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.