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Nadal beats Dimitrov in five, sets up Federer final

TV networks and tournament organisers got their wish. Rafael Nadal will play long-time rival Roger Federer in the Australian Open final.

Nadal outlasted 15th seed Grigor Dimitrov in a marathon five setter, going nearly five hours, 6-3 5-7 7-6 6-7 6-4.

Nadal reaches his first slam final since winning the last of his nine French Open titles in 2014. And will face Federer in a slam final for the first time in six years. The pair has combined for 31 majors.

And with Venus and Serena Williams to square off in the women’s final Saturday, tournament director Craig Tiley probably can’t believe his luck.

In what proved to be the match of the tournament, Dimitrov left no stone unturned. He gave everything he had and could easily have folded when down a set and then down two sets to one. But he showed tremendous resilience, which should be the launching pad to a career-best season to come.

The opening set had the least amount of intensity as both players were easing into the match. Nadal broke Dimitrov’s serve in the fourth game and closed it out in 35 minutes.

The tension lifted in the second. Dimitrov got a break up in game four but later on in the set, both players exchanged breaks on double faults.

Dimitrov failed to serve out the set at 5-3 and then blew four set points when Nadal was serving to stay in it at 4-5. However, two games later, Dimitrov didn’t drop his shoulders and converted on the fifth set point when Nadal sent a backhand long.

The pair exchanged breaks in the middle of the third and then there was a delay towards the end of the set after a spectator in the crowd needed medical attention. Nadal never trailed in the tie-break, which he took 7-5.

Dimitrov again, didn’t throw in the towel, when he might have in the past. The 25 year old Bulgarian was looking to get into his first ever major final. With no break points in set four, it required a tiebreak. Dimitrov won it 7-4 to level the affair for a second time and force a decider.

By now, everyone on Rod Laver Arena knew they were staying past midnight but it was worth it because they were witnessing an instant classic.

The ninth seeded Spaniard saved a pair of break points in game eight of the fifth and broke Dimitov in the very next game with a sensational backhand winner down the line.

Nadal served it out at 5-4 but only on a third match point. Dimitrov was as rugged and gritty in the last few points as he was in the early exchanges

It was a bruising and gruelling affair with plenty of long rallied. No player wanted to lose. It was exhausting just to watch, but equally gripping.

Nadal will have to rest up before Sunday’s final. But he’s been here before. In 2009, he beat Fernando Verdasco in an equally physical and absorbing five-setter. And he followed that up with another five set win two days later against Federer.

For the record, it was the first slam since the 2011 French Open where both men’s semis went to five sets.

Nadal leads Federer 6-2 in slam finals and 23-11 overall. May the best man win!

 

Australian Open preview

The Australian Open is the first significant global sporting event to kick off 2017 and just like any grand slam, there are storylines galore.

Although the women’s draw is missing some of its biggest stars – Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova are absent for very different reasons – there is the return of Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal from layoffs.

Federer missed the French Open and US Open last year as well as the Rio Olympics. It was the first time since 1999 that the durable Swiss missed a major and his ranking subsequently plummeted to 17, his lowest since 2001. He will play qualifiers in the first two rounds but is drawn in the same quarter as Andy Murray. However the 35 year old crowd favourite said he felt rejuvenated after the six month sabbatical and believed it could actually help prolong his career.

Novak Djokovic lost his number one ranking and quit his partnership with Boris Becker in the off-season. It will be interesting if he responds with new motivation after the peak of holding all four majors at once after winning Roland Garros last year. He has drawn a tricky first round opponent in Fernando Verdasco, who Djokovic had to save match points just last week in the semi-finals of Doha.  Verdasco also has fond memories in Melbourne, upsetting compatriot Nadal in the first round last year.

Djokovic did get the early psychological edge on Murray by winning a tough three-setter in that Doha final, a result which snapped Murray’s 28 match winning streak to set up the Australian Open perfectly. Murray, who opens against Ilya Marchenko of Ukraine, has incredibly been the bridesmaid five times in Melbourne, four of those to Djokovic.  So it will be a huge monkey to get off the back.

Indeed this will be the first grand slam since last year’s Australian Open where all four of the ‘Big Four’ are present. The prize pool this year has increased by 14% on last year to $50 million, that’s $3.7M for each of the singles’ winners.

In the women’s draw, Serena and Angelique Kerber seem the obvious favourites. However, with some big names out, it could pave the way for a first time major winner like Simona Halep, Agnieszka Radwanska or Brisbane winner Karolina Pliskova.

Serena, currently tied on 22 Open Era majors with Steffi Graf, has drawn Belinda Bencic in round one and Lucie Safarova in round two. The Safarova encounter would be a re-match of the 2015 French Open final while former top 10 Bencic, dangerous off both wings, won the last encounter against Serena in 2015. Serena looked rusty in her lead-up event, losing to fellow American Madison Brengle in Auckland. The performance, albeit in gusty conditions, saw her commit 88 unforced errors.

Kerber, the defending champion, played in the three of the four major finals last year, winning two of them. The world no.1 finds herself in the unique position of protecting her idol Graf’s record from being broken by Serena.  The German opens against Lesia Tsurenko but could bump into fast-rising Russian Daria Kasatkina in round four, a player she lost to just last week in Sydney.

If you are a betting man, Johanna Konta and Pliskova are two of the hot tips to go with. Pliskova, runner up at Flushing Meadows four months ago, won in Brisbane and because of her height, she is able to produce easy power and get more free points on serve than anyone.  Konta, meanwhile, made the semifinals of the Australian Open last year and has form, having thrashed Radwanska in the final of Sydney.

 

 

 

Final tip: Djokovic to beat Murray for a fifth time in Melbourne

Pick of the matches (remember, these are subject to players reaching this stage of the tournament)

 

Semi-finals: Wawrinka v Murray

 

Quarter-finals: Raonic v Nadal, Murray v Federer

 

Fourth round: Federer v Nishikori, Kyrgios v Wawrinka, Dimitrov v Djokovic

 

Third round: Nadal v Zverev, Federer v Berdych, Cilic v Tomic, Gasquet v Dimitrov, Sock v Tsonga

 

First round: Djokovic v Verdasco

 

 

Final tip: Pliskova to go one better and reverse her US Open final loss to Kerber

 

Pick of the matches (remember, these are subject to players reaching this stage of the tournament)

 

Semi-finals: Pliskova v Serena

 

Quarter-finals: Kerber v Muguruza, Pliskova v Ranwanka.

 

Fourth round: Cibulkova v Konta/Wozniacki, Svitolina v Kuznetsova, Kerber v Bouchard, Halep v Venus

 

Third round: Konta v Wozniacki, Cibulkova v Makarova, Halep v Puig

 

Second round: Serena v Safarova, Konta v Osaka, Bouchard v Kasatkina.

 

First round: Serena v Bencic

 

 

Notable absentees include:

Maria Sharapova (serving drug ban)

Victoria Azarenka (maternity leave)

Petra Kvitova (off-court hand injury)

Madison Keys (wrist injury)

Sloane Stephens (foot injury)

Sabine Lisicki shoulder injury)

Ana Ivanovic (retirement)

Juan Martin Del Potro (fitness concerns)

Kevin Anderson (hip injury)

First Test reaction

How did Australia lose the unlosable?

Soon after drinks in the morning session of day two, Australia was cruising at 0/158 in reply to South Africa’s 242.

The Aussies were on track to build a significant first innings lead and open the summer with a comfortable win inside four days. Dale Steyn, the best pace bowler since Glenn McGrath, then got rid of David Warner for 97 and triggered an almighty collapse.

Instead of a 100-150 run lead, it was a meagre two run advantage. If day two was the day the Proteas launched a stirring comeback, then day three is when they really ran away and put themselves in the box seat.

But when you think that South Africa were without their superstar batsmen AB de Villiers through injury, Steyn re-injured his right shoulder soon after taking that Warner wicket and is out for the rest of the series and also star batsman Hashim Amla was dismissed for a duck and 1; the obvious question is how the hell did Australia manage to find a way to lose?

It is flabbergasting and the result also ended Australia’s proud run of starting the home summer unbeaten since 1988. What makes it even more ironic is that Steyn’s injury was the turning point, but instead of South Africa unravelling, it was Australia. Instead of crumbling and dropping their shoulders, South Africa galvanised.

JP Duminy and Dean Elgar both hit the fifth centuries of their up and down Test careers to set Australia a world record run chase of 539.

Enter Kagiso Rabada! The 21 year old fitted into Test cricket like a duck to water. He stepped up with maturity beyond his years to lead the attack in just his ninth match, taking 5/92 to earn man of the match honours. For a moment there, you forgot Steyn was even absent.

The big question now is can Australia rebound when the second Test starts in Hobart on Saturday. Peter Siddle has already been ruled out with a back injury so Joe Mennie is likely to debut but Jackson Bird has also been called up as cover. Opener Shaun Marsh broke his finger and will also miss out, paving the way for Joe Burns to play his 13th Test.

As for Steyn, he’ll fly back home but South Africa have the luxury to pick between two proficient bowlers, Kyle Abbott and Morne Morkel, to fill the void.

Top 10 Rio Moments

After 16 days of riveting and emotional sport in the first ever Olympic Games held in South America, lets have a look at 10 moments that you can put in the time capsule.

Fiji win first gold medal

Coming into Rio, Fiji had never won a medal – of any colour, in any sport. But with the inclusion of rugby sevens, a sport that is a religion in the country, its opportunity had arrived. Their British coach stands out like a beacon in Fiji because of his red hair and the Fijian prime minister told him only a gold medal will do. And coach Ben Ryan duly delivered. Fiji went unbeaten through the competition, finishing with a 43-7 belting of Great Britain in the gold medal match. The result brought ecstasy to the island nation of 900,000. But the players’ humbleness and appreciation was what made this so memorable. They sang in unity and tears after the win and that vision will stick in my mind for a long time.

 

Van Niekerk breaks 400m world record

On the same night Usain Bolt retained the 100m title, South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk delivered one of the standout performances in track and field. He already was the only man ever to run 100m under 10 seconds, 200m under 20 seconds and 400m under 44 seconds. But he went one better. He broke the long-standing record of legendary Michael Johnson from 1999 in the 400m with a blistering 43.18 seconds. Van Niekerk says he hates the 400m event but doesn’t want to waste the talent he has been blessed with.

Brazil win first soccer gold

Soccer is a religion in Brazil. The Selecao had already won five World Cups but only three silvers at Olympic Games. With Neymar leading the team, they started with two goalless draws but eventually navigated their way to the final against Germany at the iconic Maracana Stadium. The public expectation to finally deliver a gold medal was enormous. It was time for Brazil to exorcize the demons of two years ago in Belo Horizonte when they famously lost 7-1 to Germany in the semi-finals of the World Cup they were hosting. It was regarded as Brazil’s worst sporting moment in its history. Unable to be separated after extra-time, it was the face of the team, Neymar, who fittingly kicked the winning penalty to send the crowd into euphoria.

Underdog Braz becomes national hero

22 year old Thiago Braz da Silva, became a national hero in Brazil after upstaging favourite and world record holder Renaud Lavillenie in an incredibly high-standard pole vault. Both kept raising the bar, literally and the competition which was delayed by rain didn’t finish until midnight. Eventually Braz cleared 6.03m, a new Olympic record and 10cm better than his previous best. The Frenchman had no answer. Braz became only the sixth Brazilian to win an athletics gold and first since 1984. It was Brazil’s ‘Cathy Freeman moment’.

Legends leave Olympics in style

Although Usain Bolt won’t retire until the 2017 IAAF World Championships, he left his Olympics legacy with a perfect nine from nine. No silvers, no bronze, just nine gold medals. It was one of the big questions coming into the Games, especially since he had a hamstring injury on weeks ago. He thrilled with wins in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay to cement his name as the greatest sprinter we have ever seen.

As for Michael Phelps, who was supposed to retire after London, it was expected he would only come into Rio and focus on one or two events but he was back to his brilliant best adding another five gold medals and a silver to finish with 23 Olympic gold — the most decorated Olympian ever. This time, he appeared more open and not as guarded as in the past. Perhaps it was his son Boomer coming into his life that has triggered the change.

Olympic spirit of sportsmanship

In the heats of the women’s 5000m, New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin stumbled, fell and accidentally brought down fellow competitor Abbey D’Agostino of USA. The American helped Hamblin up and said “get up, we have to finish this”. As they tried to resume running, it was D’Agostino who was appeared to suffer from cramp and it was Hamblin’s turn to offer her hand. Both refused to give up and finished last together. But the story gets even better. The referee used his discretion to reward their incredible act of sportsmanship by reinstating them into the final.

Ledecky makes her mark

With Phelps and Bolt now gone, 19 year American swimmer Katie Ledecky could now be one of the faces of the next Olympics. She scooped up gold medal after gold medal at last year’s World Championships but it is the Olympics where you can really make your mark and become a household name. She proved her versatility winning three individual gold across distances from 200m to 800m and also won team gold in the 4x200m freestyle. She broke her own world record in the 800m, leaving her rivals in her wake. If only the 1500m was an Olympic event for the women, which she would have been a sure bet in, her tally of gold could have been even higher.

Campbell sisters fail to medal

Not all memorable moments are good. The bubbly Campbell sisters – Cate and Bronte – are two of the most likeable swimmers on the Australian team. They specialise in the sprint freestyle races and came in as two of the favourites, especially Cate who broke the 100m world record only one month prior. Her hot semi-final form gave even more validity to her favourite tag. So Australians were in shock when neither could medal in either the 50m or 100m freestyle. Cate called it “possibly the greatest choke in history”. Thankfully, they didn’t leave empty handed, picking up a gold in the 4x100m freestyle relay. Cate said she has unfinished business and has already committed to righting some wrongs at the next Games in Tokyo.

Tears in the tennis

Many believe tennis shouldn’t even be at the Olympics because a gold medal isn’t as valuable as a grand slam title. But tell that to Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin Del Potro and Andy Murray, who all broke down in tears, some happy and some sad. The tears revealed just how much it meant to represent their respective countries. Murray was the flag bearer for Team GB and defended his gold medal from London. Del Potro earlier in the week, caused a massive boilover, denying Djokovic a run in Rio. For Djokovic, an Olympic gold is the only thing missing from his trophy cabinet and they only come around every four years.

Sport transcends culture clashes

The unforgettable image of Egyptian beach volleyballer Doaa Elghobashy wearing a hijab contrasted on the other side of the net with the more commonly worn bikini worn by her German opponent served as a reminder that despite our differences, sport has the power to bring us together. The power of one image can leave a lasting impact. It sends a message of education and inclusion and that you can be different and still belong.

 

Aussie women win rugby gold

Australia has created history by winning the first ever Olympic gold medal in rugby sevens. It beat arch-rival New Zealand 24-17 in the women’s final while Canada took bronze by beating Great Britain. The men’s competition begins tomorrow.

Among the spectators at Deodoro Stadium was All Blacks legend Richie McCaw, who said “you just look at all the people here and this part of the world probably doesn’t see a lot of rugby”.

Sevens rugby is an adapted format from the traditional 15-a-side game. It is fast paced, with seven players per side and seven minute halves, except for the final which has 10 minute halves.

The 15-player version appeared at the Olympics between 1900 and 1924 but in 2009, rugby sevens was voted in for the Rio 2016 Games.

The CEO of World Rugby, Brett Gosper, said “We’re so excited to be here at the Olympics. It’s been a long wait but we’ve been planning since 2009 and it’s just spectacular to be here”.

One of the gold-medallists, Shannon Parry, plays as a flanker for the team nicknamed the Pearls and she talked of her satisfaction of being able to make a career out of a sport that was only in its embryonic stages just a few years ago.

“It’s incredible to be honest. We’ve worked very hard for this. This tournament shows the growth of women’s rugby. When I started playing the game, women’s rugby wasn’t very big. It was very much a minority sport and to think, eight years down the track, I’m not an Olympian. I play rugby full-time, as a full-time job and a full time profession”, said 26 year old Parry.

Even Hariana Manuel from the losing New Zealand team could not hide her jubilation. “It feels amazing representing my country. We’re in the black jersey wherever we are. But obviously the Olympics is the pinnacle of all sports, so it’s a huge honour.”

Unfortunately the crowd numbers were not to capacity with Gosper estimating “we’ve been running at about 60% I’d say, at best. We’re hoping to move that up to 75% with the final and the final games, then the men’s start tomorrow”.

One factor could have been the location with Deodoro in the north of Rio, requiring a train ride and a long walk from the station just to get to the stadium. Either that or maybe sevens rugby has not quite captured the locals’ imagination just yet.

All eyes now turn to the men’s tournament which also runs over three-days. Fiji are red hot favourites and if they do go all the way, it could be their first Olympic gold medal in any sport!

 

 

 

Stenson edges Mickelson in classic duel

Henrik Stenson has won the British Open at Royal Troon after a thrilling final round. The Swede clinched his first major title at the 42nd attempt. Phil Mickelson finished three shots behind in what was a classic two-man duel over the weekend. The pair was in a league of their own and finished 11 shots clear of the field.

In claiming the famous Claret Jug, 40 year old Stenson becomes the first Scandinavian man to win a major. In a fierce battle that will be remembered fondly in years to come, the world no.6 Stenson finally broke the deadlock sinking long birdie putts at 14 and 15. Even with two bogeys, he carded a major record-equalling round of 63, just as Mickelson did on Thursday.

Stenson finished at 20 under par which breaks the British Open record, previously set at 19 under by Tiger Woods in 2000. He also equals Jason Day’s all-time major record score set at last year’s PGA Championship.

Mickelson, at 46, was looking to become the oldest Open champion since Old Tom Morris 149 years ago. He shot a fabulous, bogey-free round of six under 65, including an eagle at the fourth. And it should have been enough to secure his sixth major title if it wasn’t for the metronomic Stenson.

The epic showdown evoked memories of the famous ‘Duel in the Sun’ Open at Turnberry in 1977 when Tom Watson edged Jack Nicklaus. Right from the start, you could tell it was going to be a special day. Both played clutch golf in an extremely high standard round, even better than the day before. Each time one lifted the bar; the other matched, or bettered. It was that good. Very rarely was a fairway missed. The iron shots were often within ten feet of the pin. And the putts were outstanding.

This win was coming for Stenson, though. Just like Dustin Johnson last month, he was due. After four previous top-three finishes at majors and 19 titles to his name, there was a feeling of inevitability about the Swede eventually winning a maiden major.

“I felt like this was going to be my time. It makes it even more special to beat a competitor like Phil. He’s been one of the best to play the game and certainly in the last 20 years”, said Stenson.

In his acceptance speech, Stenson dedicated the win to a friend from Dubai who died of cancer this week. “I felt like he was there with me.”

Mickelson was magnanimous in defeat. “It’s disappointed to come in second by I’m happy for Henrik. He’s a great champion and we’ve been friends for some time. I played close to flawless golf and got beat.”

 

 

Round 17 AFL summary

Hawthorn has maintained top spot on the ladder after a thrilling five point win over Sydney in what could have been a grand final preview. Cyril Rioli kicked the match winning goal from 55 metres to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. It was the Hawks fourth win by less than a goal this season. The real star of the final quarter, though, was Shaun Burgoyne. He kicked two clutch goals and finished with 26 disposals.

Geelong beat Fremantle in an unconvincing performance by 17 points to ensure their top four chances remain alive. In a low-scoring game, Patrick Dangerfield was again outstanding, kicking four goals and racking up 31 disposals to poll a probable three Brownlow votes. Bizarrely, Cats coach Chris Scott said after the game his team does not deserve to be classified as top four material but hopes that chances by season’s end.

Dustin Martin continued his imperious form by helping Richmond beat old rivals Essendon in a hard fought 19 point win. Martin, a lock for the Tigers best and fairest award this year, had a round-high 43 touches and two goals. However, the yellow and black were without Brett Deledio for the second half as he suffered a calf injury. Essendon only trailed by one point with ten minutes remaining, but poor goal-kicking cost them as Richmond kicked the last three goals of the game.

Port Adelaide kept their slim top eight hopes alive and simultaneously put into jeopardy North Melbourne’s in a classic ‘eight point game’. The Power did the damage early with 10 goals to three in the first half to eventually win by 28 points. North had momentum in Q3 were self-combusting because they kicked a horrendous 2.9. Port captain Travis Boak was best on ground with 35 possessions.

Adelaide marked club stalwart Scott Thompson’s 300th game with a 28 point win over Collingwood to move to second on the ladder. Eddie Betts, certain to be the all-Australian team, kicked three goals. The Crows set up the win by kicking the first five goals of the game. It was fairly competitive thereafter, but the damage had already been done. Collingwood can at least be satisfied with their defensive display. It is just the fourth time this season Adelaide has been held to less than 100 points.

Western Bulldogs thrashed an injury-depleted Gold Coast in Cairns by 48 points to move to third on the ladder. Picking on a team missing Gary Ablett, among others, was easy meat for the Dogs but the win may have come at a cost. Jake Stringer, a player who has been a match winner at times this season, suffered a suspected shoulder injury from a Steven May bump. Koby Stevens and Marcus Bontempelli were two of the Dogs best.

West Coast survived a late Carlton fightback to win by seven points at the MCG. This win did little to shorten the Eagles premiership but coach Adam Simpson will just be relieved to bank the four points. Sam Docherty was inspiring for the Blues but ultimately West Coast had too many avenues to goal with Jamie Cripps kicking three and Mark Lecras among a group of three others with two goals.

St Kilda beat Melbourne by 36 points at Etihad Stadium to keep alive a faint chance of making the top eight. Tim Membrey was awesome for the Saints kicking four goals and grabbing 10 marks. Maverick Weller and Leigh Montagna were also noteworthy contributors. For the Dees, Max Gawn and Jack Viney impressed. Melbourne continues their horrible record at Etihad. They’ve now won one out of their last 25 games.

Brisbane hit rock bottom in a 79 point loss to GWS. It was a club record 12th consecutive loss and the crowd attendance of 10,195 was the lowest ever crowd at the Gabba for a Lions match. Josh Kelly and Callan Ward were gold class for the Giants, each kicking three goals and starring in midfield. Stephan Coniglio and Dylan Shiel also had over 30 touches to show just how much midfield depth this team has. GWS dominated the middle two quarters, kicking 17 goals to five.