Tag Archives: Tennis

A Substitute For Class

The reason that Justine Henin is able to dominate the rankings in women’s tennis is that she’s just the best player in the world. Simple as that. She has more strengths and less weaknesses than any other player, allowing her to play with greater variety, and thus she is better equipped to deal with more match situations and on different surfaces. That’s why she is the most consistent player in the game, and a comfortable world no.1.

Henin went into yesterday’s Australian Open quarter-final against Maria Sharapova on a winning streak stretching back 32 matches to last years Wimbledon semi-final. Sharapova came into the match as world no.5, the lowest position she’s held for some time, mainly as a result of a 2007 season dogged by injury and inconsistency. Despite the fact that Sharapova has two grand slam titles, and was until recently ranked in the no.2 position, she was a comfortable second favourite for this match. And the main reason why? Everyone knows that Justine Henin is simply the better tennis player.

There are times however, when an opponent’s greater talent can be overcome by the sheer force of determination, self-belief, and will to win. Maria Sharapova has made a career out of this knowledge. Tennis purists may knock her for having a one-dimensional game, but Sharapova isn’t listening. She’s locked inside her zone, building her game around a fierce mental toughness forged during an upbringing scattered with triumphs over adversity.

Yesterday’s encounter in Melbourne was a classic example of a finely-honed talent being given a ruthless battering by a warrior-like competitor showing no respect for reputation. Sharapova gave one of the most awesome displays of single-mindedness I’ve ever witnessed in a sporting arena. Most players would have prepared some kind of plan to try and overcome Henin’s game; Sharapova’s triumph was grounded in a policy of forgetting that the world no.1 was even out there, and focussing with complete intensity on playing at the highest level she could possibly achieve.

The most impressive thing about Sharapova’s outstanding display was the fact that she sustained such a level right through to the final point. Many players would have had an attack of the wobbles when approaching the finish line against a player like Henin, but Sharapova did the exact opposite; her game only improved the nearer she got to achieving her goal.

So much did Sharapova sustain her performance that she ended up wiping Henin off the court completely in the second set. The world no.1 just does not get ‘bagelled’ (that’s losing a set 6-0, to you non-speakers of tennis lingo) in the latter stages of a grand slam. To see the greatest player in women’s tennis crumble in this way was shocking, even against an opponent as tough as the Russian star.

Sharapova definitely seems to have come to this grand slam to prove a point to the many who were doubting her future at the very top of the game after last year. She must now stand as the favourite to take the title, despite the fact that two of the other three semi-finalists are ranked higher than her. If she takes the same kind of tunnel vision into the last two matches, it’s very hard to see an opponent coming up with answers. Justine Henin after all, had none.

The semi-final line up in the women’s event has given us the chance to see tennis’ finest young talents prove their worth, having brushed aside the more experienced likes of Henin and the Williams sisters. It has also provided the photographers with a day sent from heaven, with probably the four most snapped players in the world having made it through. Along with the A-list superstar Sharapova, we have the two enormously popular young Serbs, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic, and the Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova. All four will grace as many fashion rag covers as they will tennis publications in 2008.

It is also an all Eastern-European line up – a most significant breakthrough for what is undoubtedly the world’s major breeding ground for tennis talent at the moment. And whilst we have yet to see a player come through from Eastern Europe with the kind of talent possessed by Justine Henin, the one thing none of these players seem to lack is the self-belief to overcome the most daunting odds. It can sometimes be all you need.

Jamie.

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Filed under Ana Ivanovic, Australian Open, Daniela Hantuchova, Jelena Jankovic, Justine Henin, Maria Sharapova, Opinion, Serena Williams, Sport, Tennis, Venus Williams, Williams Sisters

Legends Show Their Fallibility Down Under

On another momentous day of sport in Australia, a couple of sporting institutions, who we could have been forgiven for thinking were no longer operating on the level of ordinary mortals, were given a reminder of just how precarious their lofty perches really are. One just about hung on for safety, but another was brought crashing down to earth.

The Australian cricket team, an all-conquering group of national heroes, set off in pursuit of history at the third test in Perth. Having come through the controversy-laden second rubber in Sydney with a record-equalling 16th consecutive victory, a new breed of Aussies were out to raise again the standard set by their predecessors.

If anyone was going to stop the Australians in their tracks it would have to be India; the one team which has consistently given the world champions a headache in an era of dominance stretching back almost twenty years.

The Indians went into this game with even more motivation than usual to try and turn the formbook over of course, with a strong feeling of resentment in their camp after the ‘race-row’ fall out of Sydney, and with a healthy amount of national pride to recover for their army of followers back home.

Despite the sideshow though, surely a team of world-class competitors like the Indians needed nothing more than the opportunity to upset the odds and bring a halt to a sporting juggernaut to get them fired-up. I think this is why we saw no return to playground antics as India stormed to a 72 run victory in Perth; this wasn’t about exacting a childish revenge, this was just a team knuckling down to serious sporting business.

The Australians are already looking back on this game regretting that they were caught committing the sin that threatens to bring every era of sporting superiority to its end – complacency. The most consistent feature found in any individual or team that reigns supreme in their arena is that they never forget the basics; they never come into a contest without the raw materials that have sustained their power.

The WACA ground in Perth has always been known for a pitch that fast bowlers would like to dig up and carry around with them, and yet you would have to look a long way back through the records to find the last time Australia selected a team to play there that didn’t contain a specialist spinner.

Granted, this could be down to the fact that Shane Warne has been no ordinary spin bowler, and certainly not someone who would ever be dropped because a pitch didn’t suit him, but the more knowledgable observers are aware that the presence of any test-standard slow bowler offers a bowling attack the crucial element of variety, as well as a ‘plan B’ to fall back on should the original pitch analysis prove inaccurate. Australia ignored this piece of received wisdom and paid for it, as their old nemeses Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman once more tormented their seamers.

The Australians were forced to admit their error when turning to the inadequate spin of Andrew Symonds and Michael Clarke during both Indian innings’. In a deliciously ironic twist, both these batsmen, when charged with saving their team’s proud record in the second innings, were dismissed by Anil Kumble, the only specialist spinner playing in the match.

Meanwhile over in Melbourne, another apparently unbeatable sporting luminary was made to appear human. The last time Roger Federer lost in a Grand Slam before the semi-final stage was in the 2005 French Open, on the clay surface that he is yet to conquer. The last time Federer lost any match in one of the three majors in which he is undisputed master was in the semi-final of the 2005 Australian Open. To find the last instance of Federer being defeated before the semi-final stage of one of his favourite slams, you have to go back to the US Open of 2003.

In short, to say that the talented young Serbian Janko Tipsarevic was an outsider for his third round match against the world no.1 would be putting it mildly. Tipsarevic, despite being ranked only 49th in the world, is already highly regarded in the game and seen as a sure-fire future top ten player, but any expert would have considered him some way out of his depth against the genius of Federer.

So, when Tipsarevic took the first set on a tie-break, he was showing the potential that everyone knows he has, but it was surely just a brief blip for Federer. When the second set also went to a tie-break, the champion was a game away from going two sets down, yet there was no real concern, and he came through to level it.

Federer would undoubtedly run away with it now, went the considered view; and an early break for Roger in the third seemed to confirm this as true. When Tipsarevic then took the third set after coming back to break the champ twice, the question had to be asked again: “Are we worried about Federer?” Not really, he’d been in such positions before, he was still a strong favourite. And so it proved as the fourth set quickly went to Federer 6-1. Tipsarevic had given us a great game, but the final set was surely to prove a formality for the champion with all that grand slam experience behind him.

As the final set reached five-all, six-all, seven-all and eight-all, and the match moved beyond the four-and-a-half hour mark, the penny finally began to drop for the disbelieving audience that Tipsarevic had not read the script. By the end of the match, Federer was no longer the indestructable force striking cold fear into his opponent as he prowled the baseline; instead he was merely one of two prizefighters, bruised and exhausted by the battle, slugging it out to the bitter end.

When that end finally arrived, it was Roger Federer that was still standing. Just. At 10-8 in the final set, Janko Tipsarevic, who must have matured the equivalent of several years during these few hours, finally conceded defeat to probably the greatest player his sport has ever seen. On this occasion however, when his talent and genius for once wasn’t enough to see him through, Federer prevailed with the will of a champion. Not something that he usually has to rely on in the third round of a grand slam.

Tipsarevic walked off a loser, but having given everyone, most of all Federer, a glimpse of what we can expect from him in championships to come. After all, only Rafael Nadal has even looked like he was meant to share a court with Federer in a grand slam in the last 3 years. It is also worth recalling that Federer reduced the 2007 Australian Open to a procession, winning the trophy without dropping a set. That is an indication of Tipsarevic’s achievement in taking the great man to the brink.

We are lucky to live in the era of the great Australian cricketers and the legendary Roger Federer; to be able to enjoy their skills is our privelege, and we should grasp every opportunity to do so. To see these champions challenged, or even beaten, however, is a rare treat indeed. It serves to remind us all that no one is infallible, and it is that knowledge that keeps every sport healthy in times of domination.

Jamie.

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Filed under Andrew Symonds, Anil Kumble, Australia, Australia v India Cricket Row, Australian Open, Comment, Cricket, India, Opinion, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Sport, Tennis

Home Win Sets Open Alight

As I write, the organisers of the Australian Open tennis championships are trying to work out how to replace the roof on the Rod Laver arena. The repairs have just become necessary thanks to one Casey Dellacqua. Which one is she in Home and Away?, I hear you ask. Hard as it is to believe, she isn’t a teen soap character. In fact she’s the new Australian no.1 in women’s tennis, a ranking she achieved by sensationally knocking out the 2006 champion and former world no.1 Amelie Mauresmo.

Dellacqua’s victory is the latest exciting turn in a tournament that has just started to hit its straps. Andy Murray, whose first round exit virtually guaranteed no British press interest in this massive global sporting event, is still the biggest casualty seed-wise; but the defeat of Mauresmo, whose seeding of 18 can be put down to injury and the strange WTA tour point scoring system, by an unknown young home player, under the evening lights of the stadium court, is by far the most high-profile scalp so far.

For Mauresmo, surely the most talented all-court tennis player of her generation, it is yet another Grand-Slam disappointment to add to a list which is significantly longer than her successes. Having taken the first set against an opponent treading completely unknown territory, the rest should have been a formality for the supremely gifted French woman. As any tennis fan knows however, Mauresmo’s ability to implode is legendary. As the second set wore on, and it became clear that the young Australian was getting into her stride, the crowd smelt blood, and the former champion’s demise, however unlikely it may have seemed in theory, became almost inevitable.

This exciting encounter followed quickly on the heels of yesterday’s heart-stopper in the men’s event, which saw Marcos Baghdatis and Marat Safin crashing the ball back and forth with astonishing force for over 3 hours. In the end the mercurial Safin came back from two sets down, but couldn’t quite complete the comeback, with Baghdatis having enough left in the tank in the final set to delight his entertaining army of chanting Cypriot fans.

The year’s first Grand Slam is set for a mouth-watering second week. Whilst many (myself included) may feel that the winners of both singles championships are predictable, given the dominance of Roger Federer and Justine Henin, the scramble below them to be seen as number two to these legends is fascinating, and is likely to throw up a number of cracking encounters.

As we stand, half way through the third round, both draws are looking increasingly appetising. In the men’s, Novak Djokovic has emerged as a genuine challenger to Rafael Nadal’s status as no.2, and it’s a shame that the draw has separated them, robbing us of the chance to see a semi-final showdown. Both of these players are far from guaranteed to progress that far though; Davydenko, Gasquet, Roddick, Gonzalez, Ferrer, Baghdatis, Nalbandian and Hewitt are just some of the names who are more than capable of taking out one of the bigger guns.

The women’s event is arguably even more open if you bet without Henin. The Williams sisters are a law unto themselves, both believe they’re the best player in the world, and opponents fear them, regardless of whatever ranking has been bestowed on them as a result of their inactivity on the tour. Serena of course is defending champion here, having waltzed into last years championship after not playing any tennis for months, and having waltzed out again with the trophy. That makes three genuine greats in the women’s draw, and to this you have to add the challenge from Russia and Serbia, which throws names like Sharapova, Jankovic, Ivanovic, Kuznetsova and Chakvetadze into the mix. And still you haven’t got to the top-ten-bothering likes of Vaidisova and Hantuchova.

All this talent, and yet the name we are talking about today is Casey Dellacqua, because outrageous upsets are still alive and well too. It’s a great time to be a tennis fan, and it’s going to be an unmissable week of entertainment from Melbourne.

Jamie.

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Filed under Amelie Mauresmo, Ana Ivanovic, Andy Murray, Andy Roddick, Australian Open, Casey Dellacqua, Comment, Daniela Hantuchova, Jelena Jankovic, Justine Henin, Maria Sharapova, Nicole Vaidisova, Nikolai Davydenko, Novak Djokovic, Opinion, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Sport, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Tennis, Venus Williams, Williams Sisters

The Week in Wagers – take 1

One bet which has to be worth a dabble this week is British tennis hero Andy Murray to go all the way at the Australian Open. Murray ended last season in tremendous form after recovering from his wrist injury, and started the new campaign in great style by winning the Qatar open. Apart from a slip against the mercurial Marat Safin in last weeks Kooyong Classic, his form looked pretty good in that event too.

This Grand Slam has arrived at the perfect time for Murray, who is currently at odds of…

What? Oh bugger!

 Jamie.

(That new form of yoga which has supposedly increased his physical and emotional wellbeing didn’t do him much good in the end, did it? Ed.)

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Filed under Andy Murray, Australia, Australian Open, Betting, Tennis, Yoga

It’d be nice to observe some quality

Now, I do not profess myself to be a good writer, nor do I claim that my knowledge of sport outweighs the greater majority. I am after all writing for a blog – unpaid, unprofessional, and a bit of fun – so no-one could possibly have such expectations of me. If, however, I was writing for the Observer Sport Monthly, one of the most respected national sporting publications, I would probably feel justified in making these assertions, and I would expect there to be truth in abundance in both.

I am, therefore, at pains to explain the latest cover article of this esteemed magazine, which features interviews with Serbian tennis stars Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic, and also some of the worst and most offensive writing I’ve ever seen from a supposed ‘quality’ publication. The two interviews, conducted separately, are of such opposed standards, and are presented so differently, it almost reads like an example taken from a training manual for journalists on interview writing technique – on the left how to do it, on the right how not to do it.

The item on Djokovic contains informative and interesting material, revealing some little-known facts about the player’s childhood and family life, giving an insight into the impact that tennis stardom has had on his life off-court, and explaining how much he has raised the profile of tennis in Serbia. It’s a well presented piece too, appearing as an informal conversation written up into article form.

The piece is not without its faults, lapsing into the mundain and irrelevant with questioning concerning a possible relationship with Maria Sharapova, seeking Djokovic’s opinion on the best body amongst the players on the men’s tour, too much reference to his own ‘sex-symbol’ status, and of course attempting to find some non-existent romantic link between him and Ivanovic. This, however, is nothing compared to the inanity of the questioning fired at Ivanovic in the other half of the article.

Where as Djokovic’s celebrity status and sexual attractiveness are irritatingly alluded to by his interviewer, Ivanovic’s are the basis for almost the entire piece written by hers. The result is the worst kind of innuendo-filled tripe, of the kind that you would expect to find in one of those soft-porn mags that dominate the ‘men’s lifestyle’ section of your newsagent. What’s more, the interview is presented to us in an anodyne question-and-answer style which offers nothing revelatory. Of the twenty-five questions posed by the interviewer, about five are of any value at all. Here is a selection of the rest:

Who, to your mind, is the most attractive woman on the tennis circuit?

Are women attracted to you?

Do you prefer men to be philosophical or funny?

Could you ever date a short man?

Why don’t you just marry Novak Djokovic and have unbeatable tennis babies?

Are all Serbians good-looking?

Would you ever play tennis drunk for fun?

Can what you wear affect your game? (Borderline worthwile, interviewer’s motives are questionable in this context)

Are you able to jump the net?

Is there anything you wouldn’t do in order to win Wimbledon? (The following suggestions are offered) Sell your soul? Sell your Grandmother? Eat a dog?

So there you have it. An exclusive interview with the world number four, and that’s the best they can do? Placed in amongst that lot, the question Ivanovic was asked about her recollections of the war in Serbia seems terribly insensitive – I mean, like he cares?

The OSM, it seems to me, have no other motivation than using the sex-appeal of these two young people to bump up their circulation by shifting a few copies to the mass market that wouldn’t ordinarily go near The Observer. The OSM cover (well actually covers, there are two of them) tells you everything you need to know – a style shot of one of the two subjects with the headline “THE NEW PIN-UPS” emblazoned all over it. Even the players names are in small print – suggesting their insignificance to the article.

In times when the media is weighed down with cheap titillation and gossip, it is so disheartening to see a publication of this nature trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It’s clear that Ana Ivanovic is the real target here, despite OSM’s pathetic attempts at political correctness by printing glamour shots of Djokovic as well. The interviews reveal all, whilst Djokovic is quizzed mostly about tennis, Ivanovic is asked about anything else, but mostly about things connected with sex. Anyone can see that Ivanovic is a beautiful young woman, and no doubt there will numerous fashion & style (and soft-porn) magazines eager to point that out to us for the next few years, so do we really need a serious sports magazine to concentrate on this too? Who’s going to talk about the tennis?

To take a top sportswoman and reduce her to the level of a glamour model, whilst at the same time talking to her male equivalent about his sport, is offensive in the extreme. This junk is basically telling us that the men are there to provide the sport, whilst the women are there for us to gawp at. It’s the kind of thing I expect to avoid reading in The Sun.

If you think I’m overreacting, then answer me this: If this is an article about Serbia’s top two tennis stars, where is Jelena Jankovic? Since she and Ivanovic started playing, Jankovic has consistently been the higher in the rankings and won more tournaments. Ivanovic in fact has yet to depose her as Serbian no.1. Jankovic however, isn’t in anywhere near as much demand for photoshoots as her compatriot, and, as the cover tells us, this article is about the snaps.

Sorry, who’s Jelena Jankovic? Oh you know she’s the bird that Andy Murray’s brother was snogging at last year’s Wimbledon. I don’t know, they won a mixed doubles or something.

Jamie.

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Filed under Ana Ivanovic, Andy Murray, Comment, Jamie Murray, Jelena Jankovic, Maria Sharapova, Novak Djokovic, Observer Sport Monthly, Opinion, Sport, Tennis, The Observer, The Sun