ranked players

Around the corner: Baghdatis is the top seed in New Haven

Only a week to go before the final Grand Slam of 2010 and there is one last stop on the tour before we get to Flushing Meadows. This week offers the Pilot Pen Tennis tournament in New Haven where Marcos Baghdatis is the number one seed. The ATP World Tour 250 level tourney offers some lower ranked players a chance to get some match play in before the U.S. Open. While it is often a gamble to play so close to the start of the Open, it is a necessary chance that some struggling players must take in order to gain some much needed momentum.

After having a quiet mid-season stretch up until August, Baghdatis has rediscovered the game that brought him to his only Grand Slam final in Australia in 2006. He made the finals in Washington where he lost to David Nalbandian and then the semi-finals this past week in Cincinnati where he was defeated by Roger Federer. I’m a bit surprised that Baghdatis is going to play this week as he has had plenty of matches under his belt recently. Maybe he simply does not want to lose any of the progress he has been making.

Other players in his section of the draw to lookout for are Sergiy Stakhovsky and Taylor Dent. The Ukrainian Stakhovsky has been quiet of late, but did win a grass court tournament in June in the Netherlands. Dent meanwhile, continues to make small improvements in his game and played a tough match against Rafael Nadal in Cincy last week where he fell in the second round. Either one could emerge from this quarter of the draw in New Haven, especially if Baghdatis pulls out.

Mardy Fish is supposed to be the fourth seed but I would be absolutely shocked if he played. Appearing in the finals in Cincy on Sunday and playing six matches in seven days is too much tennis to then push it the week before a Slam. That leaves Germany’s Michael Berrer as the likeliest candidate to emerge from this section of the draw. The big serving Berrer impressed me in Toronto two weeks ago with his powerful game and had promising results on hard courts earlier in the season.

On the other side of the tournament we might get an intriguing second round encounter between rising star Alexandr Dolgopolov and struggling American veteran James Blake. Dolgopolov is the youngest player in the top one hundred in the world and possesses a very diverse game and lethal first serve. Blake has had a summer from hell and most recently was bounced in the first round in Cincinnati by Denis Istomin 6-3, 6-0. I pick Dolgopolov as a good darkhorse selection to be the eventual champion in New Haven

Fernando Gonzalez is also in this quarter, and the third seed is arguably the most talented player in the entire draw. Coming back from a left calf injury, it will be interesting to see how he handles himself.

The final quarter in New Haven has Xavier Malisse and second seeded Tomaz Bellucci as the favorites. I liked Malisse’s chances given his experience and hard-court talent.

Regardless of who advances this week, there will be a new champion in New Haven. Defending champion Fernando Verdasco is not present this year, allowing somebody else to hoist the trophy. While I wouldn’t put any faith in the eventual winner to go deep in New York, it could give them some confidence to at least win a few rounds and trouble some of the big guys.

Nadal And Djokovic Lose In Doubles

Was it really worth all that hype?

The super-duo of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic crashed out of the Rogers Cup in the first round late last night at the hands of Canadians Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil.

The mostly unheard of Raonic/Pospisil pairing came back to win the match 5-7, 6-3, 10-8 in front of an electric opening night crowd at the Rexall Centre.

At only 19 and 20 years old respectively, Raonic and Pospisil defied the odds and somehow managed to avoid the nerves that must have accompanied sharing a court with the two top ranked players in the world.

Serving at 8-2 in the Super tie-break, Raonic and Pospisil appeared to have won the next point which would have given them six match points. Instead the chair umpire called Pospisil for touching the net prior to the point ending, thus giving the point to Nadal and Djokovic. The call seemed to temporarily rattle the Canadians as they allowed their more experienced opponents to bring the match all the way back to 9-8 with still one match point to try to capitalize upon. On that point they made no mistake and an authoritative Pospisil volley ended the match and allowed the two to walk out with their heads held high.

The Nadal/Djokovic partnership marks the first time since 1976 that the world’s top ranked singles players have joined forces in doubles on the ATP Tour. Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe were the last to do it and after last night’s result I wonder if it might be another 34 years before we see it again.

While it certainly created quite a buzz both here in Toronto and around the tennis world at large, the fact that the number one and two players joined forces is perplexing in many ways. Obviously Nadal and Djokovic get along quite well, as was further evidenced by their multiple practice sessions together here this week, but in an individualistic sport such as tennis you’d think teaming up with your greatest competition is a bit too close for comfort.

Roger Federer mentioned in his pre-tournament press conference yesterday that he never would have teamed up with Nadal during the height of their intense rivalry. Even though those two also got along reasonably well, the press had created such a build-up with their quest for Grand Slam glory and the number one ranking that it basically negated any possibility of a doubles partnership.

“Well, Rafa asked me a few years ago to play doubles in I think it was Madrid indoors…but then I think our rivalry was so intense, I just felt it was the wrong thing to do,” Federer revealed.

“It would have been great for the game, but I think it would have been a bit of a curveball for everybody. I don’t think the press would have enjoyed it so much. They want to put us against each other, not with each other.”

Nadal and Djokovic are in the infancy of their relationship as the best two players in the world and there is no guarantee it will last very long. Djokovic’s lead over Federer and Murray in the rankings is slim and he hasn’t had the most consistent year on tour. Maybe if their chase for the top ranking was narrower they would have thought twice before teaming up in Toronto.

Regardless, their experiment has ended prematurely and will now allow them both to concentrate on their singles play. For Nadal, he will open Wednesday night against the winner of the Frank Dancevic/Stan Wawrinka match that will close out the evening on Centre Court today. Djokovic will play Julien Benneteau of France tomorrow during the day session.

Wimbledon – A celebration and preview

It’s the last week of June, (more or less) and for millions of people worldwide that means only one thing: The Championships.

Forever seeped in history, the green courts of Wimbledon have effortlessly produced drama, emotion, elation and despair in equal measure. With every passing year, as each generation of players with some truly great champions set foot on the hallow grounds of SW19 one thing remains consistent.

The atmosphere.

The Australian open, placed so near to the beginning of the new tennis season, has the intense heat, passionate and knowledgeable (if sometimes a little boisterous) crowd and a frequent flurry of surprise packages as lower ranked players pull of some world beating shocks after a hard graft off-season.

Four months later and the hard courts of the first third of the season are long gone – replaced by the unique challenge of the slow, sapping clay surface. In Paris the grand showpiece of the red stuff is at Roland Garros where the world’s best have to deal with a notoriously partisan crowd – who can turn on a contender with great speed and conviction – as well as the punishing dirt.

August sees the glitz and glam of New York crammed onto a tennis court. The US Open at Flushing Meadows offers some of the sport’s most impressive and intimidating arenas with a patriotic spectatorship who let their presence be known amidst the superfast hardcourt surface.

With each of these events and the many Tier 1/Premier/Masters events the guarantee of truly world class action is delivered. But nothing quite compares to those two weeks in south west London where it is an overriding sense of tradition and (as with so many British sporting events) an unparalleled sense of history.

It remains the ultimate prize for the players, and has done throughout the eons. It is here that the idols and icons of the sport would have been broadcast all over the world and for two weeks would inspire fans, and future professionals alike.

This hasn’t been the case for everyone of course. Some foreign players find the all white dress code and unfamiliar surface a real problem. Mary Pierce once claimed the championships was not “ very player-friendly” citing that ‘there are a lot of things which make it different to other tournament sand it isn’t one I look forward to”. Former world number one and (criminally only) two time Grand Slam winner Marat Safin has notoriously been anti-Wimbledon despite his semi final run last year: “Let’s not talk about Wimbledon…It’s not really the place for me”.

There are other- more understandable reasons why many players haven’t embraced the event: the prize money only became equal for men and women in 2008 after a lengthy campaign by the leading names of the WTA. The surface itself has caused many current women to act indifferently when they lose at Wimbledon knowing that in a week’s time, the grass season will be over and the infinitely more familiar hard courts will return. Current world number one Dinara Safina echoes her brother sentiments: “I’m always arguing with my coach, who tells me I can play there…I don’t understand this surface…I’m fighting badly with it”.

In 2001 the unique seeding strategy (where a players tournament rank can be influenced by past grass court results) led many of the Spanish clay specialists to boycott the tournament altogether: Juan Carlos Ferrero, Albert Costa and Gustavo Kuerten all asked for a fairer reflection. A lengthy battle ensued an today we have 32 seeds instead of 16, but the All England club still reserves the right to alter the order of those 32 based on grass court form.

Some players haven’t even bothered to turn up at all and this includes high profile names such as Ivan Lendl and (for a time) Andre Agassi.

Yes, Wimbledon still hinders rather than helps the attempt to bring tennis to the masses in the UK (something that Andy Murray’s youthful self-assurance and rags to riches image has done much to change). Unlike the other Slams, the exclusivity and air of the upper classes still hangs in the air. But the pomp and ceremony only intensifies the whole occasion and in some eyes restores some sense of intimacy and grace to a game now dominated by the modern world’s obsession with athleticism, technology and celebrity that every modern sporting event is expected to deliver.

True, the face of the Championships has changed since it was first held in 1877. In 1980 service line monitor ‘Cyclops’ was first used, with service speed guns introduced eleven years later. A new broadcast centre and the stunning new No.1 court were opened in 1997 whilst most recently giant television screens and the Hawk-Eye ball tracking device have ensured the tournament remains technologically fresh-faced.

This year, the final stage of the ‘Long term plan’ (drawn up in 1993 to ensure Wimbledon continued to represent the very summit of the sport) will be showcased – a retractable roof.

2009 will be the first year whereby the elements will not affect proceeding on centre court – an occurrence that has arguably decided many a great match as players’ momentum shifts to and fro with every delayed intermission.

So what of this year? Technological advancements aside, one thing we are not promised is a repeat of the truly epic men’s singles final from last year where the very core of the shift in the modern game was showcased in the sports greatest stage. Rafael Nadal the very encapsulation of today’s power game defeated five time champion Roger Federer, a stalwart of the classic tennis makeup; success won through tactics, technique and fluidity.

Nadal’s absence leaves a rather empty feel to this years event, as despite his godlike but ultimately unattractive way of playing may not necessarily be missed, the loss of the defending champion is always damaging.

Federer of course remains favourite to triumph. Full of confidence from his superb win at Roland Garros and now fully rested both physically and mentally after skipping his usual grass court warm-up event in Halle – the Swiss maestro remains the most complete player on grass by some margin.

Andy Murray will too be brimming with self-belief after winning at Queens (albeit against a significantly depleted field), and with a playing style similar to Nadals but perhaps just that bit more suited to the green stuff he is very capable of taking the title. Add to this the tremendous home support (not quite at Henmania levels just yet as the Scot’s on court brashness hasn’t endeared him to all) and a winning record against Federer and you have a home grown talent who has never been better equipped succeed.

Elsewhere, my picks in the men’s game remain with the grass court specialists despite the courts themselves playing all too similarly to their hard court cousins as the years have gone on. Roddick, Simon, Wawrinka and at a stretch the 2002 champion Lleyton Hewitt all have the game for grass.

Such is the inconsistency of the women’s game at the moment, that it is only the Williams sisters who really shine out as a safe bet. Elsewhere it really could be anyone, as the new breed of yet more baseliners continue to sine one week and then crumble the next. Of them Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Wozniaki and Agnieska Radwanska will do well whilst the recovering Maria Screamapova is always dangerous despite never repeating her success of 2004.