Saturday, 30 April 2016

Kyrgios and Zverev serve it up

Things are warming up in Prague, but there was no warm up for Sam Stosur in her scheduled semi final with Sveta Kuznetsova as the Russian didn't show.  An abdominal injury was the official reason and it presented a free ticket for Stosur to slip into a final, one for which not many had predicted her being present a week ago.

While the fourth seeded Aussie lazed around the Czech capital, her opponent in the final was being decided via the conventional method - playing a tennis match.
Lucie Safarova, who had taken nearly four months to realise that losing didn't generate happiness, finally found joy at home here in the Czech Republic, and to make the final she had to bury a compatriot and Fed Cup heroine Karolina Pliskova.

Lucie broke Karolina's serve in the opening game of the match and the first set thereafter was basically a server's delight.  Hardly another break opportunity and not many points won against the serves of either player.  The first set safely in the Safarova locker 6-4. 

Set two again was difficult for receivers of serve, and yet Pliskova managed to squeeze out a service break and achieve a 4-1 lead.  Safarova replied with the third and final break of the match.  A tie break settled the set, and as Lucie would have it, the match as well.  Safarova is now counting her winning streak - sitting at four - instead of gloomily looking in the mirror at a once top ten player, dropping to top twenty, forgetting what a win felt like.  Should beat Stosur and effectively win her national title.

In Estoril, the biggest surprise on quarter final day was eighth seed Pablo Carreno Busta sending top seed Gilles Simon packing in an impressive straight sets display. His semi final success will require deflating another French player's hopes - Benoit Paire, the third seed, who ended the tournament for Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.

The other half of the draw has the highest seed left, number two Nick Kyrgios, whose serve was simply sensational against Borna Coric.  One break of serve each set was all that Nick needed to win 6-4 6-4, but the incredible statistic was 42 points won from 51 serves delivered by the Aussie throughout the match.
How Nicolas Almagro will deal with this sort of battering, if repeated, is hard to imagine, but he is used to knocking out seeds in Estoril, the latest being seventh seed Leonardo Mayer.  This was straight sets but close all the way 6-4 7-6 (5).

Munich quarter final victories for third seed Dominic Thiem and fifth seed Fabio Fognini were as expected but Del Potro's meek surrender to fourth seed Philipp Kohlschreiber was disappointing.  That disappointment was compensated somewhat by the three set thrilling upset win provided by eight seed Alexander Zverev over top seed David Goffin.
After taking the second set to level the match, most would have thought Goffin may sail home on that momentum, but Zverev served an outstanding third set.
Consider these final set statistics which emphasise what an incredible switch in momentum it was.  Zverev won 16 points from his 19 serves, and also 16 points from the 35 Goffin serves.  So his returning was phenomenal too.  He unsurprisingly faced no break points, but converted two of the six created while Goffin was delivering.

Like Safarova, Zverev seems to have leapt out of his lethargy in a tournament in his home country, and hopefully he can continue to rise, because it is young players like Zverev and Kyrgios that can bring a new excitement to the game for years to come.

The semis in Istanbul are as per the seedings, with one exception.  Number two seed Grigor Dimitrov will play third seed Ivo Karlovic and fourth seed Federico Delbonis will play the conqueror of top seed Tomic, unseeded Diego Schwartzman.
I think a Dimitrov v Delbonis final is most probable.

The Rabat tournament has from the start appeared to be a Bacsinszky benefit, and after her semi final victory over Babos, she is a heavy favourite to claim the title.  Her opponent is New Zealand qualifier Marina Erakovic, who has snuck through the draw without playing a seeded player except for Tsurenko, who retired after one set.  Credit to the fighting spirit of the Kiwi though.  After losing the first set of her semi to Kiki Bertens 6-2, she won the next two close ones 7-6 (7) 7-5.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Del Potro on song, Tomic failing

A rare situation for tennis has eventuated in Prague where the top four seeds will contest the semi finals.  Yes Lucie Safarova, the second seed, and winless before trudging onto the Czech clay this week, has won three straight matches to earn the right to play third seed Czech compatriot Karolina Pliskova in one semi, while wildly inconsistent fourth seed Sam Stosur has held it together at tough stages to make the other semi a veterans affair between the Queenslander and top seed Russian Sveta Kuznetsova. 
Three Grand Slam titles amassed amongst the two, but Stosur is light years away from the tennis she displayed in her 2011 moment of glory at Flushing Meadows.
Sveta, though, has won against Serena this year, and been a finalist at the prestigious Miami event, so her form is Roland Garros solid.  She should be too well equipped for Sam but who knows which version of the Aussie will appear on court ? This week it has so far been an impressive fight to the death model which would have been more useful in the recent Fed Cup tie than what was delivered there.

The Czech Republic civil war is harder to predict because of Safarova's frustrating 2016 prior to Prague.  All things being equal, I'd select Lucie to beat Karolina, but given some of the good Pliskova performances (yes she has had some ordinary matches too) over four months, I believe she has the confidence and improved weapons to overcome Safarova.

Veteran Spaniard, unseeded Nicolas Almagro has knocked out Portugal's fourth seed Joso Souza in a second round Estoril match, eliminating the expected semi final opponent of Nick Kyrgios, should the Aussie make it that far.
Almagro will play a quarter final against seventh seed Argentine Leonardo Mayer.

France and Spain will battle out another quarter final with top seed Gilles Simon and Pablo Carreno Busta, eighth seed, representing the respective nations.  This coincidentally is in the same section of the draw as another France/Spain quarter final which had already been created - Frenchman Paire v Spaniard Garcia-Lopez.  The semi has all sorts of combinations available, but I predict all French with either Simon or Paire going through to the final.

The quarter final make up is set in Munich, but two of the four quarters stand out as matches to follow.  Top seed David Goffin from Belgium faces the firepower of German teenage sensation Alexander Zverev, the eighth seed.  
Apart from a semi final in Montpelier in February and round of sixteen at Indian Wells, where he should have beaten Nadal, Zverev has done little more than have an occasional good result to maintain the rage about his potential.  And at 49 in the world, still just 19, he has that potential in spades.  However he is losing matches to inferior players on a regular basis which is preventing him advancing to latter stages of tournaments.  Now is the time to assert the authority of his game on lesser opponents and collect significant ranking points, otherwise he will end up where he is by year's end and feel justifiably disappointed.

All that said, Zverev can cause Goffin trouble, beginning with his serve.  If he can control it, the Belgian will find it difficult to break, allowing Zverev the chance to work on ways to attack the Goffin serve which is certainly not as potent as many.
In the end though, Goffin should have too many tricks up his sleeve and far more variety with which to counter the big serving German.

Del Potro is unseeded but I am confident that he can defeat Philip Kohlschreiber in the fourth seeds home country. Delpo is making his way back to tennis at the highest level successfully, not with any great on court success, but enough to suggest some will eventually come.  More significant is his fitness and avoidance of injury reoccurrence so far.  The 2009 US Open champ still has all the shots at his disposal, and with increasing confidence to move around the court and play the shots with the same freedom as he did at the height of his career, Juan Del Potro can rise to the top level of the game again.
A win against Kohlschreiber, who is 16-8 for 2016, would be a big step and place the Argentine in a Munich semi final.

Istanbul was another disaster for Bernard Tomic, who has now lost his opening match in two tournaments in succession, both as top seed.  A year that began with such promise and a number of good results has turned to clay on the clay courts.  Yes not his favourite surface, but if his goal is top ten by end of 2016, then he needs to adapt to all surfaces because ranking points don't stop when the clay court season comes along.  Tomic has stalled at around twenty in the world, whereas months ago he had reached the teens and was climbing.  With huge points on offer at Roland Garros, his seeding could have been within the top sixteen which provides protection from drawing an elite seed such as Djokovic or Nadal until the fourth round at earliest.  Ranked where he is that possibility may arise a round earlier.

Granollers and Karlovic joined other seeds in the quarters, and will play each other for a semi final spot, while the other seed to fall with Tomic was Russian seventh seed Gabashvili.  The all unseeded quarter final resulting guarantees that one of the semis will feature an unseeded player - either Damir Dzumhur or Diego Schwartzman.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Busy time for top ten contenders

Quarter final time in Prague as a group of middle range WTA players put some more miles of clay under their feet en route to what they hope will be a successful Roland Garros in May/June.
Top seed Svetlana Kuznetsova, enjoying a career revival of sorts, has claimed one of the last eight spots, as have four of the other eight seeds. We said farewell in round one to remaining seeds Cibulkova, Ostapenko and Wickmayer.
Lucie Safarova has smiled for the first time in months having won her first match in 2016.  The thrill was so much for the second seed that she decided to double up and win two in a row.  Can she overcome Su-Wei Hsieh for a treble and a semi final berth ?  I think she can - this is her time of the year - although she lost first round in Prague in 2015, she proceeded to make quarters in Madrid, final at Roland Garros and round of sixteen at Wimbledon.

Rabat has been the scene for another WTA event, and it appears that Moroccans don't like the taste of seeds, as five have failed to reach their expected quarter final destinations.  Swiss top twenty player, and top seed here, Timea Bacsinszky, is the class in the tournament, and with the carnage of most of the other fancied women, the next highest ranked player left is another Timea, this one of the Babos variety and of Hungarian extraction.  Babos ranks 40 in the world and is drawn to meet Bacsinszky in one of the semis should both win their respective quarters.  Highly likely that the tournament winner will come from one of the Timeas.

The men have also been hitting tennis balls for money, while reddening their clothes with clay, in Estoril, Munich and Istanbul.

Estoril has participants in two quarter finals decided - third seed Benoit Paire from France and fifth seed Guillermo Garcia-Lopez from Spain will contest one of the two quarters from the top of the draw.
Second seed Nick Kyrgios (currently Australia's highest ranked player) will attempt to overpower Croatia's Borna Coric, the tournament's sixth seed in the bottom half.  
All eight seeds still standing - so far.  

In Munich the withdrawal of Monte Carlo runner-up Gael Monfils was a blow to tournament organisers but David Goffin and Dominic Thiem remain, ensuring enough class in the event.  It also opens up the bottom section of the draw to Kohlschreiber, Del Potro and the like.  So far only one quarter final has its components known - third seed (second highest after Monfils left) Thiem faces Croatian Ivan Dodig.
The probable semi final between Goffin and Thiem is what organisers are hoping for just as they want to see Del Potro advance as far as he can, being the crowd favourite he is.

Istanbul, where history was made last week with the first Turkish title winner on the WTA tour is currently hosting an ATP event with Bernard Tomic top seed for his second tournament in a row.  Hoping to redeem himself for his last lamentable effort, Tomic faces Diego Schwartzman from Argentina in the second round, following a first round bye.
Two quarter finals are already set, and the seeds are comfortably in their predicted places.  Fourth seeded Argentine Federico Delbonis meets number eight seed Spaniard Albert Ramos-Vinolas, while number two seed Grigor Dimitrov does battle with sixth seed Jiri Vesely, the Czech Republic player who upset Djokovic in Monte Carlo.  He upset him so much that we haven't seen Novak since.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Angie defends at home / Rafa 2 in 2

Angie Kerber is a nice enough person off the tennis court but with racquet in hand and a net to manoeuvre, she had no time for continuing the Stuttgart fairytale of compatriot Laura Siegemund.
In the tournament final, the Aus Open champ took very seriously the form of the lower ranked surprise performer and the first set was a fairly even affair, with breaks of serve occurring every second game. Angie managed to return the Siegemund serve just that fraction more effectively, and took the set 6-4.

That was the first dropped set from Laura for the tournament, and with it she dropped her bundle.  Angie dominated set two, not losing a game, despite the first serve percentage of 75 from Siegemund.  It seemed a mental thing as well as great tennis from Kerber - Laura Siegemund had given all she had for the event and whilst her body may have still been going through the motions, it was difficult to keep a positive thought while Angie ruthlessly pounded tennis balls past her.

Angie Kerber brilliantly defended her Stuttgart title 6-4 6-0, but plenty of praise for the runner-up Laura Siegemund, whose best ever WTA result, including 3 top ten scalps,  was a revelation for German and women's tennis.

Rafa Nadal, by defeating Kei Nishikori in Barcelona's final, provided further evidence of his credentials for Roland Garros favouritism. However the first set in the final was full of chances for Nishikori.  In a very even match, seven of the eight break points Nadal faced were saved, whereas the two that the Spaniard created were both converted, effectively assigning the set 6-4 to Rafa.

A case of one that slipped away for Kei.  Set two was again competitive with stats similar in most key areas. Both first serve percentages were in the seventies, while both percentages of points won on serve were in the fifties.
Where the set was won once more though was with break point conversion.
This time it was Nadal with more of the opportunities - 10.  Nishikori did really well to close down seven of these, but it wasn't quite enough as he could only manage to break the Nadal serve twice, thus surrendering the second set to Rafa 7-5 and the title 6-4 7-5. Two in two weeks.
9 Barcelona trophies now for Nadal to match his 9 Monte Carlos and 9 French Opens.  He will be quite willing to break that symmetry with a tenth successful run at Roland Garros this year, no doubt.

Istanbul was a scene for some history with the first Turkish woman, Cagla Buyukakcay, to make a WTA final, and doing it in front of her home nation crowd making it extra special.
Clearly the final brought all sorts of new pressure as opponent and fifth seed Danka Kovinic took the first set 6-3, the first set dropped by Cagla all tournament.  Certainly close for much of the opening set, Cagla was quick to regroup and asserted herself and her tennis on the match, not allowing Danka many avenues to respond, and a 6-2 second set squared proceedings at a set all.

The decider was a thriller, with the standard fairly high throughout, and the result perfect for the home crowd.  Cagla withstood all that a tiring Danka could throw at her, and the solid Buyukakcay serve was maintained - 84% first serves in play and 65% points won on serve for the set compared with 55% for Kovinic.
Enough for 6-3 and an overall 3-6 6-2 6-3 historic title win for Cagla, the first ever on the WTA tour by a Turkish woman and a guaranteed entry into the world's top 100.

The Bucharest final between Fernando Verdasco and Lucas Pouille has been delayed a day due to Romanian rain.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Siegemund the story of Stuttgart

Predictably, Rafa Nadal and Kei Nishikori won their semi finals, both losing only five games for the match, and will pit their wits and skills against each other in the Barcelona final.

Bucharest semis saw the last of the seeds exit, Fernando Verdasco disposing of fellow Spaniard and fourth seed Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, and improving Frenchman Lucas Pouille signing extradition papers for Argentina's third seed Federico Delbonis.

In Istanbul, the Turkey fans are thrilled to have one of their own in the final after unseeded Cagla Buyukakcay ousted Stefanie Voegele of Switzerland in one semi.  Cagla will face fifth seed Montenegrin Danka Kovinic who outlasted the Ukraine's Kateryna Kozlova in the other semi.

All that is rather uninteresting compared with the news from Stuttgart where the final will be contested between two German girls for the first time in the tournament's history.
First played in 1978, but a hard court event until it became red clay in 2009, it is the only indoor clay tournament on the calendar.
It has been awarded the WTA's Premier Tournament of the Year six times, since and including 2007, so it is easy to see why the top players have signed up to play again in 2016.

The extra thrill of an all German final comes because of the lack of local success previously.  Apart from Angie Kerber being the defending champion, only Anke Huber twice in the early nineties has raised the Stuttgart trophy for Germany.  Navratilova has won six, Hingis four, Sharapova and Davenport each three, but now it seems is Germany's time to take control of its own.

Angie Kerber took one more step to a successful defence of her 2015 title with a hard fought three set victory over Petra Kvitova 6-4 4-6 6-2.  Although left empty at the last four, Petra should feel better about her tennis after this because she showed much more mental steel than at other points of the season, and if the trajectory of progression continues, Roland Garros could be her best yet, and we know how the Wimbledon grass is like Popeye's spinach for her.

The best is for last and that is Laura Siegemund, the unexpected other German finalist in Stuttgart.  The now ranked 71, but soon to be top 50 player, has been hitting the courts for years without much success at WTA singles events, but doing sufficiently ok at ITF events to be able to manage a tennis existence.  Ranking low to match a low profile.

Then 2015 and enough points to break into the too 100, and 2016 a second round victory over Jelena Jankovic at the Australian Open.  At 28, a career was taking a significant turn.  Laura was now entering WTA events with thoughts of not just contesting qualifying, but winning through to main draws.

That she did in Stuttgart, having to win three successive matches to qualify for a first round main draw match with 27th ranked Russian Anastsia Pavlyuchenkova. Although not in her best form Anastasia has been ranked as high as 13, and would have been expected to account for a qualifier.  Instead she was smashed 6-0 by Siegemund in the opening set and although improving as the match evolved could not catch up and lost in straight sets.

If that was a warning signal to second round opponent Simona Halep, then it wasn't heeded.  The fourth seed was another straight sets victim, as too sixth seed Roberta Vinci.

The win over Vinci earned a semi against top seed Aga Radwanska, and this surely was a mountain too high.  With the early break of serve and a point away from consolidating at 4-1, it seemed that the world number two was on track to finally show the gap from the elite to the rapidly improving mid range.

The scoreboard wasn't reflecting the court action though as the match was closer than the score indicated.  Laura employed some power tennis punctuated with several delicate drop shots to rattle Aga and break back, then hold and break again for 4-3.  Her backhand was producing winners on key points, and when Aga tried to cover that, the forehand would create its own damage.

The extra service break was enough and Laura Siegemund held comfortably for a 6-4 opening set win.  Her record of not dropping a set all tournament was intact.

Set two was a runaway train which Aga had no hope of retrieving.  86% of first serves from Siegemund found their mark, and she won 62% of points on serve for the set compared with just 42% for Radwanska.

The clean winners were consistently pouring off the hot German racquet and fairly early in the set it was clear to Aga that her day was done, despite all her best efforts.
34 winners to 17 unforced errors is a wonderful stat.  One break back for Aga was merely a token and totally against the tide.  The overall trend continued and the 6-4 6-2 victory must rate as the very best of Laura Siegemund's career.

Now who do the German spectators support in the final ?  The glamour girl and Aus Ooen champ, with all the fame and titles - Angie Kerber, or the underdog who has won all hearts with her upset wins over the 1, 4 and 6 seeds - Laura Siegemund.

Either way should be a great final for Stuttgart and a boost for already strong German tennis.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Two Germans in Stuttgart semis

In Barcelona Nadal and Nishikori eased into their expected semi final berths with straight sets victories over Fognini and Dolgopolov respectively.  Rafa let his second set drag to a tie break at which point his patience snapped and he allowed only a single further point to the 12th seeded Italian..
Nishikori was more devastating in his destruction of 11th seed Dolgopolov.  After the first set offered something of a contest, the Japanese second seed blew the Ukraine hopes away, winning 27 of the 40 points played in the short second set.

Nadal will play German Philip Kohlschreiber in his semi, while French player Benoit Paire is the next prey for Nishikori.  Both opponents are ranked in the top thirty so should provide decent workouts for the top two seeds.

Stuttgart has given Petra Kvitova the opportunity to maybe put her season on track.  She held her nerve to beat Niculescu and make the quarter final and now has overcome third seed Garbine Muguruza in another three setter, this time losing the middle set, but obliterating the Spaniard in the opening and closing stanzas 6-1 & 6-0.  
A tough semi final awaits against Angie Kerber who is on her home turf, but Petra is winning matches requiring a lot of grit at the moment, and she has previously gone missing when sufficient pressure was applied.  Hopefully, and I've said this a number of times before, the Kvitova potential can finally begin to be fully realised.

For the locals, not only Angie has them screaming for joy.  Laura Siegemund added the scalp of 6th seed Roberta Vinci to that of Simona Halep as she skipped into the semi finals to face top seed Aga Radwanska.  28 year old Laura finished 2002 ranked 1235 and only reached the top 100 last year.  It is a great story of endurance and improvement over many years for the German player, and this terrific week will not only provide her a decent cheque, but a significant rankings boost.

The Bucharest semi finalists are decided and unseeded Fernando Verdasco presents dangerous opposition for fourth seed Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, given some of the form he has displayed this year, belying his ranking.
The other semi features third seed Federico Delbonis, whose 17-8 win loss record (with one title) in 2016 looks rather imposing, against French surprise packet Lucas Pouille.  Following his axing of second seed Karlovic, Pouille pulled the same manoeuvre on seventh seed Paolo Lorenzi. so should not be treated lightly by Delbonis.

Maria Sakkari's fine run at Istanbul was ended thanks to fifth seed Danka Kovinic, but not before she had won the first set 6-1, putting a scare right through the Montenegrin.
Kovinic (ranking 60) will play the Ukraine's Kateryna Kozlova (ranking 129) in one semi final.  The other will be contested between Turkey's own Cagla Buyukakcay (ranking 118) and Stefanie Voegele (ranking 116) from Switzerland.

There are lots of points on offer for finalists and semi finalists at this event and you can see from the low rankings, that making the semis, and for two of the girls the final, this will mean plenty in terms of jumping up the rankings list and eventually direct entry to tournaments. (Bypassing qualifying).

Friday, 22 April 2016

Europe feasting on tennis

4 tournaments are being played at the moment, two each on the ATP and WTA tours.  In Stuttgart, six of the top ten world ranked women put their names down to contest a big event for Germany, including its glamour girl Angie Kerber, the second seed.

Barcelona sees the return of Rafa Nadal to headline a 500 series tournament, and Kei Nishikori has joined him as second seed.  Unfortunately two other top ten players, Ferrer and  Gasquet , withdrew, reducing the depth in the draw.

Bucharest and Istanbul are hosting lesser events, with Bernard Tomic top seed in Romania and Anna Schmiedlova top seed in Turkey.

In her home country's tournament, 71 world ranked German Laura Siegemund thrashed fourth seed Simona Halep in the first major upset in 2R Stuttgart.  Andrea Petkovic was another German player, albeit nowhere near as anonymous, who was on the path to crush a top seed, indeed the number one seed Aga Radwanska.
After leading 6-1, Petkovic became another victim of the Radwanska comeback syndrome, the world number two prevailing 1-6 6-1 6-2.

Fifth seed Petra Kvitova trialled the Aga revival technique following the mauling she received in the first set from Monica Niculescu, and it worked for the Czech star, managing a tie break success and then a straight forward third set decider.

All the other seeds won through to the third round except for number eight Lucie Safarova, who hasn't won a match all year and continues to see her ranking drop.  Now it still is a respectable 15 but her Roland Garros points from last year are huge and will need to be defended in the not too distant future.  

In Barcelona, the two stars Nadal and Nishikori are both comfortably in the quarter finals and appear more than likely to meet in the final.  Just the one big surprise of the event thus far - 19 year old Russian qualifier, ranked 138, Karen Khackanov, knocked 5th seed Roberto Bautista Agut out of proceedings in a second round three set triumph.  Dolgopolov prevented any further advancement but it was a great tournament for the teenager.

Bucharest was a disaster for top seed Tomic who had a chance to consolidate his position in the top twenty and prove his credentials to those doubting his claims of top ten possibilities by end of 2016.  He was cleaned up by Robin Haase in the second round in straight sets after a first round bye.
Second seed Ivo Karlovic also left in the second round, courtesy of the French pest Lucas Pouille, leaving Federico Delbonis as the highest ranked player left in the draw.

Istanbul gave Greek qualifier Maria Sakkari the opportunity to defeat top seed Anna Schmiedlova which she accomplished brilliantly in straight sets.  The 20 year old is ranked 127 in the world, having only turned professional last year.  Her win loss record this year is 18-10, including qualifiers, and she now takes on Montenegro's Danka Kovinic, fifth seed, in the third round.
Apart from Kovinic, Japan's Nao Hibino at six is the only remaining seed in the Istanbul draw.

Monday, 18 April 2016

9 Monte Carlos for King of Clay

For two sets the Monte Carlo final between Rafa Nadal and Gael Monfils provided some of the best and most competitive tennis of the year to date.  It was never reduced to what can sometimes occur with clay court tennis - perpetual rallies nullifying the natural stroke play of the best - instead it brought out the very highest quality of each of the combatants.

Admittedly the serving stats weren't the greatest, but figures alone can't determine which matches are most memorable, and once the rallies were in flow, the power and direction change we know that Nadal can fire off his racquet, challenged Monfils constantly.  
Just as frequently the delightfully unique and stylish Monfils shot making replied in effective silence to the bullish grunting Nadal brilliance.

It was one extra break of serve that the Spaniard managed to eke out which decided the outcome of set one and Rafa was half way to a ninth title in this resort 7-5.

Set two was not without its service breaks either, but it had little to do with first serve percentages which were sensational, Nadal's at 85%.  Today returning serve was pretty much spot on.

It was even better tennis than that served up earlier and the Frenchman delivered a serious blow in the seventh game with a second break and a 4-3 lead.  However Nadal stepped things up with some heavy ground strokes, and two successive double faults donated the break back to Rafa and it was 4-4.

Nadal then contributed possibly the best service game of the match.  He won it to love with some awesome serve / ground stroke combos and withering angles leaving Monfils powerless and needing only to walk from one receiving point to the next until the score reached 4-5 and he was serving to stay alive in the match.

Another twist in the tail, and the tale of this match, with an almost as impressive serving exhibition from Gael to level at 5-5, and an inexplicably break of the Spanish serve after seeing three break points saved.  Nadal's shot long to fall behind 5-6 was a rare cracking under pressure and Monfils took full advantage, serving out the set 7-5 and levelling the match.

As already noted, this was some of the best 2016 tennis for two sets.  The third set was unfortunately Rafa claiming his clay court rights in emphatic fashion, assisted no doubt by a tiring Gael Monfils.  The 6-0 scoreline is flattering in many ways to Nadal, but he did finish full of running and I believe deserves favouritism, or at least equal with Djokovic, for Roland Garros.

Despite the painful termination of the match, Monfils can be happy with much of the Monte Carlo final because of the way he forced Nadal to produce his best tennis.
For the record, Nadal won his 9th Monte Carlo crown in his 100th career final.  King of Clay once more, not that he ever really lost the title.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Monfils to face Nadal in Monte Carlo finale

The Monte Carlo semi finals were intriguing.  The first of them saw Andy Murray start where he left off last year in Madrid, where he won a clay court Masters battle over Rafa Nadal.  The Scot was easily the better mover around the court and was causing all sorts of frustration for Nadal.  Unfortunately none of it transferred onto the scoreboard and Rafa was serving to level at 3-3.

Murray finally struck, creating three break points, helped somewhat by Nadal's arguments with the chair umpire.  The break was achieved and another when Rafa was serving to stay in the set, Murray looking just as good, if not better, than when he destroyed Raonic in the quarters.

Rafa was miffed, and took a couple of angry pills to accentuate his unhappiness.  He wasn't prepared to allow this show pony from Scotland to take another clay court crown from the master of this surface.  He broke straight away, only for it to be neutralised immediately.  However, this was a vastly different set with Nadal far more focused on the task at hand.  He was matching the shot making and court movement of Murray, and building enough pressure to eventually break the Scottish serve for a 4-3 lead and it was sufficient to take the set 6-4.  The match was now worthy of a third set.

The decider was virtually a mirror image of set one with Nadal now in complete control, choosing the perfect time for his winning drop shots and generally taking full advantage of Murray's less effective court coverage.

Nadal won 2-6 6-4 6-2 and his spot in the final made him immediate hot favourite irrespective of who should win the next semi final.

The scoreline of the Monfils / Tsonga semi was extraordinary, considering the head to head record of the two.  Tsonga had won five of the seven clashes, although the most recent encounter in Miami 2015 saw Monfils triumphant.  They had surprisingly never met in a match on a clay court.

Gael Monfils was on fire in the first set.  Both players were amazing with first serve percentages over 70%, but the stark difference was in points won when the first serve was successful.  Monfils won 77% of the time, while Tsonga could not handle the returning of the other Frenchman, winning only a third of the points when his first serve hit the mark.

This combination of serving and returning ensured plenty of opportunities to break and Monfils did, four times in fact, and he took Tsonga to the cleaners 6-1.  Incredible performance and although Tsonga regrouped for a second set revival, it was clear that Monfils had all the answers in this match, and he clinched the other final position with a brilliant 6-1 6-3 victory.

Hard to visualise Monfils doing enough to threaten Nadal in a Monte Carlo final which the Spaniard has won 8 out of the past 9 years, but Djokovic managed it last year, and we have been surprised by some results in 2016.  I don't think this will be one of those times.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Nadal and Monte Carlo - ominous

Monte Carlo is exciting, and the tennis players' appearance each year for the Masters certainly adds to the variety. Fame and fortune is surely not out of place as the horribly wealthy and adored Roger Federer and the like slip into the paparazzi zone for a week or so racquet work and cash splash.

On the court, the horror of Novak Djokovic's loss has almost been accepted, and we are actually to the semi final stage - apologies for not reporting the lead up but it has been rather mundane compared to the off court Monte Carlo life style.

However,  the quarter finals were of interest.  David Ferrer had withdrawn from the tournament, meaning that Marcel Granollers took his spot as a lucky loser from qualifying. More pain for Novak as that would have been his quarter final opposition and a much easier run to an expected semi with Federer.

Of course Federer was smiling (and he rarely does) with Novak's disappearance, winning his way through Garcia-Lopez and Bautista Agut to reach another quarter final, this one against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  No worries for Roger with a 11-5 record and the last time they played here in 2014 Federer won.

This time the Swiss great took the first set 6-3 in a dominant display, breaking the French serve three times and appearing likely to run away with the win.
However, Jo-Wilfried has had this habit of annoying Roger in big matches in the past, and he did it again, thrashing the former number one 6-2 in set two to even the clash.

Set three was a thriller with Federer serving first, placing pressure on Tsonga to hold serve to stay level.  Tsonga was up to the task, and more, breaking Federer and winning the battle 3-6 6-2 7-5.  Another missed opportunity for Roger to win Monte Carlo, one of the few titles that he hasn't captured in his illustrious career.

A French player will be in the final, because Gael Monfils will be Tsonga's semi final opponent.  Monfils is enjoying perhaps his best season, and he took advantage of the draw, playing and defeating Vesely after Vesely had removed Djokovic from the Monfils  diary.  Then not having Ferrer, but lucky loser Granollers to remove, meant that Gael is a semi finalist without having played a seed.

The bottom half of the draw saw Nadal breeze through his matches, including the quarter final against Stan Wawrinka in a straight sets clay court lesson.  Rafa is looking the player to beat in a tournament that he basically owns - he leased it out to Djokovic temporarily last year, but he wants it back now - and he should rake care of Andy Murray in the other semi final.

Murray was impressive in his 6-2 6-0 whipping of Milos Raonic but even his rapid improvement on clay doesn't convince me that he has enough weapons to hold up against the King of Clay.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Novak's shock Monte Carlo exit

Monte Carlo, the first clay court Masters event for 2016 has provided the biggest upset of the year and offered evidence that Novak Djokovic may actually be human. The world's number one was defeated in his first match by tall 55th ranked Czech player Jiri Vesely, who had won through his first round while Novak had a bye.

Djokovic began slowly and while losing the first set, appeared on track with a swift 6-2 reply.  However Vesely played a great third set, competing on equal terms with the top seed and breaking the Serb serve twice to achieve his greatest win yet 6-4 2-6 6-4.

The tennis world is in shock, but don't expect too many repeats of this.  The streak which Djokovic was riding had to end, and clay is the surface that tends to create more even clashes and more surprises.  Novak's loss at this point of the clay court season is better than if he had waited till Roland Garros, but it does open up more discussion about chances for this year's French Open title.

Other early results have been rather pedestrian compared to the Novak shock but Tomas Berdych was another high profile figure to depart after his first match. His hopes were dashed by Damir Dzumhur, the player from Bosnia and Herzegovina, ranked 99 who had knocked out Rafa Nadal in Miami.

Richard Gasquet also fell - to fellow Frenchman Lucas Pouille, another nuisance lower ranked player who had also caused damage to a top Spanish seed in Miami, dismissing David Ferrer on that occasion.

Murray, Nadal and Federer progressed to the third round, and the romantics are already preparing for a Nadal / Federer final.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Three for Sloane in 2016

After the two big tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami, to be renamed Vika and Novak Benefit Events, many of the big names set themselves for the European clay court season, leading into the second major of the year at Roland Garros.

Several players stayed in the US, women to play the Charleston tournament, the men off to Houston for a clay court experience.  Overseas, Marrakech has hosted an ATP event, while Poland's Katowice attracted a field of WTA players in a hard court warm up to bigger things.

Charleston lost Belinda Bencic and Venus Williams early, but it was 7th seed Sloane Stephens who dominated the event, taking out top seed Angie Kerber in the semi final, before winning her third title of 2016 with a win over Elena Vesnina in a quality final.

Dominika Cibulkova had made one final this year, losing in Mexico to Sloane Stephens in fact, so it was a happy Slovakian who easily conquered a lesser field to win in Poland, as 8th seed, defeating Italian 5th seed Camila Giorgi in the final.

Back in the States, it was future US number one (another fearless prediction) Jack Sock who took all before him, including knocking out top seed and compatriot John Isner to make the Houston final.
However, it was wily old Argentine Juan Monaco, now ranked 148, but once as high as 10, and raised on clay, who won the day.  He dismissed 2nd seed Benoit Paire, 5th seed Sam Querrey, 3rd seed Feliciano Lopez, before the three set triumph over 4th seed Sock in the final.

Marrakech, Africa was the scene for some of the lower ranked men to show their wares, the top seed ranked 37 in the world.  Federico Delbonis had only just taken Andy Murray's scalp at Indian Wells a fortnight ago to make the round of 16, so it was no great shock to see him take the title with a win over Croatia's Borna Coric.  Two mATP events in one week and two Argentine victors. 

Monte Carlo coming up and questions to be answered regarding Nadal on the surface that he has basically owned.  Does he still ?  And is Federer back to full fitness and if so will he ever win this tournament ?

Monday, 4 April 2016

Novak setting more records

Novak Djokovic was determined to follow in Vika Azarenka's footsteps and win the Indian Wells / Miami double.  It would be the third year in succession for Novak, and his sixth Miami title, equalling the Agassi record.

In his way was the final hurdle, 6th seed Kei Nishikori.  No Federer - crook tummy, no Murray - done by Dimitrov, no Nadal - retired on the way to losing to a qualifier and no Wawrinka - again failing early confirming his inconsistency.

So the once Big Four, and more recent fabricated Big Five have now been reduced, or better said morphed into a dominant individual Djokovic, the likes of which we haven't seen for many years, perhaps Federer, before his nemesis from Spain interfered.

Nishikori is one of a group of players, pretenders to the crown, and a win in Miami would make a significant impression given both Djokovic's recent record over top ten players, and particularly his last handful against the Japanese number one.

The final didn't exactly deliver fireworks in the first set, with several service breaks.  However it was clear that with Nishikori not serving as well as he did in the semi against Kyrgios, the returns from the Serbian racquet were going to be more difficult than normal to handle, if that were possible to imagine.

Djokovic won 60% of points from the Nishikori serve, both first and second.  Simple weight of points dictated the direction of the set and Djokovic sealed it 6-3.

Set two was just a Djokovic demonstration of class and Nishikori was left to admire with the rest of the spectators and officials.  The world's best won nearly all points on his own serve and never faced a break point, but was savage on the Nishikori delivery, winning almost half of those points, often with his trademark quick fire change of defence into attack.

Two breaks, one at the start, and one at the end, were sufficient to finish off a tournament without loss of set and break more records.  Kei Nishikori did well, joining Nadal, Murray and Raonic as losing finalists this year to Djokovic, but he needs to find a tournament in which Novak is not participating, should he wish to add to his title success.

For the moment, Djokovic does make it 6 Miami wins to join Agassi at that number, and now is the clear leader of Masters titles at 28, one clear now of Rafa Nadal.

Now for the clay season, and the challengers on that surface are no longer challengers to Nadal it seems, but to the world's best on any surface you'd like to choose - Novak Djokovic.

Where will the Vika express stop ?

The final in Miami was never meant to easy for Sveta Kuznetsova, although head to head she was four all against Vika Azarenka.  Admittedly the last of Sveta's wins over Vika was in 2009 on clay in Rome and the last time in Miami (also 2009) it was Vika victorious in a semi final.

A lot has happened since - Vika has experienced Grand Slam success and the number one mantle, and the perils of injury, but fought back to now be, if not together with Serena, then almost alone, the most feared player on tour.

The opening set of the final was not much to do with the serve because despite the high first serve percentage dialled in by Kuznetsova, Vika won most points on it, and just about all when the second serve was called upon.
Vika couldn't even manage to successfully direct half of her first serves into the correct box, and Sveta enjoyed just as much fun returning those anyway.

Breaking serve was a regular consequence - it just seemed that Vika had more chances and so the scoreline showed 6-3, a rather flattering result, but one which set up Azarenka's second set assault on the Russian.

Vika tidied her serve up considerably, now hitting the mark two thirds of the time, and winning 81% of the points on first serve and half on second serve.
The Belarusian returning was still on song, winning 57% of the points on the Kuznetsova serve.

Two breaks of serve was more than enough for a 6-3 6-2 demolition by the Azarenka express, more silverware and the completion of the Indian Wells / Miami double in one year, only ever done by two women before - Steffi Graf in 1994 and 1996, and Kim Clijsters in 2005.

Too early to be talking more Grand Slam success for Azarenka - or is it ?  She is the most consistent player on tour, is winning the big tournaments, so why not Roland Garros ?  Sharapova is missing this year, and we know Serena has struggled there, so Vika must start favourite.  And now with her ranking up in the top few her seeding won't be an issue.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Djokovic and Nishikori book Miami finals spots

Friday's singles action at Miami was restricted to men's semi finals and the first of these was the top seed up against a vastly improved 15th seed Belgian David Goffin.  Sentimental favourite in this match for obvious reasons was Goffin, and he gave Djokovic plenty to think about, especially in the first set which was as even as any Novak had played in the tournament to date.  A break apiece ensured a tie break and Djokovic escaped 7-5.

The second set was also tight but Djokovic had the answers on important points, and he still was to concede a set, winning a spot in the final 7-6 6-4, and with it the chance of three Miami titles in succession and six in total to tie Andre Agassi.

He will have to defeat Kei Nishikori who ended the fabulous run of Nick Kyrgios in the other semi final. Nishikori was razor sharp and unfortunately for Kyrgios once he was involved in rallies the patience and accuracy of the 6th seed was too much for the Aussie to counter.  Losing his opening serve was not the start Nick wanted and Kei was able to hold his serve comfortably throughout set one, breaking again in the ninth game, taking the set 6-3, and importantly serving first in the second.

An immediate break of the Kyrgios serve in set two and things looked to spiralling out of control for the 24th seed, but he broke back with a steely resolve and both players held serve until 5-6, where Nishikori planted his foot firmly on the match, breaking Kyrgios for the final time to win the second spot in the final 6-3 7-5.

Of course the final would be a much different proposition, with Novak Djokovic awaiting, but one day Nishikori will be primed to beat the world number one, probably not this time.  After Nishikori defeated Djokovic in the 2014 US Open semis, he had 2-1 H2H lead.  Since then Djokovic has won all 5 clashes, including the decisive straight sets quarter final victory at this year's Australian Open.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Sveta v Vika in Miami final

Sveta Kuznetsova has turned back the clock this past week, not just teaching Serena Williams a lesson or two, but by maintaining her form through to the final of the Miami Open, a tournament just one level down from Grand Slam status.

Her straight sets victory over fellow giant killer Timea Bacsinszky in the semi final was full of the poise and shot making from her dual Grand Slam winning years.  Not that Timea didn't provide Sveta with a competitive semi final.  It was one that could have swung very much to Switzerland at various stages. A first set with five break points all saved by the Russian and taken 7-5.  A second set with five service breaks from fourteen break points, nine created by Timea.

Experience told in the end, and maybe that could be Sveta's biggest weapon come the final because all the experts will be counting her out against Vika.

Azarenka opened her semi final against Angie Kerber clearly with the intention of controlling things.  And she did this by winning 59% of points on serve and 57% of points on return in a 6-2 first set.  The second set was far more competitive but the Belarusian still maintained the edge and won through to the final 6-2 7-5

The first men's quarter final played today was a momentum changer of the highest order.  Gael Monfils began like a house on fire, taking set one off Kei Nishikori 6-4, in the process sending down 7 aces, and breaking twice.  As predicted, though, the Japanese 6th seed brought his A game to the court, levelling things at a set all.

He further complicated matters for Monfils by going a break up in the decider, and consolidating at 4-2.
Instead of conceding, Monfils lifted, winning the next three games and having Nishikori on the ropes 4-5 and 0-40 facing three match points.  Nishikori amazingly saved all those and another to level at 5-5.
Monfils lost the match in the tie breaker 7-3. Heartbreak for the Frenchman and for his legion of fans who were so close to seeing him in a Masters semi final.

No such disappointment for those Australian fans who have forgiven Nick Kyrgios.  The young talent from down under was not afraid to attack Canadian Milos Raonic from the outset of their big serving quarter final, and his crosscourt backhands in particular caught Raonic on the hop.  Eventually Nick's break points were too much for the 12th seed and one was converted for the break in the opening game.

Nick found himself in trouble on his own serve but managed to find a way through to consolidate at 2-0.  The rather tenuous lead did not bother the Aussie whose serve continued to bother Raonic, either too big or too smart.

Raonic lost the first set with the single break 6-4.  

The second set was all about the big serves and there was no way a tie break wasn't going to decide the outcome. Again Kyrgios seized the initiative, attacking where he could, not afraid of the consequences.  At the first change of ends he had the 4-2 advantage and the facial expression said it all.  The match was in his hands now.

The remaining points all went to serve and Nick Kyrgios now had a semi final appointment with Kei Nishikori.  He also has earned a spot in the world's top twenty, the youngest in that elite group.  Can the Aussie go even one step further and make the final of the Miami Masters ?