Saturday, 25 January 2014

Third Time Lucky

After Victoria Azarenka was dumped out of the Australian Open three stops from home, Li Na emerged as the clear favourite to secure her second Grand Slam title, and her first at Melbourne Park after two previous appearances there.  Indeed, ever since Serena Williams succumbed to another injury at the start of the second week, Li Na was the commentators' shoe-in from the top half for the draw for a second successive final.

And while she was expected to be part of the 2014 final, her opponent was totally unanticipated.  Despite being only 24, Dominika Cibulkova seems to have been on the WTA tour for a very long time, turning pro at the tender age of 14.  This year's Australian Open was her maiden Slam final appearance, and a look at who she had to beat to reach that stage suggests that she wouldn't have been many people's pick to be still standing on finals day.

R1: Francesca Schiavone
R2: Stephanie Voegele
R3: Carla Suarez-Navarro (16)
R4: Maria Sharapova (3)
QF: Simona Halep (11)
SF: Aga Radwanska (5)

During those matches, she lost only 1 set - to Sharapova, and dealt out 4 breadsticks (Sharapova, Suarez-Navarro, Voegele, Radwanska) and 3 bagels (Halep, Voegele, Suarez-Navarro).  In addition, she defeated a higher-ranked player in every round from R3 to the semi-final.  By contrast, Li Na never faced a player ranked higher than the top 20.  Cibulkova had a fortnight characterised by bulldog tennis.  Shorter than the traditionally statuesque Amazons of the modern game, the Slovak relies on her speed around the court coupled with a low centre of gravity to load up her thumping groundstrokes.  It was a tactic that bludgeoned the experienced Sharapova and Radwanska off court and intimidated newbie Simona Halep into a limp display.

If Cibulkova was to have any chance against Li Na, she would have to play with the same perfection that had characterised her second-week matches.

The opening exchanges of the final, during which the Slovak was broken in her opening service game suggested that she may have a case of the Lisickis - and would be crippled by nerves on the big stage.  However, despite the Chinese woman having opportunities to add to the break, she didn't take them and the set remained in either players' grasp.  With Li Na serving up some shocking first serve statistics (at one point, only registering 11% of first serves in) she threw in some tentative double faults and allowed Cibulkova to level the match.  With the Slovak cry of "Pome!" being more frequent as the set progressed, the set inevitably went to a tie-break, and from that point on, Li Na suddenly regained her footing.  Her backhand down the line, laser accurate, began to fly past the outstretched racquet of the scrambling 20th seed, and she too the tie-break to three.

While the opening set was a tight and frustrating set for Li Na, the second was a masterclass of power, accuracy and self-belief.  It is worth noting that Cibulkova didn't play badly during the set, she was just blown off court by the sheer brilliance of the #4 seed.  Forced into errors and beaten outright in equal measure, Cibulkova went out fighting, but was ultimately unrewarded as Li Na wrapped up the set in 27 minutes.  Final score 76(3) 60.

As if this victory, the first by an Asian player at the Championship that heralds itself as the Asia-Pacific Slam, wasn't enough, the ever-popular Li Na proceeded to win over more fans in Australia and globally with one of the funniest winner's speeches ever committed to camera.  After referring to the trophy as a him ... and a her, thanking her agent for making her rich and blaming herself for injuring herself in the final last year, she turned her attention to her husband, thanking him and joking him in the same breath.

While a fortnight ago many would have expected either Serena Williams or Victoria Azarenka to take another title at this event, no-one will begrudge the eventual outcome as Li Na now joins them and Venus Williams, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Maria Sharapova as the only multiple Grand Slam Champions on tour.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Edberg Effect

It may have been about this time last year that tennis speculators were writing off Roger Federer as past his prime and approaching a retirement.  2013 was, after all, something of a damp squib of a year by Federer standards.  Frequent early exits, particularly from his beloved Wimbledon, were the norm for the Swiss man, who claimed only a solitary trophy for his already over-filled cabinet.  Questions were mooted about whether his fitness and his stamina were waning as the physicality of the game caught up to his advancing years.

However, the move over the off-season to take on a new member of his coaching staff looks to have paid dividends already during the opening Slam of the season.  What looks to have been a concerted effort to keep matches short, keep rallies and points shorter and conserve energy over what could feasibly be a 35-set fortnight of a Grand Slam, Federer chose to work with 80s serve-volley specialist Stefan Edberg to consolidate his net game.  A sterling move and a smart one as so far, Federer has looked clinical throughout his matches, with net play a significant feature of his strategy.  In his two matches, against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the QR16 and Andy Murray in the QF, he chalked up 83% and 74% successful net point percentages respectively.  The Swedish maestro, it would appear, has taught the Swiss #6 seed a thing or three about an effectively, point-shortening volley game.

Standing between Federer and the final is his great rival, Rafael Nadal, who has had something of a low key time at Melbourne Park so far.  A tantalising prospective match-up against the flamboyant Gael Monfils failed to sizzle on court, and his sternest test to date has been the Federer-lite Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov.  The youngster managed to snaffle the opening set from Rafa, but the Spaniard's resilience showed through to allow him to comfortably pull the match back into his grasp.  In contrast to Federer, who has downed 2 top ten players in the second week, the early exit of Juan Martin del Potro saw to it that the highest seed Nadal ended up facing was #16, the promising, but ultimately underwhelming, Kei Nishikori.

With such contrasting routes to the semi-final, it is more straightforward to say that Federer has looked in better condition than any time in the past 12 months, and has passed his tricky tests with considerable ease, than to fully assess Rafa's form in his matches against middling opposition.  For all this though, Roger's bigger racquet-head and newly-acquired love for volley mastery, Rafa holds a significant differential to the good in their head-to-head, and unless Roger plays at a consistently untouchable level, the Spaniard should be able to drag out the match to tire his opponent and prove relentless in his pursuit of his second Australian Open title

Images from Nike

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Failure to Three-Peat

The Australian Open Women's Singles competition has, in 2014, not gone to plan.  As much as this statement feels like a disservice to the four women who find themselves contesting Thursday's semi-finals, the fact that Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams, the dominant threesome at slams in the past two years, have all failed to traverse the five rounds so far is something of a shock.  Indeed, the pre-event odds of either the Belorussian #2 seed or Williams walking away with the trophy were so short to be practically negligible for the punter.

The last of these charismatic personalities fell today as Agnieska Radwanska booked her place in the "bottom-half" semi-final with an inspired performance.  Admittedly, the Pole struggles to find appreciation amongst the casual spectators of the game, many of whom prefer the boombastics of a Lisicki or a Williams to the subtle display Radwanska exhibits.  But her performance against double defending champion, Azarenka, this afternoon was one of the most controlled intelligent displays seen during a WTA match in recent years.

Tennis on the WTA has recently struggled to be about finesse and anticipation, a trend started with Venus and Serena and carried forward by the big-hitting baseliners - Sharapova, Kvitova. Li Na.  But Radwanska has bucked the trend.  Defensive from the back of the court, but not moon-ball defensive like Wozniacki, she reads her opponent and exhibits such fleet of foot and quick hands that she can flip a rally to her advantage and frustrate her opponent into over-hitting.  Granted, if she comes up against a zoned big-hitter she can be blasted off court, but her determined defensiveness can play her back into rallies and the game.  Most notably this was evidence in her last final appearance against Serena Williams at Wimbledon in 2012, during which she flustered the SW19 Queen in the second set to make the match look anything but a foregone conclusion.  Williams prevailed that day, but not in the manner of her previous victories at The All England Club .  A similar, but more assured performance was on display today.  Azarenka had opportunities to hit winners, put the ball away, and clinch points and games, but Radwanska showed such anticipation that the Belorussian was frustrated into a 61 final set and was prevented from completing a tricky tri-title run.

With Dominika Cibulkova her opponent in the final four, Radwanska must be fancying her chances of making her second Slam final on Saturday.  However, the Bratislava native has pulled off a giant-slaying of her own, taking out former champ Sharapova in the R16.  A suitably dominant display against a shell-shocked Simona Halep in her quarter-final saw her through to the semi with considerable ease.  One senses that she will be unable to sustain the form against the more wily Radwanska, but reminisces of Wimbledon 2013, during which Marion Bartoli and Sabine Lisicki emerged from a striated draw to contest the final, suggest that nothing is simple in the WTA these days.  And while Radwanska may be the favourite for the match tomorrow, Cibulkova may just find enough determination and guts to derail the World #4 from her final destination.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Youth vs. Experience


An unheralded exit from this year's Australian Open of the pre-tournament favourite (Serena Williams) has yielded a fantastic opportunity for either China's Li Na, or youngster Eugenie Bouchard to make it through to Saturday's Women's Singles final for a crack at lifting the first Slam trophy of 2014.

For the 31-year-old Li Na, it's a position she has been in twice before: back in 2011, where she squared off in the final against a post-pregnancy Kim Clijsters, and more memorably last January where, during the opening exchanges of the encounter against Vika Azarenka, she appeared certain to walk away with the title.  To make her third Aussie Open final, she needs to defeat a relative unknown, Canada's Justin Bieber-loving teenager Eugenie Bouchard.

Bouchard, earlier today, booked herself a spot in Thursday's semi by taking out Serena's conqueror, Ana Ivanovic.  The Serb, although performing much more confidently and decisively than she has over the past 5-6 years, found that repeating the feat and maintaining the level was tricky against one of the new crop of big-hitters in the WTA.  Her game fell apart as the match progressed to the point where her 19-year-old opponent appeared the one with the experience of the latter stages of a Slam.  Bouchard, a relative unknown to tennis outsiders, had never been beyond the third round of a major, and had also never advanced further than qualifying at Melbourne.  Her unflinching display today suggested that she could become a permanent fixture in week two of the majors within a couple of years.

On paper, though, her semi-final challenge against the #4 seed could prove one step too far for her inexperience.  The Chinese woman has experienced something of a renaissance over the last 12 months.  Gone are the frustrations, the impetuous hitting and the wayward radar.  Replaced, instead, with controlled aggression, better fitness and court awareness and an increased ability to shrug off the pressures she undoubtedly experienced after winning Roland Garros in '11.  With a Williams-sized hole in this half of the draw, there is a sense that the 2014 final will mirror the 2013 one - a confident Li Na favourite to make it through to Saturday's match, and a potential rematch against Azarenka and her attempt to claim a third successive Australian Open title.

Uncharted Territory


For the past three years, the notion of Novak Djokovic sustaining 6 rounds of tennis to make it through to an Australian Open title was a given.  And going into the 2014 Open, he was the favourite for the title, despite being seeded second behind Rafael Nadal.  His form at the end of 2013, during which he clinically seized the Year-End title in London, suggested that the comparative dip he experienced throughout Wimbledon and the US Open was momentary and 2014 would begin in much the same way as 2013, with a dominant Serbian display down-under and Djokovic taking trophy accolades (either as runner-up or Champion) on Australian Day.

However, in a repeat of one of the stand-out matches of last year's event, Djokovic found himself contesting an epic 5-setter against Stan Wawrinka, now riding high on a wave of form and up to #8 in the world.  And after the "match of the tournament" contest of 2013, today's quarter final clash was the marquee match on Rod Laver Arena this evening.  And it didn't disappoint the late night crowd who stayed to it's conclusion.  Another see-saw encounter saw Wawrinka cede the first set to the Serb after some tight serving.  But he raised his game, drilling his single-handed backhand to the corners of the court to outfox the notoriously fleet-footed Djokovic.  While Djokovic capitalised on a lull from the Swiss-man to push the match to a deciding set, it was Wawrinka who eventually prevailed as the fight seemed to escape his opponent who netted on match point.

2014 is the first semi-final appearance for Stan Wawrinka at the Australian Open, and his appearance there pushes the contest into uncharted territory for the first time in 6 years, as Sunday's final will now contain only 1 of the nominal Big 4 (Nadal, Murray, Federer, Djokovic) rather than the two of previous encounters.  Indeed, Wawrinka's opponent in the semi-final is another player making his debut at this stage of the event, the towering Czech, Tomas Berdych.

Berdych's route to the semi-final has been largely uneventful - the one player this year who has flown somewhat under the eye of the media.  Largely this was down to the perception of Djokovic as a shoe-in for the final.  Indeed, Berdych has been present in social media and fashion hit/miss lists rather than news headlines, owing to the somewhat unorthodox kit H&M have furnished him with this tournament - a blue and white striped number with claret shorts, more Wigan Athletic than court chic.  Still, while it may have alerted the fashion police, his tennis has been far from criminal.

His quarter-final was another all-top-ten affair, squaring off against the #3 seed, David Ferrer.  While many believe that Spain's number 2 is on borrowed time as a member of the top 4 in the ATP, he has managed to secure and sustain his position there for a good 24 months, albeit aided by injuries and extended lay-offs amongst the slam champ stalwarts.  Today, though, he struggled against the power of Berdych, who for once had his radar plugged in for the duration of the match.  Time and again, the Czech found himself with a short, slower ball and court-space to wind up his forehand and hit into.  An increasingly frustrated Ferrer let his emotions get the better of him as Berdych took the match in 4 sets.

Berdych and Wawrinka will head into their semi-final knowing that only one match stands between them and a maiden Aussie Open final, for Wawrinka it will be his first ever Slam final.  On paper Stan will take in a wealth of confidence subsumed from the Djokovic defeat.  But the low-key approach that Berdych has exhibited at this year's event may mean that he heads into the contest better prepared and better equipped to make what will be only the second Slam final of his career.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Ground Underfoot

You may be forgiven for thinking that it's grass season in the WTA at the moment.  There's rain aplenty in the UK and a Grand Slam on the horizon that most people expect Serena Williams to win.  In addition, world number 107, Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova proved herself the unseeded one to watch at the tune-up tournament.

Pironkova at Wimbledon in '13.
However, it's a good 6 months until the green of Wimbledon will be ready for play, and is instead the Aussie swing in the lead up to the first Slam of the year where the Bulgarian has captured her maiden WTA title in a stunning run at the Sydney Premier International tournament.  Amidst a field comprising 6 of the world's top 10 (Radwanska, Kvitova, Errani, Jankovic, Kerber, Wozniacki) it was Pironkova who eventually triumphed at the event, recording back to back wins from QF to Final against 3 of the top 10-ers.

Posting a Serena-like stat of not losing a set over the course of her five matches, Pironkova, entering the main draw via the qualifying rounds brushed past Romania's Sorana Cirstea 64 61 in her opening match before ousting Varvara Lepchenko, again for the loss of only 5 games.  A fleetness of foot characterised her Quarter-Final against Sara Errani, who looks likely to struggle this coming season anywhere other than a clay court. Similarly, a strong and accurate backhand from the Bulgarian was enough to take her through her semi-final against a typically misfiring Petra Kvitova.

Having previously posted a 0 from 7 stat when playing a semi-final, Pironkova was also billed as the underdog in the final against Germany's Angelique Kerber.  However, the left-hander with the solid thumping baseline balls was made to look slow and sluggish by the Bulgarian as the pair traded breaks in the opening set.  It was the Bulgarian who settled into a rhythm quicker and closed out the first set with a cracking backhand winner.

A similarly up and down second set again saw Pironkova take an early lead before Kerber racked up three games in a row to get the advantage in the set.  With her nose ahead, though, she dawdled once again and Pironkova wrapped up the set and the match 64 64, recording her first ever WTA title in her first ever final.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
(via Wikipedia: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tsvetana_Pironkova_1,_Wimbledon_2013_-_Diliff.jpg )

Monday, 30 December 2013

Kicking off the Rust

Hola tennis on the TV.  My, how I've missed you this winter.

2013 has yet to regenerate (Smith-Capaldi style) into 2014, but already the new tennis season has tossed a coin, picked an end and served up its first ball.  With most of the top players in attendance somewhere in Australia, Asia or India it's a full week to open the tour.  And while some have merely been on sabbatical for the past 8 weeks (read off-season training and exhibition events), for others the start of the new season is a more significant comeback from injuries and other time-outs.

Most notable on the WTA side of proceedings is Maria Sharapova's return to fitness following a five-month lay-off with a long-standing shoulder injury.  Into the big-hitting fire of Brisbane, a draw peppered with the form players of 2013 (Serena, Azarenka, Jankovic), Sharapova drew French one-to-watch Caroline Garcia.


When the pair met previously back at Roland Garros in 2011, the Russian was an easy victor, dispatching her teen opponent with ruthless efficiency.  This meeting on the Australian hardcourts did little to reverse the pattern; Sharapova breaking the youngster at the first opportunity, exhibiting considerable fitness, precision and power to send a 63 60 to both opponent and to the rest of the top 10, suggesting that she was back and a serious contender for the first major of the year at Melbourne later in January.  Most significant about the rust-free Sharapova comeback was the serve.  A frequent hindrance at crucial points in her 2013 matches, the action (especially the ball toss) looked particularly smooth, with no hint of the shoulder problem needing time to bed-in.  For a player who relies on brute power but served more double faults than aces in '13, it was encouraging to note that while the Russian didn't have the greatest first serve percentage against Garcia today, she kept her second serve in check, yielding only one double to her opponent on her first match point.  On this form, Sharapova could set up a tantalising QF encounter with Serena Williams later in the week.

Another Russian is amongst the other notable returnees on the women's tour this week.  Former world #2, Vera Zvonareva took a wild card to the Shenzen Open.  Perhaps hoping for some journeyman warm-ups, the unlucky Russian has drawn hometown favourite Li Na for her opener.  The Chinese woman was one of the consistently strong players in 2013 and will hope to repeat the solid start again this January.

For the ATP both Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfred will hope to put their injury disappointments behind them as they kick off their years in Doha and the Perth Hopman Cup respectively.  Joining the Scot in Doha will be Croatia's Marin Cilic, back on the tour after sitting out six months for a banned substance infraction.

Image from The Guardian via Google Images

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