Murray admits he's struggling, but still believes in his French Open chances

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No momentum: For Murray heading into Paris.

Andy Murray admits his last couple of weeks have been “a struggle” after the world No1 suffered yet another early exit, this time in the Rome second round, but the British star insists he can still have a good run at this month’s French Open (starts May 28).

Murray lost 6-2, 6-4 to home favourite Fabio Fognini in the Italian capital on Tuesday and will head to Roland Garros in 10 days’ time with a mediocre 4-4 win-loss record on clay under his belt this season.

The Scot fell to Albert Ramos-Vinolas in the Monte Carlo third round, before exiting the Barcelona semis against Dominic Thiem, and losing to Borna Coric in the Madrid third round.

His Rome stumble was his latest disappointment in what has been a sub-par 2017 so far for him.

Murray had said after his defeat to Coric last week that he was “concerned” about his performance during the match, in which he failed to change his tactics or find solutions against the young Croat.

“I definitely felt a little bit better than there, but, yeah, still not close to where I would like to be, obviously,” Murray told reporters in Rome, comparing his loss to Fognini to the one against Coric.

“I felt like after Barcelona I would start to play better, and the last two weeks have certainly not been as good as Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Even the match I lost in Monte-Carlo I did actually feel like I played some good tennis. I messed up the match a bit in the third set, but I did actually play some good stuff.

The last couple of weeks has definitely been a struggle, and, you know, a long way from where I’d like to be.”

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There has been speculation that perhaps Murray’s incredible second half of 2016, which led to him ending the year as the world No1, may have taken its toll on him, or that perhaps his ascension to the top of the rankings has added extra pressure on him.

The 30-year-old insists that is not the case, and that being world No1 is not the reason he has been struggling to find his top form.

“It really doesn’t, to me. I’m not lying,” Murray assured, when asked whether it felt different at tournaments being the world No1.

“That’s just how I feel. I’m just not playing well, and I don’t think it’s to do with my ranking. I mean, the last couple of weeks, you know, they have been tough and I haven’t played well. I think sort of that Indian Wells and maybe like Monte Carlo, you know, the (elbow) injury and stuff was more understandable.

“But the last few weeks, there is no reason for it from my end. I’m just not playing good tennis, and I need to try and work out how to turn that around. I believe I will. And I need ideally quickly, because there are some pretty important tournaments coming up.

“I still feel like I can do really well in those events. I need to turn it around quick.”

Murray reached the Roland Garros final last season before he went on to win Queens and Wimbledon.

He acknowledged that his movement – usually one of his greatest strengths – has not been up to standard recently, and that is something he needs to figure out.

“I know a lot of people think I have got no chance of doing anything at the French after the last couple of weeks, but, you know, I do think I can,” he added.

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Sharapova books Wimbledon qualifying berth

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Steady progress: Sharapova.

Maria Sharapova booked her place at next month’s Wimbledon qualifying event by beating Christina McHale in the first round of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia.

The 30-year-old will move into the top 200 in the world rankings after seeing off American McHale 6-4 6-2 in one hour and 35 minutes on Monday.

And that is enough to earn Sharapova direct entry into Wimbledon qualifying at Roehampton, while she could still earn a place in the main draw if she reaches the semi-finals in Rome this week.

Sharapova, playing at her third WTA Tour event since returning from a 15-month doping ban, found herself 3-1 down in the early stages against McHale but soon hit back, levelling the scores at 4-4 before winning the next two games to claim the first set.

The 2004 Wimbledon champion raced to a 3-0 lead in the second set and had a series of break points in the fourth game, but McHale held to reduce the deficit.

Sharapova won the next two games and although McHale broke back to make it 5-2, Sharapova took the next game to clinch victory.

The Russian, who is a three-time winner of this event, will take on Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in the second round.

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Kickin' it with Kiki: Why it is important that I speak out about Sharapova

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Kristina Mladenovic has emerged as a force to reckoned with in the women’s game this season, winning a title and reaching three more finals so far in 2017, to rise to a career-high ranking of No14 in the world.

The Dubai resident has been making waves on the tour, not just because of her skills on court, but also for being one of the more outspoken voices of the circuit.

The Frenchwoman will be providing an exclusive column to Sport360 to give us an uncensored and insightful view of what it’s really like to be a professional tennis player on tour. This is her first installment, which coincides with her 24th birthday.

Hello everyone! I am doing this with Sport360 because I’m a resident in Dubai and I myself discovered the newspaper and the website once I started living there.

It’s really important for me to see that tennis can be followed all around the city that I love, and that it gets more popular, because we have so many great athletes and champions living there. Dubai has so many things to offer and I feel that we also have to offer something back.

I tend to be outspoken about various issues we face on tour, which I think is very important.

It’s me, it’s my personality, I don’t speak too much, but when I do, it’s really well-thought and I really want to express things because I kind of know I’m right and that I won’t regret it.

When I’m not sure about things, or there’s a doubt, I don’t allow myself to come in or to judge anyone. But I think nowadays whether on the tennis tour or in sport in general, or in society, I think we’re blocked somehow. We’re afraid to express what we feel is right, and sometimes it’s not easy to defend the values you believe in.

I think I’m in a position, in my sport at least, as a celebrity or whatever, I can have maybe a little impact and say out loud what most of the people think but they maybe don’t have the courage to say it. That’s just me, I’m not forcing myself to be that way, I have inside of me that kind of leader behaviour.

SPEAKING OUT

There was a lot of backlash from the previous comments I made about Maria Sharapova, and I was criticised by her fans. When you love someone you don’t really see the truth, and it can be painful. All this story is quite heavy, it’s a big topic.

For me, there are two sides, the athlete and the person. As I said, I never loved the person she is, because she’s not very sociable, not very respectful, or polite… of course we can’t all be friends on the tour, and it’s also a job. But you know, manners – hello, thank you… we see each other every day so we can salute each other, be polite, manners, just respect. I think anywhere in the world human beings should respect each other and not ignore each other, otherwise life would be sad.

Mladenovic after defeating Sharapova in the Stuttgart semi-finals.

Mladenovic after defeating Sharapova in the Stuttgart semi-finals.

And then there’s athlete. I always respected her a lot for the champion she is, everything she has achieved, her professionalism, her behaviour and attitude on the court, showing a great example, a great fighting spirit. And I have to say that when this news came out, I was disappointed.

Even if I didn’t like the character, I always had tremendous respect for all she has achieved, because I never achieved that and she’s a true champion of our sport.

But when this happened, of course you get disappointed and it puts a doubt on how she’s done it all. Her story is that she’s been taking this substance (meldonium) for 10 years. Okay, some people are saying before January 2016 she was fine (it was legal), so basically she was just taking a prohibited substance for three weeks (from the day it became prohibited to the day she tested positive).

If this substance became forbidden, it means that even in the last 10 years it should have been, it was just that they didn’t discover it and it was not on the list because they didn’t know about it. But the medicine, eventually they found out, so I’m saying if now it’s not allowed, it means that even before it shouldn’t have been allowed.

So it helps you (perform). It’s not like a cream that you put occasionally for two months and it happened to be prohibited. It’s a process, you’ve been taking it for 10 years. All girls are playing great tennis and at the top level it’s just about the little details. So of course you’re going to doubt her now, if this has helped her in the past or not. And we will never know.

In sport, we are all fighting for a clean sport, that’s very important for me – integrity and clean sport. I was very disappointed because I respected the athlete she is a lot. So that’s why I was critical of her.

MENTAL TEST

I played Maria in the semi-finals in Stuttgart. It was her first week back from suspension, it was her comeback. There was a lot of media, it was insane. The entire world was following her there and following that tournament.

She showed amazing form, she played such great tennis, beating girls in straight sets, and then we played at the stage of the semi-finals. Of course she knows about what I said, because there weren’t a lot of players who had the courage to criticise this. I could feel the tension.

I could feel of course that she was so fresh because she hadn’t played for 15 months and was extra motivated to beat me. She started off very strong. I felt the pressure, because I was surprised that so many players would text me before the match, and after the match – kind of putting pressure on my shoulders, I don’t know, not to defend a cause, but kind of… it was a weird feeling. Because I personally have nothing against her, she hasn’t done anything to me in my life. It’s just the story and everything.

Obviously her tennis skills are there, I had no doubt she’d play good tennis at all. I was expecting a tough match and it turned out to be a thriller, a great match for the crowd. I have to say that I was really proud to have won that match – not because it’s Maria, but because of the way I handled myself through that entire pressure, from the media side, because you know that everybody is looking at that match; the fact that I was down a set a break, being kind of ridiculous because it looked so easy for her, with everything I said, people could easily say ‘look she’s only talking and now that she’s playing against her she has no strong character to show fight at least’. And the fact that I showed a lot of fight there, strong personality, great tennis…

It’s true that it’s a bit of a drama, but in a way I think it’s entertaining. Tennis-wise, I was happy to have won that match because it made me reach a final, not because it was against Maria.

Of course it’s even more enjoyable because it’s attractive, if it was another opponent at another tournament, it wasn’t going to be the same feelings. That meant a lot to me, and it was proof, to myself, that it’s one thing to say things out loud – everybody can speak – but after that you have to stand behind your words, and that’s something more difficult. I’ve never been in that position before, and it was a great experience, to work on myself, on my mental strength, to handle all kinds of pressure around. Because that was a little bit more than tennis.

RISKY BUSINESS

There has obviously been a lot of discussion around Maria getting wildcards from tournaments. It’s a big topic. I understand if small tournaments on tour, like Madrid or Stuttgart – even if the tournament director doesn’t want to give her, I understand the process and the fact that if he gives her a wildcard, she’s such a diva all around the world, and that brings a lot of media, a lot of ticket selling, lots of money… nowadays sport is business. So I understand those tournaments that actually need her because she’s a superstar no matter what.

I understand that point of view and I cannot judge it. If I myself am a tournament director I’m thinking about how I’m going to make my tournament work and win money and survive. That’s part of the business.

But regarding Grand Slams, I think it’s different. I think the French Open is going to shine with or without her, I have the feeling. So that’s a different topic.

It’s also a Grand Slam, it’s run by a federation, it’s different. It’s a federation kind of mentality and values. Let’s see what they decide. Knowing them, I think it’s a big doubt, but we’ll see. Maybe for them it’s also going to be interesting somewhere, I don’t know. We’ll see. But I think in Grand Slams, she shouldn’t get a wildcard.

What’s painful for other players is that you don’t have any rules for players who have been caught by anti-doping. When you are a former world No1 or a Grand Slam champion, you have this rule that you can get unlimited wildcards. I think that’s totally great and fine, but they should apply a specific rule when it’s for a doping offender – I think it’s not fair that we don’t have a rule like that.

Of course if you got caught, you can have the chance again to play tennis and come back, but I mean she can have wildcards every single week and she doesn’t really care about the fact that she hasn’t played for 15 months and doesn’t have a ranking. She’ll compete in every single event like she has the ranking.

I’m speaking as someone who is thinking about others, personally she’s not taking my spot, it doesn’t affect me, but maybe she’s taking a spot of a girl who is working for it.

So there are a lot of different thoughts about her, and people are saying she deserves her spot there, she has the skills… you can see it in very different ways. Like I said, I understand tournaments, I’m not going to judge this, it’s totally fine for the tournaments thinking that way because it’s business. But morally, it’s not totally fine or fair.

*This column was done via an interview with Kristina Mladenovic. It has been slightly edited for clarity.

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