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Andy Murray Could Open the Floodgates With a Slam Win in 2012

Though his 2011 campaign didn’t end exactly as he hoped, the year was still a successful one for world number four Andy Murray: five titles won (including two Masters Series 1000 victories); advancing to the semifinals or better at all four Grand Slams; and a period spent back in third place in the rankings.

Now there’s only one way Murray can follow up on those achievements, and that’s win a Grand Slam singles title in 2012. He’ll have his first opportunity to do so before he knows it.

And once the first one is out of the way, more can surely be expected.

And if he were looking for inspiration in that regard, he could do worse than look at the career arc of Hall-of-Famer Ivan Lendl. In the early-1980s, Lendl was known as a “choker” because for all of his success at the regular weekly tour stops, when it came Slam-time, more often than not, he fell short. Lendl actually lost his first four Major finals before prevailing at the French Open in 1984. From that point on, he never looked back, winning eight Majors total from ’84 to 1990.

But back to his early defeats in those Slam finals: They came at the hands of three of the game’s greatest players ever: Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Mats Wilander. Murray has finished runner-up three times among the Majors: twice at the Australian Open and once at the U.S. Open. Last year’s loss at the Aussie was dealt to him by Novak Djokovic over the course of his dream season, and his other two defeats in Slam finals were meted out by Roger Federer.

In this day and age, there’s no shame in losing to those two, particularly in the later stages of a big tournament.

Of course, skill plays a tremendous part in making a breakthrough at tennis’ premier events, but luck can’t be discounted. Looking at Lendl once again can be cited: He was down two sets to none against John McEnroe before the American lost his concentration and let Lendl back into the match.

How the draw shakes out can be a big factor in determining victory: If Robin Soderling doesn’t beat Rafael Nadal in the fourth round of the 2009 French Open, does Federer complete his career Slam then?

In other words, a lot of outside factors go into making tennis history. Once it all comes together for Murray, it should become a little easier to add more titles to the ledger, and that “best player to never win a Major” tag will be a thing of memory.

Davis Cup Fallout, Soderling and Norman Split, Stosur wants to be No. 1

*There were fabulous scenes in Belgrade on Sunday as Serbia defeated France to lift their first Davis Cup title and none bettered that of the Serbian players shaving their heads on court after the final rubber. It was Viktor Troicki who sealed the dramatic victory and he described it as: “…the most unbelievable moment of my life. Seriously, I think we all did a great job this year. I would like to thank everyone, the whole team. We truly believed that we could do it, even though we were 2 1 down. I’m without the words. This is the most easiest [way] to explain. I’m without the words. No words can describe my feeling right now.” World No. 3 Novak Djokovic was adamant that what they had achieved would take a while to set in: “It’s historic. This is our biggest success as individuals, as a team, as a country. We are not even aware of what we have done. This is the best moment of my career and probably of my nation. This is like winning the World Cup for us.” He also added the beautiful sentiment that it was “a team effort that won the title.” Serbian coach Bogdan Obradovic added: “My players showed that they are mentally the strongest team in the world. We showed we are number one.” Serbia are the thirteenth nation to win the much-rejuvenated tournament.

*World No. 5 Robin Soderling has split with his coach Magnus Norman after two years working together. Norman, a former world No. 2, joined forces with the top-ranked Swede when he was ranked No. 35 in the world. A statement on Soderling’s official website stated that Norman wished to focus more on his personal life and other projects. “I’ve had the two best years of my career so far with Magnus as a coach,” said 26-year-old Soderling. Norman added: “I look back on a fun and fantastic 26-month-long period of time together with Robin.” The Swede has replaced Norman with Claudio Pistolesi.

*Aussie star Sam Stosur believes she can one day reach the pinnacle of the sport. The current world No. 6, who reached her first Grand Slam final at Roland Garros this year (losing to Francesca Schiavone), said: “I’d love to get to that spot and even though six seems pretty close, there is a long way to go before you could ever contemplate being No. 1. But I guess you’ve got to be able to put those little steps in place and be able to kick off those short-term goals to try to get there. I believe in myself and my tennis enough that maybe one day it is possible, but it’s not going to happen without doing a lot of things correctly for a long time. I’ve been in the Top 10 for nearly a year now and I think that’s a good first step.”

*The doubles team of Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi have been awarded the 2010 Grand Prix of Peace & Sports at the fourth International Forum Peace and Sport in Monaco. The pairing, whose slogan is “Stop War, Start Tennis,” have pleaded for the ending of hostilities between their native India and Pakistan. The citation of the award said, “Their commitment to promoting peace between the two countries and their conviction that peace was possible was shown amply during the year. In the US Open tournament they managed to bring together the ambassadors of India and Pakistan to support the same team.”

*Juan Martin del Potro will continue his comeback from injury at the Sydney International in January after accepting a wildcard in to the tournament.

*Former world No. 4 Jelena Dokic has received a wildcard in to Brisbane, the first tournament on the 2011 WTA calendar.

*The ATP have named their ‘Top 5 Newcomers’ for 2010. Tobias Kamke of Germany, Lithuania’s Richard Berankis, Dutchman Thiemo de Bakker, Ukraine’s Alexandr Dolgopolov and Mikhail Kukushkin of Russia are the lucky recipients.

*The WTA have announced their player of the year awards for 2010. Kim Clijsters was voted Player of the Year for the second time in her career while Gisela Dulko and Flavia Pennetta were voted Doubles Team of the Year. Petra Kvitova won Newcomer of the Year and Franchesca Schiavone was instated as Most Improved Player. The full list of winners and the reasons behind the selections can be viewed at the WTA Website.

*World No. 1 Rafa Nadal has been nominated for the prestigious 2011 Laureus World Sportsmen of the Year Award. The Spaniard, who won the Newcomer Award in 2006, will face Formula One World Champion Sebastien Vettel, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and football stars Lionel Messi, Diego Forlan and Andres Iniesta, among others. Academy Member Boris Becker said: “I can’t wait to see who the Media Selection Panel will vote for, but I would be amazed if Rafael Nadal and Sebastian Vettel were not at the top the list.” The full thoughts of Becker can be seen at the ATP Website.

*Tennis legend Pete Sampras has had much of his career memorabilia stolen from a storage facility in West Los Angeles. His first Aussie Open title, 64 Tour trophies and prizes from a further 24 finals have been pinched, including two Davis Cups, five ATP World Finals trophies, eleven Masters titles and an Olympic Ring. “I was like, ‘What?’” Sampras said. “I thought there were security cameras. I thought these things were locked up tight. I was shocked. I’m not one to gloat about trophies, or show them off. I’ve never been like that. I just want them for my kids to see. They didn’t see me play, but I’d like them to see these things.” The full story can be read at Kentucky.com.

The Final Countdown – Doha

By Rishe Groner

It seems like only yesterday that we welcomed the dawn of the 2010 tennis season by rushing with joy to our seats in Melbourne Park, pushing away the crowds for Presidential seats at Hit for Haiti.

It’s been quite the year, as my aversion to any court that wasn’t bright blue was quelled as my travels enabled me to experience the life of a tennis jetsetter, from gate-crashing the semis at Roland Garros, to combing the streets of Barcelona for tennis during the height of the World Cup, to invigorating Flushing Meadows with my own brand of Aussie as a Smashzone volunteer.

As the WTA season draws to a close, we’ve put the boys on hold for a week consider the ladies, getting hot and sticky in Doha. Doha, for those of you who don’t know, is in Qatar. Qatar, for those of you who don’t know, is a nation that Australia played in a soccer friendly, which was my first ever soccer match. Just sharing the love. So now we have eight ladies left in the game, and they’re going to show us who really did best this season. (In case we still didn’t realise that Caro owns the universe, because she does.)

Love it or hate it, the WTA is unique for its, well, uniqueness. You never know who is going to win from one day to the next, and while some cringe at the unpredictability, others revel in it for the laughs, the dramas, and the gloriously bizarre on-court coaching. This year’s top eight is markedly different from last year’s, which says a lot about the nature of the tour. That’s all I’m going to say – you can read the grown up tennis blogs for all the commentary. But Caro owns the universe, did I mention? And I love Sam.

CARO

The girl played her heart out this year, and deserves every accolade she can get. She’s no Serena in star power, not to mention, well, power, but she has something else that few others in the WTA do: She’s a role model. In a world where girls go gaga over Miley Cyrus, here’s someone who knows where she’s at, works hard, stays fit, smiles and laughs, and does her best.

VERA

Vera first popped onto my radar this year when, falling asleep in a pool of my own drool as Sam battled her way to her first title of 2010, I espied a rather handsome looking young man in Ms Zvonareva’s box. It was the modelistic Sergey, Vera’s coach and essentially, the primary reason you should tune into any of her matches, unless you are like me and also love a good racquet smash. But that aside, this girl has had a helluva year. While the Grand Slams have shown up lots of surprise semifinalists and finalists (hello, Chinese ladies. Petra Kvitova? I’d forgotten about you..) we had Vera showing up at both Wimby and the USO, making it all the way. Well done. You now have Number Two, now go away and let Caro keep number one. I really couldn’t bear another “Slamless Number One” discussion, and I’m not going to defend you this time.

KIM

I love Kim. I really do. She made me very sad earlier this year when she “couldn’t find her racket” playing Nadia in Melbourne, but then all of a sudden it surfaced somewhere from the bottom of Jada’s toybox and she played like the champion she is all over again. Kim is as veteran, she owns the universe (look at her playing record against the rest of the Doha field, for example) and she’s also the grandma of this tourney. Which means she can’t win it, because it belongs to Caro. Did you hear me say, CARO! (Or Sam. But Caro needs the validation.)

FRAN

Wish this woman wasn’t so likeable, because honestly, what she did to me and other Sam fans should have put her on the crap-list forever. Instead, I kinda like her, and seriously how pretty was she at the player party? That’s all I can say about you, Frannie. I know you’re cool, but give me a bit of time to get over the hurt, okay?

SAM

Sam is the best, chuck out the rest. Last season she was all chokey and hadn’t had a few wins in a while, thanking her lucky stars for the top 20 seeding that gave her a decent run into the AO. In January, Channel Seven cut away from her destruction at the hands of Serena to avoid an Aussie embarrassment (we don’t like to realise we’re not good at anything). By June, the Aussie media were singing her praises and giving away free posters of our girl. And seriously, with her brilliant Aussie contingent penning songs to the tune of “Happy Little Vegemites,” how could you not love the girl? (Oh right, the biceps.)

JJ

Stop sulking, Jelena, and go home. We know you don’t want to be here, and there are about 800 women who would kill to be in your place. Let Na Li bounce her ponytail in here and show us her stuff, because you sure haven’t been.

LENA

Hi, Lena. Remember me? I was that girl screaming like a crazy woman when Justine whipped your butt in Melbourne. I’m that girl who always talks about how good you are, even when we sit there trying to fathom how you’ve hung around for so long and not accomplished that much. Here’s the deal, Lena. You won the Olympics, which means you can win this. Go ahead. Just, like, lose to Kimmy and Caro and Sammy, because they’re my true loves.

VIKA

After a tough year, Vika’s back in the top 10 which is a monumental effort considering the struggles she’s had, including her horrifying collapse on the court in the US Open. Whatever it is making her struggle in the heat, let’s hope it doesn’t resurface in Doha, because this girl’s persistence is going to be good to see in the round robin matches. Cos that’s as far as she’ll go. We’ll see you again next year, Vika.

Top Four Players Advance to Rogers Cup Semi-Finals

The top four players in the world took to the court today in Toronto offering fans a terrific line-up of ATP action. By the end of the day, they did not disappoint.

During the day session reality set for David Nalbandian as his career best win streak was halted at eleven. Beaten with ease by fourth seeded Andy Murray 6-2, 6-2, it appeared as though the Argentine simply ran out of gas.

A day after taking care of fifth seed Robin Soderling, Nalbandian’s ground strokes missed the mark with regularity against Murray and his foot work seemed stagnant as well. It was a case of too much tennis in a short period of time as he admitted to after the match.

“I feel a little tired for all the weeks, for the last week and this one, and I didn’t get a rest,” Nalbandian said.

Murray played his best match so far in the tournament and broke early in both the first and second set to take control of each frame.

Going into the match I’d have given Nalbandian a 50/50 chance to pull off the upset, given his 2-0 career head-to-head record against the Scot along with his stellar play of late. He has been playing top-15 tennis since coming back to the tour in July which is where his ranking should be when healthy.

On the positive side for the veteran ball-striker, he will now very likely be able to squeeze out a seeding at the U.S. Open in two week’s time which should help him at his first Grand Slam appearance since the 2009 Aussie Open.

Murray now advances to the semi-finals where he will meet Rafael Nadal a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 winner over Philipp Kohlschreiber in the second match of the day.

Nadal struggled in making the transition to the daytime session as his previous two singles and one doubles match have come after sun-set.

Kohlschreiber stunned the crowd by taking the first set 6-3 and utilizing his one-handed backhand to his advantage.

As he so often does, Nadal fought back hard in the second set and broke early to go up 2-0. The Spaniard always seems to find a way to play his best when he is behind in a match or even within a specific point. He turns his defence into offence just when you think he might be on the edge of losing. He pulled the match even at one set apiece and there was little doubt at that point that he would continue towards the finish line.

Kohlschreiber was having success when he would come to the net and pressure Nadal to hit a perfect passing shot, but unfortunately for the German he chose that strategy to few times during this match. As his backhand began wavering, Nadal broke him for a 4-3 lead and eventually won on triple match point when a Kohlschreiber backhand hit the net. The final score was 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

In the evening session, the match of the day on paper and in execution was clearly the Wimbledon re-match between Tomas Berdych and Roger Federer.

With the suddenly confident Czech having won their last two encounters, the buzz around the press room was leaning towards a Berdych victory.

While Roger has gotten past Juan Ignacio Chela and Michael Llodra with relative ease this week, they represent a cake-walk for a player of Roger’s calibre. Tonight was the true test of where Federer’s game is at and the result would have an enormous impact on his chances moving forward to the U.S. Open.

Should Federer win it would represent a confidence boost for him personally and also for the media with regards to his chances at taking a run at his second Slam of the season. Another loss to Berdych and he would have been taken to task for another missed opportunity and as a glimpse into his continued decline. Talk about pressure!

Federer played wonderfully in the first set mixing up his shots and appearing as composed as ever. For his part, Berdych was struggling with his serve, and ended up down 0-30 during each of his four service games. Mentally he appeared to be totally unprepared for the match.

Tape on his left knee and thigh made me wonder if he was struggling with the physical part of his game as well. That injury – which he would not discuss following the match – was sustained yesterday in his third round victory over Alex Dolgopolov.

Just when it looked liked the old Roger was back, things turned in Berdych’s favour. He finally had an easy hold to take the first game of the set and generally began to serve a much higher first serve percentage. Midway through the set the impact of Berdych’s groundstrokes was also felt across the net for the first time in the match.

At 5-6 and after several tenuous holds for the world No. 3, Federer would double-fault twice en-route to handing the second-set to Berdych.

Things then fell apart quickly for the Swiss player in the third set. Federer had a crucial chance when Berdych was serving at 1-1, 0-40, but he squandered all three break points. As is so often the case in tennis, Federer then came out and was unable to hold his own serve following his golden opportunity. Berdych then held serve and before the crowd could comprehend what was happening it was 4-1.

With Federer serving at 2-5, the crowd tried its best to inspire their hero. As one fan aptly screamed, “this is Roger’s Cup!”

A rare chant of, “Don’t give up Berdych” was followed by, “Give up Berdych!”

Federer held his serve and then it was up to Berdych to close it out while serving at 5-3. Instead, Berdych allowed Federer a total of four break point chances in that game, and on the fourth one he hit a forehand wide which sent the crowd into a frenzy as Federer was suddenly back from the dead.

A final set tiebreak was then upon us and Roger mounted a 4-0 lead before faltering and allowing Berdych to tie it all up at 5 apiece.

A Berdych backhand then gave Federer his first match point at 5-6. Berdych was serving on the next point but it didn’t matter as Federer pressured him into sending the ball long. Miraculously Federer avoided his third successive defeat against Berdych but it sure was close.

The usually polite Canadian crowd got a bit unruly at times throughout the match. Serving at 0-4 in the tie break, someone yelled just as Berdych was about to serve, “Berdych are you nervous?”

Asked about it after the match, Berdych was unwilling to make up excuses or use the crowd’s intimidation as a crutch.

“…it’s all right. I’m happy that so many people just come to see, and they were enjoying, so just let them enjoy, and that’s it,” he concluded.

The final match of the night was unfortunately a dud as Novak Djokovic sent Jeremy Chardy packing 6-2, 6-3 in an hour and twelve minutes. If only all of the Serb’s matches could be played in such cool conditions.

The day’s results allow Canada to have the top four players in the world in the semi-finals of the Rogers Cup for the first time in tournament history.

The Nadal/Murray match goes Saturday at 3pm and the Federer/Djokovic will be at 7pm.

While the Soderling’s and Berdych’s of the world are making the top-ten more competitive this year, the top-four are showing us this week that they are still the serious contenders for the final Slam of the season.

Check back soon for semi-final analysis and of course you can also follow me on Twitter for timely updates throughout the day.

Photos by Bob McIntyre © 2010.

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STOSUR GOES FROM PRETENDER TO CONTENDER: THE FRIDAY FIVE

By Maud Watson

Stosur Breakthrough – As the dust begins to settle after a fantastic, albeit wet two weeks in Paris, I wanted to take a moment to tip my hat to a handful of individuals who have proved their mettle at this year’s Roland Garros.  First and foremost, I have to start with Sam Stosur. Over the course of her career, the Aussie has shown glimpses of what could be, but her fitness was always slightly suspect and her mental toughness questionable. After stringing together some nice wins over the course of her 2010 season, however, Stosur looks like she might have finally put all of the pieces together. Her gritty win over Justine Henin in the round of 16 was impressive, but her win over Serena Williams in the quarters is where she crossed the line from being a pretender to a contender. Having lost the second set to Williams after serving for the match, as well as losing the early break in the third, the Sam Stosur of old would have crumbled.  Congratulations to her for finding her resolve, and here’s hoping she’s soon to be adding Grand Slam champion to her résumé.

Super Soderling – Robin Soderling momentarily made the world take notice when he dumped out 4-time defending champion Rafael Nadal at the 2009 French Open, but it wasn’t long before he began to fade off the radar. At the 2010 French Open, there were only mere murmurs of what he had done a year ago, but on Tuesday, the big-swinging Swede reminded everyone that he’s capable of slaying dragons on the biggest stages in the sport. Though he was 0-12 against Roger Federer, Soderling showed great resolve in his four-set, rain-interrupted quarterfinal victory over the world No. 1. Even more impressive, Soderling fought against history, as he snapped Federer’s streak of 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinals. Even if he ultimately doesn’t reach the final, there’s little doubt that Soderling is looking more and more like he’s ready to make a move into the world’s top 5.

Awesome Austrian – The French Open has seen its share of surprise semifinalists, finalists, and champions, but I doubt there are too many out there who had Austrian Jurgen Melzer penciled in for a semifinal berth. Melzer has had some hard fought wins en route to his best showing at a major, as well as some stellar victories, including a straight sets win over Spaniard David Ferrer.  But the match that Melzer is to be most commended for is the match that saw him reach the semis, his come-from-behind five-set thriller over Novak Djokovic. Granted, Djokovic is a shadow of the player that he was two years ago, but any time a player fights back from a two set deficit, he is to be applauded.

Last American Standing – Props are in order for American Robby Ginepri, the only American to survive through to the round of 16. With only one tour-level match victory under his belt in 2010, Ginepri could not have come in to Roland Garros on a lower note.  He suddenly found his game at the perfect moment, however, stringing together some solid victories, including a five-set see-saw match over former French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero.  Hopefully for Ginepri, this is going to be a turning point in his season.

Calling Time – In an honorable mention, I have to tip my hat off to chair umpire Carlos Ramos who had the guts to call a big star like Rafael Nadal on violating the time rule between points in his match against Nicolas Almagro, not just once, but twice.  As mentioned before, one of my biggest pet peeves is that some players do get by with abusing the clock, which in my opinion, is a form of soft cheating.  Hopefully Ramos’ enforcement of this rule wasn’t a one-off and is something that will be applied more frequently across the board for players ranked both high and low.

STOSUR SURGES AT ROLAND GARROS

By Blair Henley

A surging Sam Stosur took out four-time French Open champion and No. 22 seed Justine Henin 2-6, 6-1, 6-4 on Monday, snapping the Belgian’s streak of 24 straight matches won at Roland Garros.

“My nerves were simply not strong enough today,” Henin explained. “I felt very nervous, very upset, which is normally not the way I am. Maybe today I was feeling some nervous fatigue. Maybe that nervous fatigue prevented me from seeing things in a calmer way.”

After a slow start, 26-year-old Stosur used her heavy groundstrokes to keep her opponent stuck scrambling behind the baseline, and in the third set, Henin’s picturesque backhand was nowhere to be found. She dumped three into the net in the final game.

Stosur, seeded seventh, squandered her first match point with a nervous double fault, but took advantage of a short, bouncing overhead on her second try.

“I just tried to shake it off and tried to have a laugh at myself, not worry about it and get the next one in,” Stosur said of the double fault.

It was so gloomy at Roland Garros Monday that the 26-year-old Australian was forced to remove her signature sunglasses, allowing fans to see the emotion in her eyes as she sealed one of the biggest wins of her career.

“I knew what I had to do,” Stosur said. “I kept going for it and I believed in myself.”

Stosur had more clay court wins this season than anyone else on tour coming into the French Open and she made it to the semifinals here last year, but her win over Henin still was still unexpected. The Australian lost to her earlier this month in Stuttgart.

The Aussie was known primarily as a doubles specialist before she decided to focus on her singles a couple of years ago. She has previously held the No. 1 ranking in doubles, but she entered the singles Top 10 for the first time just months ago.

Serena Williams easily beat No. 18 seed Shahar Peer of Israel 6-2, 6-2 to become the last American standing in the singles draws. She will take on Stosur in the quarterfinals.

It’s safe to say Peer doesn’t like playing the Williams sisters. She has now lost 5 times each to both Serena and Venus.

Tuesday No. 3 seed Caroline Wozniacki will take on No. 17 Francesca Schiavone, No. 5 seed Elena Dementieva will play No. 19 Nadia Petrova.

BAGHDATIS NETS REVENGE WIN OVER HEWITT

There are no seeds left after quarterfinals at Medibank International in Sydney as local favorite Lleyton Hewitt, the only seeded player in quarterfinals, was defeated Thursday 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 to Marcos Baghdatis.

“The first set and a half I was hitting the ball pretty well, and I was happy with my ball striking,” said Hewitt. “Even after that, my ball striking wasn’t too bad.”

The match was a re-match of a famous match where Hewitt beat Baghdatis two years ago in Melbourne in latest finish match ever (4:34 AM). In the semifinals, Baghdatis will play Mardy Fish. The American ousted the other Aussie, Peter Luczak, 7-6, 6-2 in the night match.

In Auckland, Albert Montanes advanced to his first hard-court semifinal after 6-3, 6-3 over qualifier Michael Lammer. He meets next John Isner, who reached first semifinal outside United States by upseeting No. 1 seed Tommy Robredo 7-6(5), 3-6, 6-4, recovering from 1-3 in the third set.