It looks like 2016 is starting the same way 2015 ended, with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer squaring off on the biggest stages, their rivalry maintaining its position as the most thrilling in today’s game.
It’s a match-up millenials would refer to as ultimate popcorn-tennis. Both players are in ridiculous form and even though Djokovic had one off day in the fourth round, it must be said that his opponent, Gilles Simon, played a bigger role than many gave him credit for in forcing the world No. 1 to make errors and scrape through in five sets.
One theme prevalent in Federer’s matches this fortnight is efficiency. He has spent almost three and half hours less than Djokovic on court and has been going around his business with almost surgical precision. The world No. 3’s winner-unforced error differential from his first five matches is an impressive +58, while Djokovic’s is -5, although the Serb’s figure is greatly affected by the 100 errors he struck against Simon.
It’s interesting that of the 11 grand slam semi-final defeats Federer has suffered throughout his career, more than half of them (six) have come in Melbourne – two of which were at the hands of Djokovic. Meanwhile, Djokovic has won the Australian Open title every single time he has reached the semi-finals here. These could be merely statistics but they are rather telling and it could translate into more or less confidence within each player.
Last year, Federer beat Djokovic three times while the world No. 1 had the upper hand in the remaining five. All of Federer’s wins though came in best-of-three matches and Djokovic won both grand slam finals they played at Wimbledon and the US Open.
While Federer was playing great at both those tournaments and those two finals, it was evident that over best-of-five clashes, Djokovic has the mental edge. It feels like Federer is unable to sustain his mental toughness for that extended period of time. The Swiss legend will face the same challenge on Thursday.
He’s taking on a monumental task. Djokovic, as a five-time champion at Melbourne Park between 2008 and 2015, has a stronghold on the place. Playing him here has become a daunting mission, equal in magnitude as playing Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros between 2005 and 2014.
Last year, Federer beat Djokovic in the Dubai final by having the serving day of his life. The 34-year-old will need to find that serving groove against Djokovic, and perhaps bring out the SABR – the Sneak-Attack by Roger shot that annoyed so many of his opponents in the second half of last season.
Owning the net will aid his cause although Djokovic is a great passer so Federer has got to be as clinical as he can be up front. With showers forecasted again, the match will most probably be played with the Rod Laver Arena roof closed and while Federer is great indoors, Djokovic has lost one indoor match in the last three years.
It could be a tighter match than their recent grand slam encounters but still all roads lead to Djokovic and it’s hard to imagine a final without him in it. The fact that they’re playing each other in a semi-final and not a final could mean something different for Federer, as facing Djokovic in a major final is close to mission impossible. In the semis, it’s more like mission probably not possible. Tiny difference. Maybe it’ll matter.
MELBOURNE, Australia: An independent review of the Tennis Anti-Corruption Program was announced Wednesday by the chairmen and CEOs of the governing bodies of the sport – ATP, WTA, ITF and the Grand Slam Board – in light of the recent match-fixing allegations and suspicions.
The Independent Review Panel (IRP) will be headed by Adam Lewis QC, described by Philip Brook – chairman of Wimbledon and of the Tennis Integrity Board – as a leading expert on sports law at the London bar and internationally.
The IRP will review and report on the appropriateness and effectiveness of the Tennis Anti-Corruption Program and make recommendations for change.
It will take into account public commentary regarding the processes, procedures and resources of the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU).
The governing bodies of international tennis said they expect the IRP to address issues including: “How the TIU can be more transparent without compromising the TIU’s need for investigative confidentiality, additional resources for the TIU both within the unit and at tournaments, structural and/or governance changes that enhance the independence of the TIU, and how to extend the scope and reach of the tennis integrity education program.”
“The four important points are: there is no deadline to this review, it will take as long as it is needed; it will cost what it costs; the results will be made public and will be published; and the most important point is we have committed to act on every recommendation,” said ATP chairman Chris Kermode in a press conference at Melbourne Park.
Tennis has been struck by corruption allegations over the past two weeks at the Australian Open after an investigation by the BBC and BuzzFeed which pointed to widespread match-fixing taking place at the highest level of the sport.
Match-fixing suspicions were also raised by a New York Times report that said a mixed doubles match last Sunday raised flags that forced a gambling company to suspend betting.
“It is vital that we repair this damage and that we do so quickly, which is why today we’re announcing an independent review that will examine all aspects of tennis’ Anti-Corruption Program, including the Tennis Integrity Unit’s work, which will make recommendations for change,” said Brook.
“We are determined to do everything we need to do to remove corruption from our sport.”
Asked if he saw the situation right now more as a perception problem rather than an actual problem, Brook said: “Yes. I think most of the problem has been caused, I think, by events 10 days ago.
“We have a lot of belief in the work of the Tennis Integrity Unit. You see the outcome of some of it. We have to repair the damage that’s been done. But we also recognise that we can improve.”
Brook also mentioned that the IRP will “take a good look” at the issue of betting companies being allowed to sponsor major tournaments like William Hill partnering with the Australian Open or Betway signing a deal with the ITF.
Transparency has been another issue strongly addressed over the past 10 days with world No2 Andy Murray saying it is something lacking in many sports, not just tennis.
“What’s come out of this is we do have to do a better job of communicating, educating, and a degree of transparency, whilst keeping individual investigation, for obvious reasons, confidential,” said Kermode who later added that they have nothing to hide at all.
Several names of players have appeared on lists recently, linking them to match-fixing, with no concrete evidence proving their involvement.
“What I don’t like is names are attached based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever. I think it’s deeply unfair, deeply damaging to the players,” said Kermode.
One can never really grasp how good Serena Williams is until you’ve faced her on the court – at least that’s what 18-year-old Daria Kasatkina felt after losing to the American 6-1, 6-1 in the Australian Open third round on Friday.
“She’s a very good player, but today she was like a hurricane,” said the Russian teenager, who had beaten Serena’s sister, Venus earlier this month in Auckland.
“She’s really the best. She doesn’t give me even a chance to play how I play, it was a great experience to play against her.
“She showed me what I have to do on the court, I have to work like an animal.”
Cutest thing I've seen today: Daria Kasatkina's face when she mentions Nadal's loss yesterday. She's a Rafanatic!— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) January 20, 2016
Serena, who served at 80 per cent first serves, hit 27 winners to a mere eight unforced errors, dropped just two points on her own serve and broke Kasatkina five times, was clinical in every aspect as she stormed into the fourth round where she faces another young Russian, this time the 21-year-old Margarita Gasparyan.
At the net, Serena exchanged some nice words with Kasatkina, who later revealed the world No1 had told her she liked her forehand.
“Everything I’ve been trying to work on was kind of clicking today,” said Serena after her 71st Australian Open match win – the most ever recorded by a player in Melbourne.
Meanwhile, Maria Sharapova responded emphatically to a second set letdown by taking down American Lauren Davis 6-1, 6-7(5), 6-0 to register her 600th career win – captured over all level tournaments, not just tour-level.
Sharapova’s first pro win was in a $25K ITF tournament in Columbus in 2002 against Teryn Ashley and her first tour-level victory came the following month at Indian Wells against Brie Rippner.
The Russian No5 seed was asked if she remembered her maiden win and lucky for her, her tennis is much better than her memory.
“Was it in Palm Springs? I’m going to pretend like I’m smarter than that. Was it against Samantha Reeves? I remember that match because I got smoked by Monica (Seles) after that. It’s a great memory,” laughed Sharapova.
Right location, and she did lose to Seles after, but her opponent was Rippner not Reeves.
Sharapova will face teenager Belinda Bencic in the fourth round after the Swiss overcame Katerina Bondarenko 4-6, 6-2, 6-4.
Bencic has now won her last 15 consecutive three-set matches.
“That’s good. Because I was losing a lot, and then my dad and my coach were like ‘you don’t have any fitness. You have to do this and that,” Bencic said laughing, referring to her impressive three-set record. “Now I was like ‘see?’”
The match of the day went to Russian-turned-Australian Daria Gavrilova, who battled for almost three hours to defeat French No28 seed Kristina Mladenovic 6-4, 4-6, 11-9 to reach her first grand slam fourth round.
Gavrilova showed lots of class when she urged the crowd to stay quiet when they cheered for a Mladenovic double fault.
The 21-year-old was broken when serving for the match the first time but held her nerve the second time around.
“I’m just really excited I want to hug the whole stadium,” Gavrilova told the crowd at Hisense Arena.