I-Formation April 2014: The Quarter-Time Report Card

April 23, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

With the first quarter of the year completed, and the clay-court season now in full swing, I thought it was an appropriate time to take a look at the big names and how they’ve fared in the first few months of 2014.

Rafael Nadal: B+

It’s been an odd season to date for the world number one. After struggling through the early rounds in Melbourne, he demolished Federer in the semi-finals before succumbing to back problems and a red-hot Stan Wawrinka in the Australian Open final. There have been some surprise losses, including to a rejuvenated Alexandr Dolgopolov in Indian Wells and to David Ferrer in Monte Carlo, but with a pair of titles already under his belt (Doha and Rio de Janeiro) and another finals appearance in Miami, it hasn’t all been bad news for the Spaniard. Look for Nadal to lift as the clay-court season goes on.

Novak Djokovic: B+

Some doubts about Djokovic’s pairing up with new coach Boris Becker were aired when the Serb failed to defend his Australian Open crown, finally losing a Grand Slam battle to Stan Wawrinka, and was then ousted by Federer in Dubai. Back-t0-back Masters 1000 titles in Indian Wells and Miami silenced many of the doubters (though Becker was absent during the US swing, due to hip surgery) as Djokovic underscored his dominance on hard-courts. Unfortunately for the world number two, a wrist injury has flared up at the beginning of the clay-court season and was a major contributor in his loss to Federer in Monte Carlo. If Djokovic can recover in relatively quick time, he should be capable of pushing Nadal to the wire at Roland Garros, but much will depend on how his wrist improves in the next couple of weeks.

Stanislas Wawrinka: A+

First Grand Slam. First Masters 1000 title. Through to a maiden Davis Cup semi-final. It’s been a near-perfect start to the season for Wawrinka, who claimed the biggest title of the year to date in Melbourne, and who has bookended that victory with titles in Chennai and Monte Carlo. It’s not surprising that it took the Swiss star several weeks to adjust to his status as a Grand Slam champion, and it’s probably most instructive to view his mediocre efforts in Indian Wells and Miami in this light. Apart from that, it’s been a fairytale beginning to 2014, and the win in Monte Carlo will fill Wawrinka full of confidence on the road to Roland Garros. The world number three will be desperate to add another Grand Slam to his Melbourne Park triumph, and in his current form he’s going to be very difficult to beat on any surface.

Roger Federer: A-

The naysayers were declaring Roger Federer as being over the hill at the end of 2013, but the legend has come back with a vengeance in 2014. Another title in Dubai, where he topped Djokovic and Berdych, has been the highlight to date, but a run to the semi-finals at Melbourne Park (which featured a very good win over Murray) and finals appearances in Brisbane, Indian Wells and Monte Carlo, along with a flawless Davis Cup singles record, underscore Federer’s consistency in the first part of 2014. Injury-free at present, and far fitter than last year as a result, Federer is back to his attacking best and should feature in the latter stages of the year’s final three majors.

Andy Murray: C

Everyone knew it would take Andy Murray a considerable period of time to get back to his best after the Scot underwent serious back surgery in the latter stages of 2013. However, it’s taking a bit longer than most people expected for the Wimbledon champion to reassert himself on the ATP Tour. Losses to the likes of Federer and Djokovic won’t faze Murray, but no doubt he’s rankled about the upsets by the likes of Raonic, Cilic and Dimitrov – all fine players, but players that Murray considers himself able to beat when at his best. Having parted ways with Ivan Lendl, it remains to be seen whether Murray will be able to hit top gear by Wimbledon time. At this stage, defending his Wimbledon crown is looking like a tall order.

David Ferrer: B-

The ultra-consistent David Ferrer hasn’t quite been as consistent in 2014 as he was in the preceding few seasons, although another tournament victory (Buenos Aires), another Grand Slam quarter-finals appearance in Melbourne, and another Masters 1000 semi-final appearance (Monte Carlo) is, in sum, nothing to sneeze at. As with Murray, I think Ferrer can live with losses to players ahead of him in the rankings. It’s the losses to other players that will disappoint him. So far this season, it’s been players such as Kevin Anderson, Kei Nishikori, Alexandr Dolgopolov and Yen-Hsun Lu who have inflicted defeats on Ferrer. Still, the red dirt is the surface on which Ferrer thrives the most, so expect him to put in some good performances in the coming weeks.

Juan Martin Del Potro: C

After demolishing Bernard Tomic in the final in Sydney in the lead-up to the Australian Open, it looked as though the likeable Juan Martin Del Potro was destined for a very successful year in 2014. Something didn’t seem quite right when the Argentine slumped to defeat against Bautista Agut in Melbourne, and a few weeks later in Dubai Del Potro was forced to retire from his first match due to more wrist problems. Having sat out most of 2010 with a right wrist injury, it’s now the left wrist causing Del Potro grief. It’s not known when the big man will be back on the ATP Tour but I wish him a speedy recovery and hope he can be back on court later in the year.

Tomas Berdych: A-

It’s been a very positive start to 2014 for Tomas Berdych. The popular Czech is now back at his equal highest world ranking of five after a string of good performances. Berdych made his first-ever semi-final at Melbourne Park, losing a tight tussle to Wawrinka, before capturing the title in Rotterdam and making the final in Dubai, where he lost a close match against Federer. Throw in a couple of good Davis Cup wins and a run to the semi-finals in Miami, and things are going very well for the former Wimbledon finalist. The big question is whether he can win a major, but Wawrinka’s win in Melbourne will have given Berdych plenty of hope, and I think he’ll be particularly tough to beat at both Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows.

Honourable Mentions: After a prolonged period of inconsistency, Alexandr Dolgopolov seems to be firing again, whilst Kei Nishikori looked in fine form until a groin injury struck at precisely the wrong moment. Marin Cilic has bounced back well from his doping suspension, and his partnership with Goran Ivanisevic is bearing fruit to date, whilst Italian clay-court specialist Fabio Fognini has started the year full of steam and spearheaded Italy’s charge to the Davis Cup semi-finals. Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov have both impressed me in the early part of 2014, and it may not be too long before each player is knocking on the door of the top five.

In Slump City: The leading Frenchman, Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, have endured a poor start to 2014, compiling win-loss records of 13-7 and 12-7 respectively – neither of which is good enough for a leading player. Having been ranked as high as five, Tsonga is now down to 12 in the world rankings, and will need to improve his match play and confidence significantly if he is to replicate last year’s run to the Roland Garros semi-finals. After a tremendous 2013, Gasquet’s slow start to this year is not entirely unexpected, but as with Tsonga he will need to lift or risk losing a lot of points that he is defending this year.

That’s it for this month. Enjoy the upcoming European clay-court tournaments and I’ll be back with another edition in May as we move toward the start of the French Open.

I-Formation March 2014: Taking the Federer Approach to the IPTL

March 14, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

In his many years in the game, there is not much that Roger Federer hasn’t seen or experienced. From his incredible successes on the court to his role as the president of the ATP World Tour Player Council, the Swiss superstar is both experienced and knowledgeable when it comes to the inner workings of the game. So that’s why I’m taking the Federer approach in respect of the newly created International Premier Tennis League (IPTL).

The brainchild of Indian doubles specialist Mahesh Bhupathi, the IPTL concept is for teams representing various cities in Asia and the Middle East to play one another in late November and early December each year. The makeup of the teams includes both current stars, such as Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Tomas Berdych, and former champions of the game, including Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. The self-styled “player auction” was conducted at The Oberoi Hotel in Dubai following the conclusion of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships a couple of weeks ago, with the inaugural event including teams representing Singapore, Mumbai, Bangkok and Dubai.

The rationale for the IPTL is multi-faceted but simple to understand: 1) showcase more of the sport in the Asian market, where the demographics and growing population represent huge opportunities for the sport, and where the sport is currently significantly under-represented vis-à-vis Europe, Australasia and North America; 2) attract valuable television ratings during the end of year festive season (which is a dead time for tennis, once the Davis Cup final has been played and the season-ending WTA and ATP championships have been held); and 3) attract new spectators to the sport, in much the same way as the T20 cricket format, with its vastly reduced playing time compared with other formats, has become immensely popular among people who previously had little interest in the sport.

As a citizen of cricket-mad India, Bhupathi has a good insight into the value that has been created by the development of the T20 format. Bhupathi’s heritage also allows him to understand the huge untapped potential in the Asian market for tennis. However, Federer has declared that he will not participate in the initial season of the IPTL, preferring to wait and see how it fares before committing his name (and powerful brand) to the event. In this respect I think he is exactly right. I have a number of reservations about the event, and only time will tell whether these translate into major problems for Bhupathi and co. or simply worries that fade away as the event gains traction.

Firstly, it seems to me to be hypocritical of players such as Nadal and Murray to commit to the IPTL when they are constantly complaining about the length of the season and the obligation on the top players to participate in a high number of events in each season. When it comes to the crunch, will players such as Nadal truly commit to the event, or instead will they be focusing on end of season recovery and rehabilitation and getting their bodies ready for the Australian Open?

Secondly, will the public in Asia and beyond truly embrace the event? The first few ties will of course attract decent crowds and television ratings for the sheer novelty factor, but I wonder whether people will continue to watch and to attend the ties once the novelty wears off. Tennis follows a highly tiered structure with respect to its events, and I wonder how much importance fans and players alike will attach to the IPTL as compared with the Grand Slams, the Masters 1000 events and the Davis and Federation Cups.

Finally, will the IPTL ultimately prove to be a profitable and self-sustaining event? The IPL in cricket has been plagued by controversy and corruption and these days seems to be a blur of meaningless matches played for the sheer sake of it. Whether Bhupathi and his backers, who have obviously invested a significant amount in attracting players of the calibre of Nadal, Djokovic, Agassi and Sampras, can generate sufficient sponsors and television distribution rights to keep the event afloat remains to be seen, but I have my doubts at this stage.

All in all, I wish the organisers of the IPTL all the best and hope, for the sake of the sport, that it can be a success and raise the profile of the sport in Asia. But Federer is a wise man, on and off the court, and if I were one of the players being courted by the IPTL organisers, I’d be adopting his approach and reserving judgment for a couple of years before making any commitments to the event.

That’s it for this month. I’ll be back with another issue of I-Formation next month. Until then, enjoy the tennis and follow all of my tennis news on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

The Dubai Daily: Men’s Final Recap

March 1, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

Another seeded opponent. Another dropped first set. Another stunning turnaround. Fourth seed Roger Federer captured his sixth career title at the Aviation Club in Dubai with a gripping 3 set win over third seed Tomas Berdych tonight in front of another capacity crowd in Dubai.

Federer started the final better than he had started his semi-final against Novak Djokovic, the Swiss star breaking Berdych in the Czech player’s second service game before being unable to consolidate the break. That break back was part of a 4 game run for Berdych, who stormed out to a 5-2 lead in the opening set courtesy of some booming first serves and laser-like forehands. Berdych, who entered the match with an ATP-leading 84 percent win rate on first service points in 2014, maintained his advantage from there and pocketed the first set, 6-3.

Berdych’s flat and heavy groundstrokes were putting Federer under immense pressure, the Czech star securing a break for a 3-2 lead in the second set and a glimpse of the title. But the former world number one was the clear crowd favourite and, as was the case in his semi-final against top seed Djokovic, Federer refused to go away and lifted his game to another level. With Berdych’s mind perhaps wandering to the trophy celebration, Federer broke back immediately and then held serve to go ahead 4-3. Serving at 4-5 to stay in the second set, Berdych started to become irritated by the raucous crowd and lost focus, giving up his serve to love and dropping the second set, 6-4, after 73 minutes.

With the momentum clearly on Federer’s side, the Swiss maestro held serve in the opening game of the third set and had 3 break points in Berdych’s opening service game of the deciding set. The former Wimbledon finalist somehow found his way out of trouble to level at a game apiece, but the writing was on the wall. With Berdych’s first serve percentage slumping, Federer was able to break in the fourth game to open up a 3-1 lead. A deft drop shot indicated Federer’s confidence and gave him a 4-1 advantage, and from there it was simply a matter of time before the Federer name was etched on the trophy once more. The valiant Czech managed to save 2 match points at 3-5, but Federer duly served out the match to record a 3-6 6-4 6-3 win in a touch under 2 hours and claim title number 78 of his illustrious career.

For Federer, it’s a huge step forward after he underachieved in 2013, and he will enter the Masters 1000 event in Indian Wells full of confidence. For all the naysayers, Federer still has the game and the belief to beat the very best when he is fit and healthy. For Berdych, it was one that got away, but the third seed is in great form right now and has his sights firmly set on a top 5 ranking. If he can keep up his form, he’ll be an extremely dangerous player in the Masters events and Grand Slams this year.

That’s it for the coverage from Dubai this week. I hope you have enjoyed the coverage. I’ll be back later this month with the latest issue of my monthly column, I-Formation.

The Dubai Daily: Reviewing Federer & Djokovic; Previewing Federer vs. Berdych

February 28, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych will battle it out in tomorrow night’s final of the men’s singles tournament at this year’s Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships after posting semi-final victories tonight over Novak Djokovic and Philipp Kohlschreiber respectively.

To the delight of the majority of the packed house inside Centre Court, Federer wound back the clock against top seed Djokovic, overcoming a sluggish start to post what is probably his most significant win in the last 12 months. Defending champion Djokovic started the match strongly, breaking Federer in the second game of the match and racing out to a 3-0 lead. Federer slowly worked his way into the match, dropping the first set 6-3 but looking better as the set wore on.

At 2-all in the second set, Djokovic went down 0-30 on serve before the unthinkable happened: it rained in Dubai. The delay was only a matter of minutes but it was enough to throw the Serb off-guard as Federer pummelled a backhand winner to secure the break. Attacking the net with purpose and staying on the aggressive from the back of the court, Federer levelled the match at a set apiece by taking the second set 6-3.

Djokovic, who had looked in control for so much of the match, started to unravel, with his trusty backhand breaking down for the first time in a long while. A couple of unforced errors and a double fault by the top seed gave Federer the break in the opening game of the final set before the Swiss maestro fended off a pair of break points in his first service game of the set. A second break to Federer in the fifth game of the set gave the 5-time champion a 4-1 lead and from there it was only a matter of time, Federer wrapping up the match 3-6 6-3 6-2 for a most famous and valuable win.

Earlier in the day, third Tomas Berdych made it back to back Dubai finals with a 7-5 7-5 win over seventh seed Philipp Kohlschreiber in 88 minutes. The German got the early jump on his higher ranked opponent, breaking Berdych in the first game of the match – the first time either player had lost serve all week. Kohlschreiber maintained his advantage from there on, before tightening up when serving for the set at 5-4. A couple of overly ambitious shots gave Berdych the break back, and a second successive break gave the former Wimbledon finalist the first set.

The second set was an even affair, with Berdych enjoying the benefit of serving first and keeping his nose in front throughout. In the twelfth game of the set Kohlschreiber served to take the set to a tiebreaker but Berdych again came up with the goods on the big points, breaking serve to claim the win.

Berdych looks to be in career best form right now, and will be desperate to claim his first title in Dubai, but if Federer can replicate his form from tonight then a sixth title in Dubai beckons. Whilst Djokovic heads to Indian Wells without a title for the season for the first time since 2006, both Berdych and Federer look in ripe shape for the first Masters 1000 event of the season. I’ll take Berdych in tomorrow’s final on the back of his tremendous serving display this week and clean ball-striking, but it should be a hard-fought and thrilling encounter.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the final and I’ll be back tomorrow with a recap and review of the match.

The Dubai Daily: 27 February 2014

February 27, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

Five-time champion Roger Federer stormed into the semi-finals of the 2014 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships tonight, setting up a mouth-watering showdown with top seed Novak Djokovic tomorrow. Having laboured to beat Radek Stepanek in the previous round, Federer was a whole lot sharper against Stepanek’s countryman Lukas Rosol in their quarter-final. In what was the first meeting between the players, the big-serving Rosol got off to a dream start, breaking Federer to set up a 2-0 lead. That was about as good as it got for the Czech player, with Federer immediately breaking back and then steamrolling through the rest of the match to claim a 6-2 6-2 victory. Rosol seemed overawed by being part of the marquee match-up on Centre Court, with Federer’s wealth of experience against big servers coming to the fore. The Swiss superstar was clinical in dismantling Rosol’s serve and was far too good for his younger opponent from the back of the court.

Djokovic had an even easier passage through to the semi-finals, with the world number 2 progressing courtesy of a withdrawal by his opponent, sixth seed Mikhail Youznhy. With some bad viruses going around Dubai at present, the Russian apparently fell victim to one of them and was unable to take to the court. Tomorrow’s semi-final between Federer and Djokovic should be a beauty, with the waning Federer still clinging to a 16-15 career edge over Djokovic but with the Serb having the momentum, recording wins over Federer in their last 3 matches. Although Federer put in a much more polished performance tonight, I still think Djokovic will be too good for the 17-time major champion tomorrow.

In the other semi-final, last year’s finalist Tomas Berdych will take on Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber. Berdych, who made the semi-finals of the Australian Open for the first time last month and then won the title in Rotterdam a couple of weeks back, looks to be in perhaps the best form of his career. In an exceptionally clean ball-striking display, the third seed dismissed fifth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 6-4 6-3, in 88 minutes to book his spot in the semi-finals. Berdych has been serving particularly well in 2014, and his fearsome forehand was also on song against Tsonga. As always, focus (or a lack thereof) proved Tsonga’s undoing, with a sloppy service game costing him the first set and a poorly timed double fault giving Berdych the sole break in the second set. Tsonga hit the ball sweetly but he needs to be tighter on the big points, as exemplified by his inability to win any of the 5 break points he earned during the match.

Kohlschreiber, who notched career win number 300 on the ATP Tour today with a straight sets victory over Tunisian Malek Jaziri, will not be a pushover for Berdych. The seventh seeded German is a former top 20 player and has thrived on the fast-paced courts at the Aviation Club this year. Kohlschreiber’s textbook one-handed backhand is his go-to shot and he’ll need it to be working if he is to match Berdych tomorrow. I think Kohlschreiber will put up a decent fight but in his current form Berdych should be too good.

That’s it for today. I’ll be back with another issue tomorrow to wrap up the semi-finals and preview Saturday’s final.

The Dubai Daily: 26 February 2014

February 26, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

Another perfect day in the United Arab Emirates saw plenty of exciting tennis at the Aviation Club. Perhaps the biggest cheer in the Arab nation was reserved for Tunisia’s Malek Jaziri, who delighted his local fans with a win over India’s Somdev Devvarman. The world number 137, who scored a wildcard into the event, is now into the quarter-finals after overcoming Devvarman (who enjoyed plenty of support himself from the many Indian expats in Dubai) in straight sets. Jaziri now faces Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber for a place in the semi-finals after the seventh seed continued Andrea’s Seppi’s miserable run in 2014.

Tomas Berdych advanced to a blockbuster quarter-final clash with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga by thrashing the Ukrainian Stakhovsky in less than an hour, dropping just 3 games for the match. Tsonga had an even easier path to the quarter-finals with his opponent Nikolay Davydenko forced to withdraw from the match with a rib injury before a ball was hit.

Brit James Ward was unable to replicate his Davis Cup heroics from New York a few weeks ago, succumbing to Russian veteran Mikhail Youzhny in straight sets. Big-serving Czech Lukas Rosol joined his countryman Berdych in the quarter-finals courtesy of a fine win over Russian Dmitry Tursunov, but in order to advance further in Dubai the Czech (who famously eliminated Rafael Nadal from Wimbledon a couple of years ago) will need to pull off another giant upset, this time against 17-time major champion Roger Federer.

In an up-and-down night match, Federer had moments of brilliance as well as several worrying lapses of concentration as he laboured to beat yet another Czech, Radek Stepanek, in 3 sets. After strolling through the first set, 6-2, Federer let his guard down in the second set and the wily veteran Stepanek made him pay, clinching the set in a tiebreak before storming out to a 2-0 lead in the deciding set. The Swiss superstar regained his confidence before it was too late, winning 6 of the last 7 games to wrap up the match, but he will need to be more focused as he moves into the business end of the tournament.

Tomorrow’s afternoon matches see Jaziri look to continue his fairytale run against Kohlschreiber before Berdych takes on Tsonga in a match that could well decide the finalist from the bottom half of the draw. In the evening session, Rosol looks to take down Federer before Youzhny will take on the winner of tonight’s final match between top seed Novak Djokovic and Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the tennis and I’ll be back with another issue tomorrow.

The Dubai Daily: 25 February 2014

February 25, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

5-time champion Roger Federer got his 2014 campaign at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships off to a winning start on Monday night, the Swiss star barely breaking a sweat against Germany’s Benjamin Becker. Highlighted by a spectacular “tweener lob” (for which words do not do justice), Federer cruised to a 6-1 6-4 win and maintained his perfect career record against the German. Head over to YouTube for highlights of a shot that is sure to be make it into Federer’s career highlight reel.

Eighth seed Dmitry Tursunov was another winner on Day 1, the Russian overcoming Slovakian qualifier Lukas Lacko in straight sets. Dark horse Roberto Bautista Agut also posted a win over a qualifier, losing just 4 games in total against Adrian Ungur. Bautista Agut will face the winner of tonight’s match between top seed Novak Djokovic and Denis Istomin in the second round.

Having claimed a stirring 5 set win over former world number one Lleyton Hewitt in the first round of the Australian Open, Italy’s Andreas Seppi had gone winless since then until yesterday’s fighting 3 set win over Florian Mayer. Seppi rallied from a set down to beat the German, eventually recording a 4-6 6-1 7-5 win. Joining Seppi in the second round was seventh seed Philipp Kohlschreiber, the German riding his majestic one-handed backhand to a 6-3 6-3 win over Dutchman Thiemo De Bakker.

Earlier today, last year’s finalist Tomas Berdych made a successful return to the Aviation Club, the Czech star dismissing the Romanian Marius Copil in straight sets, 6-3 6-4. Sixth seed Mikhail Youzhny, another former finalist in Dubai, recorded an identical score to Berdych as he swept past Poland’s Michal Przysiezny. In the battle of the big servers, Lukas Rosol took down Daniel Brands, 7-6(4) 6-4, whilst in the battle of the veterans Radek Stepanek took down Michael Russell in 3 sets.

In unfortunate news for the tournament organisers and for fans of Juan Martin Del Potro, the Argentine was forced to retire after losing the first set against Somdev Devvarman with further wrist complaints. Here’s hoping the big man is fighting fit and back in action soon.

Tonight, world number two Novak Djokovic looks to retain his 100% winning record against the Uzbekh Istomin. Istomin stole a set off the Serb in their match in Montreal last year, and has been ranked as high as 33 in the world, but the defending champion relishes the conditions in Dubai, where the courts are fast and the ball travels quickly through the desert air. Look for Djokovic to get on the offensive early in the points and enjoy a relatively comfortable victory.

Later tonight fifth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga commences his campaign with a match against the veteran Romanian Victor Hanescu. Like Tsonga, Hanescu is an all-court player, and this should be an entertaining match which underscores the meaning of “first-strike” tennis. Expect plenty of big serves and short points. Hanescu in his prime would have given Tsonga a run for his money but at this point in time Tsonga should be far too good.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the tennis and I’ll be back with another issue tomorrow.

The Dubai Daily: Day 1 Preview for February 24

February 24, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

The men’s edition of the 2014 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships kicks off at the Aviation Club in Dubai today, following the staging of the women’s edition last week. Unsurprisingly, the name “Williams” was etched on the winner’s trophy, however it was Venus Williams who upstaged her younger sister, world number one Serena Williams, with Venus capturing her third career title in Dubai and becoming the first wildcard entry to win the event.

In contrast to the women’s tournament, it would seem highly unlikely that the winner of the men’s tournament will be a wildcard or an unseeded player, with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer having combined to win a total of 9 of the last 11 titles in Dubai, and with fellow top 10 players Juan Martin Del Potro, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the main draw in this year’s tournament.

Djokovic enters the tournament as the top seed and will be looking to return to his winning ways after his 25 match winning streak at Melbourne Park was snapped by eventual champion Stan Wawrinka last month. The Serb commences his campaign against the talented Denis Istomin, and is scheduled to face the fourth-seeded Federer in the semi-finals. Five-time champion Federer, who has a residence here in Dubai, relishes the fast-paced conditions ever-present at the Aviation Club and is adamant that his body is in top shape. The Swiss star will get a chance to test both his body and the courts tonight, when he takes on Germany’s Benjamin Becker in the marquee night match on the opening day of play.

In the bottom half of the draw, two-time Dubai semi-finalist Juan Martin Del Potro is the highest ranked player. The second seeded Argentine is looking to make amends for an early exit at the Australian Open, where he was bundled out in the second round by Roberto Bautista Agut (who is one of the dangerous floaters in the main draw in Dubai). Del Potro was hampered in Melbourne by problems with his left wrist, but insists he has got the all-clear from his doctors to continue playing.

Tomas Berdych, a recent winner in Rotterdam, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a finalist over the weekend in Marseille, are in form and on course for a blockbuster quarter-final. Berdych, who upset Federer en route to the final in Dubai last year and helped the Czech Republic retain its Davis Cup crown in 2013, is skipping the Davis Cup for the rest of the year as he concentrates on moving his way up the rankings and capturing a maiden Grand Slam.

Along with Bautista Agut, there are several other dark horses in the field, with the quick courts especially favouring big servers such as Daniel Brands. The wily Czech veteran Radek Stepanek is always a fierce competitor, whilst Russian sixth seed Mikhail Youzhny has experienced success in Dubai in the past. Everything is set for a fabulous week of tennis at the Aviation Club, with my money being on a repeat of last year’s final. Novak Djokovic  got the better of Tomas Berdych 12 months ago, and once again I think the top seed will be too good for his third seeded opponent if they square off in Saturday’s final.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the tennis and I’ll be back with another issue tomorrow wrapping up the first day of play.

One Slam Stan Or The Next Main Man? What Does The Future Hold For Stanislas Wawrinka?

February 13, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

Would Stanislas Wawrinka have beaten world number one Rafael Nadal in the final of this year’s Australian Open if the Spaniard hadn’t injured his back during the match? It’s a question that tennis fans have been debating ever since the eighth-seeded Swiss player claimed his maiden Grand Slam title on 26 January by defeating Nadal in 4 sets. After the match, Nadal admitted what was obvious to all match observers: that the top seed had been significantly hampered during the contest by a back complaint. Nadal acknowledged that he first noticed the problem during the pre-match warm-up, but the 13-time major champion sought to downplay the ailment, graciously insisting that it was Stan’s day.

While the debate over the merits of Wawrinka’s Melbourne Park victory is likely to continue for quite some time, the more interesting question to my mind addresses Wawrinka’s ability to win more major titles in the future. Is Wawrinka destined to join the likes of Andy Roddick, Thomas Johansson, Michael Chang, Andrés Gómez and Petr Korda as one-Slam wonders? Or will the Swiss star, now at a career-best third in the world rankings, use his Australian Open triumph as a springboard for further success in the majors?

Putting to one side the Australian Open final against Nadal, there can be no doubt that Wawrinka has most definitely established himself within the top tier of men’s tennis. His performance at the 2013 Australian Open, where he lost an epic 5 set encounter with Novak Djokovic, showcased his true potential after years of being an outsider, and his run to the semi-finals of the US Open last year, which saw him dismiss Andy Murray before again falling to Djokovic in 5 sets, seemed to prove his standing among the elite.

However, with the Big Four of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray combining to win 37 of the previous 40 Grand Slams, it would have taken a brave man to back Wawrinka to win seven matches in Melbourne last month. But the 28 year old gained revenge against Djokovic in the quarter-finals, snapping a 14 match losing streak against the Serb, and then took down former Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych to progress to the final.

The annals of tennis subdivide the sport’s champions into several categories. There are the superstars, such as the legendary Aussies Rod Laver and Roy Emerson, American Pete Sampras, the ice-cool Swede Bjorn Borg, Wawrinka’s compatriot Federer, and Nadal. Then there are those who are among the most dominant players of their era, such as Agassi, McEnroe, Connors, Becker, Lendl and Edberg.

A rung beneath the dominant players are the multi-Slam winners who either: (a) specialised in a particular surface (such as Sergi Bruguera and Gustavo Kuerten on clay), or (b) enjoyed certain timing benefits, claiming their majors in periods when the current champions were on the decline and the next  champions were yet to fully emerge. Players such as Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin, for example, shone in the period when Sampras and Agassi were fading and Federer and Nadal had yet to fully hit their respective stride.

After that, there are the aforementioned one-Slam wonders and, finally, those players who really should have, or at least could have, won Grand Slams but never actually did. Marcelo Rios, Todd Martin, David Nalbandian and Mark Philippoussis, I’m looking at you right now.

Wawrinka has already joined the single Slam club, but can he climb further up the Grand Slam ladder? At 28, Wawrinka has no realistic chance of rocketing up the ladder, but it’s conceivable that he could add several more majors to his collection. Unlike counter-punchers in the mould of David Ferrer and Lleyton Hewitt, who wear their opponents down rather than pummel them, Wawrinka has the firepower to blast his fellow competitors off the court. He has also demonstrated, in his battles with Djokovic and in his consistency across the 2013 season, that he has the physical stamina to withstand the rigours of long matches and the demands of the ATP Tour in general.

On the other hand, there are plenty of players who have had hot streaks only to go cold thereafter. Fernando Verdasco, for example, has struggled to live up to expectations after his scintillating run to the 2009 Australian Open semi-finals, where he came within a whisker of beating Nadal and making the final. Juan Martin Del Potro won the 2009 US Open as part of a blistering run during the North American hard-courts swing but has not made a Grand Slam final since. (However, it should be noted that the Argentine was dogged by a serious wrist injury following his breakthrough success and has, in more recent times, come close to the making the final Sunday of another major – most noticeably at Wimbledon last year, where he lost a 5 set semi-final to Djokovic.)

Then, of course, there is the threat from those outside the Big Four. Messrs Berdych, Tsonga and Ferrer are all Grand Slam finalists, Del Potro has his US Open crown, and Richard Gasquet is a two-time Grand Slam semi-finalist. If a few breaks go the way of any one of these players, one of them could be the man left standing at the end of a Grand Slam.

With Federer seemingly on a terminal decline, and with a question mark hovering semi-permanently over the state of Nadal’s body, it is likely that the Grand Slam spoils will be shared far more equitably in the next decade than they were in the last 10 years. However, just as Federer jumped out from a pack that included the likes of Hewitt, Ferrero and Roddick, it may be the case that a dominant player emerges from the current cohort of rising stars on the ATP Tour that includes Dimitrov, Raonic, Janowicz and Tomic. Whereas Wawrinka is most probably at his tennis-playing peak right now, in terms of both confidence and physical ability, the rising stars still have plenty of upside left in their games and will likely continue to develop physically as well.

In short, it’s never easy to win Grand Slam titles. His Australian Open title will undoubtedly provide Wawrinka with the self-belief that he can claim more majors, and the world number three should have particularly good chances to do so at Melbourne Park and Flushing Meadows in the years to come. But part of what makes professional sport so compelling is that nothing is certain and one never knows what is around the corner (whether it’s a Nadal back injury in a major final or the emergence of the next Federer). Tennis fans will have to wait and see how the rest of the 2014 season unfolds, but it seems certain to be another riveting year of action on the ATP Tour.

Australian Open 2014: Men’s Final Recap

January 26, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

Stanislas Wawrinka is the 2014 Australian Open men’s singles champion, the eighth seed upsetting an injury-stricken Rafael Nadal to claim his first Grand Slam title.

Day 14 Recap

I said yesterday that Stan Wawrinka’s first mission in Sunday’s men’s final was to win a set against Rafael Nadal, and to win it early. The Swiss star duly delivered, showing no signs of nerves as he raced out to a 4-1 lead within 17 minutes. There were a couple of shaky moments thereafter, with Wawrinka forced to save 3 break points as he served for the set, but eventually the eighth seed had the first set in his pocket, taking it 6-3 in 37 minutes.

The Wawrinka game plan was obvious and simple – go for broke on first serves (even if that resulted in missing a fair few of them), and pull the trigger as early as possible in rallies from the baseline (even if that meant committing a decent number of unforced errors). Post-match, Nadal admitted that he had felt his back go in the warm-up, and early in the second set the world number one took an extended medical timeout that saw him return to the court to a surprising (and thoroughly unjustified, to my mind) chorus of boos.

Wawrinka was agitated by the length of Nadal’s timeout and frustrated at not being told the nature of the injury for quite some time, but he channeled his frustrations effectively, storming to a 5-1 lead in the second set as Nadal became more and more debilitated by his back problems. The top seed’s serves became a barometer for his woes, with his first service speed slumping dramatically, first to 125 km/hr and then to a measly 114km/hr.

When Wawrinka claimed the second set 6-2, it seemed as though a retirement by Nadal was on the cards, but the 13-time Grand Slam champion found something out of nothing, gritting his teeth and breaking serve at the start of the third set to establish a 2-0 lead. Suddenly, Wawrinka became anxious, dreading a miraculous comeback from the Spaniard. When Nadal took the third set 6-3 and pushed the match into a fourth set, there was a belief that the worst of Nadal’s back problems were over and that the 2009 champion could push for a second Australian Open title.

Nadal’s recovery was short-lived, however, and was testament to the Spaniard’s warrior-like fighting qualities and never-say-die attitude, rather than being a reflection of any improvement to his back. An early break in the fourth set put Wawrinka on the cusp of victory, but the Swiss player needed to calm down before he could claim the win, a wild service game handing the break back to Nadal. But the end was nigh, and Wawrinka made no mistake when he claimed another break, serving out the match to cap off a fabulous last 12 months with his first major title.

For Wawrinka, it was a dream come true and, although Nadal’s injury woes were a factor in the win, the Swiss star, who will rise to number 3 in the world rankings today, demonstrated during the tournament that he is most deserving of Grand Slam champion status. Wawrinka, in fact, is the first person to ever defeat both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic at the same Grand Slam. I suspect it might be quite some time before anyone else joins Stan in that category.

For Nadal, it was a sad and emotional finish to what has been a spectacular performance at this tournament. Remember that Nadal had treatment on his troublesome knee in the off-season and was hard-pressed to simply be fit for Melbourne Park. The back is just one more injury concern for the Spaniard, but if he can stay injury-free he will remain the player to beat on the ATP Tour in 2014.

That’s it for this year’s Australian Open. I hope you’ve enjoyed the coverage of the tournament. I’ll be back with an issue of my new monthly column, I-Formation, next month. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

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