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

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The Roy-ro’s

As we move ominously towards the start of the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine, it is Roy Hodgson who is trudging around in the afterbirth of Fabio Capello’s England managerial career.

Albeit a successful career as England manager, the highest win percentage of any previous employee of the FA, Capello suffered with acceptance from the loyal supporters who follow the national team through thick and thin. The dismal World Cup in South Africa, when he should have been fired, was seemingly the icing on the cake for most fans. The performances improved during qualification, especially against Bulgaria and in the Millennium Stadium against Wales, but there was still lethargy in great abundance in most games.

It is Roy’s chance to remove the negative persona assimilated with the national team. His inclusion of Gary Neville into his coaching setup is a clever approach, incorporating a man who has only been out of the game for 18 months and has played on countless occasions with many of the players nominated in his 23 man squad. It provides a link between the workshop and head office, despite his pleasure at climaxing during live television. Hodgson is quite clearly a footballing intellectual and one can only hope that his intense knowledge of European football will stand English football in good stead this summer, distracting attention from Andy Murray during Wimbledon fortnight.

As we begin to discuss his selection for the championships it is clear that some form of loyalty has been kept to the players who formed the qualification team, as Roy himself mentioned in the resulting press conference.

Goalkeepers

No qualms or issues over Roy’s choice here. Arguably the simplest decision he could ever make following Ben Foster’s disdain for international football and Scott Carson’s inability to catch a football. There are question marks over Jack Butland, the 20 year old standby who had been on loan in League 2 this year with the ‘galacticos’ of Ben Burgess and Darryl Duffy at Cheltenham Town. Quite easily David Stockdale, Frank Fielding or Scott Loach would have sufficed.

Roy’s Choice: Joe Hart, Robert Green and John Ruddy.

Defenders

Despite being an England international since 1997, Rio Ferdinand has never competed at a European Championships.

The predicament here was always going to be whether to take Rio or John Terry. I’m sure that both could have played together as they are both patriotic professionals but the good of the team has to be put in front of individuals. This is how Hodgson differs from Capello. I imagine Fabio would name both players as he loved the ‘big name’ players England had to offer. It has been described as purely a footballing reason for the omission of Rio but I cannot comprehend that as a reason.Rio has been in fine form this season but the clincher has to be the partnership that Terry and Cahill have been creating at Chelsea. It must be a case of Rio not being first choice so what is the point of risking team morale? Personally I would take them both and start them together as they are the only really accomplished centre backs on the radar at the moment. Potential is one thing, experience is another.

The second defensive issue is right back. Not because of a lack of a talent but the one place there is real competition for position. Injuries to Kyle Walker and Chris Smalling loosened the pressure only minimally. Premier League winner Micah Richards, Phil Jones, and Glen Johnson were the three up for adoption with the latter two compromising the successful contestants. The continued mistrust of Micah Richards at international level is baffling, especially when you consider the superlatives linked with Glen Johnson (spot the sarcasm). If fit I think the two injured players would have been picked over Johnson and Jones, but one can only speculate.

Roy’s Choice: Leighton Baines, Ashley Cole, Glen Johnson, Phil Jones, Gary Cahill, Joleon Lescott and John Terry. Standby: Phil Jagielka.

My Choice: Micah Richards, Phil Jones, Ashley Cole, Leighton Baines, Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry. Standby: Glen Johnson.

Midfielders

With the midfield berths it was a case of six relatively automatic choices plus two others or 3 for Hodgson. Having chosen seven defenders it would have been expected that a fifth striker would have been included but midfield diversity was instead selected. It was always guaranteed that the six of Parker, Gerrard, Lampard, Barry, Young and Walcott would be the forbearers of English resistance in the Ukraine. It is the ‘Mr Versatility’ tag associated with James Milner that has grasped Hodgson’s vision and the rise in prominence of 18 year old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Hodgson discussed the performance of Chamberlain against AC Milan at the Emirates and how it convinced him that the youngster was a necessary inclusion for the summer, claiming the way he dealt with the experienced Massimo Ambrosini and Andrea Pirlo (he’s at Juventus Roy, he didn’t play) was well beyond his years. The Arsenal star believes he will play with no fear in the championships if called upon and he has assets which Theo Walcott does not possess, a footballing brain and the ability to pick a cross. These are similar resources shared with Stewart Downing. The decision I can’t believe in the squad. Tim Howard, the Everton goalkeeper, has more goals and assists than Downing this season. The rejection of Adam Johnson, who has at times been in wonderful form forManchesterCitythis season, has the essence of a forgotten man about him despite his prospective to do something brilliant. The game changing potential of Johnson coupled with Downing’s form would have put him in my squad.

A quick side note to Michael Carrick who, according to FA reports, rejected a call up for the squad because he didn’t want to be a bit part player. Not the most patriotic response but it’s hardly surprising when you consider how sparingly he has been used on England duty. I would have started him alongside Parker in midfield as he is the nearest to Paul Scholes we have on offer.

Roy’s Choice: Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Gareth Barry, Stewart Downing, James Milner, Theo Walcott, Ashley Young, Scott Parker and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Standby: Jordan Henderson, Adam Johnson.

My Choice: Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Scott Parker, Michael Carrick, Theo Walcott, Ashley Young, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Johnson. Standby: Joe Cole, Tom Cleverley.

Attackers

The Wayne Rooney dilemma of 6 months ago after his malicious kick on a Montenegrin defender in the final qualifier has passed without anybody contemplating the idea of not taking him to the Euros. 27 league goals this term is only second to van Persie and 12 goals clear of the next highest Englishman, Grant Holt. A lot of debate has been made over Holt but it is clear that he is simply not good enough. One season in the Premier League is not enough for a player of his age to warrant a first call up. He works hard putting a shift in for the team but so does Danny Welbeck who is severely more talented than the veteran Cumbrian. Welbeck has been in fine form for Manchester United this season and has been selected in almost all over the big games ahead of Chicarito. If Sir Alex has belief in the mental strength of such a young player then it is obvious the youngster is more than adequate enough to be in the mind of the England manager.

Darren Bent’s performances for England over the qualification period would have guaranteed a slot in the full squad were it not for rupturing ankle ligaments in February, ruling him out for the rest of the season. This marks the third successive tournament he has missed out on. The only similar forward available to Hodgson was Jermain Defoe. Despite his lack of match time this season, Defoe managed 11 league goals proving once again the goal poaching ability that he is famous for.

Darren Bent misses out on a third straight England tournament squad.

The final pick went to Andy Carroll, whose late season form sprung him back into contention. His performance in the FA cup final was menacing and was it not for a fantastic decision by the linesman; Carroll could have taken the tie into extra time. Many have discussed the omission of Peter Crouch as a decision which could harangue the England manager. Crouch has had a good first season at Stoke but I don’t think it is too bold to say that I expected a lot better from the former Liverpool man. Overall, I believe that Carroll is a player that, on his day, no centre back would want to come up against. He is a big unit, good in the air and at feet, with pace and good link up play; attributes that Crouch doesn’t particularly possess. Personally I believe had Bobby Zamora stayed at Fulham, he would be on the plane ahead of both of these.

Similarly to the goalkeeping selection, I believe Hodgson’s choices to be the best options available to him. They cover all the bases and it also leaves speculation for Theo Walcott getting a chance to be the fifth striker.

Roy’s Choice: Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Andy Carroll and Jermain Defoe. Standby: Daniel Sturridge.

Overall, it can be argued that the squad chosen for the European Championships is in some way homage to Capello’s regime asEnglandboss. For example, sticking with players who qualified for the tournament suggests that these fringe players, Downing, Defoe, Milner etc are not truly in the team on form but on merit. It is seemingly a last chance saloon for most of the players and instils a vision of overhaul following England’s exit from the tournament and into the next qualifying campaign. One can only hope this is the case. It is tiring as a supporter watching players who are picked in every squad yet cannot string two passes together in an England shirt.

In terms of potential in the tournament, the realistic bet is to advance from the group stage. England have had trouble doing this throughout their involvement in the competition with decent squads so to achieve this in 2012 would be as good as a semi final place. Anything less than a quarter final finish will already add strain to Hodgson’s credentials within the media and more importantly the fans.