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044 – MONDAY 16TH
The dynamics have changed leading into Roland Garros.
At this point of the clay court season, we usually ponder if anyone is capable of stopping Rafael Nadal picking up yet another French Open title.
However, things are different this year. We now know of a certain man from Serbia who is clearly more than capable of challenging Nadal on the red stuff in Paris.
Novak Djokovic’s run of form this year has defied belief. His consecutive match win record currently stands at 39, which includes his two singles victories in the Davis Cup final against France last December.
But whilst that streak is impressive in itself, what is even more outstanding is the manner in which he has beaten the ‘King of Clay’ on consecutive weeks in Masters 1000 events.
Djokovic’s straight sets win over Nadal in Madrid was significant. It was the Spaniard’s first clay-court defeat since that infamous fourth round defeat to Robin Soderling at Roland Garros in 2009.
But it was at altitude, they said. The feeling was that the real test for Djokovic would come in Rome where the clay court conditions were better suited to Nadal’s game.
It was a test which Djokovic passed with flying colours. He inflicted another straight sets defeat on Nadal and it really has changed the state of play ahead of the start of this year’s French Open on Sunday.
The bookies’ still feel that Nadal is the favourite at 5/6. And considering his record at Roland Garros since 2005, that is understandable.
But no longer is Nadal the out and out clear favourite, well ahead of the chasing pack, to win in Paris.
Given Djokovic’s statement of intent in recent weeks, there will be many who will be taking advantage of the odds of 11/8 on him winning his third grand slam title in just under three weeks time.
And no wonder when you look back at his performances on the clay in recent weeks. His court coverage has been outstanding and his ability to turn defence into attack is staggering.
But what is most impressive of all is his belief on-court, particularly during the big points. He has faced a few tricky moments here and there in recent weeks, particularly during his semi-final in Rome against Andy Murray, but has shown great determination to come through them every time.
That belief has come from this tremendous run he is currently on. Given the current strength of men’s tennis, it would have been inconceivable to have suggested that Guillermo Vilas’ all-time record of 46 consecutive wins could be beaten in the present day.
However, a French Open win for Djokovic will see him equal that record in stunning fashion. What could be more fitting than a final at Roland Garros against Nadal with a grand slam title and a place in history at stake. It is mouth-watering to say the least.
And you can add the world No.1 ranking to that list as well. Even if Nadal were to win the title, all Djokovic has to do is reach the final to become the top-ranked player in men’s tennis.
A loss for Nadal at any point during the tournament and Djokovic will become the new world No.1 no matter how he does. Even if Djokovic were to lose in the first round, he would still finish the fortnight with more ranking points than Nadal.
When you look at it this way it is not just likely, it is perhaps inevitable that Djokovic is the next world No.1 in waiting. Nadal seemed to think so anyway when he was quoted last week as saying: “The No. 1 ranking is not in danger - it’s finished. Let’s not lie to ourselves, that’s the reality.”
It really is testimony to Djokovic’s run of form this year that he could potentially overtake Nadal, a player who currently holds three of the four grand slams, in the rankings.
It is all of this which makes for another fascinating grand slam fortnight coming right up this Sunday.
Smith the proud Scot
There is no doubting Andy Murray’s positive effect on tennis north of the border since he arrived on the scene in 2005.
Plenty of Scots have been inspired to pick up a racket and have a go after watching his matches on television over the past six years.
A lucky few have even got to watch him in action on home soil. The Aberdeen Cup in 2005 and 2006 and the Davis Cup tie against Serbia at Braehead in 2006 being some of the occasions when Murray has graced his homeland with his presence.
But we are now coming up to four and a half years since the world No.4 last played in Scotland. A barren period though which will be ended by his, almost certain, return, after a 22-month absence, to the British Davis Cup squad for the tie against Luxembourg at Braehead in July.
It is an exciting moment for Scottish tennis and, in particular, British captain Leon Smith, from Edinburgh, who will lead out his side in front of a passionate Scottish crowd buoyed by the appearance of one of their country’s great sportsmen.
Smith said: “I felt it was appropriate to get the tie in Scotland because Andy is playing. Obviously, they will have seen a lot of tennis in England in the summer so I think it is good to go a bit further north with Andy being there and get a home crowd behind him.
“The Andy Murray factor is something any nation would cherish. If you look at Serbian tennis, with Novak Djokovic coming through, and Swiss tennis with Martina Hingis and Roger Federer, one of the big factors is having role models, and it is so important to have that in Scottish and British tennis so that there is an identity.”
The tie falls on the 8-10 July, the weekend after the completion of The Championships at Wimbledon, and is expected to draw a capacity crowd to the Braehead Arena at a time when tennis rides the wave of general public interest on the back of two weeks non-stop tennis live on national television from the All England Club.
It is likely to be a real home affair considering that three quarters of the team could well be Scottish. Murray is a certainty to play, barring injury, and other Scots like his brother Jamie and Colin Fleming will also be in the reckoning for a place on the team.
Smith is of course the British captain, but considering his Scottish roots, he can’t help gaining some personal satisfaction from the success that Scottish tennis is currently experiencing.
He said: “The majority of my career has been spent in Scotland. It is only in the last five or six years that I have had a wider role in British tennis.
“First and foremost, I wear a British tennis hat, but I have so many fond memories of coaching these guys when they were young, so we have got a really close affiliation and relationship which has carried right on through into their adult years.
“I spent so much time at grassroots level in Scotland and I am passionate about that as well. Whether it is [at] Oban tennis club or Mount Vernon, or working at national level in Scotland, it doesn’t matter. It is all about tennis in Scotland and this summer’s tie will be a unique and good moment for me.”
Smith was also full of praise for the effect that Judy Murray has had on Scottish tennis in recent years. The mother of Andy and Jamie has recently received unfair criticism from a minority of people who feel she is interfering too much in Andy’s tennis career, but Smith was adamant in pointing out the many good things that she has done for tennis.
Smith said: “The work she has done and how she influences and motivates the coaches and the players, every time you see her step on court, the kids absolutely love it and I think that’s really important.
“While she sets standards because she knows the standards obviously from travelling and seeing what Andy is doing, she also creates a wonderful environment which is fun and people stay in the sport which is really important as well.
“It’s not all about the high end elite performance which is obviously what everyone talks about, but underneath that it is about growing the interest in the sport, and when she is around at schools and in the playgrounds and doing a lot of promotional work and grassroots level work, she gets everyone involved in tennis and that growing the sport part is really important.”
Strong Challenger draws
The depth of men’s tennis has been further illustrated by the strength of some of the draws on the ATP Challenger Tour, the second tier of men’s tennis, in recent weeks.
At last week’s Bordeaux Challenger, the top eight seeds were all within the top 100. Jeremy Chardy, Arnaud Clement, Julien Benneteau and Nicolas Mahut were amongst some of the big names competing. More strikingly though, the last direct acceptance in the 32-man draw was Marinko Matosevic, ranked 146.
Also appearing in Bordeaux was Fernando Gonzalez who has recently returned from hip surgery, but the Chilean was sadly forced to retire with yet more injury problems after the first set of his opening match.
The former world No.5 has since been forced to withdraw from Roland Garros. Such a shame as he can be one of the most entertaining players on the tour at times. Let’s hope he can fight his way back to full fitness again.
All over the world in recent weeks, there have been top 50 players competing in Challenger events. Even former world No.4 James Blake was a recent Challenger winner, beating Alex Bogomolov Junior in the final of the Sarasota event in Florida at the start of this month.
It is no wonder that so many players struggle to make the transition from the third-rate Futures circuit to the Challenger Tour. Players who are regular top seeds in Futures events often struggle to even make it into the main draws of Challengers.
As always at these lower-rate events, there are keenly contested matches fought out by players battling it out for every extra dollar and every extra ranking point they can muster which often makes for interesting viewing.
And that’s why you keen tennis fans should try and get along to a Challenger event if you haven’t been before. The ATP World Tour events may have the glitz and glamour but it can be a great experience watching some of the raw tennis at Challenger level.
Nottingham is hosting two back-to-back grass-court Challengers in the coming weeks, beginning on Monday 30 May. Well worth a trip if you can make it along. You may even see a big name or two if you are lucky.
French Open qualies
For the people who are especially keen on tennis, it’s not all about the main event at Roland Garros which gets underway this Sunday.
Qualifying always offers an interesting extra few days of action for the tennis diehards to enjoy, particularly those who are lucky enough to be able to attend as entry is usually free for qualifying matches at the grand slams.
For those of us at home, we will have to make do with the usual live scores and 140 character Twitter updates from those lucky enough to be on site.
From a British perspective, men’s qualifying usually always has at least two or three Brits to follow. Sadly though, with James Ward the only Brit pushing towards the top 200 at No.216, he is the only British man taking part in the qualifying at Roland Garros this week.
And Ward hasn’t received much luck with his draw. He faces the up-and-coming 19-year-old American Ryan Harrison, ranked 124, in the first round. The match takes place tomorrow as the third match on Court 11.
Ward can perhaps take a bit of hope from the fact that Harrison doesn’t appear to be too comfortable on the clay. He hasn’t had too much success on it this year, apart from a run to the semi-finals on the green clay at the Savannah Challenger a couple of weeks ago.
The women’s draw is yet to be released but it is likely that it won’t make much better reading for the British fans with Heather Watson set to be the only British woman in it. However the news that Elena Baltacha and Anne Keothavong will both gain direct entry to the main draw offers some form of relief.