Saturday, January 31, 2015

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Serena Williams sinks Sharapova to win 19th grand slam

Serena Williams has once again done what she does best - that is win a grand slam final.

The world No1 is an astounding 19-4 in major finals throughout her career. Not even Roger Federer has that kind of record in title deciders – he is actually 17-8.

And even though she felt nervous, was struggling with a bad cough, and hadn’t lifted an Australian Open trophy in five years, Williams managed to fire an 18th ace of the night to seal her 19th grand slam crown and submit Maria Sharapova to 6-3, 7-6 (5) defeat.

On her third championship point, Williams blasted an ace wide but it was called let. Williams’ response? Another ace, in the exact same spot. No one is that clutch. No one other than Serena Williams that is.

I wasn't confident at all. I thought after the let ‘man, I am not meant to win this tournament’,” said Williams of her thoughts at that final moment.

But she did win it, and in sensational fashion, to take sole possession of second place in the list of grand slam leaders in the Open Era – three behind Steffi Graf and one more than legends Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.

It just felt so good. I've been through so much the past week. I really, really didn't expect to win,” said the 33-year-old.

I didn't expect to be here this long. I was walking down the hall yesterday and I was thinking ‘wow, I'm still in the tournament’. It's been a long time since I've been to the final here or the semi-final. It's been a long time coming.”

Sharapova was bidding for a sixth grand slam trophy and was looking to end a 15-match decade-long losing streak to Williams.

The start was always going to be crucial for Sharapova and the Russian did not get off to the best one, double-faulting to get broken after a six-minute opening game and Williams was soon 2-0 up.

Plays was halted with Williams serving at 30-30 in the sixth game due to heavy rain and it took 12 minutes to shut the Rod Laver Arena roof. During that break, the world No1 walked off court and threw up amidst a coughing fit.

I think in a way that just helped me. I felt better after that. My chest was really stuck at that point,” she explained afterwards.

But neither the coughing, nor the rain interruption seemed to disturb Williams, who sprung an ace and a forehand winner to hold for 4-2 when play resumed.

I thought ‘I’ve got to hit an ace’. For me there was no other option. And that’s my game, that’s how I play,” added Williams.

The pair gifted each other service breaks with double faults in games seven and eight but Williams took the one-set lead by breaking Sharapova to love with a crosscourt backhand winner. Sharapova struck just three winners in that opening set.

A loud ‘come on’ from Williams after one of her serves in the seventh game saw the American receive a hindrance call. Sharapova then blasted a forehand winner for break point but the No1 seed was unfazed and held serve for 4-3. She even sarcastically gave a very soft ‘come on’ in reference to the hindrance call.

It just goes to show you I have more fun on the court. I would have never done that three years ago,” said Williams.

Sharapova brought out her boldest move while facing championship point in game 10, unleashing a massive forehand winner which Williams couldn’t help but applaud. And the No2 seed held her nerve to hold for 5-all.

She saved another championship point in the tiebreak but it only delayed the inevitable as Williams stormed to a record-extending sixth Australian Open title to go with her six US Open, five Wimbledons and two French Opens.

Williams gave an emotional speech as she received the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup from Navratilova.

Growing up I wasn’t the richest but I had a rich family in spirit and support,” she said.

I went on the court with just a ball, a racquet and a hope. You just never give up, you never know who you can inspire and who you can influence.”

Sharapova was clearly disappointed to suffer yet another loss to Williams but she insists she isn’t giving up on ending her losing run against the American.

I actually believe that we attract what we're ready for. Yes, I haven't won against her many times, but if I'm getting to the stage of competing against someone like Serena, I'm doing something well. I'm setting up a chance to try to beat her and it hasn't happened. I'm not just going to go home without giving it another chance,” said the 27-year-old.

Williams was asked whether she sympathized with Sharapova, who is now 2-17 against her lifetime.

It’s a tough situation. Normally I would feel sorry for someone like that. Especially someone like Maria who is such a wonderful competitor and a great player and just is a wonderful fighter – you want to see someone like that do well,” said Williams.

And she does do well. She’s won a lot of titles in her own right and she’s done a lot of things. But when you’re in a sport competing against someone, even my own sister, all the times I play her I want to win. That’s what sport is. It’s about doing your best at all times.”

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Comment - Serena-Sharapova rivarly way bigger than just tennis

As the world’s top two players prepare to face-off in the Australian Open final today, we’re reminded of the paradox that is the so-called “rivalry” between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.

Should a rivalry that is so lopsided still be called a rivalry? The pair have played each other 18 times. Williams has won 16 of them.

What started off as a promising tug of war 11 years ago, when Sharapova beat Williams twice in 2004 – in the Wimbledon final and the season-ending championships final – has evolved into a one-woman show starring the American diva.

People never lost interest in the Serena-Maria showdown, but they also stopped looking forward to it. The narrative surrounding their matches went from, ‘who is going to win?’ to ‘how easily is Serena going to win?’.

Yet we still find ourselves intrigued by the prospect of their final today. The result on court may be predictable but in reality, their rivalry was never just about tennis.

When it comes to Williams and Sharapova, it is also about status, endorsements, personal relationships and a lot more.

Williams may be the more decorated tennis player in terms of trophies but Sharapova is the higher earner. The Russian attracts more endorsement deals than any other female athlete on the planet and is a highly-successful entrepreneur.

For every cool Beats ad Williams features in, Sharapova sells a bunch of her Sugarpova candy, designs a new line for Nike, gets a new Porsche to drive around town and fronts a magazine cover or two.

The fact that the pair never really got along has always added spice to the mix. A year and a half ago, they were engaged in a war of words when an article came out that quoted Williams supposedly bashing Sharapova for dating Grigor Dimitrov, which the American referred to as the “man with a black heart”. Williams and Dimitrov were rumoured to be in a relationship the year before.

Sharapova responded by pointing out that Williams was going out with “a married man with kids” referring to the world No1’s coach Patrick Mouratoglou.

It’s true that all this seems like ancient history right now, but it also gave us an insight into the kind of animosity the two ladies share.

Each one is a superstar in her own right but which one can outshine the other? That’s the heart of the Serena-Maria rivalry. Going back to the tennis, the question making the rounds here in Melbourne is: Is there anything Sharapova can do to beat Williams?

In truth, Williams serves better, moves slightly better, sports a better backhand and has more variety on her forehand. The only thing Sharapova does not lack in comparison to the 33-year-old is her ability to fight. They are two of the fiercest competitors in sport.

Williams must have an awful day and Sharapova must have a phenomenal one if the world No2 is to finally pull off the upset. The top seed has been struggling with the flu all week, and appeared sick during her practice yesterday, but that could probably mean that she will try to keep today’s win short and sweet.

While many are craving a Sharapova win to jolt some life into this rivalry, it’s hard looking past a Williams straight sets victory.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: I love playing Sharapova, says Serena Williams

There are probably few things scarier than facing a calm and relaxed Serena Williams.

The world No1 claims she decided in the middle of last year that she no longer had to win, but that the goal was to relax and enjoy her time on court.

The new approach clearly worked. After failing to pass the fourth round in the first three majors of 2014, Williams captured the US Open to register her 18th grand slam title victory before triumphing at the WTA Finals in Singapore.

At 33, Williams became the oldest women’s finalist in Melbourne in the Open Era when she beat Madison Keys in the last four on Thursday.

She is now looking to pull-off the US Open-Australian Open back-to-back double for the third time in her career – only Steffi Graf has managed to achieve that feat three times.

Williams has never lost a final at Melbourne Park and is gunning for a record-extending sixth Australian Open crown when she takes on the second-seeded Maria Sharapova in the final on Saturday. But Williams has not won a title here in five years and she admits her expectations were low coming into the tournament.

It's been so long since I've even been in a final here. I was kind of like ‘oh, let me just try’,” said the No1 seed. “My theory now is to relax and play the match as best as I can. When I step on the court and hear the announcer, I don't have to win anymore. I can just relax and have fun.

It started last year because I was so hyped on getting to 18 and I lost every grand slam early. I didn't make it to an quarter-finals. Then after Wimbledon I decided to just not… not necessarily not care, but just relax. It all kind of came back for me after that. And I think it's been working.”

This is hardly good news for Sharapova, who hasn’t beaten Williams in over a decade – a stretch that includes 15 consecutive losses to the American.

Garbine Muguruza, a young Spaniard who beat Williams last year at the French Open, has her views on why Sharapova has such a horrid record against the world No1.

I think the way she plays is not the way to beat Serena,” said Muguruza earlier this week. “I think Serena has the game to beat Maria. Obviously has to be mental. When you are losing to her 10 years, there is something in your head blocking during the match. I think maybe she has to improve more the way she plays to beat her.”

Williams agrees. She is 16-2 against Sharapova lifetime and believes her game is perfectly suited to face the Russian.

I take a lot of pride in it (my record against Sharapova). I think my game matches up well against her. I love playing her. I think it's fun. I love her intensity. For whatever reason, I love playing. I just have the time of my life,” said Williams, who is on a 10-match winning streak in tournament finals.

Sharapova is trying to focus on the positives as approaches another daunting clash with her nemesis.

The 27-year-old will be playing her fourth Australian Open final (won 2008, lost 2007 and 2012) and has been flying this fortnight since she saved two match points to beat Alexandra Panova in the second round.

I felt that I've had really good matches and a good record here in Australia, even since the junior days. Been able to carry it over as a professional. Yeah, I've had many great memories on Rod Laver Arena. I've hopefully set myself up for another good one,” said Sharapova, who is 7-13 lifetime against world No1s.

I think my confidence should be pretty high going into a final of a grand slam no matter who I'm facing against and whether I've had a terrible record, to say the least, against someone. It doesn't matter. I got there for a reason. I belong in that spot. I will do everything I can to get the title.”

Saturday’s final is the first Australian Open women’s title match between the top two seeds since top-seeded Justine Henin defeated second-seeded Kim Clijsters in 2004.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Djokovic survives "strange" affair with Wawrinka to reach final

As far as grand slam semi-finals go, yesterday’s tussle between Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka was certainly one of the most bizarre ones witnessed in recent years.

After delivering two sensational five-setters in the last two Australian Opens, Djokovic and the defending champion failed to live up to their glorious past as they stumbled through three and a half hours of disconnected tennis before the world No1 came through 7-6 (1), 3-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-0.

Wawrinka, whose failure to defend his title means he will drop from No4 to No9 in the world rankings, had one word to describe the match: “strange,” stated the Swiss.

Not the best, for sure.”

Playing his first night session of the tournament, Wawrinka admits he struggled to adapt early on with the change in conditions compared to his previous morning matches. Despite that, it was he who had the better start, breaking for a 4-3 lead in the first set on a wide crosscourt forehand from Djokovic.

Djokovic broke to love immediately though and the set went to a tiebreak. A good challenge from the Serb showed that a Wawrinka backhand was just wide and that opening point set the tone for the rest of the breaker. Wawrinka hesitated at the net the next point to get lobbed by Djokovic and the world No1 raced to a one-set lead.

Many thought that the tense opening set would lead to some looser tennis from both moving on, but the level of tennis just got weirder and the decision-making and shot selection from either side only got worse.

Wawrinka broke Djokovic on a double fault to lead 4-2 and he went on to take the second set to level the match.

Djokovic, a four-time champion in Melbourne, saved two break points to hold in the opening game of the third before rushing to a 3-0 lead.

Wawrinka struck back to level for 3-all but an error-strewn 10th game gave the break and the set to Djokovic.

The pair exchanged breaks early in the fourth but it was Wawrinka who benefitted from a disaster of a seventh game to break and he took the fourth set, which saw a shocking zero winners and 14 unforced errors from Djokovic.

A lengthy first game in the decider saw Djokovic save a break point to hold, and the top seed never looked back, taking advantage of a Wawrinka meltdown to hand the Swiss a bagel and end his title defence.

“It was mentally, I think I'm paying the price to finish off the season with Davis Cup, not having a bigger offseason, trying to focus really well to start well the year with winning Chennai and being here trying to do the best,” confessed Wawrinka, who was on an 11-match winning streak heading into the match.

“I told my coach before the match and already yesterday that I was mentally completely dead and no battery. Tough to focus on what I want to do. Tough to focus on my game. And that's what happened today.”

Djokovic, who will now try to capture a fifth Australian Open crown in his fifth final appearance here when he takes on Andy Murray tomorrow, did not sense that Wawrinka was struggling mentally, but admits he wasn’t able to play anywhere near his best level.

I did not play on the level that I intended before the match,” said the 27-year-old.

There were parts of the match where I stepped in and played a game I needed to play, but parts of the match where I played too defensive and allowed him to dictate the play from the baseline.

He has great depth in his shots. Once he has control of the rallies it's very difficult to play against him. So, yeah, it was very emotional, very tense.”

He says he will focus on the positives though heading into his final with Murray, who has played at an impeccable level so far this fortnight.

I think I have much more positive things to reflect on in my game and then all the matches that I played so far in the tournament than the negative,” said Djokovic.

I'm in the finals. In the end of the day, that's why I'm here to try to get far in the tournament.

Getting to the finals in any way possible is a great achievement. I'm going to try to use that to buildup of the confidence for finals.”

Thursday, January 29, 2015

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Cash and Philippoussis predict Kyrgios surge on ATP tour

Australian legends Pat Cash and Mark Philippoussis believe the future is bright for Nick Kyrgios following the teenager’s astounding run to the quarter-finals in Melbourne.

The 19-year-old from Canberra saw his dream Australian Open come to an end at the hands of world No6 Andy Murray on Tuesday, but has shown great promise in the way he played through back problems, fought from two sets down against Andreas Seppi in the fourth round and handled the home pressure.

Kyrgios, who is expected to rise to a career-high No35 when the new rankings come out on Monday, is yet to make his mark on the ATP tour, the same way he has succeeded in the majors.

The young Aussie has already reached two grand slam quarter-finals – in Wimbledon last year and this fortnight in Melbourne – but has registered just one single victory in ATP tournaments.

This statistic could suggest that Kyrgios – a guy with a penchant for showmanship - is more comfortable bringing his A-game on the biggest stage, rather than on a smaller one.

Cash, a champion at Wimbledon in 1987, was surprised to learn about Kyrgios’ contrasting results in majors and tour-level events. “It’s unusual, I didn’t know that. It just goes to show he’s able to combine the power and the game to match it with the big hitters,” Cash tells me.

Usually at Challenger level the guys make mistakes and you can get away with some bad games. The good thing about Nick is that he’s got enough firepower to match it with the bigger guys on the circuit.

In the grand slams you do get better draws because the seeds are separated. Somebody knocks out a seed or you have a good day against a seed, you can get lucky. In the Masters 1000 every match is really difficult.

Nick will be fine. He’s got better focus than someone like Bernie Tomic, who loves the big stage but struggles on the smaller courts. He’s only 19. He’ll be fine.”

Philippousis, a retired two-time grand slam runner-up, feels that with careful tournament scheduling, Kyrgios can perform well on tour, the same way he has in the slams so far.

I think the unique thing about Nick is that certain guys need match play, they need a lot of hours on the court because of the way they hit the ball. The way that Nick plays, with the weapons he has, he’s not one of these guys that needs to play a lot of matches,” said Philippoussis.

He needs obviously to be hitting balls and be feeling strong but certain guys would panic if they don’t have match play, he’s not that kind of guy. As long as he’s physically healthy and he’s out there, that’s all he needs.

He’s just got to plan his schedule right, and make sure he peaks for the big tournaments.”

Kyrgios had been the centre of attention in Melbourne the last couple of weeks for both positive and negative reasons.

While many admire his explosiveness and swagger, others have been critical of his on-court outbursts and showing-off tendencies.

Murray addressed the crowd at Rod Laver Arena after their quarter-final asking them not pile the pressure on the young Aussie.

He's gonna make some mistakes, he's young… Growing up in the spotlight isn't easy,” said Murray, who has his fair share of issues with the public growing up and has dealt with lots of pressure trying to win his home slam.

He just needs to be allowed to grow up.”

When told about Murray’s comments, Kyrgios said: “Just listen to Andy, I guess. He's pretty successful.”

Kyrgios admits it has been a stressful few weeks for him, trying to recover from a back injury and dealing with all the expectation and attention. He was struggling to sleep between his matches and ended up getting some lines shaved on the side of his head at 1:00am as a distraction.

It's just been a rollercoaster the last couple days. Not getting much sleep obviously. It's been a lot of fun, but at the same it's been pretty stressful. But, I've enjoyed it. I'm just happy that I got as far as I did,” said Kyrgios, who added that the priority now was to get his back in good shape again before playing in Marseille and Dubai.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Djokovic vs Wawrinka 3.0 - Heavyweights to clash in semis

Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka go so far back that the world No1 doesn’t remember the first time they faced off in Melbourne Park.

It was in the second round of the Australian Open qualifying tournament in 2005 and Djokovic beat Wawrinka 6-3, 6-1.

The Serb qualified that year and lost in the first round of the main draw to eventual champion, Marat Safin.

That match between Djokovic and Wawrinka was a decade ago, and little did they know that they would end up playing each other in the second week of the Australian Open for three consecutive years.

It’s becoming a tradition.

In 2013, Wawrinka lost to Djokovic in an epic fourth round marathon 12-10 in the fifth set here at Melbourne Park. That defeat was like a catalyst that galvanised Wawrinka and gave him the belief he could actually best the Serb.

Twelve months later, Wawrinka beat Djokovic in the quarter-finals in Australia, 9-7 in the fifth, and went on to capture his maiden grand slam trophy.

Naturally, the tennis heavens put them in each others’ path again this year and they will battle on Friday for a place in the final.

I think for sure it will be funny to play him again. I’m happy to play him three years in a row. We had some crazy match in grand slams in the past,” said Wawrinka after posting a dominating 6-3, 6-4, 7-6(6) victory over No5 seed Kei Nishikori in the quarter-finals on Wednesday.

When you play Novak, especially in semi-finals in a grand slam, you have to play your best game. You have to play your best tennis if you want to push him. So far I'm playing great. I'm confidence with my game. I'm happy I won in three sets today. Let's see.”

Wawrinka has every reason to feel confident. Barring a brief slip in the third-set tiebreak against Nishikori, where the Swiss blew a 6-2 lead allowing his opponent to save five match points before converting on the sixth, Wawrinka played a flawless quarter-final.

The world No4 had dropped his last three matches against top-five opposition but was nowhere near losing a fourth against Nishikori. Wawrinka struck 20 aces, fired 46 winners to 34 unforced errors, broke serve three times, was 11/13 at the net and was broken just once, facing one of the better returners in today’s game.

He was unexpectedly a class apart.

He (Stan) played a great match,” said Djokovic, who played a phenomenal quarter-final himself, easing past eight-seeded Milos Raonic 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-2, and winning a whopping 85 per cent of his points on serve.

Kei has been playing his best tennis in the last 12 months. To be able to win straight sets against him is pretty impressive. Being the defending champion, obviously he's got some of the pressure here. He is facing this kind of role for the first time in his life. He's been playing some great tennis under the circumstances. Got to give him credit for that.”

Djokovic is a four-time champion in Melbourne and has won 30 of his last 31 matches here. But Wawrinka has now reached multiple semi-finals at the same major for the first time and feels comfortable on Rod Laver Arena – the site of his greatest success thus far.

Asked why he is playing so well here, Wawrinka laughed and said: “Why not? I think I got a lot of confidence from first winning the Davis Cup at the end of the year. I think since Shanghai I'm playing great tennis. I'm focused on what I'm doing every day. I'm trying to practice really hard, trying to improve my game.”

On his part, Nishikori – a runner-up at the US Open last year – admits he was outclassed by Wawrinka yesterday but is optimistic about the rest of the season. He is one year into his partnership with his coach Michael Chang and says the legend has helped him in more ways than one.

It's been working really well I think. I see a lot of improvement. A lot of things, not just tennis, outside, too. Mentally I get more stronger. I think physically I'm little more fit than before,” said the 25-year-old Japanese.

Meanwhile, Raonic was disappointed to lose so tamely to Djokovic, but asked what his overwhelming feeling was, the Canadian said: “That everything is going to be okay.”

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Halep optimistic despite loss, Makarova to face Sharapova in all-Russian semi-final

Simona Halep has confidence this season will be even better than her last one despite getting comprehensively beaten by Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova in the Australian Open quarter-finals on Tuesday.

Halep became the highest seed to exit the tournament, the world No3 receiving a 6-4, 6-0 drubbing by Makarova, who took command of the clash from start to finish.

The Romanian, who also made the quarter-finals in Melbourne last year before finishing runner-up at the French Open, hit a shocking 31 unforced errors compared to just 15 winners and was broken five times by the Russian lefty.

Halep had beaten the big-hitting Makarova in their only previous meeting and admits she was taken aback by her change in strategy.

I was expecting she will hit more stronger, but she didn't. She played very soft tennis today. She opened very well the angles,” said Halep. “So was a different game. She played well. She served very well. Her lefty slice is not easy to give the ball back.”

The 23-year-old says she felt “stressed” stepping on the court but believes she will rebound swiftly from this loss, with her next events being Fed Cup followed by the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships in the UAE.

Last year was a big result for me here. Now I cannot say it's very big, but is enough for me. I started very well this year. I won one title (in Shenzhen), and now I did here a few good matches. I have confidence this year will be better than last year,” assured Halep.

I just try to improve more in my game, in my mind as well. I think I'm on the right way to go in the top higher.”

Makarova, who made her top-10 debut earlier this month after a great run to her first grand slam semi-finals at the US Open last fall, confessed she is adjusting to the life of being an elite player and says it’s harder for her to face the media than to play a major quarter-final.

The 26-year-old, who grew up idolising ex-Roland Garros champion Anastasia Myskina, is impressively ranked in the top-10 in doubles as well, having formed a successful partnership with Elena Vesnina.

Makarova will take on Russian Maria Sharapova in the last four, after the world No2 thumped seventh-seeded Eugenie Bouchard 6-3, 6-2.

Makarova lost all five previous encounters with Sharapova in the past and is hoping to end that streak in the semis tomorrow.

I never beat her, so it will be tough. Definitely she's a great fighter. Like here on the second round, she almost lost, but she turned around. I'm looking forward. I'm want to enjoy this time and want to rest and we'll see what happen in semis,” said Makarova.

Sharapova had received a stern phone call from her father after having to save match points against Alexandra Panova in the second round and the five-time major champion admits she will do everything she can to avoid getting similar calls in the future.

In a nice version, it was like ‘this is unacceptable’” she said laughing.

He's like ‘it is much easier just having a normal home life. You should try it. I don't know why you're suffering out there for nothing. Make it easier for yourself’. He told me that I was working much harder than I had to. If I was maybe a little bit smarter, did a few things maybe a little bit differently, maybe it could have been easier.”

On her looming match with Makarova, Sharapova said: “Besides playing another Russian, I'm also facing an opponent that wasn't necessarily a favorite coming into that stage. That's always a tricky situation because she's going to come into that match free and almost happy to be in that situation, and that's dangerous. I haven't faced a lefty in this tournament yet.

She's been using her lefty serve extremely well from what I've seen. I'll be looking out for that, work on a few things tomorrow, and be ready for that match.”

Sharapova has a chance of replacing Serena Williams as world No1 but must at least reach the final to have a chance.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Berdych banking on Vallverdu trump card against Murray

Tomas Berdych may have the winning chip that can help him reach his first grand slam final in five years and it is in the form of Dani Vallverdu, the former coach of his semi-final opponent Andy Murray.

The Czech world No7 drew up the perfect plan with Vallverdu to defeat third-seeded Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals yesterday – a stunning 6-2, 6-0, 7-6 (5) win that saw Berdych end his 17-match eight-year losing streak to the Spaniard.

Berdych struck 46 winners to just 21 unforced errors and butchered Nadal’s second serve to become only the third player to hand the world No3 a bagel at a grand slam, and the first since 2006.

He will now go back to the drawing board to formulate a new strategy to defeat his next target, the sixth-seeded Murray, who had Vallverdu as his hitting partner and substitute coach from 2010 until the end of 2014.

Berdych teamed up with Vallverdu following the Venezuelan’s split with Murray and will surely receive the ins and outs of his opponent’s game from his new coach.

Definitely it might be an advantage for us,” said Berdych, who has now reached a second consecutive Australian Open semi-final.

Nadal’s 17 successive wins over Berdych is a joint ATP record and the Czech is thrilled he has finally stopped the bleeding against the Mallorcan.

It feels great. I mean, really the good thing is, the plan that we put together was the right one. Everything was working. I was able to execute it really well,” said Berdych, paying tribute to Vallverdu.

Dani changed a lot of things. He brought a lot of positive things. And the best is I’m really able to execute them really, really quickly. I’m really happy. I was playing a really good game against Rafa. But I just need to look forward.”

Murray, a three-time runner-up in Melbourne, kept his clean record against Australian opposition intact by defeating 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3 to move into his fifth semi-final here.

The Scot was forced to bring out his smartest tactics to play through breezy conditions and use them to his advantage against the explosive Kyrgios, who was playing a grand slam match on Rod Laver Arena for the first time.

Despite putting up a fight in the second set, Kyrgios was no match for Murray, who was composed throughout the 125-minute encounter. “I said to him at the net ‘this is your time, go get 'em’. I think he’s got a really good chance of winning the whole thing,” Kyrgios said of Murray after the match.

Murray has a 4-6 losing record against Berdych, and will be facing the Czech for the first time since Vallverdu joined his team. Murray had revealed earlier this month that things had turned a little sour between him and Vallverdu in the final weeks before they parted ways. The two-time grand slam champion is playing down the impact Vallverdu might have on the outcome of the upcoming semi-final.

I also know what Dani thinks of Berdych’s game because he’s told me, so it works both ways,” Murray said sarcastically.

When I finished working with Miles MacLagan he started working with Marcos Baghdatis. I played against Baghdatis a few times. I played him at the Olympics. I played him in Tokyo. I didn’t really have an issue with it.

But, again, I don't know, maybe I'll find it weird on the day. It's just something that you deal with as a player. My goal isn't to beat Dani, my goal is to beat Berdych. So I won't think about that in the next days.”

Meanwhile, Nadal admits he was outclassed by Berdych but says it is all part of the process of coming back from injury.

The process always is not easy. When you have injuries, the comebacks are difficult. I have to take the positive things. Without being at my top level I was able to be in the quarter-finals. It is not a bad result at all for me,” said the 14-time major champion.

Monday, January 26, 2015

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Murray ready to face off with home crowd after Dimitrov victory

Andy Murray heard a massive uproar coming from afar midway through his fourth round against Grigor Dimitrov yesterday on Rod Laver Arena.

It was the sound of the home crowd applauding Nick Kyrgios for reaching the quarter-finals and it is a sound Murray must get comfortable playing in when he faces the Aussie teenager in the last eight on Tuesday.

While Kyrgios had wrapped up a five-set win over Andreas Seppi, Murray was battling against the 10th-seeded Dimitrov, the Scot hoping to keep his streak of 15 consecutive major quarter-finals going.

It had been five years since the last time Murray had lost prior to the last eight at a grand slam and Dimitrov, who shocked the British No1 in Wimbledon last year, was hoping for a repeat last night.

The crafty Bulgarian made an intense start, opening up a 3-0 lead in the first set, but Murray soon responded and leveled for 3-all.

The world No6 broke against for a 5-4 lead and he sealed the set with an ace to draw first blood.

The pair exchanged breaks early in the second but it was Murray who broke for 6-5 and looked on his way to a two-sets-to-love lead. But Dimitrov had other plans, rushing the net and producing the perfect volley to get a break point and he made it 6-6 on a Murray double-fault.

Dimitrov, famous for his show-stopping hot shots, won an epic point to lead 4-2 in the tiebreak, running down a drop shot, responding with one of his own, then hitting a lob, which Murray smashes back only for the world No10 to send a backhand passing shot from the narrowest of angles. He took the tiebreak to make it one-set-all.

Murray retaliated by taking the third set but Dimitrov led 5-2 in the fourth. The 23-year-old had set point in a lengthy eighth game but Murray saved it to run away with five straight games and complete a 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-5 victory with a lucky netcord.

All Dimitrov was left with was disappointment and a racquet he somehow managed to break in half.

I'm not going to hide my disappointment. I'm pissed,” said Dimitrov afterwards. “I thought he returned really good today. My serve wasn't at the level that I wanted. I think that sort of made the biggest difference.”

On his part, Murray admitted he got lucky at certain points during the match but was generally pleased with his form and how his body felt during the three-hour 32-minute affair, which ended after midnight.

Against Kyrgios tomorrow, he knows he will have a different challenge across him, in the form of the home crowd. Murray has experience playing a home slam at the age of 19 but he says he was a very different kind of teenager than Kyrgios.

He's more confident than I would have been at that age. I didn't feel like I was going to win these events when I was that age, but I read that he felt like he could win the Australian Open this year a few weeks ago. So he obviously backs himself a lot,” said Murray.

Earlier in the day, third-seeded Rafael Nadal and seventh-seeded Tomas Berdych earned victories to set-up a quarter-final against one another.

Nadal fended off six break points in the first set against South Africa’s Kevin Anderson before cruising past him 7-5, 6-1, 6-4 while Berdych broke many Australian hearts by easing past Bernard Tomic 6-2, 7-6(3), 6-2.

Berdych has lost his last 17 meetings with Nadal, including a Wimbledon final defeat to the Spaniard in 2010. The Czech refuses to dwell on that poor record though.

I'm feeling very good. It's been a great, great run so far,” said Berdych who is through to his fifth straight Australian Open quarter-final. “I just put myself in the best possible position right now. I'm just really looking forward to it. I'm going to have to add something extra again. I'm feeling strong both like physically, mentally.”

Nadal played his best match of the tournament so far against Anderson and seems to have stepped up a gear entering the second week. He says his strong record against Berdych will have little impact on their match on Tuesday though.

Is different story this time. Different moment for me, different moment for him,” said the 2009 Australian Open champion. “He's a great player. I have success against him, but I have the chances to lose against him. I remember 2012 probably I had a very, very tough match against him here. It was close to be two sets to love down. He's a player that is top level.”

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Kyrgios rallies back from two sets down to beat Seppi in thriller

Nick Kyrgios blew the roof off of Hisense Arena, which he has proclaimed is officially his favourite court, by climbing back from two sets down to defeat Andreas Seppi and become the first Australian in 10 years to reach the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park.

The flamboyant teenager rallied the home crowd behind him as he saved a match point in the fourth set before forcing a tiebreak and moving into a decider against Seppi, who was coming off a brilliant four-set win over Roger Federer in the third round.

And despite squandering a 4-1 lead in the fifth set, Kyrgios regained control to deny Seppi a maiden grand slam quarter-final appearance with a 5-7, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(5), 8-6 win.

It's crazy. I don't think it's sunk in yet. When I saw I had finally won the match it was incredible. It was the best feeling I ever had,” said Kyrgios, who is through to his second career major quarter-final, having reached the same stage at Wimbledon last year.

A mere 12 months ago, Kyrgios had lost a five-set clash with Benoit Paire after leading the Frenchman by two sets to love. He later said he mishandled his emotions that day, wasting too much energy by interacting with the crowd and that it was an important learning experience.

He hasn’t lost a five-set match since, beating Richard Gasquet last year at Wimbledon, Federico Delbonis in round one last week in Melbourne and now Seppi last night.

I think I'm just managing my emotions a bit better out there. I thought I was pretty composed for the whole match,” said Kyrgios, who is the first teenager to reach multiple major quarter-finals since Roger Federer in 2001.

When I needed to get into the crowd, I did that. They were unbelievable tonight. I think they were a massive part of that win. I'm just learning every time I step out on the court when to show emotion, when not to.”

 Photo via @australianopen Twitter account

Indeed the home fans played a huge role in the match and Kyrgios did everything he could to play to use them to his advantage. At one point her waved at a lobbed ball to sail out – which it did – and another, he pulled off a ridiculous around the net post shot responding to a spot on Seppi drop shot.

That was ridiculous. Never seen anything like that. That's the first time it's ever happened to me,” he admits.

It is the first year the Australian Open opens Hisense Arena to non-ticket holders and it seems their decision has paid off as the crowds got to witness a match they will never forget.

Still, Kyrgios will have to prepare himself for a battle on a new stage – Rod Laver Arena – when he faces Andy Murray on Tuesday.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Conchita sees Muguruza as a Slam contender in 2015

Former Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez believes her fellow Spaniard Garbine Muguruza is ready to be a grand slam contender this season, saying a Eugenie Bouchard-like breakthrough could be in the cards for her.

Martinez, who as Spain’s Fed Cup captain has been supporting Muguruza at her matches this week in Melbourne, was impressed by her three-set win over Timea Bacsinszky in the third round on Saturday and sees the 21-year-old as a real threat at the majors in 2015.

Why not? Look at (Eugenie) Bouchard. I don’t know if we could have considered her a grand slam contender last year. But she was in the semi-finals here, and Roland Garros, and the final at Wimbledon… I don’t see any difference there,” Martinez tells me of the Venezuelan-born Spaniard. “I believe she has a good chance. It might happen, it might not, but she has the potential (to be a grand slam contender this year) yes.”

Muguruza, who conquered Serena Williams at the French Open last year en route to the quarter-finals there, has a rematch with the world No1 in the fourth round on Monday.

Williams has not shown her best tennis in opening week Down Under but has been raising her level with each round, while Muguruza has been solid so far.

Martinez sees Muguruza’s previous upset over Williams as a source of self-belief heading into tomorrow’s clash.

I think mentally it helps you always that you broke through and you won that match at the French Open. It will give her the extra confidence that she needs,” said the 1994 Wimbledon winner.

I think she’s very confident in herself anyway. Serena is going to be hungry and she can be dangerous but she’s going to have to do everything really good because Garbine is going to be up there and she’s the kind of person that likes these matches. It’s going to be an interesting match.”

Muguruza has been rising up the rankings since she picked up her maiden WTA title in Hobart 12 months ago and now lies at No24 in the world. Her fearless attacking style has attracted many fans and Martinez explains how her popularity has been growing.

I think she’s very popular. For her tennis, and also when you’re tall, good-looking, you play that type of game, I think that people are drawn to that,” said Martinez. “I think she’s well-known, not only in Spain, but of course Venezuela and the whole wide world. Because everybody sees the potential that she has and she is capable to be up there in the rankings.”

Saturday, January 24, 2015

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Jaziri focusing on positives following breakthrough Slam

Malek Jaziri is choosing to take the positives out of his Australian Open experience following his third round defeat to Nick Kyrgios and says he’s targeting the top-50 this season.

The Tunisian, who became the first player – man or woman – from his country in the Open Era to reach the last 32 at a grand slam, will rise to a career-high of around 65 in the world rankings after the action concludes in Melbourne.

The 31-year-old fell to Kyrgios 6-3, 7-6 (6), 6-1 in a close encounter that saw both players receive medical treatment for injuries.

He was making his grand slam third round debut and is hoping this bodes good things for the future.

Let’s take it in a positive way, it’s a good start for the year for me. I feel 2015 is going to be my year,” said Jaziri before signing off from Melbourne Park.

Jaziri was being coached by Wimbledon legend Goran Ivanisevic this week in Melbourne after the Croat volunteered to help out in the absence of his actual charge Marin Cilic, who is injured.

Ivanisevic was proud of the way Jaziri played but admitted that Kyrgios’ serve was exceptional.

Jaziri agrees: “He was serving very good. He was mixing a lot the serve. He was serving T, then he changed, he served body, so he mixed it up a lot. It’s not easy to read it. His percentage of the serve was very high. It made the difference.

I wish I could win today. I tried to do my best. I had a small injury in my hip, but I didn’t want to stop, I wanted to continue to play. It wasn’t easy, it was painful, but the doctor gave me some anti-inflammatory and I continued.

I didn’t even practice on Margaret Court Arena. I went straight to my match. First time for me to play on a big court here in Melbourne. It was okay, but you know

He played good, he’s really motivated, he’s playing at home. For me making the third round is still good. I prefer to focus on the things that I should have done and work on them more and take the positives from this good experience.”

Still, the Tunisian rued his missed chances in the second set, where he led 4-0 in the tiebreak before allowing Kyrgios to storm back and take it.

Sure if I had won the second set it could have been totally different. At one-set-all, you start to think, maybe I can have more confidence, I get more belief to win,” he admits.

He said Ivanisevic’s advice was simple, he told him to “play, have fun, enjoy” and Jaziri says he did just that. He feels he is ready to compete consistently at that level and is hoping to keep rising in the rankings.

He will have to recover quickly from his hip problem though as his upcoming schedule includes ATP tournaments in Montpellier, Memphis, Delray Beach and Dubai in back-to-back weeks.

Hopefully if I enter the top-50, I can play exclusively on the ATP tour and not go back to the Challengers,” he says.

One thing Jaziri must solve soon is his coaching situation. He works with Serbian Dejan Petrovic but only when he is in the United States, which means he flies solo everywhere else.

Jaziri is yet to figure out whether hiring a traveling coach or a traveling fitness trainer would be more beneficial for him but he plans on settling on these decisions soon.

I need to believe more,” he says. “When you come from a small country like Tunisia, no tradition, no culture of tennis, it’s tough to explain to people about tennis. This will give me a lot of confidence for the future, to believe more in myself, to make me work harder.”

Friday, January 23, 2015

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Kevin Anderson blasts Channel 7 commentators

South Africa’s Kevin Anderson has blasted Channel 7 commentators for saying they have never heard of American Tim Smyczek during the American’s five-set defeat to Rafael Nadal in the second round.

Smyczek, who earned the world’s respect for his great performance against Nadal and his incredible sportsmanship when he allowed the Spaniard to re-hit a first serve after a spectator yelled out as he was serving, is ranked No112 in the world, and peaked at No73 in 2013.

Anderson tweeted this during the match:

On Friday, following his 6-4, 7-6(3), 7-6(6) third round victory over Richard Gasquet, Anderson explained his grief with the Australian channel’s commentators.

There’s so many good tennis players and sometimes I feel when guys who are under the radar in a general sense come out and playing, I think tennis commentators can do a much better job of really pushing those guys up,” the No14 seed said.

When people are watching, it’s the first time they’ve maybe seen somebody like Tim playing. He’s a great player, he’s now going to be top-100 and I don’t think it’s a fair comment for commentators to say they’ve never heard of this guy before.”

Anderson cited golf commentators as an example their counterparts in tennis should follow.

I think golf is a great example, there are guys who I’ve personally never heard of before but the commentators are telling me their backgrounds, how amazing they are, this is what they like to do and I have an attachment to them as opposed to saying ‘I’ve never seen this guy’. It sort of divorces the people watching from players like that,” added the University of Illinois alumnus.

I would hope in the future maybe that’s something we can try to address a little bit because I feel it’s the commentators’ role to help promote players who aren’t always playing on centre court and comments like that I don’t think really help out too much.”

Anderson will take on Nadal in the last 16 on Sunday.

The South African's wife, Kelsey (a must-follow on Twitter by the way), also said this on the matter:

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Kyrgios ends Jaziri's dream run, Tomic criticises Groth

Australian teenager Nick Kyrgios ended Malek Jaziri’s inspired run in the third round of the Australian Open yesterday preventing his opponent from becoming the first Tunisian to make the last 16 at a major.

Kyrgios, who admits he was already dreaming about facing Roger Federer in the fourth round before he even took the court to face Jaziri, overcame some back problems en route to dismissing the North African 6-3, 7-6 (8), 6-1.

Playing in breezy conditions, amidst constant “whoop there it is” chants from the Aussie crowd, the home favourite recovered from a 0-4 deficit to take the second-set tiebreak. Both Kyrgios and Jaziri required medical attention throughout the match, the latter suffering a hip injury that hampered him in the third set.

Kyrgios later explained that his back, which forced him out of the Hopman Cup earlier this month, tightened during the match, which is why he needed a medical timeout.

I'm obviously getting by, but I don't think I'm moving 100 per cent to my ability,” said the 19-year-old, who next faces Andreas Seppi after the Italian shocked Federer earlier in the day.

It's hard not to think about playing possibly the greatest of all time. Everyone wants to play Roger. I can only dream about what Seppi is feeling right now to beat him in four sets on Rod Laver. That's massive for him.”

Jaziri, who had his volunteer-coach Goran Ivanisevic in his box during the match, was disappointed with the loss and rued his missed chances in the tiebreak. The Tunisian, who is the first Arab in 11 years to make a grand slam third round, had never hit on Margaret Court Arena prior to this match and admits it made for a nervy start for him.

Meanwhile, No6 seed Andy Murray flew past Portugal’s Joao Sousa 6-1, 6-1, 7-5 to set-up a mouth-watering showdown with Bulgarian No10 seed Grigor Dimitrov, who survived a major scare against Marcos Baghdatis before pulling through 4-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. “Matches like that really define I think who you are and how you want to be,” said a proud Dimitrov.

Another Aussie made it through yesterday, Bernard Tomic, who beat his big-serving countryman Sam Groth 6-4, 7-6(8), 6-3. Tomic later criticised Groth’s game saying “it wasn’t tennis” and relied too much on serve-and-volley.

"Today was not really gonna be tennis. It was just like return. I would have loved to play tennis today with long rallies. It would have been good. But today was just return," said Tomic.

Kyrgios stuck up for Groth afterwards, responding to Tomic’s comments by saying: “Sam has got the style of tennis where he has got to serve and volley a lot. I guess Bernard has to accept that. Not everyone is as talented as he is. He's one of the most talented guys I've ever seen to step on a tennis court. I don't know why he would be complaining. He had a comfortable win in straight sets.”

Tomic will be facing Berdych for a third time and the 22-year-old German-born Australian lost their previous two meetings, which both came at Wimbledon in 2013 and 2014.

He plans on taking advice from his veteran compatriot Lleyton Hewitt when they practice together today.

I'm hitting with Lleyton tomorrow, which is very good for me. Talk to Rusty to me about playing Tomas. Yeah, I'm excited for this next round. Targeting to win, and we'll see,” said Tomic.

Berdych has been many, many years, last three or four years, inside the top six. It's not easy to play him. You have to play well. You have to serve well, use your opportunity when it comes. He hits the ball so fricking hard. It's a big difference to any other player.”

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Historic win for Jaziri to reach first Grand Slam third round

For the first time in 11 years there is an Arab player in the third round of a grand slam thanks to a heroic performance from Tunisian Malek Jaziri, who overcame a tough opponent and even tougher conditions to make it happen.

Jaziri, whose previous best showing at a major was reaching the second round at the 2011 US Open, and 2012 Roland Garros and Wimbledon, made the last 32 of a slam for the first time in his career on Wednesday by ousting Frenchman Edouard Roger-Vasselin 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, 1-6, 6-3.

The world No75 made a terrible start to the clash, winning half the number of points that Roger-Vasselin won in the first set, and was visibly struggling with the heat and humidity.

But a visit from the doctor during the changeover at 1-2 in the second set swung things in Jaziri’s direction and he found a second gear against the Frenchman.

Roger-Vasselin later accused him of gamesmanship. When asked if he thought Jaziri was playing mind games during the match, the world No119 said: “Absolutely!”

Jaziri however explained that he never asked for a medical timeout and that both visits from the doctor were during changeovers, which didn’t interrupt the rhythm of play.

I never asked for a medical timeout. Just a changeover, which changes nothing. It was only one minute,” he said.

As more and more people trickled into the stands at Court 6 as the match progressed, Jaziri drew energy from a group of chanting fans, who rallied behind him and carried him over the line.

He ultimately needed four match points to get the deed done and fell to the ground when he realised he had hit a new personal milestone. The win gave a new meaning to a tournament that is dubbed the ‘Happy Slam’.

It’s the first time for me to make the third round so for sure I’m happy. I’m enjoying being here a lot,” said an ecstatic Jaziri, who turned 31 on the day he won his first round against Mikhail Kukushkin last Monday.

The crowd is amazing here, it’s amazing to play in Australia, all the courts are full, the people are cheering, a great mix of nationalities in the crowd. I hope this dream continues.”

Jaziri was pleasantly surprised when the fans sang him happy birthday after his first round victory, and was even more surprised by the support he got against Roger-Vasselin on Wednesday.

He knows for a fact though that that will not be the case in his next clash against local hero Nick Kyrgios – an encounter which will most probably take place on the main stadium here at Melbourne Park.

It will be the first time for me to play on a big court in Australia but I’ve played on big courts before at the US Open and elsewhere. First time for me to play on a big court in Australia and against a local… I think they will be cheering for me, but I hope maybe a little bit with me as well,” he said with a laugh.

Jaziri may have one or two tricks up his sleeve that could aid him against Kyrgios, who has beaten him before in the US Open qualifying rounds in 2013.

The Tunisian has an unlikely ally in his corner, Wimbledon legend Goran Ivanisevic, who has been informally helping Jaziri as a friend, in the absence of his injured actual charge, Marin Cilic.

Jaziri met Ivanisevic during the IPTL where they shared the same team, the UAE Royals, and they hit it off. The Croat nicknames him ‘Arabonsky’ and has been happy to give him tips and support him throughout the week in Melbourne.

Goran is a legend and an idol too. He’s a very good guy, I like him so much so I appreciate everything he’s doing for me,” said Jaziri.

Another interesting fact? There is a woman called Philippa who was spotted supporting Jaziri in the crowd. She hosted him and his team during a Challenger in Dallas last year and he considers her a lucky charm, having made the final that week in Texas and he has now made his first major third round with her in the stands.

A birthday on court, a legend in his corner and a lucky charm who flew thousands of miles to support him… Looks like Jaziri has everything he needs to face Kyrgios on Friday.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN - Nadal: The back is not limiting me

After years worrying about his troublesome knees, Rafael Nadal is aware that he now has another concern he must regularly attend to – his back.

This time last year, the Spaniard sustained a back injury that hampered him during his final defeat to Stan Wawrinka in Melbourne and it has forced him to undergo a series of different treatments throughout the course of 2014, including a rumoured stem cells treatment he refuses to elaborate upon.

Ex-world No1 Jim Courier recently said “once a back patient, always a back patient” – a statement Nadal seems to be coming to terms with.

However, ahead of his Australian Open second round on Wednesday against American Tim Smyczek, Nadal was happy to reveal that his back is not currently affecting his tennis on court.

The back is not limiting me, so that's important for the moment, no?” said Nadal, who will be facing the 112th-ranked Smyczek for the first time in his career.

I know the back is dangerous. I know the back is a thing that you have to take care about. We are trying to do the right things to be safe with that, but there is things you cannot control.”

Despite a convincing straight-sets win over Mikhail Youzhny in round one, the 28-year-old remains cautious about his expectations Down Under.

I have one match. That's better than two days ago. But I need more to feel that I am ready for something very important here,” said Nadal.

One player who also suffered injury drama in Melbourne last year is Australian Bernard Tomic, who was forced to retire from his opening round against Nadal in 2014.

He then had two hip surgeries and battled long and hard to get to the strong form he’s been showcasing over the past couple of weeks.

The 22-year-old said he was able to erase some painful memories with his four-set victory over Tobias Kamke in the first round on Monday, and is feeling confident heading into his match today with No22 seed Philipp Kohlschreiber, whom he beat last week in Sydney.

Tomic, who cracked the top-30 back in 2012, has slipped to No66 and he actually had to remind his fans on court the other day that he is no longer Australia’s No1 player – he is No2 behind Nick Kyrgios. It is a fact that he is paying little attention to however.

I'm very confident. I played very well in Brisbane; played very well in Sydney. It's coming good. I'm very fit,” said Tomic. “I play a player that I played last week, but it's not easy to play Kohlschreiber.

He's very smart and very good with the game. He controls it well with the rallies.

It's a player that is very, very, very capable of beating everyone. That's why he's been so many years inside the top 30, 20.”

Last year’s semi-finalist Eugenie Bouchard is also feeling fresh and confident heading into her second round against Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens on Wednesday.

I haven't played an official match in two and a half months, so it really does give your brain a break. For me, it makes me so excited to play. Just I feel good mentally on the court. I'm just so ready to fight and leave everything on the court,” said the Canadian No7 seed.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Azarenka, Stephens and the irony of a draw

There is such a thing as a monster draw and even if Victoria Azarenka refuses to admit it, the former world No1 surely must realise that she has fallen into tennis’ equivalent to a World Cup’s group of death.

The Belarusian also refuses to say that she feels any differently being unseeded at a major, even though it is the first time since the 2007 US Open Azarenka is not one of the 32 players typed in bold in a draw.

A foot injury has taken Azarenka on a trip down the rankings to her current place of 44 and it meant that she gets to take on world No8 Caroline Wozniacki as early as the second round.

After handling a tough first round against Sloane Stephens yesterday, Azarenka will have to maneuver past Wozniacki and potentially world No1 Serena Williams in the last eight if she hopes to make it out of her quarter alive.

Being an unseeded player, it's not a surprise that I have a tough draw or tough opponents in the early round. I just need to go through that. I accept the challenges,” Azarenka said after defeating 2013 semi-finalist, Stephens, 6-3, 6-2 on Tuesday.

Ironically, it was the third consecutive year that Azarenka has taken on Stephens in Melbourne.

The two-time Australian Open champion may have been conservative in her reaction to her draw but Stephens, who has also seen her ranking slip, certainly wasn’t.

I knew I was going to play her. I was like ‘of course I’m not seeded, she’s not seeded and we’re going to play each other, that’s just how it’s going to be’. It’s unfortunate but that’s how it happened,” said Stephens.

I saw (in the second round) I would have played Caroline Wozniacki or Taylor Townsend, the draw is rigged I swear. I need to go talk to Craig Tiley because this is ridiculous,” the American dryly joked.

Two years ago, Stephens started a six-slam streak where she made the second week in each one. However, in her last three majors, she’s won only one match. It is why she, like Azarenka, was unseeded this Australian Open.

I played some tough players in the first round in the last couple of slams,” said the 21-year-old.

It’s tough, it sucks, it’s a lot less money I tell you… it sucks being out a grand slam early, going home and watching… that’s not fun. But definitely something that I grow from.

I was watching the other day and Youzhny is like on his 53rd straight grand slam. If I play that long, I have a long way to go. To dwell on the last three, then it’s not looking good for the rest of the 50 I’m going to play. I just look forward to the next one, it’s one of my favourite slams.”

Stephens showed glimpses of her ripping forehand but Azarenka was clinical at the net, winning almost every point she played up front, and managed to dictate with her deep shots to advance.

I felt pretty good. I think from the beginning I started to be pretty focused and just maintained that intensity,” said Azarenka.

Her next opponent, Wozniacki, also had a tough opener against lefty teenager Taylor Townsend, who arguably has the most exciting game amongst all the up-and-coming Americans.

The No8 seed beat Townsend, who won the 2012 Australian Open singles and doubles junior titles, 7-6 (1), 6-2, to book her date with her good friend Azarenka.

The ex-world No1 had some wrist trouble coming into Melbourne but assured she is passed the problem.

Speaking of her premature clash with Azarenka in the second round tomorrow, Wozniacki said: “Whether you have to beat her in the second round or fourth round, whatever, doesn't matter if you want to win the tournament.”

Top-seeded Serena Williams coasted through her first round 6-0, 6-4 over Belgian Alison Van Uytvanck.

Williams, who just entered her 100th consecutive week ranked No1, wrapped up her win in 61 minutes but says she was nervous despite the lopsided score line.

I had the jitters going out in the first match of a grand slam. So, yeah, it's never super easy to be the one that everyone wants to beat,” said Williams.

Double Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova banished her negative memories from a shock opening round exit in Melbourne last year by convincingly taking out unheralded Dutchwoman Richel Hogenkamp 6-1, 6-4.

The No4 seed confessed she was nervous though, especially with so many seeds dropping like flies in the women’s side. “During the match and during the morning and waiting time, it wasn't really easy for me to handle it. So I'm glad that I did better than the last year,” said the Czech power-hitter.

I saw yesterday many of us seeded players, they went out. Of course, it stays in your mind and it's always difficult. I know how it feels. I lost first round last year.”

No13 seed Andrea Petkovic was one of those unexpected upsets on Tuesday, the German squandering a 7-5, 5-3 lead en route to a three-set defeat to USA’s Madison Brengle.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Tunisia's Ons Jabeur is "ready to fly"

Ons Jabeur feels she is finally ready to fulfil her potential as she gets ready to play in her first career Australian Open main draw.

The Tunisian, currently ranked No143, is the highest-ranked Arab in the world and the only Arab in the women’s field at Melbourne Park.

She earned her spot in the main draw after storming through her three qualifying rounds without dropping a set.

Jabeur, who won Roland Garros as a junior in 2011, has been tipped by many to rise in the WTA ranks but is yet to make her mark on the senior stage.

Melbourne will be her second major main draw appearance, having qualified for the US Open last August before falling to Andrea Petkovic in three sets.

Jabeur joined the Mouratoglou Academy - owned by Serena Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou - in Paris six months ago and had her first proper preseason training last month, where she prepared for her assault on 2015.

She flew through her Australian Open qualifying rounds and believes she is braced for a good opening match against ex-world No2 Vera Zvonareva on Tuesday.

Those qualifying matches were good for me,” the 20-year-old said. “I played really good.

I feel like I am ready. I had a very good preseason so I am ready to fly.

I’m really excited to play my second grand slam main draw.”

Jabeur, who previously had an all-Tunisian team, explains how she never had the chance to prepare for a season in a proper professional way.

I never had a preseason (training block) before, this was my first one,” she says.

I did a lot of physical preparation and played a lot of tennis. Corrected some technique and improved a lot of things.

I am ready now to join the biggest players and be one of the top-50, why not? I can do it.”

On facing Zvonareva, the former Wimbledon runner-up whose ranking has plummeted to 203 due to a string of injuries, Jabeur said: “I will give my best, focus on my game and I am self-confident. Insha’Allah I can do it.”

Jabeur will be looking to join her fellow Tunisian Malek Jaziri in the second round after the world No75, who turned 31 on Tuesday, defeated Kazakhstan's Mikhail Kukushkin 6-2, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (3) on opening day of the Australian Open.

Jaziri  is through to the second round of a grand slam for the fourth time in his career and will face Frenchman Edouard Roger-Vasselin in the last 64 on Wednesday.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

QATAR OPEN: Djokovic says patience is the key against Karlovic

Novak Djokovic was able to describe what every player is bound to feel ahead of a match against Ivo Karlovic.

The world No1, who has dropped just six games in his first two matches of the year in Doha, has a quarter-final date with the tall Croatian serving machine on Thursday and he was quite forthcoming with regards to how he perceives his clash with Karlovic, the man of 9,041 aces.

"How do you think I feel about that?" Djokovic asked with a laugh. "I'm definitely going to try to get some good sleep so my reaction tomorrow is quick, because I'm going to need that, definitely. We all know how Ivo is serving. He is one of the best servers ever to play the game. He's right up there on the all-time list of aces."

Karlovic is No3 on the all-time list to be precise. Only Goran Ivanisevic (10,183) and Andy Roddick (9,074) have struck more aces in their career and Karlovic is determined to surpass them.

"It's my ambition to overtake Goran before I retire," said the 35-year-old Karlovic.

Djokovic was asked if he enjoyed facing someone like Karlovic. The Serb said: "Honestly, I'm still to meet the player that enjoys playing him. I don't think that anybody really enjoys it. It's a big challenge, obviously, mentally I think most of all.

"The key is to try to get as many returns back in play. Also there will probably be some games where he's going to serve two, three aces. I'm going to have to accept that, but, you know, these particular matches, when you play somebody that serves that well, one of the best all time servers in tennis history, then you just need to wait and be patient."

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

2015 season - New parternships, new milestones, new comebacks

 Djokovic addresses the press in Doha

Tennis has a way of exploding all of a sudden. After a brief calm stretch of offseason, the ATP and WTA are back at full throttle with five official tournaments being held this week – in Brisbane, Shenzhen, Doha, Auckland and Chennai - as well as the exhibition Hopman Cup taking place in Perth.

Barring a handful of withdrawals, everyone is in action this week – even Novak Djokovic, who hadn’t played an official tournament prior to the Australian Open since 2009.

The world No1 was lured into playing Doha for the first time and you can look at it in one of two ways – either he’s not feeling too confident with his game heading into Melbourne or the Qataris offered him an appearance fee he couldn’t refuse.

Considering Djokovic ended 2014 with two titles and has won 22 of his last 24 matches, it seems the latter is the more likely reason behind his Doha debut.

Entering the new year, a host of players are showing up for the first time with new mentors following a very active coaching carousel in the offseason.

Here are a few partnerships I'm quite excited about:

Madison Keys and Lindsay Davenport
Madison Keys is the highest ranked teenager in the WTA and could be the most exciting prospect in American tennis. The 19-year-old teamed up with three-time grand slam champion Lindsay Davenport and you could already imagine the former world No1 guiding Keys to the second week at Wimbledon this year. Davenport’s husband Jon Leach will also be helping out.
Agnieszka Radwanska and Martina Navratilova

Martina Navratilova is the latest super-coach to join the ATP/WTA circus and you’ve got to applaud Agnieskza Radwanska for hiring the Czech-born American legend. Not only is Navratilova an 18-time grand slam singles champion, the 58-year-old has been one of the best commentators in tennis over the past several years, and her ability to analyse the game could prove invaluable to Radwanska.
Radwanska is one of the most exciting players to watch but the ex-Wimbledon runner-up has been lacking a ruthless touch that can get her over the grand slam hump. If Navratilova can help her adopt some of her own aggressive style, the result could be just marvelous.

Tomas Berdych and Dani Vallverdu
This was an unexpected hiring as Tomas Berdych decided to take on Andy Murray’s ex-hitting partner as a full-time coach. It is Dani Vallverdu’s first gig as a head coach and it’ll be interesting to see how the Venezuelan will proceed after things turned sour in his final months with Murray. Could Berdych follow in the footsteps of Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic and be this year’s first-time grand slam champion?


Ekaterina Makarova became just the 12th Russian to enter the top-10 in the WTA. With the points of the first week of the year dropped, Makarova has moved to No10 in the rankings. She is the only player currently in the top-10 in both singles and doubles.

Roger Federer can reach 1,000 career wins this week in Brisbane if he wins the title.

Comeback watch

Vera Zvonareva
After almost two and a half years with illness and injury, the two-time grand slam runner-up is launching another comeback. The Russian, currently ranked 250, kicked off her 2015 season with a win over world No22 Peng Shuai in Shenzhen. Here’s hoping this is a sign for better things to come for the 30-year-old.

Juan Martin del Potro
The ex-US Open champion delayed his return from a right wrist injury and has pulled out of Brisbane with Argentinean media reporting that he still can’t hit his backhand without pain. Out since last March, Del Potro’s Australian Open participation looks in doubt.

Janko Tipsarevic
The former top-tenner has also delayed his return to tennis after struggling with a benign tumour in his foot. His friend Djokovic said Tipsarevic, who hasn’t played since October 2013, is due to come back in February.

Laura Robson
Out with a left wrist injury for the past 12 months, Robson won’t play the Australian Open but will make her return in a series of low-key events in February.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Murray gets positive news about shoulder, reveals changes in his training

Just four days into the new year and Andy Murray already has two top-15 wins and a trophy under his belt. It’s a start to the 2015 season any player would dream of.

Even better news for the world No6 is the fact that scans he underwent yesterday at Al Noor Hospital on his left shoulder have shown no serious problems, although Murray admits that he is still feeling a bit sore.

The Scot could have had a tough decision to make yesterday on whether he should face Novak Djokovic in the Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC) final with a sore shoulder or not.

Murray was seen clutching his left shoulder during practice at Zayed Sports City yesterday and everyone was waiting for confirmation about whether he would be fit to play the final or not.

Instead, it was Djokovic who made a shock withdrawal due to illness and Murray was given a reprieve.

I woke up this morning and felt okay. Then when I went to practice, it was still a bit sore when I was serving,” explained Murray after receiving his second MWTC trophy.

I had an ultrasound scan on it, there’s a hospital just across the road, and the results of that were all clear and very positive.

So that was good. But it was still a little bit sore when I was warming up today. But hopefully in a few days with some more rest and more treatment I’ll be absolutely fine when I get to Australia.”

Murray flew to Australia in the early hours of this morning (Sunday) where he will compete alongside fellow Briton Heather Watson in the Hopman Cup, an exhibition team inter-nation event in Perth.

He will spend the next week in Perth before heading to Melbourne ahead of the Australian Open, which commences on January 19.

The 27-year-old says he was generally pleased with the two matches he contested in Abu Dhabi and with how his preseason training had gone in Miami.

Murray explained how his preparation for the new season has been different than in previous years following the changes he has made to his team.

Last November, the Scot parted ways with long-time friend and hitting partner Dani Vallverdu as well as with his fitness trainer Jez Green, who was replaced by Matt Little, who now has a bigger role in team Murray, being responsible for all his strength and condition training.

Murray says the shakeup has allowed him to try new things during the offseason and that working on his speed on the court has been an element of focus.

I think with a lot of relationships in life, in business, sport, things kind of run their course and come to an end. The last few months weren’t so good, the atmosphere wasn’t like it used to be. It’s just time to move on and do different things,” Murray said of his relationship with Vallverdu, who is now coaching Tomas Berdych, and Green.

Talking about how his training changed over the past few weeks, he added: “The training I did in the offseason is very different to the training I did last year in the offseason.

Which was nice doing new things and embracing changes is a very important part of sport because things change all the time.

You have new coaches and different people around, you need to accept that and look forward to it. So definitely my routines and the way of training has changed. And I like that, because I’ve been training the same way for a very long time.

Working on my speed is something I think is a big asset in my game, when I move well around the court it makes a big difference to the way I feel when I’m playing. I hadn’t done much speed work at all for the last few years so it’s something that I wanted to get back to. Because I feel that it’s a strength of mine and it’s also important to work on your strengths. I feel that I moved well in Abu Dhabi and that’s a sign that the training has already started to pay off a little bit.”

Murray: Rafa's record on clay is most incredible in all of sport

Andy Murray believes Rafael Nadal’s record on clay is one of the most impressive records in any sport and that he could have had chances to win the French Open had the Spaniard not been around.

Nadal has a staggering 93 per cent winning record on the red dirt, winning 318 matches and losing just 24 in his entire career, and the Mallorcan has lost just once in 67 clashes at the French Open – the only major played on clay – capturing nine titles there.

The red dirt is Murray’s least favourite surface – zero of his 31 titles have come on clay – but he has managed to reach the French Open semi-finals twice, losing both times to Nadal.

Asked whether he feels he can improve on the surface in order to try and win the French Open, Murray said: “It’s something I’d obviously love to try and do. When people talk about my clay court game - I made the semi-finals of the French Open two times and both times I lost to Rafa. If he wasn’t around I would have a chance normally against some of the other players.

But he’s by far the best clay court player of all time. I don’t know if his record on that surface will ever be matched. It’s one of the most incredible records in all of sport.

What he’s done at Roland Garros, Novak’s (Djokovic) obviously one of the best players to have played and if Rafa wasn’t around I’m sure he could have had a few French Opens. Roger only won one time and he can play amazing tennis on clay.

So it’s been a tough era to win at the French Open because Rafa has completely dominated that event.

But you never know if someone picks up an injury or whatever then I can have a better chance. I’ve improved my clay court game over the years and hopefully I can make a few more improvements this year again.”