World number 7 David Ferrer dispatched French favourite Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets and Canada’s Milos Raonic beat world number 12 Kevin Anderson on day one of the 2016 Mubadala World Tennis Championships on Thursday.
In the first match of the three day tournament, Ferrer showed all his class to push past Tsonga in an entertaining opener. With both players settling quickly in the opening exchanges and the first three games going with serve, it was Ferrer who took the initiative by registering an early break and accelerating through the games.
Taking the first set 6-1 Ferrer looked pacy, agile and hungry for victory as he battered back definitive returns to every one of Tsonga’s intelligently placed shots. After laying down a firm marker in the first, it was more of the same from Ferrer in the second set as he won the first five games before sealing victory 6-1, 6-1.
The comprehensive win sets up a highly anticipated all-Spanish semi-final on day two against fourteen-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal in Abu Dhabi.
“It’s not easy, the first match of the new season but I am happy with the result. That said, I think it’s fair to say it wasn’t Jo’s best day today. I’ve benefitted from time in Valencia pre-season with a lot of fitness and feel I’m getting better all the time,” said Ferrer.
“It’s good for me to be able to test myself against Rafa tomorrow and be able to improve and work some things. I’m guaranteed another two matches now which is perfect and what all the players want and need at the beginning of the season.”
The second match of the tournament between Abu Dhabi debutants Anderson and Raonic was exactly the heavy hitting battle it promised.
The first six games of the match went with their respective big serves as the duo sounded each other out, but it was Raonic who was able to create the first opportunity, securing a break at 3-3 and powering to a 6-3 first set win.
— MWTC (@MubadalaTennis) December 31, 2015
In the second set Raonic again engineered the first break to move ahead 4-2, going on to win in straight sets 6-3, 6-4.
“It’s a great way to start the next season. I’m very happy and did the basics well – I served well and moved well, so it’s great,” said Raonic.
“I feel as close to 100% as I’ve been in a long time so that’s positive. That’s confirmation that the work I’ve done in the off season and I feel like I was improving all the time.”
Ahead of his semi-final clash with Stan Wawrinka, Raonic added: “It’s going to be a tough match and I’ve had poor results against him in the past. But it’s a new year and a new chance so I’m looking forward to it.
“I feel like if I do things right, return well, serve well, I think that’s where my tennis starts and if I can get it to be played on my terms I can do quite well.”
Sport360 asked former Wimbledon champion and Mubadala World Tennis Championship ambassador, Pat Cash, to make some predictions on what 2016 may hold for the six stars of the Abu Dhabi tournament. Here’s what the Aussie legend had to say…
He had a great year last year. He used to be an outside chance, I think now he has a real chance at every grand slam. Wimbledon is the one where he hasn’t performed well at, I don’t quite understand why, he’s actually got a good game for the grass. So he could breakthrough there. But I think we’ll see him in a grand slam final again this year, at least.
I’d think he’ll do better this year in general. I think the French Open is obviously one that he can still win. It will be interesting to see how he goes. Possibly there’s a Slam for him this year but you just don’t know. He didn’t have a great year last year but his confidence is starting to come back, especially the French Open, I think he’ll be a real threat there. I wouldn’t put him favourite, but he has such a great record, even if he’s not playing great he’ll still be a real danger. He’s a potential French Open champion there, but we’ll have to see how the form goes.
The Olympics and everything coming up, it’s a tough year for the players. David has performed really well at all the grand slams. I think he’s one of those guys who can take the opportunity when it comes. If it props up there, he’ll be ready to jump on it. Will he end the year in the top 10 again? He’ll go very close again. It’s amazing how well he’s done. His consistency is his strength. Every year he’s hard to beat and he finished off the season quite well last year so I’ve got a feeling he’ll do okay.
For Jo it’s all about injuries. If he can stay physically fit, he has massive power and is a real danger to all the players. His consistency has been up and down because of these injuries. It really makes it really tough to get into form and get physically and mentally hardened and that’s always been his issue. Where he’d play well then he’d be out for three or six months. I know exactly what that’s like because I was like that myself, it’s very hard to stay consistent. But he’s another player who is a danger.
He’s one of the success stories of last year. I remember seeing him five or six years ago thinking he’s just a big guy with a serve and he’s going to fall by the wayside like a lot of these players do. But he’s a very very good athlete, extremely hard-worker. Obviously has a massive serve and a big forehand.
Tactically he’s improving all the time and he’s getting more and more confidence. As he develops his confidence, he’s becoming a real danger man who can knock just about anybody off now. I think beating Murray at the US Open was big for him. Murray didn’t play his best tennis but he wasn’t allowed to.
Anderson is a real role model for a lot of kids because he’s showing that if you work hard and you’ve got a big weapon, you keep improving it – he’s a big guy and moves really well for a big guy. He was not far away from beating Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon. He’s a confident guy and I see him pushing into grand slam semi-finals.
Another guy who had a year interrupted with injuries. He’s had a bit of time so I think he’s been careful to get himself back. You’d think naturally he’d be most dangerous on grass, because of his serve – he will be dangerous there – but when the courts are quick, sometimes those big guys need a little bit more time to get to the ball. I think he’s dangerous on every surface. You’d think somewhere like the US Open where he can get a lot of bounce off his serve… I wouldn’t expect too much of him early on, I think he needs a few matches to get going.
But he grew up playing on hard court, he can start getting pretty dangerous at Indian Wells and Miami, where the ball is bouncing. His game is more than his serve. He has a massive forehand, a very good backhand, his volleys are a work in progress, his attacking play, but he’s quite competent around the net, his technique is quite good. He’s just a real danger with that serve. With a serve like that, it can get ugly tennis but he wins a lot of matches that way and that’s what it’s about – winning matches.
In a season that was predominantly monopolised by one man – Novak Djokovic – it was Stan Wawrinka who provided arguably the most explosive moment of the year when he overpowered the world No. 1, handing him his only grand slam defeat of 2015, to win the French Open crown.
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Wawrinka calls it the best match he ever played and it earned him a second major trophy, much to the Swiss’ own surprise.
You see Wawrinka never fathomed he would win one major, let alone two, but his one-step-at-a-time approach has taken beyond his wildest dreams and he now sits comfortably amongst the sport’s elite, propped at No4 in the world and ready for a new season.
“I think everything as a tennis player now is better from myself. All the puzzle is right together,” Wawrinka told Sport360 ahead of his participation at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi this weekend, where he takes on either Kevin Anderson or Milos Raonic in the semi-finals on Friday.
“I still have ups and downs, I still have some matches I lose, but I know that when I’m fit, when I play well, when I’m confident, I can stay with the top guys and I can beat them, especially at grand slams where I can push them physically and mentally.”
This wasn’t always how Wawrinka felt about himself, but at 30 years of age, he finally knows he can produce the goods when it matters the most – a recent development that was triggered by a five-set Australian Open loss to Djokovic in 2013.
“Even though I lost that one, even though it was difficult. That match I didn’t have the feeling like I had before in the big matches against the top guys that I failed. That match I had the feeling ‘I gave everything, I was that close to win, I lost it, but not because I failed and I went mentally down’,” he recalls.
“At that moment I was like ‘okay, he’s the No1, he’s far away ahead of everybody, but you’re there, if you keep working hard, you’re going to have your chance, stay strong with yourself’.”
That track of thought led him to his two grand slam triumphs and he acts like a man who has conquered his demons more often than not nowadays on the court.
But 2015 provided a new kind of challenge for him. Long gone are the days where Wawrinka was referred to as ‘the other Swiss who is not named Roger Federer’. He was big time and people wanted to talk about him, not just his tennis but also his personal life.
News about his divorce broke earlier in the season and his ex-wife Ilham made a public statement about it following Wawrinka’s announcement that they were separating. A few weeks later, an article was published referencing his personal life at the start of the French Open on the grand slam’s official website. It was taken down a few hours later.
Grand Slam Finals: Nadal: 14-6 (70%) Federer 17-10 (63%) Djokovic: 10-8 (56%) Murray: 2-6 (25%) *COUGH* STANISLAS WAWRINKA: 2-0 (100%)
— Nick Nemeroff (@NNemeroff) December 28, 2015
The drama would not cease as world No. 30 Nick Kyrgios decided to make an inappropriate comment regarding Wawrinka’s tennis-playing girlfriend on court during a match in Montreal.
In Wawrinka’s own words, this year was one “big mess” but he’s proud with how he dealt with it.
“It was tough especially that I don’t like to talk about my private life in general. I always put that private life away. So yeah, this year it was quite a big mess, let’s put it that way,” he concedes.
“I’m trying to be as strong as possible and as focused as I can on my tennis. On the court I’m alone, so if I can close all the windows when I’m on the court, there is even thoughts – you can have distractions outside or problems, the better you deal with that, the better you will play. But for sure with all the things that happened this year it wasn’t easy and I’m even more happy the way I dealt with it on the court and the results I had all the year.”
To top it all off, Wawrinka capped the year by playing in the IPTL on the same team that included Kyrgios. The world No4 initially wasn’t scheduled to play because “they don’t have space for ever top player because there are only a few teams and for me it’s too long to play the full one, so that was clear, I’m not going to take that risk, not to have any preparation, not to have any rest.”
But when Djokovic pulled out of the event, Wawrinka took his place in the last leg of the league, in Singapore, and shared a team and a bench with Kyrgios, who never apologised to him directly and had received a suspended ban from the ATP for his actions.
“At the end you’re doing your job and that’s it. Nick is a tennis player, I’m a tennis player, we’re going to be around for a while, every tournament or whatever. At the end I think everything went well and that’s it,” explains Wawrinka.
He says the overall experience in the IPTL was great and that there were “zero problems” with Kyrgios there, although they had no conversation to clear the air.
“The thing is, I don’t forget (what he did) that’s for sure. But then again it was my choice, I accept it and go to Singapore and he’s on the team or I don’t, and I don’t go simply. Again at the end we had zero problem there. It’s not like we’re going to go to dinner every night together but we had no problem, we played on the same team, he was there to cheer me on because I was playing and that was okay,” said Wawrinka.
Looking ahead to 2016, Wawrinka says he’s focusing on the things that he can control.
“My goal is to be the best player I can and to have no regrets when I stop playing tennis,” he states.
“The priority for me is to practice well, to do the best schedule I can and to give myself the chance to be fit and ready for every tournament. I’m not good enough to say my priorities are the grand slams so I want to play well in the grand slams. No. I know that if I want to play in the slams I need all the tournaments before to try to do my best.”
Like every player, Wawrinka is looking forward to the Olympics but is unsure how many events he’ll play.
He needs to give it a lot of thought to make sure he schedules it the right way to get the best out of the whole experience.
— MurugappaGroup (@Murugappa_Group) December 29, 2015
“To play singles, doubles and mixed doubles, if you win a few matches in all three, it’s tough. So I need to think, to see what I want, what I’ll be happy with. It’s not only about winning and losing it’s also about enjoying. The Olympics it’s also about the experience, that’s why I want to stay in the village, that’s why I want to do all that again,” he added.
Wawrinka has one Olympic gold medal to his name which he won with Federer in doubles in Beijing 2008.
Federer, at 34, is ranked No3 in the world and is stunning the universe with how well he is playing at this stage in his career. Wawrinka remains in awe of his good friend and countryman.
“I’m surprised because he’s doing it, but not because it’s him. He’s always pushing the limit, in everything, in records, in the way he’s playing, so it’s amazing to see the way he’s playing. Hopefully I can play a few more years at my top,” says Wawrinka.
“You’re not trying to do the same because it’s impossible to copy him, he’s just too far away in front of everybody, but it’s inspiring to see that at 34 he can be at his top. Like last year he was moving, he was playing amazing at the US Open. It can give you some little thought that it means it’s possible, at my level and my game and everything, that means it’s possible to play longer.”
Another player Wawrinka reserves high praise for is Rafael Nadal. In a year where the Spaniard struggled greatly on the court, Wawrinka faced off with him four times and they split those meetings 2-2.
On whether Nadal will ever get back to his best, Wawrinka said: “For sure knowing him, the champion he is, he’s going to find a solution to be at the top again.”
Nadal’s once ferocious forehand appears to some like it has lost its sting but Wawrinka feels tennis today is not the same as it was five, six years ago.
“Yes (his forehand changed) a little bit, but so has everybody’s. It was slower (before), and the balls, you could play more rallies. I would love to watch a match of Rafa and Roger five, six years ago it was almost different tennis. Let’s see. I think Rafa knows what he needs, I think he’s working for it, he’s going to get it or not? We’ll see,” says the Swiss No. 2.