Sunday, 18 November 2012

ATP World Tour Finals Reaction - Mr Invincible Triumphs Again

Year end no.1 two years in a row, Novak Djokovic won his second Year End Championships with victory over Roger Federer in a breathtaking duel. It was at times unbalanced with momentum switching dramatically at the beginning and end of both sets, but the quality at times was staggering and the shotmaking simply ridiculous. Federer was fast out of the blocks in the first set, pulling away to a 3-0 lead, but Djokovic didn't waver and dug in his heels to eventually break back, finding his defensive game and deflecting back all Federer could throw at him. The tiebreaker was a turning point, featuring an incredible point Federer won in which he hit a crosscourt forehand winner that was almost behind him, to save the first set point, but Djokovic eventually took it on his next opportunity. The momentum firmly behind him, Djokovic broke Federer straight away and was leading 40-0 on his own serve to consolidate the break, but made a succession of weak unforced errors that handed the break right back and re-energised Federer, who started to reproduce the tennis he was playing for much of the first set. He broke Djokovic not long after and was holding serve comfortably until he came to serve for the set leading 5-4 - at which point Djokovic made his signature surge to break with some incredible clutch play. Minutes later he was 6-5 up with a match point on Federer's serve. The way he clinched the title was magnificent - stretched wide on to his backhand side by a net rushing Federer he stayed low and ripped a searing backhand down the line, and his roar was just as exciting. It was an extraordinary and apposite end to a year which has seen an obscene level of quality, - there can be no doubt that the is the golden era - and by the time the Australian Open comes around the expectation will be just as high.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

ATP World Tour Finals Semi Finals Preview

The semi finals of the year ending championships are set, and they're two clashes of potentially epic magnitude: Djokovic vs Del Potro and Federer vs Murray. For me there are no clear predictions - each has the ability to defeat the other - but here's a summary of what to expect.

Djokovic vs del Potro

Juan Martin del Potro played brilliantly to beat Federer yesterday, serving powerfully and precisely, and consistently putting Federer under duress with his crushing forehand. If he can replicate this form against Djokovic, he'll give himself a chance to break through the world no.1's diamond strength defence and dictate from the baseline. As ever, against the best returner in the game he'll need to serve with high percentages similar to those he produced against Federer in the final set of that match, as well as follow strong serves up with some first strike, pressing play. Their last encounter on a hard court at the US Open demonstrated just how hard Djokovic is to break down at the back of the court in long rallies, and del Potro has to force the play early on to avoid repeating the loss in which he fought valiantly but was still downed in straights. So in short, Djokovic is still the favourite, but del Potro possesses the ability and firepower to repeat his performance in the 2009 World Tour Finals. Additionally, there has been evidence to suggest there is an element of jadedness in Djokovic, who has started a couple of his matches quite slowly, especially in his 3 set win against Murray. If he starts slow del Potro has to take advantage and put the Serb on the back foot. But as we've seen for two years now, Djokovic's ability to fight back from the semblance of a defeat is so good it's unnatural. And that's likely how the match will play out - del Potro to start strong, Djokovic to come roaring back, but shoot me down for being a contrarian, this time I think the Tower will win in 3 bruising sets.

Federer vs Murray

After beating Federer at the Olympics and following it with his first Grand Slam, Murray has shed the element of doubt that he can beat his contemporaries on the biggest occasions. Despite losing the Wimbledon final to Federer he has now won 5 straight sets against him, utilising his unique game which Federer has recently struggled to deal with. Aside from a poor start against Berdych and lapses in concentration against Djokovic, Murray has looked good this week, serving strongly and displaying a positive intent to be aggressive. Federer's form has been solid, but he has at times looked fragile; the first set against David Ferrer he was fortunate not to have lost, serving at a very low first serve percentage and spared by Ferrer missing multiple break points, and against del Potro he played an atrocious tiebreaker, missing several backhands. He can't afford to be slack on the big points against Murray, who will be galvanised by his home crowd and unlike Ferrer will be all over Federer's second serve if he fails to make a sizeable number of first serves. I expect Murray to extend his winning streak over Federer in 3 sets. 

Sunday, 4 November 2012

ATP World Tour Finals 2012 Preview

The groups have been set for another electrifying clash between the top 8 players in the world. Rafael Nadal's absence is still conspicuous, but regardless, this is going to be a huge face off for the current top 3 which will set the tone for the first Grand Slam of 2013. Novak Djokovic has secured the year end no.1 ranking for the second year in succession; Federer is defending the title he has now won twice in succession, and Murray is looking to end his career year with a flourish. They are certainly the front runners - but at this time of year, don't be surprised if neither man wins the tournament. Ferrer, Tsonga, Del Potro and Berdych are all players with the ability to take down the big 3, and if they hit top form expect some fierce battles from the group stage to the final.

Group breakdown:

Group A: Djokovic, Murray, Berdych, Tsonga

If there's a group of death, this has to be it. Djokovic and Murray are the obvious choices to make the semi finals, but Berdych and Tsonga are perhaps the two players you don't want to have to play back to back in the group stage. Both possess heavy artillery off the ground, huge serves and are excellent on indoor hardcourt. If Tsonga in particular turns up to London in good form, he loves playing on grand stages and could knock off one of the favourites. Berdych has been excellent form in this half of the year and is more than capable of causing an upset too, if his power play style is clicking. Combine that with the unexpected exits of Murray and Djokovic from the Paris Masters last week, it suggests either one may be feeling the fatigue of a long season in which they have battled many times. Comparably however, both are in much better form than this time last year, and I'd still expect both to make the semi finals.

Group B: Federer, Ferrer, Del Potro, Tipsarevic

Federer shouldn't have much trouble making it to the final four with this competition, with only a potential loss coming against Del Potro, who defeated him in his hometown tournament of Basel two weeks ago. More interesting is the fight for the final spot in the semi finals - Del Potro is the favourite, but I'm not counting out Ferrer, who is coming off his first Masters title in Paris, and must be confident he can equal his performance last year. He holds a strong record over Del Potro and the ability to neutralise the giant Argentinian's power, and it could be an early pivotal group match in the round robin stage. Overall Del Potro's form this year has been impressive, and it would be great to see him challenging for the title again, as he did in his flagship year of 2009. Tipsarevic plays the role of spoiler, but I don't see him taking down Federer indoors, Del Potro, or Ferrer, with whom he shared an epic 5 set match at the US Open this year.

Semi-finalists: Djokovic, Murray, Federer, Del Potro

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

He Got There In The End: Andy Murray, US Open 2012 Champion

It took 5 times of asking, and years of disappointment but Andy Murray has joined the illustrious company of Grand Slam winners. Even without the significance of being the first British man to win a Grand Slam in a three quarters of a century, it was a fantastic moment seeing him finally claim a major after so much physical and emotional investment. Perhaps the most low key celebration after winning a Grand Slam I've ever seen, it indicated the sheer relief of owning one after being ordained year upon year to win one, and facing the suggestion that it might never happen.

But the way in which he won could not have been more emphatic. Defeating Novak Djokovic, winner of the past 3 hard court Grand Slams he reversed the criticism directed at his supposedly weak mentality and lack of mettle at pressure moments, holding his nerve and timing his final set push with a brilliant demonstration of individual willpower. It was without doubt a magnificent match, one of the all time classic Grand Slam finals and contained some of the most unimaginable tennis played all years, superseding even their 5 hour encounter at the Australian Open earlier this year. The first set alone lasted 1 hour and a half and featured an exhibition length, 54 shot rally - although the quality was severely affected by the windy conditions, Murray and Djokovic still managed to push each other to the limit as far as possible. Murray's adaptation to the conditions benefited him in the first set as Djokovic struggled with his footwork, and when the tiebreaker came around he seemed the more stable of the two players. Like the majority of the first set the breaker was a cagey affair with neither man taking the initiative, but Murray took it with some controlled aggression and served strongly at the right moments.

The mammoth set completed, Djokovic was winded and Murray took control in the second, pulling out to a sizable lead. Closing it out eventually 7-5, there was still the indiciation from Djokovic that he was about to mount a comeback - he really is the man who cannot stay dead in Grand Slams these days, and by the fourth set it seemed as if he was about to pull off another impossible comeback as Murray appeared to be running out of energy. The rallies continued to be lengthy and ferocious with some of the most dazzling displays of defence and counterpunching ever seen - it was fascinating to watch the two best backhands in the world trading pound for pound from the baseline, looking for openings and angles. Owing to their combined consistency off the ground off that wing each man seemed a wall to the other - particularly for Djokovic, until he found his aggressive edge from the third set onwards could not break through Murray's defence. The quality of the tennis that night was unbelievable, and along with the Australian Open is just another demonstration of what it takes to win a Grand Slam. There is a chasm between the top 4 Grand Slam winners and everyone beneath, and that is only set to continue for the next 2-3 years with Murray and Djokovic in their prime, Federer still playing and Nadal possibly returning for the Australian Open in 2013.

For Murray the chasm has now been closed and as far as a tennis player can feel complete, he can be assured that he is remembered within the highest echelons of the sport as someone who was able to mark his name in an era of multiple slam winners. A big piece of the puzzle must be accredited to the best decision in Murray's career in hiring Ivan Lendl, whose failure and then triumph in his 5th Grand Slam final mirrors Murray's exactly. There seems to be something that Lendl sees of himself in Murray, and Murray is deeply indebted to Lendl for guiding him to both an Olympic Gold Medal and the US Open title. The journey has been an arduous one, but now Murray will have that core of belief to go on and win more, to feel that he genuinely belongs amongst the circle of Grand Slam champions and press forward to challenge for the no.1 ranking.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

US Open 2012 Final Preview: Andy Murray vs Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia returns a shot against Paolo Lorenzi of Italy  during their men's single first round match on Day Two of the 2012 US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 28, 2012 in the Flushing neigborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.
So the final has been set. After weathering a great start by David Ferrer and some gruelling, lengthy rallies, Djokovic secured his place in the final to reignite a rivalry which is developing into what could be one of the great rivalries of modern tennis. The clash tomorrow in NYC will be their latest in a Grand Slam since their 5 hour thriller at the Australian Open this year, where the opportunity for Murray's first Grand Slam is once again at stake. The Australian Open was the first tournament Murray played under the tutelage of Ivan Lendl, and since then Murray seems to have moved forward and developed as a player, accomplishing his greatest achievement in becoming the Olympic champion. It seems ripe time for him to win his premiere slam. We have of course heard this many times before, but with his masterful performance at the Olympics, he should have a hugely positive experience to draw upon when he faces the most formidable man on a hard court for the past two years, who is chasing his fourth hard court major in a row. The past two matches have been a showcase for Djokovic's staggering defensive capabilities as the mighty hitting del Potro was unable to batter through the Serbian stronghold and nor was the dogged David Ferrer. Dubbed the 'elastic man', his ability to redirect powerful drives and retrieve normally unreturnable serves has been more daunting than his aggressive game. It's almost impossible to hit through him. But Murray has several more weapons to trouble him, and a backhand that can match Djokovic's pound for pound.

A possible key to the match is how well Murray serves - if he keeps his percentages high and plays with enough variation to keep Djokovic off balance he'll be able to take earlier strikes and not trade too much from the baseline. The more capable volleyer, Murray has to be looking to shorten the points and finish at the net when possible, because getting into protracted rallies with Djokovic does not bode well when the Serb is defending the way he is currently. He has to move Djokovic side to side and try to draw him into the forecourt where he is less comfortable coming forward. Expect plenty of sublime passing shots from both tomorrow. For Djokovic, he is the man to beat, realistically speaking. If he executes the way he has been doing he's going to be almost insurmountable on this surface, particularly if he combines his phenomenal defence with an aggressive mindset. Murray will play plenty of touch shots, and Djokovic needs to be ready to take those types of shots on and play as close to the baseline as possible.

It's a tantalising prospect and a superb way to end the year of Grand Slams. My prediction:

A 5 set classic, Murray the victor. 

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Future of Rafael Nadal

After pulling out of both the Olympics and now the US Open due to his perpetual problems with tendonitis, Rafael Nadal's future and longevity in the game has once again come into question. Although his chronic tendonitis has not derailed him substantially since 2009 when he was forced to miss Wimbledon, this is the first time since then that he has pulled out of a major, temporarily curtailing his pursuit of Roger Federer's all time Grand Slam tally, which stands at 17. Following the French Open and another tremendous season on clay, it looked as if he was returning to his best form and poised to finish the year with multiple slams, but instead he was ousted unceremoniously at Wimbledon by one hit wonder Lukas Rosol, and now will have to wait patiently till next season to resume the chase. The patience Nadal has in abundance as one of the most stoical and philosophical players on the tour, but the ground lost could be quite substantial by the start of the next year.

Nadal however has said very wisely that ranking is the least of his concerns. Recuperation is paramount for him and as we have seen in the past, he has been able to recover and come back even stronger each time after being derailed by injury. Furthermore, his doctor has said that the injury is not a serious career-ending one, but that it requires a substantial amount of rest. To look at it from a coldly objective perspective, the scenario is better than would the news have been the dreaded prelude to the end of his career - thankfully for Nadal and his legions of fans, his career has not been entirely and definitely decided by his injuries, yet .

Some have suggested that Nadal should start skipping all non-mandatory events and perform at the bare minimum of Masters series tournaments to save himself for the Grand Slams, similar to the Williams sisters approach to the women's tour. Perhaps he may have to out of necessity, but for Nadal, who hungers for match practice and wins, it seems completely opposite to the way he plays and treats the game. Very much a momentum player, a lack of match fitness outside of the Grand Slams would possibly be damaging for his overall game. I cannot see Nadal doing something as drastic as foregoing all non-mandatory events, but as he is doing now, continue preserving his health and thinking of the future so as to avoid an irreparable injury.

For slightly more selfish reasons, people and myself included miss Nadal because it is simply not the same without him. The US Open which has been underway for two days now still feels as if there is a huge gap which his presence normally fills in Grand Slams; it's the energy, the insatiable tenacity, the indomitable will to win and the sheer excitement of seeing Nadal hit his signature, outrageous passing shots that make people miss him so much. He says he would like to return, if healthy, to play the next Davis Cup fixture for Spain - here's hoping he recovers with and rejoins the company of his top 4 peers with the utmost alacrity.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Nadal Wins Record 8th Monte Carlo Masters

Monte Carlo remained a clay constructed stronghold for Rafael Nadal today, after he defeated Novak Djokovic in resounding fashion to claim the tournament for the 8th consecutive time, snapping a 7 match losing streak to the Serb in the process. His octet of titles is a staggering achievement, and will likely never be repeated by another player. He holds the record for most consecutive titles won at one tournament; most consecutive titles at a Masters series tournament and and a host of other records which can only attest further to his complete domination of the surface. But he was up against a man threatening to create blots on that record after he handed two defeats in clay finals to Nadal last year without even dropping a set. A lot was on the line for Nadal today, but he produced a commanding performance to subdue an already subdued looking Novak Djokovic.

All elements of his game were clicking today as he managed to buffer himself against the attacking strategies Djokovic had used so successfully against him in their last 7 encounters. He played consistently aggressively with excellent depth off both wings, changed pace expertly and most noteworthy, served with conviction, direction and variety against the best returner in the world right now. He dictated points for the majority of the match and did not get sucked into the same tactics which had failed in his previous attempts to stop Djokovic during his imperial run which started last year. Djokovic was visibly not at his best today, committing over double his winner count in unforced errors, but that does not detract from Nadal's fine performance. By habitude, Monte Carlo is the springboard from which Nadal galvanises himself to dominate during the clay court season up to Wimbledon, and this was a hugely encouraging display from the world no.2 which banishes the haunt Djokvic has put upon him for the past year or so. Even though Djokovic showed last year that he could stay with Nadal on clay, and that this year he will still be his most dangerous competitor, it is incredible to think that every time Nadal steps on the clay for the first time, his year starts for real, and that he is still the man to beat on la terre battue.