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French Open 2014 Preview

In the history of tennis, never has a player monopolised one of the four Majors like Rafael Nadal at the French Open. 

No one even comes close to his 59-1 record at Roland Garros. Since 2005, he’s come to Paris nine times and lifted La Coupe des Mousquetaires on eight occasions – his lone blemish came in 2009, a loss to Robin Soderling in the Round of 16.

But Nadal has been uncharacteristically shaky on clay this season. Although he’ll probably start favourite again, his aura of invincibility is a little diminished this year. Rare losses on clay to compatriots David Ferrer (Monte Carlo) and Nicolas Almagro (Barcelona) were compounded by the crucial loss to arch-rival Novak Djokovic in the Rome final. That was a huge psychological win for Novak giving him plenty of belief. Some betting markets have even installed him joint favourite with Rafa.

Novak Djokovic has six Majors to his name but the only Grand Slam trophy eluding him is the French. But he’s in prime position to complete the career Grand Slam this time round. Djokovic knows it, Nadal knows it, and the whole tennis world knows it! Djokovic is definitely Nadal’s biggest threat on clay. He played out of skin in the second two sets in the Rome final. It wasn’t the first time Novak has beaten Nadal on clay either. In fact, on all surfaces, Djokovic has won the last four encounters with Nadal. The rivalry is arguably surpassing the Federer-Nadal one. But beating Nadal in best of 5 is that much harder and last year, Novak came agonisingly close in the semi, losing 9-7 in the fifth! It was a classic! This year, they’re the top 2 seeds and they’re slated to meet in the final. If it eventuates, it promises to be another battle royale.  

Stanislas Wawrinka is surely in the top 6 favourites. It has been a break-out season for the Swiss, surging to a career high no.3 in the world after winning his first Grand Slam of his career and, to show it was no fluke, won his first Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo. Besides those two highs, there have been some troughs, so it’s just about consistency for Stan.

I’m writing off Andy Murray’s chances already. I love the guy but, coming back from back surgery, he has had his worst start to a season in recent memory. And besides, not once in his career has he even made the final of a clay-court event, let alone win one. His one glimmer of hope came when he thrashed Nadal 6-1 in the first set in Rome. He’s still likely to make the last 16 or thereabouts, but definitely won’t win it.

Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori, Ernests Gulbis and Jerzy Janowicz are among the young guns waiting in the wings after the “Big 4” era dies down. Nishikori has been the most impressive of the lot in the European clay-season, climbing to a career-high no.9 in the world. His form compels me to have him in my top 6 favourites. He was up a set and a break against Nadal in the final at Madrid before his back started to spasm and eventually had to retire. He is as solid as a rock mentally and his backhand hardly ever breaks down. My only concern is will his body hold up over seven best of 5 set matches?

In short, I’d have Nadal and Djokovic as the two clear cut favourites. Then daylight. Then Federer, Wawrinka, Nishikori and Ferrer in no particular order in the second line of betting.

For the women’s draw, defending champion Serena Williams returns to Paris as the favourite. At 32 years of age, she continues to be at the top of her game, and that means, at the top of women’s tennis. Should she win the title, it would her third French Open and 18th Major triumph overall, tying her with Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert for fourth on the all-time list. To give you an idea of how good that is, Serena will have one more Grand Slam than Federer’s tally! Serena comes in with good form as well, winning the Italian Open for the third time. The two previous wins in Rome (2002, 2012) were followed by wins at Roland Garros, so that could be a good omen!

2012 winner and last year’s runner-up, Maria Sharapova, would have to be the second favourite after winning clay titles in Stuttgart (for the third year in a row) and Madrid. For a woman who once described herself on clay ‘like a cow on ice’, Sharapova is astonishingly more consistent at the French Open than any other Grand Slam.

A good tournament from Li Na, could see her within touching distance of the world no.1 ranking because she has hardly any points to defend after a second round exit last year, while Serena has 2000 points to defend.

With six different winners in the last six years, Other contenders include Ana Ivanovic, Sara Errani, Agnieszka Radwanska, Jelena Jankovic, Samantha Stosur and Simona Halep.

Halep continues to be one of the most under-hyped players in recent times. She has won seven titles in her career, all coming in the last 12 months to skyrocket from no.47 to no.4 in the world. Her ascension up the WTA rankings is reminiscent to Caroline Wozniacki’s, in the sense that the Dane won a lot of smaller titles to surge up the rankings but underperformed at the Majors. If the Romanian can make it to the quarters or semis, she can really make her presence felt.

Notable absentees this year include two of my favourite players: Victoria Azarenka and Juan Martin Del Potro.

Purple Day

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On March 26th, Jetts Gym in Epping, were doing their part in Purple Day to try and raise as much money for epilepsy.

To make things more interesting, gym manager Mark Eaton set a challenge to row the combined length of the Yarra River (242km) between us.

Mark also had prizes for most kilometres rowed in 30 minutes, most kilometres rowed overall, and best dressed — there was a purple theme — as an incentive to spark the competitiveness in his clients.

The general rule was to donate at least $10 per 30 minute row. And you could go for as many times as you want.

After a quiet first half to the day, I reminded Mark of the enormous task to which he replied “please don’t mention that” with a cheeky grin on his face.

Thankfully in the second half of the day, as school and work finished, more and more people streamed in to participate and the goal looked a little more achievable.

Although they could not quite get there — finishing on 224km — it was still an enjoyable day and very worthwhile raising $267 for the Epilepsy foundation.

Purple Day is an international public effort dedicated each year to increasing awareness about epilepsy right across the world.

For those who are unfamiliar, epilepsy is a chronic condition of the brain that includes having seizures that do not seem to have an obvious cause.

The condition is more common than one would think; roughly 50 million people have epilepsy worldwide, that’s approximately one in every 100 people. And in 50% of cases, the cause is unknown.

The most worrying thing is that there is still no known cure for epilepsy and that is exactly why there is a growing effort to increase awareness and raise money to help fund research so that hopefully one day a medication will be found.

Melbourne v Newcastle – Preview

On Monday night at AAMI Park, Melbourne Storm will take on the Newcastle Knights, the same team that unexpectedly knocked them out of last year’s finals series.

While the Storm have started the season with two dramatic one-point victories over Manly and Penrith, Newcastle remain winless, although their line-up hasn’t been at full strength because of injuries.

Despite this, Cooper Cronk was adamant they are capable of being a dangerous side.

“The way they play, they are very aggressive with a big forward pack that likes to dominate. Defensively they will be rushing our attack so we need to make adjustments there. Also they are a team that like to spread the football a lot.”

Craig Bellamy has named an unchanged 17 while Wayne Bennett has included forward David Fa’alogo as the 18th man but is expected to miss the final cut. The valuable Darius Boyd (hamstring) and Jarrod Mullen (hamstring) remain sidelined.

Melbourne lead Newcastle 5-1 in head to head meetings at AAMI Park – That one win for the Knights was 18-16 in week two of last year’s finals series.

I think if the Melbourne defence is good enough to prevent wingers Akuila Uate and James McManus from finding space out wide, they should win comfortably and continue their unbeaten start to the season.

Tip: Storm by 8.

Melbourne v Penrith – Review

Melbourne celebrated millstone games for Cameron Smith and Billy Slater with their second consecutive one-point win, 18-17 over Penrith at AAMI Park on Saturday night.

On what was a wet and stormy night, Smith was playing a club-record 263rd game, surpassing Matt Geyer for the mark. Slater, who is currently third on that list, was playing his 250th game.

In a thrilling last ten minutes, when scores were tied 16-16, Cooper Cronk, playing his first match since shoulder surgery, nailed an ugly but effective field goal to put the purple outfit in front.

That was cancelled out by Penrith’s Peter Wallace, and it looked like we might have our second golden point match in a row. But another Cronk drop goal with thirty seconds to go once again put the Storm ahead by a point.

But just as the fans thought it was over, there was another twist in the tale.

Penrith were awarded a penalty with seconds on the clock and the 13,952 in attendance had to hold their breath one last time as Wallace had a chance to kick the go-ahead 2 points which would have spoiled the script.

Wallace failed in his attempt from 42 metres out, well right of the posts and the Storm were finally allowed to rejoice the narrowest of victories.

Earlier on, Penrith had the better of possession and territory in the opening 10 minutes but, against the run of play, it was the returning Cronk who dummied inside before assisting Proctor to open the scoring.

Although Smith missed the conversion, he cleverly produced a perfect kick in the in-goal to force a goal-line drop-out. From the ensuing play, Slater linked with centre Mahe Fonua to score.

Kevin Naiqama got Penrith on the board in the 26th minute, scoring in the right corner after some overlap play by Wallace and Jamal Idris.

Opposing wingers Sisa Waqa and Naiqama traded tries in the last 10 minutes of the half. And when Smith converted a penalty, Melbourne went into the interval with a 14-10 advantage.

Three minutes after the break, Josh Mansour scored the first and only try of the second half.  

Penrith remain winless in Melbourne since 2005. 

Melbourne v Penrith – Preview

Two days after kicking the winning field goal against Manly, Cameron Smith announced a four-year contract extension that will see him stay at the Melbourne Storm till the end of 2018. He turned away a big money offer to move to the Broncos but said his family — of whom he has two girls in primary school — was the main priority in his decision to finish his career at the same club he started with in 2002.  

Cooper Cronk’s return from a shoulder reconstruction is a massive boost for the Storm. Last year’s Dally M medalist will slot straight into his customary halfback position, relegating Ben Roberts to the bench.

Penrith coach Ivan Cleary has named an unchanged lineup with both Jamal Idris and Tim Grant still unavailable.

Melbourne’s first home game of the year will be an even bigger occasion as there are two milestones. Not only will Cameron Smith will play his 263rd game, eclipsing Matt Geyer as the longest-serving player in the club’s history, but Billy Slater will also play his 250th game.

This will be an interesting match to gauge where Penrith are at. They had a lot of new recruits over the off-season and started with a comfortable 30-8 win over Newcastle. But most of the scoring was done in the second half when the Knights were decimated with injuries right through their spine.

Melbourne Storm will be up for this at AAMI Park on Saturday night and I tip them to win by 12 points.

Sea Eagles v Storm Review

This match delivered on all its pre-match hype.  Melbourne Storm completed a stunning comeback at Brookvale Oval with a field goal in extra time from Cameron Smith in his club record-equalling game.

It was a tale of two halves as Manly dominated early with four tries in the half hour. A double to Steve Matai along with one each to Justin Horo and Cheyse Blair saw Manly race out to a 20-0 lead and at that stage, the result looked beyond doubt and it was a case of how many points will Manly win by.

But as this unpredictable sport never ceases to amaze, Sisa Waqa was on the end of a Cam Smith cross field bomb and the high-flying Fijian touched down in the right corner to subdue Manly’s momentum heading into half-time.

Waqa scored his second 5 minutes into the second half and when Manly’s fullback Brett Steward was unable to return after the half-time interval because of a hamstring injury, the match had a whole different complexion.

All of a sudden it was the Storm, funnily enough in stormy conditions, dominating possession, territory and creating several opportunities.

The penalty count also flipped dramatically with Storm getting 6 in a row at one stage. Manly captain Jamie Lyon even questioned the referee if he was trying to even up the count as Manly had the rub of the green in the opening half.

Young five-eighth Ben Hampton scored close to the uprights to allow Smith an easy conversion after missing two tough ones from the sideline earlier.

Four minutes later, a fourth Storm try was scored by Kenny Bromwich. Smith converted and scores were locked up at 20 apiece.

In the last 15 minutes, Smith and Lyon traded penalty goals and again it was tied up at 22-22.

A sense of déjà vu emerged as last year these teams also had a match go to extra time.

But unlike that occasion when they still couldn’t be separated after 10 additional minutes, Cam Smith got the go-ahead point in the 85th minute. And like a thief in the dark, the Storm pinched 2 valuable Premiership points.

Manly coach Geoff Toovey was mild-mannered after the match but still disappointed with the second half turnaround.

“When you lead by 20 points at Brookvale Oval you don’t lose from there. Obviously there was a massive change with flow of possession, I think they got the first five penalties and we sort of capitulated and made a lot of unforced errors. Silly mistakes by us. To be honest with you I thought we probably should have been up by a little bit more.”

This match will be remembered for an amazing comeback, all the more impressive since Cooper Cronk wasn’t playing. But skipper Cameron Smith stepped up in his absence.

He provided the clever cross field kicks and the winning field goal which in normal circumstances would have been Cronk’s responsibilities. Smith even joked after the match that it was his first field goal since the under 16s for Queensland side Logan Brothers.

US Open Day 2 – Story of the day

11th seed Sam Stosur is of the US Open, in the very first round to a 17 year old American ranked 296 in the world.

On what ended up being a night match on Louis Armstrong Stadium, Stosur led 7-5 4-2 and had a game point for 5-2 but made 56 unforced errors to her opponent’s 35 and eventually lost the match after 2 hours 39 minutes.

The loss for the 2011 champion is all the more shocking because she actually came in with really good form with wins over two of the top four players in the world – Agnieszka Radwanksa and Victoria Azarenka – on her way to claiming the Southern California Open in Carlsbad.

Stosur has dropped from a career high 4 in the world to a current ranking of 13 and she can expect that to drop further as she had quarter-final points to defend from last year’s US Open.

The 29 year old’s losses in Grand Slams this year have been to Zheng Jie, Jelena Jankovic and Sabine Lisicki and now to qualifier Victoria Duval. Her season would be considered a major disappointment because she has failed to make it past R3 at any of the Slams.

But lets turn our attention to Duval.

The Miami-born teenager has a story of her own. Born to Haitian parents, Duval has fine-tuned her game by training at the famous Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida.

Duval had to endure the anxiety of almost losing her father in the 2010 Haiti Earthquake which took an estimated 250,000 lives.  Although he survived the catastrophic natural disaster, he was left with a shattered vertebrae and broken legs, arms, ribs, and a punctured lung – which required multiple surgeries.

Earlier on in the starlet’s life, she had a gun shoved in her face and was held hostage by a kidnap gang. She was at the tender age of just seven at the time.

Duval next faces another veteran, Daniela Hantuchova in R2. 

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