Aussie Open 2016 Final Previews: Handing Out the Big Trophies

128 men and 128 women started two weeks ago with dreams of being called Australian Open singles champions this year. We are down to just two of each. I will grade the other top players later this week. For now though, the focus is on the final matchups.

Women- (1) Serena Williams vs. (7) Angelique Kerber

Head to head- Williams leads 5-1

How they got here- Unlike last year, Serena’s march through this Grand Slam draw has been very straightforward. She has been in no real danger. In fact apart from a tight straight sets win in the first round and a close first set against Maria Sharapova in the QFs, she has not even been pushed. She made my pre event pick Aga Radwanska look like a junior player in the semis. Her serve has not been the weapon we are used to, but she has been explosive with her movement and rock solid off both the forehand and backhand wings. She is locked in on tying Steffi Graf’s modern era record of 22 Grand Slams. Kerber on the other hand has needed a Herculean effort to get to her first major final. She was down match point in the first round and had to dig deep to get past two time Aussie Open champ Victoria Azarenka in the QFs, A player she had never beaten in five previous tries. She has been a human backboard for two weeks and deserves to be here,

The matchup- Obviously, Serena is a big favorite here, but I do not see a blowout. Kerber has one win over Serena, one more than most. She plays better against tougher competition. Her lefty serve and defensive skills can frustrate Serena who will no doubt feel the pressure. It would not be a Serena Williams run through a major without at least a little drama, but I expect Serena to drag herself across the finish line, maybe on sheer will alone. Prediction: Williams in three sets.

Men: (1) Novak Djokovic vs (2) Andy Murray

Head to head- Djokovic leads 21-9

How they got here- Djokovic loves Australia. That has not changed. The five time Aussie champion has raced through the draw. With the exception of a five setter in the round of 16, he has demolished everyone. He beat Roger Federer so bad in the semis that for the first time, I think Roger’s time may have passed. The fact that Murray has reached this point to set up a rematch of last year’s final is a minor miracle. He has dealt with a lot. Actually that is a gross understatement. A wife back home in the UK ready to give birth any moment, the hospitalization of his father in law who was on site coaching Ana Ivanovic during the tournament, and two five setters Obviously, he is playing well, but it is fair to wonder what he has left.

The matchup- Two guys that play a very similar style here. Great movers who can go from defense to offense in one shot. Djokovic is just playing the style significantly better right now. He is just a machine. Murray has been so close so many times down under. He will have to wait another year. I have never seen a player play as good as Djokovic is right now. It does not matter who is on the other side of the net. Prediction: Djokovic in 4 sets.

The finals will be on Saturday and Sunday morning at 3 AM on ESPN. Ladies first up. Re airs at 9 AM on both days. Enjoy.

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2016 Aussie Open: Storylines and Predictions to Watch Down Under

The Australian Open kicks off later tonight with play beginning at 7 ET on ESPN 2 and Tennis Channel. Be sure to at least flip over during breaks in the football action, There are all kinds of online streams available as well. Here are the biggest storylines to track down under and my picks.

Hewitt’s swansong- 34 year old Llyeton Hewitt will end his career by playing his home slam. Hewitt has been a mainstay on tour since the late 90s. Despite not having a ton of natural talent or power, the Aussie grinded his way to the number one ranking. He also snagged three majors (two singles one doubles). He is living proof that consistency and tenacity count for a lot in any walk of life. Thus, he is one of the most respected competitors in the sport. He was runner up at his home slam in 2005. Ranked outside the top 300 and playing here as a wildcard, one last Cinderella run into the 2nd week is unlikely. However, a lot of folks will be pulling for it, myself included.

Top women walking wounded- Serena Williams has not played an official match since her Calendar Grand Slam were dashed by Roberta Vinci in New York this past fall. She is dealing with ongoing knee issues. She says she is ready to go, and she better be. Talented Italian ball basher Camila Giorgi will be a stern test tonight. Even if she is rusty, it is hard to pick against Serena. 5th seed Maria Sharapova, 2nd seed Simona Halep, 3rd seed Garbine Muguruza, and 6th seed Petra Kvitova all missed season opening events due to injuries. Serena may be favorite to defend her crown, but this draw does not lack intrigue. The door is open for folks like 4th seed Aga Radwanska to claim her first major or a resurgent 14th seed Victoria Azarenka to finally be a factor on a big stage again.

Dangerous unseeded and under seeded players on both sides- I am just going to give names here. Men: 27th seed Grigor Dimitrov, 29th seed Nick Kyrgios, and qualifier Daniel Brands. Women: Dominika Cibulkova, 14th seed Victoria Azarenka, 21st seed Ekaterina Makarova Eugenie Bouchard, and Yaroslava Shvedova.

Novak or the field? What was once the “Big 4” of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray is no more. It is Novak Djokovic and everyone else. The machine like Serb won three of the four majors last year, including this one, which he has won five times. He is not human and the other three guys are still great. Combine that with the emergence of 4th seeded Stan Wawrinka over the last two years and there is not much room for new faces to breakthrough. This will show in my picks.

Men’s picks:

QFs- (1) Djokovic d. (9) Tsonga

(3) Federer d. (6) Berdych

(4) Wawrinka d. (8) Nadal

(2) Murray d. (7) Ferrer

SFs- Djokovic d. Federer

Wawrinka d. Murray

Final: Djokovic d. Wawrinka for his 6th Aussie Open and 11th major overall

Women’s Picks:

QFs:

(1) S. Williams d. (5) Sharapova

(4) Radwanska d. Cibulkova

(14) Azarenka d. (7) Kerber

(21) Makarova d. (2) Halep

SFs: Radwanska d. S. Williams

Azarenka d. Makarova

Final: Radwanska d. Azarenka for her first major

 

 

 

The Football Version of the Elite Eight

Four NFL divisional playoff games and the Australian Open starts Sunday. In other words, the sports fan in me is pretty pumped for this weekend. I will take a look at the Aussie Open tomorrow, but for now it is football. I was 3-1 straight up, but 1-3 against the spread. Here is my attempt at a more consistent week.

Kansas City at New England (-5) – For me, this is the toughest call of the weekend. KC has not lost since baseball season, and they are healthier than the Pats right now. However, the Pats still have Brady and Belichick, thus making it very tough to pick against them, especially in a home playoff game, but I am going to. A big day for RB Charcandrick West and a few timely sacks spark KC to a road outright upset. Declaimer: Every time people think the Pats may lose a game like this, they win by 40. So, I may look real stupid here, but that is fine with me. KC 21 NE 17

Green Bay at Arizona (-7) – Green Bay had a nice bounce back game against Washington last week. If that team shows up, this will be highly competitive, but I think Arizona is the best team in football. QB Aaron Rodgers keeps the Pack in it, but Carson Palmer and the rest of the Over the Hill Gang offense wins a shootout. I think a seven point spread is spot on her, but I cannot predict a push. So…. Ari 35 GB 24

Seattle at Carolina (-1.5) – Call it luck. Call it whatever you want, but Seattle is still in the dance. Carolina has been great all year, a 15-1 regular season record is incredible. This is not the regular season though. Seattle should play with renewed vigor after getting off the hook. Despite mostly winning over the last two months, Carolina’s defense has started to slip. QB Cam Newton can only carry this team so far. I look for QB Russell Wilson to pull another rabbit out of the hat and make a play to push the Seahawks across the finish line in a low scoring fist fight. Here is my 2nd outright upset of the weekend. Sea 16 Car 12

Pittsburgh at Denver (No Line)

Finding a consistent spread on this game is impossible. Most sites have Denver as a 6-8 point favorite, but many have taken it off the board altogether. All this is understandable. The Steelers are banged up after their game/street fight with the Bengals last week. They will be without the best wide out in the league, Antonio Brown who was concussed Brown torched the Broncos 200 plus receiving yards a month ago. Brown is out and Denver’s secondary is healthy again. Oh by the way Steelers leading rusher Deangelo Williams is out with a bum ankle and QB Ben Roethlisberger with try to play with a separated throwing shoulder. Do not blame Denver. You play the players the other team puts in front of you, regardless of they are the starters or not. I will not make an official pick on here due to my Broncos fandom, but Denver is where most of the money is going. So, the public is picking this one for me. I will say this, it will not be cakewalk. However, if Denver does not commit turnovers, they will be fine.

The Second Season Begins in the NFL

Well, the NFL playoffs kick off tomorrow. I finished the regular season 123-127-6 against the spread. A rough last two weeks kept me from finishing in the black. However, it is time to wipe the slate clean for the playoffs. Here’s a look at Wildcard Weekend. My picks are in bold.

Kansas City (-3) at Houston- This will be a pretty low scoring game. Both teams have great defenses. However, I trust KC’s offense a bit more. KC 20 Hou 14

Pittsburgh (-3) at Cincinnati- As a Cincinnati native and a Bronco fan who wants nothing to do with the Steelers next week, I hope I am wrong here. However, a future HOF QB going against a backup QB is a tough matchup to ignore. I expect AJ McCarron to handle himself well against a below average Steelers defense, but Pittsburgh falls out of bed and scores 30. I don’t think the Bengals can keep up for the entire game. Pit 30 Cin 20

Seattle (-5) at Minnesota- This is going to be one of the coldest playoff games ever. Seattle has finally played up to their capability over the last month and a half. They have destroyed everyone in their path, including a 38-7 drubbing of this same Vikings team. Both teams are built for the cold. The Vikings and young QB Teddy Bridgewater are ahead of schedule, but Seattle is just better right now… Much Better. Sea 24 Min 9

Green Bay at Washington (-1)- Despite being the beneficiary of a terrible division and kind of a punchline all year, Washington is playing as well as anyone right now, particularly on offense. Head coach Jay Gruden has done a great job of playing to the strengths of QB Kurt Cousins. I think the Packers are the much better team on paper, but they just cannot get out of their own way on offense right now. The Packers are 4-6 in the last 10 weeks, 3-7 without a miracle Hail Mary against Detroit. Thus, Green Bay may be better on paper, but Washington is better right now. All the favorites win and cover this weekend. Was 30 GB 24

The Hardest Working People in Sports That You Don’t Know

 

This is a post I have wanted to do for a long while. With tennis season starting this week, and the first major about two weeks out, I wanted to recognize some of the folks that do not get the headlines, but keep the sport going, the coaches. Particularly the coaches of the top players. They have the toughest job in the sport. They are not trying to build their pupil’s game from the ground up, they are trying to find that extra 5-10% that will give their player an edge over other top players. It is a tough thing to find. Here is a look at these unsung heroes and heroines.

Sven Groeneveld- This 50 year old Dutchman has been at it a long time. After retiring as a player, he coached Mary Pierce and Monica Seles to the top of the game. He spent the early and mid-2000s working for the  Adidas player development program. This was highly lucrative. During this time, he coached Serb Ana Ivanovic to her first (and so far only) Grand Slam title at the 2008 French Open and led Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki to the number 1 ranking. In late 2013, he accepted the role of Maria Sharapova’s full time coach. This was a pretty gutsy move. Sharapova was in the midst of the second long injury layoff of her career. No one knew what the future held, but he took a chance to work with the most intense player on the planet. His faith was rewarded when he brought Sharapova the 2014 French Open crown. His passion and energy for Maria’s work is amazing as he lives and dies with her all over the world. As pictured below, I have never seen him sit down during a match. He continued to stand by the Russian after another long injury layoff from July-October 2015. He has added more safety to Sharapova’s massive shots. He has her healthy and motivated for 2016.

Sven+Groeneveld jarome

Jerome Bianchi- The man behind Groeneveld in the white hat is Sharapova’s physical trainer, Jerome Bianchi. This former French rugby player has the task of keeping Sharapova fit. This is a real challenge. Sharapova’s serving shoulder was surgically repaired in 2008, before he came aboard. By all accounts, that limits what she can do on the practice court. She has to save her best for the match court. Since Bianchi joined Team Sharapova with Groeneveld, I have not seen her lose matches due to her fitness… at all. Sharapova praises his energy publically whenever she can, affectionately referring to him as “Turbo”

Severin Lüthi- Roger Federer is arguably the greatest player to ever live. He has been through several coaches throughout his remarkable career. This list includes the former coach of Pete Sampras Paul Annacone and legendary player Stefan Edberg. However, there has been one constant on Team Federer since day 1, Swiss National Team coach Severin Lüthi. He has toured with Federer since 2007, but was sort of a consultant before that. Either as the head coach or one of many, he has always been there, making tweaks to Federer’s game to keep him fresh. In recent years, the goal has been for Federer to shorten points by coming into to the net more. Look, Federer is 34 now, an age where most tennis players are long retired. However, Federer is still a threat to win any tournament he enters. It is reasonable to conclude Lüthi (pictured below holding practice balls for Federer) deserves some credit for that.

Team Fed

 

Patrick Mouratoglou- This Frenchman pictured below assumed the coaching duties for Serena Williams in the spring of 2012. Coaching someone as talented as Serena may sound like a cushy gig, but he came along at an interesting time. Serena had not won a major since Wimbledon 2010, a lengthy drought by her lofty standards. She missed most of 2011 with illness and injuries. She was inconsistent in early 2012. Rock bottom came at the French Open with her first round ever opening round defeat at a major. Williams, a part-time Paris resident began training at the Mouratoglou Academy. Within days, the coaching arrangement was formed. Mouratoglou became the first person outside the Williams family to take on a significant coaching role with one of the sisters. Credit Serena for realizing she needed a fresh set of eyes. She instantly became more engaged and went through fewer bad patches of play on court. Since Mouratoglou took over, Serena has won eight majors and an Olympic gold medal. Not to mention, the fact that Williams is not talking about retiring despite being 34 years of age. Those results speak for themselves.

Williams of the U.S. talks to her coach Patrick Mouratoglou during a practice session before her women's singles final match against Sharapova of Russia at the Australian Open 2015 tennis tournament in Melbourne

Serena Williams of the U.S. talks to her coach Patrick Mouratoglou during a practice session before her women’s singles final match against Maria Sharapova of Russia at the Australian Open 2015 tennis tournament in Melbourne January 31, 2015. REUTERS/Brandon Malone (AUSTRALIA – Tags: SPORT TENNIS)

 

 

Marián Vajda-This 50-year-old Slovak has been keeping a watchful eye on world number 1 Novak Djokovic since 2006. Meaning he has guided Djokovic to all 10 of his major titles and his Olympic bronze medal. To my knowledge, he has never given an interview. So, no one knows that much about him, but I will say a few things. Djokovic has a reputation for being somewhat of a clown on the tour. However, Vajda was able to get him to take the sport seriously, get fully fit, and develop that killer instinct necessary to win majors. However, he did not take Djokovic’s lighthearted personality away. Also, at a time when Federer and Nadal were winning everything and no one could break through, not only did Djokovic breakthrough, he began to dominate his two main rivals. Vajda was a decent player and was able to break into the top 40 any early 90s, despite not having loads of natural talent. That kind of “grinder” is the perfect balance to Djokovic. He began splitting coaching duties with Hall of Fame player Boris Becker two years ago, but rarely misses a tournament.

VAJDA

 

 

Judy Murray- For my money, the most interesting story in tennis is that of Judy Murray. Not only is she a woman who has left an indelible mark on the male-dominated arena tennis coaching, but long before she was a tennis coach, she was a mom. The two roles just happened to intersect a bit. She put tennis racquets in the hands of her two young sons Jamie and Andy when they were toddlers. Rather than ship them off to some fancy academy, she taught them the game herself in rural Scotland. 20+ years later Jamie is a world-class doubles player and Wimbledon champion. Andy is a two-time major singles champion (including Wimbledon) and Olympic gold medalist. Both boys have long since moved on to other coaches, but Mom is always watching the matches as if she is out there battling with them, in a way she is. I also cannot overstate the importance of the fact that the Murray brothers are homegrown Wimbledon champions. The UK is obsessed with tennis, but did not see one of their own win their major for 70+ years before the Murray brothers. The British Tennis Association was so impressed with Murray’s work with her sons that they put Ms. Murray in charge of developing Britain’s next wave of female tennis talent. Since then, she has had two British girls break into the top 40 under her watch. She has said that she prefers teaching the game to kids and stopped coaching on the women’s tour last year. She now travels around the world with her boys and their coaching teams full-time.

_66380710_judy_murray_getty

I am not sure how many people will read this piece, but I have so enjoyed writing it. There are dozens of other coaches who work just as hard to see their players succeed. People like Darren Cahill and David Kotyza. I will leave my readers to Google those names. Professional tennis is a year-round sport. Both top tours are full go 11 months a year, there are tournaments six of the seven continents. Just the traveling and figuring out which tournaments a player should play and not play has to be a daunting task. While I’m sure these coaches and all others are compensated quite well, it is not a glamorous job. They are away from their families 11 months a year, and their names are not the ones on the trophy. Most of the time, all they can do is helplessly watch as their player battles and hope the non-televised drudge work put in on the practice court pays off. They have to take the highs and lows stoically. If they get too up or down, the player will do the same. Then, all involved parties are in trouble. They have to know what their player needs to hear at any given moment. Next time you watch a player win a tournament, notice the first people they thank are their support team. That is no accident. So, here is to the ultimate road warriors in all of sports as they get ready to tear up the globe in 2016. First stop, Australia.