Friday, 3 June 2016

Tennis in Transition - French Open 2016

Tennis is in transition - a horrible term familiar across all sports which describes current players not being sufficiently replaced with fresh, younger players. 

We have now reached the semi-finals stage of the 2016 French Open and I have to suggest it has been one of the most forgettable slams in living memory. This is mainly due to the off-court news making the real headlines - Roger Federer announcing he would not be participating (the first such occurence in 16 years), and Rafael Nadal withdrawing through injury after a couple of matches. Roland Garros this year has been deprived of Federer's magic and Nadal's excitement. When you subtract these two kings of the sport from the equation, you quickly realise that tennis is left with the bare bones of survival. Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray are both exiting prime and entering veteran stage of careers, together with other top ten players such as Wawrinka, Berdych, Ferrer, Tsonga and Gasquet. 

It's not too different on the women's side as well. Serena is the veteran looking for a few more cherries on top of an almighty impressive cake, but there seems to be a dearth of world class opponents to challenge her, the same situation that Djokovic is facing now.

Tennis desperately needs Dominic Thiem and Garbine Muguruza to step up now!

Tennis needs new heroes to re-capture the imagination once more. Austrian, Dominic Thiem, will have broken into the top ten come Monday and is the most exciting prospect to appear out of the clay court season culminating with his shot at the world #1 Friday. Similarly, Spaniard, Garbine Muguruza has showed promising signs that she is developing into a formidable opponent to not only challenge Serena, but soon enough take over the mantle of world #1.

It is time for the young ones to show their worth. For Thiem and Muguruza, it's time to start making new history.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Australian Open 2016 Reflections

Now that the dust has settled and the trophies presented to the victorious competitors, I have a few reflections from the fortnight at the Australian Open.

1. Nadal losing to Verdasco in the 1st round.

This was the stand-out moment of the entire fortnight for me. First and foremost, there was some top quality tennis on show. People point out the errors from Verdasco but choose to ignore the equal number of winners he hit. His forehand was on fire and Nadal had no answer to it. After struggling with illness and further injury coupled with a tentaive comeback for the last 16 months or so, the question on my mind is "Why is Nadal still playing tennis? What is his motivation?" The guy has won 14 majors and is a legend of the game. But he is seriously looking weaker with each year and he may not win another major. His records and career stats can only go one way now and I wonder how much longer he can stand to see his stock fall. This will be a key year for Rafa. Can he remain in the top 8? Can he capture another Roland Garros? Just how deep can he go at Wimbledon and the US Open? Can his body handle this busy Olympic year? Will he dump Uncle Toni and try a fresh coaching appointment? There are certainly more questions than answers right now for Nadal.

2. Angelique Kerber winning the ladies singles title

Who saw this one coming? Not many, apparently. Beating Serena in the final is obviously the best way to triumph and represents a defining moment in the German's career. With the win, she has risen to #2 in the rankings and will now feel the pressure to maintain the sort of performances she showed in Melbourne. To be honest, the draw opened up nicely for her - she only faced 2 seeded players in the entire competition (seed 14 Azarenka in the QF and seed 1 Serena in the final). So she had some luck in that respect. However, she also showed a lot of fight and character, coming from match point down in the very first round to go on win the championship.
Can Kerber now establish herself as one of the world's finest? Will she win another major this year? Can she keep up these performances with added pressure of increased status and high ranking involved?

3. The Match-fixing Scandal

This is one I didn't want to mention but had to because of the coverage it has received. The names of Novak Djokovic and Lleyton Hewitt, amongst others, are the more recognisable names linked to the scandal, perhaps slanderously. Only time and investigations will tell, but match-fixing is something tennis needs to eliminate as quickly and harshly as possible.

4. Lleyton Hewitt's Farewell to Tennis

This was one of the enduring moments of the Australian Open of 2016. He put up a good fight in his final defeat to David Ferrer, and the Spaniard was very discreet in his own on-court interview, preferring to allow Lleyton to enjoy his moment. Hewitt was the pioneer of the baseline game for these modern players. He showed it could be successful when courts were faster than what they are today. He battled injury to play with passion and ignite crowds with his never-say-die attitude and fired-up demeanour. The video tribute to Lleyton featuring Federer, Nadal, Kyrgios and Murray was also an excellent touch as Australia said goodbye to a tennis hero.

5. Zhang and Konta's Deep Runs

Two unseeded women, one Chinese, one British. Zhang, a qualifier, reaching the quarters while Konta went all the way to the semis. Zhang defeated Halep in the first round, while Konta knocked out Venus Williams. Impressive statements that led to their quarter-final clash. I was very impressed with Konta's tennis, playing aggressive with a fabulous forehand. Will this be a one-off showing for these two players, or is it the start of something great?

6. Federer's Masterclass against Goffin

There have been so many adjectives and metaphors used in an attempt to describe Roger Federer's tennis genius, and it was on display in the 4th round against poor David Goffin. Federer was hitting every shot in and out of the book with such clean fluency and pinpoint precision while dancing around the court like a majestic ballet dancer. His movement was tremendous and his execution of the backhand down the line sublime. It was a real treat, real tennis, and really, really awesome.

7. Emergence of Milos Raonic

Yes, this was the tournament where Milos Raonic really announced himself as a genuine challenger at major tournaments. His route to the semis was achieved with a monster serve and forehand as well as an improved all-round game. Perhaps most impressive was his composure. Nowhere better was this highlighted than in his 5-set win over Wawrinka. He stayed calm throughout Wawrinka's comeback in sets 3 and 4 and then stepped it up in the 5th. If he can stay injury-free he can be a decent challenger to Djokovic with a different power-play style of tennis. He looks ready to go deeper and perhaps cause a shift in dominance of mens tennis.

8. Djokovic winning his SF and Final too easily

As impressive as Djokovic's consistency in hitting balls deep is, his SF and Final victories seemed too easy for him. Granted, Federer finally woke up and gave Djokovic a minor scare in the 3rd and 4th sets of their semi-final, but before that, it really was one-way traffic. As it was in the 1st set against Murray in the final. Despite the 7-5, 7-6 scoreline in the 2nd and 3rd sets, you just never felt Murray was in it and was going to really present Djokovic with any problems. Who is going to test Djokovic in 2016? Who has the ability to step it up and hurt the Serbian #1? Can he complete the Career Grand Slam this year? The Calendar Slam?

9. Bruno Soares

Yes, the unheralded Brazilian, Bruno Soares, won two major events at the Australian Open. He teamed up with Elena Vesnina to win the mixed doubles title, and also triumphed in the mens doubles with Jamie Murray. A memorable tournament for him personally. 

With Hingis and Mirza also enjoying huge success in womens doubles, just how important are the doubles events in tennis? Do we take them seriously? Should they be taken more seriously? Is a doubles major title less significant than a singles major title? Or do they carry equal weight?

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Muguruza Rising

Monday 26th January, 2015. 

Garbine Muguruza gave Serena Williams a scare in the 4th round of the Australian Open. I said during that match that we have a top young player here who will go on to win majors.

Garbine Muguruza was born in Venezuela and now lives in and represents Spain

A few months later she reached the Wimbledon final, losing out to Serena once more.

A year on and Muguruza has risen to #3 in the rankings at the age of just 23. At 6 feet tall she represents an intimidating figure who can mix force with finesse. She made a convincing start to her 2016 Aussie Open with a 6-0 6-4 win over Anna Kontaveit. 

I expect her to make the breakthrough with a maiden major sooner rather than later. There is only so much longer Serena can go on, and with no other dominant female on tour, Muguruza can certainly assert herself on the tour.

At 23, she is only going to get better. Major success is coming.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Australian Open 18-31 Jan, 2016

The draw for the 2016 Australian Open is tomorrow and excitement levels are elevating rapidly. The first major of the year is upon us again and the ageless Roger Federer will once more be competing at the hottest slam on the calendar. He has been under the weather but should be fine come Monday. Federer has made it to the last two major finals, showing that he still has what it takes on the big scene.

However, it's Novak Djokovic who is the hot favourite to sizzle once more Down Under and add another major to his growing resume. He is in unbelievable form and I'm struggling to reason who can stop him before the final.

Stan Wawrinka is one man who has stopped Djokovic in Melbourne, in fact he is the last person to beat him there, 2 years ago in the quarter final. Wawrinka is always dangerous on the hard courts, particularly when his backhand is on song. But there remains too much inconsistency of performance to back him to go all the way.

Rafael Nadal is having somewhat of a resurgence following illness and injury during 2014. He is slowly climbing his way back up the rankings but is still a long way from lifting another major, so rudely highlighted last week by Novak Djokovic who slaughtered him 6-1 6-2 in the Qatar final. On the hard courts I would expect Nadal to consider it a success to reach the last eight.

Andy Murray has been runner-up in Melbourne 4 times, losing out to Roger Federer in 2010 and 3 times to Novak Djokovic. He had a great rebound year in 2015 and will be looking to get 2016 off to a flyer with a run to the final once more. now ranked #2 in the world, the Scot will avoid Djokovic until a potential final. Murray would like Wawrinka in his half, leaving Novak and Roger to fight out a possible semi in the other half of the draw.

That covers the top 5 players in the world, and other than them, I can't see anyone else making huge strides in Melbourne. It will be a big year for Grigor Dimitrov, who with so much potential, had an awful 2015 and will find it necessary to go much deeper in slams to convince the tennis world he is the real deal.

Milos Raonic looks likely to enter the draw at #14 and is one to watch. He has improved his all-round game dramatically from a year ago and can now complement his booming serve with a big forehand and solid backhand. He comes into Melbourne having beaten Roger Federer in the Brisbane final on a wave of confidence and optimism.

For the home boys, Bernard Tomic, Nick Kyrgios, Sam Groth and Thanasi Kokkinakis will all be hoping for a good run in the tournament with Kyrgios the most likely for me to spring a surprise or two.

Mens tennis resumes now! Who is your tip for the title in Melbourne?