Monday, 14 September 2009

What does Clijsters' win say about Women's Tennis?

In April 2007, Kim Clijsters stepped out onto the red dirt court in Warsaw, Poland, in what was later to be her farewell match on the WTA Tour.

Clijsters, the Belgian former world number one, was in the midst of her swansong season, after already announcing earlier in the year that she would be leaving the tour at the end of the 2007, enabling her to concentrate on her family life.

A shock defeat, though, in the round of 16 to Julia Vakulenko, forced Clijsters to question whether there was much point in waiting till the end of the season to retire. Her heart had well and truly left the game. A week later, Clijsters announced her retirement, with immediate effect.

Two years on, now married to her long term partner, basketball player Brian Lynch, and with a baby daughter, Jada Ellie, born in early 2007, Clijsters decided that take the leap, and come back to tennis.

You would imagine, even for a top player like Clijsters once was, that coming back into the world of professional tennis, after a hiatus of over two years, would, or should, have been a baptism of fire.

That presumption, though, could not have been any further from what was to transpire, as the Belgian returned to the tour to post a couple of respectable showings in the two tour events that she entered (Quarters in Cincinnati, 3rd Round in Toronto), only to then go on and beat both Williams sisters, and finally the 9th seed Caroline Wozniacki in the final at Flushing Meadows, on her way to a second US Open title.

Clijsters' win, while storybook, must raise questions about the state of the women's game.

The fact that someone can just leave and come back two years later and still - not only compete - beat the top women who have spent their entire year striving to achieve what Clijsters achieved in a matter of just a month back on the tour, must raise questions about the state of women's tennis at the moment in time.

Clijsters, in her heyday, was certainly a great player, a deserving number one, but when compared to compatriot Justine Henin, she wasn't exactly prolific when it came to the majors. Only picking up the one grand slam title, again in New York, back in 2005.

Has the game got worse since then or has Clijsters simply just matured and maybe even got better?

She certainly had her fair share of luck on the way. Nowhere more so than in the semi final against defending champion and the self proclaimed 'true number one' Serena Williams.

On Williams' second serve, at 15-30, 5-6, one set to love down, Williams was wrongly foot faulted.

The call prompted the American into a fearsome tirade towards the line judge, who went on to report Williams to the umpire.

After already receiving a code violation for racket abuse at the end of the first set, the match referee ordered the umpire to give another code violation to Williams, which came with a point penalty.

After the foot faulted second serve and the point penalty the match was over without Clijsters having to hit a ball.

The final was straight forward by all accounts. Wozniacki, appearing in her first grand slam final of her young career, was simply outplayed by the wiser, more experienced Clijsters.

In the history of professional sport you will find, dotted through time, fairytale stories. Stories you couldn't make up. Stories that unless you were there or saw them on television you wouldn't believe. Clijsters becoming the only unseeded player to ever win the US Open, was certainly a storybook moment for her and for tennis.

In my opinion, though, this moment could not have been more poorly timed, as the state of women's tennis is consistently coming under question, as it has been ever since the retirement of Henin back in 2008.

Since the retirement of Henin, the WTA tour has been going through transition, with five players holding the number one ranking between May 2008 and September 2009 (Dinara Safina, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Jelena Jankovic, Ana Ivanovic). None of which have been able to make the ranking their own.

The current debate over whether Safina is the worthy number one, considering that Serena Williams, until last night, was the holder of three of the four grand slam titles on offer, was only added to this fortnight just gone, and Clijsters' success is only going to add fuel to the fire for whoever holds the poisoned chalice that is the number one ranking.

Following Clijsters' win at Flushing Meadows there have been rumours circulating that Henin may want to follow in her country women's footsteps and also return to the WTA tour.

The tour organisers would no doubt be delighted with such a star name returning to the game. The players who are there currently, though, might have different ideas after what occurred following the return of Clijsters.

Soon, the WTA tour and its players will come through this transition phase and one day return to be strong, with great depth and aspiring young talents trying to make their name in the game.

For the time being, though, the tour will just have to go along with the old timers, who are either making a mockery of the women's game, or if your a glass half full time of person, an inspiration to every young girl trying to make a name for themselves on the WTA tour.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Let Battle Commence

Yesterday's Community Shield, won by F.A. Cup winner's Chelsea on penalties over English champions Manchester United officially raised the curtain on the new football season, which has been as eagerly anticipated as ever.

Manchester City's summer spending, which has seen the likes of Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure, among others, come through the doors at Eastlands, has raised questions over whether City have to team now that can break the top four monopoly.

On the other side of Manchester, the much publicized departure of Ronaldo to Real Madrid for £80million and the loss of Tevez to their Manchester rivals has sparked questions over whether United can retain the league title for a record fourth time.

The surprise arrival of Michael Owen on a pay as you play deal, may well turn out to be a great piece of business by Sir Alex Ferguson, if he can keep the Englishman fit.

If the Community Shield game, a game I was in attendance for, was anything to go by, this season will certainly be a very memorable one.

The football league season however is already underway with some remarkable results already on the first day of the campaign, most notably Norwich's 7-1 thumping by East Anglia rivals Colchester United at Carrow Road.

Other big wins came from Gillingham and Sven Goran Eriksson's Notts County who both recorded 5-0 drubbings of Swindon and Bradford respectively.

But, in my opinion, the day belonged to Cardiff, who's woeful run at the end of the season, including an embarrassing 6-0 defeat by Preston North End, saw them lose out on a playoff place by one goal.

The Bluebirds opened the new campaign with a handsome 4-0 win over newly promoted Scunthrope in the first competitive game to be played at their new 27,000 all seater stadium, literally a stones throw away from the notorious Ninnian Park.

The season has only just begun and already there is so much to talk about up and down the divisions, and all across Europe, and thank god for the football aye? Kept my eyes well a truly away from Headingly.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Serena: The 'True' Number One...


No, no, no, no, no,!!

This statement, which was made around March of this year, that came from Serena Williams, holder of three of the four grand slam titles, saying that she is the 'true' number one has riled me up beyond comprehension.

Let me explain to those of you reading this, first of all, how the rankings work, in layman's terms, how Serena has come to this conclusion and why I think that her statement is a load of tosh.

OK, in simple terms this is how to tennis world rankings are made up.

Every tournament, from ITF Futures to Grand Slams, have ranking points, per round, which are dependent on the status of the tournament.

The winner of a Grand Slam, for example, will be awarded 2000 ranking points; the winner of a Tier I event (now known as Premier Mandatory...don't ask) will be awarded 1000 ranking points, and so on and so on.

Your overall ranking points are comprised of your results from all four majors (Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, US Open), the four Premier Mandatory events (Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Beijing) and your best other eight results in other tournaments. I never said this would be easy.

The results that are used will be results that have occurred in the last 52 weeks. So, for example, by winning Wimbledon this year Serena Williams increased her ranking points by 700, as last year she was runner up and only gained 1400 points, Venus Williams, obviously, will lose 700 points. Still with me?

So that's how the rankings are worked out, by your performance in the major tournaments and a set of other smaller, less prestigious, tournaments.

Currently the world number one is Dinara Safina, who has been in three grand slam finals and has won none of them, and who was also decimated by Venus Williams in the semi final at Wimbledon on Thursday 6-1 6-0.

Now, Serena believes that as she holds three of the four grand slam titles that there are on offer, that by right she should be the world number one.

You have to admit that she gives a good case, I mean three grand slam titles is no mean feat and she has been convincing throughout, but this is where I ask the following question...what about other tournaments, what has Serena done in them? The ones with less limelight and television coverage, the ones with less ranking points and lesser prize money.

The answer to that question is simply, not a lot.

In 2009 Serena has, so far, only competed in 10 tournaments, winning two, the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and reaching the final of just one other, Miami. She also has notched up three semi finals, one quarter final, and three first round losses (in a row I might add).

Dinara is number one because she has won five tournaments in the last 52 weeks, made five other finals, four semi finals and two quarter finals in the 19 tournaments that she has played a part in, I don't care who the hell you are, that is consistency and that is impressive.

There has always been a question mark, especially so on the women's side, when a player reaches the number one ranking without winning a major. The same question was being asked of Jelena Jankovic not so long ago, who managed to reach the number one ranking without even coming close to reaching a grand slam final, let alone winning one.

The reason I feel that Serena doesn't deserve the number one ranking is because I, personally, feel that they (Venus and Serena) shouldn't just be allowed to turn up to the major tournaments, power their way through, take the prize money, take the glory and go off into the spotlight.

Of the 15 tournaments that Serena has taken part in over the last 52 weeks, about three or four of them have been, what were known as, Tier II or below level tournaments. Tournaments that are short on glamour, prestige and prize money. And even when Serena did play in these lesser tournaments, she often didn't do very well in them.

Yes, Dinara hasn't won a grand slam; winning a Grand Slam is a great achievement and one that can never be argued against or taken away from you, but if you honestly believe that you are the world number one player, prove it, week in week out, not when you please and when the money is right.

It has been a consistent criticism of the Williams sisters that they have, in the past, not been fully focused on their tennis, with other money making schemes going on in the background. More recently however this hasn't been so much the case, with both the sisters looking more focused and determined than ever before.

If you are fully focused on the WTA tour and on tennis, though, Serena, and are so transfixed on the the world number one ranking which you behold as being your own, and are so upset and dismayed as to why you aren't the world number one ranked player...then do something about it, turn up, win tournaments, at ALL levels and let the computer do the rest.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

"...there's always Michael Owen!"

No more than 48 hours after those very words were uttered by my lips, in a phone conversation with one of my many University housemates, had my possible 'tempting of fate' occurred; Michael Owen had become a Red Devil.

The conversation that took place began with us discussing our landlord, then onto my desire to purchase a Manchester United season ticket which I couldn't possibly afford, and then we discussed the team itself and the issue of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez heading for the exits, and Antonio Valenica coming in the opposite direction.

In my eyes, even as a Manchester United fan who has on more than one occasion been proven to never doubt Sir Alex Ferguson and his decision making, the idea of Michael Owen, who since the World Cup in 2006 has had uncountable injury problems and not to mention is a former Liverpool icon, signing for United was somewhat of a gamble.

Sir Alex, though, has previous in this sort of area. Look what he done to Eric Cantona, who wasn't a regular at Leeds and had a bit of a reputation as being a tough man to please and contain, became a Old Trafford legend; a name that will live in infamy at the Theatre of Dreams.

On a smaller scale you can also use the example of Henrik Larsson, who, despite coming off the back of a serious injury, made a considerable contribution to United during his three month loan spell.

Both example's were, without any question, gambles; gambles that paid off.

Despite Owen's injury plagued 2008/09 season he still managed to score 10 goals. Not bad for someone who had to battle through a number of injury setbacks, for a team who ultimately were relegated to the Championship.

After his lucrative £110,000 a week (reported) contract had expired, Sir Alex saw the chance of carrying out what could be a very astute piece of business, signing the former Liverpool and Real Madrid star for the pricey sum of nothing, and on a pay as you play contract.

You cannot deny that Owen is a born goalscorer, and as the saying goes 'form is temporary, class is permanent' which he has proven over the years, even during his less than encouraging spell with Newcastle, proving that he still has that killer strikers instinct, something he has shown year in year out for club, and for country.

Owen still harbours hopes of getting back into Fabio Capello's England squad, with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa just one more win away, and where better to be playing at club level than at the home of the English and World Champions, where chances will be created in abundance?

Ever since Ruud Van Nistelrooy left the Old Trafford club United have been trying to find an out and out goal scorer to replace him. Wayne Rooney, Tevez, Ronaldo and more recently Dimitar Berbatov have managed to make this void seem minimal at best, scoring countless goals in United's endless pursuit of silver wear between them.

Owen will, hopefully, fill that void, and will, if fit, hope to be a key member of the United strike force, as they try and replace the 30-40 goals a season that Ronaldo and Tevez provided them.

Despite my original pessimism about the move, I must say that in the days that led up to the signing, and that have now preceded them, I, personally, am more and more upbeat about the possibilities of Rooney and Owen reuniting, in the hope that they can strike up a world beating partnership for club, and maybe for country again.

So far, of the reported £100 million cash pot that United have at their disposal, they have only spent £16 million, all of that on, Ecuadorian, Valencia from Wigan Athletic. United would probably like another striker, another winger and another left back before the season begins against Birmingham City on August 16th, but, so far, have seemingly missed out on their main targets this summer of Tevez, Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema, the latter two, presumably, following Ronaldo to Madrid, and Tevez, presumably, going down the road to Manchester City.

Some might see Owen's signing as a desperate act after missing out on their main targets to Real Madrid's ridiculous millions, but as another one of my housemates at University said to me 'In Fergie we trust'...who am I to argue with a man who has won 23 major domestic and European trophies in 23 years?

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The Usual Suspects

There were eight aside, now we have four, and its the usual suspects that make up the semi final lineup at Wimbledon, with all four top seeds making it through on the women's side, while on the men's side, the dream final is still on, but there are a German and an American who always do well on the grass who will do whatever it takes to scupper that dream.

The women step out for the semi finals today, with Venus Williams taking on Dinara Safina, who is making her first appearance in a Wimbledon semi final, and Serena Williams taking on Elena Dementieva.

The women's side has almost had a feeling of 'whats the point' about it since the get go, with everyone presuming that the Williams sisters will make it into the final for the second year in a row, but although the sisters are in scintillating form at present, dismissing their quarter final opponents with consummate ease, this will be their toughest tests as they face the highest seeds they were ever going to face in the lead up to the final.

Dementieva is most likely to upset the apple cart in this one and has a fairly decent record against Serena, albeit a losing record. Safina, despite being world number one, has a public hatred of grass and has to be considerably pleased to have even made it this far having never progressed beyond the 3rd round here before.

I still fully expect an all Williams final, to my distaste, but there is no denying they know better than anyone on the tour how to play the grass and how to dominate like nowhere else in the world.

The men's side is now one step closer to the dream final that the British public, the British press and most of the watching world are hoping for, with Andy Murray making light work of Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Roger Federer having inhuman reactions to Ivo Karlovic's power serve game beating him, also, in straight sets.

The closer we get to the final on Sunday, the more the nerves and anxiousness creep in and unlike the women's side, where everyone sees nothing other than a Williams 1-2 on Saturday, Andy Roddick, who takes on Murray, and Tommy Haas, who takes on Federer, stand in the way of the dream and have more than enough tools to upset a few million people around the world.

Andy Roddick, two time Wimbledon finalist, is one of the usual suspects when it comes to the latter stages of Wimbledon and has the experience that Murray at present doesn't have and is learning by the day.

It was mentioned fleetingly that Murray looked a little tired in his quarter final against Ferrero, so he will more than happy coming through that one in straight sets, expending as little energy as possible as he will need his A game to beat A-Rod, who has markedly improved in recent months.

Haas has always been pretty nifty on the grass. Winner in Halle, beating Novak Djokovic who he subsequently beat in yesterday's quarter final, he can go into his match up against the history making Federer full of confidence. It wasn't much more than a month ago that Haas was two sets to love up against Federer at Roland Garros, the day after Rafael Nadal had been knocked out. How different things could have been.

On the grass, despite this being the surface of choice for both, Federer will always have the edge, you just have to look at the numbers. Five Wimbledons to Zero says it all.

Murray has never been this far at Wimbledon before, and some might think back to his annihilation at the hands of Nadal last year, off the back of another five set thriller against Richard Gasquet, in the Quarter Final.

Following that slam he went on to win back to back Masters titles, and reach the US Open final. There is no one now who can doubt his fitness. Despite Murray being blinkered and giving the usual responses of 'taking one match at a time' and not worrying about what the media are saying and the pressure they are heaping on him, it wouldn't be human if it didn't affect him a little bit, and if Murray can overcome the pressure that plagued Tim Henman in so many Wimbledon semi finals over the years, he can and will come through.

We are at the business end of the championships and the usual names are still on the draw sheet with Venus and Roger looking to make it six championships a piece, Serena hoping to make it three, and Tommy, A-Rod, Elena, Dinara and Murray all hoping to make history of their own and win the most prestigious trophy in tennis.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

And then, there were Eight

The second week of Wimbledon is under way and we now know the eight men and eight women who make up the quarter final's and in both the men’s and women’s draw’s there are some intriguing, and some surprising, names in the quarter's.

In the men's draw, former number ones collide as former Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt takes on former two time Wimbledon finalist, the number six seed, Andy Roddick. World number three Andy Murray, after his marathon late night match against Stanislas Wawrinka, under the lights and under the new roof, will take on another former number one Juan Carlos Ferrero, who doesn’t normally take well to the grass.

In the bottom half of the draw we see the forgotten man, Novak Djokovic, take on the consistent grass-courter Tommy Haas and, finally, Roger Federer takes on the, somewhat unnerving, task of facing the 6’10” ace machine Ivo Karlovic, who, to date, has served 136 aces and has yet to be broken.

On the women’s side we seem to be heading towards yet another all Williams final, between the sisters Venus and Serena. At the top of the draw, the most under the radar number one seed, Dinara Safina, takes on the up and coming talent of Sabine Lisicki, with the winner of that match taking on the winner of the match between defending champion, Venus Williams, and another young talent Agnieszka Radwanska. On the bottom half surprise quarter finalist Francesca Schiavone takes on Olympic gold medallist Elena Dementieva, while the last eight line up is completed by Williams sister number two, Serena, up against the princess of the grunters Victoria Azarenka.

The women’s draw has, from the get go, had an unerring inevitability about it. The Williams sisters love SW19, with seven titles between them, and with Venus looking for a hat trick of titles, and sister Serena looking for revenge for last years final defeat, it looks like we are set for another family get together come Saturday afternoon.

Out of the other six quarter finalists the person who, in my opinion, is most likely to stop this years final being a repeat of last years is Elena Dementieva. Radwanska, Lisicki and Azarenka are all great, young, talents, but I feel they do not have what it takes, yet, to make it to a grand slam final. Schiavone has more than enough experience but also has never made it this far in a slam before and may not know how to work her way out of the last eight now that she’s there.

Dementieva, however, has two grand slam finals under her belt already, and winning the Olympic Games last summer will have given her great confidence that she can win a major tournament. Her record against Serena, who Dementieva is set to meet in the semi final, is a great cause for further optimism. Despite Serena having a five to three head to head record in her favour, Dementieva has won three of the last four meetings between the two.

Dinara Safina is the world number one, and no one is really backing her to do much at Wimbledon this year at all. That may be in part due to the fact that she was quoted on her official website, in an article titled ‘I Hate Wimbledon’ as saying that “Grass makes me angry. I hope they dig up the grass and replace it with a hard court”.

Safina has shown a lot of improvement on the grass this year, but is still not being talked about at all, and it would have to be considered a major shock if she was to win here, despite being ranked as number one in the world.

So Venus vs Serena it seems on the women’s side, what about the men?

Everyone, who is everyone, wants Sunday’s showpiece to be a match between the best player ever to grace a tennis court, Roger Federer, and Britain’s Andy Murray, as he tries to make history of his own, becoming the first Brit since 1937 to win Wimbledon.

The final eight of the men’s draw however is littered with potential banana skins for both of these men on the road to their ‘destiny’.

Lleyton Hewitt has rolled back the years this week, producing some wonderful tennis, reminiscent of previous glory’s by the former world number one, and he has the experience to come through at SW19 and maybe make a surprise appearance in another Wimbledon final. Andy Roddick stands in his way in his pursuit of a second grand slam title, six years after his one and only success at the US Open. He has also experienced what it is like to be in a Wimbledon final, not once, but twice, both times, though, running into the mercurial Federer.

Murray may have queried the decision to play his 4th round match up against Stanislas Wawrinka under the roof on Monday night, the first competitive match to be played entirely under it, but it could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. With the match finishing at 10:38pm, without the roof Murray would have had to sacrifice his day off to complete the match, and if you ever needed any proof that carrying a match over is difficult business, just watch some of Tim Henman’s old Wimbledon matches.

He will now, though, have an entire day to rest up before taking on Juan Carlos Ferrero, who he met and defeated quite convincingly on his way to the Queen’s title a fortnight ago.

Federer, despite winning in straight sets against, French Open final counterpart, Robin Soderling, was not at his best, and he has the unenviable task of taking on Ivo Karlovic, in a match where he will have to improve and be at his best when returning, as Karlovic has yet to drop his serve.

The fourth quarter final match up sees Novak Djokovic take on Tommy Haas, who always seems to produce on grass and who beat ‘Nole’ a fortnight ago in Halle, in the final of the tour event in Germany.

Much like no one has been talking about Safina on the women’s side, no one really has said much about Djokovic either, with all the attention being placed on the home favourite Murray, and Federer as he looks to surpass Sampras’ grand slam record.

This could very easily work in Djokovic’s favour as there is no pressure on him and he is free to produce his best tennis with not a lot of expectations, and we have seen in the past that Djokovic is more than capable of beating the people above him in the rankings, and there are only three of them.

There are still bound to be one or two twists and turns in the final days and hours of the 2009 Wimbledon, and who knows maybe we will all be proved wrong and not have a repeat of last years women’s final, and we may all be disappointed to not have the dream final of Murray against Federer come Sunday.

That’s the magic of tennis, that’s the magic of sport in general, you can never really know whats going to happen, but your still glued to it nonetheless. There are a few thousand people that were on Henman Hill at gone 10 in the evening, in the pitch black monday night, that can testify to that statement.

Monday, 29 June 2009

South Africa Making a Point

The Confederations Cup, FIFA's little play thing, that sees the six most recent continental tournament winners - Europe: Spain, South America: Brazil, North America: USA, Asia: Iraq, Oceania: New Zealand and Africa: Egypt - join the World Champions Italy and the host's of the next World Cup South Africa, is meant to be used as a dress rehearsal for the World Cup the following year.

The tournament has never really had much resonance among the nations that compete in it but this was more than just a tournament for the host's South Africa, who had two points to prove; One, that they could host a major footballing event, and two, that they could compete and not embarrass themselves on a world stage, which was looking more and more likely as the weeks rolled towards the summer of 2010.

In the years in the lead up to the World Cup, which is being held in Africa for the first time, the national team's results have been mediocre at best.

In their World Cup Qualifying group, which they still had to compete in because the World Cup qualifying has a direct affect on the qualifying for the African Cup of Nations, they enjoyed just two wins, both against Equatorial Guinea.

South Africa opened the tournament with an unconvincing performance against Iraq, which brought about a dire 0-0 draw, leaving all the doubters still with the view that South Africa wouldn't do themselves justice when the best 31 nations in the world verge on the most southern point in Africa.

After their unbearable opening to this, somewhat, unimportant tournament, the only way, as the saying goes, was up, and a much improved performance in their second group game, albeit against New Zealand, resulted in a 2-0 win for the hosts, which was enough to send them through to the Semi Finals.

This is where South Africa showed their worth and began to prove to the South African public, and the rest of the world, that they were no mugs and maybe aren't destined to become the first host nation to be knocked out in the group stages of a World Cup Finals.

A world class free kick from Dani Alves, three minutes from time, in the Semi Final was all that separated them from Brazil, and, on paper, it wasn't going to get any easier for them in the 3rd place play-off, after the USA shocked the FIFA No'1 ranked team, Spain, in their semi final.

Spain and South Africa played out a scintillating 3-2(AET) match, which went back and forth throughout and took a wonder free kick from Mphela to take into extra time, moments after Spain had scored twice in two minutes to come from 1-0 down, with just a minute of normal time on the clock.

In just 210 minutes of football, South Africa had proved to the world that they could compete with the best, which is the minimum requirement from the South African public who were passionate, loud and fully supportive of their team throughout, but in the back of all their minds must have worried that their worst fears could well have been realised.

The South Africans managed to prove their point. They took the best two teams in the world to the brink, they didn't win, but they came close. That will be more than enough in 12 months time, and performances like the ones against Spain and Brazil will hold the South Africans in good stead against most of the smaller nations come World Cup Finals time.

They also managed to prove that they are capable of holding their own in the hosting department, and although there were only eight nations at this event, compared to the 31 other nations that will join South Africa next year, the signs look good.

It may take some getting used to the weather however, with winter temperatures in South Africa during our 'summer' months, but that will be the least of the nations worries as they compete for the biggest prize in football. South Africa, though, are just happy to be there, happy to host, and happy that they know, and the public now knows, that they wont just be there to make up the numbers.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

British Tennis under the Microscope Again

When Wimbledon comes knocking around, the same time every year, you can rest assured on a couple of things happening during the opening couple of days of the tournament.

Normally, the rain is somewhere to be found but, ironically in the first year that the roof has been in place on centre court, that so far hasn't been the case; you can also be sure that with the sun out there will be a few more people playing on local tennis courts up and down the country as tennis fever grips the nation, and the one you can always, always, bank on is Alex Bogdanovic being knocked out in the 1st round of the tournament, along with the majority of the British contingent, like he has done for the last eight years in a row.

'Bogo', as he is known in tennis circles, isn't an isolated case however, and the first two days of the 2009 version of Wimbledon was a case study which has caused much debate in the British tennis fraternity, from Paul Annacone, former coach of Tim Henman and head coach at the LTA, all the way through to the current British number one, Andy Murray, who hasn't mixed his words when talking about the lack of depth in the British game.

Over the opening Monday and Tuesday of the Championships there were only two victorious Brit's in the first round of the men's and women's singles draw; Murray beating American Robert Kendrick in four sets, and Elena Baltacha, the British number two female, beating Ukraine's Alona Bondarenko in three.

Bogdanovic was joined out the door by Dan Evans, Josh Goodall, James Ward, Anne Keothavong, Katie O'Brien, Laura Robson, Melanie South and Georgie Stoop make up the list of British losers on the opening two days of the tournament, and with the exception of Keothavong, the British number one female, and Robson, who was making her grand slam debut at the age of 15, all had been given wild cards into the event because they hadnt deserved it through their ranking or through merit.

Many in the game feel that the Lawn Tennis Association and the All England Club are too lenient and easy going when it comes to the handing out wild cards and funding to the lowly ranked British players, and this certainly isn't the first time that this topic of conversation has come up.

A couple of years ago Tim Henman was more than vocal with his views on the state of the British game and what the LTA and AELTC need to do to improve the game in this country.

Andy Murray followed in Henman's footsteps yesterday saying that, 'the depth needs to get way better' and that its 'not acceptable', but saying that, 'its not picking out any of the players in particular, because I watched some of them play and some of them played well, but they aren't at the same level as some of the guys and they don't play at this level too often because their not ranked that high'.

In fairness, the draw could not have been much worse for the British wild cards this year, especially for the likes of Georgie Stoop and Dan Evans, who were drawn against the women's and men's 7th seeds, Vera Zvonareva and Fernando Verdasco respectively, but if this was just a one off year then it would have been forgotten about, but the failings of the Brit's at the showcase event of the British tennis calender has been an annual occurrence; thank god we still have the likes of Andy Murray, and previously Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski to show that all is not lost, on the men's side at least.

There have been a few suggestions made as to what can be done to help the plight of the British wild card.

Henman has weighed in again following this years debacle saying that wild cards should be 'given to the young and up and coming players, we don't want to see them being given out to the same people again and again' and that the LTA needs to 'make it (getting a wild card) harder so that British players are earning that right, not feeling an entitlement to get that wild card if their top three or four in the country'.

One suggestion that has come from the former coach of Andy Murray, Mark Petchey, is that the LTA should act as a 'bank' that invests money in British players, with the expectation of getting it back, which Annacone said had been a suggestion that had been discussed a number of times.

In all, Annacone said to the BBC that the target is to have four British players inside the world's top 100 of the men's and women's game each by 2012. Is this too much to ask, or the least that we can expect after year after year of false dawns, that has only been saved by the few.

The noises coming out the LTA are good, ask anyone who is involved, from the people behind the scenes to the names and faces that we all know, they will tell you that the signs are good for the future, but ultimately it will be the results, not the promise that will be the deciding factor in this argument.

After this years Wimbledon the microscope is well and truly pinned on the men and women in charge of churning out more top British tennis players in the future, and hopefully the increased media coverage and discussions that have raged following this poor showing will force the LTA and AELTC's hand into seriously rethinking their wild card policy, and the way in which the try and get these players through and into the big time.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Johnson's Second Coming

Over recent weeks, during this recession that the whole world is having to face up to, the footballing world has shown once again and, arguably, more than ever before, how far away it is from reality.

Cristiano Ronaldo is poised to, finally, get his 'dream' move to Real Madrid after an £80million bid was accepted by Manchester United, just days after Madrid sealed a £56million switch for AC Milan's Brazilian play maker Kaka.

Today, being slightly overshadowed by the beginning of Wimbledon, has seen three big money signings transpire, only two of which involved actual footballers.

The other signing I'm alluring to is the purchase of Setanta's Premier League rights by American powerhouse ESPN, after the Irish network went bust, owing sums of £30million and £3million to the English Premier League and the Scottish Premier League respectively. However, this is another issue for another day.

The two signings involving players today have seen Blackburn's Roque Santa Cruz go and join his old boss Mark Hughes at Manchester City, for a reported £19million, and Glen Johnson, formerly of West Ham United, Chelsea and now Portsmouth, making the switch to Anfield for £17.5million, and its this transfer which the one of interest here.

Glen Johnson is one of a multitude of players who have successfully come out of the junior system at West Ham United and was seen as, potentially, a very good player very early on in his career.

His arrival into the first team at Upton Park coincided with the arrival of Roman Abramovichand his millions at Chelsea, and Johnson, following West Ham's relegation to the Championship, was the first purchase under the new 'lets buy everyone under the sun' philosophy that was employed by Abramovich and the then manager Claudio Ranieri.

Though Johnson had a promising start at Chelsea, which saw him make 63 first team appearances over the 2003/04 and 2004/05 seasons, the arrival of Jose Mourinho, which saw Paulo Ferreira follow him from FC Porto the following season, limited Johnson's first team chances.

A move to Portsmouth was the result, and Johnson has, in time, become a key player for Pompey, and looks to have established himself as the best choice for England at right back.

His move then to Liverpool this evening is a sign to players like Scott Parker, Michael Owen and others, that leaving a big club to ply your trade for a so called 'smaller' club, can reap benefits.

There will have been many pundits that would have considered Johnson's move to Portsmouth to be the right one for his career, but at the same time they may have also considered a club like Portsmouth to be about right for someone like Johnson after losing favour at Chelsea.

But where Scott Parker and Michael Owen have come from big clubs (Chelsea and Real Madrid respectively) after not performing at the peak of their powers and losing favour with their respected managers, gone to a smaller club - although Newcastle isn't exactly a small club, but I digress - like Johnson did, they have yet to make it back to the big leagues and play once again for a 'top 4' side or a major European team.

Johnson, thanks to his determination and forever improving performances for club and, now, country, is more than deserving of his second chance at establishing himself at one of the big four. Chelsea might even wish they still had him on their books after Ferreira and a host of potential suitors to the right back position at Chelsea have tried, and failed somewhat, to shine.

Moving to Liverpool will only increase Johnson's chances of keeping his England place and will allow him to challenge for silver wear more regularly, and he is an example to all professionals who drop down from dizzying heights, that if you work hard enough, you can make it back.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Step forward Federer, Murray....Robson?

50 weeks ago to the day the centre court was packed to the rafters, with millions more watching at home, as most of the nation watched the Williams sisters battle it out for the Wimbledon women's singles title.

My eyes however, not being a fan of the Williams sisters in the slightest, was well and truly transfixed on Court 1, and on a diminutive young Brit who was to be thrust into the limelight at the tender age of 14.

Laura Robson, while the sisters Venus and Serena were fighting each other for the big prize of the day, was winning the junior Wimbledon title, beating Noppawan Lertcheewakarn 6-3 3-6 6-1, becoming the first Brit to win the girls event since Anabel Croft won in 1984.

Nearly a year on and Wimbledon is set to begin its 2009 version, centre court roof and all, on Monday, with Robson being awarded a wild card by the All England Club into the main draw for her achievements over the previous 12 months which has seen her reach another junior grand slam final, and become the junior world number one.

The draw, which was released on Friday, was not so kind to young Robson, pitting her against the highest ranked player not to be seeded, world number 33 Daniela Hantuchova.

The match up between the veteran - despite being just 26 years of age - Slovakian and the teenage Brit could be seen as some sort of changing of the guard in some aspects, but may also remind Robson, if she needed it, that sometimes fame, pressure and prestige, can come too early in a tennis players career. All that she needs to be reminded of this is to look across the net come Monday or Tuesday.

Hantuchova broke onto the scene back in 2002, winning Indian Wells and reaching the top 5 in the world. She was seen as being potentially someone who could break the dominance of the Williams sisters, who at the time had complete control over the women's game.

Alas this wasn't to be the case, as Hantuchova's fall from grace began at the 2003 Wimbledon, where seeded 9th, she lost a tight second round encounter, 12-10 in the final set, to Shinobu Asagoe.

With heightened media speculation over her weight and figure, as well as the pressure coming from tennis circles regarding her potential greatness, Hantuchova broke down in tears, crying between points as she lost the match.

The media has always had its criticisms when it comes to hype, and naturally they hyped up Robson after her Wimbledon triumph last year. But so far, in the grand scheme of things, Robson has been well looked after in terms of media coverage, helped by opting not to take the usual leap into the professional game and sticking with the junior and smaller ITF events.

The last few months have seen Robson go through a bit of a growth spurt, which in turn has prevented her from playing much in the lead up to Wimbledon, but while the nation will be watching Roger Federer, as he begins his attempt at becoming the most successful tennis player in history, Andy Murray, in his attempt to rewrite British tennis history, and the Williams sisters, as they fight for another jolt at the Wimbledon title that they have won seven times between them, my eyes will, for the first round at least, be on Robson, as she makes her Grand Slam bow, the starting point of what, if done right, will be a great career in world tennis.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Let the Countdown Begin

It doesn't feel that long ago that the 2008/09 Premier League season had concluded, with champions Manchester United trying their best to relegate Hull with their reserve side and Newcastle United and Middlesbrough losing their fight with the trap door.

But the countdown to the 2009/10 season is now fully underway after the fixtures were released this morning for the up coming season.

The release of the fixtures is always somewhat of a formality, a season is not going to organise itself, but for promoted sides from the Premier League down to League Two it tends to be a much anticipated event, as newly promoted sides find out who they will face first in new surroundings.

It's not so much an event for those sides who have been relegated though, remembering times of old and realising times of new, as they also get used to new surroundings and more humble opponents.

Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion will have to wait a few days longer than Middlesbrough to realise what its like to be a Championship side, as they face each other on the opening day of the season, with Middlesbrough taking on Sheffield United at home, who will want to stamp their authority early, as they look to go one step further than last season.

The focus of today though is without doubt on the Premier League, and there are some intriguing matches in the opening weekends of the season.

Most of the focus lies with the new boys, Burnley, Wolves and Birmingham, and its the boys in blue who have drawn the short straw, opening their campaign with an away trip to Manchester United. I'm sure though that many Birmingham fans will be thinking that not only will it be a nice away day in the, normal, opening day sun, but it will be good to get the toughest fixture of the season out the way from the off.

Manchester United couldn't have asked for an easier start to the season, starting with Birmingham at home they then become Burnley's first home opponents in the Premier League, rounding off the opening trio of matches with the slightly tougher prospect of Wigan Athletic away.

Burnley, the surprise package of last year's Championship open with an interesting match away to Stoke, and with the adrenaline, no doubt, running high throughout their squad, Burnley and Owen Coyle would fancy getting a point, or maybe three, at the Britannia, before they entertain Manchester United three days later.

As for the champions of last year's Championship, Wolverhampton Wanderer's, Mick McCarthy and his men will be hoping that they do not reproduce their one season cameo they had in the 2003/04 season, and in theory are best placed to be more than a one season wonder, after having the longest of the three teams to prepare for the up coming Premier League campaign.

Wolves open up with a home game, the only one of the three promoted sides to do so, against West Ham United. Not the toughest of fixtures, but one that McCarthy will not be taking lightly against Gianfranco Zola's side.

59 days and counting, then, till the new Premier League season. It will have to go some way to beat last year's story book season, which saw twists and turns from top to bottom of the league throughout the nine months, and with Wolves, Birmingham and Burnley joining the party, its set to be yet another magnificent season of Premier League football.

Opening Day Fixtures:
Aston Villa vs Wigan Athletic
Blackburn Rovers vs Manchester City
Bolton Wanderers vs Sunderland
Chelsea vs Hull City
Everton vs Arsenal
Manchester United vs Birmingham City
Portsmouth vs Fulham
Stoke City vs Burnley
Tottenham Hotspur vs Liverpool
Wolverhampton Wanderers vs West Ham United

*Matches to be played the weekend of the 15th/16th/17th of August

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Murray Continues Year of Firsts

Not since 1938, when Henry 'Bunny' Rogers claimed the title at the Queens Club in London, has there been a British winner of the pre-Wimbledon tournament. Records, though, are there to be broken, and today Andy Murray achieved two more firsts in his career, to add to the long list he has already achieved this season.

His 7-5 6-4 demolition of America's James Blake, in just over an hour, was the culmination of a perfect week of tennis for the World number three, as he brushed aside every opponent placed in front of him with consummate ease.

The win gave Murray his first ever grass court title of his career and greatly enhanced his already major chances of winning Wimbledon, and possibly claiming his first grand slam title.

This year has already been a year of firsts for Murray. He reached the quarter's and semi finals of a clay court event for the first time, had his best performance at Roland Garros, reaching the quarter finals there for the first time, and also became the first British man in the open era to reach the world number three ranking, where he now sits behind the mercurial Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who Murray is inching ever closer to as the weeks go by.

The ease in which Murray claimed the title at Queens, his fourth title of the year, and his 12th of his career (one more than Tim Henman achieved in his entire career) is only going to get the British press into more of a furore over his chances at Wimbledon, but with Nadal seemingly not at 100%, many would consider Murray as second favourite for Wimbledon at the very least, but when you also take into consideration that Murray has beaten Federer on their previous four meetings, maybe Murray could even be considered overall favourite for the title.

Neither Nadal or Federer, though, will be getting any practice on the grass before Wimbledon. Nadal will be giving his knee the longest possible amount of time to recuperate before defending his crown, and Federer withdrew from his usual warm up event in Halle due to exhaustion.

Going down the list, Novak Djokovic, the world number four, fell short in the final at Halle today, losing out to Tommy Haas, who always seems to do well around this time of year.

Some other players on the tour that may be considered a threat are two time finalist Andy Roddick and possibly Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, but unlike any other surface, there are only a select few that can be considered serious contenders on grass, not that last years Wimbledon was a good indicator of that, with Jonas Bjorkman and Rainer Schuettler reaching the semi finals.

When I talked about Nadal's exit from Roland Garros a fortnight ago, and hyped up Federer's chances of finally completing the career grand slam, I spoke of a particular omen that Federer fans may have liked to have held on to. Federer was competing in his 11th Roland Garros this year, which also happened to be the same amount that Andre Agassi had been in before he also completed the career grand slam in Paris, the last person to do so prior to Federer.

If your looking for an omen for Murray this time around, and for Wimbledon coming up, then you may want to hold onto the fact that when Austin won Queen's way back in 1938, he followed it up with a Wimbledon final. Despite Murray's determined nature I think not even he would be unhappy at reaching a Wimbledon final, question is, if he gets there, can he win it?

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Welcome back Florentino Perez

Florentino Perez, the newly elected President of Real Madrid Football Club, has been back in charge of the club for the proverbial five minutes and has already splashed £136 million on two of the most recognised names in world football, and it doesn't look like he will be stopping there, as he tries to bring back the 'Galacticos' philosophy at the Bernabeu.

The announcement today of Manchester United accepting an £80 million bid for world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo, coupled with the purchase of AC Milan's Kaka for a mere £56 million earlier in the week, will begin to send shivers down the spines of many in European football, as Madrid show their financial muscle, ironically during one of the worst financial crises in living memory.

Try telling that, though, to Perez, who's previous reign at the Bernabeu saw the likes of Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham play in the famous all white of Madrid, and with Madrid touted to be in the market for Bayern Munich's Franck Ribery, Valencia's David Villa and Liverpool's Xabi Alonso, among others, you can rest assured that Kaka and Ronaldo wont be the only ones coming to Madrid over the summer.

Those who keep their finger on the pulse in world football will remember the unceremonious way in which the previous 'Galacticos' disbanded, with reports of dressing room unrest and players not bothering to train, as the millions that were being spent on them, as well as paid to them, was going to their heads.

Despite the issues that surrounded the end of the previous 'Galacticos' era, you cannot argue with the success that it brought to the Spanish giants, who in Perez's first term as Madrid president, between 2000 and 2006, raked in two La Liga titles (2000/01 & 2002/03), two Copa Del Rey's (2001/02 & 2003/04), two Spanish Super Cup's (2001 & 2003), a Champions League title (2001/02), an Intercontinental title (2002) and a European Super Cup (2002).

A haul of trophies like that would be more than enough for any normal club, but considering the amount of money that was paid for players like Figo and Zidane, this was not a normal club, and ultimately it was the lack of major honours, at domestic, as well as European level, that was the philosophy's down fall.

By bringing in the biggest names in world football, this generally meant bringing in attack minded players, meaning that the Madrid defense was less than ideal and far from what was required to win numerous domestic honours and to challenge more regularly in Europe.

With the acquisition of Kaka and Ronaldo it seems that Perez will continue where he left off with his 'Galacticos' philosophy, despite its previous down falls, as he tries to bridge the gap between themselves and bitter rival's Barcelona, who last year became only the second team in European football to complete the 'treble', winning their domestic league, their major domestic cup and the Champions League all in one season.

On the BBC website, Florentino Perez was quoted to have said "we will build a spectacular team with top-notch players. We have set up a strong and stable sporting project, which will be able to call upon footballers who will turn each Real Madrid match into a fascinating rendezvous."

The club itself has always had a mystique that goes along with it, and with their illustrious history in tow, despite performing below par in recent years, Real Madrid is still somewhere that the top players in the world want to be. Ronaldo expressed his desire to move to Madrid last year, despite coming off the back of a season which saw him score 42 goals for Manchester United and collected the Premier League and Champions League trophies.

It's going to be interesting to see how Real Madrid do business over the summer, and you can be sure that they will go about it in their usual circus style. God knows how many more millions will be spent building this star studded team, but for Madrid's sake lets hope that they, and Perez, learn from the mistakes that were made in 2006, and for the rest of Europe, lets hope they don't.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Roger Federer: The best there is, the best there was, the best there ever will be

The quote that was used in the title of this blog entry was attributed to the wrestler Bret "The Hitman" Heart, a man who's trade, while being brutal, at the core was fictitious and fantasy. Today, Roger Federer was in a fantasy world of his own, but there was certainly nothing fictional about the way he strode to his 14th Grand Slam title, and completed the career Grand Slam, becoming only the sixth man in history to do so.

In his 11th appearance at the French Open, Federer managed to brush aside the unheralded Robin Soderling, 6-1 7-6 6-4, to win the French Open for the first time, an achievement that had previously seemed so distant in his three previous finals, where the clay court maestro, Rafael Nadal, had previously stood in his way.

Today's victory, though, was more than just another Grand Slam win for Federer, as he finally achieved what so many in the game believed to be his destiny, the mantle of being the best player ever to pick up a racket, and by equalling Pete Sampras' collection of 14 majors and becoming the first man since Andre Agassi in 1999 to achieve the career Grand Slam, he certainly gained that honour with aplomb.

For me, all eyes are now fully focused on Wimbledon, as in two weeks time the newly crowned champion of clay will step onto the hallowed turf at SW19, as he begins his attempt to surpass the great Sampras' record of grand slam titles, and wouldn't it be apropos if Federer could achieve that at the venue where both Sampras and Federer have had the most Grand Slam success?

By Federer's high standards, the last two years have not been the best, losing matches that in previous years would have been unheard of for him to lose, but despite it all Federer has remained resolute and has still managed to achieve, year on year, things that the other 1913 players ranked below him could only dream about.

Andy Roddick is one player who is more than happy to speak up about what Federer has achieved in the game an when asked by some American journalist's about Federer's 'bad' season in 2008, Roddick replied "you guys are brutal. Absolutely brutal. The guy has only made two Grand Slam finals this year. I would love his bad season. I would love it." Such is the level that this man has set the rest of the world, that when Federer doesn't win a match or two, he is considered to be off his game or even past it.

Federer has achieved so much in the game already, and despite being 27, Federer himself has stated that, if fit and well, he could continue playing for another 10 years, something that must send shivers down the spines of many on the tour.

Now, Federer will have his sights firmly set, not on something that he has yet to achieve, but on regaining two things that he had previous held for so long, but has now let slip through his fingers. Firstly the Wimbledon title and secondly the title of being the World number one, two things that currently lie in the hands of the pretender to Federer's thrown, Nadal.

Before today's events, there were still some people out there who questioned whether Federer really was the best man ever to step onto a tennis court. After years of domination, Federer had let slip his immaculate reign at the top of the game, and seemed vulnerable like never before, but through the turmoil of losing, not one, not two, but five Grand Slam finals to Nadal, including his grasp on the Wimbledon crown and number one ranking, Federer has now come out the other side, and can once and for all be called the best there was and the best there is.

As for the best there ever will be, this remains to be seen, with Nadal currently perched on top of the ATP tree, with six grand slam titles already under his belt, and four years Federer's junior. Nadal may well surpass Sampras and Federer's record in years to come, but for now Federer can revel in the fact that he is, officially, the best player in the history of tennis and is the bar for the Nadal's of this world, an achievement that is fully deserved, not only for what he has achieved in the game, but for the way he has conducted himself on and off the court, and his graceful, elegant style of play, that all tennis players aspire to replicate.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Ashes? We can't even beat the Dutch!

In 32 days time Paul Collingwood and his band of merry men are going to walk out in front of a bumper crowd in Cardiff, with the Barmy Army hoping that England can make a decent start to their attempt at regaining the Ashes, when they take on Ricky Ponting's Australia in the first test.

However, with just over a month to go to the much anticipated test series, against the world number one test side and our bitter enemies, England have gone and slumped to a rather embarrassing defeat to cricketing minnows The Netherlands, in the opening game of the World Twenty20 tournament, that's being hosted in England, adding insurmountable pressure on Collingwood and the rest of the team, ahead of the Ashes series, which in 2005 brought the whole country together as we won the 'little urn' for the first time since 1987.

Prior to the start of the Twenty20 tournament, England had notched up an encouraging win over the West Indies in their second of two warm up matches, but in the warm up match that preceded it, the England side looked less than convincing against another minor cricketing nation, Scotland, but ahead of the serious stuff, no one would ever have predicted this outcome.

An over throw off the final ball of the final over from Chris Broad allowed the Dutch to get the two runs they needed to clinch the shock win and open up this years World Twenty20 with a bang, however the win was no fluke, in fact, it was more than the Dutch deserved as England were punished for not being more daring and attacking in the final overs of their innings, and performing poorly in the field, where on a number of occasions the fielders had clear chances to take the wickets apart and get some run outs, but missed every single time, including with the final ball.

England now must beat Pakistan on Sunday, in their final group game, to have any chance of reaching the knock out rounds of the tournament but with the Ashes just a month away, the greater concern is whether we can even compete with the Australian's, if we can't even beat the Dutch on our on patch.

Despite being the innovators of the Twenty20 game, England aren't that great at it, and it seems that the shorter the match, the worse we are, so in test match conditions we have as good a chance of any of beating the Aussie's, but when you look at the team that walked out against the men in orange yesterday at Lords, you have to be a little worried, as at least five of the 11 players in the team will be in, or at least in contention for, a starting place come July 8th.

Australia, about six months ago, were looking a little worse for wear, and England had cause for optimism after the Aussie's lost to South Africa in Australia, their first test series defeat on home soil in 16 years, but since then Ponting's men have pushed on and have markedly improved, coming back to beat South Africa in South Africa and have looked close to their best.

The Australian team that walks out with England on that opening day of the test series, is not going to be a familiar one to non cricket followers, as very few of the players that England beat back in 2005 are still playing, but their current crop are young, exciting and seem to be a great blend of youth and experience.

Off the pitch Australia have had some minor disciplinary problems, having to send Andrew Symonds home for breaching alcohol rules yet again, but the Australian's have dealt with that quickly and swiftly and hope to continue their encouraging start to their summer tour of England, with a win in their opening group game of the World Twenty20 this afternoon against the West Indies.

Being beaten by the Netherlands in any form of cricket is going to hurt the England boys for a little while, but they have no other choice but to shake that feeling quickly as tomorrow they have a must win match against Pakistan, where only a win will do to take them into the knockout stages and restore some pride in the England dressing room.

As the Ashes draws closer and closer, the Australians, being the professionals that they are, sure wont be taking England lightly despite this embarrassing defeat, but it will have certainly raised a few eyebrows in the Australian camp, and made one or two have a little laugh to themselves, and will have only of raised the Australian's expectations of retaining the Ashes this summer.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Champions Suffer Exits in Paris

What would have been the odds on BOTH defending champions being knocked out of the French Open on the same day? The odds might not have been that big on Ana Ivanovic going out to an in form Victoria Azarenka, but Rafael Nadal losing in four sets to Sweden's Robin Soderling is something else entirely.

Before the tournament started, even as last years tournament ended, you would have got ridiculously short odds on Nadal retaining his Paris title, for a record 5th time, but after his 6-2 6-7(2) 6-4 7-6(2) defeat to Soderling, on the Philippe Chatrier court, yesterday, that is longer a possibility, opening the door for Roger Federer, and maybe even Andy Murray, to make a run to the final on Sunday. 

On the women's side, Ana Ivanovic has not looked the same player since winning the title at Roland Garros last year, her one and only Grand Slam to date, a complete contrast to Nadal, who has done nothing but improve since winning his first Slam, four years ago, at the same tournament. 

Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, has been one of the most improved players on the WTA Tour this year and has some sizable scalps to her name already in her fledgling career. Her current ranking shows that yesterday's 6-2 6-3 defeat of the defending champion isn't that big of a surprise at all. Azarenka is ranked 9th in the world, Ivanovic 8th, so not a whole lot of difference there, but based on points accrued this year alone, Azarenka is the 4th best player so far in 2009, Ivanovic 12th best, so if we're getting statistical then an Ivanovic win would have been more of a shock today than the other way around.  

With Nadal and Soderling, though, you can flip, twist, dilute, blow up or do all of the above with the statistics, but whatever you would of done with them, you would have found that world the number one Nadal losing to Soderling, his first loss on the clay at Roland Garros in 32 matches, a massive shock, arguably one of the biggest shocks in recent memory. 

This match was always going to have some spice to it, as Soderling and Nadal are not the best of friends on the court, and Soderling is known as one of the more fiery characters on the ATP tour, but when you consider that the two of them last met just a month ago, on clay, in Rome, with Nadal winning 6-1 6-0, this has to be considered a turnaround of epic proportions. 

Some people questioned whether Nadal was such a heavy favourite, going into the tournament this year, as everyone presumed, following his defeat in the Madrid Masters Final to Federer, but on that day Nadal had just finished a four hour epic the day before and was visibly spent, making Federer's arduous task that little bit easier. 

As for the match against Soderling, yesterday, there was none of that, as Nadal had comfortably worked his way into the 4th round, without dropping a set, and would have been odds on favourite to beat the Swede and waltz into the Quarter Finals for the 5th year running. 

Soderling, despite being seeded, has a terrible Grand Slam record, never before reaching the 4th round of a major, so you would have to feel that he would have been happy with his weeks work, but that could also be a major indication of why he played so well, knowing that he had nothing to lose, and even if he did walk off the court defeated it would have been the best Grand Slam performance of his career. 

Soderling's play was of the highest quality against Nadal yesterday, with relentless ground strokes that were deep and flat and were constantly putting the Spaniard under pressure, and despite Nadal's exceptional defensive abilities, even this was too much for him. 

Speaking on Eurosport last night, Mats Wilander, a former French Open champion, reckoned that if you were to mould a tennis player to beat Nadal on clay, it would have been in the form of Soderling; Tall, powerful, deep flat ground strokes, all the ingredients required to beat the master of the clay court, and all of those attributes Soderling brought to the match, and then some.

The aftermath of the defeat leaves the top half of the men's draw wide open, the half of the draw that Andy Murray is currently sat in. Federer, in the bottom half of the draw, would have to feel that if he was to ever win the French Open, and complete a career grand slam, then this would be his best chance, but as I write this, Federer is two sets to love down to Germany's Tommy Haas, and should he be defeated as well, Murray would be the highest seed left in the draw. 

The last man to complete a career Grand Slam was the great Andre Agassi, who completed his collection of all four majors at the 1999 French Open, at the 11th time of asking. The 2009 French Open is Federer's 11th also, so if your a Federer fan and your looking for an omen or two, this may be one of them. 

Despite the draw opening up for Murray, it is still unlikely that he will be able to pick up the trophy on Sunday, but so far this week he has shown that he has improved ten fold on the clay. His Quarter Final tomorrow against Fernando Gonzalez will be the biggest test that he has faced so far, but with his guts and determination, anything is possible, and knowing that Nadal is not going to be there come Semi Final day, may be a massive motivator for the Scot. 

Clay though is one surface where rankings don't always mean everything, and there will be a lot of people a little lower down the rankings that are equal if not better than people ranked above them, when it comes to playing on clay. You still have the likes of Juan Martin Del Potro, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, Gael Monfils and Nikolay Davydenko, who are all quite verse on a clay court, and what about Andy Roddick, if you think that Murray winning the title would be a shock and that Nadal losing to Soderling was a shock, then Roddick winning here would be as if Jesus had come back to life, but he's still there and he's still fighting. 

The women's draw has always been an open one, it was before Ivanovic was knocked out and still is now that she's not there, but based on the first four matches of the women's tournament its going to take something special to stop the world number one, Dinara Safina, getting her hands on her first career Grand Slam, after winning her opening four rounds 6-0 6-0, 6-1 6-1, 6-2 6-0 and 6-1 6-0. 

What is known is that this French Open is shaping up to be one of the best yet, and as I've mentioned before on here I'm not a great fan of clay court tennis, but even I'm hooked and will be all the way to the final.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

And the Winner of the Richest Prize in Football is....Burnley!

61 games, 25 players used and two minutes away from a Carling Cup Final against the World, European and English Champions would normally be enough for one season, for any normal small town club, but not Burnley, whose 1-0 win against Sheffield United won them the right to play in the biggest league in the world and compete against the best every week, not just in cup competitions. 

Owen Coyle has done something that has to be a kin to a miracle at Turf Moor who compiled his squad, spending just £2.5million pounds, and will next season see his side walk out against the biggest earners in the world. 

Only Manchester United have played more games this season than Burnley, with their Champions League Final against Barcelona tomorrow night being the 66th game of their season, which has seen them compete in seven competitions, reaching at least the semi final in all of them, and so far winning four of them (including the Community Shield).

Now, I don't need to tell you what the major differences are between Burnley and Manchester United, so for Coyle to coax his team through a 61 game season, and only use 25 players in the process is, without a shadow of a doubt, verging on miraculous, and it just goes to show to the likes of Manchester City and the Chelsea's of this world that you don't need big money to be successful. 

Burnley have come through this season because of their spirit and their togetherness. They fight for each other and are more like a family than colleagues, and that has shown in some of their more high profile matches this season, including yesterdays play off final. 

4-1 down after the first leg against Tottenham Hotspur in the Semi Final of the Carling Cup, no one in their right mind would have honestly believed that they would be able to pull off a 3-0 victory to take the tie into extra time, and with a little more experience, Burnley may have been able to hold on those last two minutes, which would have seen them through on the away goals rule, and seen them walk out at Wembley against Manchester United.  

Wins against Fulham, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham will only have given Coyle's side a taste of what is to the come for Burnley, who despite these encouraging results will need a lot of investment if they are to survive the gruelling Premier League. £60 million pounds should do it, shouldn't it?

That's the price tag that is placed on a place in the Premier League, with its increased television revenue and sponsorship that sees matches beamed all over the world, and for the first time in the 18 year history of the Premier League, people in Asia and America will be able to see how a little Lancashire side called Burnley get on against the might of Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea next season.

In previous years Burnley have had to sell one decent player every season in order to stay afloat, they will not have to worry about that this season and if Coyle is wise with his money, and the clubs chairman isn't too frugal with what he gives the Scotsman, there is no reason why Burnley cannot repeat Hull and Stoke's example from this season and stay up. 

In terms of sheer size, Burnley are quite likely one of the smallest clubs to have ever graced the Premier League, along with maybe the likes of Bradford City and Swindon Town, but in terms of heart, togetherness and a sheer will to win, they can take on and beat the best. 

One question that will be raised is whether the young squad of Burnley will be able to recover from their long, tough, season in the Championship, and be fit, and ready, for an even tougher season in the Premier League? Adrenaline will no doubt get them through their first couple of games, but should Burnley start the season poorly the knives will almost certainly be out for Coyle and his men.