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I may be biased because I’ve actually been at Wimbledon but in my eyes this is the best women’s grand slam there has been in a long time. What with the return of the Williams sisters, the break-out of several stars who have been bubbling under for a long time and the come back of the injury stricken it has had a very diverse cast. There have been upsets (anyone remember Stosur falling in the first round?), extremely close matches and some absolutely spectacular play; all of which has combined to reawake my interest in women’s tennis.

I watched today’s semis from Henman Hill accompanied by a large picnic and a friend who was visiting The Championships for the first time (she loved it). Whilst the crowd was fairly split for Azarenka v Kvitova (I was cheering on the Czech) they were fully behind Lisicki in the second match. People do like Sharapova but I would challenge anyone not to fall in love with Lisicki, she has to be one of the cutest sports professionals out there! I caught some of her doubles earlier in the week and she did the sweetest slap of her thighs when a ball went out. Whilst watching her singles The Hill collectively cheered every Lisicki winner, groaned each time a hawkeye challenge didn’t go her way and went crazy when she had break points. Unfortunately Sharapova was just too strong, she is yet to drop a set and so far she has only dropped a maximum of nine games in a match (against Robson which puts the young Brit’s achievement into perspective). Lisicki can certainly be proud of herself though considering that a year ago she was learning to walk and even just three weeks ago it was doubtful whether the AELTC would be able to give her a wildcard. As I write this she’s still in the women’s doubles with Stosur and has made her first ever grand slam singles semi-final, an achievement not to be sniffed at. It is great to see her back and hopefully this time it will be for good.

After tipping Kvitova for the last three grand slams I’m very relieved and pleased that she’s made the final. Whilst her match versus Azarenka was a typical see-sawing affair she demonstrated the strength and accuracy that has served her well throughout the tournament. Although the Belarusian showed flashes of brilliance she lacked the consistency of her Czech counterpart and could not do enough on the key points. I’m confident that, health withstanding, Azarenka will snaffle her first grand slam final (and potentially the title) at the US Open.

I find it difficult to predict which woman will take the title because whilst my head says Sharapova my heart says Kvitova. All of the stats add up to suggest that it is the Russian who will win as she has been so dominant throughout the tournament, she has grand slam final experience and has won Wimbledon before. My fear for Sharapova is that on several occasions she has started slowly and conceded breaks as a result. Against lesser opponents this has not been too much of a problem but versus Kvitova I think she’d struggle to break back because the first-time finalist plays such a very good defensive game. I do not question that Kvitova has the game to win Wimbledon but I do have concerns over whether she has the mental strength. The Czech can be stony cool in her demeanour but I suspect that when faced with Championship points she may waver and I think it will be the psychological element, rather than the physical, control that will decide the match. I don’t want to predict Kvitova to lose but I think she will in three sets after having Championship points in the second set.

One quick final point. Yesterday I watched British junior Liam Broady move through to the quarter finals in the singles (he’s now progressed to the semis) and today I saw him reach the quarter finals in the doubles and both performances reaffirmed my belief that we do have some good British talent coming up. I know that Britain has been widely criticised in terms of investment versus returns but it does feel like there is about to be a tipping point. Robson and Watson both showed in their senior singles campaigns that they have the potential to go far and Broady is not alone in having an impact in the Juniors with Golding in the quarters of the Boys’ Doubles along with Hutt and Ward-Hibbert, and George Morgan. I know these achievements don’t justify the amount of money that has been invested by the LTA, especially as Broady works outside the LTA structure, but it seems we’re moving in the right direction.

Anyway, I need to be up early to queue for a ground pass for what should be a stunning Men’s Semis day so I’ll sign off now but let me know who you think will be lifting each of the trophies this weekend.

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Ahead of yesterday’s Men’s Quarter Finals everyone was asking ‘Which of the top four is most likely to fall?’ and whilst the tennis blogosphere appeared to have a variety of views there appeared to be a general consensus that it wouldn’t be Federer. How wrong we were.

I was fortunate to have secured a Centre Court ticket for yesterday and as I made my way up to my seat I was thinking ‘Mmmm, maybe at a push Tsonga will manage to get a set… it’ll probably be Murray v Lopez that will be a closer run thing’. Maybe it was short-sighted of people not to predict Tsonga to cause an upset, he has been playing extremely well recently culminating in him reaching the final of Queens. My decision to tip Federer to make it to the semis was not meant as a slight on Tsonga’s abilities though, it was purely driven by the brilliant tennis that Federer has been playing – I would even have doubted whether Nadal or Murray could beat him. If you combined Federer’s swift procession through the French Open draw with his clinical displays at Wimbledon thus far you were left with an extremely experienced and skillful master who had Champion written all over him. But, having watched the quarter-final in the flesh, I can now say for certain that I completely underestimated Tsonga and the sheer power that he had at his disposal. For the first set and a half of the match it looked as if it would be a fairly routine Federer rout; the Frenchman was struggling to find his feet, he was putting a high percentage of his volleys into the net and if anything he looked a little lethagic. It was only as we entered the second set tiebreak that we started to see shots that reflected Tsonga’s true ability and even then I texted a fellow tennis lover (who was on Court One) stating that the match wasn’t very exciting as Federer was dominating it. At the start of the third set someone from the crowd shouted ‘Come on Jo, it’s a grand slam quarter-final’ and, whilst I’m sure he was already aware of that, it was as if it suddenly struck him that he really had nothing to lose.  He suddenly rose to the occasion firing shots of unbelievable depth and strength at his opponent, reining in his powerful serve to ensure it was also precise and throwing everything into the match, and he was greatly rewarded with a single break in each of the three remaining sets. At the start of the match the atmosphere had been a little stilted with only the occasional ‘Come on Roger’ or ‘Allez Jo’ at key points but as Tsonga upped his game the crowd matched him, steadily becoming more vocal as the excitement grew and giving him a standing ovation in return for his victory dance. I had gone in wanting a four set Federer victory (as I’ve said before I was desperate for a Federer v Murray final) but the way that Tsonga played I could not begrudge him the win, he fought back from two sets down through sheer determination and clever play. What was most noticeable for me during the whole match was that Federer’s level did not drop, he was still playing very well, it was just that Tsonga surpassed him and the World Number Three was not able to handle his opponent’s power as he was consistently pushed off the court. I am very intrigued to see how Djokovic handles Tsonga because whilst I think he is better equipped to see off the brute-force of the Frenchman I think he will also struggle to surpress him. I predict that in the semis Tsonga will avenge the Australian Open Final defeat to Djokovic in 2008 and make it through to his second grand slam final.

My whole reason for buying a Centre Court ticket yesterday was to see Murray play but I’ll be honest and say that after the Tsonga v Federer match it was a little bit of a let down. It was still a good game to watch but from the start it was clear that Murray was the stronger player on the key points and that he was going to be able to get the job done fairly routinely. Towards the end there were some exciting moments when Lopez had some break points but aside from that it was a fairly routine victory. Hopefully the Scot will be able to raise his game when he needs to against Nadal. Because he didn’t need to pull out all the stops yesterday, I didn’t see anything from Murray to entirely convince me he can win Wimbledon but I remain confident he will at least make the final.

Today and tomorrow I am going to get ground passes, tour the outside courts for doubles and juniors and watch the semi-finals on Henman Hill / Murray Mount. I was tempted to try and buy another Centre Court ticket for Murray tomorrow but it’s pretty pricey and I know that I’ll have just as much fun watching it on the big screen – I’ll report back on it all as soon as I can.

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I never imagined that my Wimbledon would start with me sitting in a disability tent almost in tears each time I breathed in but that was my entry into the Championships yesterday. You know how I joked about my bag being overpacked? Well that overpacked bag led to me straining my back and then when I bent sharply to pitch my tent that strain turned into a suspected muscle tear. But, like the queuing version of Andy Murray at the French Open, I’m battling on and forever the optimist I’m going to focus on the bonuses this misfortune brought:

– Two American men packed away my tent for me.
– A steward carried my massive bag to the lost luggage.
– I got treated like a celeb as I was ferried from the queue to the AELTC in a buggy and was allowed to rest in the shade whilst the rest of the queue caught up with us.
– Whilst in the shade I met a sweet woman and her kind husband who happened to work for the BBC. Her husband not only gave me lots of media guides for free but also offered to show me around the media centre which was brilliant. In the hour long tour I discovered so many technical tricks of the trade which when combined create the world leading coverage that the Beeb produce; it’s phenomenal how much goes on behind the scenes. Whilst in the press room I also spotted two of my journalistic idols, David Law and Neil Harman which was exciting!

Anyway, on to the important stuff, the tennis. I had a truly wonderful day, I doubt there can be any ticket in sport that offers better value for money than a ground pass to Wimbledon on second Monday. The sheer quality of the players on show was phenomenal, for just £20 I was able to watch Lisicki win convincingly, Kvitova crush Wickmayer, Hutchins/Fleming stage an impressive comeback, Ivanovic/Petkovic lose a close fought three-setter and drop in on some junior matches, plus there was so much more I could have seen. I also completed the obligatory act of sitting on Murray Mount and watching the Centre Court action – something which I think any sports loving Brit should have on their bucket list. Whilst I was fortunate enough to have access to a Court 1 ticket, I could have easily filled my day twice over with the great level of action on the outside courts. It seemed that every time I looked at the multiple scoreboards there was a new comeback or shock emerging on one court or another. I think the best part of the day was the fact that this year’s tournament remains extremely competitive, for both the men and the women; doubles and singles; juniors and seniors. I cannot call it either way.

Some general observations:

– Both Kvitova and Bartoli continue to look exceptionally convincingly; the strength and depth of their shots prevent any of their opponents playing their own game.

– The WTA really need to take a leaf out of the ATP’s book when it comes to marketing their players. Men’s tennis has always attracted more spectators than women’s but it still staggers me how few people could name more than two of the top 10. There were some of female tennis’ biggest stars playing yesterday but the majority of people still do not know them from Eve and therefore struggle to get behind them. Now would be the ideal time to promote the up and coming players because, as yesterday’s performances illustrated, life must go on without the Williams sisters.

– Doubles offers a brilliant opportunity to see some thrilling tennis up close and personal. I watched most of Ivanovic/Petkovic and a little bit of Fleming/Hutchins and I was so close to the court that I was almost in their laps on the changeovers!

– Despite our stiff upper-lip reputation, Brits love nothing more than coming together, having a drink and shouting at a fellow national as if our lives depended on it. The mood on Murray Mount was very jovial and whilst the patriotism dial wasn’t quite at full notch I imagine it will be on Wednesday.

– The match of the day for me had to be Federer v Youzhny. Both of the players dished up some sublime shots and in the second and third sets it could have truly swung either way. Youzhny could have won if it were not for a few key points going against him and Federer’s frequent ‘Come ons’ indicated that he knew he was under pressure. I really felt for the Russian on several occasions when net cords went against him or shots were out by a matter of millimetres. The six time Champion’s artistry showed through in the end though with his grace and unshakeable shot selection making the difference. The World Number 3 also played one of his infamous tweeners which made me very happy too!

Due to my back injury I’m not queuing today (slightly relieved due to all the rain) but fortunately I have managed to get a Centre Court ticket for tomorrow where I’ll get to watch Federer v Tsonga and Murray v Lopez – I’m predicting Federer and Murray will come through but I think both could face stern tests. I’ll report back on all that happens tomorrow evening.

Until then, I hope you are enjoying Wimbledon as much I am.

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My rucksack’s packed (it’s far too full), I’ve got my tent at the ready (still haven’t mastered how to take it down) and I’m on the train (it’s running late) but the most important thing is on my way to the hallowed lawns of the AELTC.

This trip will be my fifth visit to Wimbledon and it’s the first time that I’ve gone for more than just one day so I cannot wait to get there and into the swing of things. I have some wonderful memories from my first four visits ranging from meeting Goran Ivanisevic just a week before he became Champion to sleeping in a portaloo when a thunderstorm struck and I was tentless – needless to say I’ve learnt my lesson and am far better prepared for the elements this time around! I’ve also been fortunate enough to watch the final set of the Sampras v Cowan match, see Marat Safin close-up in all his glory, and soak up the passion on Henman Hill whilst a Brit battles it out. I’ve been to a lot of different sporting events around the world but none come close to Wimbledon in my eyes. Despite AELTC being a large site it has a wonderfully intimate feel about it, I love that you can round a corner and stumble across the Williams bunch having a family chinwag on a practice court. I also like the fact that your ticket gets you access to so many different places meaning you can drop in and out of several brilliant matches. Most of all though, it’s the general atmosphere that makes it so special for me. Wimbledon still has a reputation of being a stuffy, staid place reserved for the upper echelons of British society but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In that special corner of SW19 you get people of all ages, backgrounds and personalities united by their love of tennis – and a desire to eat strawberries and drink Pimms! It’s such a colourful place, alive with the sound of people excitedly whispering when they spot a player, surging to their feet in celebration of a stunning point or simply laughing with new friends; you cannot fail to feel cheerful when surrounded by such unadulterated joy. My week at Wimbledon is my summer holiday this year and, whilst some people I know think I’m crazy for choosing this over a week in Greece, I cannot think of any better way to relax and have fun. So, with all that in mind, here are the top five things I’m most looking forward to:

1. Introducing my mum to Wimbledon.
Whilst my dad and I have been to Wimbledon before my mum never has (slightly surprising since she’s from Surrey). This year she got tickets for in the public ballot for Court 1 tomorrow so she and Dad are coming down. I know she’s really looking forward to it and I am very excited about sharing in the fun of it all with them. I also have a few friends who have never been to Wimbledon before and are thinking of popping in after work so it will be great to introduce them to it all as well.

2. The final.
I know I’ve been banging on about this for months but I feel exceedingly privileged to have a ticket to the Men’s Final and it’s all down to my very generous friend Helen who received two in the ballot and offered me her spare. I think most British tennis fans would agree that a ticket for the Men’s Wimbledon Final is like a Willy Wonka golden ticket, especially as the game is in such rude health at the moment. I’m hoping for Federer v Murray or Djokovic v Murray but whoever is playing I’ll just be glad to be part of it.

3. Spending time with fellow tennis fans.
However much my lovely friends and family humour me I know they must get sick of my constant tennis witterings so it will be wonderful to chat away with people who love the sport as much as I do. Nothing beats a great debate about which two players from history you’d put in your ultimate final – and it’s even better when done in the sunshine just mere metres away from some of the biggest names in the sport!

4. Watching Murray play live.
I’ve seen Sampras, Agassi, Navratilova, both Williams, Nadal, Federer, Djokovic (and many more) all play live but I have never seen Britain’s number one in person so I’m desperately hoping I get to watch him. I’ve made the decision to just get a ground pass for tomorrow so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he overcomes Gasquet so that I can unfurl my Scotland flag on Wednesday… and Friday… and Sunday!

5. Touring the outside courts.
As I mentioned above, one of my favourite things about Wimbledon is that you can catch some really big names on the outside courts. I had planned to get a Centre Court ticket for tomorrow but the line-up on the smaller courts is so excellent that I’ve decided to save my pennies and enjoy it all from the cheap seats. Particular people I can’t wait to see include Ivanovic/Petkovic in the Women’s Doubles, Kvitova in singles and Lisicki in both singles and doubles – I’ll be overdosing on the Women’s game! This decision does mean I’ll miss Nadal v DelPo which I was desperate to see but c’est la vie.

What match or element of the Championships are you most excited about?

So, all that’s left to do now is join the queue and the fun can begin! If any of you are around this week send me a comment or tweet (@abatweets) and we can share in the excitement.

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Let me take you back to 3rd May 1998. On this day, some 13 years ago, Stoke City faced Manchester City at the Britannia Stadium knowing that only a victory would keep the Potters in Division One. Stoke City lost 5-2.

By a quirk of fate, Manchester City, despite winning 5-2 away from home, were also sent down to the third tier of the football league. To make matters worse for the Potters, their local rivals Port Vale stayed up and so ended Stoke’s disastrous first season in their new stadium.

Why am I sharing this with you? Well, because on 14th May 2011, Stoke City faced Manchester City at Wembley Stadium in the FA Cup Final – the Potters’ first-ever FA Cup final.

It marked a remarkable journey over the past decade. Unlike Manchester City, who won promotion straight back, Stoke toiled in Division Two for a few years before promotion, with a heady mix of Icelandic owners, managers and players, a stunning Dutch winger called Peter Hoekstra (who is still the best player I’ve ever seen in a Stoke shirt), even a trip to Wembley to lift the Autowindscreen Shield – the years between 1998 and Stoke’s promotion to the top flight ten years later were, for the most part, awful. And so to seeing Stoke continue to establish themselves as a top flight team is still hard to believe.

When I was asked to write a short season review as a Stoke fan – I couldn’t really do it. I didn’t want to trawl back over losing the opening game at Wolverhampton Wanderers. Nor the League Cup defeat at West Ham. Or any of the other defeats. Sure there were great results too – the 3-2 over Sunderland, the 2-1 away at Newcastle and then beating them 4-0, beating Liverpool, drawing with Chelsea. But at the end of this season, and in the years to come, only two games will really stand out at the end of Stoke’s third season of Premier League football – and neither of them were league games.

On the 17th April, Stoke City faced a much-fancied Bolton side in the FA Cup semi-final, at Wembley – a stadium that Stoke had previous played at 3 times, winning all 3. On the way to Wembley I thought we might, just might, win. But if we lost, then I wouldn’t be surprised – just as long as it wasn’t a hammering.

It was a hammering. But not the one I feared. Stoke raced into a 3-0 lead after just thirty minutes. At half-time it was hard to comprehend what we were seeing. It was also hard not to expect it to all go horribly wrong. But it didn’t. Stoke ended up running out 5-0 winners – the biggest victory at the new Wembley, and the biggest FA Cup semi-final win for some 50 years.

Not only that, but all of our goals were brilliant. Not one long-throw, not one scrappy mess in the box. Etherington and Huth smashed in the opening two from distance, before Jermaine Pennant’s stunning run and through-ball gave Kenwyne Jones our third. After the break Jonathan Walters turned it on – first with a run from the half way line ending with a 25-yard curler into the bottom corner and finally a neat finish at the back post from a Jones cross. 5-0. 5. Five. Stoke City 5 Bolton 0. It still hasn’t really sunk in.

We went into the final against the richest club in the world –Manchester City. We didn’t expect to win, and so it proved, as nerves and the fitness of Huth of Etherington, was too much to bear.Yaya Toure scored with 15 minutes to go. But when the Blues lifted the FA Cup, it wasn’t Blue Moon that rang out around Wembley, it was “there’s only one Tony Pulis”. Every single Stoke fan stayed until way after the final whistle to praise their team, sing Delilah and to applaud Manchester City.

After that day, the season petered out. We faced Manchester Cityin the league just three days later, losing 3-0 before losing our final game at home to Wigan 1-0 – giving the Latics Premier League survival.

But what a season. Although our final position of 13th, having been 8th going into the final day, was disappointing, our season was magnificent. Never once were we in the relegation battle, we reached the FA Cup Final, and, and this is the exciting part, we reached Europe. Yes, next season Stoke City will enter the Europa League.

Stoke will enter the third qualifying round where we’ll play Hajduk Split on 4th August and we could go on to face teams such as Gaz Metan Medias, Qarabag and Rabotnicki.

Whatever happens, the 2010-2011 season was another step forward for Stoke – and we’re hoping 2011-2012 will be another – at home and on whatever European adventures await.

Guest blogs
Thank you to @timwardwrites, life-long Stoke fan and sports blogger, who kindly wrote this piece.

If you have a sporting event or topic that you feel a need to write about please get in touch.

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Ever since I was little the Wimbledon fortnight has been one of my favourite times of the year. Because we didn’t have Sky and were internetless up until I was 13, that two week period was the only chance I really had to watch tennis so when it was on I tried to absorb every drop of it. I would rush home from school, book the Finals weekend off work, gobble my meals down at a ludicrous pace – I would do whatever it took to ensure that I missed as little play as possible. To me the last week of June and first week of July always has been, and always will be, a glorious fortnight and this year’s should be the best yet as I will be attending several days of the Championships, including the Men’s Final. So, as I sit writing this on Wimbledon-eve, it would be a drastic understatement to say I’m excited. I will be blogging throughout the tournament so hopefully you will get to share in my excitement. Anyway, on to the job in hand of previewing the Championships.


Men’s

Whilst there could well be several upsets along the way, I think the Men’s side of the tournament is unlikely to provide a surprise Champion because the top 4 are all looking too strong. Whilst it would be nice to think that someone new could make their name at SW19, I imagine that if anyone is going to break the MurRaFeDjoko stranglehold it is likely to be an experienced player.

Nadal
World Number One, French Open Champion, defending champion and unbeaten on the AELTC’s hallowed turf since 2007 – Rafa is not a man you would want to bet against. The Spaniard has not had the ideal run up to Wimbledon as he was knocked out in the quarter finals of Queens but he is so highly skilled and meticulous in his training that I do not think lack of match practice will be an issue for him. If anything his defeat by Tsonga at Queens was probably for the best because he looked exhausted and I got the impression that when he lost the second set to the Frenchman he was slightly relieved at the prospect of a few extra days rest. I never fail to be astounded by the way in which Nadal, a natural clay-courter, is able to adapt with relative ease when playing on grass. He proved in both 2008 and 2010 that he has the game to succeed on the green stuff and in a tournament that could well be rather stop-start due to predicted rain in the first week I think his mental strength will push him ahead of many competitors. As the defending champion he will open play on Centre Court tomorrow and I would not be in the least bit surprised if he closes the tournament in the same place in a fortnight’s time.

Federer
In the same way that I refuse to ever rule Rafa out on clay, I will never not list Roger as a favourite at Wimbledon – he has the ability to be simply sublime on grass. Some players desperately need a good pre-Wimbledon warm-up but the fact that Federer hasn’t played a match since Roland Garros (he withdrew from Halle with a groin injury) will have had virtually no impact on his chances – when you’ve won the Championships six-times you don’t really need to familiarise yourself with grass. Last year I was pretty confident that the Swiss Master wouldn’t make the final but this summer I really think he will be there. Despite clay being his least favourite surface he sailed through the French Open and his performance made clear that, whilst many are writing him off, he still considers himself far from finished. He has begun to adapt his game to keep up with his younger counterparts and shots like his backhand slice are as suited to Wimbledon as strawberries and cream so he has the necessary armoury to take the title. He also has a relatively easy draw with Tsonga in the quarter-finals likely to be his first big test. Federer caused a lot of discussion after the French Open final when he essentially said that when he plays his best game no-one can beat him, a statement that I completely disagree with; it was true five years ago but times have changed. I do believe that he can win Wimbledon but I think he needs to rely on others not playing their best tennis because in my eyes when Nadal, Murray or Djokovic bring their top game they will beat Federer, irrespective of how well he plays.

Djokovic
The World Number Two is often written off on grass but he actually has a pretty impressive Wimbledon record having reached the semis twice and the quarters once. I cannot see him going a step further this year and reaching the finals though. I am very intrigued to see how he bounces back after his French Open semi-final defeat by Federer ended his extraordinary run of 41 matches unbeaten. Since that loss he has only played one other match, an exhibition game against Gilles Simon, so it is hard to judge how he will perform at Wimbledon. He has obviously had the most phenomenal year and one defeat is not going to have changed the fact that he is in great form but I think his winning streak was fuelled in large parts by confidence and now that he is no longer riding that wave there could be a little dip in his game. He will have to play Soderling in the quarter finals which has the potential to be a very close match and if he came through that then he would then most likely Federer in the semis and this could be his undoing. Of all the guys on tour it is the Swiss Master who has the greatest handle on Djokovic’s game and I think this will be amplified at Wimbledon where Federer is so comfortable.

Murray
So many people have laughed at me when I’ve said this but I’m going to put it out there anyway – I think Murray will win. Maybe my judgement is clouded by wanting to be able to say ‘I was there when a Brit won Wimbledon’ or perhaps I’m naively underestimating the other players or it could be that I desperately want him to win to prove all of the doubters wrong but I do truly believe he can do it. Out of the top four he has easily had the best build-up to the tournament, winning at Queens in emphatic style, and he looks in brilliant form. The Scot’s semi-final against Roddick (former Wimbledon finalist and four times Queens Champion) was a lesson in grass court tennis and he played so ferociously that the American joked on court that he should at least ‘keep it social’. If Murray can play like that at Wimbledon I sincerely doubt anyone will be able to stop him. His draw is relatively easy and Roddick in the quarters should be his first real test after which he would probably play Nadal in the semis and whilst this would be a very tough match I think Murray could edge it. Whenever I say that Murray will win everyone brings up the usual ‘choker’ argument saying he lacks bottle but in interviews he seems very relaxed and upbeat and I am certain he has the strength to win.

The best of the rest
Out of everyone else I think the only real threat to the top 4 is Roddick; he has an excellent grass court game,  his serve makes life very difficult for his opponents and if it wasn’t for Federer he’d have three Wimbledon titles to his name. He may be in the twilight years of his career but he has the game and experience to make him a real threat.
I had put some money on the young Canadian Raonic quite a few month’s ago but he has looked a little patchy recently and unfortunately for him he will probably have to play Nadal in the third round so I think it’s unlikely he’ll even make the second week. He’s certainly a prospect for the future.
Irish qualifier Conor Niland is ranked 184 in the world making him the highest ranked male player from the British Isles after Murray. Whilst he’s not going to win the tournament if he can win his first match a potential show court match again Federer awaits him in the second round – I really hope he can get there.

Women’s

I’m not going to write much about the women’s tournament as I am really struggling to know who to tip.

  • The biggest story of the women’s competition is the return of the Williams sisters and a lot of people are tipping either of them to take the title. If one of them does add the title to their trophy cabinet I will be bitterly disappointed, I like them both as players and think they have done wonders for the sport but it will be a damning reflection of the Women’s game if a player can return after a year off, having only been in training for a month, and win won of the biggest tournaments around. They both looked rusty at Eastbourne but they clearly still have brilliant games and the same desire to win as ever before. I question whether Serena’s fitness will hold up for a fortnight and I think their decision to not enter the doubles reflects her lack of fitness but if she manages to get days off in between each match she’ll probably be OK. Out of the two of them Venus looks the stronger but I don’t think she looks infallible and can see her being beaten.
  • I’m really disappointed that Clijsters has had to withdraw as a result of injury as she was one of the players I was most excited about watching. I doubt any of the female competitors are disappointed though as at full fitness I’d have put her as the favourite.
  • I had been tipping Azarenka but she withdrew from Eastbourne with an injury last week. I’m reluctant to read too much into it as Vika retiring from matches is almost as common as Djokovic winning them but I think she would need to be at full fitness to win her first Grand Slam title. I do still think she has a decent chance of the title but she has a very tricky third round opponent in the shape of Hantuchova and Petkovic could cause her some problems further down the line.
  • I refuse to accept that Zvonareva will not win win a Grand Slam title but I really wish she’d hurry up and do it. She is such a consistently good player that it has to happen soon and I think she could go one better than last year when she was runner-up. She has a very tough draw though with Venus a potential fourth round opponent and Kuznetsova and Kvitova both in her quarter.
  • I desperately want Kvitova to be champion and her performance at both the French Open and in the final at Eastbourne have assured me that she will definitely be a dominant force of the tour for many years to come. Her run to the Wimbledon semis last year (lost to eventual champion Serena) surprised quite a few people but I don’t think anyone would be shocked to see her match, or even better, that success this year.
  • Probably my favourite to be lifting the Venus Rosewater Dish on July 3rd is Bartoli, she may not be as noisy or glamorous as many of her rivals but by golly does she play a good game. Fresh off the back of a semi-final in her home slam, she has won Eastbourne beating Azarenka, Stosur and Kvitova in the process. She’ll probably have to see off Serena in the fourth round followed by a likely quarter final against French Open Champion Li Na but I think she’ll take it all in her bouncing stride.
  • Whilst I don’t think either of them will win I hope my favourite German duo of Petkovic and Goerges both do well and at least reach the second week as I really want to see each of them play live.
As I say, I’m going to camp out for all of the second week of the Championships and will try to blog each day I’m down there so I hope you’ll keep reading.

 

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I’ll  admit that as we stand on the bring of the French Open semi-finals I feel like a bit of an idiot, for all my talk of the field being wide open we have ended up with the top four seeds being the last men standing. You know what though, I’m happy to feel like an idiot if it means that we’re treated to three exhilarating tennis matches between the world’s greatest. Friday will see Federer try to break Djokovic’s streak whilst Murray will attempt to dethrone Nadal – what a mouthwatering prospect.

Whilst Djokovic and Federer have sailed effortlessly through their half of the draw (they’ve only dropped one set between them), the Murray / Nadal match-up was seriously in doubt up until 5.30pm today. Whether it was the Spaniard almost being dumped out in the first round by Isner or the sight of Murray screaming in agony after twisting his ankle it would be fair to say their paths to the semis have been a lot more complex. But however different their routes to the penultimate round have been, the world’s top four are all in the semis and the title could easily go to any of them.

Djokovic remains the obvious favourite to take the title, with every match his confidence seems to balloon and his game grows stronger. The only minor bump in an otherwise seamless passage to the semis was the loss of a set to Juan Martin Del Potro but, when you consider what a terrific player JDMP is, to only lose one set against him is impressive. There’s no question that Djokovic is the freshest of the semi-finalists having only played 12 and a half sets due to Fognini  withdrawing from their quarter-final and Hanescu retiring injured in their second round match but I suspect he’d rather have five solid wins under his belt, when you’re on a streak as good as his you do not want to pause. Federer will be by far the greatest challenge that the Serb will have faced at Roland Garros this year and whilst I expect it to be a very close match I think Djokovic will prevail and gain the World Number 1 ranking in the process. If each player maintains their current level of play I am fairly certain that Djokovic will be the Champion on Sunday but I sense that Nadal will raise his game, I’m just not sure whether he will raise it enough.

Federer’s progress to the semi-finals has been utterly odd, not because of the way he has played – his game has been sublime at times – but because there has been so little hype or attention on him. For the most successful grand slam player of all time to only just start being widely acknowledged as a favourite half way through the tournament is surreal. I’ll admit that I had written him off a little bit because his clay court season had been fairly mediocre by his standards and some of the fire in his belly seemed to have been extinguished, but between Rome and Roland Garros he has polished the rough edges and now looks exquisite at times. In his quarter final against Monfils, a match that should have been close, Federer made the Frenchman look completely under-prepared and ill-equipped which sent a message to the remaining competitors that he is taking no prisoners. However well Federer is playing, I do think Djokovic will get the better of him on Friday because his clay game has greater depth and variation than Federer’s and, as a result, he’ll have more answers.

Nadal has done little to convince tennis spectators that he will be biting into the Coupe des Mousquetaires for a sixth time on Sunday. From the moment he stepped onto Philippe Chatrier last Tuesday the top seed has looked uncomfortable and out of sorts; a  world away from his usual clay court demeanour. After his unspectacular victory against Ljubicic in the 4th round he admitted himself that he was not playing well enough to win the title and on that point I don’t think there were many who would disagree. But, in typical Nadal style, he today demonstrated why you can never write him off, especially on clay. A lot of tennis followers (myself included) thought that Soderling could be the Spaniard’s undoing but Nadal overwhelmed the Swede with an onslaught of his trademark stinging ground-strokes and determination. If he can play in a similar manner in the semi-finals, which fall on his birthday, there’s a distinct possibility he will celebrate his 25th by securing a spot in the final. I do question his ability to beat Djokovic or Federer on Sunday though, both of them have been unwaveringly consistent and will punish even the slightest error by the Spaniard. As I keep saying though, you can never write off Nadal.

How Andy Murray is in the semi-final is beyond me; it is testament to his vastly underrated grit, variety and strength that he made it through his third round match let alone to the semis. I have never been Murray’s greatest fan but I’ve always admired him and will argue to the bitter end with anyone who writes him off, and his performance over the last week has reasserted to me why I do so. A tear to a tendon is an awful injury but when it happens mid-match and you have a game that is built around movement most people would call it a day; not Murray though. The Scot not only battled on to win his match against Berrer but he then survived a five-setter against the very handy Troicki and went on to defeat Chela in straight sets. Admittedly Murray has made really hard work of his last few matches, twice falling behind as soon as he steps on court, but he has got through them and looks stronger and more determined as a result.  Having never reached the semis of the French Open before (4th round was his previous best showing) Murray is the underdog of the final four but I can’t help but think he will pull this one out of the bag. If Nadal plays as he has for most of the tournament (poorly by his standards) I really think Murray can defeat him. Over the course of his five victories the Scot has shown some phenomenal passages of play which would put any opponent on the back foot, if he can consolidate these and play consistently like that for three sets I think he could be unstoppable. My real gut feeling is that he will make the final but lose to Djokovic in four sets – a result that he could be extremely proud of. (In my head he will then avenge the defeat in a dramatic five set thriller in the Wimbledon final but that may be slightly skewed by my own personal preferences!)

The women’s competition on the other hand really has thrown up a mixed bag of semi-finalists in Schiavone, Sharapova, Li Na and Bartoli. With an average age of 27 it is one of the oldest final fours there has been in a grand slam and offers some brilliant storylines – defence of a shock title, career Grand Slam, first Asian grand slam winner or the hometown heroine. Whilst they are not the semis I hoped to see (I wanted breakthroughs from the likes of Kvitova and Goerges), I have to admit they are all great ambassadors for the game and have created a lot of drama over the fortnight. I’m erring towards Li Na v Schiavone in the final with Na as the champion, she has been extremely consistent and has the ability to dig deep when she really needs to.

It’s been a really topsy turvy tournament with potential champions being points away from defeat at times (Sharapova, I’m looking at you), new players making a name for themselves and some thrilling comebacks but I think the best is yet to come. So, over to you – who do you think will reign supreme this weekend and has this been one of the most unpredictable French Opens in memory? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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