Saturday, 30 June 2012

Rafa's Exit Raises Murray's Final Hopes

The first 4 days of Wimbledon provided the usual share of upsets, with seeded players falling by the wayside, most notably in the womens draw 9th seed Marion Bartoli, 2011 quarter finalist.  5th seed Samantha Stosur also left in round 2 but given her abysmal record here, not such a shock to the tournament.  Top ten players Tomas Berdych and John Isner, potential later opponents of Djokovic and Federer respectively, both were dismissed in round one.  Of course all that paled into insignificance once the final ace had been served past Rafa Nadal under the Centre Court roof late on Day 4 by Czech player Lukas Rosol, never ranked higher than 65 and entering this event at 100.
The second round departure by the 7 time French Open champ stunned the world, and denied patrons the possibility of a fifth straight GS tournament final between he and Novak.

What it has done is to open one side of the draw for 4th seed Andy Murray to finally achieve his ambition to play in a Wimbledon final.  The likely quarter final now is Murray v Tsonga, and the form of both after 2 matches is consistent with that line of thought.  Ivo Karlolic in the second round was a dangerous proposition and Murray handled it very well,  returning serve competently whenever he could see it or be anywhere near it, above all exhibiting a patience not always identified with the Scot's approach to big occasions.

At time of writing, Maria Sharapova has literally screamed into the fourth round and continued captivating all with her racquet work while annoying most with her gratuitous noise.  The WTA in its "wisdom" is investigating the possibility of introducing formal measures to measure the noise levels of its players in an effort to dial down the decibels.  The "grunt-o-meter" would not be applied to the current generation of players for fear of it damaging their game.  What a load of rubbish.  We would have the ludicrous situation of the 2 top ranked players in the world allowed to scream to their hearts delight while any newcomers would be subject to the new rules.  The WTA should be using their top players as examples to the new generation of players and force them to stop screaming.  It is not an asset to Sharapova or Azarenka - both win points because of their tennis skills and the noise is just to take unfair additional advantage.  Thankfully for those watching at home there is the mute button.

Back to actual tennis and we have the chance to re-evaluate the predictions made pre-tournament.  One change that won't be made by me is that of seeing Djokovic in the final.  For all of Federer's winning ways against opponents that should be being taken to the cleaners by a player of his ilk, he just has not played to the level exhibited by the world number one.  Ryan Harrison lost in straight sets to Novak but played a terrific match, his tennis probably sufficient to defeat most other players in the draw.  The serving and ground shots of Djokovic were sublime.  He hadn't peaked either - despite losing the first set against a determined Radek Stepanek, there was never a doubt that a fourth round spot would be Novak's.  This time the clinic given over the final 3 sets centred on return of serve and it featured some of the best seen at Wimbledon in years.  Two Davis Cup mates meet in the round of 16 but Viktor Troicki will need to be exponentially better than his polished performance ousting Juan Monaco if he is to rid us of the defending champ.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Grass Court Heroics To Come

Djokovic takes flight for a BH in the 2011 Final 
Wimbledon is many kilometres away this year - last year just a train ride from Paddington.  However, I will enjoy the exploits of the best players live on the big screen and its only an hour or so from now.  Predictions are fun so I should throw mine in for what they are worth.  Last year I managed to select both singles champions - this year I am less confident which can only mean an open event.

On the mens side, the big three appear to have the tournament to themselves, but last year, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga upset that with a sensational comeback win over Federer in the quarters.  This year his draw is relatively friendly on the way to a potential quarter final against Nadal.
The sixth seed Tomas Berdych made the final 2 years ago, having knocked out both Federer and Djokovic en route there.  He could again be trouble for the world number one should they play to their seedings and meet each other in the final eight.  Getting there is no guarantee for the Czech star though - his performances at Grand Slam level since the 2010 final have been less than glorious, with 2 quarter finals at the Aus Open the best he has offered.

Seriously, Djokovic and Federer should be one semi final, and Roger must overcome plenty of demons to pass this test.  The winner of 16 GS titles has made only 1 final in his last 9 attempts, and not passed the final 8 in his last 2 trips to Wimbledon.  Novak has made the semis at least in his last 8 GS events, of course winning 4 times.

Unless we see a blast from the very best of Roger's past, I cannot see anything Swiss preventing yet another Nadal v Djokovic finale at the highest level.

Maria Sharapova is clearly the best player in womens tennis at the moment, and her second Wimbledon title would take her past Kim Clijsters to 5 GS titles in total.  Nothing other than a Williams sister or a sharp reversal of form from the defending champion can prevent Maria from taking the running Roland Garros Wimbledon double.  I still believe that Petra Kvitova has the perfect game for the SW19 surface and may survive deep into this draw.  However she does appear to have lost some confidence since last year - losing first round at Eastbourne didn't help.  Maybe the semi final in Paris will be the boost for her to push for back to back glory on the hallowed grass.  If she can manage to deal with Serena in the quarters watch out for Petra.

Well the outside courts have action soon so I'd better start my viewing preparations.

The first day will provide entertaining propositions:  unseeded Kim Clijsters plays Jelena Jankovic who is sending hate mail to those who manufactured this draw.  8th seed Janko Tipsarevic is up against Mr Popularity David Nalbandian so expect line judges to be wearing helmets and protective padding for that match.  Looking for a seed to fall first up?  Court 16 could be it - 12th seed Nicolas Almagro never does well at Wimbledon and he is facing little terrier Olivier Rochus who nearly took out Del Potro last year in the second round.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Novak Slam - Will Rafa Spoil The Party?

The semis are over and for the fourth successive Grand Slam tournament it will be Djokovic v Nadal for the glory.  Rafa has not lost a set while mercilessly destroying each of his 6 victims and treating us to a vintage array of shots that only a racquet placed in his hands can produce.  David Ferrer was made to look inadequate just 2 days after showing us that he actually is top 5 standard.  There lies the harsh truth.  The gulf in men's tennis between the top 3 and the remainder is immense and not looking like diminishing any time soon.

Another piece of reality that his legion of fans will not want to accept but may have to sooner rather than later, is the increasing gap between Roger Federer and the 2 best players in the world - certainly at Grand Slam level.  Novak Djokovic thrashed Roger Federer in the semi final over which everyone was salivating pre-match.  Unfortunately the dizzy heights of  the 2011 version could not be repeated, and yes the fickle wind did not assist the players to produce their best tennis.  The world number one, though, managed both the conditions and Federer to put a lie to any fatigue he may experience following successive 5 set struggles against Seppi and Tsonga.

Although insufficient credit was given Djokovic by the Australian TV commentators - everything seemed to be about how Roger's single handed backhand was a disadvantage for the poor guy - the classy Serb champion displayed the purpose and smarts and downright skill as the best in his sport to run one of the best ever totally ragged.  Even when Roger threatened in the second set, and clearly he remains too good not to do this at some stages, Novak came up with the answers, just as he did when seemingly out for the count against Tsonga.

This will now be the ninth Grand Slam singles crown to be decided since Federer last took one - January 2010 was number 16 and at that point Rafa had won 6 and the Joker a mere 1.  On Sunday it will either be number 11 for Nadal, placing him equal on Grand Slam singles titles with the likes of Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg (and breaking clear of Borg with 7 Roland Garros wins) or number 6 for Djokovic, completing a career Grand Slam, and becoming the first man since Laver to hold all 4 major trophies at the same time.

Rafa still deserves his favouritism, no question, but one can never discount the fighting capabilities of Novak, and the final promises to be another wonderful contest between the best 2 players on the planet.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

A New Womens Champion - But Who?

Down to four women, and although the raging favourite for several good reasons is Maria Sharapova, legitimate cases can be mounted for any of the 2012 semi-finalists to raise the trophy on Saturday at Roland Garros.

The routes taken to reach this stage of the tournament have been varied, and notable for the early and then consistent upsets of top seeded players.

The first semi final to be considered has the surprise pairing of 21st seed Sara Errani and 6th seed Samantha Stosur, one of 2 players left who is a reigning Grand Slam singles champion, and the only player who has experienced a women's singles final at this event.

Stosur has won each of the 5 matches against the Italian beginning as far back as the last Olympic Games, but Errani is enjoying a much more successful year than the Australian with 3 titles already.  Still in the only clash between the two in 2012 it was Samantha who took home the chocolates, on clay.  To rub salt into the wound it was a straight sets win in Sara's back yard - the Rome Premier tournament.

Stosur had the good fortune firstly not to have to play a seeded player in the fourth round, with 12th seed Lisicki and 24th seed Cetkovska bowing out before inflicting any damage.  Dominika Cibulkova then provided Stosur with a gift to beat all else by cancelling the visa of world number one Vika Azarenka in the fourth round.  Sam was extremely appreciative not to have to fight the odds against Vika and she thanked Cibulkova by dispensing with the Slovakian dream in their quarter final in straight sets, the only mode of victory employed in her 5 matches so far this French Open.

So how come Errani managed to make it to her first Grand Slam singles semi final?  Well her wins from round 3 were pretty impressive - Sara knocked out the 13th and 28th seeds in successive rounds, and they just happened to be Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova, the 2008 and 2009 Roland Garros champions respectively.  To seal the deal, Errani conquered top ten player and German number one Angelique Kerber in the quarters.

The path for Errani was cleared somewhat with the removal of obstacles in the form of 18th seed Flavia Pennetta, 8th seed and semi finalist from 2011 Marion Bartoli, and 3rd seed Agnieszka Radwanska.

The manner in which Stosur has played and won her matches has been highly impressive this year, perhaps even greater than when she captured her US Open title.  All things being equal, the Australian has too many weapons available on clay for Errani to counter, but before declaring the winner of the semi final, just remember the last time Stosur entered a big match at Roland Garros against an Italian player.  Yes - 2010 saw the fighting qualities of Francesca Schiavone overcome Samantha in the final.  Sara need look no further than that display to believe she is a real chance to reach the final.

The marquee semi final (on paper at least) consists of the 2 players who fought out a wonderful final at Wimbledon last year, and blessed us with another 3 set battle to remember in Melbourne in this year's Australian Open.  Petra Kvitova triumphed at Wimbledon, but it was the Russian who claimed the points away from the grass.  Significantly on the clay in the Stuttgart semis in April, Maria once again proved the stronger of the two, and has continued that form through to the Paris version of the surface.

The number 2 and number 4 seeds were drawn to meet here in a semi final, but the opponents they  encountered on the way did not always fit expectations.

Petra has defeated players ranked no higher than 61, avoiding the matches she would have pencilled in with 32nd seed Niculescu, 14th seed and last year's finalist Schiavone, and 7th seed and defending champion Li Na.  If Federer enjoyed a charmed run to the quarters, then Kvitova's stroll to the semis is heaven sent.

Of course Sharapova has also managed to miss out on potential trouble, not yet having seen anyone on the other side of the net from the top 20.  Other women saved Maria from the worry of 16th seed Kirilenko and 5th seed Serena Williams as she marched freely to the second Thursday.

On the basis of clay court form, head to head recent history, and overall experience and success in Grand Slam tournaments, I have to agree with the majority and predict Maria Sharapova to taste the Paris clay on finals day for the first time, in the process regaining the world number one ranking and keeping alive the dream of completing a career Grand Slam.

Sharapova v Stosur is my prediction for the final and if it does come to pass it may be closer than history between the two would suggest.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Federer's Dream Run

Roger Federer must have done a lot of things right to have had favours returned the way they have at Roland Garros this year.  He has dealt with his opponents in mostly his skilled surgeon manner and only a few minor scalpel slips have occurred, none threatening serious injury.

He has however been assisted by the presentation of those opponents - in succession ranked 78, 92, 89 and 109.  Yes, hardly any more than a comfortable relaxing walk in the park with the kids.  The only test for Roger thus far would be the match up in the quarter final - the winner of the highly anticipated Berdych and Del Potro clash loomed as a serious warm up for the likely Djokovic semi final.

Although having winning records against both, it is Del Potro that the Swiss champ has owned this year, already dispensing of the Argentine giant 4 times without bleeding a single set.  Tomas has been more of a bother to Roger, as recently as Madrid having the gall to force Federer to 3 sets in the final and delaying valuable alone time with the wife and kids.  Then there is the still burning hatred of the Czech world number 7, fuelled by his failure to bow to the Grass God in the Wimbledon quarters in 2010.

So the second most delighted person to receive the news of Juan Martin's success in 4 sets over Berdych was Federer, who now was guaranteed a straight sets path to what we all wanted anyway - the dream semi final against the world's best.  Of course out to prove me wrong is Del Potro, who after being taken apart in the second set against Berdych, displayed the sort of fortitude and skill on clay to give it straight back and more for one of the more impressive wins in the men's draw in 2011. 

If he can bring that attitude to his Federer assignment, then maybe we could receive the benefit of something like the 2009 US Open final rather than the white flag efforts of earlier in 2012.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Unfair Expectations of Venus

As we venture deeper into the Women's Singles Draw in Paris, and prepare for a possible showdown between the world's top 2 ranked players in the final - although last year's finalists and another previous winner may have something to say about that - I'm sparing some time to commend, not dismiss, the efforts of Venus Williams.

Although the 7 time Grand Slam title winner was convincingly beaten in the second round, some supposed experts seem to regard this exit like any early departure from a tennis tournament by Venus as shocking as those made (rarely) by her sister.  Let us rejoice in the fact that Venus is actually playing tennis at the top level at present.  Given her awful run of injuries post 2010, compounded by the diagnosis of Sj√∂gren's syndrome, one could understand Venus choosing to retire from the game in which she has nothing more to prove.

For our benefit, and through her courage, Venus has battled the adversity and achieved significant results - in 2012 she has beaten top 5 players Kvitova and Stosur, and lifted her ranking to top 50.  Roland Garros has never been a happy tournament for Venus (her one finals appearance was 10 years ago) so when the number 3 player in the world defeated her in straight sets in the second round, the appropriate response should have been: "Expected loss on clay - but useful warm up for another crack at Wimbledon".

Instead, many observers have bundled this result with some other early losses to signal the repatriation of Venus Williams into the tennis players retirement home.  How about we just relax and allow one of the best advertisements for women's tennis in our time, and tennis in general, to play while she is physically able, because based on performances this year, we will continue to enjoy some of the old magic.  Don't expect what we received at the height of the Venus era - be pleasantly surprised if and when it arrives.      

Friday, 1 June 2012

Rafa and Novak Cruising in Paris

Just 2 rounds in and the 2012 edition of France's contribution to the Grand Slam has provided little indication of a final four much different from last year.  Nadal is luxuriating in the red clay which he prays Madrid may use in future instead of the blue variety that he and others abhor.  This year Rafa has actually managed to defeat Djokovic in 2 Masters event finals, both on clay, something he failed to achieve in 2011.  His favouritism is more than warranted to take home French Open number 7, and the ruthless nature of his first 2 wins here has merely underscored the practise match status of week one for the amazing left-hander.

Novak this year is free of the "when will he lose his first match of the season?" tag which he carried throughout Roland Garros 12 months ago, until Federer answered "Now" in the epic semi final.  Still playing at the top of his game, the world number one, with a recent clay court victory over the Swiss legend should have an opportunity of reversing the 2011 semi final result, and reaching his first Roland Garros final.

Highlights from the Mens Singles Draw over the first few days included another lengthy 5 setter between American John Isner and a French player.  This time it wasn't Nicolas Mahut, and it wasn't on grass, but the match went to 34 games in the decider, before Paul-Henri Mathieu upset the tenth seed in a memorable comeback from a career threatening injury.  This was one for the fans but more for the spirit of the game.  Mathieu is ranked 275 but once was near the top ten.

Interesting to reflect on 3 players who are greats of the game and true contemporaries.  Andy Roddick failed to pass the first round which is not as shocking given the surface, but these days the American tends to lose early in many of the tournaments he enters.  At least he has had the capacity to play tennis, something that Australia's Lleyton Hewitt cannot equally claim.  Finally free from his troubling foot, the 2 time major winner - his last being 10 years ago - grabbed a wild card for this event, and although losing the first round match showed that he could match it with many come the grass court tournaments.

Roger Federer started around the same time as Andy and Lleyton yet his fortunes still flourish - he is still in the top 3 players in the world and way beyond the rest.  The only thing Roger has lacked in the last couple of years is a Grand Slam title,  and he is in the sort of form that doesn't necessarily rule out number 17 from occurring this year.  Maybe Wimbledon.