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Ramble #13

Later for London?

I’m sat here watching Gael Monfils struggling against Dominic Thiem in their second matches at the ATP World Tour Finals.

Dom won the first set against Novak Djokovic, but lost the next two comfortably. Gael was easily beaten by an efficient Milos Raonic. This is a must win match for both men and, as I write this (6-3, 0-1 (30-30)), it’s the Austrian who looks more likely. 

Gael just doesn’t look like he’s fully fit (although he has just broken Thiem …), like Andy Murray didn’t last night, and, although I didn’t see it, Stan Wawrinka in the earlier match. 

Raonic came into this tournament carrying a knock, and Marin Cilic wasn’t 100% either. And this isn’t a new thing. Every year players pull out or don’t play at their best due to fatigue and niggly injuries. Held with just a weeks break from the last masters of the year in Paris, maybe the organisers need to look at a rescheduling. 

Firstly, this is meant to be the year-ending tournament, however, the Davis Cup final is yet to be played. Last year, Andy didn’t really turn up at the O2, his thoughts very much on winning the Davis Cup. Are we seeing something similar from Marin Cilic this year? The big Croat looked unbelievably flat last night, there’s no question that in his usual guise he would have punished Murray for an incredibly weak set. 

The Davis Cup scenario also makes it very difficult to calculate who will end as year-end number one this year. Andy will lose points following this tournament. While it can’t happen this year, in theory the world number one could win the tour finals, beating the world number two in the final, and yet not finish the year atop of the rankings. 

But all of that is just a minor point used to back up my bigger one about fatigue.

We all want to see the top eight players playing at their best. We don’t want to see a load of tired professionals, struggling to move their legs for one final week.

Give them an extra week, play the Davis Cup final first. 

The players will be happier with the extra rest, the spectators will be more willing to pay money to see closer matches. We want to see long rallies, heart-stopping moments, breathtaking winners. We don’t want to see unforced error after unforced error.

Someone in the village I live in described Wawrinka as amateur yesterday. That may well be true. But if it is, it’s only because the scheduling surrounding this wonderful tournament is amateur. 

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Who’s going to win in London?

The ATP World Tour Finals are always worth watching. Any tournament which features only the top eight in the world is bound to be full of excitement and, while the drawing of the group stages has slightly dampened expectations this year (at least on one half), it should be no different in 2016.

In Group McEnroe, or the group of death, new World Number One Andy Murray (boy, it feels good to write that!) faces Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic. All have reached Grand Slam finals, all have a genuine shot at getting out of the group, and winning the title.

Over in Group Lendl, Novak Djokovic has three players he’s never lost against: Milos Raonic, Gael Monfils and Dominic Thiem. If you weren’t expecting to see those last two there, don’t worry – none of the tennis correspondents on this blog predicted either.

At the start of the year, a group of friends and I made predictions for how this year would pan out. It’s fair to say, very little of it has happened! I’ll do a blog after the tour finals looking at who did best, but before then – I thought it best to ask them who they now feel will win next week, and see what has changed.

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Charlie Marriott: 

Who he said at the start of the year: Novak Djokovic

Who he thinks now: Novak Djokovic

Why? It’ll obviously be Djokovic because Murray will bottle it now he’s #1.

Emma Still:

Who she said at the start of the year: Novak Djokovic

Who she thinks now: Marin Cilic

Why? He beat Djokovic in Paris, why can’t he do it in London?

Gareth Hardman:

Who I said at the start of the year: Roger Federer

Who I think now: Gael Monfils

Why? Well the Federer prediction has fallen away to 16th in the ranking, so I needed to find a new horse to back. And I’ve been convinced for a long time that, if he qualified, Gael Monfils would reach the semi-finals. Having seen the groups, I am strongly backing that, and the Frenchman would face either a fatigued Murray, an inconsistent Wawrinka, a Cilic with other tournaments on the horizon or Nishikori. I think he can win all of those matches. And then, why not? Why couldn’t he win? I feel tennis is due a shake-up, and Gael is just the man to provide it.

James Doan:

Who he said at the start of the year: Novak Djokovic

Who he thinks now: Andy Murray

Why? You would have to fancy Murray with his relentless form.. but it’s not a happy hunting ground for the lad- I don’t know why? Only tiredness and fatigue can stop him. Also, watch out for Stan, he’s a big game player and he should be well rested.

Josh Hockley-Still:

Who he said at the start of the year: Stan Wawrinka

Who he thinks now: Stan Wawrinka

Why? Andy rarely plays his best at the O2, he’s had a whirlwind few weeks, and in a nightmare group. Novak has a simple group, which I think he’ll get through, but after that I’m not convinced he’s ready to beat the very best yet. So I don’t think it’ll be one of those two, Stan usually plays well at the O2, and when he gets on a roll, he’s very difficult to stop.

Now you’ve seen what we think – who do you think is going to win? Let us know in the comments below!


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How 2016 Will Finish (part I)

It is quickly becoming a tradition for my friends and I to predict what men’s tennis will look like in 12 months time, in terms of the top 10 and slam winners. This year we are extending it to include the women’s and olympics winner. This first one is a look at the men’s side, with the burning question – do we think Djokovic’s Dominance will continue?

Doing the men with me are Charlie Marriot, Emma Still, James Doan and Josh Still. Charlie, Emma and Josh have all done this before, James is new to it and is only doing the men’s side. Good luck to all my fellow bloggers. All the graphics were designed by Emma, and I am forever grateful for her photoshop skills in the development of this.

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We’ll start with the top five, and explanations.

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Charlie: 

Pretty much status quo at the top – Federer‘s natural decline will continue but I would imagine he will have at least 1 semi-final appearance at a Slam.

Emma:

Djokovic’s dominance will continue into 2016, highlighted with my picks for the big tournament. Federer seems to be getting better despite his age, with my theory being that it’s purely so he can win the Rio Olympics in 2016. I think he will. Murray is consistently amongst the top four, and three seems to be a perfect position for him. Nishikori has vast potential, and while last year wasn’t great, the next very well might be. His game is still good enough to challenge the best. Wawrinka is on a slight decline, but he’s still good enough for top 5.

Gareth:

I believe the top 4 pick themselves; the only issue for debate is the order. Djokovic will be world number 1 without hell freezing over, and it is likely with his late season form, plus lack of points to defend, that Nadal will be second. Federer and Murray could both quite easily finish third, I’ve plumped for Murray on the basis that I imagine he’ll be more consistent over the course of a year, even if Federer has more individual success. Wawrinka is now a permanent fixture amongst the top 10, and even if he doesn’t win a slam in 2016 (which I don’t think he will), he is still better than the vast majority of tennis players.

James:

Novak Djokovic amassed a record breaking 16,585 ranking points last year after reaching all four grand slam finals, winning a record 11 masters series events before winning the World Tour Finals event in November at the o2 in London. The only major title that eluded him was the French Open where he was defeated by Stan Wawrinka in four sets at Roland Garros. The only certainty about predicting the top 10 in male tennis is that Novak will be number 1. Roger Federer played some of the best tennis of his career in beating Andy Murray in straight sets in the semi-final of Wimbledon before losing to Djokovic in the final. He also reached the final of the US Open before losing to Djokovic once again. 2015 was a landmark year for Murray who won the Davis Cup on his own. He also enjoyed his most accomplished year on clay winning two titles and beating Rafael Nadal on the surface for the first time in the final of the Madrid Masters. It is a big year for Murray who is expecting the birth of his first child in February as well as committing to play in Davis Cup competition once again. I expect that Muzza may struggle to replicate the consistency of last season and relinquish his number spot in the rankings. Nadal looked ready to compete with the world’s best once again at the World Tour Finals in London in November. He looked to be back to somewhere near his best form in his demolition of Murray in the round robin stage. A good clay court season could see him retain his place amongst tennis ‘big four.’ Out of all the players in the current top 10, Stan the Man seems the only one capable of trading blows with Novak Djokovic in a best of five sets match. Stan hit Djokovic off the court to win the French Open and if the Swiss could add more consistency to his game he could move even higher up the rankings.

Josh:

There’s no debate about the no. 1 position – Djokovic has become a ‘Big 1’ within the ‘Big 4’, and it’s hard to imagine what, barring a serious injury, could stop him finishing top of the rankings for the 5th time in 6 years. Indeed, I think he has a serious chance of completing the Grand Slam for the first time since Rod Laver in 1969; his physicality is such that I just don’t see who will beat him over 5 sets, and as a patriot, I fully expect him to win Olympic gold in Rio too. Behind Djokovic, I predict that Nadal will bounce back from a lacklustre year ’15 just as Federer did from ‘13 and Murray from ’14. Murray’s consistency will see him at no. 3. Federer, who will be 35 next summer, will drop down to 4 as I’m not sure he’ll be able to produce his best every week – but he should still have a couple of Slam runs left in him.

It may seem a little harsh not to include Stan Wawrinka in the Big 4 – after all, he has won a Slam and finished in the top 4 in each of the last 2 years. But while he’s a threat to any of them on his day, he will never have their unrelenting consistency and, thanks to Djokovic’s dominance, I don’t think he’ll win a Slam this year. Assuming he doesn’t, no. 5 is actually generous – he wouldn’t have been ranked that loftily for the past 2 years without a Slam win.

 

And now the bottom half

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Charlie:

Goffin is showing more promise so a good run at some 500 rank tournaments could see him slip by Tsonga, Dmitrov et al into that 10th place.

Emma:

Tomas Berdych lives at number 6. I don’t see Nadal’s body holding up for a year. He looked good at the end of last year but I don’t think that’ll last. Ferrer is getting older but still seems to always be in and around the top 10 so you’d be stupid to bet against him being there again. Raonic and Cilic, with age and experience, are too good not to return to the top 10.

Gareth:

The second half of my top 10 highlights the severe lack of depth in men’s tennis. It essentially hasn’t changed in the last two years. I think Berdych and Nishikori will stay, Raonic and Cilic will return with Goffin being the sole debutant. Why Goffin? His match against Murray in the Davis Cup proved he can play, and genuinely threaten, the best. Goffin’s place could quite easily still go to Ferrer, even at 34.

James:

2015 was not a great year for Japanese star, Kei Nishikori. Losing in the first round of the US open and withdrawing from his second round match at Wimbledon through injury. However at 26 Nishikori should be entering his peak years as a professional tennis player and playing injury free I expect him to cement his place in the world’s top 10. Berdych has been a consistent performer on the male tennis circuit for nearly a decade. A regular beyond the fourth round of grand slam tournaments I expect the Czech to remain between 6-10 in the rankings throughout the year. For Kevin Anderson, 2015 was something of a breakthrough year. The big South African reached the fourth round of the Australian Open and Wimbledon for the first time in 2015 as well as reaching his first quarter final in a grand slam at the US Open culminating in reaching a career high world number 10 in October 2015. The indomitable Ferrer will almost certainly finish the year inside the games top 10. He does every year. If Nick Kyrgios can keep his head together, the talented Aussie can be a top 10 player for many years to come. However, that is like saying that if Daniel Sturridge can stay fit England can win the Euros. Nonetheless, Kyrgios is a huge talent and a good run at his home Slam in Melbourne could set the tone for a big year for the big mouth.

 

Josh:

I could easily have put Nishikori ahead of Wawrinka, as he has the potential to develop into a genuinely world-class player, who has also shown that he can trouble all of the Big 4 – but will his injury-prone body ever be able to get through a full season?! I could have put him in the top 5, or judged that his injury record merited leaving him out of the top 10 altogether, but in the end I compromised by putting him at no. 6.

There was fierce competition for the remaining 4 places. Berdych at no. 7 – does any more need to be said? My wildcard is Kyrgios at no. 8! He’s into his twenties now, and assuming he’s maturing both on and off the court, there’s no reason not to consider him a future Grand Slam champion. He has a temperament perfectly suited to the big stage, so I’m expecting at least one run to the semi-finals or even the final of a Slam in 2016; probably Wimbledon, or his home slam in Australia. My list finishes with Ferrer and Cilic – I keep predicting Ferrer’s demise, but even though I think the days of him going deep into the second week of Slams are over, he should win enough 250 and 500 tournaments to stay in the top 10.   Cilic actually could contend for Slams, and now that he seems to be over his injuries, is too good not to be there or thereabouts after a full season on tour.

Ending with a look at the grand slam, and other major tournament, prospects, and it’s fair to say one man from Serbia dominates … 

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Charlie has given a little note on the pattern amongst our slam winners: Normal service to be resumed at the main tournaments after a couple of unexpected years, the newer names seem to be settled in now so while they’re all likely to challenge, I think this year will (sadly) be a return to the more conventional list of champions.

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Josh provides us with a tip of the player to watch:

JUAN MARTIN DEL POTRO

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I know I said this last year and ended up with egg on my face, but if the giant Argentine attempts another injury comeback, he will remain the most exciting player in tennis, and if he retains only a fraction of his awesome abilities, one of the very best. I’ll be following his progress closely. On the domestic front, Kyle Edmund’s burgeoning career is worth watching after an encouraging Davis Cup debut. Borna Coric, Alex Zverev, Hyeon Chung and Thanasi Kokkinakis are all hugely talented youngsters now firmly enmeshed in the world’s top 100, so hopefully they can continue their development this year.


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Djokovic Dominance

Personally, I usually love the ATP World Tour Finals. I think that it’s the greatest week of tennis on the calendar. Players can lose and still lift the trophy, doubles and singles get equal footing and the level of play is, usually, superb.

Last year was a massive let down. The first singles match to go to three sets was Nishikori’s victory over alternate Ferrer. Three more matches went the distance, and the tournament looked to be heating up but then Federer withdrew from the final and Djokovic won by default.

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Djokovic won last year, the year before and the year before that…

I fear a similar fate one year on. Djokovic might have to actually play the final this time, however there is almost no question that he will win. Can Federer really beat him on current form? Does Murray care about the tournament enough with a bigger tournament later this month? And are the rest even worth talking about?

Djokovic blew Kei Nishikori off the court on Sunday, the only man who took a set off the Serb a year ago. He will almost certainly beat Federer tonight, in their last 6 meetings; the Swiss only has 2 victories. Berdych will offer no resistance. Then, following that – who can stop him in the other group?

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If no-one can beat Djokovic in his group, how will the other fare?

Nadal is having a resurgence of sorts; however beating Wawrinka is hardly a precursor for impending success, especially when considering both his record against Wawrinka and his record at Tour Finals (the first being excellent, the second being dreadful).

I’ll be surprised if Ferrer gets out of the group and even more surprised if he ever beats Djokovic again.

Wawrinka could and indeed does do well against the Serb however he probably has to beat Ferrer and Murray to have a shot at taking him on, which on Monday’s showing is very unlikely.

As I’ve already mentioned, Murray has bigger fish to fry this month and should Djokovic beat Federer, the Brit will finish the year at number 2 regardless of this week. Andy will soon lose interest in this tournament.

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Wonderful players, but one stands head and shoulders above the rest

What am I trying to say? I love the ATP Tour Finals. I think that they are such a wonderful concept as a round robin format in a tennis competition is simple yet compelling.

However, it’s with a tad of lethargy that I await Sunday’s final this year. There’s no question who will win, there is no question what will happen. The intrigue has left men’s tennis, and until someone can consistently topple Djokovic, it will not return.

In fact, if you want empires falling then I suggest you watch the doubles tournament. Not only could any of the 8 teams win it this year, it’s looking likely that the Bryan Brothers will lose their grip on the number one crown. Should they retain their status as the best in the world, it will be through unbelievable play from an unconvincing position.

Maybe then, I am still as excited by the Finals, just by the doubles tournament for a change.

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You should definitely watch the doubles if you get a chance


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Wimbledon 2015: The Male Favourites

The main section of Wimbledon begins in just under a week. It’s strange how a competition that happens every year can remain so special year upon year. Wimbledon has a little bit of magic to it, something different from the plethora of tennis tournaments that happen every week. There are many different competitions taking place, men’s and ladies’ singles and doubles, mixed doubles, wheelchair doubles, junior singles and doubles as well as legends doubles. Between mid morning and late evening every day for two weeks, the BBC will be full of tennis. It really is heaven for British tennis fans.

Although, with the increased exposure of tennis on terrestrial TV comes the casual tennis fans. The ones who seem to think tennis only exists for two weeks a year, those who probably only watch football and thus get bored when there’s no football and so turn to tennis. They probably have only heard of Federer and Nadal, they probably think that Fred Perry is just a clothing brand and are almost certainly the ones calling Andy Murray “boring” and “lacking in personality”, except with stronger language. These people are the bane of my life, for example they don’t understand the difference between a game and a match, and led me to quit twitter during Wimbledon 2 years ago. Casual fans are fine, I don’t expect everyone to follow every sport religiously – it just annoys me that with tennis they seem to pipe up with their uneducated opinion without anyone asking for it, or even needing it. They aren’t what this blog is about; I just wanted to get it off my chest!

It’s time for me to focus on the men’s draw, and take a look at who I think the favourites will be. Below are the players who I think have the best shot at winning the title, in order of their chances. It’s likely the winner will come from the top 2, however below that there are a lot of players who will give it a good shot. It’s unlikely, but tennis does throw up a shock or two every now and then. Djokovic could meet an Ancic in the first round; Murray could meet a Soderling in the third. Wimbledon is the only slam played on grass that brings with a greater importance to hold serve. Big servers and good returners do well here, increasing the likelihood of a new champion. Also, with Wawrinka and Cilic winning slams recently, the era of the big 4 seems well and truly over. Will that reflect in the winner at Wimbledon? The next two weeks will tell!

Why am I doing this for the men and not for the women? Well the women’s draw is much harder to predict, essentially because best of 3 sets means that shocks are more likely. I feel more comfortable doing this for the men’s, although that isn’t to say I won’t write something for the women at some point if I have time!

  1. Novak Djokovic (world ranking: 1, best Wimbledon: W in 2011, 2014):

I can spout all I like about it being the most open Wimbledon for years; the simple truth is that it’s hard to look beyond the reigning champion. The World Number 1 always cruises through the first 4 rounds; usually without dropping a set and thus when it comes to longer matches he has the physical advantage. Furthermore, Djokovic usually gets blessed with kind draws (or maybe he makes every draw kind) and there only seems to be 2 or 3 people who can actually beat him. Those people have usually been pushed earlier in the tournament and therefore unless they start well won’t challenge the Serbian. I’d be handing him the title if he hadn’t lost at Roland Garros.

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  1. Andy Murray (world ranking: 3, best Wimbledon: W in 2013):

Another reason for Djokovic being the clear favourite is his one sided recent record over clear second favourite Andy Murray. Murray hasn’t beaten Djokovic since his Wimbledon victory in 2013, meaning he’s lost the last 8 matches the two have played. Given that it’s almost certain he’ll be seeded 3rd, a meeting with Djokovic could happen as early as the semi-final. Recent history will need to be re-written. Even then there is hope. When Murray was ill at the French Open, he still managed to push Djokovic to 5 sets over 2 days. Add that to his grass record over the Serb (2-0 in Murray’s favour) and you can see why there’s a good chance Andy will be adding to his 2 Grand Slams. Andy needs to be at his best, Novak needs to be slightly off but if anyone can beat Djokovic on grass then it surely has to be the Briton?

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  1. Stan Wawrinka (world ranking: 4, best Wimbledon: QF 2014):

I think Stan will be very disappointed with his Wimbledon record. Only one quarterfinal spot, he’s lost in the first round 5 times and hence it looks unlikely he’ll win this year! However, he has the game to survive, nay flourish, on grass and is now a multiple-Slam winner. The French champ may have lost early at Queen’s but that tournament won’t matter to him, he’s after Wimbledon. On his day, he can destroy anyone. It was only a few weeks ago that he beat Federer without being broken once. We all know that Wawrinka has the power to end any rally abruptly, his Achilles heel had been his unreliable serve. If his serve is working at Wimbledon then it wouldn’t surprise me to see him beating both Djokovic and Murray. If Wawrinka can find some consistency, then he won’t retire with only 2 Grand Slam titles.

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  1. Roger Federer (world ranking: 2, best Wimbledon: W in 2003,04,05,06,07,09 and 2012):

While I don’t consider Federer a serious threat for 3 out of 4 Slams these days, you can’t ignore his talent on grass. Federer is a real danger this year. He’s desperate for one last Slam and is probably the only player as comfortable, if not more, than Murray on grass. Furthermore, the second seeding means he could avoid both Djokovic and Murray before the final, allowing them to wear themselves out hence leaving the door open for the Swiss number 1. That being said, Federer is unbelievably inconsistent these days and could he beat Dimitrov, Nishikori and then Wawrinka/Murray in 3 consecutive rounds as he might have to? I’d say it’s unlikely. With a favourable draw and in the right spirit, Federer could sneak his way into the final and possibly more. Without it, it may be another early exit. Since 09, he’s only reached 2 Wimbledon finals – he’s no longer a huge threat.

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  1. Kei Nishikori (world ranking: 5, best Wimbledon: 4R 2014):

Nishikori has been something of a late bloomer, hanging around the top 50 until a surge in 2014 rocketed him up to 5th and then 4th. He also knows how to get on rolls. In 2014 he nearly beat Nadal on clay, before reaching the US Open final – beating Raonic, Wawrinka and Djokovic in a row. Once he gets going, the Japanese man is tough to beat. And no wonder, his style allows for no let up in intensity from his opponents and has enough power to hit through most players. He’s got a defensive game as good as Murray and Djokovic’s, a serve as consistent as Federer’s and his strength lies in returning – you can see why such a player will be dangerous, especially on grass. His record at Wimbledon is shocking however I expect him to change that this year and could well go all the way – he has to win a Slam soon if he is ever going to.

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  1. Milos Raonic (world ranking: 7, best Wimbledon: SF 2014):

It would take a lot for Raonic to win Wimbledon. Probably an illness to both Djokovic and Murray, avoiding Federer (or letting someone else take him out), Wawrinka losing early on and playing better than Nishikori at some point. However, we can’t rule the Canadian out. He reached the semi-final last year and it would be wrong to ignore that as a fluke. Big servers do well on grass, with easy points a must as players feel they can break every game. Therefore it’s highly likely that if Raonic is to win a slam, it will be Wimbledon. Unlike Nishikori or Dimitrov who can realistically win any of the slams, this is Roanic’s best shot. A seventh seeding places him just inside the top 8, which could be a massive advantage.

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Tomas Berdych (wr: 6), Marin Cilic (wr: 9) and Grigor Dimitrov (wr: 11):

The quality in depth of men’s tennis at the moment is absurd. I’ve listed 6 players, all of whom have a genuine shot at Wimbledon and yet haven’t mentioned one of last year’s semi-finalists, the reigning US Open champion and a former Wimbledon finalist. I’m grouping them together mainly so I don’t ramble on for too long but also because they are the best of the rest! Cilic and Dimitrov would be higher if not for the likelihood that they will be seeded outside the top 8 and therefore have to play a member of the top 8 (possibly Djokovic or Murray) in the fourth round. It’s unrealistic to tip them for the title, even though they clearly have the game to win, when they could have to beat Federer, Nishikori and Murray just to reach the final! Berdych is arguably playing the best tennis of his life this year however you could say the same about Wawrinka and Murray and they are both better than the Czech. If the draw gets turned upside down, one of these 3 could capitalise however that’s their best chance.

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Players who won’t win it, but could knock out one or two big names:

Kevin Anderson:

The big South African recently reached the Queens final, beating Wawrinka along the way. Clearly comfortable on grass, his serve means that breaking him will require you to work over time. He’s also consistent, only once since the start of 2013 has he not reached the 3rd round of a slam. The flip side to that is he has never gone beyond the 4th round, but then again he’s clearly in some form and so this could be the first time he reaches the quarterfinals.

Feliciano Lopez:

Possibly the only Spaniard in history to prefer grass courts to clay; Lopez (or Deliciano to Judy Murray) is always a danger at Wimbledon. His three grand slam quarters have all been at the all-England club and if he draws Berdych, Nadal or Ferrer at the 3rd, 4th round stage then you wouldn’t bet against him doing it again. Certainly one the top guys would like to avoid.

The French contingent:

Out of Tsonga, Monfils, Simon and Gasquet the first has the best chance of going the furthest at Wimbledon however none will be easy matches for anyone. To make it worse, Monfils and Gasquet are lingering outside of the top 16 seeds and therefore could face a top ten player as early as Friday/Saturday next week. Monfils in the third round is quite possibly the worst third round draw of all time.

Nick Kyrgios:

Kyrgios reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals last year and thus it’s difficult to know just how high he will be seeded. It’s unlikely he’ll make the top 16 and therefore could rival Monfils for worst third round draw. Only Murray seems to have a handle on him and at some point even that will fail. Kyrgios just loves the big stage, and will be desperate to defend his points. No one will be relishing facing the Aussie if he finds a similar level to last year.

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The unseeded ones:

Anyone outside of the top 32 is a threat at any point; you just need a quick glance over tennis history to prove that! However, there are some you fear more than others. Although it’s possible he will get a seed, Philip Kohlschreiber of Germany is now ranked 33rd in the world. The man who can beat anyone on his day could well face Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal in the first round! Or Novak Djokovic in the second! A player that dangerous and possibly unseeded is a clear threat. At 43 in the world, it’s certain that Gilles Muller won’t have a seed for Wimbledon. Does that make him any less of a threat? No, and at Queens recently he beat Dimitrov before very nearly beating Murray. Watch out for him, he’ll be lurking dangerously somewhere. Also keep an eye on Verdasco and Pospisil, both are nightmare first or second round ties.

And finally…

There are two players who reside in the top 10 which I haven’t talked about yet. One of them is a two-time Wimbledon champion but sadly is no longer a threat on the green grass of London. Rafael Nadal simply won’t make it as far as the quarterfinals; it’s possible he won’t even make the second week. His knees don’t play on grass, he just lost his French Open crown and he couldn’t even beat Dolgopolov at Queens. It’s a sad end to a wonderful career. David Ferrer isn’t a threat either; instead he’s a dream draw for those ranked outside the top 10. Never truly comfortable on grass, one can’t imagine him wasting too much energy at Wimbledon now or in the future. By not caring about SW19, it will almost certainly prolong his career.

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Realistically, I think there is only likely to be 4 contenders for the title at Wimbledon this year however it would be wrong to ignore the pedigree of Nishikori and Raonic. As the rest of the article showed, there are a number of names lurking in the draw, ready to pounce and dethrone the current kings of tennis and therefore it’s not going to be an easy Wimbledon to pass through. You feel like Djokovic is almost owed a draw where he faces Muller, Kohlschreiber, Monfils, Dimitrov, Nishikori, Wawrinka and Murray/Federer and such a draw is unlikely but possible.

Maybe I’m just trying to convince myself it will be exciting however I feel there is a good chance of a new winner of Wimbledon this year. At the very least, the French Open final would have shown the field that Djokovic is vulnerable in Slams and that Wawrinka is a serious threat. Djokovic prioritised the French over everything this year, with that now lost there is a question of motivation for Wimbledon. However, the man is more like a machine and it’s unlikely that any lack of desire will hinder his chances of winning this title. Unfortunately, like everything else with men’s tennis right now, it will come down to how well Djokovic is playing as to whether he wins or not. But you know that Federer, Murray and Wawrinka will all feel like they can beat him on the biggest stage.


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The True Supercoach

Supercoach
n.

  1. A former player who achieved success in the sport (usually but not exclusive to a lot of success), made a memorable impact on the sport and has returned to coach a famous player.
  2. An incredibly successful coach, with more than one athlete.
It started with Lendl, Ivanisevic and Chang

It started with Lendl, Ivanisevic and Chang

Going into 2012, the big tennis news was that former 8 time Grand Slam champion Ivan Lendl had become Andy Murray’s coach. While this wasn’t the first time a former great had returned to the game to coach a famous star, it kicked off the modern era, which now sees almost all of the top 10 being coached by so called “supercoaches”. With Murray leading the charge, future top 10 players Cilic and Nishikori hired Ivanisevic and Chang respectably, followed by Becker and Edberg joining Djokovic and Federer. In 2014, all four players have had great success, inspired by the success of their coaches and long time idols. Following Lendl’s departure, Murray hired another former player – this time Amelie Mauresmo. Of the two definitions provided, all 6 would firmly belong in the first. They have all made tiny but significant changes to their pupil’s game and turned them into a more formidable opponent, or Slam winner, but haven’t yet done enough to consider themselves amongst the greats of coaching.

In 2014 came Becker, Edberg and Mauresmo

In 2014 came Becker, Edberg and Mauresmo

Although largely ignored by the media, by definition the term supercoach has to have a secondary meaning, in many ways a more obvious one. As described above, a supercoach could mean someone who has set a few players on the path towards the top 10, grand slam finalists and beyond. One that remained with their subject all the way on that path would be even better. The two that spring immediately to mind here are Bob Brett and Nick Bollettieri. Also included in this definition could be Brad Gilbert, who had a decent playing career reaching 4th in the rankings before coaching Aggasi, Roddick, Murray and Nishikori, with varying success (it would be wrong of me not to mention the sleeping giant of British tennis here, Bogdanovic, who was also coached by Gilbert – I guess we all have that ex we regret ever seeing naked).

The true supercoach is possibly the person who can cross both bridges. One who has footprints in both camps? Or maybe a true supercoach is purely a great player who became a great coach. Does anyone tick both boxes? To answer that we should first explore both options, starting with what makes a player and coach great. Personally, I would argue a great coach is one who takes a good player, possibility languishing in 20-30 in the rankings and makes them capable of competing for Grand Slam titles. Furthermore, they should be able to do it more than once. Doing it once shows you found the right person to coach; doing it twice and more proves you’re a talented coach. It’s harder to define what makes a great player as no definition truly fits the majesty of the word, which is over-used (by myself included) anyway. Maybe we can agree that to be considered great you have to win a slam, spend time in the top 2 of the rankings and be remembered for your exploits in more than your own country. That still encompasses a wide range of players but is merely a drop in the ocean compared to how many have played the sport. Using my definitions of great, I certainly can’t think of an example of a great player becoming a great coach. So, the true supercoach is someone who can be considered in both definitions, even if they aren’t prominent in one.

True supercoach?

True supercoach?

Step forward Magnus Norman. Taking this back to the definitions at the top of this article, how does he fit into the first category? For that, I must draw your attention to 6 months at the start of 2000. A player, who had helped win the Davis Cup for Sweden in 1998 but had suffered with illnesses and injuries, appeared in Australia for the first slam of the year and made it all the way to the semi-finals. He followed that up with a title in the Rome Masters and an appearance at the French Open final, losing to Gustavo Kuerten. Of the 6 finals he played that year, that was the only one he lost, going on to reach the tour finals and finish the year 4th in the world with a time of it spent 2nd. Yes, it was merely a flash in the pan but I’d argue it’s good enough for the first category. You could claim that in those 6 months, and by winning the Davis Cup, Norman made a bigger impact on the tennis world than Henman or Rusedski did in their entire careers and both of those would be considered supercoaches in this country (yes, Rusedski reached the US Open final in 1997 but he didn’t face a single seed along the way – Norman faced future world number 1 Safin in the quarters).

Remember, to be called a true supercoach he must fit both definitions. If the fitting for the playing definition is loose then the coaching one certainly isn’t. Following retirement in 2004, Norman started coaching the 2002 Australian Open winner, Thomas Johannsson. Despite his best days being behind him, Norman was able to guide Thomas to the Wimbledon semi-finals and his final two ATP titles.

On the 4th November 2008, Norman took control of fiery but powerful Swede Robin Soderling. Before Magnus became his coach, Soderling was probably most famous for being the guy who mocked Nadal at Wimbledon. Not known for being nice, and permanently painting himself as an outsider, Soderling had done little to make friends on the tour. He was your typical solid top 30 player who was well known inside tennis but unheard of outside of it. That all changed when Norman took over. Magnus refined Robin’s already impressive forehand, making it almost unplayable, made his huge serve more reliable (although it was never perfect) and gave him a more powerful backhand. But, more than that, Norman was able to focus Soderling’s mind away from the distractions that used to lose him matches. Gone were the days when a player would irk him on the other side of the net to the extent where he would make so many errors he would throw the match. All of the work began to show when Soderling was the architect of, in my opinion, the greatest sporting shock of all time with victory over Nadal at the 2009 French Open. That fourth round win remains the only time Nadal has lost at the French and Soderling followed it up by reaching the final before losing to Federer.

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The first success story

He then went on to reach the quarter finals in America, destroy Nadal and Djokovic at the 2009 tour finals before successfully reaching the final again in France 2010 (this time beating Roger Federer) and winning the Paris masters as well as reaching world number 4. There was a time when he was genuinely feared by all of the world’s elite, and you can see why with the weapons he possessed. These weapons had always been there but had been fine-tuned by Norman. Once he split with Norman, his career started to slide, and unfortunately a nasty case of mono has meant he hasn’t played a match since 2011.

Despite a very successful partnership with Soderling, Magnus Norman had failed to turn him into a Grand Slam winner. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice and picked his next student carefully. He ended up going for a player similar to Soderling in many regards but with a few very key differences. Stanislas Wawrinka remains a popular man on tour. He is known for being humble and pleasant but, before his partnership with Norman, the kind of guy you could beat in big matches. He possesses the same weapons Soderling had: ie a destructive serve and a powerful one-handed shot that can produce winners at will. The difference is Wawrinka’s shot was his backhand and his forehand usually let him down during key points. Wawrinka had always struggled mentally with the life of being a tennis player. He had lost focus in big matches, and let big potential victories slip by – most notably his matches against Murray at Wimbledon 2009 and Djokovic in Australia 2013.

When Norman took over, Stan had been in the top 10 but had since dropped to become a regular resident between 15 and 25. He had shown potential without being earmarked as a future slam winner. As Tim Henman said, he was good without being great. Norman changed every aspect of that and it all started with a crushing victory over Murray in the 2013 US Open quarter finals. In fact, crushing was the wrong word. There isn’t a right one, as every aspect of that performance was perfect. Murray, admittedly injured, left shell-shocked and the world took notice of the humble Swiss. Stan the man had become Wowrinka. Not happy with a 5 set semi-final loss to Djokovic and an appearance at the semi-final of the tour finals, Norman and Wawrinka plotted ways to beat the very best and that is exactly what Stan has done all year. It started with an incredible maiden Slam in Australia, beating Nadal in the final, and has ended with the Davis Cup title. The most exciting thing about Wawrinka is that he isn’t the finished article, there are still aspects Norman can improve and you can guarantee the Swede won’t rest until he has.

Norman's (and Stan's) dream achieved

Norman’s (and Stan’s) dream achieved

Soderling and Wawrinka are very similar players, and perhaps it would be a more impressive achievement to take two different players and turn them into world-beaters, however that shouldn’t take anything away from Norman. He showed his success with Soderling wasn’t a one-off and also proved that he could do much more with a player. Norman was able to take the aspects of both players game that were good and made them great, furthermore he has taken the more disappointing areas and turned them into reliable shots and finally he improved the mentality of both players. If you combined Wawrinka’s backhand, Soderling’s forehand, mixed the two serves and added Norman you would have the perfect player-coach partnership. A player like that would be unstoppable and there would be one reason for it: Norman.

The two players one coach has made the world fear

The two players one coach has made the world fear

It is difficult for great players to become great coaches. There are very few examples across any sport. For example, Jose Mourinho wasn’t a great football player whereas Diego Maradona was a disastrous coach. In tennis, few great players even tried to make the leap across to coaching until recently which is why the term supercoach entered our dictionary. The term itself though is disrespectful to people who have dedicated their lives to coaching and have been incredibly successful at it. However, to find the true supercoach you have to combine the two and there is only one candidate at the moment. Magnus Norman had a better playing career than Gilbert and has had a better coaching career than Becker, Lendl or Edberg. In fact, I’d argue that of the ones we know about at the moment, only Chang and Ivanisevic can come close to matching what Norman has achieved. In an era of supercoaches, Norman stands above them all for being the only person to combine both aspects of the meaning and with an academy opened which has featured both Wawrinka and probable future number 1 Dimitrov, his success can only continue.


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Questions arising from the events of January 2014

Welcome to my latest feature on this blog – a round up of the key issues thrown up by a month in sport (and hopefully music sometimes). The format is relatively simple – a quick paragraph stating my person of the month followed by 4 or 5 important questions which I will try to answer. I’ll start by asking myself the questions but, as the months go on, hopefully I can persuade one or two others to provide me with some. 

The stand out player this month was Stanislas Wawrinka who helped himself to his first Grand Slam title before helping Switzerland reach the quarter finals of the Davis Cup. The new world number 3 is discussed here, as well as other points raised from the first month of the year.

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How many slams will Wawrinka win?

The Australian Open 2014 was won by Stan Wawrinka, merely a couple of months after the slam-less former British #1 Tim Henman said he couldn’t win one. In the process, Stan became the first man to beat both Nadal and Djokovic at a Grand Slam proving that this victory was no fluke. He has risen to world number 3 and with a game that should suit all surfaces; this victory looks unlikely to be his last.

A few factors are at play in trying to explore the answers to this question. Firstly, during the final in Melbourne, Wawrinka looked like the world’s best player. He pushed Nadal to the brink of retirement. Besides the supposed injury, Nadal looked completely fed up as winner after winner showered his side of the court. There is some debate as to whether Nadal was actually injured or not but either way, it points to Wawrinka winning more slams. Another positive will be his clay court form last season, meaning he should be able to challenge at the French Open – especially if it Nadal is injured! Djokovic showed a surprising lack of form, Murray’s recovering from back surgery, Federer is falling, Del Potro doesn’t look in a state to win a slam and the likes of Berdych and Tsonga aren’t good enough. Yes, Wawrinka should win another slam but he is 28, meaning that his best days are going to only last for the next four or so years therefore limiting the number he can win. I can’t give a definite answer to this one but I’ll be very surprised if he retires with less than 3.

How far can Great Britain go in the Davis Cup?

Although technically being confirmed in February, the last day of January laid the solid foundations upon which Great Britain’s amazing win over the USA was built. Of the three singles matches played, GB won all of them including a very special 5 set victory for James Ward over Sam Querry. Andy Murray played well on clay, destroying Donald Young and fighting through a tough tie against a resurgent Querry. An added bonus was the performance of Colin Fleming and Dom Inglot in the doubles, who lost in four sets to the Bryan Bros. This was a very spirited performance and gave Leon Smith yet more doubles pairings to choose from.

Into the quarters of this tournament for the first time since 1986, they will face Italy which is very likely to be played on clay again. Italy have two strong clay-court singles players in Fognini and Seppi  but Murray has winning records over both on clay, indeed he hasn’t dropped a set in either of his matches. While Ward has shown himself to be a competent clay-court player, the best we can realistically hope for is him to take one to five sets meaning that the tie will come down to the doubles. Call it blind faith but I reckon we have enough strength in depth in that department to put together a side that can win that rubber. In the semi-finals we should face a Switzerland side comprising of Roger Federer and the aforementioned Wawrinka. This tie should be one step too far however should Andy have a good weekend; our doubles strength may well see another victory. My heart says we will get to the final before losing to France however my head says the semi-final is the best we can hope for.

What was the most important transfer in the window?

Despite the dreadfully boring deadline day, where a failed transfer was the biggest headline, the window on a whole brought with it some interesting transfers. The stand out was Juan Mata joining Manchester United, which is sure to bring Van Persie goals and United victories as a result. Leaving Old Trafford, on loan, was Wilfried Zaha – who joined Cardiff. He’s the type of player who can change a game coming off the bench and his pace plus desire to do well to impress Moyes should see him being a huge success in south Wales. Fulham and Nottingham Forest did well in general, signing much needed defensive, midfield and forward quality and experience, which they will hope see them stay put and rise divisions respectively.

However, none of those were what I see as the most important bit of transfer business this window. That was Yohan Cabaye leaving Newcastle to go home to France, and join Paris St Germain. Whenever I’ve seen Newcastle this season, he’s been the stand out player for them and it was no surprise that their good run in form came as he was integrated back into the first XI. To highlight his influence, when he was on the bench at Goodison Park Everton ran riot and scored 3 goals. When Pardew brought him on, Newcastle scored two and were unlucky not to draw. Newcastle, who should have been looking to press for Europe, could now find themselves in free-fall.

Is it possible for England to recover from their nightmare tour of Australia?

This tour to Australia was the worst in English cricket history. Losing twelve times with only one victory to write home about was as unprecedented as it is demoralising and simply heart-breaking. Many words and tweets have been written about this subject and I’m sure that the whole cricket community will talk about this for years.

England will recover, because everyone does after defeats. Defeats are part and parcel of sporting contests and a side should be based on how they recover not how they lose. England have usually recovered well from losing series in the recent past however with Andy Flower leaving, there is a certain cloud of uncertainty hanging over our side this time. In many ways, a T20 World Cup may not seem like the best tournament England could hope for so soon after a humiliating defeat however it gives a chance for the side to play without real pressure and try and find some enjoyment. But the truth is, we are likely to lose badly out in Bangladesh. We need a summer of confidence building in the test arena, which is why I’m glad Sri Lanka and India are the visiting teams. Neither usually play well in England and it will be a chance to have a long and hard think about our new test spinner as they don’t usually play big roles in such series in England (unless they are of Graeme Swann quality –which none of the current bunch are).

As a final point, massive congratulations to Charlotte Edwards and her team who retained the Ashes. Despite a disappointing end to the tour, this is a strong unit with a mix of youth and experience and could dominate Women’s cricket once more.