Sunday, January 29, 2012

Novak Djokovic: a different type of number 1

In epic fashion, Novak Djokovic won his third Australian Open, this time over Rafael Nadal, in a five-setter for the ages.

It wasn't easy as the two played the longest Grand Slam final in the Open Era.

But then again, when is it ever easy for Djoko?

He's not the big server that Pete Sampras was, nor does he yank guys around the court like Andre Agassi or Nadal. Obviously, he can do those things or else he wouldn't be where he is now; I just don't think they're the defining qualities of his run at the top.

Rather, what seems to really set him apart is his ability to generate big shots at the most crucial times: How many times in the past year has he escaped from the brink of defeat? And more often than not, it's because he's blasting winners from match or break point down.

To me, during his run, he epitomizes that old phrase, "heart of a champion." He fights and fights, and that has paid off for him tremendously. I really thought the end of last year was just going to be the start of a slide back to normalcy for Djokovic, but this Aussie run erased the rough post-U.S. Open stretch he had--and sets the tone for 2012.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Friday, January 27, 2012

Azarenka vs. Sharapova: a matchup for the ages (I hope)

Yeah, I think this women's final is going to be a good one.

Could be a great one, as a matter of fact--at least that's what I'm hoping for!

You see, I love Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka: Not in the literal sense, but as far as watching those two play, it doesn't get much better in the women's game. There really isn't much grace to their games: It's all about hit hard, then hit harder, for the most part.

It's just that they radiate competitiveness, mixed in with some feistiness--a lot of that, in fact! I always feel that there's no place or no situation they'd rather be in than what they face on the tennis court. Endorsements, outside commitments, blah, blah, blah: They'll put some time in there, but not if it interferes with hurting their chances in a tennis match.

Funny thing, too: I'm not going to be pulling for one or the other. Whoever does capture the crown, I'm good. Just give me an 8-6 or 10-8 third set.

Is that too much to ask for?

(Photo: Getty Images)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Now it's Andy Murray's turn

First of all, congratulations to Rafael Nadal for making it to the men's final with his four-set win over Roger Federer. It was a good match that--not to be too cliche--really could've gone either way.

Now we're hours away from the second men's semifinal featuring defending champ Novak Djokovic and last year's finalist Andy Murray. As you may or may not recall, Murray was my pick to win the title this year over Rafa. Djokovic has been playing quite well, but then again, so has Murray. I'm sticking with the Andy call.

Why, you might ask? (Which is something I might even be asking myself!)Well, this might kind of simple, but he knows what he has to do and that's be more aggressive. He can't engage Djokovic in too many long baseline rallies or else he'll get eaten alive. Look for him to attack more instead of playing cutesy angles.

I don't think you can underestimate the Lendl factor. He has someone in his camp who "the best player to never win a Major" tag was practically invented for. Once Lendl finally did win, the rest was a wrap.

And if anything, there's no time like the present to make a breakthrough!

(Photo: Getty Images)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

If Roger Federer wins, consider me a believer

Here we go again: On the cusp of another Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal battle, this time in the semifinals of the Australian Open.

They've both been very impressive this tournament with only one set dropped between them up to this point. Federer has been particularly devastating, blowing out Juan Martin del Potro and Bernard Tomic (future Aussie champs?) like candles on a birthday cake.

That only seems to be par for the course with the way he's been playing the past few months: his only loss in tournament play for ages, it seems, coming when he had to withdraw from the tournament in Doha.

Still, I hadn't been convinced of his form, mainly because he hasn't caught the other members of the "Big 4" at their best. Federer blasted Rafael Nadal off the court at the World Tour Finals, but was that a matter of being in the zone or Nadal being off. Beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga however many times in a row that he has now hadn't convinced me of Federer's form.

All that being said, tonight's the night where all that can change. Of course, I'm always going to look at Federer as a Slam contender and I'll think he'll win at least two or three more before he's done. But as far as showing me that the recent run isn't a bit of an aberration and that he can tag his younger opponents at the biggest stages, this is the perfect opportunity.

And I don't want it to sound like I'm rooting against Rafa: I'm actually quite impartial on this one. I just think this could be the best opportunity for fans and Federer himself to assess where he really is and how far he can go.

(Photo: AP)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Still on track? Well, kinda...

And just when I thought my picks for the tournament were looking so good!

Tough result for Serena Williams, the TTA? 2012 Australian Open champion. I don't know what to make of it; she didn't play her best, but supposedly Serena at 75 percent should win that match. Actually, let me clarify that statement: Serena "of old" at 75 percent...

The game's just not that easy for her anymore, and I don't know if that's a testament to the women's game right now or how she goes about her preparation. More match play is needed at this point in her career. And I think it's hard to say how much her ankle injury, too, impacted the result. On paper, Ekaterina Makarova isn't much tougher than the three opponents Williams walloped earlier. I guess she just can't get away with bad days.

But to avoid those bad days, you just have to get out more: I don't think she'll necessarily do that, though. Aside from Fed Cup, I would be highly, highly surprised if we saw her in a tournament before Miami.

Anyway, a lot of my other calls are still looking good! On the men's side, I picked six of eight quarterfinalists, including Kei Nishikori and my men's champ, Andy Murray. Things went great for me for the top half of the women's draw. The bottom half? That's another story, with Serena leading the way on that one.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Will Tomic have his Federer moment?

You know, it always happens: Young guys touted for greatness making a big statement at a Major by knocking off one of their idols.

Australian Bernard Tomic is on the verge of getting an opportunity to do that as he's set to face none other than Roger Federer in the fourth round. I'll be the first to admit, I didn't see Tomic doing as well as he has--"Challenge-gate" aside--here at the Aussie. I actually thought Fernando Verdasco would've gotten him. Or Sam Querrey. Or Alexandr Dolgopolov! But they obviously didn't and here he is, with a chance to do something big.

And if he wanted to feel inspired at such a huge moment, why not try to channel a little bit of what his opponent did back in '01 at Wimbledon to another legend of the game? Everyone had been saying Federer was going to be great, since he was a junior. We all know what happened when Federer played his idol Pete Sampras in the fourth round.

Will this be Tomic's true coming-out party? It's happened with others in the past; perhaps he can add his name to the mix.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick: a tale of two Americans

What the ... ?

That sentiment can actually be applied to both Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick. I'll start with the bad first, as in "What the heck happened to Fish?" I know Alejandro Falla has had some interesting results over the years, such as being up two sets on Roger Federer at Wimbledon a couple of seasons ago, but still. Fish had a nice win against Gilles Muller in the first round, which I thought might be a sign that he was ready to make a nice run at a Major. Now, realistically, he probably doesn't have a great chance to prove himself at the Slam level until Wimbledon. If he's healthy, then this was definitely a missed opportunity for the number-one-ranked American.

Now about the longtime number-one-ranked American who is not anymore, Andy Roddick: "What the heck got into Roddick?" He really put a hurtin' on Robin Haase; I thought Haase realistically had a shot to take that match. Winning that match so, so handily shows Roddick might have a decent run in him here. Next up for him is his old nemesis, Lleyton Hewitt. It could actually be a pretty good one. Stay tuned!

(Photo: Getty Images)

Monday, January 16, 2012

It all starts for Novak Djokovic

So the first day of the Australian Open has come and gone, and probably the match that was most on others' minds was the comeback by Bernard Tomic against Fernando Verdasco as the top seeds seemed to have it pretty easy. Nice win and effort by Tomic.

Now, day two is just a few hours away and we'll soon be seeing what world number-one Novak Djokovic has to offer. He's going up against Italian Paolo Lorenzi and should really have no trouble at all. It's a good way to ease into the tournament and see what can happen from there.

I'm sure no player ever actually thinks their draw is "good"; that's for the outsiders to speculate on--and that's what I'm going to do now! Djokovic's quarter really isn't that tough; he could realistically be on the court for three hours--over the course of his first two matches! I'm still not 100 percent sure where his game really is now as he says he's fine and he did win that exhibition tournament early on. I guess I'll start to get a better assessment as the tournament goes on.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Serena Williams and the joy of six (Australian Open women's predictions)

Serena Williams is back and she says she's healthy.

That's good enough for me!

Seriously, though, I am picking her to win her sixth Aussie title and even more so than her ability, I think her experience is what will help her get through. The women's game is so deep right now that it usually comes down to intangibles when determining a winner. Williams definitely has those!

Anyway, here's how I see it, from the round of 16 on:

Fourth Round
Caroline Wozniacki (1) vs. Lucie Safarova (24)
Kim Clijsters (11) vs. Li Na (5)
Victoria Azarenka (3) vs. Flavia Pennetta (19)
Julia Goerges (22) vs. Agnieszka Radwanska (8)
Kaia Kanepi (25) vs. Serena Williams
Svetlana Kuznetsova (18) vs. Angelique Kerber (30)
Nadia Petrova (29) vs. Marion Bartoli (9)
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (15) vs. Maria Kirilenko (27)

Wozniacki vs. Clijsters
Azarenka vs. Radwanska
Williams vs. Kuznetsova
Petrova vs. Kirilenko

Azarenka vs. Clijsters
Williams vs. Kirilenko

Williams over Azarenka

And that's that on that! Azarenka's playing well to start the season, but facing Serena in a Slam final could be too much.

Anyway, enjoy the tournament!

(Photo: Getty Images)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Why not now for Andy Murray? (Australian Open predictions)

Here we go: Grand Slam time!

The first Major of the year is a couple of days away and in true-TTA? fashion, I'm giving you my predictions from the round of 16 on. Here goes:

Fourth Round
Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Milos Raonic (23)
Janko Tipsarevic (9) vs. David Ferrer (5)
Andy Murray (4) vs. Gael Monfils (14)
Kei Nishikori (24) vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (6)
Mardy Fish (8) vs. Florian Mayer (20)
Alexandr Dolgopolov (13) vs. Roger Federer (3)
Tomas Berdych (7) vs. Marcos Baghdatis
Jarkko Nieminen vs. Rafael Nadal (2)

Djokovic vs. Ferrer
Murray vs. Nishikori
Mayer vs. Federer
Baghdatis vs. Nadal

Djokovic vs. Murray
Federer vs. Nadal

Murray over Nadal

As the headline suggests, why not now for Andy Murray? He's going to win a Major at some point; perhaps the lessons learned from Ivan Lendl will have already kicked in. I think they will.

Women's picks are on the way!

(Photo: AP)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Is Li Na back?

I guess a new year gives the opportunity for a fresh start!

Li Na appears to be in great form so far at the start of the season, advancing to the finals of the tournament in Sydney, where she's the defending champ. She beat Petra Kvitova in the semis and next faces Victoria Azarenka. You have to like Li's chances in that matchup, too, and then going forward, who knows? Maybe another deep Aussie run?

Last year post-French Open was pretty tough, to say the least, for Li. It's a lot to adjust to, becoming one of the most popular athletes in the whole wide world! She's been through that experience now and if Sydney is any indication, it looks like she's finally made the adjustment.

Women's tennis is so wide open right now, and Li--a Grand Slam champ and finalist--has taken advantage of that. I guess now there's no reason to think she can't do it again.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What the first week of the season has shown us

I know, we're already a few days into the second--and even more when you consider Australian time--but what happened last week could have some repercussions on the weeks and months ahead. Plus, this is my favorite post to post of the year, and has been for the past few seasons! Anyway, here's a look back with some thoughts going forward:

* Andy Murray means business. Sure, he started off the week slow but by the time the end started rolling around in Brisbane, Murray was in fine form. Barring injury, this could be his year for a Slam.

* Watch out for Kaia Kanepi. Folks, I have her down as my hole-puncher for the upcoming Australian. She's going to take out a top-eight seed on the way to the quarters or even the semis. If it's not in Melbourne, it'll be at one of the Slams this year.

* Injuries, injuries, injuries! The walking wounded that piled up last week was ridiculous! I hope it's not a sign of things to come.

* Oh yeah, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga means business, too. I think all of the ATP's "Big 4" have some signs of vulnerability right now. If there's someone to take advantage, it would have to be the Frenchman.

* What's up with the Americans? Ummm, wow: Between both tours, players from the U.S. went a combined 4-6, and two of those wins came from Serena Williams. The Hopman Cup was a disaster, too. Not exactly a great start to the year, but the season is long; someone should break through.

* Milos Raonic will go far. With that serve and the game to back it up, Raonic could be in the top 10 by the end of the year. What's troubling, though, is the injury that slowed him last year. Here's hoping he stays healthy.

* Flavia Pennetta could have a breakthrough. Granted the field in Auckland was devoid of top-10 players, but Pennetta did well to make the singles final there. She had to retire due to injury, but I was wondering... she made the doubles final there, too. If she didn't play so much, would she be a consistent top-10 threat? That'll be something to look out for in the weeks and months ahead.

(Photo: AP)

Friday, January 6, 2012

Survival of the fittest--one week in

It's crazy out there!

Players are dropping like flies right now: ankles, abs, backs--every body part is in danger, it seems.

And the '12 season is not even a week old yet!

I'm going to play the optimist here and say that I think everyone should be OK by the time the Aussie rolls around: Everyone being Roger Federer, Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams. If not, any one of their absences dramatically shifts the whole outlook of the year's first Major.

Congrats, though, to the players that have been able to move on to finals in Doha and Brisbane: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Daniela Hantuchova, respectively. And hats off, too, to Gael Monfils on his upset of Rafael Nadal--about as nice a win as you can get.

Now, all we need are some permanent timeouts on the injuries to keep this '12 season rolling!

(Photo: AP)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Roger Federer's won 20 matches in a row. But ...

... I don't know...

And that's enough ellipses for right now!

I hope they did a good enough job in conveying some doubt I have about this win streak that the Swiss maestro has going on. Well, not the streak itself, because it's obvious that's happening! Rather, the quality of the players he's beating over that time. I know he took out Rafael Nadal quite easily at the World Tour Finals as part of the streak, but I don't really think Rafa was really up to snuff then.

It seems the top tenner Federer's been playing most of all lately has been Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and they're set to meet yet again—this time in the semis in Doha. As they've been playing so much against each other lately, Tsonga might be going into this encounter with a little more knowledge on what's needed to break through, but I'm still picking Federer to win this one.

It's obvious that Roger's playing well, and I actually think he'll win a Major this year. But how well is he really doing? If he knocks off, say, at least two of the other "Big 4" in a row at a tournament that might be a more accurate gauge. Until then, I'm just not sure ... (Of course, I had to sneak in another ellipsis!)

(Photo: AP)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A pretty intense couple of days for Serena Williams there

What'll be the next story about Serena Williams to come out? She's getting engaged to Common or Drake?

The all-timer has pretty much carried tennis news on her shoulders the past couple of days. There were the comments about not liking tennis that set the Internet on fire. Now there's the injured ankle she suffered in her second-round match in Brisbane--with the Australian Open only a little more than a week away. That's more big stories than a lot of players get in a whole career!

First, I wanted to say something about the not-liking-tennis comment: I thought it was OK; she did follow it up by saying that she needed it--as much as a dichotomy that might seem! She must be OK with it to still be out there plugging away. Heck, I had my moments of not liking it when I played all the time, and I think tennis is the best thing that ever happened to me. And by my last estimation, I'm at least a quadrillion levels behind Serena.

As for the ankle, if there's nothing torn, I think she'll play Australia and get some good rest in next week. I'm assuming if it would've been too bad, she wouldn't have been able to finish the match at all. It seems like she'll be all right for the year's first Major, and should be able to do well there, too.

I really hope the next big news story isn't her withdrawing.

(Photo: AP)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl: A match made in brain-picking heaven

"So Ivan, how did it feel to win that first Slam after every one was calling you a choker?"

"Well Andy, it felt like an enormous weight had been lifted off my shoulders. After that, no one could say anything about me. I was already dominating, but hadn't won a Major. Once I did, it was a wrap."

"Wow Ivan, I hope that's me one day."

"It will be Andy. And if you have any questions, just let me know. That's what I'm here for."

"Gee, thanks Ivan!"

And that, my friends, is how discussions will be going between Murray and Lendl—or at least how they should be!

This coaching-pupil relationship could be just the thing that Murray needs to get over the hump. I don't know what Lendl can really do for him stroke- or strategy-wise, but as far as giving him some perspective, Lendl has that to offer and then some. We'll see how it works out.

(Photos: Lendl, AP; Murray: Getty Images)