Down the Line: Sharapova's back, Nadal rules, Murray flops, Kerber freefalling

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Sharapova lost to Mladenovic in the Stuttgart semis.

Last week in tennis was dominated by one thing and one thing only – the return of Maria Sharapova.

The Russian came back from her doping suspension playing some fine tennis, with an improved serve, and a hunger to prove a point.

She made it all the way to the semi-finals, beating Roberta Vinci, Ekaterina Makarova and Anett Kontaveit before losing a thriller to Kristina Mladenovic – who was one of the most vocal players to hit out at the Russian following the announcement of her failed test.

Sharapova, a two-time Roland Garros champion, is already odds-on favourite to win the French Open, even though she doesn’t even know if she’ll be allowed to play there or not.

The pressure is mounting on the organisers to decide where Sharapova should be given wildcard for the tournament. She fell just one win short of securing a place in the qualifying draw by her ranking and many believe if she does get invited to Roland Garros, it would be for the qualifying rounds.

That sounds like a solution that is a win-win for everyone. For the Sharapova camp, it helps feed her redemption story and how she’s willing to “work her way back” like many, including Andy Murray, suggested she should do.

For the organisers, they’re acknowledging a five-time grand slam winner, but are asking her to earn her place in the draw.  We’ll find out on May 16.

Here’s a look at the other happenings on tour last week…

Thumbs up

Rafael Nadal

Dare we say that vintage Rafael Nadal is back? The Spaniard has been stepping up his form with every passing week and he pulled off a ‘Double Decima’ – winning a 10th trophy in Monte Carlo then claiming a 10th crown in Barcelona, on a court that has been renamed after him.

He beat Dominic Thiem in the Barcelona final, and made it look easy, even though the Austrian was in fine form himself. There’s still action to be played in Madrid and Rome but Nadal is exactly where he wants to be ahead of the French Open.

Laura Siegemund

To those who thought her final showing in Stuttgart last year was a fluke, Siegemund has fired back by going one better and winning the title in her home city on Sunday, defeating Mladenovic in a third-set tiebreak.
Will she back it up at other tournaments, though? It’s her chance to show that she can.

Thumbs down

Andy Murray

Barcelona was meant to be the world No1’s opportunity to get back to winning ways, with a highly-anticipated final against Nadal expected to be the perfect test for him.
Instead, he struggled past Albert Ramos-Vinolas (who beat him in Monte Carlo), then lost to Thiem.
Madrid, with the flying balls and higher altitude, might bring more chances for him to get back on song.

Angelique Kerber

A change of surface has not done any good for the German, who continues to inexplicably freefall.
Granted, she lost to a player who almost won the tournament but still, the Kerber of 2016 is no where to be found. It’s time she hit the panic button.

TALKING POINTS

Early clay season standouts

Beyond Nadal, you’d have to look at David Goffin, Dominic Thiem and Lucas Pouille as non-Big Four players who can make a real impact at the French Open.

Goffin had some magical moments in Monte Carlo, taking out Novak Djokovic and Thiem on his way to the semis. Thiem knocked out Andy Murray in Barcelona en route to the final, while Pouille grabbed his second career title in Budapest on Sunday.

Which one of them has the better chance of going deep in Paris? Possibly Thiem.

Is women’s tennis in trouble?

In the absence of Serena Williams (pregnant and still world No1), Petra Kvitova (recovering from a knife attack) and Victoria Azarenka (on maternity leave), Kerber is flopping, Simona Halep is flip-flopping, and even Karolina Pliskova lost her first round in Prague – her home city – on Monday to Camila Giorgi.

Will the lack of consistency of the top players cause serious damage to the WTA? Or should people just embrace the depth of the field and discover the lesser-known names, who actually have good game? I vote for the latter.

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Debate: Is Nadal the runaway favourite for the French Open?

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On fire: Rafael Nadal.

After winning a 10th Monte Carlo Masters and 10th Barcelona Open within the last two weeks, Reem Abulleil and James Piercy debate whether the Spaniard is the runaway favourite for a 10th Roland Garros.

What side are you on in our debate?

Share with us your thoughts by commenting below, using #360fans on Twitter or getting in touch via Facebook.

Reem Abulleil says YES

Borrowing the words of Roger Federer – what Rafael Nadal has managed to achieve on clay over the past 12 years has been “mind-blowing”.

After the Spaniard picked up a 10th Monte Carlo crown last week Federer told Tennis Channel: “Rafa’s favourite. He’s so good on clay, he’s shown it again with his 10th in Monaco, which is mind-blowing.”

Nadal then added a 10th Barcelona trophy to his resume on Sunday.

In the eight previous times Nadal had won Monte Carlo and Barcelona back-to-back in the same season, he went on to win the French Open as well on six occasions.

The two times he missed were in 2009, when he was carrying a knee problem and was knocked out by Robin Soderling in the fourth round in Paris, and 2016, where he was in good shape but sustained a wrist injury that forced him to withdraw ahead of his third round at Roland Garros.

With the French Open still four weeks away (starts May 28), many would feel it’s too soon to rule Nadal the favourite for a record-extending 10th trophy there, especially with Madrid and Rome still to come for the Mallorcan on the schedule before Paris.

But statistically-speaking, only injuries have ever stopped Nadal from winning Roland Garros after claiming both Monte Carlo and Barcelona.

Of course tennis is beyond stats and figures – even though Nadal’s history on the surface is difficult to ignore – and it’s the rest of the competition that can play a factor when it comes to the 30-year-old’s chances in France.
Nadal has been in great form this season – he leads the tour with 29 match wins, has won two titles from five finals reached and is on a 10-match winning streak.

The same cannot be said about most of his main rivals.

Novak Djokovic, the defending champion in Paris, is in somewhat of a slump, Andy Murray had elbow issues and showed more signs of struggle in Barcelona, barely squeezing past Albert Ramos-Vinolas before losing to Dominic Thiem, while 2015 winner Stan Wawrinka continues to be a mystery riddled by inconsistency.

Roger Federer, the 2009 French Open champion, has been the star of the tour this season, but he admitted he won’t be putting in much work on clay – he was in Dubai practicing on hard court up until a few days ago – and isn’t even 100 per cent sure he’s going to play in Paris.

Even if he does, a miraculous run like the one he had in Melbourne would be a tall order considering the surface requires more work from him than others. Not to mention, he hasn’t played at the French Open in two years, and he only played five matches in total on the red dirt in 2016, and won just three of them.

Bring in the Thiems, and Zverevs into the mix and you realise none of these youngsters have done enough yet to make us believe they can string together seven wins in 14 days to win a major.

There is a difference between Nadal’s form on clay this year compared to 2016. There seems to be an extra spring in his step, more vigour to his shots, and much less uncertainty all around.

While the others may choose to peak at the French, Nadal has always been the kind of player who needs to win many matches in a row to gather confidence and find his rhythm.

It’s fair to say he’s done just that!

James Piercy says NO

If the French Open started today it would certainly be difficult to look past Rafael Nadal.

With Andy Murray’s fitness a doubt, uncertainty over Novak Djokovic’s mental fortitude, Roger Federer out of match practice – especially on clay – and other leading marquee contenders such as Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori not really making much of an impact so far on Tour, the ball is firmly in Nadal’s court.

But then time is the key component in assessing it all. Firstly, Murray and Djokovic theoretically have two tournaments each to either work on healing their physical ailments and/or address the creases in their respective games.

It’s not a coincidence the elite players find a way of peaking in time for grand slams; it’s a mixture of a balanced schedule and careful preparation in conditioning, especially when returning from injury.

As Nadal chases records around Europe, they are making sure they will be at optimum level at the end of the month. Murray’s elbow is becoming less of a worry with each passing week, and his run to the semi-finals in Barcelona, while unconvincing at times, was encouraging. He doesn’t boast anywhere near the same prowess as Nadal at the French Open but as beaten finalist last year, after two straight semi-finals, it’s a tournament he’s grown to love.

Out of clay practice: Roger Federer.

Out of clay practice: Roger Federer.

For mere mortals, seven weeks and no competitive tennis would be a one-way ticket to a first round exit but Federer is made of magic dust and his declaration to play at Roland Garros simply means, he knows he can win it.

Wawrinka has too much pedigree in Paris to be discounted while the new school of Dominic Thiem and Nick Kyrgios also represent outside challenges.

While how much wear and tear five clay court tournaments in the space of eight weeks will have on the brittle bones and ageing muscles of the Mallorcan remains to be seen. It caught up with him last year, and feasibly could happen again.

He’s undoubtedly the man to beat at the moment, but there’s a lot of tennis still to be played and plenty of questions still to be answered.

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Nadal claims 10th Barcelona title with win over Thiem to solidify status as French Open favourite

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A perfect 10: For Rafa.

Rafael Nadal hailed a “dream start” to his clay court season after romping to his 10th Barcelona Open on Sunday after sweeping aside Austria’s Dominic Thiem 6-4, 6-1.

The Spaniard also claimed his 10th title at the Monte Carlo Masters last week as he gears up for to go for his 10th French Open title next month.

“It is two consecutive weeks winning, in Monte Carlo and here, two special tournaments for me, it is a dream start on clay,” said Nadal. “It means a lot for me to reach number 10 here in Barcelona, in front of the people of my club, I am very happy and emotional.”

Nadal won in Barcelona between 2005-2009, 2011-13 and now in the last two years. The 14-time Grand Slam champion also looks like the man to beat at Roland Garros after winning on a Barcelona court named after him and where he didn’t drop a set all week.

Thiem had shocked world number one Andy Murray in Saturday’s semi-finals and showed some early resistance. The world number nine even had his only break point of the match in the first game.

But Nadal, returning to top form at age 30, upped his intensity at the crucial moment and took the set with the only break in the 10th game.

“The first set was vitally important,” added Nadal. “It was hard. I was having a few more chances than him but it was very even and that is why I celebrated with so much energy at the end.”

The second set was a procession as Thiem’s frustration at his inability to break through Nadal’s defences saw him consistently fire long. The Austrian held off three break points in his opening service game, but was powerless to stop Nadal thereafter as he won the last five games to seal victory in just over 90 minutes on court.

However, Thiem wasn’t too disheartened after losing out to the king of clay after what had been a productive week.

“I really enjoyed the week in Barcelona,” he said. “There are worse things than to lose against the greatest player on clay ever.”

The 23-year-old is now 9-20 against top-10 opposition and is yet to claim back-to-back top-10 victories.

Just like all the other nine times Nadal had triumphed in Barcelona, he leapt into the pool of the tennis club along with the ball kids to celebrate a stunning 10th success in Catalunya.


* From AFP

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