Down the line: Miami badly missing Federer & Nadal

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I would have loved to say that the absence of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at a Masters event is not a big deal, but frankly speaking, Miami has never seemed so dull to me.

I’m not trying to take away anything from the other players and I realise there are many tournaments that don’t feature the “Big Four” and are extremely entertaining nonetheless, but Miami is different.

It is where Nadal beat Federer for the very first time as a 17-year-old ranked No34 in the world.

It’s where the pair had an epic rematch in the final the following year where Federer fought back from two sets to love down.

It’s where Andy Roddick had two of his only three victories over Federer, and it’s where Nadal suffered his first defeat to Novak Djokovic (2007), when the Serb went on to win his first Masters title.

Both Nadal and Federer had participated in the past nine editions and I have to say with their withdrawals, along with others this fortnight, March has gone from being “mad” to rather mundane.

THUMBS UP – David Goffin

Prior to Miami, the young Belgian had not been able to string together successive wins but he finally broke the hoodoo and has made the third round posting victories over Robin Haase and Philipp Kohlschreiber.

Garbine Muguruza

The Spanish teenager posted her biggest victory over her career when she took out Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets in the third round after ousting Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Two top 25 seeds back-to-back. Not bad for the world No73 who has now won eight out of nine matches between Indian Wells and Miami (including qualifying). She eventually lost to Li Na.

THUMBS DOWN – Caroline Wozniacki

Just when you start to have some faith in Wozniacki following her final run at Indian Wells, the world No9 goes and loses in straight sets to an unheralded 19-year-old.

Wozniacki has been streaky this season. A good run in Dubai was followed by a first round shock exit in Kuala Lumpur. A similar pattern followed in Indian Wells then Miami. What happened to the consistency of 2011?

BIGGEST UPSET – Tobias Kamke

The 89th-ranked German busted everyone’s brackets when he took out Indian Wells finalist Juan Maritn del Potro in the second round. Kamke had a 3-6 win-loss record for the year heading into Miami and his highest ranked victim this season had been at No95. So taking out the No5 seed was not meant to be in the cards. He lost to Jurgen Melzer in the following round.

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Down the line: Indian Wells remains a California dream

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Each week, Sport360°'s tennis expert, Reem Abulleil, offers her thoughts on the major talking points from the Tour before looking to the week ahead…

Rafael Nadal’s astounding win at Indian Wells may be dominating the headlines – and rightly so – but Juan Martin del Potro’s form over the two weeks in the Californian desert deserves its fair share of the plaudits.

The towering Argentine took out Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray back-to-back and was three games away from adding Nadal to that impressive hit list. Yes, del Potro’s performance was streaky at times, first going down 0-3 before going up a set and a break, only to squander that lead and lose the match, but what we saw when he was on top was nothing short of unplayable tennis.

No one could have countered del Potro between games four and 14 in that final. He wasn’t just blasting forehands that were probably faster than half the serves on tour, he mixed it up with smooth half volleys and swift footwork that a 1.98m athlete should not be capable of showcasing.

Those wondering if he could ever return to his pre-wrist surgery form, he has answered that question loud and clear.

THUMBS UP

Indian Wells finalists

From Nadal’s fairytale return from injury to del Potro’s giant-slaying forehand to Maria Sharapova’s title run without dropping a set, to Caroline Wozniacki bouncing back from a poor showing in Malaysia, all four Indian Wells finalists deserve a nod.

Special metion to tournament owner Larry Ellison who revealed his plans for an expansion of the venue and continues to deliver one of the best tournaments on tour.

THUMBS DOWN  

Robson and Stephens

The past few weeks have not been kind to Laura Robson and Sloane Stephens. It appears the promising teenage duo are not adapting to their top-50/top-20 statuses as quickly as they would have liked, with Robson falling in the first round for a third consecutive tournament and Stephens following a similar pattern losing in the second round in Doha, and first rounds in Dubai and Indian Wells. Is consistency too much to ask of the young talents of the WTA?

Tsonga

At a time when del Potro is becoming a real threat to the “Big Four”, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s 54-minute loss to Djokovic was hard to swallow. You expect more from a world No8 and a Grand Slam finalist.

POOR MOMENT

Grigor Dimitrov had a superb start against Djokovic in their highly-anticipated third round clash. But then the world No35 double-faulted four times while serving for the first set. Dimitrov oddly held to love in just 65 seconds in his next service game. Wrong sequence, Grigor! The Bulgarian needs some major work up there in the mental department.

BIZARRE MOMENT

David Ferrer is one of the most loved and respected players on tour and is constantly commended for his work ethic. So when the Spaniard told the umpire “what the f*** are you doing” after he mistakenly overruled a ball, which should have been a winner for Ferrer, it left everyone in complete shock. It goes to show all players are human after all, even the saintly Ferrer.

WEEK AHEAD

The withdrawal bug has hit Miami hard with Nadal, Federer, Marcos Baghdatis, Stanislas Wawrinka, Gael Monfils, Sam Stosur, Mardy Fish and Ernests Gulbis amongst the ever-growing list of those set to miss the ATP Masters 1000 event which is regarded by many as being the “Fifth Slam”. Nadal’s withdrawal means Ferrer will probably reclaim the No4 spot by the end of the fortnight.

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Ons Jabeur: The rise and rise of Arab tennis’ next star

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She could very much be the Arab world’s next big champion. Some would say the 18-year-old already is.

After all, no Arab or North African female had ever won a trophy at Roland Garros until a 16-year-old Ons Jabeur snatched the French Open girls singles title in 2011 to make history for the region and send a signal of intent to the tennis world.

The Tunisian teenager had made the French Open junior final the year before, but fell at the very last hurdle. When she returned the following season and went one better, it was starting to become clear what Jabeur was really made of.

The girl was resilient, had character, with a knack for coming to the net. But then came the big test of moving up the ranks to battle it out on the women’s tour and leave her junior days behind.

And Jabeur has successfully risen to the challenge. She started 2012 ranked 1209 in the world, but some strong showings on the ITF circuit have seen her rocket up the charts to land at No263, moving up almost a thousand spots in the WTA rankings.

It was obvious Jabeur meant business from her very first match last year when she took Virginie Razzano – a former world No16 who beat Serena Williams at Roland Garros 2012 – to three sets at the Qatar Open in February.

She followed that up with a straight-sets win over two-time Grand Slam semi-finalist and world No26 Jie Zheng, of China, in Dubai.

Jabeur ended her season with one final and four semi-final showings in ITF tournaments and managed to ace her exams in between. So far she’s been playing $25k Tournaments and she’s hoping to become a regular in the $50k and $75k events next season to advance in the rankings. But it’s going to be her final year of high school and she knows it’s going to be a challenge.

“I am working hard. I was studying all last year along with the tennis and I have school this year as well,” Jabeur says. “I’m going to try to win as many points as I can in the first four months. And then I’ll try to focus on school for a bit.

“I play a lot of tournaments and I study online. But now it’s getting tough, I’m doing my ‘Baccalauréat’ – French system – but once I finish it this year I can take a year off from studying and focus completely on my tennis. This will be my toughest year.”

Jabeur has a playful personality and will joke with anyone from a tournament official, to a fellow player, to a journalist. Yet that is not to be mistaken for complacency or being soft, for she has big dreams and is willing to put in the work.

She left the Justine Henin Academy in Belgium last summer and hired former top-50 ATP player Andrei Olhovskiy – a Russian who has worked with Elena Dementieva, two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and most recently Elena Vesnina.

“He’s very good. Hard on the court. I have a new fitness coach. We’ve been working really hard, I can’t feel my legs,” Jabeur adds with a laugh. “I’m happy. He’s professional. I think we can do a very good job together.”

Olhovskiy sees great potential in Jabeur, but says she needs to believe more in herself. Her being so nice is actually a concern for him.

“She needs to concentrate more but she already has a good game,” says Olhovskiy. “She’s a very nice person and maybe sometimes it’s too nice on the court.

“She needs to be a little bit stronger and believe in herself. If she starts to believe and continues playing and concentrating on the game, it’s going to be perfect.

“Her style of game is really special for the girls. That’s why I think in the future when she has a really good physical condition and more belief in herself, it’s going to be very tough for her opponents to play her. She has an unusual game I would say.”

Indeed Jabeur’s style is very refreshing to see on the women’s circuit. She charges to the net, mixes things up with slices and volleys, and does not seem to fear the more experienced opponents.

“I have a dream to be a top-10 tennis player,” says Jabeur. “Since I was young, I’ve always been competitive. Even when I was three-years-old, I would tell my mum and her friends, ‘I’ll beat you’.

“But I think I need more fitness because I have breathing problems, I don’t breathe well while I’m playing but I’m working hard. I enjoy having these kind of challenges.”

Tennis can often be a lonely sport and the constant travel and long seasons can sometimes catch up with a player, no matter how young or old they are. But Jabeur says when she goes through such moments, she just powers through.

She adds: “Any athlete gets some lonely moments. You feel choked and you need a break from tennis, but you can’t do anything about it. Just get over it and keep playing.

“Even if you find yourself losing back-to-back first rounds, you feel like it’s over, but you should never give up.

“You keep trying. If you get stuck in the tough times, you’ll never reach the happy times.”

The ever-smiling youngster has a rampant sense of humour and she says she loves to joke around.

But when asked about how the players of the WTA have a reputation of not being as outgoing with one another, Jabeur says: “I heard about that, I don’t know why and I want to change that.

“I’m the kind of person who likes to make jokes in the locker room.

“On court is another thing but we can be friends in the locker room.”

FACTFILE: 

Born: August 28, 1994, Ksar Hellal, Tunisia.

Coach: Andrei Olhovskiy.

Favourite player: Andy Roddick.

Career moments – 2009: Made first final on the women’s ITF circuit at age 15 in Tunisia.

2010: Made French Open girls singles final.

2011: Won French Open girls singles title, becoming the first female from the region to win any title at a Grand Slam event.

2012: Accumulated a 31-16 win-loss record (made four semi-finals and one final).

Won Gold at the African Championships.

Represented Tunisia at the London Olympics.

Started the year ranked 1209 and ended it ranked 260.

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