Archives for January 2016

Dimitrov outlasts Troicki, can he actually beat Federer?



BRISBANE, Jan. 7, 2016 – In 2014, Grigor Dimitrov was rising fast. He reached the Wimbledon semifinal, stunning Andy Murray in the quarters. He was right there against Novak Djokovic, but he fell 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 7-6. The Bulgarian had tremendous variety, and he loved bending down low and sweetly touching a few drop shots that trickled right over the top of the net. However, Dimitrov would get anxious when the big points arrived, which is why Djokovic sensed it and he yanked him around until he fell over.

Nonetheless, the flashy Dimitrov wouldn’t back down – yet. At the US Open, he reached his career high at No. 8 when he made it to the fourth round, going down to the electric Gael Monfils. In the fall, he really wanted to go very deep, upset the big foes and make it into the top 8 in ATP Finals. He couldn’t do it. He was close, but even though he mixed up his attacks, his balls would land too short. He lost against Djokovic again, Murray got him back and Roger Federer did also, too.

In the start of 2015 in Brisbane, Dimitrov said he was ready to go. He was more mature now; he knew exactly what to do as he had more experience. But then Federer absolutely crushed him 6-2, 6-2 in the semis. After that, he began to be overly emotional. He did manage to reach the fourth round at the Aussie Open, but Murray out-thought him, winning 7-5 in the fourth set. At Monte Carlo on clay, he woke up when and he blew out Stan Wawrinka in the third round. However, Monfils smoked him and, after that, Dimitrov did almost nothing the rest of the season.

In November, he hired a new coach, Franco Davin, who worked with Juan Martin Del Potro for years. Maybe the Argentine will help him significantly, or maybe not.

This week though, Dimitrov has dug in in Brisbane, knocking out the cagey Gilles Simon in the first round and on Thursday, he outlasted the improved Viktor Troicki 5-7 7-6(6) 6-2. Has Dimitrov radically changed? No, he has not. But, if he wants to win a major some day, he was to be more aggressive and more consistent, but he seems to be just fine.

“I think I’ve always been aggressive when I play. I think that’s my style, I think,” he said. “But consistency is always the key. I think if you play well and have consistent results everything else come with it. Just want to play. That’s all I want to do right now. And focus one match at time, and whatever the outcome is, to put my head down and just keep working again until one day everything just becomes better and better.”

Now, he will face Federer, who destroyed Tobias Kamke 6-2, 6-1. The greats Swiss was impenetrable. Dimitrov has yet to beat him yet, and he is well aware than in 2015, Federer has been pretty consistent, even though he is ‘only’ ranked No. 3. Federer won six titles, and he did reach the finals at Wimbledon, the US Open and the ATP Finals, all going down to the amazing Djokovic. But Federer was pretty close. In fact, ‘Rog’ is pretty amazing, too.

“The results speak for themselves,” Dimitrov said. “Everything is just said and done out there and he’s still one of the best competitors out there. I mean, the greatest player out there. I’m sure there is still a lot to come. It’s just how it is. If you love the game and obviously you’ve achieved a lot, everything becomes pretty natural after that.”


Thankfully, all the women completed their matches, as they were healthy andno one retired. It had been a brutal day across the world with five out of top six pulled out. But on Thursday, they looked pretty spry.

Carla Suarez Navarro edged Varvara Lepchenko 4-6 6-4 7-5, Victoria Azarenka stomped Roberta Vinci 6-1 6-2, the U.S.’s 20-year-old Samantha Crawford stunned Andrea Petkovic 6-3 6-0, and Angelique Kerber beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-4, 6-4. For the first four months in 2015, Suarez played terrific ball and cracked the top 10 for the first time. But then she slipped badly. Now, she says that she is mentally strong again.

“After [reaching the final] Rome I feel tired mentally,” she said. “Not too much physical, but mentally, because for being in the top 10 or top 5 of the best players in the world you have to be focus all the time. Not only one week. There is a lot of weeks and big tournaments and Grand Slams.

“I was there all the time, all the weeks, and after Rome, or after Wimbledon – I lost confidence also with the match that I play in Wimbledon. At this level is not easy have again confidence or feel good on court. So after US Open, in Asia I start to play a little bit better, a little bit not too nervous, just more relax than after Wimbledon. In the off-season I was good.”

Bernie Tomic edges great volleyer Stepanek, to face Kei Nishikori


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It’s time for Tomic to step up. Mal Taam/MALTphoto

BRISBANE, Jan. 6, 2016  – The so-called younger males should rise up this year. It’s not like this group are teenagers, and they all have been around on tour for five years or more. But, these days, the veterans continue to improve — the Big 4-plus 1: Novak Djokovic (28 years old), Andy Murray (28 years old), Roger Federer (34 years old), Rafa Nadal (29 years old) and Stan Wawrinka (30 years old).

Clearly, the kids have to improve greatly if they want can actually win a major this season.

On Wednesday night, the 23-year-old Aussie Bernard Tomic went on court to face the old-but-not-tired veteran Radek Stepanek. The Czech is now 37 years old and he missed most of 2015 due to injury. He was 3-0 against the Aussie, but they are never played on hard courts before.

This time, Tomic hung in there. Stepanek sliced and diced, coming to the net constantly, volleying 55 times with 37 winners. Not bad at all.

Here is what Tomic had to say: “I think he has for sure the best volleys going around now. The feel, the way he covers the net, shows why he’s an amazing athlete the last 10 years on the tour. I cannot think of another person that volleys that great like him.”

However, the former No. 8 Stepanek hiccuped late, spaying the ball at the very end. Tomic won 7-6(6) 4-6 7-6(4).

At times, Tomic can disappear, but he can be extremely steady and he doesn’t mind mixing up his pace. Even though he is tall and muscular, he rarely goes for the lines right off the bat. Sometimes it works, sometime it doesn’t, but against Stepanek, he stepped in when he needed to. He moved around his forehand and backhand and ,when he lulled Stepanek to sleep, he whacked winners down the line.

Now he has to face Kei Nishikori, who beat him 6-0 6-4 in the quarters of 2015 Brisbane. The Japanese started very well today when the 25-year-old beat Mikhail Kukushkin 6-3 6-4.

Nishikori reached the 2014 US Open final, and he looked like he was ready to race past Marin Cilic in the final. But he could not and he went down quietly. Last year, Nishikori was fairly solid, but he was not spectacular. This year, he has to take more risks.

“Mentally I have to be a little more stronger. But I been doing really good things from last year, and very happy to finish top eight again last year,” Nishikori said. “Try to have good confidence and try beat all the top 10 players. That’s going to be a big challenge for me.”

Here’s a big challenge for Tomic: Can he take down one of the better competitors out there? ‘Bernie’ always comes to play in Australia. To take down Nishikori, he must to dominate early, because Nishikori is certainly faster than he is.

“He’s the top in the world. Not easy,” Tomic said. “I have to earn my position to be there. Obviously beating me last year on these courts it’s showing me he can play amazing on this surface. It’s not just to me. He’s beaten everyone on the tour and everyone fears to play him. Even Rafa, Novak, Roger. He’s had so many wins over these guys, and I have to play well from the start to have any chance of beating him.”

The 25-year-old Milos Raonic has yet to play yet, but on Wednesday he talked with the press and said yes, he can snare at the major, if the tall and strong man can move forward.

Cilic won his match, besting Chung Hyeon of South Korea 7-5 7-6(3). The 27-year-old Croatian said that last year his serve was spotty so he changed it up a bit. He will face the 22-yeard-old Dominic Thiem, who won three titles last year on clay. The Austrian says that he likes the hard courts too, so we will see if he is ready to dance.


Petkovic is more playful after the match is over. Mal Taam/MALTphoto


On Tuesday, with Simona Halep and Maria Sharapova pulling out due to injuries, it looked like that No. 3 Garbine Muguruza was the favorite. Nope. On Wednesday night, the Spaniard pulled out after losing the first set 11-9 in the tiebreak against Varvara Lepchenko. Muguruza’s left foot was too painful and she didn’t want to risk it. What a strange week indeed.

Victoria Azarenka was hurt too much last year, but now, she looks a little thinner and she is quicker on her feet. She took down the Belgium Ysaline Bonaventure 6-3 6-2. She has to face Roberta Vinci, who is red-hot, but Azarenka has won two Slams at the Aussie Open, so if she is feeling right, she could certainly win the tournament. It’s been a long time.

Here was a real shocker when the 20-year-old Samantha Crawford of the U.S. beat the Swiss Belinda Bencic 7-5, 7-5. The 6-foot-2 Crawford can the crack ball but she is still has miles to go. She will place a smart veteran Andrea Petkovic who beat Ekaterina Makarova 7-5 6-4. The always laughing and smiling Petkovic (off court, mind you) has never played Crawford before.

Bad day: Serena, Sharapova, Halep & Kvitova pull out with injury

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BRISBANE, Jan 5, 2016 – Just before the first tournaments began in 2016, everyone was ready to rock. They seemed to felt healthy and they couldn’t wait to begin. Three days later on Tuesday, No. 4 Maria Sharapova and No. 2 Simona Halep pulled out with injuries. A couple of days before in the Hopman Cup, No. 1 Serena Williams said that she was still sore and she wasn’t ready to get on court yet. On Tuesday night, she played for a set and a few games before she retired against Aussie  Jarmila Wolfe. Serena could barely move.

Over in New Zealand, Venus Williams lost against the 18-year-old Darya Kasatkina, and Ana Ivanovic went down against Naomi Broady. And let’s not forget that No. 6 Petra Kvitova retired against Saisai Zheng at Shenzhen due to illness. Of the top 6, only Garbine Muguruza and Aga Radwanska remain.

Bloody Sunday. Or is it?

Whatever the case, it’s anybody’s ball game at the Australian Open.

All of a sudden, there are huge questions. Serena hasn’t played in a tournament since early September, when she was stunned in the semifinal against Roberta Vinci. She pulled out of the rest of the year, saying that she needed to heal, physically and mentally. She did manage to play a couple of exos in November and December, with her friend Caro Wozniacki and with the IPTL. It looked like she looked OK, more or less, but apparently her leg hasn’t fully healed. Serena is the defending champion and given that she won three majors in 2015, she will be the favorite everywhere she goes. But, if she can’t run at all, the rest of the healthy players will attempt to yank her around until she gives in.

Sharapova injured again

The defending champion Sharapova at Brisbane was scheduled to play Ekaterina Makarova. Sharapova was injured a lot during last summer and during September, but in October, she began to feel better and she played fairly well at the WTA Finals and the Fed Cup final. The five-time champion wanted to continue. Instead, she played a few exos and practiced at home on California.

But today, she tried to practice and her left forearm was sore. She didn’t want to risk further injury. Last year in January, she was very healthy, winning Brisbane (beating Ivanovic) and reaching the final at the Aussie Open, losing against Serena in a tight match.

That is exactly what she wanted to do once again. But all of a sudden, she couldn’t crack her two-handed backhand because her left arm was painful. Will she accept a wildcard at Sydney next week if she is feeling better so she can get in some matches? It’s possible, but doubtful because the 28-year-old doesn’t want to take any risk.

The same goes with Halep, who has yet to win a major. A few days ago, Halep said that she felt stronger, her first serve was bigger and she was more in control. But, she says that for the past five months, she has a sore Achilles heal. She hopes to play Sydney and the Australian Open, but she isn’t sure what will occur and she can barely sprint.

“I hope and I want to play [at the Australian Open],” Halep said. “I have couple of weeks already again with the pain. I did an MRI and it’s nothing dangerous, but it’s still an inflammation. … I don’t want force it because it’s a tough injury.”

Halep is thrilled that her coach, Darren Cahill, will be in her camp full-time this year. He can help her calm down. That is true and, if she is fully healthy, she will have a legitimate shot to win a Grand Slam in 2016. But if she’s can’t run at full speed, she won’t be able to win the Australian Open. She isn’t very tall or extremely powerful, so when she is winning, it’s because she can run all day long and she is super steady. If she can’t, then she has no answer against the top competitors.

Kvitova is almost always hurt, but like the Czech played pretty well in the WTA Finals and the Fed Cup final. But today, she was ill once again. Hopefully, the two-time Wimbledon champion will feel better super fast. She is the defending champion at Sydney. Last year she really thought she could win the Australian Open for the first time and rise to No. 1. She wasn’t even close. She is extremely talented, but so hard to predict.

venus_mt_uso_082813On Venus and Ivanovic: at least the American and the Serbian were healthy, even though they lost in New Zealand. Can they turn it around and catch fire at the Aussie Open? It’s hard to say. Both have reached the final before (Venus lost to Serena in 2003 and Ivanovic lost to Sharapova in 2008) and both have been around for a very long time, so they know exactly how they are feeling. But really, it’s about quality and the only way they can win again is to take tremendous risks.

Very soon, the young kids will be coming up very fast. In Brisbane, the No. 3 Muguruza is still there, as is the excellent 18-year-old Belinda Bencic.

With these nagging injuries and illnesses, we’re on to the Australian Open, where it’s wide open.

Everyone is happy: Halep stronger, Cilic steadier, Azarenka changed



BRISBANE, Jan. 4, 2016 – Every year, the grass is always greener, especially for the players in the first week of 2016 New Year. Just about everyone is happy, because they were able to take a break at the end of the year. They were able to get healthy, and then they started practicing with their coaches to try to freshen up their game.

Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova are always trying new wrinkles. The 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer wants to continue to rush the net more, while the 5-time Grand Slam champion Sharapova wants to mix it up more. Both Federer and Sharapova are the defending champions at Brisbane. The Swiss says that on occasion, he is “totally Zen.”

There are plenty of fine players in Brisbane, with the tournament growing and growing each year.

Look at Marin Cilic, the one-time champion who won the 2014 US Open and it looked like that it was possible that someday, he could win another major. But he grew hurt during the fall and he didn’t return until last March at Indian Wells. He wasn’t ready yet. He continued to improve and while he was unable to take down the other excellent players, he was more or less OK, ending the season ranked No. 13. Now he says he is healthy again and he would love to win another title. But he isn’t sure yet.

“I want to be there. If I’m going to be a winner of Grand Slams in the future, I think hopefully with that kind of tennis I played at the US Open, I think I have pretty good shot,” Cilic said. “That’s what drives me. It’s not that I’m going to be thinking too much about stuff around. Of course, the motivation is really there. That is good road for me to follow. I know what things I need to work on with my game, what things really worked. So I think that’s positive. I don’t have as many questions as before.”

The world No. 2 Simon Halep is also playing at Brisbane. She has yet to win a major, but outside of that, especially on the hard courts, she is super fast and lethal. In early October, Halep had announced that she will stick with her coach, Darren Cahill. The Australian coach and broadcaster Cahill stopped with adidas on December 31. According to Halep, now they can work with each other full-time.

Last month, he came to Romania to work with the very intense Halep.

We practice very hard,” Halep said. “I was working on what we had in our mind to improve in my game, so everything went well. I was feeling great that I had new things to work on. He came very relaxed and showed me what I have to do, what I have to improve. I accepted and I worked really hard on them. On everything. I want to be stronger. I want to improve, of course, my serve because it’s not very strong, but now I feel that it’s better.”

Interestingly, Halep said that at the 2014 US Open, she struggled a bit because Cahill could not sit in the Friends Box if she was playing against another adidas competitor. Halep lost in the semifinal against Flavia Pennetta. She was pretty upset.

“I can say that was a little bit difficult also in US Open because he couldn’t show up for Pennetta’s match,” Halep said. “I knew that and accepted before, so it was okay. Now it’s different, so it’s good. I learned many things from that collaboration, and now because he’s only with me, it’s much better and I’m more relaxed.”

Before that lost, Halep did take down the former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals. Azarenka was essentially done after that, becoming hurt once again during the fall.

A year ago in Brisbane, Azarenka said that she wanted to become No. 1 again. She was OK throughout the year, but she couldn’t take down most of the top players, like Serena Williams, Sharapova and now Halep.

Currently ranked No. 22, Azarenka has miles to go. But, if she beats Halep on Wednesday, then perhaps she will rise again. She admits that she didn’t have a great season in 2015, but she is very happy now because she is no longer depressed, as she has said.

She won the Australian Open twice, so maybe she can be back on track.

“Definitely feeling in control of my movement, not thinking about pain, that’s a huge element,” Azarenka said. “Also, I worked a lot on getting my movement a lot more efficient, being much more mobile and flexible. So for me, that work that has not ended. It’s still just a big process. But I like the improvement that I’ve been able to do in those months. I think it’s the right way.”