Tuesday 31 January 2012

Just The Two Of Us

Australian Open 2012 - Final - N. Djokovic def. R. Nadal 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-5

There came a point in Sunday's Australian Open final, where you couldn't understand anymore how either of the players was still standing. Not only standing, but running. Not only running, but getting to every ball. Not only getting to the balls, but hitting them back. Hitting them back for what should have been winners, if they were played against anyone other than Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. As they were playing each other, we got  rallies of incredible quality even five hours after the match began.

What is left after such a match is not thoughts about winning or losing. The only thing you can do is marvel at how lucky you are to have watched such amazing sportsmen give it their absolute all on court, not giving up, not breaking down, never relenting. I truly believe that Nadal and Djokovic are the two best athletes in the world today, and what's scary - they keep making the other one improve.

Djokovic has been saying for some time now that the rivalry with Federer and Nadal made him a better player. In this tournament we could see how Djokovic made Murray and Nadal better players. Faced with the challenge of Novak Version 2011, both have made some adjustments, which resulted in two of the most dramatic five setters we've seen in some time. Both players were mere points away from toppling the current No. 1, and both players left the tournament with a feeling of "Next time I can do it". If they truly believe it, this is promising to be quite an exciting year.

My main impression in the aftermath of the final was the beauty of both players' reactions to it. Drenched and exhausted, they had nothing but praise for the opponent.
"We made history tonight," said Novak in his on court speech. Most of the sentences in later interviews he gave started with "We", and this is what this match is about - not winning or losing, but two players making history. Rafa echoed the same feelings: "That was a really special match, and probably a match that gonna be in my mind not because I lost, no, because the way that we played."

Photo: Getty Images
We all applaud you.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Hard To Understand

During and after today's Australian Open quarterfinal match between David Ferrer and Novak Djokovic, all hell broke loose on twitter. "Lack of class", "faker", "bad sportsman", "his usual self" - you name it, it's been said about Djokovic. So what actually happened?

Credit: AP Photo

Up a set and a break (!), as Djokovic slid into one of his famous splits (illustration photo above), he grimaced in pain at what seemed to be a pulled hamstring. He got broken back, and for the next couple of games, his movement looked restricted, a fact that Ferrer properly exploited to move him from side to side. As the match progressed, he started to move better, though his overall game (the first serve percentage, particularly) stayed quite mediocre for most of the second set - he served for the set at 6-5, only to be broken straight away.

He never called a trainer for whatever was bothering him. He did not stop or stall the match at any point. Despite whatever pain he was or wasn't feeling, he kept going, eventually winning the match in three sets, 6-4, 7-6(4), 6-1. David Ferrer isn't an easy opponent on the best of days, and he'll make it even tougher for you if you're not at your best, especially in a best-of-five match. When asked about it in the post-match press conference, Djokovic explained:

Q.  You clutched your hamstring and seemed to be in real pain for a moment.  Was it a pulled hamstring?  What was the problem? 
NOVAK DJOKOVIC:  Well, luckily for me it wasn't something that stayed there for long time.  It was just a, you know, sudden pain.  
But, look, you could expect before coming to this match that it's going to be very physical.  David makes you run, makes you play an extra shot, makes you earn your points.  [...]
Having said all that, what is he to blame for? Is it now considered bad sportsmanship to pull a muscle on court? Is anyone who grimaces in pain a faker? Does not calling a trainer constitute lack of class? I sincerely don't know what the Djokovic critics wanted him to do. He's maligned when he retires from a match with an injury, laughed at when he keeps on playing through the injury and loses, and now blamed for "being his usual self" when he... doesn't say anything about an injury, plays and wins.

Well, I just find it hard to understand.

Photos: Reuters Pictures

P.S. So it seems as if Kim Clijsters won two matches after twisting an ankle, and is into the semifinals of the Australian Open 2012. I'm guessing she's a classless faker, too?
(The answer is no.)

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Fed Cup Group I (Europe/Africa) 2012 - Draw and Order of Play

The first rounds of the 2012 Fed Cup will be played on the weekend of February 4 all over the world. For the 15 nations that currently belong to the Europe/Africa Group I, it means coming for 4 days to Eilat, Israel, where they'll play in a round-robin format that will eventually determine two promotions to the play-offs for World Group II and two relegations to zonal Group II.
The tie is held in Eilat for the second straight year, after a very successful event in 2011 (you can read my impressions of it here), which included 4 top-15 players at the time - Wozniacki, Azarenka, Radwanska, Peer.

This year the list is slightly less star-filled, since Belarus was promoted (and will play against the USA with Serena Williams), and Denmark was relegated. However, the tournament still features quite a lot of top-100 players.

The countries that will participate, and some of their players, are:
Pool A
- Estonia
- Austria (Tamira Paszek, Patricia Mayr-Achleitner)
- Bulgaria (Tsvetana Pironkova)
Pool B
- Sweden (Johanna Larsson, Sofia Arvidsson)
- Hungary
- Greece (Eleni Daniilidou)
- Bosnia-Herzegovina
Pool C
- Netherlands (Arantxa Rus, Michaella Krajicek)
- Great Britain (Elena Baltacha, Anne Keothavong, Heather Watson, Laura Robson, and the captain Judy Murray)
- Israel (Shahar Peer, Julia Glushko, Keren Shlomo, Deniz Khazaniuk)
- Portugal (Michelle Larcher De Brito)
Pool D
- Poland (Agnieszka Radwanska, Urszula Radwanska)
- Romania (Monica Niculescu, Irina Begu, Simona Halep, Alexandra Dulgheru)
- Croatia (Petra Martic)
- Luxembourg
You can find the full list of players on the Fed Cup site.

In each pool, every two countries will compete against each other, with the winners of pool A and pool C playing each other and the winners of pools B and D playing each other for promotion.

The official order of play was released today. Every day has a day session (3 matches, pools A and D, starts at 8:00 GMT) and a night session (4 matches, pools B and C, starts at 14:00 GMT). Israel will play every night on the center court, which has a relatively large crowd capacity. I'm guessing that Poland will play all its matches on this court during the day session.

Here's the order of matches (with local times, which are GMT+2):

Wed, Feb 1 Thu, Feb 2 Fri, Feb 3 Sat, Feb 4
Pool A (10:00) Estonia - Bulgaria Estonia - Austria Austria - Bulgaria Playoffs
Pool D (10:00) Poland - Luxembourg Poland - Croatia Poland - Romania
Pool D (10:00) Romania - Croatia Romania - Luxembourg Croatia - Luxembourg
Pool C (16:00) Netherlands - Israel Netherlands - G. Britain G. Britain - Israel
Pool C (16:00) G. Britain - Portugal Israel - Portugal Netherlands - Portugal
Pool B (16:00) Sweden - Bosnia-Herz. Sweden - Hungary Sweden - Greece
Pool B (16:00) Hungary - Greece Greece - Bosnia-Herz. Hungary - Bosnia-Herz.

I will be attending the tournament in person from start to finish, so let me know if you want pics/info about specific players or matches!

Saturday 21 January 2012

Tipsy Time!

Janko Tipsarevic has been doing a series of sketches for Eurosport, where he captures on camera small scenes from the locker room or behind the scenes of the pros in the Australian Open. Some of them feature his own daily routines, but a lot feature other players (Novak, Feli, Rafa, Dima), and those are particularly funny!

Here are the links to all the videos in order, I'll update the post when new ones will come out.

Video #1 - Battling jet lag

Video #2 - Inside the locker room (feat. Novak Djokovic, Dmitry Tursunov)

Video #3 - Taking an ice bath (feat. Novak Djokovic, Sergiy Stakhovsky)

Video #4 - Picking clothes (feat. Biljana Tipsarevic)

Video #5 - Macho Man

Video #6 - Trolling Rafa Nadal (feat. Feliciano Lopez, Rafael Nadal, Toni Nadal)

My personal favourites are #2 and #6, they're extremely funny! If shirtless tennis players are your thing, go straight to #3 ;)

"How's my hair?"

Edit: The series continue during the Roland Garros, and links will be constantly updated here on the blog. (May 28, 2012)

Friday 20 January 2012

Controversial Calls on Challenges

Within a span of about 48 hours, the 2012 Australian Open featured two matches that were absolutely scintillating, until a bad decision by an umpire in the fifth set of each managed to leave a bad taste in the viewers' mouth. Incidentally, both disputes involved the utilization of the 'Hawk Eye' instant replay system, though in slightly different ways.

The first match was the second round between John Isner and David Nalbandian, played on the Margaret Court Arena under the supervision of umpire Kader Nouni in the chair. This match had all the makings of a classic, as the players alternated in winning the first four sets, and then embarked on a 99-minutes deciding set. As neither player managed to grab a lead, and the set reached 7-7, one could start wondering whether Isner wanted to break his own 70-68 record. However, since the American was struggling with cramps, an upset seemed in order. At 8-8, Nalbandian got to an AD:40 three times - each one being a break point that would make him serve for the match, had he won it. The first two were missed in quite awful style - one ball went into the net, the other was shanked out wide. The third saw Isner unleashing an unreturned first serve that was called out by the line umpire, only to be overruled by Nouni in the midst of a loud cheering from the crowd.
Nalbandian, who hadn't heard the overrule, became confused, and only after speaking to the umpire and seeing Isner recommending a challenge - tried to challenge the call. But Nouni didn't agree, claiming it was done too late. The point (which the Hawk Eye on TV showed to be a fault!) was considered as an ace for Isner, who saved the break point, held and soon afterwards won the match.

The second match was the highly anticipated third round encounter between Australia's next hope, Bernard Tomic, and Alexandr Dolgopolov. With both players having a unique and crafty style, the match promised to be vastly different from the baseline rallies we're used to see on the ATP tour. No doubt, it lived up to our expectations - for four sets, it was all about backhand-slice-battles, dropshots, and all kinds of entertaining points.
Then, on a game point to Tomic in the opening game of the fifth set, one of Dolgopolov's shots landed close to the baseline. Tomic jumped out of the way, thinking it would be out, and as he hit the ball he raised his racquet in the acceptable gesture of "Challenge", looking toward the umpire - Carlos Ramos. A split second afterwards, realizing the ball was in fact good, he turned back to continue the point, but by then Dolgopolov didn't try to get the ball in, thinking play was stopped. However, since Ramos never saw Tomic's attempt to challenge, he didn't agree with Dolgo's claim that he was hindered (remember that rule?). Tomic didn't own up to making a challenge, got the point and the game.

The two incidents no doubt share a common theme - in both cases the umpire ultimately made a mistake in his ruling. However, they were completely different in everything else.

Nouni's decision, in my opinion, was just plain wrong. First of all, this wasn't a regular challenge on a line call - this was a challenge on his own overrule. When there are two contradicting calls about the same point, a challenge is almost expected. Considering the circumstances (if you watch the video, it's obvious that Nalbandian didn't hear the overrule at first), giving Nalbandian an extra second or two to decide seems reasonable. Moreover, you can see that David was challenging at the same time as Kader announced the score - so it was literally a matter of seconds.

In contrast, while Ramos' decision was wrong, I don't think he can be blamed for it - if he didn't see Tomic's gesture, there was no reason for him to do anything but give the point to Tomic. The culprit here is Tomic himself, without any doubt. You can see in the video that he said to the umpire "I didn't say anything", so I'm assuming Ramos asked him about it.While technically true - he didn't actually speak at the moment - it's still a blatant lie about his intention, which is clear from the slow-motion replay. In his post match press conference, he claimed that he turned his head to the umpire to see if he's going to overrule the (lack of a) call. Again, the video is clear - this isn't what happened.

The question of how those calls affected the results of the matches is debatable. Nalbandian stated himself that this isn't what lost him the match (his two misses on break points earlier support that opinion). Dolgopolov held his serve in the next game after the controversy. If you ask me, at least in the first case, I feel that Nalbandian could (and should?) have won the match if none of it happened.

What disappoints me the most, however, is how some of the media reacted to the second incident. Eurosport's show "Game, Set and Mats" with Mats Wilander and Annabel Croft surveyed some of the finest points of the first three sets, then skipped to the match point, and never mentioned anything about any possible controversy. Anyone who didn't watch the match was treated to heaps of praise on Tomic's wonderful game, maturity, mentality, and whatnot. Tomic might be a lot of things, but "mature" he's not.

Saturday 14 January 2012

Australian Open Oracle

The 2012 season is upon us, and before we could say the words "Who withdrew today?", it's already the first Grand Slam tournament of the year. I'm not going to do a quarter-by-quarter analysis of the Australian Open draw, since there are plenty of those already. Rather, like I did with Wimbledon at the time, I'll post a list of specific predictions and thoughts, and we'll see in a couple of weeks how many of them came true (I only got one right last time, I think).

Let's get to business:
  • Raonic-Roddick. A replay of the absolutely wonderful Memphis final, it's the predicted 3rd round on paper, and I think both will get there. While I saw people mostly tipping Milos to win this, I'm picking Roddick, if only due to him itching to get back on courts lately.
  • Youzhny-Gasquet - a possible 2nd round and a battle of one-handed backhands. This one I want to see. Incidentally, they met in twice in the Australian Open already - first rounds in 2003 and 2010, when they played a 3-tiebreak 5-set match. Youzhny won both of those meetings, but I'm picking Richie here.
  • Tipsarevic-Ferrer. If seedings hold, this will be a fourth round, with the winner going on to meet (probably) Djokovic. Based on Janko's form in Chennai, and him being as clutch as possible on break points in the final (saved 9 of them), I think he'll make the second straight quarterfinals of a Slam.
  • Gulbis def. Llodra, 3-1. Am I totally crazy?
  • Ferrero def. [19] Troicki, for our first 1st round upset in the menu. Moreover, one more win, and we'll get a replay of the amazing Ferrero-Monfils match from the last US Open. Watching this live was one of the highlights of my 2011 tennis season, and I believe Ferrero's willpower in best-of-five should propel him to the 4th round (where he'll lose to Murray).
  • Murray-Tsonga, QF. I had a lot of deliberations here, but despite Jo's lone win over Andy, which was in the 1st round of AO 2008, their general H2H and Mr. Lendl's presence lead to think that Murray will pull the win. But this is the most intriguing quarter, no doubt about it.
  • Muller def. [8] Fish, another 1st round upset.
  • Tomic def. [22] Verdasco, 3-2, in a long and grueling (and hopefully good!) match. There's a possibility of a Dolgopolov-Tomic 3rd round which I'm very much looking to. Their head-to-head is 3-0 to Dolgo, who lost a tight first set and easily won the next two in their last two meetings. Can Tomic finally figure him out, or will he crumble under the Aussie pressure (after giving Stosur advice on how to handle it ;))?
  • Del Potro - Federer. Ah. Now we hit the interesting stuff. I haven't seen Delpo play this week, so it's hard for me to assess how good his form is at the moment. I believe he can win this match. I also believe he won't.
  • Baghdatis to make the 4th round, beating [21] Wawrinka and [10] Almagro on the way. Just because he can.
  • Quarterfinals: Djokovic-Tipsarevic, Murray-Tsonga, Del Potro-Federer, Berdych-Nadal.
  • Semifinals: Top 4, for variety.
  • Finals: Djokovic def. Federer.
I'm not too strong on WTA predictions, but I'll try to take a detailed look at the draw tomorrow.