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Posts Tagged ‘Australia’

PostHeaderIcon The 2014 AO Women’s Draw, or Can Serena Stop Vika’s AO Hat Trick?

Serena Williams (Darrian Traynor)

Serena Williams (Darrian Traynor)

That may sound like an odd question to ask about the greatest player of her generation. But such is the case with respect to Serena Williams and her primary rival, Victoria Azarenka. Serena, the World #1, has won five Australian Open titles; but none since 2010. Vika, on the other hand, has lifted the Aussie Open trophy the past two years; in spite of a perpetual runner-up status to Serena in the Slams. Go figure!

If Serena can make it through without injury, the stage looks set for her to win a sixth Aussie title after a dominating run in Brisbane. The draw looks favorable for Serena. Then again, it also looks favorable for Vika. Let’s take a deeper look and see if there’s anyone who can stop the Serena-Vika juggernaut.

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Victoria Azarenka (Ben Solomon)

Top Half – Top Quarter

Serena Williams – Ana Ivanovic R16

Roberta Vinci/Madison Keys/Kirsten Flipkens – Eugenie Bouchard R16

I was listening to some commentators on the Tennis Channel as they discussed Serena’s draw and heard them say that it actually looks harder than it may seem. I couldn’t disagree more! The only person who should have a shot at derailing Serena, Sam Stosur, has sadly been MIA for some time.

Tsvetana Pironkova did well to win Sydney, but there’s a huge difference between beating Angelique Kerber and “surviving Serena”! Ana Ivanovic? Not enough belief or firepower. And the level of opposition isn’t any better on the other side of the quarter though it would be great to see a “Young Guns” R16 match between Madison Keys and Eugenie Bouchard.

Throwing down the gauntlet, I’ll be shocked if Serena even drops a set on her way to the semifinals.

Top Half – Bottom Quarter

Li Na – Sabine Lisicki R16

Angelique Kerber – Petra Kvitova R16

Though it’s sometimes hard to know what to expect from Li Na on a match-by-match basis, the odds look good for her to make it to the quarterfinals. Coincidentally, the same can be said about Petra Kvitova, the other likely quarterfinalist in this section of the draw. Both women are Grand Slam champions with huge ground games that they can impose on their opponents. Both are also prone to prolonged patches of equally head-scratching tennis.

Luckily for them, their likely challengers in the R16 are Sabine Lisicki and Angelique Kerber; so I expect both to make it through. Venus Williams is in the section of the quarter with Li Na, but I don’t expect her to make an impact… Still, it’s great to see her healthy enough to compete.

In a choice between Li and Kvitova, I’ll give Li Na the nod.

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Maria Sharapova (Fiona Hamilton)

Bottom Half – Top Quarter

Jelena Jankovic – Simona Halep R16

Carla Suarez Navarro/Dominika Cibulkova – Alize Cornet/Maria Sharapova R16

In terms of potential for interesting matches/outcomes, this quarter takes my top honors. Most would expect to see a Jelena Jankovic-Maria Sharapova quarterfinal, but I see at least 3 other players who could do some damage in this quarter.

Jankovic could face some real trouble with Simona Halep, the “Tier 2” Serena of 2013. Sharapova could also have her hands full: first with surprise Hopman Cup champion Alize Cornet, then with either Carla Suarez Navarro or Dominika Cibulkova. Cornet didn’t fare well in Sydney, but an upset is always possible.

All things being equal, I’ll go with Jelena over Simona (1-2 H2H but won only meeting on hard court), and Maria over Carla before besting Jelena to make the semifinals.

Bottom Half – Bottom Quarter

Aga Radwanska – Caroline Wozniacki R16

Sloane Stephens/Yaroslava Shvedova/Svetlana Kuznetsova – Victoria Azarenka R16

As interesting as the “Maria” quarter is for potential match-ups, this quarter doesn’t seem to possess the same level of intrigue. At least on paper, Radwanska’s likely R16 looks to be Caroline Wozniacki. But Wozniacki, the future Mrs. McIlroy, could flame out in her opening match, or just as easily live up to her seeding. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt for the latter, but no more than that.

Azarenka’s path to the quarterfinals will need to go through some pretty big hitters in Stephens, Shvedova, Kuznetsova, and Jamie Hampton (3rd round). But none of them have made an impact so far in the 2014 season. In fact, there has been talk that Stephens, last year’s surprise semifinalist, was injured coming into Melbourne and was iffy for her AO start. Odds are it’s Vika through to a quarterfinal meeting against Aga. And we know how that is likely to end. (Hint: Vika)

(UPDATE: Jamie Hampton has withdrawn from the Australian Open due to a hip injury.)

Notable First Round Matches

Casey Dellacqua v Vera Zvonareva (welcome back Vera!)

Ekaterina Makarova v Venus Williams

Bethanie Mattek-Sands v Maria Sharapova

Sloane Stephens v Yaroslava Shvedova

Tournament Picks

As always, take with several grains of salt…

Quarterfinals

Serena Williams v Eugenie Bouchard

Li Na v Petra Kvitova

Jelena Jankovic v Maria Sharapova

Aga Radwanska v Victoria Azarenka

Semifinals

Serena Williams v Li Na

Maria Sharapova v Victoria Azarenka

Final

Serena Williams v Victoria Azarenka

Champion: Serena Williams

PostHeaderIcon Breaking Down the Australian Open Women’s Final

Li Na

Li Na

Victoria Azarenka

Victoria Azarenka

My fingers are crossed in the hope that the women’s singles final will offer higher quality tennis than the semifinals. Additionally, I hope that we are past Vika-gate and that the commentators will focus on the tennis instead of the off-court nonsense.

Let’s get started with the X’s and O’s as we try to determine who’ll come out on top to claim the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup.

Victoria Azarenka (BLR) [1] versus Li Na (CHN) [6]

Head to head: Azarenka leads 5-4

Li Na last beat Azarenka at the 2011 Australian Open, but has lost all four matches they’ve played since (three on hard court and one on clay).  Their last match was on a hard court at the WTA Championships in Istanbul.  Azarenka won that match 7-6 (4), 6-3.

I’m not sure if that will have too much bearing on this final, however, given their respective levels of play.  Li Na has won one tournament and made the semifinals of another in the lead up to the Open.  Azarenka played one tournament, won two rounds, and then gave a walkover to Serena Williams because of an infected toenail.

What that means for Li Na is that she’s been tested by the pressure of later rounds in tournaments and, for the most part, has risen to the occasion. Azarenka, on the other hand, hasn’t been tested by the pressure of later tournament rounds; and that’s been painfully obvious in her tight play and frustrated demeanor.

Their semifinal matches offered a study in contrasts, with Li Na playing smart and aggressive tennis as she rolled over Maria Sharapova while losing only four games; yes, the same Maria Sharapova who’d only lost 9 games in 5 matches up to that point.  It was an entirely different affair for Victoria Azarenka, who was gifted a 6-1 first set by a nervous Sloane Stephens, then suddenly lost all of her mojo as she nearly choked away the 6-4 second set.  She was nervy, prickly, and completely unable to keep her forehand in play until the medical timeout incident.

The occasion, the title defense, and the defense of her top ranking are all weighing heavily on Vika, and it shows in her tennis.  Li Na, new coach Carlos Rodriguez in tow, is feeling more motivated and focused than she has in a long time.  Unlike Vika, she’s playing like a Grand Slam champion who wants to add another title to her lone French Open crown.  And if the semifinals were any indication, she could very well do it.

For Li Na to win this match, she needs to play a complete match the way she did against Sharapova. By complete, I mean that there can be no bad lapses of focus, no spraying balls, and no mental check outs.  She has to keep the pressure on her opponent from first ball to last.  If she does, we’ve seen how Vika might respond i.e. badly.

For Azarenka to win this match, she needs to keep it together between the ears.  If she does so, everything else gets better for her: her serve, her forehand, and her temperament. At this time last year she played like a woman possessed, as though no one could touch her.  This year is whole different story. If she can channel “Vika circa 2012”, she will be the mentally stronger woman on court.

Based on the semifinals, I give the nod to Li Na.  She’s playing good tennis, and looks relaxed and happy.  Vika is anything but relaxed and happy, and will also have the weight of Vika-gate and a potentially hostile crowd working against her. All the circumstances seem lined up for a Li Na victory, and I hope she can take advantage of them to win her second Slam title. (And yes, she’s my sentimental favorite to win as well.)

Li Na in three sets.

PostHeaderIcon AO Men’s Semifinal: The Reason I’m Picking Andy Over Roger

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Unlike the lopsided demolition of David Ferrer by Novak Djokovic (in a brilliant performance), tonight’s semifinal between Roger Federer and Andy Murray should be a much closer affair.  They’re both playing good ball and look to be ready for what we knew would be the inevitable conclusion to their positions on the same side of the draw.

I picked Andy over Roger in my pre-tournament piece, and find no reason to change my mind after five rounds of play.  Let’s take a look at the reasons why each man could win or lose in tonight’s big semifinal match.

A – Reasons Why Roger Could Win Tonight

Roger’s been heavily tested as he’s worked his way through the draw!

After an exhibition match against Paire, Roger has battled tricky opponents and come through with flying colors! Davydenko, Tomic, Raonic, and Tsonga: all were tricky opponents who pushed Roger to play his best even when he wasn’t playing his best tennis.  I felt that the match against Tsonga was his best, because he played an excellent mental match and executed as needed against an inspired opponent.  It wasn’t brilliant, but it was pretty darn close.

B – Reasons Why Roger Could Lose Tonight

Roger’s been heavily tested as he’s worked his way through the draw!

At a time in his career where he needs to minimize his time on court to protect his body, he’s spent way more time playing than the younger Murray.  In order to protect his problematic back, he’s been wearing an athletic undershirt to keep it warm during the cooler night matches.  But there’s only so much one can do to recover from a tough match like he had against Tsonga. He’s had a day off, but I think there might still be a cumulative effect from the matches he’s played this week.  As we saw at the Olympics, when Roger loses his legs via fatigue, he loses his brilliant footwork and defense.  He needs to have both when he plays Andy, and I don’t think he will.  Sorry Roger.

C- Reasons Why Andy Could Win Tonight

Andy hasn’t been heavily as he’s worked his way through the draw!

So he should have very fresh legs for the match tonight.  If it becomes a match of running, he shouldn’t have any issues sprinting around the court for his usual excellent defense, and should also be able to easily turn defense into offense.  That doesn’t bode well for Roger, who’s had to put in considerably more court time and won’t be able to match Andy toe-to-toe in a road race.  Also, Andy’s playing good tennis, and looks about as focused as he’s ever been on the goal of going one better at this Slam.

D- Reasons Why Andy Could Lose Tonight

Andy hasn’t been heavily as he’s worked his way through the draw!

This could be a concern, because we all saw how well that worked out for Maria Sharapova in her battle with Li Na.  Fresh legs are one thing, but battle-tested tennis is another.  Andy currently has one without the other. 7, 8, 12, 7, 7.  That’s how many games he’s lost in each of his previous five matches.  He hasn’t been made to battle hard, and that sometimes makes the difference in these matches between the top guys.

The winner is C.

All things being equal, Andy is the fresher of the two guys.  That will have the most bearing on the outcome of this match.  I’m picking youth with newfound experience or age with profound experience.

Andy Murray in four or five sets.

PostHeaderIcon Sloane’s Improbable and Remarkable Day

Courtesy australianopen.com

Courtesy australianopen.com

You’ve probably heard by now about the shock upset of Serena Williams at the Australian Open by Sloane Stephens. It was an improbable and remarkable achievement against the woman that virtually everyone had picked to win a sixth Australian Open title. Sloane is a fine player, but there were long odds against this upset.  Or were there?  Maybe it wasn’t as improbable as we’d all thought it might be.

Admittedly, I have biases about some players, Serena included, that can sometimes cloud my judgment.  With respect to Serena, I tend to believe that she can only be beaten under a few conditions: in early rounds, when injured, or when mentally checked out.  None of these things seemed to apply prior to this match, so I felt pretty good about my prediction for a Williams-Azarenka semifinal.

Perhaps if I’d looked a little closer at some key indicators, I might not have been so certain about a Serena victory. They weren’t a factor early in the match as Serena coasted to a 6-3 first set, but they came roaring into action midway through the second.  Some are on Serena’s side of the ledger, others are all Sloane! Let’s start with the items I didn’t take into account for Serena, and then move to Sloane afterward.

Serena: Injury

If you saw the match, then you’re aware of Serena’s back spasm that came after an awkward stop at the net while putting away a short ball.  After the spasm, Serena was a shadow of her former self for the rest of the second set.  Notably, her serve speed was diminished along with mobility to her backhand. As the TV commentators correctly noted, Serena’s game relies heavily on her ability to serve her way out of trouble.  Since Serena could only bend in first serves at less than her average second serve speeds, Sloane could pressure her immediately with the return.

Moreover, Sloane wasn’t nearly at the same disadvantage as Serena’s previous opponents.  The spasm eased in the third set, but by then the damage was done and the momentum had shifted. It must be noted that this was probably a compensation for issues with the ankle that she rolled early in the tournament. She’s not as young as she used to be, and the stress of the singles and doubles on her body took a toll that initially showed itself in her doubles loss the day before.

There were hints at her physical dis-ease as the match started, but I figured she would loosen up as she got into the match.  She didn’t, at least not until the very end when her rhythm was badly affected, her confidence was low, and it was too late to affect a positive change.

Serena: Stress

Serena came into this Australian Open as the clear favorite for another Aussie title: a title which would also put her a step closer to another Serena Slam. Generally, Serena is great when she’s the frontrunner.  But as she’s gotten older, her nerves can sometimes affect her much more than they used to, especially at moments like this when so much is on the line.

I’ve mentioned Dr. Allen Fox’s book, Tennis: Winning the Mental Match, in previous pieces to help illustrate some of the reactions that tennis players battle when under stress in a losing match.  Serena displayed many tonight in terms of bad body language, loss of rhythm on her shots, and the more overt manifestation of frustration when she broke her racquet.

The most telling aspect of Serena’s stress reaction, as outlined in the book, are the ways in which she deflected the loss in order to make sense of it afterward with comments like, “I’m almost relieved that it’s over because there’s only so much I felt I could do… oh my gosh, it’s been a little difficult.  I’ve been thrown a lot of balls these two weeks.”

This isn’t to say that she’s making excuses.  But she is, on some level, making sense of the losses in both singles and doubles in a way that keeps her from admitting that she got beat or played badly.  And that’s something we haven’t seen from Serena in quite some time. Then again, we wouldn’t as long as she’s winning.

Sloane: Forehand on the Run

Though there are many ways this match cold be dissected on a technical level to explain Sloane’s victory, the one shot I greatly underestimated that often hurt Serena was Sloane’s forehand.  One of Serena’s biggest weapons is her crosscourt forehand, especially when she angles it sharply.  Sloane’s quickness allowed her to get to the ball and rip it down the line on the run.  In Brisbane she tried to take it back crosscourt, which backfired on her because Serena’s is better.  Going up the line for the win immediately neutralized Serena’s strategy and made her change up on a day where she was battling so many other things.

Sloane:  Attitude

I greatly underestimated Sloane’s ability to stay calm in such a big match.  She seemingly has ice water flowing through her veins.  Anyone who admits to saying, “When I got up this morning I was like, ‘look dude, you can do this – go out and play and do your best'” is gonna have a good chance and NOT suffer the same stress reactions that Serena battled.

In Brisbane and Hobart, Sloane seemed to become unfocused on court and lose purpose, for lack of a better term.  Microphones even picked up a plaintive “What are you doing out here?” at one point during her loss to Elena Vesnina in the Hobart semifinals.  Today there was only a slight focus loss after Serena’s injury timeout, which is common and understandable when playing an injured foe.  Apart from that, she stayed steady did exactly what she needed to do in order to own her place on the big stage.

None of these things can alone explain Serena’s loss/Sloane’s victory.  But if I’d looked a little deeper into this match I might have seen that the circumstance was ripe for an upset.  Maybe next time I’ll manage to do that a bit better.

Even so, Sloane’s victory was a remarkable achievement from a player I didn’t expect to be quite so remarkable on the day.  I was wrong!  Many probably have her as a similar underdog to Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals.  After today, I wouldn’t be so sure about that.

PostHeaderIcon My 2013 Aussie Open Quarterfinal Report Card

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Victoria-Azarenka-2_298731k
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Novak Djokovic
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All things considered, I’d say I did pretty well with my initial quarterfinal picks!

For the women, I got 5 of 8 quarterfinalists correct.  For the men, I got 6 of 8.  A solid B, and maybe even a B+ for my Sloane pick!  But I could just as easily lose credit for thinking Maria would be too rusty to do so well. And what about the surprising success of Monsieur Chardy? Mon Dieu!

Let’s take a look at the quarterfinal match-ups and see if the new world order affects my ultimate picks for the finals.
(Red italics denotes original picks that were knocked out)

AO Women’s Quarterfinal Update

Victoria Azarenka (BLR) [1] versus Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS)

Kuznetsova leads 4-3

Kuzy may have a winning record over the No. 1, but hasn’t beaten her since 2009.  That was a long time before she became the Vika we know today as a Grand Slam champion and Slam finalist.

Caroline Wozniacki (DEN) [10]

Serena Williams (USA) [3] versus Sloane Stephens (USA) [29]

Williams leads 1-0

This will be the second part of Sloane’s schooling in what it means to play with the elite, and will end as it did in Brisbane.  Sloane is paying too passively, and Serena is playing too well.

Agnieszka Radwanska (POL) [4] versus Li Na (CHN) [6]

Li Na leads 5-4

Li won the last three matches they played in 2012 on hard courts, but Aga won the most important one recently in Sydney.  It’ll be close, but I still give the nod to Aga.

Ekaterina Makarova (RUS) [19] versus Maria Sharapova (RUS) [2]

Sharapova leads 4-0

Maria is going to continue her steamrolling of the lesser competition, and should come through this easily. But I’d like to extend a hearty congratulations to Makarova on a great run at what must surely be her favorite tournament.

Angelique Kerber (GER) [5], Dominika Cibulkova (SVK) [15]

Semifinal Picks
Victoria Azarenka (BLR) [1]
Serena Williams (USA) [3]
Agnieszka Radwanska (POL) [4]
Maria Sharapova (RUS) [2]

AO Men’s Quarterfinal Update

Novak Djokovic [1] versus Tomas Berdych [5]

Djokovic leads 11-1

Novak started the tournament brilliantly, but has struggled since decimating Ryan Harrison. Berdych, on the other hand, is trending in the other direction as he plays better with each round.  I give the nod to Novak on this one, but it will be a battle.

David Ferrer [4] versus Nicolas Almagro (ESP) [10]

Ferrer leads 12-0

I hate to say it, but all Nico can do in this match is hope for an injury retirement like he got from Janko.  Ferrer plays his best in the majors, and is playing extremely well in Australia.  There will be no upset in this one.

Janko Tipsarevic [8]

Andy Murray [3] versus Jeremy Chardy (FRA)

Murray leads 4-1

Murray hasn’t played brilliant tennis Down Under, but he’s played “well enough”.  And certainly he’s played well enough to bring Chardy’s dream run to an end.  It may not be a pretty win, but Murray should come through in no more than four.

Juan Martin Del Potro [6]

Roger Federer [2] versus Jo-Wilfried Tsonga [7]

Federer leads 8-3

This is the match-up we’ve begun to expect and anticipate since Jo’s dramatic come-from-behind ouster of Roger at Wimbledon a few years back.  Both are playing good tennis, but I still go with Roger for the “big match smarts”.  Also, if he can get by Tomic and Raonic with such class, he’s more than prepared for Jo’s shot-making.

Semifinal Picks
Novak Djokovic [1]
David Ferrer [4]
Andy Murray [3]
Roger Federer [2]

PostHeaderIcon “Stan the Man” Loses a Heartbreaker!

Novak Djokovic_Stanislas Wawrinka_AP_0_0

Stan Wawrinka has always had a tough time in his role as the Swiss No. 2. Though Stan is a great player in his own right, the words “Swiss” and “tennis” will be forever linked to that other guy from Switzerland, Roger Federer. Sometimes, all it takes is that one big win to catapult a player to the next level. Unfortunately for Stan, he often comes up short in these matches.

Such was the case in his five hour marathon loss to Djokovic the other night at the Australian Open. Stan played tremendous tennis down the stretch, but once again suffered an agonizing defeat. It must be hard to know that you played the best tennis you’re capable of playing and it’s still not good enough against a player who can produce magic even when his body is suffering.

Tough luck deja vu!
Take a look at the final match point below. Stan did a tremendous job in fighting off the first two. But with shots like the one Novak hit to win, there’s not much anyone can do.
Better luck next time, Stan!

Match Point #3:

Full match highlights:

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