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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.

 

So the Wimbledon draw has been done and without a doubt the biggest headline coming out of it is that 2010 Marathon Men John Isner and Nicolas Mahut will once again be facing off in the first round. The immediate question on everyone’s lips was ‘What are the chances are that?’ Well, thanks to my numbers boffin of a brother and Steve of @GBtennis I can confirm it is 142.5/1. Here is the little spreadsheet my brother sent me followed by Steve’s further clarification:

 Isner Mahut (spreadsheet for download)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The chance of one of them being in a non-seed v non-seed match is indeed 64/96 = 2/3, but if one of them draws a non-seed, then by taking one of the non-seed v non-seed slots in the draw, it reduces the chance of the other one getting a non-seed v non-seed slot to 63/95. You are then correct to say the chance of that slot being the right one is 1/63.

Or, cutting out the middle step, the chance of Isner avoiding a seed is 2/3, as it says on your spreadsheet, and the chance of Mahut getting the slot next to him is 1/95. Either way, you get an answer of 2 in 285 = 1 in 142.5.

I’ll do further analysis of the whole draw over the weekend.

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.

As I type this, the first matches of the 2011 French Open are already underway and I believe this could be one of the most exciting Grand Slam tournaments in a long while. On the Women’s side it is absolutely wide open with several players who would normally be considered outsiders being able to make a legitimate claim that the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen could soon be theirs. Whilst in the Men’s draw many people are making it seem that Nadal and Djokovic’s status as finalists is a foregone conclusion, something which I do not agree with. One thing is a certainty though, the next fortnight is going to deliver two extremely hard-fought contests.

Women’s
As I mentioned above, I really do think the Women’s is wide open and we could well see a new face come to the fore. With both of the Williams sisters out, Clijsters playing her first match since Miami in March and Wozniacki having shown weaknesses in both Madrid and Rome, now seems to be the moment for someone to make their mark:

Kvitova
A few weeks ago I said that I considered Kvitova  do be a significant contender and I still stand by that. Her recent form has illustrated that she has the weapons to win on clay, reaching the final in Prague and winning the Madrid title, and her quarter-final showing at this year’s Australian Open along with last year’s Wimbledon semi-final have proved that she is capable of going deep in Grand Slams. Whilst there are some tricky opponents around her in the draw such as Li Na, I am confident she can at least make the quarter finals where she could well face Azarenka who she beat in the final of Madrid and I wouldn’t bet against her to do it again.

Azarenka
I have tipped Azarenka on more occasions than I dare to count but I refuse to give up hope as she has far too strong a game not to win a Grand Slam title soon.  I truly believed that she would win last year’s US Open but unfortunately an odd accident involving a running machine led to her dramatically collapsing on court in her 2nd round match. The French Open could well be the Belarusian’s moment though as she has had a good few months winning in both Miami and Marbella as well as reaching the final of  Madrid and the quarter-final in Rome. My main hesitation with Azarenka is her fitness and whether she can stay healthy for seven matches back-to-back as in the last three months she has retired in Indian Wells, Stuttgart and Rome. I think she will do well but with Clijsters, Petkovic, Sharapova and Kvitova all in her half I can’t see her reaching the final.

Sharapova
Two weeks ago the phrase Maria Sharapova – French Open Champion wouldn’t even have crossed my mind but after an emphatic performance in Rome where she beat Azarenka, Wozniacki and Stosur back-to-back it would seem crazy to rule her out. It seems that she is truly once again a contender having come back from a series of shoulder problems which led to her falling to 126 in the World in May 2009. A change in coach, support from her new fiancé and renewed belief in her game all seem to to have fuelled her resurgence making her a very dangerous opponent. She is one of the more experienced contenders for the title having won all of the other three Grand Slam titles and she will be desperate to complete her career Grand Slam with a victory at Roland Garros. Her potential quarter-final against Clijsters is an extremely juicy match and one that I think she could win. I think she would then face Kvitova in what on paper is a semi but in my eyes will be the final as I believe the winner will come from the lower half of the draw.

Clijsters
I’m always reluctant to rule Kim Clijsters out because she is such a supreme competitor and athlete but there lies the problem. The Belgian’s greatest asset is her athleticism but I suspect that having been laid low with an ankle injury since March (she hurt herself dancing at her cousin’s wedding!) she may not be at full fitness. There is no doubt she wants to match compatriot Henin and win a French Open title and she certainly has the shots to do so but I think a few long matches could take their toll and a tough last 16 against Petkovic or quarter-final against Sharapova will finish her off. From a selfish viewpoint I am desperate to see her play well at Wimbledon so I really hope she doesn’t exacerbate any ankle problems by playing on regardless of injury.

Goerges / Petkovic
I am desperate to see these two young German’s do well as they are both exciting, charismatic and fun players to watch and are extremely talented to boot. Goerges has proved herself to be a talented clay court player reaching the quarters in Charleston, the semis in Madrid, winning in Stuttgart and beating World Number 1 Wozniacki twice in the process. She also has the advantage of being in what I think is the easier half of the draw but that said she will probably have to beat the likes of last year’s finalist Stosur, World Number 3 Zvonareva and defending champion Schiavone if she wants to make the final. Whilst I don’t fancy Petkovic as strongly, if she plays her best tennis I do not think it is beyond her to reach the quarter-finals but I think Sharapova could well prove too much. I have a real soft spot for Petkovic though as she is such a likeable character so I want her to do well.

Stosur
Last year’s finalist has had a fairly hit and miss season going out in the 3rd round of the Australian Open to Kvitova and failing to make the quarter-finals at either Indian Wells or Miami. She has picked it up on the clay though reaching the semis in Stuttgart and being runner up in Rome where she lost to Sharapova. Sadly she was ill when she played in the Rome final so it was hard to judge whether she could have beaten the Russian if she was at full strength, my inclination is to say she would have certainly put up an incredible fight. Stosur’s in the top half of the draw but will face a tough third round match against either experienced Argentine Dulko or Pironkova then a potential 4th round re-match of the Stuttgart semi that she lost against Goerges. I think if she can get through that she will be in the final.

Others
I know, I know, I haven’t even mentioned the World Number 1 Wozniacki despite her winning Brussels this week. I just think she looks vulnerable against the best clay courters and I can see her falling at the quarters if not sooner. I’m aware that I’ve also overlooked the defending champion Schiavone and whilst there’s the possibility she could pull it out the bag and repeat last year’s success I haven’t seen anything from her that suggests she will. And whilst I’m desperate to see Zvonareva pick up a Grand Slam title I don’t think the French Open is likely to be it because there are better clay court players out there and she has also seemed a little inconsistent this season.

Men
Whilst many tennis fans are saying the race for the Coupe des Mousquetaires is one featuring only two horses I think that is a very simplistic assumption. Yes, there’s no doubt about it, Djokovic and Nadal are the men to beat but to claim they’re the only two in with a shot overlooks far too many great players.

Nadal
I really don’t know if I need to state the case for Nadal being a contender as the numbers speak for themselves. With a .924 index rating on a clay and a 38-1 winning record at the French Open it is easy to see why people consider him the King of Clay and Roland Garros the capital of his kingdom, but for the first time we’re entering the tournament with people seriously questioning his chances of retaining the title. With back-to-back clay court defeats to Djokovic there have been doubts cast over the Spanish Master’s supremacy and even he has called Djokovic the favourite for the French. There’s no question about it, he looked seriously frustrated during the Rome final and seemed at a loss as to how to beat the Serb – the normally unshakeable fighter was riled. Despite this I strongly believe that this time in a fortnight I will be watching Nadal raise his most familiar of trophies for the sixth time and there’s two main reasons for this. 1.) He’s had a week off – yes, I know, so has Djokovic but I believe Nadal needed the last seven days far more than he did. Even though the World Number 2 was physically drained from his constant winning streak he was mentally on a high, in an extremely good frame of mind and had gained some landslide-like momentum. Nadal on the other hand looked emotionally exhausted, was struck down with a virus in Rome and generally seemed to need some time to rethink his strategy. He’s now had a week to compose himself, talk tactics with his camp and work on any slight flaws in his game – he’s apparently spent whole practice sessions just playing cross-court forehands. 2.) The tournament will win it for him. This probably seems an odd thing to say but I believe that because the matches are five sets, the French crowd adore him and RG has almost become his own private training ground that, in the very rare moments that he is weak, the tournament will pull him through. It’s no secret that Nadal is one of the most determined sportsmen around and he will cling onto his title with every tooth, nail and fibre in his body and when you’re facing him in that frame of mind, on a scorching Sunday afternoon, with everyone around you chanting his name you stand very little chance, even if you’re 45 matches unbeaten.

Djokovic
Obviously Djokovic is on an extraordinary run – you don’t reach 39 matches unbeaten, collect a Davis Cup, Australian Open victory and four Masters titles without playing sublime tennis; the question is how much longer it can continue. With Djokovic you get the feeling that a lot of the fuel behind his success is confidence and therefore with each win he takes another step further in front of the field. By the same measure though, a serious challenge to his run could really knock him for six and I think this challenge is lying in wait in round three in the shape of a 6ft 6′ Argentine. One of the most eagerly anticipated parts of Friday’s tournament draw was the moment that Juan Martin Del Potro’s name was picked out because, whilst he is only seeded 25 as a result of his long-term absence from the tour through injury, he is considered to be one of the biggest threats to both Nadal and Djokovic. JMDP, the 2009 US Open Champion, has extremely big ground strokes, a large wingspan and a clay court title under his belt already this season so he is not the sort of player you want to meet early on. Unfortunately for the Serb, Del Potro popped up as a potential third round opposition for him which means that Djokovic will face a man of top 10 calibre within the first week. If the match up does occur it will be a tantalising one that will offer firm evidence of whether the World Number Two is up to the job of dethroning Nadal. Aside from JMDP, Djokovic does still have a fairly tricky draw starting with talented youngster De Bakker, he also has home favourites Tsonga, Monfils and Gasquet, dangerous clay court specialists Almagro and Ferrer (to name just two of several) and Federer in his half. My head says Djokovic will be in the final, my heart says it will be an all Spanish affair with Ferrer causing an upset in the semis.

Ferrer
So I’ve kind of already given away my prediction for Daveeeeed (or David as he’s more commonly known) by saying he could well defeat Djokovic but let me explain why. Outside of the tennis world he is a relative unknown but he is someone who warrants a great deal of respect. In most eras he would probably be held up as one of the best clay court players around but in the reign of his compatriot Nadal he has largely slipped under the radar despite having reached a career high of Number 4 in the World, won two titles this year and been runner up twice in 2011 (l. to Nadal both times). The diminutive World Number 7 (he is only 5’9) has the ability to really get under an opposition’s skin and grind them down and I think he will do this against Djokovic. The best he has achieved at Roland Garros in the past is quarter-finals but I have a real gut feeling that this could be his year. I can’t see him defeating Nadal but anything less than semis will be a surprise in my eyes.

Soderling
Twice French Open finalist, the only person to defeat Nadal at Roland Garros and an unbeaten week at the World Team Championship make the Swede a significant contender. Whilst my backing of Ferrer may surprise some people I think few people would argue that Soderling poses a real threat to Nadal in their quarter of the draw. I find the World Number 5 to be one of the most difficult players to read on the ATP Tour and therefore his matches are tough to predict but he has time and again shown that he has a clay court game to match the best of them. Nadal beat him in last year’s final, knocked him out in the first round in 2006 and  I think it is likely that Soderling will once again fall at the hands of the Spaniard but I think this year he will put up a far greater fight.

Murray
Murray is comparable to Sharapova in the fact that a fortnight ago I would have written him off but his performance in Rome has forced me to rethink matters. During his semi-final last week Murray showed that Djokovic was fallible and looked closer to beating him than anyone else has all year, and perhaps more importantly than that he showed that he has regained his hunger and belief. There are few more awkward sights in tennis than seeing a player implode on court and after the Australian Open it felt like we were subjected to that several times with Murray but it seems the corner has been turned. People often forget that the Scot spent a sizeable part of his tennis upbringing in Spain and therefore has a solid clay court game, and, whilst he is still better on hard, he can make life very difficult for his opponents on the red stuff. On the face of it Murray’s draw may seem fairly easy to people and whilst he has probably the easiest draw of all the top 10 players (his first two matches are against qualifiers) he will still have to overcome some very tricky players to make the semis including Almagro, Raonic and Dolgopolov. I think Almagro in the quarters is the only one who will pose a serious challenge to him but then there’s good ol’ Rafa in the semis and Murray will have to play as he did in the last two sets against Djokovic if he wants to stand a chance of reaching his fourth Grand Slam final. I can’t see Murray winning this but I will put on record now that I have complete belief that he will win a Grand Slam title (possibly several) but I think the first is likely to come on hard court.

Del Potro
As with Ferrer, I’ve already kind of covered JMDP but I’ll elaborate on a few points. The Argentine’s success is very dependent on his fitness as this is his first tournament back after having withdrawn from his Madrid match against Nadal with a muscle tear. It is hard to know whether he is healthy enough to play but my inclination is that he is, when you’ve previously had a year out through injury you don’t take risks when it comes to your body. His match fitness is another matter though as he hasn’t played a five set match since the 2010 Australian Open and he won’t be able to ease himself in gently as he is facing big serving Ivo Karlovic in the first match (a draw that I imagine neither of them wanted). In his last appearance at Roland Garros in 2009 he made the semi-finals where he lost to eventual champion Roger Federer so he can play on clay. As I said I really think he could push Djokovic, especially as it is fairly early on in the tournament and he will still be relatively fresh but if he does win it will be a hard fought victory and I doubt he’ll be able to muster the strength to defeat his likely next opponent, Madrid semi-finalist Bellucci.

Almagro
If there’s any man who comes near to Djokovic for success rates this year it is Almagro who has already notched up three titles , been runner up once and semi-finalist twice this year. He is fresh off the back of his success in Nice and has a fairly easy start to the tournament playing a qualifier so momentum should be in his favour. He is a very talented clay court player who reached the quarter-finals at last year’s French Open (l. Nadal). Whilst he has the form I do question his ability to win the big matches and I think if Murray’s playing well a quarter-final victory against him may be a step to far. Whatever happens he is certainly a very dangerous outsider.

The others
The only significant player that I haven’t mentioned is Federer and that’s because aside from taking a set off Nadal in Madrid he has shown very little to convince me that he’s a serious contender. I have said before that I am very firmly in the ‘never write Fed off’ camp because he is such a sublime player that he has the ability to pull almost anything out of the bag but I believe that on the clay courts of Roland Garros is the last place he will do this. Federer is at his most uncomfortable on clay and unfortunately for him there are great players out there who relish the opportunity to get coated on the dirt. For Federer to win another French Open title I think he needs to rely on others playing badly and with so many good players in the mix that is not going to happen. Gasquet and Monfils are probably the only other two worth a nod but whilst they both have the game to win their home slam I cannot see either of them doing it. They are both a little too unpredictable (Monfils especially) and for either of them to string together seven victories against a strong field is a major ask, especially as they will probably both face extremely tough fourth round matches with Gasquet possibly playing either Djokovic or JMDP and Monfils most likely confronted with Ferrer.

Bits and bobs

  • Spare a thought for John Isner. Less than a month ago the American skyscraper of a man would have been seeded for French Open but after first and second round exits in Madrid and Rome he dropped to 39 in the rankings meaning he went in the main draw without any protection, and now he has to face Nadal in the first round. If you’re in Paris on Tuesday and hear a large crash it’ll be the big man being felled.
  • One issue that I haven’t addressed is the change in balls at the French Open; in the past they’ve used the heavier, slower Dunlop balls whereas this year they have switched to Babolat which are reportedly a lot quicker. Whilst the players have had the opportunity to practice with the new balls they could still play a deciding role in close matches, especially those where a change of balls comes at a crucial moment.
  • If you want to read anyone else’s opinions on the runners and riders for the French Open I suggest you look at these articles by Matt Cronin of @tennisreporters. Women’s and Men’s.

With a P.E. teacher for a father and a mum who turned her hand to almost any sport, I didn’t get a choice whether or not I was sporty as a child and I am eternally grateful that was the case.

Don’t get me wrong, my parents were not pushy but they always encouraged me and my brother (Robbie) to be active and take an interest in sport. Whether it be hurdling over canes in the garden, being taught how to bowl (‘check your sweets are still in your top pocket, Ellie’) or the opportunity to use the gymnastics equipment at my dad’s school, I have a childhood filled with dozens of happy sporting memories – I could write a whole blog recalling sporting anecdotes from my childhood. I also have some not so enjoyable ones like nearly suffocating whilst being fitted for a hockey mouthguard and being bitten on the chest by a horse but they are few and far between! It must have been obvious to my parents fairly early on that I was never going to make it as an international sportsperson but their commitment to me never wavered. Whenever Robbie or I wanted to try a sport they would send us to lessons, buy our equipment and without fail they would chauffeur us to fixtures and cheer us on. They also supported my many efforts to gain work experience at the BBC, even helping me to stuff a tennis ball with a letter to send to Sue Barker and, more recently, waiting patiently whilst I tried to pass on yet another letter to her at the Question of Sport live tour. By encouraging us to watch and play sport my parents not only sparked a passion in mine and my brother’s lives that still burns brightly today, they shaped who we are. It sounds cliched but sport has the ability to change lives and it’s for this reason that I wish everyone could have the childhood that I did.

Not only do I enjoy sport for its ability to entertain, I also think it offers many other benefits such as the way it allows integration, personal development and improved levels of health. Sport, when made available to all young people, is an excellent social leveller which has the ability to equip them with crucial life skills, such as the capacity to be part of a team, an understanding of the importance of commitment, and the ability to work alongside a variety of people. It can also be a tool for change, I have recently begun volunteering with an organisation called sported who support organisations that work with young people in disadvantaged communities, focusing on sport for development rather than just for participation. Some of the groups that sported work with are running projects that can make a real difference such as an interfaith cricket team who help integrate young people who are from different backgrounds. There is another group that runs football coaching sessions in an effort to teach young people to have respect for one another and keep them off the street. Schemes like this are a low cost but have the ability to create purpose in someone’s life and keep them out of trouble and best of all they’re a lot of fun.

I know that not everyone loves to play sport and many people have fairly grim memories of being forced around a cross-country course in the rain or getting smacked in the face by a muddy rugby ball in P.E. but times have changed. There is such a diverse range of sports out there nowadays and I believe that it is just a matter of discovering one that you love. Whether it be hip-hop dancing, roller derby or good old cricket, I think it is crucial that all young people have the opportunity to find a sport that they enjoy and can reap the benefits from.

It is almost 20 years since the photo above was taken (yes, that is competitive me in five-year-old form!) and the passion for sport that my parents instilled in me then is just as strong, if not stronger. I’ve recently taken up netball again, I run several times a week and play tennis whenever I can and I love doing all of these things. Netball in particular brings a lot of joy to my life because through it I’ve made a great group of friends, and even though our team (Goals Aloud) aren’t anywhere close to being the best team in the league but we have a lot of fun playing together which to me is the most important thing. My dad is no longer a P.E. teacher, he is now retired, but he still cycles a lot and he works as a groundsman at the local cricket club and the last time I went home I helped him prepare the wickets for that week’s matches. In doing so I realised that I truly hope that, even when I’m in my 60s and beyond, sport still plays a major part in my life and that I can help out at local clubs like he does and ensure that sport plays a part in the lives of others too.

Here are some pictures of me tending the wicket!

 

Bits and bobs

  • It’s official, Novak Djokovic has forgotten how to lose. After all my talk of Rafa being virtually unbeatable on clay Djokovic went and beat him extremely convincingly in straight sets. The Serb has now won all 34 of his matches this season, is on a winning streak of 36 and his backhand is now on the verge of being made a Wonder of the World. Next up to try and avoid complete humiliation – Robin Soderling.
  • For any of those who missed it, here is Rafa’s incredible lob tweener from the Madrid final – it was the most viewed video in America on Monday!
  • Good luck to Stoke City in the FA Cup Final at the weekend. Two of my best friends support Stoke therefore they’re my third favourite team (after Newcastle and Dunfermline). Even if I didn’t have a connection to them I would be cheering the Potters on as a win for them against Man City would represent a victory for good old hard fought, tactical team football over the big rolling money bags clubs.
Hope you all enjoy what should be another good weekend of sport.

Two phenomenal players, two exquisite records and two thrilling finals already played; 2011 has seen a new rivalry come to life.

Novak Djokovic has long been touted as the player who would take over Federer’s mantle as Nadal’s tormentor and, whilst we saw hints that he was ready to do so at the US Open and the ATP World Tour Finals, the Serb has proven that now is the time. Djokovic has already beaten Nadal on both the occasions that they have met this year, in each match doing the near impossible and coming back from a set down to deny the World Number 1 the Indian Wells and Miami Masters titles. In the process of these victories Djokovic secured the Number 2 ranking and is now chasing down Nadal for the top spot. To say that the Serb has been dominant in 2011 doesn’t even come close to expressing what he has achieved so I will refer to numbers instead:

  • The last time Djokovic lost was 162 days ago (Roger Federer at the ATP World Tour Finals).
  • He has won all 31 of his matches in 2011 and is on a 33 match winning streak if you take into account his two victories that helped him lead Serbia to Davis Cup success.
  • He has played 75 sets this year and lost just 8.
  • In 2010 he won just one set 6-0, this year he’s already delivered seven decisive bagels.
Nadal can boast some impressive statistics too though:
  • The Spaniard has won his last 37 clay court matches.
  • For the sixth straight year he was undefeated throughout April.
  • He’s won 82 of his last 86 sets on clay.
  • Of the 196 clay court matches Nadal has played he has lost only six.
Each man is on his own extraordinary winning streak but unfortunately one of them has to come to an end this afternoon when the two men face off in the Madrid Masters final. The big question is, which of them will walk away with another victory added to their streak and who will see their run halted? For my money it is Nadal who will emerge with his record intact.
Despite Djokovic having gotten the better of Nadal so far this season I feel that the Spaniard has the psychological advantage going into the match. Nadal holds a 16-9 record against Djokovic, has won all of the nine clay court matches that they’ve played against one another and he looked far stronger in his semi-final yesterday. I think for Djokovic to beat Nadal on clay he would have to be in the very best physical condition and there are rumblings that Djokovic is injured. Whilst someone of Djokovic’s calibre can quite easily win matches whilst carrying niggles, no player can afford to be anything less than 100% against Nadal on clay because his game is so relentless; he has the ability to run his opponents ragged, slowly grinding them down until even the fittest players on tour look like slow oafs. Even if the rumours are wrong and the Serb is injury free I still think beating Nadal would be a big ask. To defeat the Spaniard on clay is an immense feat, as one commentator said recently, ‘Winning a point against Nadal is as hard as winning a game against Simon, a set against Stepanek and a match against Gil.’ I think it is likely that no matter what else Soderling achieves in his career he will primarily remembered for being so far the only guy to have beaten Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros. To break Nadal down on clay is one of the most highly sought-after scalps out there and I think the World Number 1’s tenacity and patience will prevent Djokovic from gaining it today. If Djokovic does manage to capture his third Masters title of the year it will be definitive proof that he is the best around right now and create an enormous amount of buzz in the run up to the French Open.Whatever happens today there can be very little doubt that a page has turned in the tennis history books and that Nadal has a new rival in town. Whilst I dislike all of the talk around Federer’s descent (he is still an exquisite player and I would rather spend the closing years of his career enjoying his art than dissecting why he’s no longer in every final there is) there is no denying that Djokovic has supplanted him. I don’t think any rivalry in my lifetime will beat that of Federer and Nadal because what made it so magical was their completely contrasting styles and there are very few players who could replicate the beauty of the Swiss Master’s game. Djokovic v Nadal has a very special dynamic though as they are a similar age meaning it is likely to last longer, they are very good friends off the court and even share the same agent in Benito Perez-Barbadillo. Both Nadal and Djokovic are a marketeers dream as they are colourful, eloquent and extremely vocal and passionate about the tennis meaning that they are perfect for attracting young people into the sport and provide superb entertainment for the crowds. I was lucky enough to see the two of them face off at the ATP Tour Finals and the first seven games of it was some of the most exciting tennis I’ve seen live and the crowd were riveted, unfortunately Djokovic then had contact lens trouble and the match became straight-forward for Nadal. Djokovic has been nicknamed the Djoker for his comedic turns both on and off court and this impression of Nadal indicates that his rivalry with the Spaniard will be a good-humoured and fun one to follow. Irrespective of today’s result, tennis fans around the world can be confident that the men’s tour is in good hands.
Bits and bobs
Just one or two miscellaneous points:
  • Boylesports are offering 6/1 on Djokovic for the French Open – if you’re partial to a little flutter I think this is a good value each way bet. As is Azarenka for the Women’s who despite winning the doubles and being runner up at Madrid (lost to Kvitova) is also 6/1. If you want longer shots, I’d suggest  Petra Kvitova who is 12-1 or Juan Martin Del Potro and Julia Goerges both of whom are 16s. Kvitova is a tricky left-hander who has been quietly bubbling away for a while having reached the semis at Wimbledon last year (lost to Serena Williams) and has just won her third title this year in Madrid. JMDP spent the vast majority of 2010 sidelined with a wrist injury and had to withdraw from Madrid with a hip problem but he won Estoril last month and I think he is one of the few players who has the game to take down Nadal on clay. Georges has had an impressive last month winning in Stuttgart, reaching the semi-finals  in Madrid (lost to Azarenka) and beating World Number 1 Wozniacki at both tournaments.
  • Thanks to a very lovely friend who got two tickets in the ballot I will be attending the Men’s Wimbledon Final this year. Needless to say this is one of the most exciting things that has ever happened to me and I cannot wait to be there – 56 days to go! I am also going to camp out for most of the second week (I’m actually taking a tent this time so hopefully I’ll not have to shelter in a portaloo this time!) so if anyone wants to meet up at Wimbledon leave me a comment.
  • Finally, apologies for the major hiatus in my blogging, I promise I will be a lot more regular from now on.