Tuesday, January 21, 2014

It's Fognini's Fault

Whenever there is a big upset in sports, the fans of the player or team that got upset always look for something or someone to blame. After Stanislas Wawrinka defeated Novak Djokovic 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7, (and even during the match) everyone had something to blame for the massive upset.

The most popular scapegoat has been Djokovic's new head coach, Boris Becker for his inexplicable standing during the match. Another popular one has been Jim Courier for asking Djokovic to do another impression. There have been plenty of other outrageous accusations for who is to blame for Novak's first loss at a slam to a player ranked lower than four since 2010. But let's identify the real culprit for who he is - Fabio Fognini.

Let's look at the evidence:

In 2011, Djokovic started the season riding a 43-match winning streak. Djokovic reached the Roland Garros quarterfinals where he was one win away from tying John McEnroe's record for best winning streak to start a season. The opponent awaiting him was none other than Fabio Fognini, who limped his way through an epic victory over Albert Montanes.

After stealing the quarterfinal spot away from Montanes, Fognini elected to not even use it and withdrew from the tournament. Because of the withdrawal, Djokovic went three days without playing any tennis on a television. After three days of collecting rust, Djokovic had his 43-match winning streak snapped by Switzerland's Roger Federer.

Overall, in the first five tournaments in which Djokovic and Fognini played each other, Djokovic didn't win a single title. That includes 2010 Belgrade, where after defeating Fognini in straight sets, Djokovic went on to lose to 319th ranked Filip Krajinovic in the following round. Coincidence? Doubtful.

Fast forward 32 months to the 2014 Australian Open. Now, Djokovic has a 27-match winning streak as he meets Fognini in the fourth round. While Fognini didn't withdraw officially this time, he withdrew mentally. Fognini won a total of five games and 55 points over the course of three pathetic sets. All the while, Fognini's antics distracted the three-time defending champion and broke his focus. The match took away Djokovic's mental edge.

As a result, Djokovic tried to serve and volley on match point down. The cost: another loss to a Swiss man with a one-handed backhand after Fognini failed to properly prepare Djokovic for an important grand slam match.

Fabio Fognini traitorously sabotaged Djokovic by refusing to give him a proper warm-up before his crucial match against the Stanimal. As a result, Fognini is the scapegoat.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Return of the Big Four

At its peak in 2011, the Big Four of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer owned the ATP World Tour. In 2011, the four players combined to win all four slams, all nine 1000 events, the year-end Finals, along with eight other titles, and Nadal was part of the Davis Cup Champion team.

The four players didn't just win the events - they dominated them. Both finalists at all four slams were members of the Big Four. In fact, only three players ranked below four even reached the semifinals, and only four reached a final at a 1000 event. However, since Nadal lost to Lukas Rosol in the second round of Wimbledon in 2012, the members of the Big Four have not all been at their best at the same time.

After that loss, Nadal was out for seven months and didn't make his return until after the Australian Open. As soon as Nadal returned, Federer instantly began to struggle, starting with a loss in Rotterdam to Julien Benneteau. Federer's struggles continued all the way through to the US Open where he lost to Tommy Robredo.

After the US Open, Murray announced his season would end with back surgery, and Federer almost instantly began to improve. He reached the final in Basel, and semifinals of Bercy and the year-end Finals, beating Richard Gasquet and Juan Martin del Potro twice in the process.

Now, at the Australian Open, Murray is back from his injury, Nadal's knee issues seem to be a thing of the past, Djokovic is extrememly motivated, and Federer appears to be back to a high quality of tennis. So is the Big Four back?

From what we have seen at the Australian Open through one week, the answer would be a resounding yes! Not a single one of the four has so much as dropped  set on their straight-forward paths to the second week. With Del Potro falling out of the tournament in the first round, it would be surprising if anyone outside the Big Four reaches a final, let alone win one.

However, there is still one major hurdle before I am ready to say that the Big Four is truly back, and that is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. During 2011, it wouldn't be surprising to see all four reach the semifinals. However, that's impossible in Melbourne this year since Murray and Federer are both in the same quarter. So the best the Big Four can do is make sure that none of them lose to anybody outside the Big Four. Although Djokovic will face Stanislas Wawrinka and potentially Tomas Berdych or David Ferrer, Tsonga appears to be the biggest threat in this tournament to disrupt the Big Four's dominance.

So what is unofficially on the line tonight when Federer goes toe-to-toe with Tsonga is Federer's spot in the Big Four. Can the Big Four all dominate the sport at once the way they did in 2011? Or are Tsonga, Berdych, Del Potro, Wawrinka, and Ferrer too good to be second tier players?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Forgotten Quarter

The Australian Open is mere hours away at this point, and as play begins, all eyes will be on the favorites to win the tournament to see how their form is. A lot has been made of the stacked top half of the draw in Melbourne and the possibility of a rematch between Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic.  However, there is one quarter of the draw that has been overlooked significantly. David Ferrer's quarter is wide open and loaded with the possibility of a break-through performance.

It wasn't long ago that the Australian Open was the site of some of the biggest upsets in tennis. Whether it was Djokovic ending Roger Federer's streak of consecutive slam finals, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga taking out Nadal, or Marcos Baghdatis reaching the final, the Happy Slam was full of surprises.

This hasn't been the case in the last two years with the top four seeds all reaching the semifinals in both 2011 and 2012. However, Ferrer's quarter could potentially be the location of a huge surprise. With a spot in the semifinals up for grabs, it seems as though nobody in the quarter is prepared to take it. The eight seeds in this quarter of the draw have a combined record of 6-9, and six of the seeds have not even won a match yet this year.

The top seed in the quarter, Ferrer, went on a four-match losing streak to end 2013 after he upset Nadal. That proved to be the trend more than a fluke as he went on to be upset by two players ranked outside of the top 50 in his first two tournaments of the season. Last year's Wimbledon semifinalist, Jerzy Janowicz, won just a total of four games in his only match to get prepared for the first slam of the year.

Tomas Berdych isn't in any better form. Despite winning doubles in Doha, he was upset in straight sets in the first round by Ivo Karlovic, who is a potential third round opponent. The Czech has been known to suffer early upsets at the slams anyways. For seven years in a row, he has lost in the first round of at least one slam each year.

Also, Tommy Haas, Mikhail Youzhny, Ivan Dodig, and Kevin Anderson have all lost their only preparation match for Melbourne. So if all of this players, have such poor form coming into the slam, who is going to reach the semifinals? Someone in this section has to! These are the three unseeded players that I think have the best chance of making a run at the Australian Open.

1. Steve Johnson (USA)
This is a perfect storm for Stevie to have a breakthrough event at a slam. Not only is he playing in a weak section of the draw, but he is coming into this tournament in good form and will play under favorable conditions. Last week, he came one match away from qualifying for Auckland, where he was beat by college rival Bradley Klahn. However, he got into the draw as a lucky loser and made the most of it. He beat Marcos Baghdatis, who is always dangerous when he is playing down under. Then he knocked out one of the seeded players in this quarter, Kevin Anderson, in straight sets.

Johnson is no stranger to succeeding in extrememly hot temperatures. As a senior at USC, he had one of the best seasons in tennis history, which led to a National Championship. He knows what it takes to win, and has that winning mentality. When he gets on a roll he is tough to stop, which makes him dangerous to go deep in Melbourne.

The word on the streets is that the courts at the Australian Open are faster and the balls are lighter, which is more good news for the American. He loves to crank his serve and back it up with his best weapon, which is the forehand. The court speed and light balls play right into his strategy, which will make it very difficult to break his serve. This could be an exciting tournament for Johnson, who has never gone past a third round at a slam.

2. Alexandr Dolgopolov (Ukr)
In contrast to Johnson, Dolgopolov has had success at the slams before. In fact, in his first appearance at Melbourne Park, he upset Robin Soderling and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on his way to the quarterfinals. Dolgopolov's physical issues have prevented him from getting a high enough ranking to be seeded, but nothing is stopping him from making another run. He has already knocked off one of the seeds in this quarter, defeating Jerzy Janowicz 6-2, 6-2.

Nobody knows what to expect from the Dog from week-to-week, but this could be a couple of the best weeks so far in his career.

3. Ricardas Berankis (Lit)
Dolgopolov's first round opponent, Berankis, is another guy who has a chance to make a run. Unlike either of the other two on this list, Berankis came up through qualifying, which could give him an advantage. Players who come up through qualifying sometimes are able to use the momentum from the previous week to surprise their first round opponents. Berankis comes into the tournament after having played some incredible tennis. In qualifying he won all six of his sets without losing more than four games in any set.

Berankis is also capable of going on big runs when he gets hot. The first time I ever saw Berankis play in person was in Los Angeles in 2012, where he got all the way to the final. And guess what! He came up as a qualifier that week. We already know that Berankis is on fire right now. The only question is can he keep it up?

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Australian Open Week 1 Preview

The Australian Open draw came out today with a stacked top half full of exciting matchups. Here is a look at the most anticipated matches during the first week of the first slam of 2014.

1st Round: Before the draw came out, I was looking at how many quality players were going to be unseeded, and I thought there would be plenty of exciting first round encounters. I was dead wrong about that. The most dangerous unseeded players like Querrey, Dolgopolov, Istomin, and Cilic avoided playing seeded players in the first round. Then Ivo Karlovic, who actually did draw a seeded player, got 32-seed Ivan Dodig. However, there are two matches that will get my full attention when they are on.

The first is No. 24 Andreas Seppi (Ita) vs. Lleyton Hewitt (Aus). If I had to bet that any match would go five sets, this would be the one. At the last five grand slams, Hewitt has played 11 matches. Four of them went five sets, and five of them were four sets. Seppi's numbers knack for long matches is even more impressive. He has played 11 five-set matches in his last 19 completed slam matches. Even in Davis Cup play last year, he had a five-set match. If you aren't convinced yet that this match is going the distance, let me tell you about their head-to-head record. In six matches, the record is tied 3-3. Although they have never played a best-of-five match, each of their first three encounters were determined in a deciding set. Many fans would argue that Hewitt always plays his best in Australia is playing too well right now to need five sets to beat Seppi. However, when they met merely three months ago, Seppi won 6-4, 6-2. Seppi also has already defeated Hewitt once in Australia with a 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 win in Sydney 2006. I am picking Hewitt to win though.

The second is No. 1 Rafael Nadal (Esp) vs. Bernard Tomic (Aus). Nadal will likely win this one in straight sets, but it should still be fun to watch. The two also met three years ago in Melbourne in the third round, where Nadal won in three sets, so it will be interesting to see how much Tomic's game has improved since he was just 18.

2nd Round: This is the last round before the seeded players begin to play each other, so this round also lacks some really intriguing matchups. Marin Cilic does have a chance to take out a seeded player when he plays against Gilles Simon. Also, Fernando Verdasco will take on red-hot Sergiy Stakhovsky for the right to play Roger Federer, who Stakhovsky beat in Wimbledon last year. As someone who used to attend the tournament in Los Angeles each year, a potential matchup of former champions Ernests Gulbis and Sam Querrey will be interesting.

3rd Round: This is where the fun begins. This is the kind of day where you want to have different matches being played on your computer, tablet, and phone all at once. Thankfully, at the slams each round takes two days.

Gael Monfils and Nadal should meet in a rematch of the Doha final, which went three sets. Kei Nishikori versus Lleyton Hewitt would be an instant sellout in the Asia/Pacific Slam. Then Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov would be a matchup between the two best young players on tour. Dimitrov would be in search of his first trip to the second week of a slam. Juan Martin del Potro will get his first test in the third round, where he will likely play Benoit Paire, who upset him in Rome last year.

Then we get to go through the awkwardness of Judy Murray being at a "Deliciano" Lopez match, when he takes on her son, Andy Murray. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will either face his countryman Gilles Simon or former top 10 player Marin Cilic, who is trying to climb the rankings again. Then, as mentioned before, we could see Stakhovsky get his rematch against Federer. All of those matches are just in the top half of the draw, so they will all be played on the same day. Thankfully Monfils is in one of the matches, so he and Dustin Brown likely won't play in doubles that day too.

However, there is one match that I left out, which I think will be the best out of all of them. That is the matchup between No. 21 Philipp Kohlschreiber (Ger) and No. 13 John Isner (USA). The pair met just yesterday, when John Isner came back from down a set to win in three tiebreak sets. Isner leads the head-to-head 4-2 now, but has never beat Kohlschreiber in a best-of-five match. Only one match between the two hasn't gone to a deciding set. That was a four-set match that the German won at the US Open, which was the second time Kohlschreiber has beaten the top-ranked American at his home slam. Needless to say, Isner would love to get some revenge.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Federer no stranger to facing a home-favorite

Federer d. Hewitt 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 in R16 of 2010 Australian Open
In a few hours, Roger Federer will play against Lleyton Hewitt in the 2014 Brisbane final. It is the pair's 27th meeting, tying them with Stefan Edberg and Ivan Lendl for ninth most meetings between two players in the Open Era. It will be the fifth meeting in Hewitt's home country of Australia. However, none of the previous meetings were in a final.

Federer, who will be playing in his 114th career final, has become accustomed to meeting the home-favorite in finals. This will be his 19th meeting against a player who represents the country that the tournament is held in. In the previous 18 finals, Federer holds a record of 13-5, including a nine-match winning streak that spanned from 2003 to 2009.

However, Federer's recent record in these finals should give Hewitt some hope. Federer has won just one of the last three, which includes his straight-set loss against Andy Murray in the Gold Medal match in London.

Here is a look at all of the finals in Federer's career against players on home soil:

1 2002 Milan Davide Sanguinetti L 6-7(2), 6-4, 1-6
2 2002 Miami Andre Agassi L 3-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4
3 2003 Halle Nicolas Kiefer W 6-1, 6-3
4 2003 Masters Cup Andre Agassi W 6-3, 6-0, 6-4
5 2005 Cincinnati Andy Roddick W 6-3, 7-5
6 2005 US Open Andre Agassi W 6-3, 7-6(0), 4-6, 6-3
7 2006 Indian Wells James Blake W 7-5, 6-3, 6-0
8 2006 US Open Andy Roddick W 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1
9 2007 Cincinnati James Blake W 6-1, 6-4
10 2008 Halle Philipp Kohlschreiber W 6-3, 6-4
11 2009 Madrid Rafael Nadal W 6-4, 6-4
12 2010 Madrid Rafael Nadal L 4-6, 6-7(5)
13 2010 Cincinnati Mardy Fish W 6-7(5), 7-6(1), 6-4
14 2011 Paris Jo-Wilfried Tsonga W 6-1, 7-6(3)
15 2012 Indian Wells John Isner W 7-6(7), 6-3
16 2012 Halle Tommy Haas L 6-7(5), 4-6
17 2012 Wimbledon Andy Murray W 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-4
18 2012 London Olympics Andy Murray L 2-6, 1-6, 4-6
19 2014 Brisbane Lleyton Hewitt ??

One of reasons that Federer is so great for the sport of tennis is that he is internationally loved. However, this table shows that there are several countries that maybe shouldn't love him as much as they do. Federer has spoiled the United States' hopes of having a winner from their country nine times. He has done the same twice in Germany and one time in Italy, Spain, France, and Great Britain. Today, Federer will try to add Australia to that list for his 78th career title, which by the way, will put him ahead of John McEnroe for career titles won, moving him into third place in the Open Era.