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