Monday, 16 January 2012

Australian Open Preview

What a difference a year makes. Flash back a year to last year's Australian Open when all eyes were on Rafael Nadal winnning his fourth grand slam in a row to accomplish a calendar slam - or what was being affectionately called the 'Rafa slam'. Djokovic at this time was still, relatively speaking, a footnote to the Nadal-Federer duopoly, who had won the last four majors between them, but with his Davis Cup triumph he was starting to gain ground, and the footnote was to be replaced with an exclamation mark at the end of his name.

This year the narratives are richer and more compelling than ever. Many commentators have remarked that the men's draw is more open than it has ever been, and that this may be one of the rare occasions when the top 4 players are all at their strongest at the same time. Novak Djokovic is attempting to keep his Grand Slam narrative going by claiming his third in a row, and even though he hasn't played a tournament yet this year, he looked imperious at the Abu Dhabi exhibition, dismantling both Federer and Ferrer at the loss of less than 10 games. Nadal, who has been afflicted by a shoulder injury for the past two months has assured that it is in perfect condition, and in his presser declared that he feels reinvigorated to get back to his best form, armed with a slightly heavier racket which he hopes will produce more power. Federer finished the year strongly by winning the World Tour Finals, and with the Olympics his main priority, there will be extra motivation for him this year to get back to the top. An injury scare with his back has apparently subsided, and Federer will feel confident that he can take anyone who stands in his way and fulfil what might be called his phoenix rising from the ashes narrative. Perhaps the most fascinating intrigue of the top 4 is Andy Murray and his new coach Ivan Lendl. As I commented in a previous post, I expect Lendl could do wonders for Murray's game and mentality, and if everything materialises correctly for him, it might well result in his first major. It is an enticing multiplicity of prospects for the top 4, and a fascinating start a year which is also an Olympic one.

Draw Analysis:

Novak Djokovic has by far the easiest draw, and is unlikely to be tested until the fourth round, where he may meet the rolling Canadian with a fearsome serve, Milos Raonic. And even then, his return game and superior ground strokes should be enough to see neutralise the rising star's heavy game. He may face David Ferrer in the quarter finals, but it is hard to see him staying with Djokovic despite a convincing win over him at the World Tour Finals two months ago. Federer has the next smoothest passage to the semi finals, with Mardy Fish as the highest seed in his quarter. He has a joker in the pack via a possible meeting with Ivo Karlovic in the third round, but realistically the giant Croat does not have a chance of breaking the Swiss' still running grand slam quarter final streak. The mercurial Dolgopolov Jr. is in his quarter, but it is hard to see him troubling the four time winner, as his game is simply too erratic to produce a consistent performance (he scraped through in 5 sets today). The one big name in there is the talented and powerful Juan Martin del Potro, who is still on the road back to the top and possesses the firepower to blast anyone, including Federer, off the court.

Nadal has a tricky route to the semi-finals with John Isner as a looming third round opponent. Isner gave Nadal a very real scare at the French Open in the first round last year, and on hard courts his huge serve will be even more potent for an upset. Other big servers include compatriot Feliciano Lopez and Kevin Anderson. Tomas Berdych is a potential quarter final opponent for Nadal, and has been playing some excellent tennis recently with his strong semi final finish at the World Tour Finals acting as a strong reminder of how good he can be when he catches fire. Berdych has given Nadal trouble in the past, and has the best chance of inflicting a shock defeat on the Spaniard.

At the other end of the spectrum, Murray has an extremely difficult draw. His first round opener against the plucky Ryan Harrison is the hardest among the top 4, and the young American won't go down without a fight. He may meet Gael Monfils in the fourth round, who is just coming off an excellent showing at Doha where he defeated Rafael Nadal, but even more alarmingly he has the dark horse for the title in his corner, Jo Wilfried Tsonga. The blockbusting Frenchman won Doha recently and was arguably the second best player in the world at the year end, and is looking poised to play the role of spoiler at the grand slams once again. Unfortunately for Murray, if the players meet their seedings in the draw, he will likely have to go through Tsonga, then Djokovic, and then either Federer or Nadal in the final, a monumental task - but a possible one under the new tutelage of Ivan Lendl.

Semi-final predictions:

Novak Djokovic vs Andy Murray
Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Thoughts on Ivan Lendl, Andy Murray's New Coach

It had been rumoured that Ivan Lendl would be announced as Andy Murray's new coach, and the Scot confirmed the other day that he has signed on. It will be fascinating to see the impact Lendl might possibly have on his game, and how the 8 time Grand Slam champion can contribute to helping Murray towards his first. It is also interesting because of the parallel between Lendl and Murray, in that Lendl took several attempts before he won his first major, and similarly Murray has made three slam finals but come up short each time without winning a set. Lendl is the perfect inspiration for Murray to remain persistent and to keep positive despite his numerous failures and set backs throughout the year. 2011 has been Murray's best year by far, in which he made a final and three semi finals at all four Grand Slams, and Lendl could be the key to crack the nut and go one further by winning his first major. He may also try to instil in Murray the icy resilience and level headed demeanour which many remember Lendl for, and this may be beneficial in helping Murray overcome the troughs in his year that usually follow from taking tough losses in Grand Slams. After losing in the 2010 and 2011 Australian Opens, Murray fell into the doldrums each time, playing negative tennis and losing to players he shouldn't normally be losing to. Lendl may be able to help Murray overcome these periodical problems, improve his on court attitude, and manage him so he peaks at the majors and avoids losses he shouldn't really be enduring for a player of his calibre.

How Lendl will affect Murray's strategy and playing style will remain to be seen and we can't expect to see much difference in the next few weeks up until the Australian Open. But perhaps he will encourage Murray to execute a more aggressive approach and adopt more positive tactics on court. However, Murray has had professional disagreements in the past, notably with Brad Gilbert, and he is stubborn enough not to listen to advice suggesting to him that he needs to play more consistently aggressive tennis. But I think that the presence of Lendl is a very positive collaboration and that Murray will be willing to listen to what he has to say, and to put into action counsel which may well earn him his first Grand Slam. It is a bold, significant move which goes with the flow of tennis' continual improvement under the aegis of the current top 3, Djokovic, Nadal and Federer, and signals that Murray is ready to compete amongst them for the majors.