Favourites to beat Croatia in September…Maybe?

Last weekend marked a momentous occasion for men’s tennis in this country. In 83 years, no British Davis cup team had ever come back from two rubbers down to win a tie. This includes great names like Fred Perry, John Lloyd, Tim Henman and so on. Instead it featured James Ward and Dan Evans, two players that are not even ranked within the top 200 tennis players on the ATP tour. Yesterday, they were drawn against Croatia for a place in the world group in September.

Great Britain v Hungary - Davis Cup Previews

Left to right: Ross Hutchins, Andy Murray, James Ward, Colin Fleming, Leon Smith.

At first glance this sounds a daunting tie, which it is. It will be a hostile environment for the players to deal with and they will need to adapt quickly.

There is a glimmer of hope however. It is likely that Andy Murray will return to the team for a trip to Zagreb, as it is the glamour match he has been hoping to be involved with. The last significant match he played was a trip to Buenos Aires in 2008. The Argentines won 4-1 and pushed Great Britian back out of the World Group immediately after gaining promotion.

Good omens do surround the meeting of these two nations. It was in fact a victory over Croatia which sealed there return to the World Group that year. Murray played and won two of the rubbers, including a thrilling five set victory over Marian Cilic (Croatian Number 1) at Wimbledon, to stamp his authority on the world stage at the tender age of 20 years.

Both players careers have parallels. They were making big impacts on the tour as teenagers, whilst carrying the hopes of a nation on their shoulders from such a young age. Cilic beat Murray on the way to the French Open junior title in 2005 but since then, the giant Croat has only been victorious once in nine meetings. They last played in the quarter finals of the Miami Masters at the end of March, where Murray marched through in straight sets on his way to the title and to number 2 in the World rankings.

If all goes to plan this would be the crucial match in the tie.

Croatia, who were winners as recently as 2005, have a fantastic reputation over such a short history of independence but the players who were crowned champions have since retired. No more Ivan Ljubicic or Mario Ancic, leaving the rest of the squad running a little thin. The two other likely selections are in the latter stages of the career but are ranked highly. Ivan Dodig is number two and ranked just outside of the top 50, whilst the ever dangerous big serving Ivo Karlovic can be a threat to anyone on his day. Standing over 2 metres tall it is no wonder he has held the records for fastest first and second serve at some point. On the contrary he is also one of the most immobile tennis players ever, so a player akin to Andy Murray will stifle his serve and drag him around the court like a rag doll.

rosanne-rag-doll

A rag doll

Looking closer to home, the likely team selected by captain Leon Smith will be similar to that which came back to beat Russia.

Tim Henman has been quoted as calling the state of men’s tennis as ’embarrassing’. No players in the top 200 is a shambles for the governing body the LTA. For such a big organisation and the funding they give out to players, they are getting little back. The national tennis centre at Roehampton, that opened in 2007, has been seen as perfect setting for developing talented players. Its results have been severely questioned by many. The lack of talent has been questioned in the media but it is those who are coming through the junior circuit now, which are providing optimism for future success. Oliver Goulding and Liam Broady have both seen success on these fronts and as they develop onto the World circuit, the first real results of the academy, will be analysed stupendously.

No one has come through to the World stage in the country via the LTA since Henman in the 90’s. Andy Murray famously took his own route through Barcelona to get himself to the top of the game, whilst at the same time bemoaning the inefficiency of the ruling organisation. The World number 2 has a point. It is an extemely expensive way of developing your own talent. Only wealthy families can push there children through, making it an exclusive hobby. The great lengths of travelling to get to tournaments and events, drives the younger generation away. Nobody wants to travel mile after mile to get to a decent training camp or their nearest tournament, especially as a youngster. Interest is lost easily and is harboured into other sports which are cheaper and nearer. Things need to be done to prevent future talent from wandering into other fields.

I seem to negate the effectiveness of the LTA but this is merely through frustration. They have however, given great cause for belief in Croatia due to their emphasis on doubles play in all competitions. Any casual player at a club will spend the vast majority of time play with a partner rather than solo. Through my experience of playing, I know of one such national league which fuses both throughout its denominations into regional and county levels.

The success of this can be seen in the ATP doubles rankings. Seven players within the top 100, with six of these reaching the top 50 at some stage of their career. There are two winners of majors; Jamie Murray and Johnathan Marray, with the latter reaching the semi-finals of the end of year championships too.

There is great belief in the British camp that they can prevail in any doubles match due to the number of specialised players now in the ranks and I would support this. It similarly removes strain from the key man Andy Murray during a Davis Cup weekend. He now no longer has to be put through potentially three five set matches in consecutive days, which will benefit him physically in the long term.

With the new confidence in the team, coupled with the success of the junior players, the future is rather less embarrassing than first feared.

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Greuter Furth and the future

Guten Abend mein freunds. This is just a quick post to mark out the future posts and ideas which I have been working on since my last publication.

I have generally been quite busy of late, doing overtime at work to fund a trip to Denmark next month and of course indulging in the release of FIFA 13, but I have been contemplating what is next for this blog.

Firstly, I have decided to split between two projects, one for each of the two loves; football and tennis.

So for starters, I am going to get heavy into the future of the ATP tour. This is key to maintain interest in a sport which has seen it’s most competitive age since the 1980’s. Where is the talent coming from and who will hopefully fulfill their potential? The first post will be soon and it will be on the subject of Grigor Dimitrov. A brilliantly talented Bulgarian who has yet to really kick on fully from the junior stage.

All is exciting here for the reader and for me. I really enjoying following great talent rise ever since the great tales of Arjen Robben, Kim Kallstrom and Alberto Gilardino from Championship Manager 01/02. FYI I still play this game…a lot.

The reason for the Germanic greeting at the beginning will now be clarified.

Ever since ITV4 have begun showing the Bundesliga highlights on monday night I have seemingly become addicted. It’s not as if this is a new revolution. I have been a firm follower of Schalke 04 ever since the mighty Raul Gonzalez transferred here from the Santiago Bernanbeu. They are in fact my supported club on FIFA 13. However, this isn’t the news.

Through watching the highlights I have become obsessed with a team who are in the first season in the top flight; SpVgg Greuter Furth (phonetically Groyter Fert). Partly because it is their first season but also due to Henry Kissinger being a fan and also the acquisition of Gerald Asamoah.

Therefore, from now until the end of the season I will actively be following and supporting the Cloverleafs. This could be dramatic and as WE sit bottom of the table, progress needs to be made. (PS this is mainly due to my team being so dire it is ridiculous).

I hope you can be a passenger with me on both of these trips. You can follow the blog by clicking on the top of the page or on twitter via the bottom of the page.

Auf Wiedersehn.

Arise Major Murray?

London 2012 Olympic Gold winner Andy Murray in commemerative stamp mode.

Some remarkable feats have been accomplished over the last two weeks. Great Britain winning Olympic gold in non seated sports, Arsene Wenger has been opening his chequebook and of course Andy Murray finally gained revenge over Roger Federer.

The 5th August 2012 could forever be remembered as the day Andy Murray became a major force in tennis and not just the nearly man of several grand slam tournaments. The defeat of Federer in less than two hours, that included a nine game consecutive winning streak, was a stunning repost to the Wimbledon final of four weeks ago. Tim Henman stated that Murray had ‘not only beaten Federer, he (had) taken him apart.’ The combative approach from the Scot gave the Swiss no room for error. He was effectively forcing Federer to place each shot on the fringes of the playing surface. Even a player with the record of the world number one cannot consistently compete with the pressure of doing this. It did seem, however, that there were other mitigating factors amalgamated into the performance.

It became clear that Federer had been affected by his route to the final. Maybe the mammoth final set against Juan Martin del Potro (19-17) had taken its toll. The elation after the semi final showed the enormous degree of emotion it meant to have a duel in the sun for Olympic singles gold on Sunday. At Beijing, the supreme Swiss was defeated by the American James Blake in the quarters and in Athens, he only managed one win before succumbing to the then 19 year old Tomáš Berdych of the Czech Republic.

Throughout the final it was clear that there was something not completely right with the 17 grand slam champion. Fatigue would have taken its toll on the 30 year old but it seemed that Federer was losing a battle with himself. The pressure was solely on him after 4 weeks ago, giving Murray a freedom to swing. The only major title Federer has not claimed in his glittering career may burden him forever.

The outcome cannot be pressed upon the shoulders of a poor performer whilst ignoring the example set by the eventual winner. Minimal unforced errors, a catalogue of gigantic winners off both sides and a first serve percentage of a champion oozed from the sweat in the GB wristband of the man from Dunblane. The consistency of first serve has been the major problem for Murray. It is often wavered in key matches over his career; it has been known to slip below 55%, especially in games against the big three of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and of course Federer. The catalyst for this may have been nerves and more likely a loss of confidence within himself as the big match appetite of these athletes kicks in. The approach on Sunday was to get on top of Federer as quickly as possible following the illustration set in the Wimbledon final.

The result of this was excellent for Murray until at 2-0 on his serve in the second set, there began a sequence of several deuces upon the Brits serve. The correlation between the two finals was remarkable as the same event occurred prior. This time the ending was different, leaving Murray to leave Federer in his wake. This was the impact of Ivan Lendl that many have been talking about. We were witness to the iceman approach to everything on a tennis court. Where previously Murray would have cursed towards his team in the stands, it was a case of focus and forget. There are instances where certain shots have completely derailed the performance of Murray. One such example is the 2011 Wimbledon semi final against Nadal. Having missed an easy volley to go a set and two breaks of serve up against the Spaniard, he didn’t win another game until the fourth and final set. The tenure of such meltdowns is clearly over for the foreseeable future and great praise should be given to Team Murray, in particular Ivan Lendl. With the winner of eight grand slams in your camp, it is highly likely that Murray will improve his all time number 7 ranking for winning the first set and converting it to a victory.

For Murray now, the next 3 weeks is integral. The US Open begins on the 27th August at Flushing Meadows, New York and the time from the Olympics to the Open has to be used sensibly. The Scot beat Flavio Cipolla before withdrawing with a knee injury in Toronto. The withdrawal from Toronto would be to recover his vigour in advance of defending the title in Cincinnati. Murray heads to Cincinnati next week to build some hard court experience. By beating Cipolla, Murray had already gained ranking points on last year. With Nadal’s fitness questionable, upon arrival in New York there is a real chance that the Spaniard will be replaced as the new number 3 in the World.

The return to imperious form of Juan Martin del Potro will strike fear into the field at Flushing Meadows.

The big threat to the big names at Flushing Meadows is the return of the Argentine giant del Potro. At 6’6 del Potro is one of the taller players on the tour but he is no lumbering oaf across the court. The 2009 US Open winner has footwork akin to a boxer and certainly contains similar strength and counterpunch mentality to these athletes. Blistering forehands and consistent serving brought home the bronze medal for Argentina in London. The upturn in form at the Olympics has sealed the progression back to the upper echelons of the ATP tour and it looks like the wrist injury that effectively saw him out of the game for the 18 months following his only grand slam victory has been forgotten. Del Potro is a real threat again and I for sure believe that there is an outside chance to claim glory at the US Open. The Argentinean is back on equal par with the big 4 in the mens game as they clamber for the trophy. So much so I may even take a trip to the bookies.

A truly competitive age?

It was a glorious May afternoon on the 28th and I was of course inside for a large portion watching the early rounds of the French Open on ITV4. It was an obvious choice. After watching the conclusion of Laura Robson’s defeat on her debut at Roland Garros, the coverage turned to the Women’s Number 1 and winner of the last grand slam at the Australian Open, Victoria Azarenka.

Azarenka was playing the World number 105 Alberta Brianti of Italy. At the time of the switch over, Azarenka was already a set and a break down to a player who has only been passed the first round of a ‘slam’ at 2 venues in her 13 year professional career, with neither being at this particular scene. In fairness, she reached her career high ranking of 55 last year prior toWimbledon so let’s not disapprove of her straight away. Brianti continued to maintain her dominance through the middle of the second set as she took a 4-0 lead after consolidating another break of serve.

Victoria Azarenka struggling in her three set victory over World No. 105 Alberta Brianti

To get to this stage of the match was alarming for Azarenka, especially as her Italian opponent herself wasn’t exactly setting the Parisians alight in the crowd. The amount of unforced errors was unbelievable for a player of her rankings and calibre. Despite the fact that the Belarusian was able to somehow overturn the deficit she had herself created, the statistics were rather grim reading. 60 unforced errors and a first serve win percentage of 56 is not what you would expect of the best player in women’s tennis.

After watching the lacklustre display in front of me I began to ask myself whether the potential of a player ranked 104 places below Azarenka in the world rankings was down to the great depth within the field or progress in the opposite direction.

Since Francesca Schiavone lifted the French Open two years ago there have been 7 more grand slams and of which there have been 6 different winners. If you compare this across the genders, only Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have succeeded in defeating their peers over a grand slam fortnight. The difference in predictability will be of great interest to bookmakers but it is evidence of a lack of world-class players dominating the female game in the present era.

The last great stalwarts of the game have either retired for varying reasons or kid themselves that they still maintain a great hunger for the game. The latter point is clearly a nod towards the Williams sisters. Their insistence in continuing to play and their ‘love’ for tennis is something that the majority cannot get their head around. They are world-class players who have a great history in the sport. Serena Williams has 13 grand slam titles to her sisters 7, but witnessing the fall from grace of the pair isn’t exactly refined. The sisters that revolutionised modern women’s tennis from the 90’s into the new millennium only play a handful of events outside of the major competitions each year. What is alarming is the ability they have to turn up at events, without playing competitively in months, and walk home with the trophy. It does not create a beneficial aura around the tour if they can achieve what would be considered a ‘Hollywood’ script in any other sporting profession. For every tennis fan, retirement would not be their preference but more respect towards them and the other players should be granted. The sisters talk about their love for fashion and design, discussing their futures as being full-time in this profession when age and the globetrotting take its toll. Kim Clijsters has announced her second retirement from the sport following the US Open later this year and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one of the sisters would follow suit, especially as Venus Williams has been diagnosed with the autoimmune disease Sjögren’s syndrome.

The Williams dominant period in the game didn’t just contain the rivalry between the sisters. At the beginning of that era there was Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, Justine Henin, Amelie Mauresmo and the aforementioned Clijsters. Then there was a wealth of talent within the women’s game. These players were certainly of a finer pedigree than the Azarenka’s and Jelena Jankovic’s of todays field. One key attribute that they all shared was fantastic movement around the court and a shot variation only truly seen in the men’s draw. Amelie Mauresmo, in particular, was the one that really bucked the trend when the female game became solely concentrated on baseline borefests. Her game was perfectly tuned towards the grass courts of Wimbledon rather than the terracotta of Roland Garros.

In an opposite mould Justine Henin was perfect for the clay. Happy to slog it out 5 metres behind the baseline to deprive the big hitters of their dominance on court before hitting a perfectly orchestrated single hand backhand winner. John McEnroe described this as the best backhand he had seen in tennis, even above Roger Federer. Such an accolade from a man who still believes no professional female tennis player could beat him at a singles match is a quite a surprise. Henin won 7 grand slams and was especially dominant at Paris before retiring at only 25.She made a less than spectacular comeback in 2010, unlike her compatriot Clijsters who won the US Open in 2009 after only a few WTA tour events back (sound familiar).

The problem with present day players is exactly what was great about those that reigned before them. They seem somewhat nervous to get out of baseline rallies and attack from the net. Shot variation is minimal at best and doesn’t provide a great spectacle to advertise the female game. Maria Sharapova is the only player of recent memory actively pursuing the ‘dambuster’ approach. It has proved reasonably successful over the last couple of years since adopting said tactic. Two grand slam final defeats at Wimbledon and the Australian Open whilst ascending to number 2 in the World. The crucial problem with Sharapova is her mobility on court and stamina. She would be utterly dominant otherwise. Some players have found it increasingly easy to push and pull her around court, dispatching winners into the canyon of space vacated by her gangly frame.

Injuries have blighted Maria Sharapova’s career

The ‘Williams effect’ is shared by many modern players who clearly have placed all emphasis on bruising rallies that will hopefully have a detrimental effect on the opposing player both mentally and physically. It was the case for Azarenka in her first round match as she was able to roll over Brianti in the end as the belief of being a set and two breaks up on the World Number 1, drained out of every pore in her body.

However, It is the make up of the top 10 which poses a number of questions. The sixth best in the World is Sam Stosur of Australia. Predominantly known for being a doubles specialist, over the last couple of years she has announced herself on the solo stage. A finalist at the French 2 years ago and now the reigning US Open champion, her place amongst the top players of the women’s game is set in stone. She has the arsenal to hinder those at the very top. Crashing forehands and a service renowned for its heavy spin, Stosur is causing problems for many on the WTA tour.

The real bright spark, however, is World Number 4 Petra Kvitova. The 22-year-old won Wimbledon last year, destroying Sharapova on straight sets, before heading to Istanbul for the year-end championships where she defeated Azarenka in the final. 2011 was the rise to power of the Czech starlet and it indicated the potential for greatness within her. A power player, she is known for her aggressive serves and forehand, sitting directly upon the baseline to assert her dominating play and to cover for her lack of speed. What is obvious about Kvitova is that she clearly has the mental strength to advance to the next level and is without doubt going to be the top ranked player within the next year or so.

It is obvious that Women’s tennis is at a competitive segment in it’s life cycle as the statistics cannot be argued against. Seven different winners in the last eight grand slams is a remarkable fact. The problem with this assertion is that it can be largely considered a falsity. Just because there are several potential winners of each tournament it doesn’t mean that the game is in its peak physical condition. A period of domination by one player brings out the best in others as they compete to slay Goliath. Kvitova could be this giant, as could Azarenka, Sharapova (fitness permitting) or even Wozniacki, if she begins to contain the ‘yips’ she has contracted off Rory McIlroy. Within the next couple of years, someone truly remarkable will come along and perform this valiant act. One question is in the mind of every British tennis fan. Could it be Heather Watson?

Heather Watson: A bright future