Who’s going to win the U.S Open?

The final Grand Slam of the year begins in earnest this week and the competition is pretty wide open.  Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal are all Major winners this year and it is hard to separate them.  Add to that the evergreen Roger Federer and 2009 winner Juan Martin Del Potro and you have a tournament that promises some tasty match-ups in the second week.  The women’s competition is slightly less of an enigma – Serena Williams is the girl to beat but if she gets knocked out, anyone has a chance of taking the U.S Open crown.

            Andy Murray goes into this Grand Slam in the slightly unfamiliar role as the man to beat.  Instead of gunning after Djokovic, Nadal et al he is probably expected to at least make the final as the defending champion.  How Murray deals with this added pressure will be interesting.  He certainly has seem to find a formula that sees him peak at exactly the right time for the Grand Slams; 4 finals and two championship victories in his past four appearances is reminiscent of Federer at his peak.  He won the Miami Masters earlier in the season on hard-courts but his form of late has been slightly lacklustre.  Murray will need to raise his game significantly (which I’m sure he will) to retain his title.

            One player who is in top form is the Spaniard Rafael Nadal.  Two titles in consecutive weeks on the U.S hard-courts is the ideal preparation for a tilt at the U.S Open.  For a man of his exceptional talents though, Nadal doesn’t have a great record in the majors on hard-courts.  He has only won 2 Grand Slams (1 Australian Open, 1 U.S Open) on the hard stuff in his entire career and there is a feeling that Djokovic and Murray are both superior on hard-courts.  He is the man in form but he will have to do something extra special to avoid being beaten once again by his nemeses.

            Which brings us to Novak Djokovic.  If God wanted to create the perfect hard-court player he would have probably made something very similar to the sinewy Serbian.  Wonderfully athletic and as strong as an ox, he has the lean, fatless physique that us mere mortals can only dream of.  But enough of my mini man-crush.  His rippling torso has in fact helped him become probably the greatest hard-court player of the modern era, and add to that a freakish talent with a racquet, he is a good bet to add to his already bulging trophy cabinet.  He himself has announced Nadal as the favourite in New York but I think he’s just playing a bit of mind games.  Like Murray he has also reached 4 finals in his previous 4 appearances but has only managed to win one, which might play on his mind.  Nevertheless, Djokovic is my (very ill-advised) tip to win.

            Coming in slightly under the radar is the mercurial Argentinian, Juan Martin Del Potro.  He won his first and only Grand Slam to date in New York four years ago and he is in top form on the hard-courts at the moment, winning the Citi Open and reaching the semi-finals of the Western and Southern Open.  He played brilliantly during his run to the semi-finals of this summer’s Wimbledon, taking Djokovic to 5 sets and also showing unprecedented determination to overcome an injury in beating David Ferrer in the quarters.  He has mighty ground strokes and an unstoppable serve – ideally suited to the fast hard-courts in the Big Apple.  The only drawback is that Del Potro is not in the same league physically as Murray, Nadal, Djokovic.  He does move well for a man of 6ft 6in tall, but his speed across the court is not as good as the top three.  A dark horse, yes, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he made to at least the semi-finals.

            This is the first time in more than a decade when I don’t count Roger Federer as one of the tournament favourites for a Grand Slam.  The Swiss virtuoso has had a lean year by his very high standards and it would seem that age is catching up with him.  He has won two tournaments this year, both on grass, yet his performances at the Grand Slams have been worrying.  Defeated at the French Open by an inspired Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, he suffered an ignominious loss to Ukranian Sergei Stakhovsky (albeit to some brilliant serve-volley tennis) at the 2nd round of Wimbledon.  Federer is still capable of superb tennis and I have no doubt that he could beat some of the top-4 ranked players, but I doubt whether his body can endure 2 weeks of intense Grand Slam tennis.  There is a definite feeling of his star waning; players are no longer as fearful of him.  The 32 year-old used to have this unbeatable aura about him – where players almost knew that they were going to lose before they even began the warm-up.  Alas no longer.  Thankfully, we can still marvel at his beautiful and sometimes balletic forehand.  However, I doubt the man with the second best backhand on the tour (behind Richard Gasquet of course) will feature heavily in New York in the coming weeks.

            On the women’s side, the peerless Serena Williams is still the girl to beat, and with confectionary entrepreneur and part-time tennis player Maria Sharapova out of the tournament injured, her task is made that bit easier.  World number two Victoria Azarenka actually beat Williams in their most recent meeting in Cincinnati but the Belarusian has never won when it really matters at the Grand Slams.  Petra Kvitova has an ideal game for the hard-court surface – she hits the ball very hard and could have a good fortnight if she gets going.  Apart from those two there are very few players that can trouble Williams on the tour.  Laura Robson is Britain’s best hope but she is nursing a wrist injury so do not expect her to repeat last year’s run to the last 16.

             So there you have it.  A pretty conservative prediction I know but hopefully an accurate one for once.  Of course I’d love it if Murray won but for me Djokovic is the superior player on the hard-courts.  It would certainly be a mouth-watering prospect if they both made it to the final.  Here’s hoping.

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The Premier League 13/14

The Premier League season starts on Saturday but to be honest, I’m not that bothered by it.  Why?  It feels like there hasn’t even been a break.  Since the Champions League final at the end of May we have had international friendlies at the start of June, then the U-21 European Championships and then the Confederations Cup during the rest of June.  By that time, pre-season has already started and we are into the endless cycle of transfer sagas, manager speculation and predictions.  There is just no let-up.  Football has lost its allure as it creeps ever increasingly into the summer months traditionally reserved for cricket.  Because of the insatiable appetite for the beautiful game, one can watch it all year round and for me, that seems wrong.  I like my June and July to be totally football-free (unless the World Cup is on of course) and so when August comes around, I am genuinely tingling with anticipation at the thought of my first glimpse at the newest signings to the Premier League.  Remember that glorious time, pre-internet, when players like Andrei Kanchelskis and Daniel Amokachi came to England?  The first opportunity one had to see them play was the first game of the season (unless you were some super-keen fanatic who would travel to Bury on a sweltering July evening to see your team put in a half-arsed performance) and one would be genuinely excited.  Nowadays, all the mystique has disappeared.  It’s like a girl on a first date handing you a picture of herself completely starkers.  Yes it’s good to have this information but all the mystery has been ruined.  A couple of clicks and you can see your new signing in action on youtube, read his personal preferences on twitter, get to know his family on Instagram; so this pre-season I have steered clear of youtube, deliberately not followed Iago Aspas on twitter and avoided watching videos of pre-season games.  Despite this impressive self-denial, I am still completely apathetic towards the coming season – and this seriously worries me.

            Part of the problem is that this summer has seen amazing achievements from Britons in other sports.  Whilst our brave footballers were drawing with Ireland, Andy Murray was busy becoming the first British man for 77 years to win Wimbledon.  The Lions were winning their first test series in four attempts and England’s cricketers are currently making mincemeat of Australia in the Ashes.  Not to mention Mo Farah’s 10,000m victory at the World Championships or Christine Ohurougu’s incredible British record to reclaim her 400m crown on Monday.  In other sports, British competitors are improving, testing themselves against the best in the world and regularly coming out on top.  The footballers meanwhile are plodding along, seemingly content to be good enough, but not world class.  There has been a recent change in the British psyche from being gallant, plucky losers to hard-nosed winners.  This is evident in Rugby Union, Tennis, Cricket, Athletics and Cycling but seems to have passed football by.  I daresay the fact that there is so much money in English football at the moment is to the detriment of the game.  Young players who have achieved relatively little get rewarded with huge contracts and suddenly at 19, 20, 21 they are already millionaires living a very comfortable lifestyle.  Take Raheem Sterling for example.  He played maybe two or three good games for Liverpool last season, yet was demanding a £30k plus per-week contract (as an 18 year-old) when in real terms, he had done absolutely sweet FA.  Liverpool, loathe to lose one of their brightest talents, relented and Sterling proceeds to go and behave like a complete wally and gets himself arrested last week.  Is that the behaviour of a potential star of the future?  Do you hear about the best young Spanish or German or Italian players (let’s forget about Balotelli for a second) conducting themselves in such a manner?

            One thing that I have noticed about successful athletes from other sports is their hunger and desire to win, their willingness to work hard to achieve their goals, and how grounded and disciplined they are.  Take Mo Farah for example.  In preparation for the World Championships he spent several weeks training at altitude in the Swiss and Austrian Alps.  Farah has a young family and he sacrificed seeing them in pursuit of his goal of a gold medal – so much so that he admitted his youngest daughter barely recognises him.  Bradley Wiggins, in a similar situation to Farah with a young family, spent weeks training at altitude in Tenerife in preparation for his tilt at the 2012 Tour de France.  This is the sort of dedication and ruthlessness required to become the best in the world.  The footballers of today seldom have such drive and desire.  Last year, England cricket’s star batsman, Kevin Pietersen, fresh from a stunning 149 not out to save the game against South Africa at Headingley, was dropped for creating dressing-room unrest by sending provocative texts to the opposition and generally being a bit of a Billy big-bollocks.  England lost the next game, but sent Pietersen a strong message which was along the lines of ‘nothing is bigger than the team.’  The Surrey man repented, was re-admitted to the team with the proviso of a new attitude and look what has happened since: England have not lost a series.

            I like the Premier League, I genuinely do.  It is probably the most exciting league in the world and it showcases some of the greatest players on the planet.  However, especially since the 2012 Olympics, I have become slightly disillusioned with football.  The Olympics was a glorious festival of sport, where athletes dedicated up to four years of their lives living off pittance in some cases in the pursuit of a medal (in some cases, just the start line).   That is what sport is about – the passion, the determination, the drive to try hard every day in the pursuit of excellence.  When I see Premier League footballers not giving much of a shit (Q.P.R take note) who are on more money per week than most athletes earn in a year, it leaves a slightly bitter taste in the mouth.

            So, what hopes do I have for the coming season?  I hope that the football will take pride of place instead of debates about strikers trying to eat central defenders.  I hope the season will throw up a surprise package that plays enterprising football (Stoke and West Ham to be relegated please).  I hope that just for once, greedy footballers stop thinking about how much money they can earn, handing in transfer requests and actually get on with improving themselves.  I hope that I can fall back in love with the beautiful game.  I hope, but I won’t hold by breath.