Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Andy beats Novak to deserve #1 spot

The final big showdown in men's tennis for 2016 was potentially newly crowned world number one Andy Murray against the man he replaced - Novak Djokovic.  The ATP World Tour Finals was the tournament and London provided the venue.

Many, including yours truly, believed that Murray was merely a statistical number one, as he had not actually played Djokovic (let alone beaten him) since losing the Roland Garros final in June.  Here was the chance to play that return match, and silence any doubters.

In the preliminary round robin matches, the top two swept through their respective pools.  Djokovic, after losing his opening set in his opening contest against Dominic Thiem, cruised for sets two and three.
He found it tougher against Milos Raonic, requiring two tie breaks to claim victory.  His third and final pool clash was against David Goffin, a replacement for injured Gael Monfils.  Goffin was put away without any fuss.

Murray thrashed Marin Cilic, struggled to a three set win against Kei Nishikori, before giving US Open champ Stan Wawrinka a hiding.  Nishikori won through to the semi finals, with only one win, thanks to a better percentage of sets won than Cilic or Wawrinka.

Raonic finished second to Djokovic in the other group with two wins and earned the fourth semi final spot.

The semi finals were decided in vastly different style.  Andy Murray lost the first set to Raonic and despite losing the second in a tie break, the Canadian held a match point in the third.  Murray saved that and scraped though, taking home another tie break 11 points to 9.

Novak Djokovic destroyed Nishikori, setting the trend with the first four games going his way in a flash.  The straight sets win in a little over an hour must have filled the Serb with great confidence for the final.

Andy Murray has had problems maintaining the quality of his serve in big matches against Novak Djokovic in recent years.  However many of those have been in Grand Slam events and best of five affairs.

The final here in London was best of three, and although Murray's first serve percentage was well below that of Djokovic, he was far more successful when he landed it, winning 27 points from 32 deliveries.  Djokovic won just 26 from 44.
Murray didn't face a break point in Set One and only a single one in Set Two.
Djokovic faced three break points in Set One and six in Set Two.

With his famous return of serve not as effective as normal, Djokovic was always under pressure and the result appeared inevitable from early in the match.
Andy Murray won 6-3 6-4 and earned the undisputed title of year end world number one.  He had beaten the great Novak Djokovic to seal the deal.

Next on the agenda for Murray is to win his first Australian Open title - he has lost three finals to Djokovic in Melbourne previously.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Fed Cup - Czech Again !

The Czech Republic at the weekend won its third successive Fed Cup, and fifth in six years with an enthralling victory over France in the 2016 final.

It came down to the final match - the doubles rubber - and the heroics, though shared throughout both teams during the tie, most prominently were served up by the lower ranked Barbora Strycova for the victors, and Caroline Garcia for the valiant runners-up.

The 2016 US Open finalist, and only top ten player featured in the final, Karolina Pliskova, opened proceedings on Day One against French number two Kristina Mladenovic.  The pair split the first two sets before embarking on an unprecedented marathon decider lasting 30 games.  Incredibly only five breaks of serve occurred during this time, but it was the Czech Republic which put the first point on the board with Pliskova outlasting her opponent 6-3 4-6 16-14.

Caroline Garcia injected a wave of enthusiasm back into the Strasbourg crowd, which was clearly a little down from the result of the first match, when she stunned last start winner Petra Kvitova in a masterful display against the two time Wimbledon champ.  Garcia won the WTA tournament here in May this year, so Strasbourg is a happy hunting ground.
After an enthralling first set, which appropriately was decided in a tie break, eight points to six in Garcia's favour - thanks mainly to her forehand, and ability to restrict her unforced error count to a minimum - the French player controlled set two, especially with her success on the Kvitova serve, winning 13 out of 24 points from it.
The 7-6 6-3 win levelled things at 1-1 after Day One, and Caroline Garcia continued her momentum first up on Day Two when confronting a battle weary Karolina Pliskova.

Garcia took the first set, often forcing Pliskova into error in an otherwise even affair.  Pliskova answered quickly in the second, not facing a break point on her own serve but creating many chances on the Garcia delivery, converting one to level the battle.
Garcia had plenty in reserve and clinched her second win in as many matches with a fine third set highlighted by crisp forehand winners and success when coming to the net.  France ahead 2-1 and the home crowd well and truly brimming with confidence.

Both captains decided to rest players for the fourth rubber, Petr Pala opting for Barbora Strycova ahead of Kvitova, and Amelie Mauresmo replacing Mladenovic with Alize Cornet.
Strycova was quickest out of the blocks, clearly having the better of Cornet whenever the points were decided at the net, and punishing the French serve, both first and second entries.  The 6-2 scoreline was a true reflection of the gap in performance.
Set two was far more competitive, and despite Strycova losing half her points at the net, a tie break resulted.  7 points to 4 it was the set to the Czech Republic and the match 6-2 7-6.  The doubles would decide Fed Cup 2016.

The teams selected for the critical clash were Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic (France) and Karolina Pliskova and Barbora Strycova (Czech Republic).
There was hardly anything between the teams in either of the two sets, but an overall edge in effective return of serve managed to convert into an extra service break in each, providing a 7-5 7-5 success to the Czech pair over the world number two ranked pairing, and a 3-2 Fed Cup triumph for the nation.

From 1-2 down, Barbora Strycova stepped in to the breach, and deserves huge praise for her work in winning the vital final singles and then immediately backing up for the doubles decider.
Caroline Garcia, ranked 23, defeated players ranked 6 and 11 and while disappointed for her nation, can justifiably be proud of her efforts.  

Sunday, 13 November 2016

WTA - New Look Year End Top 10

As the men prepare to compete in the prestigious ATP World Tour Finals, it is worth reflecting on the year just gone for the WTA Tour.

In Zhuhai, China last weekend Petra Kvitova finished 2016 in style, winning her second tournament out of the last four contested.  She was a beaten finalist in one of the others.
This compares with an ordinary first half of the year, in which she reached only one semi final.

Petra defeated Elina Svitolina in the Zhuhai final - Svitolina achieved plenty in 2016, including a win over Serena Williams.  The Ukranian reached three finals, grabbed one title, and finished the year at a career high ranking of 14.

The top ten at year end sees Angie Kerber at number one - her two Grand Slam titles helping the rise from 10 at the start.
Serena Williams dropped from 1 to 2.
Agnieszka Radwanska rose from 5 to 3.
Simona Halep dropped from 2 to 4.
Dominika Cibulkova rose from 38 to 5, including taking the WTA Finals title.
Karolina Pliskova rose from 11 to 6.
Garbine Muguruza dropped from 3 to 7, despite winning Roland Garros.
Madison Keys rose from 18 to 8.
Svetlana Kuznetsova rose from 25 to 9.
Johanna Konta rose from 47 to 10.

The five women losing their spots in the top ten were: Maria Sharapova - was 4 but found trouble, Petra Kvitova - 6 to 11, Venus Williams - 7 to 17, Flavia Pennetta - was 8 but now retired, and Lucie Safarova - 9 to 64

The dominance of Serena Williams has dissipated, at least statistically.  Also, there are certain players who clearly are not as intimidated by the great one.  Kerber and Pliskova have weapons which they are only too happy to throw at Serena, and on clay Muguruza demonstrates her ability to counter the brilliance of Williams.

Cibulkova and Kvitova are firing again, and both could be potent forces in the Australian summer, leading into the first major of 2017 - scarily only two months away.
Carla Suarez Navarro had a disappointing end to a solid year but is worth following in 2017, as is the ever improving Johanna Konta.

While Halep and Radwanska are in tournaments, they should never be discounted, and this and all before proves that the depth at the top level of women's tennis is as real as ever, a guarantee of absorbing viewing.

The eight players competing in London in the ATP World Tour Finals have been split into two groups.
Andy Murray heads the John McEnroe Group, and it is without doubt the tougher of the two.  It includes Stan Wawrinka (the US Open Champion), Kei Nishikori (who knocked out Murray in the US Open quarters) and Marin Cilic (who defeated Murray in the Cincinnati final).
Novak Djokovic heads the Ivan Lendl Group, which is filled with other players Milos Raonic, Gael Monfils and Dominic Thiem.
The Serb has not lost to any of them, winning all of his 7 matches against Raonic, 13 against Monfils and 3 against Thiem.  He has beaten each of them twice in 2016 alone.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Novak likely to lose top spot

Andy Murray is just one win away from taking the number one ranking from Novak Djokovic, and it should happen in the semi finals at the Paris Masters this weekend.

Following Novak's breakthrough at Roland Garros in June, all the talk was surrounding the possibility of him grabbing a calendar year Grand Slam.  
However, since that day in Paris, it has been Murray who has dominated men's tennis.

The Scot, who was a gallant runner-up in the Roland Garros final, has subsequently:

WON     Queens Club, Wimbledon, Olympics, China Open, Shanghai Masters, Vienna
Been a Finalist at Cincinnati Masters and a Quarter Finalist at US Open

Oddly, in all that time he has not played another match against the man he is likely to replace at the top of the heap.  Hopefully we will have the chance to see that in the ATP World Tour Finals in London starting in just over a week.
This tournament will determine the year end world number one.

So how was Andy given the golden opportunity ?  Well he can thank Marin Cilic, whose great quarter final win against Djokovic prevented the Serb from defending his 2015 Paris title and importantly the 1000 ranking points it provided.

There was not much between the two as the 6-4 7-6 scoreline would suggest, but Cilic managed to create slightly more pressure with his serve, and also win the key points, something at which Djokovic has been the master for the past couple of years.
Not today though, and indeed in the second part of the season he has not presented the same level of intimidation to those about to play him.  Mentally he appears to be ever so slightly below the sharp, highly motivated Novak which, with his impeccable brand of tennis can create an aura of impregnability.  

Cilic will play John Isner in the semi final after the big serving American took three sets to eliminate compatriot Jack Sock.  This section of the draw had already seen the departure of seeds Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem.

Murray defeated Tomas Berdych to reach the semi final where he will meet the winner of the Raonic v Tsonga quarter final.

While the best women have played their WTA Finals, 12 of the next level - ranked 10 to mid 20s - have been fighting out for the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai, China.

Split into 4 groups, the women in each group played each other in a round robin format to determine the group winner.

The four group winners are top seed Johanna Konta, 4th seed Elina Svitolina, 12th seed Shuai Zhang and 3rd seed Petra Kvitova.  Each were undefeated in their group matches.

The semi finals will feature Konta v Svitolina and Zhang v Kvitova.