Sunday, 30 January 2011

Mere mortals can’t win majors any more

On Sunday, Novak Djokovic won his second Australian Open title with a superb performance, spectacular in flashes, against Andy Murray. Murray’s own display was below-par, make no mistake, but he is an excellent tennis player who ultimately ran into a far better one today. Djokovic played an incredible championship, and demonstrated not only the supreme standards of his own game, but also the clear gulf in quality between the top three and the rest of the field.  Murray may have, in very disappointing fashion, gone missing in his third consecutive Grand Slam final, but at the moments when Djokovic was required by his opponent to show his true quality, he did not disappoint.

Over the past twelve months Djokovic has overcome problems with his serve and fitness to make considerable improvements to his game. He is now good enough to fulfil his early promise as a contender to the Federer/Nadal dominance, a remarkable feat considering the bar the latter two have set over the past two years. Most crucially to Djokovic’s win was his ultimately unstoppable all-round game, which he continued to raise according to the standard of his opponent. He would reach balls considered unlikely by the extraordinary standards of Nadal, maintaining balance in order for him to unleash with his next shot; his huge baseline game was unplayable – in this facet he has now eclipsed Federer; and players of considerable quality – Berdych (who managed to reach the levels of his Wimbledon final last year), Federer and Murray – never looked close to beating him over 5 sets. He beat each of them in three.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Australian Open Preview

As with seemingly all Grand Slams in this blessed generation of tennis, history can be made in Melbourne this fortnight at the Australian Open. Winning the tournament would see Nadal achieve what will become known as the 'Rafa Slam', holding all four Grand Slam trophies at one time (collected over two calendar years). Rod Laver (in 1969) is the only other player in the Open Era to achieve this feat, while only Don Budge did so before Laver. With the man labelled by many the 'Greatest of All Time' as one of Rafa's contemporaries, should Nadal win the title, it will be a truly remarkable achievement, probably the greatest the game has ever seen. Meanwhile, if Nadal, or any player other than Federer, lifts the trophy on January 30, it will be the first time since 2003, before he had even won his first, that the Swiss will not have held a major trophy.

With so much history at stake, will Rafa win the title? It is now clear that Nadal, not Federer, must be considered automatic favourite for Grand Slams, regardless of surface, and will be the favourite for this one too. His hindrances will be the strength of the field, with Nadal likely to have to play his very best tennis in at least two matches to win (not one person who watched Wimbledon and the US Open last year can doubt Nadal's ability to do this). But anyone inevitably has a bad day at the office on occasion, which only makes Nadal's consistent brilliance over the majority of 2010 on all surfaces all the more startling; while Nadal has also admitted that he is still suffering from illness – needless to say an under-strength Nadal is far more vulnerable than a fully fit one, especially against a player of Federer's ability.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Hodgson takes pole as Sack Race hots up

An extraordinary Premier League season took another dramatic turn last night and the pressure was heaped on bosses Roy Hodgson, Avram Grant, Carlo Ancelotti and Gerard Houllier, as the poor form of their respective clubs culminated in bitter defeats for Liverpool, West Ham, Chelsea and Aston Villa. All four's jobs are under serious threat, and the league in danger of losing four of its managers in very quick succession. In 2011 it is now more commonplace than merely a worrying trend for managers to be sacked so short into their tenure, with three of the four managers at risk only half a season in and Ancelotti at Chelsea only twelve months their senior.

Of the four, Liverpool boss Roy Hodgson is most at risk. His problems at Anfield are complicated and difficult to summarise in a short passage, but the main quandary for Liverpool fans for and against Hodgson had been whether he was performing too poorly, or whether he was doing a good enough job with a sub-standard squad left by Rafa Benitez. In the minds of Liverpool fans, this debate seems to be over. Liverpool are a club in turmoil. Their performances this season, particularly away from home with one win and seven defeats in ten matches, would be considered awful by a club with standards and expectations lower than that of a member of the now out-dated ‘Big Four’.