Tennis Elbow: If not Serena Williams, then who?

February 2, 2015

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon recaps Serena Williams’s win at the 2015 Australian Open.

Very quickly, Serena Williams is turning what was once a semi-contentious debate into something approaching a definite.

Over the weekend, she beat Maria Sharapova by the final score of 6-3 and 7-6(5) to win her sixth Australian Open and, most importantly, her 19th career Grand Slam title.

But why is this 19th title so important? Aren’t they all just as important, as per that old cliché that professional athletes tend to use so often? Well, that 19th title is so important, because it moves Williams past Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for the most career Grand Slam titles in history and into second place behind only Steffi Graf’s 22 titles.

That’s right.

We’ve wondered for some time now whether Serena Williams might be the greatest player in history. She’s been comfortably the best player of her generation—no one is even close, really—but the debate was whether she belonged on Mount Rushmore. She had proved that, at the latest, when she enjoyed a career renaissance of sorts in 2012 after taking time off for a hematoma and pulmonary embolism—by then, she had 13 Grand Slam titles.

That debate of whether she might be better than the aforementioned Graf, Evert and Navratilova had hinged in part on our ability to project and compare and contrast different eras and different playing styles. But now? Now, Williams is at 19 majors.

In other words, with those 19 Grand Slam titles, not only does she have a legitimate claim as the best player in history… but she might have the numbers to back the claim up too. She may lack the overall title haul (i.e. Williams has 65, Graf has 107, Evert is at 157 and Navratilova is at 167), but her Grand Slam resume is as good as anyone else’s. Williams has six Australian Open titles, two French Opens, five Wimbledon titles and six US Opens—that tally tells me she’s just about equally good on every surface.

Maybe she doesn’t have the 19 straight semifinals of Navratilova, or the 34 overall finals of Evert or the 13 straight finals of Graf, of which she won nine, including five in a row, but she does have the 19 major titles. And she does have the distinction of being the oldest No. 1 player in history.

(She also is ludicrously ahead on the career earnings list… though, of course, different eras had different prize money. As a reference, Victoria Azarenka is fifth on that list, so yeah.)

We shouldn’t or I shouldn’t I suppose since I’m the one writing this, write Williams’s eulogy just yet—this 2015 Australian Open proved as much. She may be at No. 19 right now, but the odds that she adds to her haul before she retires are quite high.

Now more than perhaps ever in her career, she appears to be peerless. Not even vomiting could stop her in Melbourne, so imagine how powerless Maria Sharapova, no slouch with her five Grand Slam titles, must have felt.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter at RealCBG

Serena defeats Sharapova for sixth Australian Open title

January 31, 2015

Australian Open—Melbourne, Australia

Top seed Serena Williams captured her 19th grand slam title in Melbourne, Australia on Saturday, defeating Maria Sharapova 6-3, 7-6(5). Needing one hour and 51 minutes to seal her victory, Williams hasn’t lost to the Russian since 2004. Serena now stands at three majors away from tying Steffi Graf’s grand slam total of 22.

Australian Open 2015 Day 14 Preview: Djokovic vs. Murray

January 31, 2015

by: Tom Cochrane

Serena Williams is the Australian Open women’s singles champion for 2015, the world number one claiming a sixth Australian Open crown and the nineteenth major of her career with a straight sets victory over Maria Sharapova.

Tonight, top seed Novak Djokovic takes on sixth seed Andy Murray in the men’s singles final. See below for my thoughts on the men’s championship decider.

Day 13 Recap

Rain disrupted the start of the women’s final on Saturday night in Melbourne, eventually causing event organisers to close the roof on Rod Laver Arena. A double fault to Sharapova handed Williams the break in the opening game of the match. A second break to Williams gave her a commanding lead in the opening set, as the American moved Sharapova around the court with powerful groundstrokes and pounced on any short second serves from the second seed. A sloppy service game from Williams handed Sharapova one of the breaks back, but the Russian was unable to consolidate the break and, after 47 minutes, it was Williams holding a one set lead.

Sharapova tried to get herself back into the match in the second set, some big fist pumps highlighting the Russian’s eagerness to fight back. Sharapova earned herself some decent opportunities on the Williams second serve, but the world number one showed why her serve is considered the best in the game, coming up with aces and service winners at crucial moments to deny Sharapova a way back into the match. The Russian fought off a championship point in the tenth game, eventually pushing the set to a tiebreaker, but once again Williams’ serve proved the difference, an ace sealing a 6-3 7-6(5) victory in 1 hour and 51 minutes.

For Sharapova, it was another fabulous tournament in which she ultimately came up short as a result of Williams’ brilliance. Whilst the Russian will be frustrated that she remains unable to break her duck against Williams, Sharapova’s play in this tournament should give her plenty of confidence for the rest of the 2015 season. For 33 year old Williams, there seems to be no signs of slowing down and, with 19 Grand Slams now to her name, the American is within striking distance of Steffi Graf’s Open era record of 22 majors.

*****

Match of the Day – Day 14

Novak Djokovic vs. Andy Murray

At the start of the tournament, I was firmly of the belief that Novak Djokovic was the favourite for the men’s title and that Andy Murray faced a very difficult path through to the final. Four-time champion Djokovic has made it through to the final but he hasn’t been entirely convincing in doing so, producing a sloppy performance against Stan Wawrinka in the semi-finals. Murray, on the other hand, has been in excellent form in the past week, downing Dimitrov, Kyrgios and Berdych in performances which have made it clear that the Scot is back to the form which saw him claim majors in 2012 and 2013.

Djokovic’s record at Melbourne Park is formidable, the Serb holding a perfect record in Australia Open finals (with 2 of his wins coming against Murray in the final), but Wawrinka showed last year that the top seed is not unbeatable Down Under. Whilst Murray has lost both of the Australian Open finals that he has played against Djokovic (as well as losing another final against Federer), the Scot has beaten Djokovic in their other 2 Grand Slam finals – in New York in 2012 and at Wimbledon in 2013. Those wins will give Murray plenty of confidence heading into this match, and I think the sixth seed is in the sort of form to cause an upset.

Djokovic and Murray have known each other since they were 12, and so know each other’s games very well. Murray’s mindset is very different now that he has gotten the Grand Slam monkey off his back and he no longer suffers from the mental anguish that he suffered from when these players first met in the Australian Open final in 2011. I expect Djokovic to put in a far better performance tonight than he did against Wawrinka, but I don’t think the Serb has demonstrated the precision and sharpness in his game in Melbourne this year that he has exhibited in years gone past. Add that to the fact that Murray looks to be in superb physical shape and I think the Scot will be celebrating Grand Slam title number 3 at the end of this match. Look for the players to split the first 2 sets before Murray gets on top of the Serb and races towards the finish line. Murray in 4.

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

Australian Open 2015 Day 13 Preview: Serena vs. Sharapova

January 30, 2015

by: Tom Cochrane

Novak Djokovic will bid for a fifth Australian Open title against Andy Murray on Sunday night, after the world number one took down defending champion Stan Wawrinka in 5 sets on Day 12 in Melbourne.

Tonight, Serena Williams takes on Maria Sharapova in the women’s singles final. Read on for my thoughts on the blockbuster match-up between the top two players in the women’s game.

Day 12 Recap

With Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka having split a pair of epic encounters at Melbourne Park in 2013 and 2014, expectations were high leading into the semi-final between the players on Day 12. Once again, fans were treated to a 5 set encounter, but this match fell short of the previous ones, as both players struggled with their form and fitness at various stages throughout the match.

Wawrinka made the early running in the match, breaking in the seventh game of the opening set. That sparked Djokovic into action, the top seed recovering to force a tiebreaker. It was one-way traffic in the breaker, the 4-time champion conceding just one point as he took the opening set. Wawrinka claimed the second set, 6-3, to level the match at a set apiece, but when Djokovic claimed the third set and raced to an early 2-0 lead in the fourth set it appeared that the match would soon be over.

To the crowd’s delight, the defending champion found a second wind when down in the fourth set, ripping some of his trademark one-handed backhands to first break back and then forge ahead in the set, eventually taking it 6-4. The first couple of games of the deciding set were to prove critical, with Wawrinka squandering break point in the first game and then handing the break to Djokovic with a pair of double faults.

The meek loss of serve early in the fifth set seemed to deflate the Swiss star, with Djokovic firmly focused on the finish line. Wawrinka was unable to win a point on his second serve in the final set, with Djokovic capturing it 6-0 to wrap up a 7-6(1) 3-6 6-4 4-6 6-0 victory in 3 hours and 30 minutes.

For Djokovic, it was a scrappy victory marred by 49 unforced errors, but the Serb will simply be happy to make it through to the final. For Wawrinka, it was a gallant effort at defending his title, but his 42 winners were overshadowed by a whopping 69 unforced errors for the match.

*****

Match of the Day – Day 13

Maria Sharapova vs. Serena Williams

Second seed Maria Sharapova has been in fine form to start 2015, winning the Brisbane International in the lead-up to the Australian Open and then producing sterling straight sets wins over Peng Shuai, Eugenie Bouchard and Ekaterina Makarova in her last 3 matches. The scare against Panova in round 2 seemed to catapult Sharapova into action and she is now playing as well as I’ve seen her play in several years.

The big question for Sharapova is whether she can overcome her abysmal record against world number one Serena Williams. The Russian has beaten Williams just twice in 18 encounters, with the last of those wins coming way back in 2004. That represents a whole lot of mental scar tissue for Sharapova, and it also highlights just how well the Sharapova game suits Williams.

The 18-time Grand Slam champion loves it when her opponents hit the ball with pace, and if Sharapova is going to win today then she will need to find the right balance between playing her own game, which involves aggressive, heavy hitting, and playing the game that frustrates Williams, which requires plenty of variety when it come to speed, spin and direction. Sharapova need look no further than Radwanska’s win over Williams in Perth at the Hopman Cup for an example of how to annoy (and beat) the world number one.

Williams has never lost an Australian Open final, and she is eager to be reunited with the trophy after having an odd run of outs at Melbourne Park in the last few years. If Williams serves well and retains her focus, she’s going to be awfully hard to beat. I think Sharapova, in her current form, has one of her best chances to end her losing streak, but the smart money is on Williams claiming major number 19. Williams in 3.

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

Australian Open 2015 Day 12 Preview: Djokovic vs. Wawrinka

January 30, 2015

by: Tom Cochrane

For the first time since 2004, the Australian Open women’s singles final will be contested by the top two seeds, after Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova collected straight sets wins on Day 11 to set up a showdown in Saturday night’s final. Meanwhile, Andy Murray awaits the winner of today’s semi-final clash between Djokovic and Wawrinka after the Scot downed Tomas Berdych in 4 sets to reach his fourth Australian Open final.

Day 11 Recap

Maria Sharapova went into her semi-final against countrywoman Ekaterina Makarova having won all 5 of the pair’s previous clashes. Initially, things didn’t look great for Sharapova as she went down an early break in the first set, only to reel off 6 consecutive games to turn the match on its head. Despite having played in the semi-finals of the US Open in New York last year, Makarova looked edgy on the big stage, with her normally reliable forehand not able to cause the same damage it had done in the opening 5 rounds of the tournament. In windy conditions, Sharapova produced a strong serving performance and never gave her opponent a chance to come back into the match, wrapping it up 6-3 6-2 and giving herself a chance to claim a sixth Grand Slam title and second Australian Open on Saturday night.

Sharapova will need to overcome top seed and world number one Serena Williams if the Russian is to hold aloft the trophy, after the American overcame compatriot Madison Keys in the second semi-final. If teenager Keys, playing in her first Grand Slam semi-final, was overwhelmed by the occasion or affected by a lingering left adductor injury, she didn’t let it show, breaking the Williams serve early in the first set to underline her intent. Williams broke back in the sixth game and gradually gained more control via her serve, taking the first set in a tiebreaker and then jumping all over the Keys second serve early in the second set to set up a commanding 5-1 lead. Keys managed to save an incredible 8 match points, but Williams remained unflustered, converting match point number 9 to move into her sixth Australian Open final with a 7-6(5) 6-2 win.

The night session on Day 11 featured the first men’s semi-final, and the first set saw the contest live up to its much-hyped billing. After 76 minutes of twists and turns, breaks of serve, arguments over the balls, some unsavoury taunts from Murray’s fiancee Kim Sears and more, it was Berdych who took the lead, recovering from a 3-0 deficit in the tiebreaker to claim it 8 points to 6. The loss of the first set catapulted Murray into action, the Scot becoming more offensive, moving inside the baseline and pushing Berdych more around the court. A near-perfect second set saw Murray bagel Berdych, the two-time major winner losing just 10 points for the set, to even the match at a set apiece.

Berdych appeared to have regained his focus at the start of the third set, but a lapse in concentration in the sixth game proved costly for the former Wimbledon finalist. Up 40-0, Berdych wound up losing his serve, handing Murray the break, and the Scot maintained his advantage to close out the set, 6-3. It was a similar story in the fourth set, with Murray rock-solid on the key points, saving break points in the sixth game and then taking his chances when Berdych tightened up at 5-all. A poor service game by the Czech gave Murray the chance to serve for the match and Murray made no mistake, sealing the win with his fifteenth ace in just under 4 hours. After losing 3 finals at Melbourne Park, Murray will be looking to finally lift the trophy on Sunday against the winner of today’s semi-final between Djokovic and Wawrinka.

Match of the Day – Day 12

Novak Djokovic vs. Stanislas Wawrinka

What more can be said about this pair and their matches at Melbourne Park? For the third consecutive year, world number one Novak Djokovic will take on defending Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka in the first Grand Slam of the year. The past 2 years have seen the pair play out exhilarating contests in Melbourne, with Djokovic overcoming Wawrinka in 5 sets in 2013, and Wawrinka turning the tables on the world number one in another 5-setter last year en route to the title.

Djokovic holds a commanding lead in career head-to-head meetings, the top seed having collected 16 wins in the 19 matches played to date. However, Melbourne Park brings out the best in Wawrinka and, having finally beaten Djokovic in a major in Melbourne last year, has the requisite confidence and self-belief going into this clash. Wawrinka’s game is well-suited to the bouncy hard-courts at Melbourne Park, with the ball mostly sitting in Wawrinka’s preferred hitting zone and the courts quick enough for him to get due reward for his shotmaking abilities. The fourth seed produced his best performance of the year to date in dismissing the dangerous Kei Nishikori in straight sets in the quarter-finals and, just as he did against the Japanese star, Wawrinka will need to serve extremely well and go all out on his backhand side if he is to take down Djokovic.

Djokovic has been very steady in the tournament so far, and he was at his clinical best in dismantling Milos Raonic’s big serve in the quarter-finals. I think the Serb will still be kicking himself for not collecting more Grand Slam titles last year, and he will be hell-bent on recapturing the Australian Open trophy in order to provide himself with an ideal foundation for the 2015 season and to reassert his position as the world’s best. Djokovic is the better mover around the court and more consistent from the baseline, and to my mind is also fitter if the match goes deep into a decider. Wawrinka has the weapons to beat Djokovic but it’s essentially a case of everything needing to go right for the Swiss star if he is to progress through to another final. Look for Wawrinka to challenge strongly for the first 2 and a half sets, but for Djokovic to absorb the pressure and pull away in the third and fourth sets. 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.

Australian Open 2015 Day 11 Preview: Serena & Sharapova poised for final showdown; Berdych vs. Murray as well

January 28, 2015

by: Tom Cochrane

Teenager Madison Keys is through to the semi-finals at Melbourne Park after surviving a testing 3-setter against veteran Venus Williams on Day 10. Day 11 sees Keys up against another Williams star, Venus’ younger sister and world number one Serena.

Day 10 Recap

Whilst Keys and Venus Williams combined for a total of 83 unforced errors, it was nonetheless an absorbing battle between the 7-time major winner Williams and the up-and-coming star Keys. Swinging freely and exhibiting the shotmaking ability that has earned her a bunch of admirers, Keys took the first set, 6-3, before Williams upper her intensity and first serve percentage to level the match at a set apiece. The deciding set featured plenty of twists and turns but, up 5-4, Keys produced a flawless return game, breaking Williams to love to secure an historic victory.

Serena Williams avenged her sister’s loss with a decisive 6-2 6-2 victory over last year’s Australian Open finalist, Slovak Dominika Cibulkova. Although still troubled by a cold, Williams was never seriously threatened by the eleventh seeded Cibulkova, who seemed to use up all of her energy in taking down Victoria Azarenka in the round of 16 and was unable to find her best form against the world number one.

In the men’s quarter-finals on Day 10, Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic each recorded superb straight sets victories to set up a clash at Melbourne Park for the third consecutive year. Wawrinka produced a sublime serving performance, sending down 20 aces en route to a 6-3 6-4 7-6(6) win over fifth seed Kei Nishikori. However, the win wasn’t without its share of nerve-wracking moments for the Swiss star. With Wawrinka up 6-1 in the third set tiebreaker, it seemed as if the match was over for Nishikori before the Japanese star reeled off 5 points in a row. Alas, a poorly executed drop shot from Nishikori gave Wawrinka another match point and this time he made no mistake.

Djokovic was clinical against the big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic, the world number one notching a 7-6(5) 6-4 6-2 victory. The Serb was clinical in the first set tiebreaker and broke down the Raonic serve in the second and third sets, as the eighth seed was unable to make any inroads on the Djokovic serve and showed that he is lacking a plan B to move to when things are not going his way.

Matches of the Day – Day 11

1. Maria Sharapova vs. Ekaterina Makarova

Left-hander Makarova is the sort of player that no big name wants to play in the latter rounds of a Grand Slam. The Russian is ultra-consistent from the baseline, a good mover around the court and deceptively efficient on serve. Tenth seeded Makarova made it through to the semi-finals of the US Open last year, going down to eventual champion Serena Williams, and I’m sure that the experience will stand her in good stead for into this match.

After getting out of jail against Panova, Sharapova has looked better and better with each successive match, the 2008 Australian Open champion completely dismantling the games of Peng Shuai and Eugenie Bouchard in the fourth round and quarter-finals respectively. In her current form, I think Sharapova will have too much firepower and self-belief for her countrywoman, however if the second seed is unable to maintain her high standards then Makarova is the sort of player who will take full advantage. Look for Sharapova to move through in a couple of tight ones. Sharapova in 2.

2. Serena Williams vs. Madison Keys

She might be battling illness off the court, but on court Serena Williams shows no signs of giving up, the top seed in vintage form against Dominika Cibulkova in the quarter-finals. It took the top seed a while to hit top gear against Muguruza, but Williams was straight out of the blocks against Cibulkova. Williams and Keys have never met in a tour level match, and I expect that coach Lindsay Davenport will be telling Keys to get out there, enjoy herself, and go for her shots, just as Keys did so well against Venus Williams in the quarter-finals.

Unlike older sister Venus, whose best tennis is behind her, Serena is still at the top of her game and I think she will be seeking to avenge Venus’ loss and to move one step closer towards reclaiming the Australian Open crown. Keys is a star of the future and I don’t think she will be too far off Williams’ level in this clash; that said, I think Williams will be smarter on the big points and will overwhelm Keys with her intensity and competitiveness. Look for Keys to compete strongly for a set and a half, and for Williams to weather the early storm before pulling away for a straight sets win. Williams in 2.

3. Andy Murray vs. Tomas Berdych

I can’t wait for this match-up between 2 of the most in-form players on the ATP Tour at present. Berdych has been in blistering form at Melbourne Park so far this year, the Czech snapping his lengthy losing streak against Rafael Nadal with a most emphatic victory. Murray, meanwhile, produced a mature performance to outclass Nick Kyrgios in straight sets in the quarter-finals, the Scot moving so well that veteran Lleyton Hewitt was forced to remark that Murray was covering the court better than he had for many a year.

There are plenty of sub-plots to this match, with Berdych leading the head-to-head record 6-4 but being unable to beat Murray when it really counts, such as at the US Open in 2012, when Berdych, fresh from defeating Roger Federer, was outsmarted by Murray on a windy day in New York. Murray went on to win the title, and has since added another major to his collection, whilst Berdych is still searching for his maiden major.

Another sub-plot features the coaches, with long-time Murray aide Dani Vallverdu now coaching Berdych after allegedly being unhappy at taking a back-seat to Murray’s new coach, Amelie Mauresmo. Obviously Vallverdu knows Murray’s game inside and out, and will be able to provide Berdych with certain insights in that respect, but as Murray noted, the Scot has had the benefit of Vallverdu’s assessment of the Berdych game in previous years.

I think this will be a cracking encounter, with both players full of confidence and looking extremely fit. If Berdych is able to hit with the power and the consistency that he showcased against Nadal, then a strong case can be made for the Czech making it through to his second Grand Slam final.However, I am leaning towards Murray, the sixth seed a narrow favourite in my mind due to his formidable record at Melbourne Park and his greater experience at this stage of big tournaments. Murray 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.

Australian Open 2015 Day 10 Preview: Djokovic vs. Raonic; Wawrinka vs. Nishikori

January 27, 2015

by: Tom Cochrane

Andy Murray will play Tomas Berdych for a place in Sunday’s men’s singles final after the Scot ended Nick Kyrgios’ dream run with a straight sets win in their quarter-final on Day 9 of the tournament.

Day 9 Recap

In windy conditions, it was a focused Murray who entered Rod Laver Arena, the Scot mixing up the pace of his shots and throwing in plenty of slice in an attempt to throw the big-hitting Aussie off his game. Murray came into the match as the best returner in the men’s tournament so far, and one break in the first set was enough to hand it to the 3-time Australian Open finalist, 6-3. Kyrgios refused to go away in the second set, sending it to a tiebreaker, but a couple of rash points on serve when up the mini-break proved costly for the teenager, as Murray collected the breaker 7 points to 5. Murray went up a break early in the third set before Kyrgios recorded his first break of the match, but the comeback was short-lived as Murray broke once more to set up a 6-3 7-6(5) 6-3 victory.

Earlier in the day, Tomas Berdych was the first man to book his place in the men’s semi-finals, the Czech claiming his first win in 18 matches over Spaniard Rafael Nadal with a commanding 6-2 6-0 7-6(5) victory. Having played just 8 tour level matches since June last year, Nadal’s lack of match practice was evident as the third seed was unable to convert any of his 4 break point chances for the match. Berdych again showed his fondness for the Melbourne Park hard-courts, thoroughly outplaying Nadal in the first couple of sets and then holding strong in the third set as Nadal tried his hardest to get back in the match.

In the women’s tournament, second seed Maria Sharapova produced another superb performance, defeating Eugenie Bouchard 6-3 6-2 in a match which was much closer than the scoreline would indicate. Wimbledon finalist Bouchard looked flat from the outset as Sharapova served well and maintained excellent depth on her groundstrokes throughout the match. A total of 30 unforced errors proved costly for Bouchard, as the Russian maintained her 100 percent record against the Canadian.

Sharapova will play countrywoman Ekaterina Makarova for a spot in Saturday’s final after the tenth seed outclassed third seed Simona Halep in a surprisingly one-sided contest. Similar to Bouchard, Halep looked sluggish and never managed to find her range. Makarova raced out to a 3-0 lead after 9 minutes and never looked back from there, taking the first set 6-4 and the second set 6-0 to wrap up the match in just 68 minutes.

Matches of the Day – Day 10

1. Madison Keys vs. Venus Williams

This year’s Australian Open has been a tremendous success for the American women, and not only as a result of the Williams sisters. Madison Brengle and Madison Keys are two rising stars playing for the United States, and now Keys has a huge opportunity to move through to her first ever Grand Slam semi-final.

This is an interesting match-up between veteran Venus Williams, who at 34 has shown she is still capable of challenging and beating the world’s best, and Keys, a powerful young hitter who is tipped by many astute tennis followers as the next big thing to come out of America. I was very impressed with Venus’ commanding performance in the third set against Radwanksa in the round of 16 and I think her majestic serve and far greater experience will give her the edge in this match. That said, Keys has nothing to lose and will no doubt come out swinging. Williams in 3.

2. Serena Williams vs. Dominika Cibulkova

Dominika Cibulkova enjoyed a glorious run through to the final at Melbourne Park in 2014, the diminutive Slovak defeating the likes of Maria Sharapova before going down to Li Na in the championship decider. Cibulkova’s form in 2014 was patchy following her performance in Melbourne, but she seems to have recaptured her form back in Melbourne, downing two-time Australian Open champ Victoria Azarenka in a high-quality fourth round encounter.

Williams was severely tested against Muguruza in the round of 16, the top seed battling illness as well as a tough opponent. Williams showed plenty of heart to come through that match and, having had a day of rest, I think she will be in better health and form for this encounter. Cibulkova has only managed to claim a solitary set off Williams in 4 previous contests, and I think the world number one is too tough a test for the Slovak to pass today. Williams in 2.

3. Stan Wawrinka vs. Kei Nishikori

These two are occasional hitting partners and so know each other’s game very well. Whilst Wawrinka won their first 2 encounters in 2012, but Nishikori outlasted the Swiss star in a gruelling 5-setter in New York last year en route to the final. Wawrinka’s power game is well known, whereas Nishikori is still making a name for himself outside his native Japan.

Nishikori is a brilliant mover around the court, but he’s also a potent shotmaker and not just a counterpuncher. His serve is also underrated, whilst the addition of former French Open champion Michael Chang to his coaching team has provided a boost to his confidence and self-belief. I think this match will go down to the wire, with both players having genuine chances to win. I’ll back Wawrinka, simply because of his past success in Melbourne, but to my mind this match is virtually a toss of the coin. Wawrinka in 5.

4. Novak Djokovic vs. Milos Raonic

This pair played 3 times in 2014 and, whilst Raonic had his moments against the world’s best player, he was never able to achieve ultimate success against Djokovic. Raonic continues to improve as a player, with his backhand slice vastly improved in recent times. And, as Djokovic himself has acknowledged, Raonic ranks as one of the very best servers on the ATP Tour.

Obviously Raonic needs to serve well today to have any chance, but the Canadian also needs to ensure that he competes strongly on the Djokovic service games and doesn’t allow the top seed to cruise through on his serve. Raonic will look to keep the points short and out-hit Djokovic, whilst the top seed will seek to exploit Raonic’s inferior movement with long, punishing rallies. I think Raonic will win a set and trouble Djokovic in a couple of the others, but ultimately I think the world number one will move through to the semi-finals. 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.

Australian Open 2015 Day 6 Preview: Djokovic tries to avoid the same fate as Federer

January 23, 2015

by: Tom Cochrane

For the first time since 2001, the men’s singles round of 16 at Melbourne Park won’t feature Roger Federer, after the second seed was sensationally knocked out of the tournament on Day 5 by Italy’s Andreas Seppi.

Day 5 Recap

Seppi had never previously beaten Federer, and had taken just one set off the Swiss superstar in all of their previous matches, but the Italian started strongly, breaking Federer to love to claim the opening set and then taking the second in a tiebreaker to set up a commanding lead. Federer got the third set but, despite winning more points than Seppi for the match, ultimately went down in 4 sets. Federer’s upset is good news for Nick Kyrgios who set up a meeting with Seppi by beating Tunisian Malek Jaziri.

Andy Murray and Grigor Dimitrov set up a marquee fourth round showdown in contrasting styles, with Murray cruising past Joao Sousa and Dimitrov forced to 5 sets to see off former finalist Marcos Baghdatis. Rafael Nadal thrashed Dudi Sela to set up a clash with big-serving Kevin Anderson, whilst Bernard Tomic and Tomas Berdych booked a fourth round showdown by defeating Sam Groth and Viktor Troicki respectively.

In the women’s tournament, Maria Sharapova hammered Zarina Diyas 6-1 6-1 and will now face China’s Shuai Peng, who overcame Yaroslava Shvedova. Seeds Eugenie Bouchard and Simona Halep recorded wins on Day 5, as Yanina Wickmayer scored an upset win over Italian seed Sara Errani. Ekaterina Makarova overcame Karolina Pliskova and will now face Germany’s Julia Goerges for a place in the quarter-finals.

*****

Matches of the Day – Day 6

1. Serena Williams vs. Elina Svitolina

As I said at the outset of the tournament, Serena Williams is head and shoulders above the rest of the players on the WTA Tour when she puts her mind to the job. So far, the American has been steady without being spectacular, but that’s not a big issue, as she will aim to peak in the second week of the tournament.

Svitolina is a rising star on the women’s circuit and has now made the round of 32 at Melbourne Park in consecutive years. She’s definitely one to watch for the future, but I don’t think she will have the composure on the big stage to truly threaten Williams. Williams in 2.

2. Novak Djokovic vs. Fernando Verdasco

One only has to think back to the pulsating semi-final at Melbourne Park played out between Fernando Verdasco and his more esteemed compatriot Rafael Nadal to remember just how dangerous Verdasco can be on hard-courts, especially when he gets his confidence up and his serve and forehand firing. On one hand, Djokovic will see Federer’s defeat as giving him an even better chance of winning the title; on the other hand, Djokovic will know that he needs to keep his guard up against a challenging opponent today.

Verdasco has nothing to lose, so I expect him to come out all guns blazing. But even if the Spaniard manages to fire on all cylinders for a while, he has a tendency to get tight in big match situations, and I think that Djokovic will get the better of him on the big points. Djokovic in 4.

3. Petra Kvitova vs. Madison Keys

Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova showed in her demolition of Eugenie Bouchard in the 2014 final at the All England Club that she deserves to belong in the very top tier of women’s tennis, and now it is time for the Czech star to make her mark in the other Grand Slams. Kvitova has had an ideal preparation for the year’s first major, winning the title in Sydney before travelling to Melbourne, and I think she has to be considered one of the favourites for the title.

Keys is a highly rated American youngster who, with former star Lindsay Davenport now by her side, is sure to continue to progress through the ranks in the next 12 months. Keys showed plenty of grit in fighting back from a set down to beat Aussie seed Casey Dellacqua in round 2, but I fear a win over Kvitova might be step too far right now. Kvitova in 2.

4. Feliciano Lopez vs. Jerzy Janowicz

Spanish seed Feliciano Lopez is pretty fortunate just to be in the third round of the tournament, after he was forced to eke out a 10-8 fifth set win over the American Kudla in round 1 and got lucky in round 2 when his opponent, Adrian Mannarino, was forced to retire when in a winning position. Janowicz has been more impressive in contrast, completing a gutsy 5 set win over French seed Gael Monfils in the second round.

This should be an enjoyable match to watch, with Lopez’s old-school all-court game contrasting with Janowicz’s huge serve and raw power game. I think this is definitely a winnable match for the Pole, but I’ll back Lopez to get back in form with a hard-fought win here. Lopez in 5.

5. David Ferrer vs. Gilles Simon

Pencil in a long match featuring plenty of drawn-out rallies between these two baseline battlers. Former French Open finalist Ferrer is super-fit and as tenacious as they come, whilst Simon is a very adept mover around the court and an extremely good counterpuncher.

Ferrer has the better record in the majors and, whilst Simon has claimed his fair share of big-name scalps over the years, the smart money is on the Spaniard to prevail in this one. Ferrer is probably no longer at his peak, but he’s still a force to be reckoned with. Ferrer in 4.

Put your house on: Stan Wawrinka. After his Swiss countryman Federer was upset yesterday, let’s hope the defending champion can get the job done against veteran Finn Jarrko Nieminen today.

Upset alert: Perhaps not an upset per se, but I think unseeded former champ Victoria Azarenka will take down Czech seed Barbora Zahlavova Strycova today.

Likely to go the distance: I reckon American Steve Johnson is an underrated player, and I’m backing him to make life difficult for fifth seed Kei Nishikori in their match today.

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.

Australian Open 2015 Day 4 Preview: Will Nishikori and Raonic reach round 3?

January 21, 2015

by: Tom Cochrane

Two former champions, Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal, were pushed to the very brink of elimination on Day 3 before showing their fighting qualities and recording comeback victories.

Day 3 Recap

Sharapova was forced to save 2 match points in her match against fellow Russian Alexandra Panova, eventually prevailing in 3 sets over the world number 150 in 2 hours and 32 minutes. It was smoother sailing for the other women’s seeds in action on Day 3, with 2014 Grand Slam finalists Eugenie Bouchard and Simona Halep progressing in straight sets. Also advancing was Russian Ekaterina Makarova, China’s Shuai Peng, Italian Sara Errani and rising star Karolina Pliskova.

In similar fashion to Sharapova, Rafael Nadal was forced to scrap his way to victory against courageous American Tim Smyczek, the Spaniard overcoming a 2 sets to 1 deficit before ultimately prevailing 7-5 in the decider. Roger Federer overcame a troublesome finger to beat Simone Bollelli in 4 sets, while Tomas Berdych and Andy Murray recorded routine victories.

There was good news for Aussie fans, as Nick Kyrgios upset Ivo Karlovic and Bernard Tomic ousted Philipp Kohlschreiber, whilst Sam Groth outlasted fellow Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis in 5 sets to set up a meeting with Tomic. Other seeds to fall on Day 3 included Lukas Rosol, who went down to Dudi Sela, Leonardo Mayer, who was beaten by Viktor Troicki, and David Goffin, who was outplayed by former finalist Marcos Baghdatis.

*****

Matches of the Day – Day 4

1. Ivan Dodig vs. Kei Nishikori

Croat Ivan Dodig is a former top 30 player with some serious victories to his name, able to claim wins over Nadal, Raonic and Juan Carlos Ferrero, among others. The Croat hasn’t had the best last 12 months, seeing his singles ranking slide even as his doubles career continues to prosper, but he’ll give Nishikori a decent run for his money.

Nishikori was very solid against Almagro in round 1, maintaining a consistent level against a dangerous opponent, and not letting the Spaniard get into a rhythm. I think Nishikori can do very well in this tournament, and I’ll back him to come through this test with flying colours. Nishikori in 3.

2. Vera Zvonareva vs. Serena Williams

Former world number 2 Vera Zvonareva has endured a miserable couple of years, having suffered from various injuries, including shoulder and hip problems. But the two-time Grand Slam finalist is back on court and working her way back up the rankings.

Even at its best, Zvonareva’s counterpunching game isn’t the sort of game that world number one Serena Williams loses sleep over, the American knowing that she will always dictate play in such circumstances. I think Serena will get through this one pretty easily, but I’m intrigued to see just how well Vera fares. Williams in 2.

3. Milos Raonic vs. Donald Young

Former teen prodigy Donald Young hasn’t ever quite lived up to expectations as a professional, but the American leftie is still a dangerous player and has claimed some tremendous scalps over the years, including the likes of Andy Murray.

Raonic had a terrific 2014 season and, having made the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2014, will firmly believe that a Grand Slam final is next on his to do list. Armed with a ballistic serve and an ever-improving backhand, it’s hard to bet against him. Raonic in 4.

4. Gael Monfils vs. Jerzy Janowicz

Former Wimbledon semi-finalist Jerzy Janowicz got a lucky break when former US Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro was forced out of the tournament  with ongoing wrist problems. Del Potro had been drawn to play the Pole in round 1, but instead Janowicz faced a qualifier and cruised through to round 2.

Janowicz isn’t so lucky in round two, as he faces electrifying French seed Gael Monfils. The seventeenth seed performed impressively in New York last year and will be looking for another strong showing at the first major of 2015. If he can make some inroads on the Janowicz serve and maintain his consistency, I’ll back Monfils to notch the win. Monfils in 5.

5. Casey Dellacqua vs. Madison Keys

Aussie Casey Dellacqua enjoyed the most season of her career in 2014 and has been rewarded with a seeding at her home Grand Slam. The tenacious baseliner has scored some big wins at Melbourne Park over the years, and will be looking to put in another deep run in front of the patriotic Australian fans.

Keys is a rising star and the American will learn plenty from new coach Lindsay Davenport, a former world number one and multiple Grand Slam champion. Keys is a natural athlete and has plenty of tennis talent to match, hence why expectations are high. I’ll back the American to prevail in this one, but only by a whisker. Keys in 3.

Put your house on: Defending champion Stan Wawrinka. The Swiss star should be far too good for his second round opponent Marius Copil.

Upset alert: Spaniard Marcel Granollers could surprise French seed Gilles Simon, while Slovak veteran Daniela Hantuchova will fancy her chances against Spanish seed Garbiñe Muguruza.

Likely to go the distance: Pencil in 5 sets for the clash between Frenchman Adrian Mannarino and Spanish seed Feliciano Lopez.

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

Australian Open 2015: Day 2 Preview

January 19, 2015

by: Tom Cochrane

It was a tale of two tournaments on Day 1 of the 2015 Australian Open. While almost all of the big names in the men’s tournament in action on Day 1 sailed through to round 2, an astonishing 8 seeds crashed out in the women’s tournament.

Day 1 Recap

Ana Ivanovic was the first big name to fall on Day 1, the fifth seed going down to Czech qualifier Lucie Hradrecka in 3 sets. Before long, the Serb was joined on the sidelines by German seeds Sabine Lisicki and Angelique Kerber. Bencic, Kuznetsova, Safarova and Suarez Navarro were among the other seeds to exit on Day 1, whilst setting the record straight and collecting straight sets wins were big names Simona Halep, Maria Sharapova and Eugenie Bouchard. Other winners on the women’s side on the opening day of play included Makarova, Peng and former French Open finalist Sara Errani.

In the men’s tournament, anxious moments were few and far between for the big guns, with Nadal, Federer, Murray and Dimitrov all recording impressive straight sets wins. While Spanish veteran Tommy Robredo was forced to retire due to injury, and Latvian seed Ernests Gulbis was ousted by Aussie upstart Thanasi Kokkinakis in an electrifying 5-setter, the news was better for the other seeded men, with the likes of Gasquet, Goffin, Mayer, Kohlschreiber, Rosol, Anderson and Karlovic all booking their spot in the second round.

Matches of the Day – Day 2

1. Nicolas Almagro vs. Kei Nishikori

Nico Almagro was something of a doubtful starter for this tournament, with the Spaniard still recovering from foot and shoulder problems that curtailed his 2014 season. The former top 10 player is a clay-court specialist but also a formidable hard-courts player, and at his best would give Nishikori a real run for his money.

At present however, I don’t think Almagro has the fitness or the match practice to truly challenge the Japanese star over a best of 5 sets match. US Open runner-up Nishikori will be looking to go one step further than he did in New York, and Melbourne Park presents one of his best opportunities to go all the way. Nishikori in 4.

2. Taylor Townsend vs. Caroline Wozniacki

Former Australian Open junior champion and junior world number one Taylor Townsend represents a challenging opening round match-up for Dane Caroline Wozniacki. The eighth seeded Wozniacki recaptured some of her best form in the second half of 2014, highlighted by a run to the US Open final, and she will be eager to keep up her momentum in 2015.

Leftie Townsend is a crafty player, and did make the round of 32 in Paris last year, but is still in the developmental stage of her career and has a fair bit of work to do before she is capable of challenging the world’s best on a regular basis. That said, it will be interesting to see how she fares against Wozniacki. Wozniacki in 2.

3. Sloane Stephens vs. Victoria Azarenka

Tennis fans will recall the spiteful semi-final these two played out at Melbourne Park in 2013, when Azarenka took a dubious timeout at a critical stage of the second set with Stephens in the midst of a spirited comeback. Since then, both players have struggled to regain their best form, with 2014 an inconsistent year for Stephens and an injury-plagued season for Azarenka.

Two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka is still working her way back to her best tennis, but there’s no doubt that the Belarusian loves the courts in Melbourne. On the other hand, Stephens is a proven big match player, and she will be eager to atone for her 2013 loss to Azarenka. Accordingly, this has all the makings of a blockbuster. I’ll take Azarenka by a whisker. Azarenka in 3.

4. Dominika Cibulkova vs. Kirsten Flipkens

Diminutive Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova roared into the final at Melbourne Park last year, claiming a number of high profile scalps, including Maria Sharapova, before succumbing to Li Na in the championship match. Seeded eleventh this year, Cibulkova may well find it hard to live up to last year’s heroics, and she faces a tricky opening round match today.

Flipkens is a veteran of the WTA Tour whose success at junior level never fully translated into success on the main tour. That said, the Belgian is a highly skilled all-court player and did make it through to the semi-finals of Wimbledon in 2013. If Cibulkova is on song, she’ll have too much firepower, but if she is having an off day then Flipken’s steady game could see her the Belgian claim the win. Cibulkova in 3.

5. Novak Djokovic vs. Aljaz Bedene

Slovenian Aljaz Bedene has started the 2015 season in grand fashion, emerging from qualifying to make the final of the Chennai Open and giving a decent account of himself in going down to Stan Wawrinka in the title match.

Based on his form in India, you’d expect Bedene to put in a good showing against Djokovic in this encounter, especially as the Serb has been struggling with illness for the past few days. However, Djokovic claims he is now back to full health and raring to go. In that case, Bedene beware. Djokovic in 3.

Put your house on: Top seed Serena Williams. The American superstar should wrap up her match against Belgium’s Alison Van Uytvanck quicker than you can say Van Uytvanck.

Upset alert: Sam Stosur’s abysmal home record of late means that she is in real danger of falling to Monica Niculescu. In the men’s draw, I think Dutchman Robin Haase will push French seed Gilles Simon all the way and could pull off the upset.

Likely to go the distance: I’m backing Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci to push David Ferrer to 5 sets, while I’m also expecting the Simon-Haase clash to go the distance.

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

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