Sunday, 22 January 2012

Murray to face Kazakh Kukushkin for the Quarters

Into the second week and Murray couldn't have asked for a much better last 16 opponent that Mikhail Kukushkin. The Kazakh world 92 had won an overwhelming total of 2 Grand Slam matches in his entire career prior to this tournament, but wins against Garcia-Lopez (66), Troicki (23) and Monfils (15) have rocketed him to a position he could never have imagined or hoped for a week ago. He now faces the biggest match of his career and a chance to seriously make a name for himself, and perhaps more significantly, claim enough points to climb 50 odd places in the rankings, and break the top 50 for the first time. 

Murray beat him fairly unconvincingly in 3 sets in Brisbane, in his first match of the season a couple of weeks ago so there's always the potential for a bit of trouble but realistically, in a match of this significance, Murray should crush him.

It's a bit like Chelsea (ranked 4th) playing Northampton Town in the FA Cup 5th round, after the Cobblers knocked out Rochdale (66), Cardiff (23) and West Brom (15) - you don't expect to see the League 2 relegation strugglers causing too much of a threat. It might be a different matter if Murray's defence consisted of the the tennis equivalent of David Luiz but fortunately he's more like the Chelsea of Mourinho than AVB.

Then again, Kukushkin plays his Davis Cup tennis in the World Group, the top tier, and will be up against Nadal et al. of champions Spain in February. Murray and Great Britain, in the European section of the 3rd tier, will be playing the Slovak Republic, including giants of the men's game such as Lacko and Klizan (yes I did have to look them up) - so maybe Mikhail should be going in as the overdog (not sure that'll catch on).

Should Murray overcome his unseeded opponent, it is highly likely to be JWT that awaits in the quarter final. The 2008 finalist and 6th seed will have the disadvantage of being French, something our Scottish hero seems to thrive on, as Llodra and Roger-Vasselin have found out to their misfortune. Nationality aside though, Tsonga will be a formidable opponent. I briefly touched on his strong end to 2011 last time out, and nothing so far this tournament suggests he is going to be anything less than extremely competitive. Although Murray holds a 5-1 head-to-head, JWT's win came at none other than the Australian Open, when the unseeded 23 year old from Le Mans powered his way past Murray (9), Gasquet (8), Youzhny (14) and Nadal (2), before losing to Djokovic in 4 sets. I shouldn't like to rule out Nishikori's chances on Monday but I can't help but feel the all important "second week" at this Slam is going to be a short one for the first ever Japanese player to get there.

Only minor shocks so far really (e.g. Raonic/Hewitt, Falla/Fish, Benneteau/Simon) and all the main men looking pretty comfortable. Sensible money seems to still be on Novak but cruising through early on doesn't really mean anything and this time next week the moment of truth will be on us. 

Monday, 9 January 2012

The Famous Four Down Under Again

Almost exactly a year on since my first blog post and I find myself returning after a festive hiatus from whence I began, namely tennis and the Australian Open.

Last year the (inaccurate) predictions centred around Nadal and Federer, and no big surprise they're in the running again. But who was to know that a wheat-free diet could lead to a defeat-free first few months of the season for Djokovic. The 2011 Aussie Open turned out to be the first leg in a somewhat memorable run and led the Serb to becoming the main man of the tennis world and most decidedly the man to beat. 
Back down under 12 months later, it's hard to see past the same old four again...

Novak Djokovic - The world number 1 (by a long way) goes in as firm favourite. He's not had a competitive warm-up tournament but did comfortably dispose of Monfils, Federer and Ferrer in the Abu Dhabi exhibition. His Grand Slam record of 25-1 in 2011 will take some matching but it's difficult to imagine that anyone could stop him before at least the quarters when he could meet someone like Tsonga or Del Potro.

However, Nole's fitness is always a factor to consider, and something often omitted from the story of last season. Taking nothing away from the greatness of the year, he did withdraw from 8 tournaments during the season (*Rotterdam, Monte Carlo, Queens, Cincinnati, Davis Cup SF, China Open, Shanghai, Paris) and pulled out here a couple of years ago with heat exhaustion. A different man these days maybe, but still liable to start feeling the pressure if anyone can get a set or two ahead. 

Rafael Nadal - The Spaniard has won a Grand Slam every year since 2005, but he goes into this season perhaps as off-form and fitness as we've seen him since the summer of '09. Although the venue for one of the greatest Federer-Nadal clashes, the Aussie Open hasn't been happy hunting for Rafa generally speaking. Only once other than that epic final has he even made the semis, and last year limped out sadly to countryman Ferrer. Reckless to ever write off the battling leftie but perhaps not surprising he's got the longest odds of all 4

Roger Federer - The Swiss comes into the tournament on the back of a pretty significant 21 match winning run, nearly half of what ND achieved last season. One could claim that he cynically protected it by withdrawing prior to a tricky tie against Tsonga but with only 2 mid-tournament withdrawals in his career, I don't think that really fits with his competitive nature. He's going to be a serious threat but everyone wobbles at some point in a GS and Roger seems to do it at somewhat crucial moments these days. He's gone nearly two years since winning a Slam and the next few weeks could be crucial to how the rest of his season, and career, will pan out. 

Andy Murray - The addition of Ivan Lendl to his backroom staff must surely be a big benefit. Read nothing into the win in Brisbane against no stiff opposition, it's on the Rod Laver arena that Murray's fate will be decided. Djokovic is younger than Murray and so the Scot can't hope to just outlast his rival - he needs to step up soon or risk his entire career being in the shadow of the Serb (and Nadal who's only a year older and had 9 GS by Murray's current age). Lendl lost 4 Grand Slam finals before his 1984 triumph at Roland Garros, and then went on to win 8 in total. If his new charge can do anything like that then it's safe to say it'll have been a good appointment by the British No. 1. Another chance for Murray to show he's got the mental and physical strength to last through the toughest test, in the first major of one of the most eagerly anticipated seasons in recent history.

Others to watch out for - Tsonga could be very dangerous indeed. A great second half to 2011 and a good win in Doha. He's going to make a very awkward QF opponent for one of the above. Raonic has just won in Chennai and could well cause a bit of an upset - he's likely to meet a top seed around R3 and if he can keep a lid on the UFE, is very dangerous. Tomic gave Nadal a bit of a scare last year, and although swept away by Murray in Brisbane, is inspired by an Aussie crowd and will certainly fancy his chances of making the latter rounds. And at some point, JMDP will be fully fit again, and the top 4 could become a top 5.

I can't wait...