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.