Saturday, January 30, 2016

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Murray survives Raonic to set-up final rematch with Djokovic

The Murray clan have got a lot to be proud of as both Andy and Jamie have become the first brothers in the Open Era to reach the finals in men’s singles and doubles at a grand slam.

Andy Murray on Friday pulled off a tough escape against Milos Raonic to beat the Canadian No13 seed 4-6, 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-2 in a four-hour battle and reach his fifth Australian Open final, where he takes on his long-time nemesis Novak Djokovic.

The world No2 joins his brother Jamie as a finalist in Melbourne with the latter set to play his third consecutive grand slam doubles final when he takes to the court alongside his partner Bruno Soares on Saturday against Daniel Nestor and Radek Stepanek.

“For it to be the first time to happen is incredible really. I never would have expected that,” Andy told reporters on Friday.

“(This is) Obviously something that's going to be extremely rare. You're not going to see it very often. We should enjoy it and be proud of it because it's a tough thing to do.”

Looking to reach a ninth grand slam final, Andy struggled to get a read on the massive Raonic serve early on as the Canadian, playing just his second major semi-final, came out blazing.

The world No14 made a nerveless start breaking the Murray serve at love. Raonic saved all three break points to consolidate and protected the advantage he had throughout the set.

The 25-year-old got his first two set points with a 230km/hr service winner and took the set on his second chance, challenging a serve that was mistakenly called out. Murray got a break point in the second game of the second set but a Raonic serve-forehand one-two punch saw the No13 seed get out of trouble.

In the third game, Raonic asked umpire Jake Garner which mark was from Murray’s serve before challenging, and winning the challenge. Murray complained to Garner saying: “You said to challenge in a clear and timely manner. In my opinion, that’s not a clear and timely manner.”

After holding for a 2-1 lead, Murray told Garner in the changeover: “I hope you’re consistent with that for the rest of the match.”

Raonic faced a break/set point, serving at 5-6, and he netted a volley to hand over the set. The third set was a tight affair and remained on serve throughout. Raonic got a break point in the 11th game but Murray survived it. The set went to a tiebreak in which Raonic opened a 5-2 gap and sealed it with an ace.

Three games into the fourth set, Raonic needed an off-court medical timeout to treat an adductor injury. The 1.96m Canadian was never the same again, failing to push off his leg on serve and struggling to move well.

Murray held for 2-2 upon resumption of play before Raonic, who had been ice-cold thus far, got testy with Garner, demanding the umpire overrule the poor line calls, telling him: “I have to play him, not you. Do your freaking job.”

Two games later, Murray broke Raonic at love for a 4-3 lead. Raonic got a break point in the following game but Murray covered the net well to save it and gave about 10 fist pumps in a row to celebrate. Raonic wasted two break points as Murray served for the set at 5-4 but the Scot hung on and took the set on his second chance with a service winner to force a fifth.
Keeping his cool up to that point, Raonic double-faulted to get broken in the opening game of the decider and smashed his racquet in frustration to the sound of echoing boos from the stands. Murray broke again and it wasn’t long before he sealed the win on his first opportunity with an inside out forehand winner.

Amelie Mauresmo, Murray’s coach, said she was amazed at her charge’s fighting spirit.

“He was incredible. He was in a bit of trouble out there and Milos definitely improved a lot and his serve was really hard, I thought Andy, at the beginning, had a lot of trouble reading it, and then as the match went on, he was reading it better and better so that was really a big satisfaction,” said the Frenchwoman, who won the Australian Open title herself 10 years ago.

“He never gives up, that’s basically what happened tonight. And in the fifth set he was able to physically and mentally go over Milos, but yeah, a tough one tonight.”

Murray said he wasn’t surprised by Raonic’s high-quality display but admits he suffered a slow start due to the adjustments he had to make between warming up indoors and ending up playing with the roof open.
It hurts light hell now at this moment. The heartbreak and the disappoint. Regardless, I will not let this keep me down. That is not how I was raised and that is not the kind of person that I am. I thrive of challenges and of difficult moments that on the other side make me better and make me stronger. It's infuriating for the tournament to end on this note and to have to face this knot in my stomach. But it's not the end. Not by any means. I am better than that and I will overcome the challenges my body presents to me, I work far to damn hard and commit every waking moment to tennis, my ambitions and my goals, to not do that. I will grow from this and I will learn. I will give myself this opportunity again and I will move on in a better light. It may not be today or tomorrow but I am gonna do everything to make sure it's someday! At the end of the day, it has been a very special January. I have showed great amounts of improvement and development in my tennis. I have played great and I have done a whole lot of winning. That feels great and I will keep pushing that forward. A huge thank you to the fans and supporters who show their love and passion, on court, through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and any other way possible. You guys are great to me and I am forever grateful. I will much more to cheer for. With much love! Milos
A photo posted by Milos Raonic (@mraonic) on
A heartbroken Raonic spoke to reporters after the match revealing he felt his adductor problem midway through the third set.

“Yeah, it's unfortunate. Probably the most heartbroken I felt on court, but that's what it is,” said Raonic, who struck 78 unforced errors against 72 winners yesterday.

Asked if he felt he still had a chance to fight through the pain, Raonic added: “I think maybe that's why I sort of lashed out after I did at the start of the fifth set.

“I guess that was sort of just the whole frustration of everything sort of getting out. I don't think that's like myself to do, but sometimes it's a little bit too much to keep in.”

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: No "coffee bar" for Zhang Shuai just yet as she makes the quarter-finals, Keys crashes out injured

Zhang Shuai’s miracle run at the Australian Open continued on Monday night with yet another emotional victory for the Chinese world No133, but it also meant heartbreak for 2015 semi-finalist Madison Keys who left the court injured and in tears.

The 27-year-old, who came to Melbourne with zero wins in 14 grand slam appearances and but has now made her way into the quarter-finals, could barely contain her own emotions as she held her nerve to beat the No15 seed 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 while watching Keys suffer from an adductor injury.

Zhang considered retirement just three months ago and brought her parents to Australia thinking it may be their last chance to see her compete. She says she would have liked to open her own “coffee bar” had she left the sport. We're all invited when she does open it.

But since she got to Melbourne, she has won seven matches – three in qualifying and four in the main draw – and now finds herself one of the last eight remaining players in the draw.

Her win over Keys on Monday makes her the first qualifier to reach the quarter-finals in Melbourne since Mexico’s Angelica Gavaldon in 1990 and she now has a chance to go further should she beat Johanna Konta in the next round.

“I’m very exciting. Very happy, yeah. I don't want to stop. I want more step,” said Zhang, who looked too exhausted to form complete sentences in the press conference.

“It's so tough to play against someone injury because, yeah, when I'm saw her like feel more pain. You know, so tough. Maybe two point you feeling like cannot play, and then next three balls, pong, pong, pong, make two ace, one winner.

“So, so tough. You don't know what's happen. And also last year this happened many times. I'm almost winning the match. I lost. I lost the concentrate. But this time I think I try to concentrate. So I'm happy I win the match, yeah.”
Keys, who was barely able to move after the match and couldn’t make her way to the interview room, says she felt like she tore her adductor towards the end of the first set but wanted to keep on fighting.

“You don’t want to… one I hate retiring, and two, you don’t want to do that to someone who is trying to get into the quarter-finals,” said a tearful Keys, talking to reporters in the media restaurant.

“I thought maybe I could figure it out and somehow get through then have a day off and try but obviously not going to happen.” Asked how disappointed she was, Keys said: “I don’t think there’s a word for it.”

As a qualifier, Zhang has already had an incredibly long two weeks in Melbourne and she convinced herself that her fourth round on Monday was a final to find some strength.

“Before today I'm thinking ‘okay, today is the final’. When somebody already wins six matches at a grand slam, already it’s the final, right?” she said.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Milos Raonic finally knows how good he is, says coach Carlos Moya

Milos Raonic is finally aware of how good he really is… at least that’s what his new coach Carlos Moya believes after he watched his charge upset No4 seed Stan Wawrinka in five sets to reach the Australian Open quarter-finals on Monday.

Entering his fourth round carrying a 0-4 head-to-head against Wawrinka, Raonic scored his first win over the Swiss in dramatic fashion, venturing up to the net an incredible 83 times en route to a 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-3 success.

History was made in the process as Raonic, the No13 seed, became the first Canadian ever to reach four grand slam quarter-finals.

The 1.96m ace machine has now won his last eight consecutive matches, having captured the title in Brisbane to kick off his season, and will face Gael Monfils for a place in the semi-finals.

Raonic has looked like a man on a mission from the start of the year and he handed Wawrinka a loss on January 1 in Abu Dhabi, albeit in exhibition play.

After struggling for most of 2015 with injuries, he finally feels fit and has this aura of confidence around him that was never as evident before.

He brought in Moya to replace Ivan Ljubicic, who joined Roger Federer’s coaching staff, and their first tournament together is shaping up to be a big hit.

After beating Federer in the Brisbane final, Raonic has now notched two top-four victories barely four weeks into the new year.

“For sure he’s a more mature player right now. He’s injury-free which is very good... And now he sort of put things together and he’s playing his best tennis,” Moya said after Raonic’s win.

“I think also mentally he stepped up. He probably wasn’t aware of how good he was and now he starts to realise that he has all the weapons it takes to be a champion and it’s about using them properly.”

Against Wawrinka yesterday, Raonic was the aggressor while his opponent, struggling with a cold since the start of the tournament, fought hard to try and shift the momentum by the third set.

But after Wawrinka levelled the match for two-sets-all, Raonic did not panic - in fact he says he was calm, and his tennis showed it as he didn’t face a single break point in the fifth.

Serving and volleying like it’s 1985, Raonic was successful 54/83 times at the net and he finished the match with a stunning 82 winners against 53 unforced errors.

“I felt very clear in what I needed to do and I believed that I could do it. I think that gave me some kind of calm and some kind of peace inside,” said Raonic of how he felt at the start of the fifth. “There was a very strong belief that the opportunities I was creating, I would be able to make the most of it...

“Last nine months for me, everything was a question. Some days I was hiding the disappointments I was having because of injuries, some days I was not.

“But I think the more as I mature, the more I understand my game, what I need to do, the more I can keep a quiet head on my shoulders.”

Raonic’s all-out aggressive game has been in the making for quite some time. The 25-year-old, the youngest of the eight quarter-finalists, says the time he spent away from the game while injured allowed him to think of ways he can improve.

“When I was sort of sitting there maybe a little bit annoyed with the physical situation I was in, I was asking myself all the time ‘what can I do to get better?’ It was something definitely I felt was necessary for me,” he explains.

Moya says his goal since he started working with Raonic was to convince him what his weapons were and organising the way to use them. He has encouraged him to continue with his attacking game but says it’s important to mix things up.

“He’s a big guy, he has a huge forehand and serve. Here the courts are fast. It’s not easy to pass a guy like him. He has a good volley, good technique. It’s good to mix it up,” said the Spanish coach and ex-world No1.

“To me, sometimes today he served and volleyed in the fourth set every point. So Wawrinka kind of expected him to come to the net. We talked about that, to be more unpredictable.”

On his part, Wawrinka said he was surprised he could take the match to five sets, and said his illness had taken its toll on him.

“I think I honestly come from too far. I've been sick since 10 days now. Still trying to get into the second week. Couldn't really be at my top. When you play a top guy like Milos, it's difficult. You need to be 100 per cent to have a chance to beat him,” said the world No4.

“Today he pushed from the beginning. He was there. That's it. He was better.”

Raonic’s next opponent seems like the polar opposite of the Canadian. Monfils is flamboyant and entertaining; Raonic seems serious and his game is comparatively monotonous.

“I guess the way I describe myself is trying to be efficient,” says Raonic on why he shows little emotion on the court.

“I know from when I was a junior I learned in many tough lessons that sort of when I get too emotional for the positive I can start going to a negative too fast. That cost me too many matches.”

Moya says it’s important to quickly put the Wawrinka win behind them to focus on the next challenge.

“It’s going to be important not to think too much about this match that he just won. It’s a huge win to be honest but still he’s halfway to his biggest goal, which is to win the slam so he has to be calm and knowing that his next match is going to be very difficult as well and we have to help him on that,” said Moya.

Monday, January 25, 2016

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Djokovic hits 100 unforced errors en route to five-set win over Gilles Simon

At Melbourne Cricket Ground, located just a few hundred metres away from Rod Laver Arena, a century is a good thing, but for Novak Djokovic, the century of unforced errors he struck in his five-set victory over Gilles Simon on Sunday were problematic.

The world No1 described his four-hour 32-minute last-16 battle against Simon as a “match to forget” but that 6-3, 6-7 (1), 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win also ushered Djokovic into his 27th straight grand slam quarter-final, to tie Jimmy Connors in second place for the most consecutive major last-eight appearances.

Simon, the world No15, had told French media before the match that he had the entire locker room behind him as most of the players were tired of seeing Djokovic win all the time.

“I don't know which locker room he's talking about. Women's locker room I'm pretty popular, I know that,” quipped Djokovic after the clash.

The humour the top seed showed in his post-match press conference was a stark contrast to the fits of rage he experienced on the court as he struck one error after the other frustrated by Simon’s counter-punching.

Each rally felt like it was a match within itself as the ball went back on forth over 30 times per point and each set felt like it deserved a trophy ceremony at the end of it.

“I know a lot of players wanted me to win this match. A lot of players will feel better with Novak out of the draw. That's normal because he's the best player in the world,” explained Simon, who is now 1-10 head-to-head against Djokovic.

“I know exactly what I was doing, but I won't say it. I had a plan. I know him well. We all know which player he is and how hard it is to find any solution against him, to somehow stop the fight and feel better on the court. I think I worked on it good today. He made 100 unforced errors. That's a good number for me, not for him. But unfortunately was not enough.”
The opening set was a drawn out tug of war that gave a clear idea of what the rest of the showdown was going to look like. Djokovic broke at love for 3-1 but Simon broke right back and drew level for 3-all.

The Serb then needed an 11-minute game that saw him save four break points and go through seven deuces before he held serve, sarcastically raising his arms in victory to celebrate.

Djokovic then broke in the following game for a 5-3 lead. Serving for the set, the top seed had to save two break points before he finally sealed it on his fourth opportunity.

Simon was unfazed and snatched the second-set tiebreak 7-1, ending Djokovic’s streak of 26 consecutive sets won, dating back to the ATP Finals in November.

Djokovic led 3-0 in the third but Simon clawed his way back for 3-all. The Frenchman was broken though in game 10 as Djokovic edged ahead.

The world No1 needed another marathon eight-minute game to hold in the opening game of the fourth and was broken in the ninth game to give Simon a 5-4 advantage which was enough for him take the set and force a decider.

Djokovic raced to a 5-1 lead in the fifth but once again, a stubborn Simon pegged him back, and saved two match points to hold for 3-5 – a game which witnessed the Serb’s 100th unforced error.

Serving for the match for a second time, Djokovic aced to get triple match point and he sealed the encounter with backhand winner. He finished the clash a bizarre 6/25 on break point conversions.
In his on-court chat with Jim Courier, someone from the crowd yelled “no more drop shots” at Djokovic, who had done terribly on most of his drop shot attempts throughout the match.

“I hate to say it but you’re absolutely right,” responded Djokovic to the fan in the stands.

The 28-year-old later described his horror show with the drop shots as a “brain freeze”, admitting he was trying to shorten the rallies with Simon forcing him to hit an extra shot, but his strategy wasn’t working.

Djokovic, who faces No7 seed Kei Nishikori in the quarter-finals on Tuesday, says he’s not worried about playing as poorly in his next match.

“Actually, it gives me great joy to know that I can't get worse than that, than what I played today,” Djokovic said with a smile. “It doesn't concern me for the next one.

“It's not a very pleasant feeling when you're not playing well. But certainly it's a good feeling when you win not playing well.”

Roger Federer, who had a post-midnight finish in beating David Goffin 6-2, 6-1, 6-4, said enough credit was not being given to Simon in how the Frenchman forced Djokovic to play badly.

“I just feel people talking like Novak had a horrible day. Of course he can play better, but on the other side, you have somebody (Simon) who has the fastest legs and he knows exactly what he's doing out there, and it worked almost to the very end. So it was very close for Novak, and he knows that,” said Federer, who faces sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych in the quarters on Tuesday.

Simon, who has had wins over Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal, says his strength is that he doesn’t fear the top players.

“Like I just see them as humans and tennis players. They are fantastic. They can play an amazing tennis, but they still have some weaknesses on the court,” said the 31-year-old.

He says the scary part about Djokovic though is that he continues to get better.

“He's improving year after year. That's terrible to say because he's already No1. He's improving, so I try to improve also,” added Simon.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Wawrinka's voice, Tomic hits out at Federer, Raonic's heartfelt dedication

Stan Wawrinka joked that he preferred being sick and not having a voice to avoid “talking s***” after the No4 seed overcame Lukas Rosol to reach the Australian Open fourth round on Saturday.

Suffering from a cold for the past week, Wawrinka showed little signs of struggle as he beat the powerful Czech 6-2, 6-3, 7-6(3), slamming down 18 aces in the process, to set up a last 16 showdown with No13 seed Milos Raonic.

Wawrinka’s voice sounded hoarse in his on-court interview with Jim Courier which prompted the American to ask him if he was ill. “Last few days I couldn’t really talk, but I’ve been okay, maybe too many cigars,” joked the 2014 champion.

“I have a bit of a cold, but as long as I feel well on the court, I don’t really need my voice. If I can talk, I talk too much s***, so it’s better.”

Federer said in Brisbane: “He's (Tomic) been good, but then top 10 is another story. The year is not just one month long or one week long. It's 52 weeks. It's every day.

“That he's been struggling to show, to be quite honest. Many seasons now in a row we have seen or heard that top 10 is the goal, and he's missed out on it by a long shot. I think before speaking so highly, maybe it's good to take it to the next level, whatever that is. We shall see.”

Tomic, who booked a fourth round meeting with Andy Murray with a 6-4, 7-6(4), 6-2 over John Millman, did not appreciate the Swiss’ comments.

He said on Saturday: “Well, he has his predictions. I think he's also far away from Djokovic as well if he wants to say that. If he believes I'm very far away from the top 10, I also believe my prediction that he's nowhere near Novak's tennis right now. “It also motivates me. I'm working for that. When I'm playing well, I'm a top-eight player in the world. My ranking has to get there.”

Earlier in the day, French No23 seed Gael Monfils recorded his 350th tour-level victory with a hard-fought 7-5, 6-3, 6-2 triumph over his 35-year-old compatriot Stephane Robert.

Meanwhile, Raonic gave an emotional on-court dedication to the victims of the school shooting in Saskatchewan in Canada after his 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 over Sydney champion Viktor Troicki.

“Today, before I stepped out on court it was a difficult day back home,” Raonic told the crowd at Margaret Court Arena.

“Unfortunately in Saskatchewan, in a very small community, there was a shooting at a high school so I want to take a moment to give thoughts to that community, the family, the students and the school affected. We wish you all the best. Today’s victory was for that community and a quick recovery. All of Canada and I’m sure the world is behind you.”

Saturday, January 23, 2016

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Federer passes Dimitrov test to make fourth round in Melbourne

Best of frenemies: Federer and Dimitrov
Somewhere in a small warm-up room in the winding corridors of Melbourne Park, Roger Federer and Grigor Dimitrov sat side by side watching Lauren Davis force a deciding third set against Maria Sharapova.

Federer gave out a loud ‘woah, are you kidding me?’ reacting to a point and jumped out of his seat when a long rally was over.

“That would’ve been the shot of the tournament,” the Swiss legend told Dimitrov and the rest of the group who were sat with them. The pair continued to watch, having a laugh, kicking about a tennis ball, knowing that a short while later, they would step on Rod Laver Arena and become adversaries. Not a scene you’d typically expect from fierce competitors at the top level of the game.

Soon after, Federer walked off the court a 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 third round winner over Dimitrov to improve his record against the Bulgarian to a clean 5-0, and become the first man in history to win 300 grand slam matches in the process.

“Because we know each other quite well, yeah, we were pretty chilled going into the match,” the third-seeded Federer explained of the amusing scene ahead of their match.

“We've both been well-prepared. Sometimes you don't look much at the other guy. But with Grigor it's different, like with other guys on tour. There's many guys I would speak to before a match. That was the situation today.

“But I'm happy it still exists. We're not that far down the road where it's so professional where you can't even look at the guy before you walk on court. We're not there yet and I hope we'll never get there.”

Federer was competing in the Australian Open third round for a 17th consecutive year and his four-set win over Dimitrov made him the oldest man to reach the last 16 in Melbourne since Andre Agassi reached the quarter-finals in 2005.

On a rainy day Down Under, the roof had been closed for the first two matches on centre court but when the showers halted briefly, organisers opened the roof for the Federer-Dimitrov clash.

It proved an unwise decision as the rain started again just one game into the match, which had to be stopped until the court was dried and the roof was closed once again.

The interruption did not appear to faze Federer though, who held serve quickly upon resumption and got his first break point the following game. Dimitrov saved it but was broken in game seven to give Federer a 4-3 lead. It was all the Swiss needed to take the opening set, which he sealed with an ace.

Dimitrov, the No27 seed, struck back to take the second set and draw level but he dropped the third and asked for the trainer to get some treatment for a sore right elbow.

Federer slammed a signature backhand down the line winner to break for a 3-2 lead in the fourth set and he secured the win with a serve-forehand one-two punch to set up a fourth round with Belgian No15 seed David Goffin.

On getting his 300th match win at a major, Federer said: “It's very exciting. Like when I reached 1,000 (victories) last year, it was a big deal for me. Not something I ever aimed for or looked for, but when it happens, it's very special. You look deeper into it, I guess, where it's all happened and how. Yeah, so it's very nice. I'm very happy.”

Dimitrov, who lost to Federer in the quarter-finals in Brisbane earlier this month before reaching the final in Sydney the following week, has played 10 matches in the last 19 days and he admits he may have felt the effects of playing two lead-up tournaments to the Australian Open.

But the former top-tenner, who is looking to find his way back up the rankings, says he can only take positives from his Australian swing.

“I don't regret any decisions I've taken so far. Seems to pay off in a way, the work. I wanted to play a lot of matches. I did play a lot of matches. Lost to quality players, twice to Roger, once to (Viktor) Troicki. That's how it is,” said Dimitrov.

Over on Margaret Court Arena, Novak Djokovic took his winning streak against Italians to 33 consecutive victories after he dismissed No28 seed Andreas Seppi 6-1, 7-5, 7-6(6) yesterday to book a fourth round meeting with France’s No14 seed Gilles Simon.

Djokovic, seeking a sixth title in Melbourne, admits he has set the bar so high for himself that expectations of him have risen to incredible heights.

“It's almost like, you know, after the season that I've had, 2015, anything aside from a title or a final is not a success,” confessed the world No1.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Kyrgios loses his cool and his third round to Berdych

He may be famous for walking on court rocking some colorful Beats headphones but it was music that sent Nick Kyrgios into a fit during his 6-3, 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 defeat to No6 seed Tomas Berdych in the third round in Melbourne on Friday.

After dropping the first set, in which he berated himself by yelling “stay present, that’s all you had to say… Say something… Stay aggressive”, Kyrgios got frustrated because he could hear background music in the stadium while he was playing, although it must have been really faint because neither the umpire, nor Berdych seemed to hear it.

Berdych had broken in game seven of the second set and held for a 5-3 lead before Kyrgios started arguing with umpire James Keothavong about why he wasn’t doing anything to stop the music. The referee asked him if he wanted to halt play until they could sort out the issue but Kyrgios didn’t hear him.

After he lost the second set, Kyrgios furiously told Keothavong: “Are you okay? Mate, there is music, playing in the crowd, while we are playing. I’ve told you seven times. Did you? I didn’t hear you ask me. Did you ask me ‘Nick, do you want to stop playing?’ No you didn’t.”

He then asked the crowd: “Am I hearing things? Am I hearing things? Mate, it's a circus.”
Back to the umpire, Kyrgios added: “You really know how to control a match, buddy. There's guys throwing balls back into the crowd. And you have music playing while we're playing. Good control. It's a f****** joke.”

Letting out his frustration, Kyrgios raised his level to grab the third set but Berdych remained ice cold and focused, getting three match points with a down the line backhand winner and wrapping up the match on a Kyrgios double fault.

After the players' handshake at the net, Kyrgios told Keothavong “you’re a terrible referee” as he walked off.

Asked to explain the problem, Kyrgios said in his press conference: “I don't know where it came from. The ref was telling me he couldn't hear it. I could blatantly hear it. So unless tennis, you can start playing tennis when there's music in the background, that's a new rule. They need to add it to the rule book.”

Kyrgios paid tribute to Berdych – a semi-finalist in Melbourne last year – but said he was disappointed not to get the win.

“I'm so disappointed, like I put so much work in, and I just feel like I let a lot of people down,” confessed Kyrgios.

When reminded that everybody loses at one point or another, Kyrgios said: “Djokovic doesn’t lose. “I don't know. I was expecting a bit more out of myself. I don't know. I was expecting like another real deep run. I put a lot of work in. It's pretty heartbreaking.”

On his part, Berdych, who faces Roberto Bautista Agut in the last 16, said he wasn’t sure he could hear the music that was bothering Kyrgios.

“Well, honestly, difficult. I mean, it was probably on my side. I don't know. But I was really just trying to stay focused. I've been through many very loud matches, so I'm probably very, you know, able to block these things, just leave the noise on the side.”

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Verdasco banishes demons from 2009 semi-finals, sends Nadal packing in first round

For seven years, Fernando Verdasco has been haunted by his five-hour five-set defeat to Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open 2009 semi-finals in which he double-faulted on match point to end what had been one of the greatest matches ever to be played in Melbourne.

Verdasco watched that match “many times” ever since and everywhere he went, people spoke to him about it. Even two days ago, some people at his hotel stopped him to talk about it and he told them he was going to face Nadal at the Australian Open the next day.

So it’s understandable that when their first round showdown on Tuesday on Rod Laver Arena entered a fifth set, flashes of that epic from seven years ago popped in Verdasco’s mind, reminding him of that painful double-fault.

Nadal, who had taken a two-sets-to-one lead yesterday after dropping the first set, raced to a 2-0 advantage and looked on his way to securing another five-set triumph over his fellow Spaniard.

But this time, Verdasco struck back with a vengeance as he shrugged off the early setback to take the next six games in a row and register a stunning 7-6(6), 4-6, 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-2 win over the fifth-seeded Nadal in four hours and 41 minutes. The Madrileño sealed it so nonchalantly with a crushing return winner - his 90th winner of the match – to hand Nadal only his second-ever grand slam first round exit.

Verdasco, formerly ranked No7 but now a lowly 45, spent the majority of the match – particularly the fifth set - in such a rare zone of free-hitting madness , he clearly surprised himself as well as the Aussie crowd. “I just hit every… sorry I need to eat, if not, I’m dead,” an exhausted Verdasco told Jim Courier, chewing some much-needed recovery food.

“I think I played unbelievable the fifth set from the break he made me. I just started hitting winners, I don’t know how. I was closing the eyes and everything was coming in, I kept doing it and it went well.”

Verdasco later said in his press conference: “Of course the beginning of the fifth I was for a second thinking about that semi-final. I was like ‘please, I don't want to lose with a double-fault in 5-4, 30-40.”

The outcome was not even close as Verdasco unleashed one winner after another, some of his forehands clocking at 180km/hr, which is faster than an average Nadal serve.

The 32-year-old could not find a proper explanation as to how he pulled it all off so emphatically. “I don't know. Some inspiration (pointing to the sky),” he said smiling.

Nadal conceded that the defeat is one tough pill to swallow especially that he came into the tournament feeling great, practicing well and looking to apply the changes he’s been making to his game.

The world No5 regretted not taking the opening set, which he says was not a good one from Verdasco, and his failure to capitalise on that allowed his opponent to gain confidence and hit more freely.

Nadal played doubles with Verdasco in Doha two weeks ago and they plan on teaming up at several tournaments this year with one eye on the Olympics in Rio. The two Spanish lefties know each others’ games inside out and Nadal knew that Verdasco’s form going into the match had not been great.

Which makes the way Verdasco managed to elevate his level towards the end all the more impressive.

“In my opinion, he played better than what he was doing the last couple of months, especially in the last two sets. He played so aggressive, and the serve was huge for him today. He played better than me. He played more aggressive than me. He took more risks than me, and he won. Probably he deserved,” said Nadal calmly.

Verdasco is the latest in a string of big-hitters to have upset Nadal over the past couple of seasons. Nadal feels the sport is changing with players going for winners from the first shot rather than building up the rallies and it is something he should start doing himself.

“Game become a little bit more crazy in this aspect,” is his assessment.

“The real thing is I was not enough aggressive with my forehand during the whole match. I didn't feel it. I tried. I fighted. I was ready to do it, and I didn't. So I am sad for that.”

Verdasco, who is now 3-14 lifetime against Nadal, takes on Dude Sela in the second round.

2014 champion Stan Wawrinka cruised into the second round after Dmitry Tursunov retired while down 6-7 (2), 3-6.

Lleyton Hewitt, playing the final tournament of his career, lives to fight another day as he beat fellow Aussie James Duckworth 7-6 (5), 6-2, 6-4 to set up a second round with David Ferrer.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Toni Nadal says Rafa has "no choice" but to make changes to his game

 Photo credit: Reem Abulleil

Not many coaches would want to sit courtside and watch their charge battle through a brutal five-hour match but Toni Nadal has no problem reliving his pupil Rafael Nadal’s epic five-set win over Fernando Verdasco in the 2009 Australian Open semi-finals, as long as it spells victory for his nephew.

Spanish duo, Nadal and Verdasco, square off in the Australian Open first round on Tuesday on Rod Laver Arena in a rematch of their marathon in Melbourne from seven years ago – which was one of the most memorable grand slam clashes in modern times.

“I can sign 6-4 in the fifth and winning? I sign,” Toni said ahead of Tuesday’s showdown.

“Winning, always I sign. But I expect a different match (than in 2009). Verdasco is not the same, Rafael in 2009 was No1, now we are No5, I expect a difficult match.

“It’s never easy to play against Verdasco. He was a very good player and still now he has the possibility to be a very good player. It will be difficult for us and I hope it will be difficult for him.”

Nadal has been in search of his best form over the past 12 months and has managed to string together some solid results from the end of last season. He started 2016 by making the final in Doha but was then hammered by Novak Djokovic 6-1, 6-2 to end up with the runner-up trophy in the Qatari capital.

Asked if the heavy defeat in Doha took him by surprise, Toni said: “No, we weren’t surprised. Rafael has played well and sometimes it’s a little the same when Guillermo Vilas played against Bjorn Borg, maybe one was No1 and Vilas was No2 on clay, and normally Borg beat him so easily, because they had a similar game but the other one made every shot a little better.

“And in Doha, Djokovic has played very very very good for me, and our serve wasn’t good enough, our forehand wasn’t good enough, the backhand was good but it wasn’t enough to beat Novak. I don’t know when and where, but we can change a little (to close the gap)…”

Nadal has been trying to implement changes in his game to get back to his grand slam-winning ways and catch up with his fellow ‘Big Four’ rivals. He has been trying to step inside the court and be more aggressive with his forehand.

His uncle/coach explains that while Nadal hasn’t been used to generating good shots from the first hit, having come from a clay-based game that involved long rallies and more tactics, he understands that today’s game is not like that and that adjustments must be made accordingly.

Toni admits making changes to one’s game after capturing 14 grand slams like his nephew is no mean feat.

“It is a very complicated process,” concedes the Mallorcan coach. “He’s been doing so well his whole life doing the same thing. It’s not the same making changes when you haven’t much success compared to Rafael, who has been quite successful in his career.

“It’s like telling the Barcelona players that they have to do something else to find a way... It’s not easy but it has to be done. We have no choice.”

Nadal is 14-2 lifetime against Verdasco, who is a former world No7 but has now slipped to 45. Verdasco beat Nadal in Miami last year.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Match-fixing allegations cast shadow on day one, Djokovic unsure tournaments should take sponsorship money from betting companies

 (Photo via Getty)

The first day of the Australian Open was rocked by a shocking report that claims widespread match-fixing at the upper level of the sport was overlooked by tennis authorities, with several offenders competing in Melbourne this fortnight.

On a nice warm day at Melbourne Park, the tournament was getting ready to welcome the first fans of the two-week event but a large shadow was cast over proceedings on Monday courtesy of the investigation carried by the BBC and BuzzFeed, which said that over the last decade, a core group of 16 players have repeatedly been brought to the attention of the sport’s governing bodies over suspicions they have fixed matches.

The report said the group also included "winners of grand slam titles".

World No1 Novak Djokovic, who had revealed almost a decade ago that he was approached to throw a match in St. Petersburg for £110,000, confirmed the incident on Monday but said he was never approached directly and denounced the practice as a “crime in sport”.

“I was approached through people that were working with me at that time, that were with my team. Of course, we threw it away right away. It didn't even get to me, there was nothing out of it,” said the defending Australian Open champion.

“It made me feel terrible because I don't want to be in any way linked to this - somebody may call it an opportunity. For me, it's an act of bad sportsmanship, a crime in sport honestly.”

Play started at 11:00 yesterday in Melbourne and by noon, an announcement was made in the media room that a press conference would take place at 12:20 with ATP executive chairman and president Chris Kermode, Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) head Nigel Willerton, and vice chairman Mark Young to address the gambling-related corruption allegations.

The three officials addressed the media with a host of tennis chiefs, including WTA CEO Steve Simon and Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley, standing close by in a sign of solidarity – sending a message that the tennis world was united in rejecting the allegations.

“The Tennis Integrity Unit and the tennis authorities absolutely reject any suggestion that evidence of match fixing has been suppressed for any reason or isn't being thoroughly investigated,” Kermode said in an opening statement.

“And while the BBC and BuzzFeed reports mainly refer to events from about 10 years ago, we will investigate any new information, and we always do.”

Willerton was asked whether he can confirm or deny that players currently competing on tour, or in Melbourne, are being monitored by the TIU for match-fixing offences.

“It would be inappropriate for me to make comment as to whether any players are under investigation at the present time,” Willerton responded.

The TIU was set up in 2008 – after a match in Sopot between Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vasallo Arguello was flagged for match-fixing suspicion - to tackle corruption within the sport and Kermode cited the 18 convictions including six lifetime bans handed out by the unit as proof that no offence goes unnoticed.

All six lifetime bans were given to unheralded players from the lower ranks of the sport. Match-fixing is believed to be more present in the lower tiers of tennis like Challengers and Futures where players barely earn enough money to make ends meet.

When asked whether paying lower-ranked professionals more might combat the threat, Federer responded to the journalist: “I completely disagree with you. I think you don't understand. “It doesn't matter how much money you pump into the system, there's always going to be people approaching players, or people, in any sport.”

The match-fixing allegations come on the heels of a new sponsorship deal that was signed between the Australian Open and William Hill last October that made the company the first-ever gambling partner of a grand slam event.

The deal means there are gambling ads in several areas around Melbourne Park, an act which has been heavily criticised as it strengthens the ties between tennis and betting and it also encourages young fans of the sport to gamble.

Djokovic admits tennis is walking a fine line by taking sponsorship money from betting providers.

“This is a subject for discussion, I think, today and in the future. It's a fine line. Honestly it's on a borderline, I would say,” said Djokovic.

Australian Open tournament director and Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley defended the decision to partner with William Hill.

“The interesting thing is that the sport of tennis has already been partnered with many (betting companies) because Perform as a broadcaster provide all the content directly onto the betting providers. They just act as an intermediary to do that,” Tiley had told me on Sunday.

“And then there are tennis tournaments around the world like the German Open, Bet365 I believe (Bet-at-Home Open). So we didn’t see it as an issue.

“They’re very reputable, they’re a well-respected organisation, everything they do is legal. And I think people make the automatic assumption if you have that type of partnership, it’s illegal. Would you compare that to having a type of partnership with a company that produces food that’s not good for you?

“For us it’s a good partnership that they can also help us identify any illegal activity and so that close partnership gets us closer to that because we want to make sure we’re avoiding it as a sport.”

Sunday, January 10, 2016

QATAR OPEN: Djokovic plays "stratospheric" tennis to crush Nadal in Doha final

Photos via Qatar Tennis Federation
In Rafael Nadal’s very own words, Novak Djokovic’s level during their Qatar Open final on Saturday night was “stratospheric” – an apt description of the world No1’s 6-1, 6-2 triumph to capture his first trophy of the new year.

“I played against a player who did everything perfect. I know nobody playing tennis like this ever. Since I know this sport I never saw somebody playing at this level,” said a humbled Nadal after his defeat.

Big words from the 14-time grand slam champion who could do nothing but applaud the superiority of his opponent rather than plunge into the abyss of frustration.

Back at the site of the only tournament he failed to reach the final at last season, Djokovic played with the kind of form so rarely exhibited from a player in the opening week of the season.

There were no signs of rust, no January jitters, simply perfection from tennis’ top man. Heading into the match, the players were locked at 23-23 in previous meetings but Djokovic walked off the court leading their head-to-head for the first time ever in his career.

With the Emir of Qatar, HH Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, in the Royal Box, and the entire Bayern Munich team and their boss Pep Guardiola in attendance, Djokovic indeed gave a performance fit for the occasion.

“It did feel as close to perfection as it can get,” admitted Djokovic, who was playing his 16th consecutive final, and has now won a sixth straight tournament dating back to last year’s US Open.

“From the very beginning I managed to hit every shot the way I wanted, the way I imagined before the match.”

The security was amplified due to the high profile attendees and fans were held up in the queue outside for close to 40 minutes trying to make it through the metal detectors and into the venue to catch the final.

Lucky for them, they made it to the stadium in time to catch the ‘Djoko Show’, in which Nadal simply played a supporting role in front of a sellout crowd.

Djokovic had to save a break point in the opening game which gave a momentary feeling that the match would be competitive. But it was a misleading start as the top seed was quickly up 3-0 and swept the first set in 30 minutes, hitting 16 winners to a mere four unforced errors.

There wasn’t much Nadal was doing wrong but Djokovic was sending him left and right, pouncing on the Spaniard’s short balls and slamming one winner after the other.

The second set was no different as Djokovic broke in the first and fifth games to open up a 5-1 lead.

A fan yelled from the stands something to Nadal, instructing him to do better.

“You want to be my coach?” the Mallorcan responded. The truth is, no coach could get him out of trouble.

Djokovic soon wrapped up the 73-minute victory with a service winner to claim his first title in Doha.

It was his fifth consecutive win over Nadal, and he has now taken nine of their last 10 meetings.

Despite the brutal drubbing he received, Nadal somehow managed to keep things in perspective.

He joked on court during the trophy ceremony saying: “I found a new coach today too, I don’t know where he is, I think he’s travelling with me to Australia tonight,” referring to the fan who yelled at him during the match.

Later in the press conference, Nadal congratulated Djokovic and added: “I know I can do a few things better, but the real thing is with these conditions playing during the night and with the feeling of the ball here, it's so difficult to have chances against him playing like this. Is probably impossible.

“But the real thing is I had a positive week. I am playing well, and I gonna keep working hard to try to be ready for Australia. And I think I will be. I am motivated for it.”

Djokovic received the golden falcon trophy from surprise invitee Argentinean Gaston Gaudio, the 2004 Roland Garros champion. “This trophy will be very dear to my heart because it reminds me of someone very dear to my heart, my grandfather. He used to call me ‘Falcon’,” revealed an emotional Djokovic on court.

“Nadal is one of the greatest competitors this game has ever seen, but, you know, everything was going well. I could swing freely. Especially in the second set I felt like from both corners, any shot that I hit just felt so comfortable. There are those days when you see a tennis ball as a watermelon, and I guess this was that kind of day.”

Friday, January 8, 2016

QATAR OPEN: Nadal and Djokovic set up Doha final, Djokovic reveals slight injury concern

 Photos via Qatar Tennis Federation

Rafael Nadal has not won a hard court title in two years and has not defeated Novak Djokovic in 18 months but the world No5 has a chance to end both droughts on Saturday when he squares off with his nemesis in the Qatar Open final.

It will be the 47th meeting between Nadal and Djokovic with the pair locked at 23-23 against one another. Nadal has lost all four clashes he’s had with the world No1 in 2015 though.

Djokovic has a chance to lead Nadal in their head-to-head for the first time ever. But the Serb’s fitness has been thrown into question after he revealed on Friday that he has been dealing with some pain in his arm which he has been feeling while serving this week.

In his pre-match warm-up hit with Malek Jaziri on Friday, Djokovic cut the session short citing pain in his arm. He admits he has spent lots of time with the physio in Doha to be able to get through his matches.

“I have been struggling a little bit. With the arm, you know, with the serve,” Djokovic said on Friday after his 6-3, 7-6 (3) semi-final victory over Tomas Berdych.

“But once I warm it up and physio has got to do a lot of work in the day to make me feel prepared so I can actually serve and play a match.

“I don't think it's a major concern. Obviously knowing that I can play a match makes me feel relief a little bit, but it's a little issue that it's there for most of this week. So hopefully till Australian Open (starts January 18) it's going to fade away.”

Despite the injury concern, Djokovic managed to storm into a 16th consecutive final and is now just two short of Ivan Lendl’s Open Era record of 18 in a row.

Like in his quarter-final against Leonardo Mayer on Thursday, Djokovic was broken in his first service game of the match against Berdych to fall behind 0-2.

Berdych had a chance to go up a double-break but squandered two break points and it seemed to throw the Czech off as he was broken in game six and Djokovic ran away with the set.

In the second set, neither player could muster a break but it was Djokovic who took a commanding lead in the tiebreak to move into this first Doha final.

“I guess it’s a pretty important match tomorrow. Let’s see what happens,” Djokovic told the crowd of his upcoming final against Nadal.

He added in his press conference: “I have noticed that Rafa has been very aggressive on second-serve returns this week. So he's been trying to, of course, change something, improve, and it's no surprise to me, honestly. I know him. I know his character and what a fighter and a hard worker he is. So he's one of the best players in the history of the game for a reason, and I'm sure that after last year's season that was not up to his standards, he's willing to do something else and, improve his game. He's in the finals, so that's already proof that he's been playing well.”

Earlier on centre court, Nadal needed just one hour and 17 minutes to defeat the tournament’s surprise package Illya Marchenko 6-3, 6-4.

Nadal refused to describe his match against Marchenko as perfect but it certainly appeared like it was from the stands.

The Spaniard dropped just four points on his first serve, saved the solitary break point he faced, fired six aces, no double faults, 16 winners against 13 unforced and was at no point out of control.

The No2 seed was up 3-0 inside the first 10 minutes of the clash, and even though he squandered chances to go up a double-break in the sixth game, Nadal was unfazed and knotted the first set swiftly with a service winner. He had won 100 per cent of his points on first serve at that point.

Nadal broke for 3-2 in the second set and had to save a break point to consolidate in game six. He never looked back from then on.

“Not perfect, obviously. But I did a few good things, and I'm happy with the victory, being in the first final of the season in the first official tournament is something great, very good news, very happy for that,” said a coy Nadal.

“For sure is important for me for my confidence, confirm that the end of 2015 season had been something realistic and this beginning of 2016 I still playing well, so I'm able to already won four matches here and be in the final. Have points, have confidence, and rhythm. So everything is all positive.”

It wasn’t the only Spanish triumph of the day as Marc Lopez and Feliciano Lopez captured their first doubles title together as partners, easing past Philipp Petzschner and Alexander Peya 6-4, 6-3, and perhaps signalling the damage they could do should they be chosen to represent Spain in doubles at the Olympics this summer.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

QATAR OPEN: Surprise semi-finalist Marchenko looking to take his upset train past Nadal

 (Photos via Qatar Tennis Federation)

A couple of days ago, Illya Marchenko was trying to calm himself down after pulling off the biggest upset of his career – a defeat of defending champion and world No7 David Ferrer in the opening round of the Qatar Open.

Today, the Ukrainian world No94 has notched two more victories – over Teymuraz Gabashvili and No7 seed Jeremy Chardy - and finds himself a semi-final opponent for Rafael Nadal in the opening week of the new season.

At 28, Marchenko is no tour rookie. He made two previous ATP semi-finals, at the Kremlin Cup in Moscow in 2009 and St. Petersburg in 2010 – the season which saw him hit a career-high No67.

But his career took numerous turns since then including a forced relocation from Donetsk due to the war in Ukraine.

Marchenko has not been back to Donetsk in two years and since teaming up with his Slovakian coach Tibor Toth (previously worked with Dominik Hrbaty) at the end of 2014, the Ukrainian has been living in Bratislava.

Is it difficult to focus on tennis at times with everything happening back home?

“Right now I don't think about that anymore. I accept the situation what I have, and I'm really enjoying living in Slovakia. The people of Slovakia have really welcomed me, and I'm really appreciating everyone,” said Marchenko.

“Everyone is really helping me there, so I'm happy and I can focus on my tennis. I have everything to work hard and to get the results.”

So far this week, Marchenko has claimed his first top-10 victory of his career and his run to the semi-finals has earned him $57,380 – that is more than a quarter of what he made all year last season.

It is a paycheck he certainly will be pleased with having invested in a pricy offseason, doing altitude training in the mountains in Slovakia with a full team accompanying him – something a player ranked in the 90s cannot necessarily afford.

Marchenko is both happy and surprised it immediately paid off.

“Comparing to the last year we have done some changes. I went to mountains with my fitness coach. Last year it was a different one. Now I was with my full team, my tennis coach and my physio. It was like a bit kind of investment for me,” said Marchenko. “I'm really happy it's paying back that quick.

“I was always investing as much as I can to my career because it's what I do. It's a job. You have to risk something. Really, I was with a team like maybe top guys can compare, and I'm really happy about that.”

Marchenko has never played Nadal before on tour but he knows the Spaniard’s game so well that he says there was no need to watch his 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 victory over Andrey Kuznetsov yesterday.

He’s relishing the chance to face the world No5.

“It’s a great opportunity,” said Marchenko. “If you play those guys, you can improve your level and try your tennis against them and it's better to see what you have to work on. When you play those guys, your level going up. I'm really happy to play Rafa.”

Reflecting on what has been a stellar week, Marchenko admits refocusing after the high from the Ferrer victory was not easy. “The most important match after you beat David is the next one. It's really difficult to handle the stress,” he explained.

“Honestly, it was bad night for me. I couldn't sleep much. And the second round was a bit hectic. But still, the way I played this week helped me a lot, and I'm gaining confidence match after match.”

On his part, Nadal is preparing himself for another tricky encounter after squeezing past Kuznetsov in the quarters on Thursday in Doha.

“Well, he played amazing, I think, no?” Nadal said of his Russian opponent yesterday. “He played so crazy with amazing shots. It was so difficult to be under control, no?

“I think I played a great third set, because if not, I will not be in that semi-final.”

On Marchenko, Nadal added: “I saw him play during the whole week. He's playing fantastic. The match against David (Ferrer) was great, and today against Jeremy he played amazing, too. He's playing with big confidence. So it will be a big challenge for me tomorrow and I hope to be ready for it.”

Friday, January 1, 2016

Adios, 2015!

New Year's had never been significant to me. I don't do resolutions, I don't always celebrate, and I find fireworks dramatically overrated.

The night of December 31st, more often than not, felt like an arbitrary occasion for me rather than the eve of a new year, new beginning and all the cliches along these lines...

But New Year's slowly started to represent new meaning to me ever since I became a full-time tennis journalist.

As I enter my sixth tennis season as someone who covers the sport for a living, it has dawned on me how significant this time of the year has become to me. December 31st is no longer just about tossing my wall calendar and buying a new one. My New Year's has become strictly connected to tennis.
Since 2011, I've spent New Year's eve either covering the Mubadala exhibition in Abu Dhabi or in Doha working at the Qatar Open.

The last few days of December are all about reviews, previews and interviews and January 1st usually means a new tennis season has started - or is about to start - and it's time to get on the road again.
The tennis season has structured my year in a way that forces me to get into reflective mode on New Year's eve.

Anyone who knows me knows I work too much, sleep too little, then spend lots of time complaining about it. But a drastic change in attitude mid-2014 (at the start of the French Open to be precise) helped me appreciate what I do more and more on a regular basis.

I never lost passion for the job, but chronic fatigue and overwork are two powerful beasts.
So as I welcome 2016 - which immediately translates in my head to 'Olympic Year' - here are the memories that spring to mind from a whirlwind 2015...

I somehow started the year by doing the coin toss for a Nadal-Murray match in Abu Dhabi. Nadal won the toss and it feels like it was the last thing he won all year (I'm kidding Rafanatics, relax!).
I covered the Australian Open for the first time and flew to Melbourne through Brunei, which is supposed to be the fifth-richest country in the world yet has an airport that is as big as my house in Cairo and considers a cup of coffee to be a luxury.

As a journalist, I try my hardest to always remain neutral but in a press room lined with aisles of Spaniards, Germans, Americans, Swiss, English etc... I get jealous that all these people have someone to report on and root for.

In a way, I'm lucky because I get to cover the sport from the widest angle possible with no restrictions. Working for a UAE daily sports newspaper, I can one day give a full page for an interview with Elina Svitolina, another day it's a page about a Kuwaiti line umpire and the next it's a page of a one-on-one with Nadal.The rule is, if it's interesting, there's room for it in the paper. Space - definitely a nice perk.
A photo posted by @reemabulleil on
Still, I cling onto any Arab success in sport because as a region, we are desperate for sporting role models and could use a success story or two to inspire our youth. I tend to be the only Arab in the press room and Tunisians Malek Jaziri and Ons Jabeur are pretty much the only Arab pros on tour whom I get to see at the tournaments I cover. There's an Egyptian teenager called Sandra Samir, another Egyptian called Mohamed Safwat and a Omani called Fatma Al Nabhani who are also trying to make it through the ranks.

This year, Jaziri became the first Arab in 11 years to make the third round of a grand slam when he made it through in Melbourne. I remember running to the ITF stats guys in the press room and going through all the previous slam results of the past decade or so, scouring to find the last Arab to reach that stage. I was right, it was Hicham Arazi in 2004.

As soon as I got back from Melbourne I had to cover the Dubai Tour, a four-day cycling event. I used to dread covering cycling. There's too many riders, who all cross the finish line at once and only the stage winner and leader's jersey holder come to press, everyone else you just have to run after - and remember they're on two wheels and I'm on zero. They also all look the same in their gear, so I could easily sprint after an Astana guy thinking he's Nibali, but then he takes off his helmet and glasses and it's his team-mate instead. But somehow cycling has become a sport that I got significantly better at covering, and I can now claim that I've almost got the hang of it.
A photo posted by @reemabulleil on
The third stage of the Dubai Tour in 2015 took me to one of the most beautiful spots in the UAE - Hatta - that I never would have visited had it not been for work. Late in the year, the Abu Dhabi Tour took me to Jabel Hafeet, the highest peak in the country and the views from up there were just beautiful. I'm actually looking forward to my next cycling event and might even go cover a week of the Giro in 2016.  

Also in February, I had the ATP/WTA Dubai double-header which is always great but it usually means 15-17 days of work in a row.

I had one of my favourite interviews of the year with Andy Murray, who is without a shred of doubt is the most thoughtful, polite and sincere tennis player to chat to on tour. I was lucky enough to catch up with him again at the IPTL end of the year and they are both moments I genuinely appreciate as part of my job. Interviewing Gulbis at his hotel room was also a highlight, so was talking politics with Marat Safin.

I got to go sailing on a Volvo Ocean Race boat with Tim Henman, Younes El Aynaoui and Pat Cash in Abu Dhabi on a day where the weather was so crazy, there was a warning for all boats heading out to sea. We were hanging on to dear life for most of the two-hour ride and barring Younes, who was jumping around like a little boy at a theme park, we all looked legitimately worried at one point or another when over two-meter waves were heading our way. They were the least graceful couple of hours of my existence as I crushed Tim's bones on more than one occasion when the skipper would ask us to switch sides and I kept falling on Tim, but it was a day I'll never forget.
The Egyptian swimmers and squash players were the ultimate highlight of my year and for once I was writing about my own countrywomen and men, who were killing it on the world stage, sometimes with almost zero support on their way to the top. Raneem El Welily, Farida Osman, Mohamed El Shorbagy, Marwan El Kamash, Ahmed Akram, Ramy Ashour, Mohamed Khaled Hussein... thanks for all the texts, phone calls, Facebook chats, and emails that allowed me to tell a fraction of your stories.

Did I mention I flew to Copenhagen, took a car to Malmo, and spent one full day with world champion high jumper Mutaz Barshim, attended his training sessions, a photo shoot, and spoke for ages with him and his Polish coach Stanley, as they prepared for Worlds? I flew back to Dubai the next day but it was totally worth the trip. Thank you, Hind Rasheed.
I had quite the chat with Olympic champion Chad Le Clos in which he let rip on Michael Phelps. Can't wait to watch them face-off in Rio.

In the last three weeks of the year, I hit balls with Goran and Marin and I sat down with Federer, Murray, Safin, Bencic, Wawrinka, Svitolina, Raonic, Tsonga... and have written thousands and thousands of words that sometimes stop making sense to me when it's 3:00am.

But nothing trumps the friends I've made along the way, my tennis family that makes all those long hours, stressful days and sleepless nights not just bearable but actually enjoyable. 
Late night solo walks in Paris after a long French Open day, pigging out with Ben Rothenberg and Courtney Nguyen at Wimbledon when I was allowed to break my fast at 9:30pm, laughing endlessly with Marta Mateo, who lets nothing ever slip by her and enjoying the beautiful cynicism of the awesome Petra Philippsen. Hanging with Selima Sfar in her tiny commentating booth, or freaking out with Courtney over Sharapova's drop shots and slices in Singapore. Having a nightcap with Neus Yerro at the sports bar in our hotel in Doha or kicking Linda Christensen's butt at Words with Friends (love you Linda, please don't hate me!).

I had no offseason and I'm exhausted but I'm also keen to catch up with everyone in Doha and Melbourne.

2015, you've been... full. 2016, bring it!