I-Formation November 2014 – The Importance of Losing

November 26, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

When Roger Federer stepped onto the court on the opening day of last weekend’s Davis Cup final, he did something that he does very rarely, something almost completely foreign to one of the winningest players in the history of the sport. The Swiss superstar, a 17-time Grand Slam champion, winner of 82 tournaments and holder of a commanding 8-2 head-to-head against his opponent on day 1 of the Davis Cup final, Gael Monfils, actually expected to lose.

Now, don’t get me wrong, you don’t gather 82 tournament wins without a fierce competitive streak and a ruthless desire to win. But, after a back injury forced Federer out of an eagerly anticipated contest against Novak Djokovic in the ATP World Finals, the world number 2 was forced to rest and rehabilitate, and was only able to get in a limited amount of practice on the clay-courts in Lille in the lead-up to the Davis Cup final.

After countryman Stan Wawrinka took down Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the opening rubber of the final, Federer had a golden opportunity to give his country a commanding 2-0 lead in the tie. However, Federer knew his limitations going into the match against Monfils. As the old sporting adage goes, one learns more in defeat than in victory, and so it was with Federer last Friday. The enigmatic, flamboyant Monfils is a handful at the best of times, as Federer knew only too well going into the match, having been forced to save a pair of match points to defeat Monfils in New York in September.

For Federer, the match with Monfils was instructive in a number of ways. It gave him an opportunity to get accustomed to the courts in the Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille, and this was critical in a couple of respects. First, the Swiss star had not played a tournament on clay since May, having focused on the North American and Asian hard-court swings and the European indoor circuit in recent months. Second, with the Stade Pierre Mauroy (the home of French Ligue 1 football club Lille) being diplomatically described as a “multi-use stadium” and more accurately described as a “very makeshift tennis venue”, it was essential that Federer inform himself about the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the main court in a match situation, and get a sense of just how vocal (and patriotic) the French crowd would be during the course of the final. Moreover, the Monfils match allowed Federer to assess the state of his back in a live match scenario. It’s one thing to practice following an injury, but there is simply no substitute for a match in order to determine whether an injury has fully healed.

And so the match went, with Monfils collecting a routine straight sets victory over Federer (arguably Federer’s worst loss ever in Davis Cup competition) and Federer looking a shadow of his usual self. For someone whose career has been based around effortless court movement and exquisite timing, Federer frequently looked rushed, out of position and downright rusty. But Federer had his eyes on a bigger prize. He knew that 1-1 was a reasonable result for the Swiss at the end of the first day’s play, and that Saturday’s doubles contest would be, as is so often the case in Davis Cup, the pivotal rubber in the tie.

Having learned plenty about his back, the court and the crowd in the Monfils match, it was a far more energized and dynamic Federer at work in the doubles encounter. A gold medalist in doubles with Wawrinka at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Federer again showcased his formidable doubles skills, with a number of stunning stretch volleys indicating that his back was most definitely on the mend. A straight sets win for Federer and Wawrinka gave the Swiss a vital 2-1 lead over the French going into Sunday’s reverse singles and, when Tsonga was forced out of the fourth rubber due to an arm injury, Richard Gasquet was given the task of toppling Federer and keeping France in the contest.

Gasquet, having beaten Federer in just 2 of their previous 14 encounters, was required to produce something special to beat the world number 2, but by this stage Federer was in full flight, having grown comfortable with the main court over the previous couple of days and having boosted his confidence with the win in the doubles. Spurred on by the parochial crowd, Gasquet battled valiantly, but in the end could conjure up just 8 games for the match as Federer, for so long the sole face of men’s tennis in Switzerland, finally handed his nation its first ever Davis Cup trophy after 15 years of involvement with the competition.

As the superstar collapsed to the ground and had tears welling in his eyes, it was obvious how much Switzerland’s win meant to Federer. As he later remarked, “This one is for the boys…This is not for me, I have won enough. I am just happy we can give everyone in our country a historic moment”. Whilst that statement is definitely true, it’s clear that it was only by being willing to lose on Friday that Federer was able to assist in delivering the Davis Cup trophy to Switzerland and to add another impressive achievement to his impeccable career record. And for that, no doubt all tennis fans in Switzerland are eternally grateful.

That’s it for this month. Enjoy your tennis and I’ll be back with another serve next month. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

I-Formation October 2014: So, Toni, just how different are the men’s and women’s games?

October 1, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

By now, most tennis followers would have heard of the comments from Toni Nadal, uncle and coach of Spanish superstar Rafael Nadal, in relation to the appointment of Spain’s new Davis Cup captain. For those living under a rock, a brief summary: Spain, after an 18 year stint in the Davis Cup World Group which saw them reach 7 finals and win 5 Davis Cups, has been relegated from the competition’s top tier after collapsing against Brazil in Sao Paulo earlier this month. That loss saw former world number one Carlos Moya retire as the Spanish Davis Cup captain, with his replacement being former WTA top 30 player Gala Leon.

The appointment of 40 year old Leon surprised Toni Nadal, who noted that his preference was for the captain’s role to be assumed by someone “with a background in the world of men’s tennis”. Such a preference, Nadal went on to explain, was because of the fact that the men’s game “isn’t the same as the women’s game on the tactical level”. Unsurprisingly, the comments have provoked plenty of debate (along with cries of sexism), with Nadal back-pedalling hard in an attempt to diffuse the situation, and allies such as Feliciano Lopez attempting to act as mediator and make light of Nadal’s comments.

Nadal clarified that he would have had no issue with Leon’s appointment if she had spent 10 years coaching on the ATP Tour, which makes you wonder whether Amelie Mauresmo will be putting her hand up for the role of French Davis Cup captain next decade if her partnership with Andy Murray really takes off. Mauresmo’s long-time rival Martina Hingis, who used her considerable tactical nous to overcome far stronger and more powerful players, is another former female star who would seem ideally suited to becoming a Davis Cup captain. No doubt watching Hingis advise Federer and Wawrinka would be a sight to behold for Swiss tennis fans!

To my mind, the most interesting question to come out of all of the furore surrounding Nadal’s comments is whether or not significant differences between the ATP and WTA Tours actually exist. There are, without doubt, certain differences between the men’s and women’s games. In the women’s game, for example, the serve is less of a weapon, and there are more breaks of serve as a result. And of course, the men’s game is more powerful. But do these differences represent anything meaningful at a tactical level? Just because a man hits the ball harder, or has a more threatening serve, doesn’t mean that one’s approach to beating him should necessarily change. A player will always seek to break serve, and will consider the use of a variety of tactics, in order to win a match. Certain tactics are often employed against powerful players (such as trying to maximize the number of returns into play, moving the opponent around the court to get him or her off-balance, and mixing up the pace and spin of one’s shots in order to break down the opponent’s rhythm). These tactics, however, would be of use whether the opponent is a powerful female player or a powerful male player.

Other than raw power and the serve factor, I can’t identify any material differences between the men’s and women’s games, and I can’t think of any way in which (from a coaching perspective) I would advise a female player differently to how I would advise a male player. Of course, part of being a coach is analyzing the relevant opponent and coming up with a strategy to implement against the opponent, but there is nothing to stop Leon attending to these tasks. And from a strategic standpoint more generally, the assortment of players on the WTA Tour, from the power players to the grinders, from the volatile to the ultra consistent, from the superstars to the floaters, seems just as varied as it is on the ATP Tour.

Nadal’s comments are somewhat analogous to the comments that used to be made regarding the elite football leagues in Europe. For decades, the prevailing wisdom was that a manager could not succeed in multiple leagues, on the basis that the way in which the game was played differed dramatically between England, Italy, Spain, France and Germany, among others. Such a view has, of course, proved to be anything but accurate, with managers such as Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti showing that it is indeed possible for a manager to achieve success across multiple European leagues.

Nadal seems to be implying that Leon won’t gel with the players on the Spanish Davis Cup team, but after years of success fueled by their legion of stars, Spain now faces a challenge to get back into the World Group. Their stars, many of whom have been apathetic about Davis Cup in recent years, may want to see a rejuvenation of Spain’s approach to Davis Cup.  In hiring Leon, the Spanish tennis federation (the Real Federación Española de Tenis) has most definitely breathed new life into the country’s approach to the competition. Whether Leon prospers or flounders as captain remains to be seen, but I applaud the decision of the Spanish tennis federation to break new ground and appoint Leon. And, contrary to what Toni Nadal has said, I don’t think that there are material differences between the men’s and women’s game. As a result, I can’t see any reason why Leon can’t prosper as Davis Cup captain.

That’s it for this month. Enjoy your tennis and I’ll be back with another serve next month. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

US Open 2014: Men’s Final Review

September 8, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

Marin Cilic is the 2014 US Open men’s singles champion, the Croatian defeating a visibly fatigued Kei Nishikori in straight sets on Day 15 to claim his first Grand Slam title.

Day 15 Recap

Both players were competing in their first Grand Slam final in what is the biggest tennis stadium in the world and, not surprisingly, there were signs of nerves on both sides of the net in the first set. Cilic struck first blood however, breaking for a 4-2 lead in the opening set when Nishikori, down 0-40, saved 2 break points but was unable to save the third. Continuing his excellent serving form, which saw him drop just one point on his first serve in the opening set, Cilic maintained the advantage to take the set, 6-3.

Putting constant pressure on the Nishikori serve, Cilic again lined up a trio of break points in the second set. This time, the tenth seed was able to get back to deuce, only to then throw away the game when he netted a backhand. After his epic duels against Raonic, Wawrinka and Djokovic, Nishikori was finally showing signs of lethargy, and a second break to Cilic in the seventh game of the set put the Croatian in the driver’s seat to secure the set. The Japanese star managed to claim back one of the breaks, only for Cilic to claim the set on Nishikori’s serve in the very next game.

With his pupil up 2 sets to love and within sight of the finishing line, coach Goran Ivanisevic was looking decidedly twitchy, but Cilic remained composed. The Croatian broke the Nishikori serve in the fourth game of the set and kept his nose in front from there, eventually claiming the championship with a 6-3 6-3 6-3 win in 114 minutes.

For Cilic, it was a fairytale finish after he was forced to miss last year’s tournament due to his suspension for taking a banned substance. The Croat used his time away from the ATP Tour wisely, vastly improving his serve and returning to tournament play with a reinvigorated attitude to boot. Judging by his last 3 matches at Flushing Meadows, which saw him beat each of Berdych, Federer and Nishikori in straight sets, Cilic will be a prime contender in the majors in 2015 and is clearly an emerging force in the men’s game.

For Nishikori, it was a disappointing end to his collection of heroic performances during the tournament. The Japanese star wasn’t at his best on Monday, and he was simply unable to match Cilic in raw firepower, serving just 2 aces to Cilic’s 17 and hitting only 19 winners to 38 from Cilic. Still, the past fortnight has shown Nishikori that he belongs in the upper echelon of the men’s game and, at age 24, I have no doubt that his best tennis is still yet to come.

That’s it for this year’s US Open. I hope you have enjoyed the coverage. Enjoy the tennis as the tours move towards the indoor season, and I’ll be back with another serve soon. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

US Open 2014 Day 15 Preview: Marin’s momentum vs. Kei’s courage

September 8, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

For the third year in a row, and for the sixth time in her career, Serena Williams in the US Open women’s singles champion, the American capturing her first Grand Slam of 2014 and the eighteenth major of her illustrious career with a straight sets win over Caroline Wozniacki.

Tonight, the tournament concludes with the men’s singles final, in which Croatia’s Marin Cilic will take on Japan’s Kei Nishikori, with each man looking to collect his first Grand Slam title.

Day 14 Recap

Coming into the tournament in strong form, which saw her collect tournament victories in Stanford and Cincinnati, Williams had breezed her way into the final without the loss of a set, and the American veteran started the final in ominous form, racing out to a 2-0 lead. From there, Wozniacki managed to settle herself but was unable to regularly hold her serve, trading breaks with Williams as both players struggled with their first serves in the windy conditions inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. At one stage, there were 5 successive breaks of serve, but Williams was able to hold her serve when she needed to, producing 15 winners for the opening set to take it, 6-3.

Going into the second set, Wozniacki had produced just one winner and was finding it difficult to push Williams around the court. The American underlined her brilliant front-running abilities, which have seen her only lose once at Flushing Meadows after winning the first set, improving her first serve percentage and establishing a 5-3 lead in the second set. Serving to stay in the championship, Wozniacki was powerless to stop the Williams juggernaut, and an errant backhand handed the top seed the championship after 75 minutes, 6-3 6-3. Fifteen years after claiming her first major in New York as a teenager, Williams was again reunited with the championship trophy.

Fittingly, legendary rivals Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, each of whom won 18 singles majors during her career, were on hand to congratulate Williams on joining the 18 majors club. One wonders, however, just how long Williams will remain in that club. Judging by her performance over the past fortnight, which saw her annihilate the field, it won’t be long before she is knocking on the door of Grand Slam number 19.

Match of the Day – Day 14

Marin Cilic vs. Kei Nishikori

For the first time since the 2005 Australian Open final, men’s tennis will see a Grand Slam singles final that is not contested by Federer, Nadal or Djokovic. There have been various players during the past decade who have been able to put together a hot streak and make it to a Grand Slam final (including David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga) but, apart from Andy Murray, no player has been able to regularly compete with Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Wawrinka and Del Potro are the only players outside of the Big Four who have claimed majors during the past decade, but each of them has made just the one Grand Slam final.

All of which brings me to today’s intriguing showdown. So often a player surges from the pack to make a Grand Slam final, only to find a member of the Big Four waiting for him there. This time, however, it is different – both Federer and Djokovic suffered shock losses in the semi-finals and so we have Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic both into a Grand Slam final for the first time. So much of this match will depend on how the players handle their emotions throughout the course of the match. On one hand, it is completely new territory for each player; on the other hand, each player knows that he will most likely never get a better opportunity to be crowned US Open champion.

Cilic has been a revelation since returning from his 2013 suspension for taking a banned substance, the lanky Croat improving his serve enormously under the guidance of compatriot Goran Ivanisevic and drawing confidence and inspiration from the former Wimbledon champion. Cilic was ruthlessly efficient against Tomas Berdych and then played the match of his life to whip Roger Federer in straight sets in the semi-finals. Cilic’s serve will be crucial in this match, for Nishikori is a fabulous returner and will be favoured from the baseline in the longer points. My biggest concern for Cilic is his ability to back up mentally and emotionally from his win against Federer. It was a near-perfect match, but the reality is that he will find it hard to replicate such quality of execution in the final. Often athletes will suffer a let-down after such a sublime performance, and I suspect that this will be the case for Cilic.

Nishikori, on the other hand, has been performing at an extremely high level for multiple matches without ever playing the perfect match. The Japanese star was forced to endure gruelling 5-setters against Raonic and Wawrinka, but didn’t seem fatigued against Djokovic in the semi-finals, where he collected a 4 set win. Perhaps the inclusion of the freakishly fit former French Open champion Michael Chang in Nishikori’s coaching team has helped the tenth seed with his stamina and his belief in long matches.

The Japanese star holds a 5-2 advantage over Cilic in head-to-head meetings, although both of Cilic’s wins have come on hard-courts, including at the 2012 US Open. Both meetings this year have been won by Nishikori, and I think that the tenth seed has a very good chance of winning the championship if he can simply get a decent number of Cilic’s first serves back into play. Cilic has been virtually unplayable on his first service points in his last couple of matches, but Nishikori’s lightning quick reflexes and compact swings should give him a chance of getting more returns into play than Federer and Berdych did in their contests with Cilic.

It’s not the final that anyone expected, but I think that this will be a fascinating and close match all the same. I suspect Cilic will tighten up a little and not serve as well as he did in the quarter-finals and semi-finals. If so, I expect Nishikori to take full advantage and be too solid from the back of the court for the Croatian. Nishikori in 4.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the tennis and I’ll be back with another serve tomorrow to recap the men’s final. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

US Open 2014 Day 14 Preview: Serena vs. Caro (Bring it)

September 7, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

Monday will see Flushing Meadows play host to a men’s final that nobody expected, a match-up whose odds of eventuating were 5000-1 at the beginning of the tournament. Day 13 saw Kei Nishikori shock top seed Novak Djokovic and Marin Cilic outclass second seed Roger Federer to set up a surprising and historic men’s singles final. Meanwhile, Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki go head to head today in a battle for the ladies’ singles championship.

Day 13 Recap

After back-to-back 5-setters against Raonic and Wawrinka, Nishikori was given little chance of upsetting the world number one Djokovic in the opening men’s semi-final. The Japanese star had spent 3 and a half hours more on court than Djokovic in the lead-up to the semi-final, but Nishikori showed no signs of wilting in the hot and humid conditions, the weather clearly suiting the 24 year old, who has been based in muggy Florida for the majority of the past decade.

After the tenth seed edged Djokovic in the opening set, 6-4, the Serb immediately fired back, racing through the second set for the loss of just one game. The third set proved decisive, with Nishikori forced to save multiple break points before squandering a chance to serve out the set at 5-3. The set went to a tiebreaker and for once it was Djokovic who was unable to deliver under pressure, dropping the opening 4 points of the tiebreaker and eventually losing it 7 points to 4. An immediate break in the opening game of the fourth set by Nishikori, and a crucial hold in the next game, which saw him save 3 break points, put the Japanese star in sight of the finishing line and 7 games later he became the first Asian male to make a Grand Slam singles final, claiming a famous 6-4 1-6 7-6(4) 6-3 win.

Having seen Djokovic’s surprise exit, Roger Federer must have been pumped up for his semi-final against Marin Cilic, with the Swiss great no doubt sensing that the title was his for the taking. Cilic, however, had other ideas, delivering another sublime serving performance to completely outplay the 17-time major winner. The first set saw Cilic drop just 5 points on serve, with a solitary break enough to give him the lead after 28 minutes. A similar scenario unfolded in the second set, with  a sloppy service game from Federer handing Cilic the requisite break as the fourteenth seed claimed the set, 6-4, to the delight of coach Goran Ivanisevic. After a little more than an hour, Cilic was just one set away from competing in his first ever Grand Slam final.

At 2 sets to love down, the crowd willed Federer on, perhaps sensing that they were in for another fabulous fight-back along the lines of the recovery the second seed made against Gael Monfils in the quarter-finals. An early break to the 5-time US Open winner had the crowd roaring, as Federer went up 2-0. But this time the Federer recovery was short-lived, with Cilic claiming an immediate break back and then blasting another winner, one of 43 for the match, to claim the critical break in the seventh game of the set. Any threat of Cilic seizing up when serving for the match quickly evaporated, as the Croat sent down a trio of aces before securing the win with a sublime backhand winner.

Match of the Day – Day 14

Serena Williams vs. Caroline Wozniacki

Close friends Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki will contest the women’s singles final today, and you can be sure that both players will be putting their friendship to one side in this encounter. Both players have held the world number one ranking, with Williams currently at the top of the summit, but that’s about where the similarities between the players end. Williams is a 17-time major champion who is looking to capture her third consecutive US Open crown and sixth overall, whilst Wozniacki is into just her second major final and is still looking for a maiden Grand Slam title after being denied the title in New York in 2009 by Kim Clijsters.

The players are also very different in terms of their approach on court, with Williams a master of first strike tennis and Wozniacki far more of a retriever and counterpuncher. The American will seek to dominate on her service games, hoping to score plenty of cheap points on her first serve. Look for Williams to step inside the baseline on the Wozniacki second serve and attack up the line on the return of serve, hoping to get a short ball and to finish the points quickly thereafter. By contrast, Wozniacki will be looking to implement plenty of variety from the baseline, mixing up the pace and spin of her shots as she seeks to keep Williams off-balance and out of position. The Dane’s chances of winning a point increase significantly the longer it goes, so withstanding the initial onslaught from Williams at the beginning of each point is critical to Wozniacki’s chances.

Williams holds a commanding  8-1 advantage in career meetings with Wozniacki, although the tenth seed pushed the American to 3 sets in both of their recent meetings on hard-courts. I think Wozniacki will give a good account of herself and is in the sort of form to take advantage of any weakness from Williams. However, I can’t see Wozniacki having the ability to dictate much of this match. Win or lose, I think this match will be played on Williams’ terms, with the American going for her shots and her success being dependent on her ability to execute. Given her recent success during the North American hard-court swing, it’s hard to imagine Williams not being able to execute successfully. Williams in 3.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the tennis and I’ll be back with another serve tomorrow to recap the women’s final and preview the men’s decider. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

US Open 2014 Day 13 Preview: Federer vs. Cilic; Djokovic vs. Nishikori

September 6, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

Top seed Serena Williams will look to claim a third consecutive US Open crown on Sunday after advancing to the final courtesy of a straight sets win over Ekaterina Makarova on Day 12. Williams will face Caroline Wozniacki in the final after the Dane progressed when Shuai Peng was forced to retire from their semi-final due to cramping.

Day 13 sees Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic looking to create a rematch of their Wimbledon final, the top two seeds taking on Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori, respectively, in the men’s semi-finals.

Day 12 Recap

Top seeded Williams delighted the crowd on Arthur Ashe Stadium on Day 12 by steamrolling past the Russian Makarova, racing out to an early lead and not letting her opponent into the match thereafter. Makarova, who shocked Williams at Melbourne Park in 2012, was unable to match Williams in the power stakes in the first set and, despite a tougher contest in the second set, couldn’t push the match to a deciding set, Williams prevailing with a 6-1 6-3 win in 60 minutes. The 17-time major winner has now lost of a total of just 26 games across 6 matches.

Caroline Wozniacki is into her second career Grand Slam final 5 years after making her first US Open final, the tenth seed advancing courtesy of Shuai Peng’s retirement. Peng came into the match in top form, having taken down a host of seeds en route to the semi-finals. For the first 2 hours of the match, Peng matched the former world number one shot for shot, pushing the first set to a tiebreaker, only to see Wozniacki race through it for the loss of just one point.

The second set saw Peng again take an early lead, before Wozniacki clawed her way back into the set. At 4-3 to Wozniacki in the second set however, Peng began to suffer the effects of severe cramp in the warm and sunny conditions, requesting a medical timeout and then being forced to retire once it became clear that her movement would be significantly impaired.

Matches of the Day – Day 13

1. Novak Djokovic vs. Kei Nishikori

Kei Nishikori has developed a reputation as being injury-prone, but in his last couple of matches the Japanese star has shown incredible stamina and resilience. Back-to-back 5 set matches against Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka, both of which extended beyond 4 hours, tested Nishikori’s resolve and desire, but the tenth seed passed both tests with flying colours.

Former French Open winner Michael Chang has, as a member of Nishikori’s coaching team, added grit and determination to Nishikori’s existing skills, which include sublime court coverage and impressive shotmaking abilities off both wings. At 24, Nishikori is approaching his prime, and making his first semi-final of a Grand Slam should provide a strong foundation for the Japanese star to make a run towards the world’s top 15 next year.

Djokovic has been very solid to date at Flushing Meadows, not dropping a set in his opening 4 matches and then weathering the early storm against Andy Murray to prevail in 4 sets in their quarter-final. The top seed will be looking to peak in the final and, having lost one of his previous 2 matches to Nishikori, will not be taking the tenth seed lightly. I think Nishikori, in the semi-finals of a major for the first time, might take some time to find his feet against Djokovic, who is a formidable frontrunner. I predict Nishikori will rally late in the match but I can’t see Djokovic losing this one. Djokovic in 4.

2. Roger Federer vs. Marin Cilic

I’m sensing it will be a switched on Roger Federer who enters Centre Court today in New York. The Swiss superstar was on the brink of defeat against Gael Monfils in the quarter-finals, the Frenchman squandering a 2 sets to love lead and 2 match points against Federer. Utilising his vast experience, Federer worked his way back into the match against Monfils and ultimately sailed through the final set, but the second seed will be anxious to avoid such dramas against Marin Cilic in the semi-finals.

Federer holds a 5-0 record against the Croat, but it must be noted that Cilic lost a very close 3-setter in Toronto last month which featured a pair of tiebreakers. Cilic has made one Grand Slam semi-final previously, at the Australian Open in 2010, where he lost to Andy Murray, and he will be far more experienced and composed this time around.

Cilic has bounced back tremendously well from his drugs ban last year, which saw his ranking fall outside the world’s top 40. Under the watchful eye of former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic, Cilic has upped the speed and consistency of his first serve and is looking more confident on court in all departments.

I think Cilic will push Federer for the first couple of sets, which are likely to be hotly contested. From there, I think the Swiss star will be too strong, and will pull away for the win. Federer in 4.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the tennis and I’ll be back with another serve tomorrow. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

US Open 2014 Day 12 Preview: Serena & Caro inch closer to the finals

September 5, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

Roger Federer is back in the US Open semi-finals for the first time since 2011, the 5-time champion saving 2 match points to defeat Gael Monfils in an electrifying night session on Day 11. Meanwhile, Day 12 is ladies’ semi-finals day at Flushing Meadows, with Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki looking to book their spots in Sunday’s final.

Day 11 Recap

The day session saw Croat Marin Cilic hoping to advance to his second career Grand Slam semi-final. Standing in his way was sixth seed and former Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych. Cilic raced out to an early lead against the Czech Davis Cup star, breaking Berdych in the opening game of the match and never surrendering his advantage.

Berdych, who had held 60 of his 64 service games heading in to the quarter-final, was all at sea on serve in the blustery conditions, dropping serve 4 times in the first set and a half alone. In contrast, Cilic was ruthlessly efficient on serve, dropping just one point on his first service points in the second set. A brief fightback by Berdych at the beginning of the third set, which saw the sixth seed go up a break, was halted when a double-bounce ruling by the umpire shattered the Czech’s focus. The set went to a tiebreaker, with Cilic proving too solid and claiming a straight sets win in a touch over 2 hours.

In order to advance to his first ever Grand Slam final, Cilic will need to overcome 17-time major winner Roger Federer, who was forced to pull out all the stops to halt the charge of Gael Monfils. The Frenchman dominated the early stages of the encounter, claiming the opening 2 sets of the match to put Federer on the verge of a surprise exit.

Monfils then had a pair of match points on Federer’s deep in the third set but the Swiss star showed his experience, saving both and going on to claim the set. From there, the match had a sense of inevitability about it, with Federer growing in confidence and Monfils starting to falter. By the time the match entered a deciding set, the 33 year old Federer was in full flight, racing to a 5-1 lead before closing out a memorable win in 200 minutes.

Matches of the Day – Day 12

1. Shuai Peng vs. Caroline Wozniacki

Shuai Peng has looked switched on from the very start of the tournament, which saw her upset fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the second round. Peng has added other seeds to her list of scalps, including Roberta Vinci and Lucie Safarova, and the Chinese player will not hold back against Wozniacki today. Double-handed off both sides, Peng is a very effective returner and is more powerful than Wozniacki from the baseline.

Wozniacki has enjoyed a resurgence in the last few months, winning the title in Istanbul and performing very solidly in the North American swing coming into New York. Training for the New York marathon seems to have improved Wozniacki’s stamina, as evidenced against Sharapova, and her confidence, which must have taken a beating after her drop down in the rankings and her split from Rory McIlroy. Wozniacki is in fine form and has more experience at this stage of big tournaments, and I sense she will be more composed on the big points. Wozniacki in 3.

2. Serena Williams vs. Ekaterina Makarova

Ekaterina Makarova has been very consistent in the majors in the last few years and has had a superb tournament to date, highlighted by a win over former world number one Victoria Azarenka in the quarter-finals. Makarova is into her first Grand Slam semi-final, but as a former French Open doubles winner the Russian should not be overawed by the big stage. Makarova has also beaten Serena Williams in a Grand Slam before, upsetting the American at Melbourne Park in 2012.

Williams has beaten Makarova in their other 3 clashes, and the top seed has been simply unstoppable at Flushing Meadows so far this year, dropping just 22 games across 5 matches. The two-time defending champion will look to obtain plenty of cheap points on serve and to keep the points short against Makarova. Look for Williams to step inside the baseline on the Makarova serve and to employ her preferred brand of first strike tennis. I think the Russian will battle valiantly, but I can’t see Williams losing this one. Williams in 2.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the tennis and I’ll be back with another serve tomorrow. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

US Open 2014 Day 11 Preview: Monfils looks to derail Federer

September 4, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

Kei Nishikori became the first Japanese male since 1918 to make the US Open semi-finals, the tenth seed outlasting third seed Stan Wawrinka in 5 sets in a thriller on Day 10 of the tournament.

Day 10 Recap

Having not finished his fourth round match against Milos Raonic until 2:26am on Tuesday morning, there were plenty of doubters when it came to injury-prone Nishikori’s chances against Australian Open champion Wawrinka. The Swiss star, who went into the match with a perfect record against Nishikori, took an early lead before the Japanese player gained the ascendency by claiming the second and third sets. Wawrinka refused to give up, taking the fourth set in a tiebreaker to force the match into a deciding fifth set, but the third seed was unable to stay with Nishikori in the latter stages, the tenth seed eventually claiming victory after 4 hours and 15 minutes.

Nishikori will battle top seed Novak Djokovic for a place in Monday’s final after the Serb took down former champion Andy Murray in a pulsating 4-setter. Murray adopted a far more aggressive approach than is usual for the Scot, going all out on his forehand wing as he endeavoured to dictate play against the world number one. The first two sets were split via tiebreakers before Djokovic cruised through the third set and took advantage of some back troubles encountered by Murray in the fourth set to book his spot in the semi-finals.

Earlier in the day, Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova advanced to her first ever Grand Slam semi-final, defeating two-time major champion Victoria Azarenka in straight sets, 6-4 6-2. The Russian recovered from an early deficit against the Belarusian, who looked flat and was apparently affected by food poisoning in the lead-up to the match. Azarenka smashed her racquet in frustration when she went down a break in the second set, but it was to little avail, with Makarova proving far too steady and consistent on the day.

Makarova faces an almighty challenge if she is to advance to the tournament final, with two-time defending champion Serena Williams standing in her way. The 17-time major champion proved too good for fellow veteran Flavia Pennetta on Day 10, registering a 6-3 6-2 victory and remaining on course for her first Grand Slam of the year.

Matches of the Day – Day 11

1. Tomas Berdych vs. Marin Cilic

Tomas Berdych and Marin Cilic are very similar players and embody the modern tennis professional. Both players are lean, lanky, powerful and pretty good movers, given their height. Former Wimbledon finalist Berdych has had the more decorated career to date, although Cilic has made the Australian Open semi-finals previously.

Cilic beat Berdych in a tight match at Wimbledon in July, although Berdych owns a 5-3 career advantage over the Croat, and has won 3 of their 4 meetings on hard-courts. The players are fairly evenly matched from the back of the court, with Cilic probably having the better backhand and Berdych owning a more effective forehand. I think this match will be decided by the serve and return of serve.

Cilic has improved his serve significantly under the tutelage of Goran Ivanisevic, but Berdych has been in tremendous serving form to date in this tournament. Berdych plays his best tennis on fast hard-courts, where he can get on top early in points and dictate play from thereon. I predict this to be a close encounter, but I’ll back the Czech to gain revenge for his defeat by Cilic at the All England Club earlier this year. Berdych in 5.

2. Gael Monfils vs. Roger Federer

Roger Federer has been predictably consistent at Flushing Meadows this year, easing through to the quarter-finals with a minimum of fuss. Gael Monfils has been unpredictably consistent in New York to date, shunning his usual lapses of concentration and mood swings to progress to the final 8 without dropping a set.

It’s not as though Monfils has benefitted from an easy draw – the Frenchman whipped compatriot Richard Gasquet in the third round and then edged past Wimbledon semi-finalist Grigor Dimitrov, coached by Monfils’ ex-coach Roger Rasheed, in a fiery round of 16 clash.

Monfils is without a coach at present, and it seems to be suiting him just fine, with the flamboyant Frenchman producing some of the most consistent tennis of his career in this tournament. Federer leads Monfils 7-2 in head-to-head meetings, although both of Monfils’ wins have come on hard-courts, including in Shanghai last year. I think Monfils will push Federer in this one, but in his current rich vein of form, I can’t go past the Swiss superstar. Federer in 4.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the tennis and I’ll be back with another serve tomorrow. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

US Open 2014 Day 10 Preview: Serious tennis between Djokovic and Murray ahead

September 3, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

China’s Shuai Peng is into the first Grand Slam semi-final of her career, becoming just the third Chinese player to reach the final 4 of a major by defeating teenage prodigy Belinda Bencic in straight sets on Day 9.

Day 9 Recap

The unseeded Peng, competing in the thirty-seventh Grand Slam of her career, was forced to save a pair of break point points in her opening service game, but from there the Chinese player was largely untroubled, dictating the rallies and not allowing Bencic to get into the match. Peng, who has yet to drop a set in New York this year, eventually wrapped up the match 6-2 6-1 in just over an hour.

Peng will play former finalist Caroline Wozniacki for a place in the final after the Dane thrashed Sara Errani under lights in Tuesday’s night session. Errani is a former French Open finalist and has beaten the likes of Venus Williams at Flushing Meadows this year, but the Italian was completely out of sorts against a switched-on Wozniacki, who allowed Errani just one game for the entire match.

In the men’s tournament, the quarter-finals line-up was completed on Day 9, with Tomas Berdych and Marin Cilic setting up a rematch of their Wimbledon clash in contrasting fashion. Berdych was completely dominant against 20 year old Dominic Thiem, registering an emphatic straight sets win. Cilic, on the other hand, was forced to 5 sets to see off the challenge of Frenchman Gilles Simon.

Gael Monfils’ remarkable run in New York continued on Day 9, with the Frenchman still yet to drop a set for the tournament. Monfils upset seventh seed Grigor Dimitrov in a tight 3-setter, with the Frenchman converting 3 of his 4 break points for the match compared to Dimitrov claiming just one of his 7 break point opportunities.

Monfils will now play 5-time champion Roger Federer for a place in the semi-finals, after the Swiss superstar cruised past Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut in straight sets. The win gave Federer an ATP Tour leading fifty-third victory of the season, and allowed the second seed to move into his tenth US Open quarter-final in 11 years.

Matches of the Day – Day 10

1. Victoria Azarenka vs. Ekaterina Makarova

The match-up sees the sixteenth seed play the seventeenth seed, but Azarenka is by far the more high-profile player, being a former world number one player and a two-time Grand Slam winner. That said, Makarova is an underrated player, having made the quarter-finals of multiple Grand Slams and having ousted Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard in the round of 16 in New York.

Makarova has won 2 of the 5 clashes between the pair, but Azarenka has won both of their meetings on hard-courts, the Belarusian’s preferred surface, and I think she has a clear advantage in raw power and shotmaking ability. That said, Azarenka is still getting back to full fitness after an injury-induced lay-off and may fade if this match goes deep into a deciding set. I’ll back Azarenka to get on top early as she seeks to get this match completed in straight sets. Azarenka in 2.

2. Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Kei Nishikori

Any doubts over Kei Nishikori’s fitness were dispelled by his fantastic 5-set win over Milos Raonic in the fourth round. But that match, which finished at 2:26am local time, must have taken a lot out of the Japanese star. Wawrinka had a tough match against Robredo in round 4, but the third seed played only 4 sets and has had slightly more time to recover for this clash than his opponent.

The Swiss star has won both previous matches against Nishikori, and I think the key to today’s match is Wawrinka’s ability to execute when in an attacking position, compared with Nishikori’s ability to defend and, in particular, push Wawrinka deep and wide in the court. Wawrinka struck 75 winners against Robredo and a similar tally is likely to see him win this one. But if his unforced error count is high then Nishikori could well be the one going through to the semi-finals. Wawrinka in 5.

3. Serena Williams vs. Flavia Pennetta

The match represents a clash of the oldest women left in the women’s draw and, no matter what she says in her press conferences, it’s clear that Serena Williams desperately wants to win this title and salvage something from a season that, in terms of majors at least, has been very disappointing.

Pennetta is a quality player who obviously enjoys playing in New York, having made the semi-finals at Flushing Meadows last year and having now returned to the second week of the tournament this year. I expect the Italian to come out swinging and give this match her all, but Williams’ advantage on serve is likely to be the key factor in this match. Williams in 2.

4. Novak Djokovic vs. Andy Murray

Top seed Djokovic has won 12 of 20 career meetings with Murray, but it was the Scot who triumphed here in the 2012 final, downing the Serb in 5 sets to claim his maiden Grand Slam title. However, Murray has found it difficult to compete with the very top players this season after returning from back surgery, with his win over Tsonga on Monday representing his first win over a top 10 player since Wimbledon last year.

Djokovic beat Murray in straight sets in Miami earlier this season – the only time this year that the pair has played one another – and I think the world number one, who has made the last 4 US Open finals, will be too strong in this contest. Look for Djokovic to pace himself through the match, knowing he has the superior fitness at this point in time. Djokovic in 4.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the tennis and I’ll be back with another serve tomorrow. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

US Open 2014 Day 9 Preview: Dimitrov and Monfils will certainly steal the show

September 2, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

It was another humid and windy day in New York, but the muggy conditions didn’t bother Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray, who set up a quarter-final clash with straight sets victories on Day 8.

Day 8 Recap

Since losing to Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round of the 2009 French Open, Novak Djokovic had made 21 consecutive Grand Slam quarter-finals, and on Day 8 the Serb made it 22 major quarter-finals in a row, saving a set point in the second set en route to a 3 set victory over the German.

Andy Murray booked his place in the last 8 by recording his first win over a top 10 player since winning Wimbledon last year, the Scot overcoming Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a tight 3-setter. Australian Open winner Stan Wawrinka blasted 75 winners on his way to a 4 set win over Tommy Robredo, overcoming a tumble into spectators in the third set, some cramps and some generally anxious moments against the veteran Spaniard to advance to the quarter-finals.

In the women’s tournament, Italian eleventh seed Flavia Pennetta overcame Casey Dellacqua, claiming a tight first set before pulling away in the second set. Top seed Serena Williams stopped the run of giant-killer Kaia Kanepi to set up a meeting with Pennetta, which will see the 2 oldest players in the women’s draw go head to head.

Two-time US Open finalist Victoria Azarenka was forced to fight all the way to see off the challenge of Serbian qualifier Aleksandra Krunic, the former world number one forced to come from a set down to register a victory over the world number 145.

Azarenka will play Russian Ekaterina Makarova for a place in the semi-finals after Makarova ended Eugenie Bouchard’s 2014 streak of making the semi-finals or better at each Grand Slam. Bouchard was visibly distressed in the humid conditions, having her blood pressure checked and putting ice on her neck and shoulders in an attempt to cool down. It was to no avail however, as the seventeenth seeded Makarova recorded a 7-6(2) 6-4 win.

Matches of the Day – Day 9

1. Belinda Bencic vs. Shuai Peng

17 year old Belinda Bencic is undoubtedly a player of the future, but I’ve been amazed at how well the Swiss player has been able to transition to the WTA Tour this season. Bencic has shown maturity and composure beyond her years and has been tactically very sharp to boot.

The powerful Peng, who hits double-handed forehands and backhands, has had a brilliant tournament to date, upsetting the likes of Radwanska and Vinci en route to the quarter-finals. Peng has greater experience, but if Bencic can move Peng around the court and expose her lack of reach out wide, then I think the teenager can continue her fairytale run. Bencic in 3.

2. Grigor Dimitrov vs. Gael Monfils

If you are a fan of tennis, then it’s hard not to be excited about this match-up. Dimitrov has a textbook game, with a classical one-handed backhand and compact swings which have drawn comparisons with Roger Federer. Monfils, on the other hand, is flamboyant and electrifying, capable of utilising his incredible athleticism to hit a range of shots that are most definitely not from the textbook.

Monfils is usually very erratic, but the Frenchman has been impressively consistent to date in New York this year, not dropping a set so far and dismissing compatriot Richard Gasquet in style in round 3. Monfils beat Dimitrov at the 2011 US Open, but was forced to retire in Bucharest earlier this year when trailing the Bulgarian. Dimitrov has had the more consistent season, and I’ll back him for this reason, but you simply never know what Monfils will bring to the court. Dimitrov in 4.

3. Roberto Bautista Agut vs. Roger Federer

When you think of Spanish tennis players, names such as Nadal and Ferrer instantly come to mind, along with veterans such as Robredo and Lopez. However, Roberto Bautista Agut is an emerging player on the ATP Tour and another Spaniard who may continue the country’s proud tennis traditions in the years to come.

The lanky Spaniard has a powerful game and showed by knocking Del Potro out of the Australian Open in January that he can mix it with the best. This will be his first match against Roger Federer and I think he will put up a good fight against the 17-time major winner. That said, Federer looks in top shape right now and I can’t see him dropping this one. Federer in 4.

4. Caroline Wozniacki vs. Sara Errani

Since Wimbledon, Caroline Wozniacki has given various indications that she is getting back to somewhere near her best, which of course saw her sit atop the world rankings for 67 weeks. The Dane scored one of her best wins in the last few years by beating Maria Sharapova in the previous round and her training for the New York Marathon appears to have provided her with plenty of stamina.

Errani is a similar player to Wozniacki, covering the court well and counterpunching effectively, but I think the Italian’s weak serve is where Wozniacki will really attack today. Look for the Dane to jump all over the Errani second serve and race to a relatively comfortable straight sets victory. Wozniacki in 2.

5. Tomas Berdych vs. Dominic Thiem

Tomas Berdych has had success in New York before, having made it through to the semi-finals of the 2012 US Open, defeating Roger Federer before losing to eventual champion Andy Murray on a very windy day at Flushing Meadows. Berdych has fallen away a bit after a strong start to the 2014 season, but I think the courts in New York suit his game to a tee.

Thiem is a rising star on the ATP Tour and showed great composure and stamina to upset good friend Ernests Gulbis in round 2. However, at this stage I don’t think the young Austrian has the raw power to match Berdych in this clash. I’ll take the Czech in a close one. Berdych in 5.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the tennis and I’ll be back with another serve tomorrow. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

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