Wimbledon 2015 Gentlemen’s Preview: Time to Kick Some Grass

Wimbledon is now under 24 hours away. The gentleman’s singles draw is out, and much like in Paris, it is unbalanced. There is one big name with a great draw, and I believe he needed just that to make a deep run here.

Top half- Djokovic catches a break

The disappointment felt by world number 1 and defending Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic after being denied his career Grand Slam in Paris was obvious to everyone watching. By his own admission, Djokovic did not leave his apartment for a week after his loss in the final. I had been expecting the disappointment to carry over into Wimbledon, but after seeing the draw, I think the Serbian ironman will be fine. His 3 chief rivals (2) Roger Federer, (3) Andy Murray, and (10) Rafael Nadal are all in the other half, meaning he cannot face them until the final.

There are a few dangerous players in this half that the top ranked Serb may have to deal with. Most notable is the man who shocked him in the finals of the French Open (4) Stan Wawrinka. However, the powerful Swiss has never been that comfortable on grass, and would not oppose Djokovic until the semis. The most realistic threat is (15) seed Kevin Anderson in the 4th round. The big serving South African is capable of hitting 30+ aces in a match, which makes it tough for any opponent. If the racquet is taken out of your hands, it doesn’t matter how good you are. Speaking of big serves, (7) Milos Raonic is back after missing the French Open due to minor foot surgery. He reached the semis here last year, and is well-positioned to do so again. Despite the injury, he is confident and reportedly practicing well. All of his massive shots are made more massive by the grass courts.

Another story here is the Wimbledon farewell of former world number 1 and 2 time major champion Lleyton Hewitt. The likable Aussie was a winner here in 2002. The 34-year-old step away from the game in early 2016. He is one of the most beloved players worldwide, but will need to turn back the clock to get beyond a possible 2nd round meeting with Djokovic. I think everyone is hoping for Hewitt to catch lightning in a bottle, but it isn’t likely. His backwards hat and trademark “come on!” after winning big point will be missed. There is also (5) Kei Nishikori in this half. The Japanese counterpuncher is talented, but battling a litany of injuries.

Americans here with a chance to make noise- Steve Johnson, Donald Young, and (17) John Isner.

Semifinal prediction: Djokovic d. Raonic

Bottom half- The legend and the homegrown favorite on a collision course

If form holds in this half, it will be (3) Andy Murray vs. (2) Roger Federer in the semis. At 33, even Federer would admit that Wimbledon is his best chance to his record 17 majors. His aggressive net game and precise serve are perfect for this surface. He was a few shots away from notching an 8th title here last year. Murray grew up on the grass and ended 70+ years of British futility of Wimbledon with his victory here in 2013. Murray is healthy and married now, 2 big changes from this time last year. He has handled the pressure of playing at home remarkably well in the past, I expect this year to be no different. His return game and movement are his big weapons.

I mention (10) Rafael Nadal here more out of respect than reality. He has been dethroned in Paris and despite winning a grass court tune up in Germany is clearly still searching for answers. The left hander’s groundstrokes are landing alarmingly short in the court right now. His draw is really kind, and was made kinder by the withdraw of (8) David Ferrer due to an elbow injury. I think he can reach the quarters here, but no further.

I think the biggest threat to the Federer/Murray showdown is (6) Thomas Berdych. The former Wimbledon finalist has a really solid year and could await Federer in the quarters. They have had great battles in the past. If Berdych gets hot, he can blast Federer off the court, but I don’t see it. T.V. coverage begins tomorrow at 7 a.m. on ESPN, which is the ONLY place for LIVE coverage of the event. Enjoy it folks.

Possible sleeper in bottom half- Unseeded American Sam Querrey

Semifinal prediction- Murray d. Federer

Final- Murray d. Djokovic

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Wimbledon 2015 Ladiies Preview: Competition or Coronation?

There really is only one story going in to the ladies singles event at Wimbledon. It is Serena Williams and her quest for her 2nd career “Serena Slam.” Wimbledon is the only major title she does not hold at the moment. As always, she is the favorite. However, she will have her work cut out for her. It has only been three weeks since her French Open triumph. As I begin to reveal my predictions, I will tell you all right now that I am either crazy like a fox or just plain crazy.

Top half- Familiar foes and dangerous floaters for Serena

This is by far the tougher half. Serena is joined by 3 former world number ones and multi time grand slam champions. More specifically, 4th seed Maria Sharapova, (23) Victoria Azarenka, and her big sister (16) Venus Williams. Venus is a five-time Wimbledon champion in her own right and the one name Serena did not want to see anywhere near her own. They will play in round 4 if form holds. Playing her sister is always tough on Serena not only from a tennis standpoint, but also an emotional one. We have seen the Williams sisters play each other countless times, often times the winner comes out flat the next day. Despite their mastery of big hitting grass court tennis, I think playing each other so early will be a death nail for both their chances.

Has it really been 11 years since a baby faced 17 year old named Maria Sharapova won this title? She has struggled here since that magical run, only going beyond the quarterfinals once since 2007. This year, she has had some extra time to prepare by virtue of her early French Open exit. The early rounds will tell the story for the fiery Russian. If she doesn’t mess around, she has a shot to go deep again. She could potentially face her kryptonite Serena Williams in the semis. As for (23) Victoria Azarenka, it is nice to see her back playing at a decent level after dealing with injuries for the last year or so. She will pull a minor upset to reach the 4th round, but her seeding will prevent her from going further.

In this half, there is one first-round match that I think will decide a lot, (30) Belinda Bencic vs. Tsvetana Pironkova. Bencic is a teenager with lots of talent and Pironkova is a veteran who possesses big shots, but also can put wicked slice on all of them. They stay nice and low on grass. She is among the top 10 players in the world on the surface. She has had more than one deep run here in the not-too-distant past. I like the winner of this match to get all the way to the semis and upset Serena in the quarterfinals. It is a coin flip, but Bencic could suffer a letdown after winning her first title at a smaller event this morning, I’ll take Pironkova. I may be the only person in the world predicting an unseeded semifinalist. This match will be played Monday.

Other seeds here worth noting: (7) Ana Ivanovic, (11) Karolina Pliskova, and (6) Lucie Safarova who I think is in first round danger against American grass court specialist Allison Riske.

Semifinal prediction: Sharapova d. Pironkova

Bottom half- Wide Open

The big name seeds in this half all have questions. Defending champ (2) Petra Kvitova is the closest thing to a safe bet, but she struggled in Paris with an illness that is still bothering her. Even so, it’s hard to pass up her raw power and ability. She is a two-time Wimbledon champion, capable of making it three. For (3) Simona Halep, she is still stinging from her 2nd round French Open exit. She can get overpowered on grass very easily. She has made a coaching change the week before a major, which is unheard of. She is lost at sea and searching for answers. I don’t expect her to find them here. Last year’s finalist Canadian (12) Eugenie Bouchard is rail thin and has lost 10 of her last 12 matches. She will fight hard, but it is difficult to have much faith in her right now. The door is wide open for former finalist (18) Sabine Lisicki to make that kind of run again. She broke the record for aces by a female in a match last week with 27. She has a love affair with these courts and will be a tough out for anyone. Also here is 2012 finalist (14) Aga Radwanska who possesses the variety and movement to frustrate any opponent on any surface, but particularly this one. Her projected 4th round match with Kvitova will go a long way towards deciding the finalist from this half.

Other seeds: (15) Timea Bacsinszky- The hotel worker turned French Open semifinalist has a dangerous first round against hot and cold German Julia Gorges. She is joined by (8) Ekaterina Makarova- The Russian lefty is having a breakout year. Speaking of breakouts, 21st seeded American Madison Keys has yet to really back up her semifinal round in Australia. She should stick around for at least a few rounds here.

Semifinal prediction: Kvitova d. Lisicki

Final: Kvitova d. Sharapova

Traditions of Wimbledon

The toughest stretch of the tennis calendar ramps up again on Monday with the start of this season’s 3rd major, Wimbledon. It is known for being steeped in tradition like no other sporting event on earth. Here are just a few of the many Wimbledon traditions that make the event the biggest in the sport. I hope this knowledge will enhance your viewing of The Championships.

All white everything- This tradition is fairly straightforward. The tournament venue, The All England Club strictly enforces an all-white dress code. No one knows just where this tradition started, but it is been around since the 1800s. Former rebel child and American legend Andre Agassi once said the early 90s that the dress code was “stupid” and that he would where jean shorts to Wimbledon. The club said that he would not be allowed to play, Agassi backed down and went all white. He eventually won the event in 1992. The dress code was briefly lifted in 2012 for the London Olympics in which players were allowed to where the colors of their countries.

Naming of courts- All of the main courts at the other 3 majors are named after former players. Not at Wimbledon. The main court is Centre Court, the next court is Court 1, and so on. This tradition has also been around since the 1800s and is going nowhere. The club feels naming courts after players’ borders on advertising. There is zero commercial advertising on the grounds of Wimbledon, unless it is for the venue or event itself. I cannot tell you how much I love this tradition. It is a fantastic change of pace from the overly corporate world we live in. For these two weeks, is all about tennis, as it should be.

No play on the middle Sunday- The Australian, French, and U.S. Opens are all held in massive metropolitan cities. Wimbledon is held in a village. So every year, six days after the tournament begins, it stops for a day to allow small village and its residents to attend church and catch their breath without a single tennis ball being struck. The men’s final is traditionally played on Sunday, but that is the only Sunday play there is at Wimbledon each year. Even if weather forces the tournament behind schedule, there will be no play on the middle Sunday. This tradition can be kind of a buzz kill, but is highly practical.

Defending champs first up- Every year, the reigning gentleman’s singles champion opens up playing the first match on the first day of the event on Centre Court. The reigning ladies singles champion is given the same honor on day 2. This is a nice feather in the cap of the previous year’s winner. This year, the honor will belong to top ranked Novak Djokovic of Serbia on day 1. and second ranked Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic on day 2.

Rain early and often- Ok, so this one isn’t exactly a tradition in the prototypical sense. However, rain is a part of any United Kingdom summer, and Wimbledon is not spared. Every year, fans can pretty much bank on at least one rain soaked day, and usually more. By now, everyone has a good sense of humor about it. Watching the players hustle off the court and almost get run over by ground crew as they race to get the covers on has almost become part of the fun. The days of total washouts ended in 2009 with the addition of a roof over Centre Court. So, those matches are sure to be played every day. However, when you consider the frequency of rain in the area and how quickly the grass surface can become slick and dangerous, nothing else is guaranteed.

Some may call these traditions unnecessary or overly particular, I call them refreshing and a crucial part of what makes Wimbledon so special. I hope you now feel a bit more knowledgeable about the most prestigious event in tennis before it begins on Monday. The ESPN family of networks will have exclusive live coverage from first ball to last. Coverage will start at 7 AM for the first several days of the tournament. My previews are coming tomorrow and Sunday.

French Open 2015: Finals Wrap Up and an Eye Towards the Grass

The 2015 French Open ended a little over a week ago. Both finals had a healthy dose of drama in their own way. Here is some historical perspective on each champions’ victory.

Stan the spoiler- Once Novak Djokovic dismantled Rafael Nadal in the QFs at the event the Spanish left-hander had previously owned to the tune of 9 titles. Most people assumed that this would be the year Djokovic would finally capture the French Open title that had eluded him so many times and complete his career Grand Slam. However, Stan Wawrinka had other ideas. The Swiss former Australian Open champion tallied just a 6-4 clay court record leading into Roland Garros, but something clicked when got to Paris. It is no secret that Wawrinka has huge weapons that translate well on any surface. He really started to believe after bashing his countrymen and occasional doubles partner Roger Federer in straight sets in the QFs. Despite only 7 spots separating Wawrinka from the top-ranked Serbian, he was a decided underdog against Djokovic in the final. The 8th seed was unfazed, winning in 4 sets, 4-6 6-4 6-3 6-4. Despite a slow start, Wawrinka was able to begin dictating with his gorgeous one-handed backhand, one of the finest shots on the planet. By the last few games, the underdog was in “the zone” blasting winners from everywhere. Djokovic wasn’t done any favors by having to play his semifinal over 2 days, but you play the cards your dealt. This was truly about Wawrinka playing the match of his life. As far as Djokovic is concerned, if he cannot seal the deal after taking out his chief rival, it is fair to ask if he will ever have his day in the Paris sun.

 

Serena stumbles, but gets number 20- Serena Williams notched her 20th major winning in 3 sets 6-3 6-7(2) 6-2 over 13th seed Lucie Safarova, but the score line does not even begin to tell the story. Serena had battled an illness and had several near misses leading into the final. Early on, it looked like there would be no such drama. The American smashed her way to a 6-3 4-1 lead. Then the American self-destructed, spraying double faults and errors everywhere. It look like the moment was eating her alive. The surprise left-handed finalist from the Czech Republic sensed her chance and began to loosen up. She was able to steal the second set in a tiebreak and even went up a break of serve in the 3rd set. A lesser player would have folded like a cheap tent, Serena rose to the occasion. She was able to find that same gear that got her through 4 other 3 set matches in the French capital. This victory is as impressive as any of Serena’s previous 19 majors, simply because she was far from her best and simply refuse to lose. She is now just 2 majors shy of Steffi Graf’s modern era record. Even at 33 years of age, there seems to be nothing that can stop Serena from this record. For Safarova, a doubles title and a single runner-up trophy will serve as mementos of a dream tournament. She is now a member of the world’s top 10. It will be interesting to see how she handles the expectations that come with that.

Looking ahead to the grass- Believe it or not, Wimbledon begins a week from Monday and grass court tune up events are in full swing, Rafael Nadal bounced back to form with a title in Germany last week. Even so, on the men’s side it is hard to say who the favorite heading in to Wimbledon is. I’d expect a letdown from Djokovic. He put so much into winning the French. For the ladies, it is all about Serena, if she can win Wimbledon for a 6th time, she will be the current title holder at all 4 majors, A feat not accomplished since Serena herself did it in 2003, it was dubbed “The Serena Slam.” Given what the French took out of her, the quick turnaround, and the quality and depth of the field these days, I’d bet against it. Don’t ask me who will beat her or how until the draw comes out.

Finals weekend at the French Open 2015: Illness, Trophies, and Confusion

The final weekend of the French Open is upon us. However, a significant wrench has been thrown in to things from a scheduling standpoint. The two players in tomorrow’s ladies final match have no clue when they will take the court, and here’s why.

The 2nd men’s singles semifinal between (1) Novak Djokovic and (3) Andy Murray will resume tomorrow at 7 a.m. ET with Djokovic leading 6-3 6-3 5-7 3-3. A 3 hour 32 minute first semifinal, the threat of bad weather, and the lack of a roof and/or lights at the French Open led to this unenviable position. Djokovic shocked everyone with the way he dismantled 9 time French Open champ Rafael Nadal in quarterfinals on Wednesday. He continued that other worldly level of play through the first two sets against Murray. However, the Brit did a great job of digging in and turned the match around with more aggressive returns. He managed to steal the third set and stay level in the fourth before play was halted. The feat is especially impressive when you consider that once he dropped the first 2 sets, Murray had to know that if he was able to turn the match around, they would have to finish tomorrow. If you are familiar with tennis scoring, you know that this match was stopped at a point where it could take 10 minutes to finish, or 2 hours. This strikes me as the kind of match that Djokovic wraps up quickly tomorrow, or Murray turns in to an epic battle. You have to wonder how much Djokovic has left in the emotional tank. Between what he was able to pull off Wednesday and playing for the career Grand Slam, (this is the only major he has not won) it is a fair question to ask.

One man who hopes this match turns in to a long battle is the big hitting Swiss man (8) Stan Wawrinka who is through the final after a 4 set win today. He has found his game out of nowhere after a so-so lead up to the French Open. His most impressive scalp of the week by far was a straight sets win over his friend and countryman Roger Federer, who was also my pick to win the event. Wawrinka will be an underdog in Sunday’s final, no matter who he faces, but should not be taken lightly at all. While the Swiss finalist hopes for a long battle in the other men’s semi, the participants in tomorrow’s ladies final hope for the exact opposite. They will not take the court until the men’s match finishes. Here’s a look at the final.

(1) Serena Williams vs. (13) Lucie Safarova

Head to head- Williams leads 8-0

The match will begin on NBC when the men’s match concludes. The network that will carry the conclusion of the Murray/Djokovic match is NBC Sports Network.

These two ladies are in completely different spots in their careers. This is Serena’s 24th major final and she is chasing her 20th major. Safarova, despite being a veteran, is in her first career major final. Moreover, they have had vastly different but equally surprising paths to this championship match. Safarova is in the midst of a dream week. She has not dropped a set on her way to this stage. Her road to the final includes upset wins over grand slam champions (2) Maria Sharapova and (7) Ana Ivanovic. Additionally, the Czech is in the women’s doubles final with American Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Safarova has gotten here by being precise in the area of locating her lefty serve and controlling points with her big forehand. She will need to do a lot more of this to have a chance at shocking Serena.

Serena has dropped the first set a mind-boggling 4 times in 6 matches at this tournament. She has looked sluggish and downright disinterested at times. However, each time, she has been able to flip the proverbial switch in a nick of time and find that level no other woman can match. In the later rounds, the big serving American has had to deal with a flulike illness that is claimed several players this week, including Sharapova and 4 seed Petra Kvitova. She had to be helped off the court after her semifinal win. The illness remained severe enough that Williams canceled her pre final practice today. If Serena can finish the job, this will be among the more impressive of her grand slam victories, simply because nothing has come easy. Safarova is helped by a few things here. She has spent much less time on court this week than Serena, even when you add in her doubles, she is the healthier of the two, and she is a lefty. There aren’t many lefties around at the moment. Sometimes it takes players a while to adjust. Does the underdog have a chance? Absolutely. Am I gutsy enough to call it? No way.

Prediction: Williams in 3 sets

French Open 2015: The Story So Far

Week 1 of the French Open has drawn to a close. 8 men and 8 women still have dreams of becoming French Open singles champions this year. A rainy Sunday forced the end of week 1 and the start of week 2 to intersect on Monday. Here are 4 tidbits you need to know about what has happened and what will happen on the red clay of Roland Garros.

  1. Calamity on the women’s side- Only 2 of the top 8 ladies seeds have reached the quarterfinals. Early casualties included defending champion Maria Sharapova (4th round), as well as 2014 runner-up, 3rd seed Simona Halep (2nd round). For Sharapova, this snaps a streak of 3 consecutive French Open finals. Questions about whether Halep possesses the weapons to win a major will only get louder with her early exit. When high seeds lose, it creates opportunity. That is what we have seen here to the highest degree. Either 93rd ranked Allison Van Uytvanck or 23rd seed Timea Bacsinszky will reach their first major semifinal. Van Uytvanck has earned a whopping $5600 in prize money this year. That will increase to over a quarter million dollars no matter what happens from here. Bacsinszky’s rise is even more unreal. She had retired and was managing a hotel a year and a half ago. I’m not kidding. The big guns will likely have many more days in the sun, but there are definitely some unexpected faces at this stage.
  2. Serena struggling, but winning- She is chasing her 20th major, but Serena Williams is walking a tightrope. She has dropped the first set in 3 consecutive matches. Everyone knew when the draw came out that Serena’s toughest matches were going to be early on with names like Victoria Azarenka and Sloane Stephens in her section, but I don’t think even Serena expected to have to grind this much just to reach the quarterfinals. We have seen the immensely powerful American pull off a few great escapes and when majors before. However, one must wonder how many times she can tempt fate and get away with it. Despite her patchy play, Serena is a massive favorite when you consider the other 7 players left.
  3. American men’s tennis finds hope in a “Sock”- American men’s tennis has been starving for a legitimate topline star since the retirement of Andy Roddick in 2012. We may have finally found the heir apparent. 22-year-old Jack Sock reached the 4th round upsetting the 10th seed in the process, before falling in 4 well contested sets to 9 time French Open champion Rafael Nadal. This was correctly predicted by a certain blogger before the tournament. Sock is already a major champion in doubles. However, his massive, but more importantly complete game is starting to translate on the singles court. I believe he has a real chance to one day become the first American man to snag a major title since Roddick in 2003.
  4. Showdown city coming for the top guys- Unlike the women’s draw, the men’s draw has very much held to form with 7 of the top 8 seeds reaching the quarters. This means we get the matchup that everyone circle when the draw came out. Top seed Novak Djokovic vs. Rafael Nadal. Djokovic is still chasing that elusive French Open title that Nadal has denied him of time and time again. Nadal is looking to reassert his dominance on clay and himself as a threat at the top of the sport once again. I stand by what I said in my preview. I like Nadal to edge Djokovic in a classic quarterfinal on Wednesday morning. However, I just cannot see the winner of that match having anything left in the tank for the semifinals or final. Like their chief rivals, Roger Federer and Andy Murray have sailed through the early rounds. These 2 men have a golden chance with the way the draw shook out. The matches remaining on the men’s side will be classics. If you are ever going to start following tennis, now would be good.