pressure for perhaps the first time in the match.

Unable to fracture the Nadal serve, Djokovic was having to do everything just to avoid losing his for a second time.  He evaded the double break until 2-5 and then Nadal crushed the third set spirit from the second seed, and asserted absolute authority on the match 4-6 7-5 6-2.

Requiring something special, the worst thing Djokovic could experience early in the fourth set was another successful break of his serve.  Despite the ease with which Nadal was now holding serve compared with more hard work methods employed by Djokovic, the score reached 2-3 before the dam burst.  Finally Novak's tremendous determination, desire and basic instinct had apparently rid him of the energy and mental strength to do what is natural to him, and his error plagued effort to draw level at 3-3 fell in a screaming heap.  Nadal had him on the ropes 2 sets to one and 4-2 with an increasingly reliable serve to come.

Another twist to the tale with the real Novak awakening to contest the next game and outplay a stunned Rafa, who with all the Parisians and those watching worldwide believed quite logically that this was done and dusted.  3-4 quickly became 4-4 and a fifth set back in the frame as a huge possibility.

Nadal fought hard to keep the reinvigorated Serb at bay in the ninth game, and played some of the most ingenious shots when required, and 30-30 and deuce did need serious addressing.  A key moment was holding his serve because now Rafa could afford to attack Djokovic knowing that any lapse would be the match.

At 30-0, things looked comfortable for Novak, but at 30-15 Nadal won probably the most significant point of the match with a blistering crosscourt winner, and 30-30 was a balancing act that even the poised Djokovic could not complete successfully, sadly handing victory to Nadal with a double fault on match point.

We will not remember the final,point, nor should we, because that did not define the match which was indeed another ripper between these two warriors.  Rafa Nadal proved - no that is wrong, he already has proven several times over that he is the best ever on clay.  Nine times a finalist, nine times a winner here - six of those wins over Federer and Djokovic.

Djokovic for his part leaves Paris with reputation intact - the second best on clay and with Nadal forming the upper class of male tennis players on the planet.

They may well contest the next Grand Slam tournament final on grass as they did in 2011, they are in such exhilarating form.

Nadal joins Sampras as a 14 time Grand Slam title winner, second now only to Roger Federer.  After the 2010 Australian Open, Roger had 16 and Rafa had 6 - now it's 17 to 14.  Tell me now that Roger's record is safe!

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Maria makes it two at Roland Garros

Fans were greeted to one of the best women's singles finals at Grand Slam level in recent times as Maria Sharapova battled Simona Halep at Roland Garros.

Despite the large gap in experience - it was the Romanian's first GS tournament final - Halep gained the initial break of serve to take a. 2-0 lead.  Sharapova's double faulting almost had her trailing by two breaks, but her quality stroke making around the court held her in good stead, and not only did she hold serve but upped the pressure markedly, winning the next four games to lead 5-2.

Halep responded in kind, breaking back just in time and at 4-5 she could hold serve and the match would be back in balance.
Again, as she had done throughout the tournament, Sharapova picked the moment to pounce and broke to take the set, albeit with the assistance of a friendly net cord.

Set two was only two games in and once more Sharapova had control 2-0.  The quality of tennis was terrific and Halep proved that she was going to be reckoned with not just today but for many years to come, storming back into proceedings straight away neutralising the Russian service break with a Romanian version.

Games went with serve until at 4-4 Halep won a fantastic rally at deuce giving her break point on the Sharapova serve which she duly converted, presenting a chance to serve for the set.  Failing this time, Halep was then given another chance, but once more at 6-5, the job could not be completed and after four successive breaks of serve, a tie break was introduced to solve the impasse.

Sharapova looked the steadier and at 5-3 in the breaker, seemed set to take her second French Open in straight sets.  Not according to Halep who fired up dominating the next four points to even the match at a set apiece.

Four matches in a row had gone to three sets for Sharapova this tournament, and her record of winning over the long haul was remarkable even before Roland Garros.  When Halep lost her serve, and the momentum, in the fifth game of the decider,  that was all Sharapova needed, one suspected, to finish the deal.

Halep had one more comeback in her and she drew level at 4-4, another Russian double fault sealing the break.
As if to say enough was enough, Maria Sharapova won the next eight points, winners littering the Paris clay, and putting the match and the title in her name for the second time.  For all her annoying screaming, she is a great player, and in big matches one of the most reliable.

The Sharapova win 6-4 6-7 6-4 was a great advertisement for women's tennis, and before the end of the year, we should see her ranking back where it belongs, in the top two in the world.  Simona Halep is now number three and should be a top five player for a long time.

Now we need a riveting five setter between Rafa and Novak to complete a wonderful weekend of Grand Slam tennis.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Rafa v Novak for the 42nd time

After all the upsets over the past two weeks, mainly to Switzerland, the Men's Singles Final at Roland Garros is set, and the participants are as hoped and predicted.

Rafa Nadal flexed his clay court muscle against Andy Murray in one semi final to put to rest any notion that Andy had somehow made up ground on the world number one on this surface.  The Scot's competitiveness shown in Rome was clearly more to do with Nadal operating two or three gears below top capacity, timing his run to the n-th degree as he has done so well in each of his previous eight visits to the French Open finale.

Whatever ones thoughts are on where players may sit in the list of greatest to play the game, the case for Nadal to be ever higher on that list is surely growing.  For much of his career, the talk has been when will injury cut short the career.  Indeed, until his stellar 2013, many were keen to write off the possibility of him returning at his previous level, certainly not rating him a chance of matching Federer in terms of Grand Slam titles.
I'd be putting money on him surpassing Roger, as long as Roland Garros remains part of the Grand Slam story, because no one appears capable of defeating him here.

Not unless you are Novak Djokovic.  Until today, the number two seed had in many ways been more impressive than Nadal in his performances this French Open, and the Rome win leading in was important for his belief to continue.  Djokovic has yet to defeat Nadal here, but always rates himself a chance - too many opponents, Ferrer a classic example, are "defeated" before they even take the court against Rafa in Paris.

Novak did not deliver a great semi final against Ernests Gulbis, but he did enough to win and make the final - that was the goal, no more.  Completing a career Grand Slam would not occur because of a polished faultless semi final win.  Saving his best for last - that is Sunday - is what's required.  The difficult conditions also dictated the brand of tennis exhibited by both Djokovic and Gulbis and the energy dropped towards the end.

No such luxury for the Serbian star come Sunday, and his phenomenal returning will need to be back to its pristine best if he hopes to put sufficient pressure on the Nadal groundstrokes, keeping him behind the baseline, and directing the rallies as Djokovic did in Rome in a best of three set encounter.  This is best of five of course.

I personally would rejoice in a Djokovic triumph.  It would be deserved and add even more depth to a rivalry which has, in my opinion, surpassed the head to head Nadal/Federer rivalry both in competitiveness and relevance.

However a ninth crown for Nadal would also need serious congratulations and a multitude of superlatives.

If the final is anything like the semi they played last year then we are in for a treat from these two who spoil us regularly with their brilliance.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Roland Garros quarters - serious times!

Quarter finals have arrived and most of the expected men's names are there, including the overwhelming favourites for the final.  Not such a familiar line up of women as six of those seeded to do battle in the last eight are gone, Serena back in the US watching the NBA playoffs and enjoying life beyond tennis for a period normally spent capturing Grand Slam titles.

Switzerland disappeared from the men's title race, Stan immediately and Roger a little later, kicking and screaming as he was dragged away from Roland Garros, his royalty having been disrespected by Latvian Ernests Gulbis.

I am excited for Andrea Petkovic who is finally reaping rewards at the highest level after one of the most courageous fight backs from a series of long term injury setbacks.  Seeded 28 here, she has definitely benefited from the first round losses of Li Na and Caroline Wozniacki, but now in the quarter final, she must fancy her chances against Sara Errani, given her once held top ten ranking in the world and natural talent.  Against that is Errani's rich vein of form which should have her and Sharapova grunting and screaming their respective ways to the final - a noisy repeat of the 2012 ear piercer.

If anyone may surprise it is the only former winner left apart from Maria.  Sveta Kuznetsova has flown through the tournament, with her win over Kvitova possibly the best women's singles match to date this French  Open.  And if Simona Halep continues to be ignored she might just say "I told you so" and prove that the fourth seed mantle is well deserved.

Andy Murray played a great match in Rome to lose to Rafa, and he has done most things right in his quest for more Grand Slam glory, on a surface that suits him least but has provided him good finishes previously.  He is on track to meet Nadal in another ripper semi - I saw them clash in one in 2011 and I believe that this time round, for all the drama of injury and coach, and no coach, Andy still has all the shots to trouble the best.

The other player left with the potential to make one of the top two squirm a little is the confident Milos Raonic, one of two Canadians still flying the maple leaf.  Eugenie Bouchard is the other, and I neglected to mention her - she is the real deal and could win several majors in the future, may even win one here if she brings it all on the day, she is that good.
But Milos has his next hurdle in Novak Djokovic and that is a tough one.  He will be buoyed by what he saw in Melbourne with Wawrinka, and hope that he is on a high and catches the Serb on a slight downer.  Raonic, like Genie, could push for a spot in the top few over the next few years.

I haven't talked of David Ferrer because despite his win over Nadal in Monte Carlo, he is mere hitting practice for Rafa when it comes to the majors, more so the one in Paris.  Last year he made it to the final - this time Rafa caught him earlier and David I believe will leave us as a losing quarter finalist.

Berdych and Gulbis will fight for a semi and I suspect that the hype surrounding the Federer scalp will be a little too much for Ernie and the experience of Tomas enough to win a chance against Novak.

So here they are - my predictions revised for the forty fifth time:

Women's semis:

Sharapova v Bouchard
Kuznetsova v Errani

Sharapova to edge out Errani in the final

Men's semis:

Nadal v Murray
Berdych v Djokovic

Djokovic to break through and complete his Career Grand Slam with his fifth win in a row against Nadal

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Sharapova Emerging from the Carnage

As we near the end of the third round in the men's and women's singles at Roland Garros 2014, already the women's draw has been rattled by a constant series of upsets that at the same time has brought to the fore some relatively new faces in the game.

Whilst it is devastating to her legion of fans, and not in her own original plans, the second round exit of Serena Williams probably only delays ultimate major success for the world number one in 2014.  Just two years ago, Serena lost in Melbourne in the fourth round and Roland Garros in the first round, only to dominate the second half of the year including winning the final two majors.

However now is not about her, but about the 20 year old Spanish girl who took Australians on a thrilling ride earlier this year by firstly winning the WTA event in Hobart (her first tournament win) as a qualifier, then a week later making it through to the final 16 at the Australian Open in Melbourne.  Garbine Muguruza is now in Paris and proving that she has the potential to become a top ten player and soon.  Defeating Serena Williams, and with a 6-2 6-2 scoreline, is a pretty useful entry in ones developing CV.

Muguruza most recently backed up her huge result with another straight sets win and will start favourite in the fourth round against a fellow unseeded opponent, maybe Germany's Mona Barthel.  All of the seeds in this section of the draw - the Williams sisters, Roberta Vinci and Sabine Lisicki - were sent packing by the end of the second round.

The quarter final opponent for Garbine, should she be successful next match, will be the winner of the Sharapova/Stosur contest, and despite the welcome turn around in Samantha's form, no one is game to bet against Maria, who not long ago destroyed Paula Ormaechea 6-0 6-0 in the third round.

Before reassessing my predictions for the women's singles, let's take stock of the top seeds to have fallen so far.

1 - Serena Willams - 2nd Round
2 - Li Na - 1st Round
3 - Agnieszka Radwanska - 3rd Round
9 - Dominika Cibulkova - 3rd Round
12 - Flavia Pennetta - 2nd Round
13 - Caroline Wozniacki - 1st Round
16 - Sabine Lisicki - 2nd Round

All that carnage has been of most assistance to Sharapova who, with no barrier of Serena, is a raging favourite to repeat 2012.  She historically has a huge edge over Stosur so should reach the quarters, defeat whichever unseeded opponent she meets there, and then I'm not altogether sure who her semi final victim will be.  I'm leaning toward Carla Suarez Navarro, but would not be surprised if Eugenie Bouchard slipped through. But really no one presents a major threat to Sharapova's third consecutive final appearance at Roland Garros.

I maintain my belief that the other semi final will feature Sara Errani and Ana Ivanovic - both have carried their fine form into the early rounds here and with no Li Na with which to contend, the path is certainly less treacherous.

Revised prediction: Sharapova to defeat Ivanovic in the final.  The two met once before in a Grand Slam tournament final - 2008 Aus Open, the same year Ana won the French Open.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Roland Garros 2014 - Women's Singles Preview

Play has begun on Day One at Roland Garros for the 2014 French Open, and as Serena Williams begins her title defence, it is time to assess the chances among the women for this year's crown.

The clay courts have brought familiar names to the fore in preliminary tournaments, but it was Maria Teresa Torro Flor who won the Marrakech tournament, her first WTA title and in her first final.

Stuttgart hosted a top class field including six of the worlds top ten, and the 2012 French Open champion dominated.  Maria Sharapova defeated top seed Aga Radwanska in the quarters and Sara Errani in the semis before finally eclipsing another former Roland Garros queen Ana Ivanovic in the final, after dropping the opening set.

Oeiras became the favourite city for Carla Suarez Navarro when she as top seed defeated Sveta Kuznetsova to hold that trophy aloft.  Sveta won the French Open in 2009 and unsurprisingly seems to find another level of form at this time of year.

Madrid was the destination for the next Premier event, and Serena Williams headed another talented field.  She and 2011 Roland Garros winner, and second seed, Li Na, both reached the quarters and appeared set for a finals shoot out.  However, Serena succumbed to a leg injury and withdrew before her match with Petra Kvitova, and Li Na lost to Sharapova.  Maria proceeded to knock over Radwanska (again) and Simona Halep in the final to make it 2 Premier titles in succession and have her odds slashed for Roland Garros.  For her part, Halep impressed in forcing Sharapova to three sets following her wins over Ivanovic and Kvitova.

Then another Premier tournament, this one in Rome, and the time was right for Serena to announce her presence, now recovered from her leg injury.  Typically the announcement came complete with another title, with wins in the semi against Ivanovic and the final over Errani.  Errani, a Roland Garros finalist in 2012, had been inconsistent in 2014, but now was finding some ominous touch, prevailing in matches against Li Na and Jelena Jankovic before succumbing to the Williams power.

So now Paris and the clay court Grand Slam tournament.

Ideally, Maria Sharapova should be drawn in the opposite half to Serena Williams, because without doubt these two, finalists at Roland Garros last year, are the form players leading into the 2014 French Open.  Yes Maria lost to Ana Ivanovic in the third round in Rome but Ana has also been one of the top players of the clay court season so that loss needs to be placed in perspective.

Sadly Serena is drawn to meet Maria in the quarters, and that spells disaster for Maria, given that the last 15 clashes have gone to the American.  I cannot see any other trouble on Serena's side of the draw, with Radwanska the likely semi final opponent.

The fun could come on the other side, with Ana Ivanovic dangerously sitting in the quarter featuring Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova.  I predict Ana will defeat Petra in the fourth round and Simona in the quarters.
The other trouble is facing Li Na, and it comes in the form of Sara Errani.  As much as I would like to see Jelena Jankovic win through, Errani has the form to defeat both her in the fourth round and Li Na in the quarters.

So in short, Serena Williams will defeat Agnieszka Radwanska in one semi while Ana Ivanovic will take out Sara Errani in the other.
Serena will use the final to avenge her loss to Ana at the Australian Open earlier this year.

One thing is for certain - my selections are not :)

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Roland Garros 2014 - Men's Singles Preview

It is usually as simple as inscribing the Nadal name on the trophy, even before a ball is hit in Paris for any French Open.  However, 2014 may be cause for some doubt, at least from the Serbian front.  We thankfully do not have a repeat of the 2013 farce which saw Nadal seeded low enough to draw Djokovic in a semi final.  The worlds best two players played the match of the tournament, which deserved to be the final, and Novak was a mere breath from his first win over Rafa at Roland Garros.

If the two meet this year it will be the final, and if Rome is any guide this should come to pass and be another classic.

Of course the clay season proper has not been a bed of roses for either Nadal or Djokovic.  Before they landed in Monaco, it was two others, Garcia-Lopez and Verdasco, who won minor titles in Casablanca and Houston respectively, but the big guns were hauled out for the Masters in Monte Carlo.  Here we saw the champ of Melbourne, Stanislas Wawrinka, once again assert his power in a high level tournament, knocking over Raonic in the quarters and significantly Ferrer in the semis.  Ferrer had himself upset Nadal in the quarters to rip that side of the draw wide open.
Roger Federer , meanwhile had notched another win over Tsonga in the quarters before prevailing over Djokovic for the second time in 2014, albeit a clearly injury affected second seed who had taken the first set and had looked in charge.

An all Swiss final was not the pre-tournament pick and Stanislas managed to find a way past his more renowned countryman in three gripping sets to take home the chocolates.

Barcelona was next, and Nadal never loses there - until 2014 that is.  Almagro did the dirty on his fellow Spaniard in the quarters, and the other top ten player in the tournament, David Ferrer was sent packing by unheralded Gabashvili in the second round (Ferrer's first match).  Kei Nishikori won the title, along the way defeating Cilic and Gulbis before overcoming Giraldo in the final.

Before the key Masters double of Madrid then Rome, three other clay court tournaments resulted in titles for Dimitrov in Bucharest, Berlocq in Oeiras and Klizan in Munich.  The form of these players augurs well for Roland Garros but would not scare the top guys too much, although the egos of Berdych and Raonic may have taken a bit of a hit, given that Berlocq's form outside of the Portugal performance has been hardly stellar.

Madrid was memorable more for the efforts of the runner-up.  Unfortunately for the tournament, Djokovic was unavailable, still nursing the injured wrist, and Federer was home with the new twins.  When Wawrinka was dumped by a qualifier in his first outing since triumphing in Monte Carlo, it seemed that Rafa only had to turn up to win the trophy.  Murray also left early, courtesy of Giraldo's continued good form, and it was Nishikori, who surprised Ferrer in the semis, left to argue over the winnings with Nadal.

After winning the first set, the Japanese soon to be top ten player eventually retired in the deciding third set.

Rome was the final important lead in tournament and Novak's first since the Monte Carlo injury.  The world number two had some tough matches but managed to win through to the final, taking out Ferrer and Raonic to reach it.  Rafa.dispensed with Murray and Dimitrov to ensure that the best players would fight out their second Masters final for 2014.  After dropping the opening set,  Djokovic, in a performance drawing many superlatives, overcame Nadal for the fourth straight time.

So what does all this give us in terms of predicting events at Roland Garros over the next fortnight?
It would be foolish to go past the top two players in the world, who are even further ahead of the rest when it comes to clay.  However, it is interesting to note that of the potential quarter final match ups,  both Rafa and Novak have potentially the toughest - Nadal seeded to play Ferrer and Djokovic, while seeded to play Raonic, may find he meets Nishikori.

Federer will probably make it through to the semis given the soft draw he has, on paper at least,  and I think Murray's effort in Rome against Nadal, although a loss, just might be the confidence booster to see him challenge Wawrinka for the other spot in the semis.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Rafa eyeing off Roland Garros #9

2013 was almost the year that Novak Djokovic finally overcame Rafa Nadal on the clay at Roland Garros.  He had stunned the Spaniard at Monaco, but just couldn't force a win in the classic semi final which most agree should have been the final of the French Open (no disrespect to David Ferrer)

This year, the major goal again for Djokovic, but unspoken compared to last years outspoken desperate desire, was to complete his career Grand Slam by taking home the title in Paris in June.  However, after a stunning hard court period, with the Indian Wells and Miami titles safely pocketed, injury has cruelly stepped in to mar the progress of the world number two.

World number three, and the only player with a mathematical chance of a 2014 Grand Slam, Stanislas Wawrinka, won through at Monaco to pose a possible threat to Rafa in Paris, but his poor showing in Madrid underlined his lack of ability to consistently win through to at least the semis of the Masters events.  Maybe he will save his best for the biggest stage as he did in Melbourne.

His fellow Swiss top four compatriot, Roger Federer, has been rewriting record books with his wife Mirka, and the two are proud parents of a second set of twins.  Roger's priorities are such that the Madrid Masters was dropped from his schedule in order to me his daddy obligations.  All power to him for that decision too.

Naturally, while his likely major threats have been having less than smooth tennis entrances into Roland Garros, we would expect that Rafa would be doing what he does most times on clay - win most of the time.  However, he lost, inexplicably in the quarters at both Monaco (to Ferrer) and then Barcelona (to Almagro).  The last time he lost in Barcelona I believe he was wearing nappies.
It must be a share the glory to fellow Spaniards month or something.

Don't expect anything similar come the end of May though.  Even now Rafa is rolling through the draw in Madrid, his last victim Berdych in the quarters.  Should be a Nadal v either Ferrer or Nishikori final.

Watch out for the Japanese star in Paris - he will be in the top ten next week for the first time, and his rate of improvement this last 12-18 months has been eye catching.

However, Rafa Nadal still owns the Roland Garros clay, and deserves to start a very short priced favourite to make it nine titles, and equal Martina Navratilova's number achieved on the Wimbledon grass.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

How are the top men travelling since Melbourne?

The first Grand Slam tournament of each year potentially can catch some players relatively underprepared, and results from the two weeks in Melbourne and indeed the lead in events, may not necessarily represent a true indication of where things will be a few months down the track.
So it is useful to trace the results of the top ranked players as at the conclusion of the Australian Open, now that we have reached April.  Let's start with the Top 3 which has remained the same since the party left Australia.

Starting at the top, Rafa Nadal has won in Rio, not having to play anyone ranked higher than 40 in so doing.  His other two starts were in the US hard court Masters events at Indian Wells where he lost in the third round to the man he beat in the Rio final (Dolgopolov) and Miami where Djokovic had his measure in the final.  So 10-2 since losing the Aus Open final is reasonable form, enough to comfortably retain the number one ranking coming into the clay season, which he owns.

Novak Djokovic lost in the quarters in Melbourne, the earliest exit from a major for him since he lost the 2010 quarter final at Roland Garros.  Roger Federer defeated him in the Dubai semis in three sets, but the two big events have both been pocketed by Djokovic, first avenging the Dubai loss by knocking over Federer in the Indian Wells final, and then taking Nadal to the cleaners in Miami.  12-1 since Melbourne, and despite the disappointment in Australia, Djokovic leads the years points race from Nadal, and most expect him to be Rafa's only serious challenger at Roland Garros this year.

The winner of the first major for 2014 was Stanislas Wawrinka, and that shot him to number three in the world.  The expected momentum from that success has not occurred, with only a 5-2 record in matches since - one in a Davis Cup tie.  Wawrinka has lost in the fourth round of both Masters tournaments, in Indian Wells to Kevin Anderson and in Miami to Alexander Dolgopolov, who has made a mark himself with wins over Nadal, Wawrinka and Ferrer post Melbourne to jump from 53 to 22 in the world.

With the top two doing as one would expect, and the number three faltering somewhat,  it looks again a match in two for much of 2014.  The only possible spoiler currently appears to be Federer but the gap is very large.