Tennis

The Notebook: 2017 Roland Garros (Women’s singles)

The pre-tournament buzz in Roland Garros focused entirely on the wholly unpredictable nature of the women’s event, and two weeks later, pundits couldn’t have been more on point. The clay Major surely could have used the star power of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka, but the wide-open tournament ultimately didn’t disappoint in terms of drama, intensity, gamesmanship and self-combusting, captivating narratives until its epilogue with the coronation of a stunning, first time Grand Slam Champion.

Hence, time to dust off the notebook and run through the characters and storylines that dominated the fortnight in the terre batue of Paris.

  • Schedule makers have a way of sensing how to kick off their tournament with a bang and in Paris, once again, we were presented with a crash-and-burn special from a contender in the first hours of action. Not that anyone was expecting anything grandiose from World No.1 Angelique Kerber, who had yet to beat a top-20 opponent in 2017 and accumulated first round exits in the tune-up events, yet getting dispatched without as much as a speck of a fight isn’t the attitude expected from a player of her status. Handed out a tough first assignment in Ekaterina Makarova, a former top-10 player who relishes the big stages, the German failed the test emphatically as she struggled to find her footing, her spirit and her shots in the red clay to become the first women’s top seed to lose in the 1st round of Roland Garros in the Open Era. At the mercy of mathematics and the performance of her closest rivals, Kerber eventually retained her spot but for how long?

Angelique Kerber’s campaign in Roland Garros ended in Day 1 of the 2017 edition

  • Kerber was the main scalp of the early days, but the list of underachieving players that couldn’t validate the established hierarchies encompasses a few more relevant actors. For instance, another woman struggling to re-enact the stellar exhibitions of 2016, Dominika Cibulkova (6th seed), vanquished in round two by Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, who went from lucky loser to trailblazer in a matter of days by becoming the first Arab woman to qualify for the third round of a Grand Slam. Johanna Konta (7) cruised through the first set against Taiwanese Su-Wei Hsieh and seemed well on her way to a first career win in Paris only to collapse to the World No. 116. Australian Open semifinalist CoCo Vandeweghe (19) dissolved at the hands of another player ranked outside the top-100, Slovak Magdalena Rybarikova, the fans she rubbed the wrong way rejoiced and her coach was dismissed. Fellow American Madison Keys (12) stamped an important victory as she gaits on the comeback trail, but then run out of batteries against a qualifier. Agnieszka Radwanska (9) did what she usually does at the Slams: bag a couple of wins, bow out meekly and unceremoniously when adversity, in the form of home favourite Alizé Cornet, stood on her way to greater things.

 

  • Emanating an entirely different vibe while saying goodbye to Paris was Czech Petra Kvitova (15), the heart-warming story of the first week. A surprise participant just six months after the home assault that could have terminated her tennis career, the two-time Wimbledon Champion welcomed back delighted tennis fans with a beaming smile and showed the worst is in the past as her stabbed hand and tendons withstood the challenge. Fighting rust and lacking match fitness, Kvitova defeated Julia Boserup in round one as her dominant left ripped 31 winners, and later succumbed to Bethanie Mattek-Sands after two hard-fought tie-breaks. Nevertheless, the most important had already been accomplished and the 27-year-old is almost ready to resume contender status in Major tournaments, maybe as soon as Wimbledon.

Petra Kvitova aknowledges the crowd after her first round victory in Paris

  • Svetlana Kuznetsova (8) is a tough nut to crack as her level fluctuates wildly during the season, especially in the latter part of her career, yet a decent clay-court season and a game relying on smarts and an exquisite variety of spins and slices promised to serve her well as she navigated a draw that lacked a alfa dog. The Russian was my pick for the title, hopefully energized by a golden chance to add another Roland Garros title on the backend of her career, but the 31-year-old never looked comfortable, much less dominant as she saw off Christina McHale in two long sets and then narrowly squeaked by Oceane Dodin and Shuai Zhang in the following rounds. Her campaign would end with a dispiriting effort against Caroline Wozniacki, where she rattled off the unforced errors (41 to 26 winners) and botched successive attempts to nudge the Dane into uncomfortable situations with her serve or net play. All in all, it was certainly a huge opportunity that went to waste.

 

  • Defending Champion Garbiñe Muguruza (4) faced an uphill battle to retain her crown from day one as the pressure of having to hold on to a boatload of points conspired with a mined path ahead, yet the first signs were reassuring towards dispelling notions of fragility. The Spaniard bounced back from an early setback to knock off Anett Kontaveit and closed out straight set wins over former Champion Francesca Schiavone and 2016 QF Yulia Putintseva to reach round four unscathed, however the temperature was about to rise exponentially. Next up was preeminent French hope Kiki Mladenovic to materialize one of the most anticipated matchups of the tournament and, unfortunately, Muguruza shrank under the weight of expectations and the antics of the hostile crowd, squandering an erratic serving performance by her opponent to fizzle out in three sets. Intermittent since transforming into a Grand Slam Champion, maybe the cordial 23-year-old can recapture her best tennis now that the memories of Roland Garros are in the rear-view.

Garbiñe Muguruza wasn’t able to glimpse the finish line this time at Roland Garros

  • Players who came out of nowhere to stretch their campaigns into the second week of the French Open: Veronica Cepede Royg and Petra Martic. The 24-year-old Royg made history for Paraguay by reaching the fourth round and her path was far from a cakewalk, ousting former finalist Lucie Safarova and Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (16) – one of the most consistent WTA Tour performers in 2017 – before labouring to push Karolina Plískova to the brink, leading 4-3 in the third before the Czech took over. Meanwhile, the Croatian Martic chained six consecutives triumphs in Paris (including the qualifying), took down 12th seed Madison Keys and 17th seed Anastasija Sevastova, and was frightfully close to shocking Elina Svitolina in round four, leading 5-2, 0-30 in the third until the Ukrainian whipped into a frenzy to nab 20 of the next 24 pts.

 

  • France is still looking for someone to succeed Mary Pierce, the 2000 women’s winner, on the Roland Garros panel of singles Champions, but the 2017 edition left everyone convinced that the ladies are due to break the drought sooner than the men. Caroline Garcia (28) finally took a step forward, trudging into the latter stages of a Slam for the first time at the expenses of countrywoman Alizé Cornet, but just couldn’t muster enough to overcome the stout Plískova in the QFs despite fervent support from the home fans.

 

  • Meanwhile, Kiki Mladenovic (14) endured epic third-set escapades in rounds one (Jennifer Brady) and three (Shelby Rogers), and seemed destined to reach the stars buoyed by a singular ability to embrace and channel the energy from outside until her dream was crushed in the last eight. Her impressive blend of athleticism and shot-making was, at times, exhilarating but lacked baseline consistency to deal with the resourcefulness and variety present in Tímea Bacsinszcky’s display during their bumpy QF encounter. Nonetheless, the 24-year-old Mladenovic will be back next year and probably in an even better condition to challenge for the trophy.

The rapport established between Kiki Mladenovic and the French public wasn’t enough to get her over the hump

  • Elina Svitolina (5) arrived in Paris on the heels of a WTA Tour best 31 wins and four titles in 2017, boasting a wealth of confidence after triumphing in Rome and carrying previous history at Roland Garros she could tap on (2010 Junior title and breakthrough QF appearance in 2015). What she lacked, though, was the experience of being a Grand Slam favourite and the pressure that comes with it. In the first week, the top female players can manage to slip through it but as soon as the schedule dwindles and the limelight shifts and intensifies, mental cracks get amplified and even an unheralded opponent like Petra Martic can augment into a tricky obstacle. In the fourth round, Svitolina was able to patch the fissures just in time and she did it so delicately that for much of the QF blockbuster versus Simona Halep her forehand looked unstoppable, her serve unsolvable and her resolve unbreakable. However, up 5-1 in the second, she relieved the stiches just a bit while daydreaming of a maiden SF appearance and her opponent took the chance to see if there was something else to get out of the match. It wasn’t long before momentum switched for good, the lead evaporated, Svitolina panicked like a novice and balls started to weight tenfold on her racket. One bicycle wheel later, she was off on a devastating ride home.

 

  • Karolina Plískova (2) may be a fish out of water in clay, flopping around the court awkwardly and gasping for air after having to play one, two, three more shots than she’s used to, but the Czech is also a top player with weapons few others possess and she knows that. Consequently, even if her stupendous first serve bites much less, her second serve gets blunted and her flat strokes dulled bouncing on the crushed brick, Plískova realizes the smaller margins of error shouldn’t change her approach or gameplan. In Paris, the 25-year-old stuck to her guns to advance through five rounds with little fanfare and under different degrees of duress, and found herself unexpectedly just one win away from assuming the World No. 1. On the other side of the net lined up a player, Halep, of similar calibre and ambition but considerably more suited for the grind to come than a lanky, machine-like ball striker. And the Romanian won in three sets, naturally, to take the spot in the final and refer Plískova to the grass practice courts, where things will look significantly different and enticing prospects await the Czech.

Karolina Plískova’s serve got her out of trouble multiple times at Roland Garros

  • For a 13-year veteran with undeniable talent, Timea Bacsinszky’s résumé is sparse in honours, counting just four singles titles and few deep runs at landmark tournaments. However, there’s no rebuffing that she’s found a home on the terre batue of Roland Garros and the results speak for themselves as the Swiss reached the last eight in Paris for the third consecutive season with a crafty combination of versatility on the forehand, deceiving power, especially off the backhand, ability to slice and dice at will, and a distinctive propensity for well-disguised drop shots. Despite that, Bacsinszky (30) was overlooked at the start of the tournament only to dismantle her first three opponents, rout Venus Williams in the last two sets in round four and squash the French faithful with a composed, methodical takedown of Kiki Mladenovic in the QF. After that triumph, the 28-year-old surely fantasised with hoisting the trophy two years after losing to Serena Williams in the SF, but she too struggled to tame Ostapenko when the Latvian found another gear in the third set of their semi-final affair.

Swiss Timea Bacsinszky in action at the Court Philippe Chartier

  • Simona Halep (3) was the closest figure cutting unanimous favouritism entering Roland Garros but a rolled ankle in the days leading up to her debut tempered expectations and, oddly, the Romanian seemed to benefit from it. She usually begins the Slams in a tentative way and that would only ramp up with the extra attention, however the Constanta-native racked up routine victories throughout the first week and destroyed clay-court specialist Carla Suarez Navarro in round four with an immaculate exhibition of top-notch counterattacking tennis to confirm her title bid. Halep was ready to avenge her loss to Svitolina in the Final at Rome, but for close to an hour she was engulfed by her rival’s masterclass in controlled aggression. Until, of course, the moment Svitolina’s level slipped and Halep unexpectedly found a handle on the game, her tactical nous slowly chopping down the 1-5 disadvantage in the second and staving off a match point before prevailing in the tie break. The third set would prove nothing more than a formality with her opponent heart-broken, and the Romanian started gearing up for the next commitment, a clash with World No.2 Karolina Plískova, another player whose balls she would have to hunt down relentlessly.

 

  • The semi-final between the two most decorated competitors left in the field was a fascinating two-hour battle of attrition between players with contrasting styles. While Pliskova tried to blast the points open as early as possible by pouncing on the rising balls and targeting the lines, Halep looked to return everything, force her opponent back by going long and high and surprise by redirecting the ball while transitioning from defence to offense quickly. None got her way decisively as every set was decided by an extra break but, in the end, the Romanian just had more options to draw the line and prevailed to repeat her Final appearance of 2014. Yet, this time it wasn’t Maria Sharapova standing on the other side and Halep wasn’t the wide-eyed debutant. She would face an unseeded youngster with nothing to lose and unwavering belief in her own game.

Simona Halep celebrates after ousting Elina Svitolina in the Quarter-Finals

  • Five months ago, in the heat of Melbourne, a 19-year-old Latvian girl was on the verge of ousting the World No.5 and stride into uncharted territory, the second week of a Grand Slam. Up 5-2 in the final set, Jelena Ostapenko got “tight”, in her own words, and Karolina Plískova moved on instead. A few weeks later, in Charleston, the same teenager wasted a brilliant run to her first clay final with a mistake-laden performance against another promising youngster, Russia’s Daria Kasatkina, whose measured, nifty style disrupted Ostapenko’s rhythm so much that defeat came in the brunt of a 6-3, 6-1 scoreline in just over one hour. Watching the trophy presentation, I couldn’t help to think Kasatkina’s surgical efficiency would yield a breakthrough performance soon while the Latvian’s go-for broke rush would need time to deliver a standout result, much less in the slowest of surfaces. Fast forward less than two months and that impatient, streaky, volatile adolescent is a Grand Slam Champion, a National hero and the newest star of the WTA Tour.

 

  • Most tennis aficionados have known about Ostapenko since 2015, and the danger she could present in any given day to any opponent was well documented. A ferocious ball-striker that hits as fast, as clean and as hard as anyone in women’s tennis, her draw placement at Roland Garros, on the section of an hobbling Angelique Kerber, opened leeway for a breakthrough campaign should Ostapenko manage to adapt to the fluctuating weather conditions and how those could affect her timings. Incidentally, the Latvian would drop her first set at the tournament, but progressed to round two by rallying over the next two, and she would follow that framework to a tee several times during her magical campaign, toppling former finalist Sam Stosur and her heavy top spin in round four, and eventually putting the field on notice by draining a barrage of winners on the Tour’s foremost defender, Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki.

Jelena Ostapenko prepares to zip another forehand during a match at the 2017 French Open

  • Her semi-final opponent, Timea Bacsinszky, in many ways bears a resemblance to Daria Kasatkina’s game, and it was fitting that Ostapenko used the semi-final to showcase the improvements that a short stint under the direction of clay-court specialist Anabel Medina Garrigues provided to complement her bread-and-butter all-out aggression. While at her best planted on the baseline smacking the ball, Ostapenko’s quicker movement and body adjustments sustained her disposition to step inside the court, deal with Bacsinszky’s changes of speed and finish at the net, as well as an effort to dictate at a lower cadence and deliver safer, brushed strokes not necessarily aimed for the lines at all times. It would work as she edged past the Swiss to secure a spot in the 2017 Women’s singles Final.

 

  • It would have been understandable if the 20-year-old took a few minutes to settle into the ambiance of the biggest match of her career, but Ostapenko came out blazing, broke at love in the first game and kept swinging freely throughout, unfazed by the pressure, the nerves, the weight of the occasion, the evolution of the score, the futile attempts of her rival to force her into a corner. Lashing onto every ball headed her way, she kept following her own brand of high-risk/high-reward tennis, gunning relentlessly for winners from everywhere and in any shape or form: ripping cross court or down the line, on the run or returning a serve, forehand or backhand, all while dismissing negative thoughts and self-doubt with a growl or a sardonic smile towards her box regardless of how many errors she would queue at times. It was a firebrand festival of power, obstinacy and competitive adrenaline that many times resorted into a one-person recital, with Halep shoved into the sidelines, “a spectator” on what was also her show, unable to say her own lines, to impact the game using her superb defensive skills as the ball blew past her, sometimes drifting wide or long, sometimes landing between the white lines.

Jelena Ostapenko serves against the backdrop of a packed stadium in Paris

  • In the pivotal moments, a set and 3-0 down in the second, and later trailing 3-1 in the third, Ostapenko actually cranked up the intensity, tried to hit even earlier, even harder, to further take the destiny out of the Romanian’s hands and eradicate any chances she could conjure an alternative course of action. Maybe by instigating fewer cross-court exchanges that vacated the corridors, looking to force her rival to hit from a central location, or perhaps experiment with slices, drop shots and even moon balls to halt the Latvian’s furious pace.

 

  • On the back of 54 winners and equal number of unforced errors, the Riga-native eventually guaranteed an opportunity to wrap up the match, and she didn’t hesitate to launch another backhand missile on the return, directing the ball down the line one final time and raising her arms for the first time, in an incredibly restrained reaction from a 20-year-old who had just won her maiden professional title at a Grand Slam, something not seen in two decades. The same premature composure displayed on court would reverberate as she acknowledged the crowd and filled her media obligations, poised, collected and discoursing with no hesitations as if she hadn’t just become Latvia’s first Grand Slam winner, the youngest Major Champion in a decade and the first unseeded player to win the French Open since 1933. Just another remarkable image to bookend a bizarre yet fascinating tournament.

Jelena Ostapenko holds the first rophy of her professional career, Roland Garros’ Coupe Suzanne Lenglen

Those Melbourne Days: 2017 Australian Open review

The 2017 Australian Open will go down in history as one of the most memorable Grand Slams of the last dozen of years after a fortnight stock full of stunning beat downs, dramatic upsets and storylines aplenty that culminated in a pair of singles’ finals that had the traditionalists licking their chops in anticipation.

Instead of the usual moniker as the “Happy Slam”, this year’s Aussie Open was broadly baptized the “Throwback Slam” for the spellbinding display of the old guard, which stole the show to add new chapters to rivalries that seemed irredeemably part of the past. However, before the sentimental affairs between Serena and Venus or Rafa and Roger were set up, a multitude of ball-striking action resonated around Melbourne Park under the scorching Australian summer, with the conversation focusing on the inordinate quickness of the hard courts, a major factor for an event that would be dominated by the more aggressive contenders.  No surprise then that, in the end, the trophies rested on the hands of two legends which collected uncountable laurels imposing their offensive mastery on the opposition and are, arguably, the greatest the sport has ever seen.

Yet, while the ripples of their record-setting feats will probably reverberate for a long time, much more transpired throughout the tournament as many favourites were forced to leave the scene way earlier than expected, leaving enormous gaps on the draws for the brave to fill. Therefore, beyond the victors and finalists, surprise contestants arose, prospects finally took a step forward, heavyweights were vanquished and contenders crashed out, a medley that warrants a closer look after the first major landmark of the 2017 season has passed. It’s thus time to recap the first major of the year.

Women’s singles 1st week: Heading back on the first flight home

Bestowed with the privilege of opening the proceedings on the Rod Laver Arena in the inaugural day, Simona Halep quickly jumped aboard a plane home after just 75 minutes on court in what amounted to an inexcusable second consecutive first round exodus for the Romanian. The fourth seed fell in straight sets to Shelby Rogers, a quarter-finalist in Roland Garros last season but nothing more than a borderline top-50 player, and a slew of questions followed her on the way out. She may have been hampered by a wobbled left knee due to resurgent bout of tendinitis, which obviously undercuts her main strengths, superior court coverage and speed, but her patented fighting spirit wasn’t there. Halep huffed and puffed unable to harness her rival’s superior power or shove Rogers into uncomfortable positions, barely making a dent on the return (0/1 in break points) or making adjustments by rushing to the net, where she was perfect on five attempts. It was dispiriting to watch from a player that should be making the second week in her sleep after reaching the last eight in 2014 and 2015.

Simona Halep spent his short time on court chasing the ball and naturally didn't last long in Melbourne

Simona Halep spent her short time on court chasing the ball and naturally didn’t last long in Melbourne

Meanwhile, third seed Agnieszka Radwańska, a semi-finalist in 2016, also exited the scene prematurely. Fresh off a final appearance in Sidney, “Aga” was still able to scrape past Tsvetana Pironkova on the first round but her progress came to a screeching halt courtesy of Mirjana Lučić-Baroni, whose firepower, to the tune of 33 winners to 8, incinerated the Pole’s delicate wings. The Croatian veteran would author one of the feel good stories of the tournament (we’ll get to it), in contrast with Shelby Rogers, who quietly bowed out in round 2, yet both women further proved the frailty of some of the names ensconced near the top of the WTA rankings.

Speaking of that…Angelique Kerber, the World No.1, was the epitome of shakiness throughout his first Major campaign as the top seed and defending champion. The German, who pulled through on so many instances last year due to a newfound self-belief, looked nervous on her debut against Lesia Tsurenko, and later took advantage of a few precocious jitters by compatriot Carina Witthöft to right a ship that was tumbling on round two, yet her grit couldn’t avoid a pasting from the impressive Coco Vandeweghe.

Twelve months made all the difference for Angie Kerber at Melbourne

Twelve months made all the difference for Angie Kerber at Melbourne

With her serve faltering badly and her strokes misfiring, Kerber was bullied off the court by the big-hitting (sensing a theme here?) American, who bagged 30 winners and four breaks to send the German packing in round four. An outcome that would eventually put an end to the 29-year-old’s brief reign while she was still adjusting to the new condition. Such is life when you share the tennis panorama with Serena Williams.

Men’s singles 1st week: Foreshocks

While favourites were plummeting like bowling pins in the women’s draw, the men’s side was equally susceptible to spectacular knockdowns, even from the more unexpected sources. And while it wasn’t exactly the case of the two top 15 seeds that said goodbye on the third day, both deserve a mention.

Former US Open Champion Marin Čilić confirmed the worst fears of his fans by crumbling to British Dan Evans in round two with the ghosts of his debacle at the Davis Cup final still lingering. In four sets, the Croat smashed 69 unforced errors and proved inept to deal with the talented Evans, a rising player on the ATP Tour that hits sliced backhands in abundance and made headlines in Melbourne for his non-descript clothing plucked off a retail shop after being dropped by his sponsor. Evans, who came a point away from seeing off Stan Wawrinka in New York last year, then defeated Bernard Tomic in round three to the dismay of the home crowd, which had already lost their biggest calling card on the men’s event.

In fact, Nick Kyrgios, the flamboyant Aussie of Greek roots, was tipped for a good showing in Melbourne as an explosive fourth-round matchup with Stan Wawrinka beckoned, yet he fell at the second hurdle. After cruising on his first match with a superb display of his tremendous offensive arsenal and athleticism, the 21-year-old wrapped up a two-set lead against Italian Andreas Seppi only to allow his rival to rally back and avenge the result of 2015, when Kyrgios overcame a two-set deficit to prevail 8-6 in the fifth-set on this same event.

Playing at home, Nick Kyrgios dilapidated a two-set advantage on the second round before bowing out

Playing at home, Nick Kyrgios dilapidated a two-set advantage on the second round before bowing out

On a late classic at the Hisense Arena, the Aussie grew increasingly frustrated as the tide turned, throwing his usual tantrums, berating the umpire and smashing rackets while the unassuming Seppi kept plowing, taking advantage of his chances (5 of 10 on break points over the last three sets) and tempting fortune, as he did when he saved a match point with a bold forehand winner.  Kyrgios’ reaction after the loss, acknowledging a less than ideal offseason – he banged his knee playing too “much” basketball – and the need to hire a coach was a welcomed sight, but he needs to start turning those good intentions into action quickly as to not to miss the train.

Giants gone missing

In any case, Kyrgios’ fallout was a short lived story in Melbourne since less than 24 hours later a cataclysmic toppling rocked the tennis world. Six-Time Australian Open winner and defending Champion Novak Djokovic was ousted by World No. 117 Denis Istomin and everyone stood agape trying to process what had happened in almost five hours of mesmerizing action.

When the Serbian uncharacteristically let the first set slip away in the tiebreak despite possessing set points, and later conceded a break in the second, a glimpse of the shock was in view, but Djokovic was able to turn the page and romp to take the lead after the third set as his opponent looked increasingly tired. By this time, few expected a reversal of fortunes but Istomin strikingly resurfaced to claim a break early in the fourth set, and then rode the performance of a lifetime to clinch the biggest victory of his career in five sets.

Unheralded Uzbek Denis Istomin authored one of the greatest upsets in Australian Open history

Unheralded Uzbek Denis Istomin authored one of the greatest upsets in Australian Open history

How did he do it? The Uzbek, who had to win a qualification tournament just to clinch the Asia Pacific wildcard and enter the event, blasted sensational shot after sensational shot past the vaunted defensive wall of the Serbian, served at his best under pressure and won the majority of the important points, especially in the tiebreaks on the first and fourth set. An incredible coup to pull off for a man who fought cramps and foot complaints for much of the last two sets, and was still able to slug it out from the baseline with Djokovic.

However, for all of Denis Istomin’s unquestionable excellence on the evening, the World No.2 couldn’t take the wheel when he had to. Djokovic fed Istomin’s rhythm for too long, let him dictate too much, couldn’t muster the controlled aggression on his own shots, and failed to find the angles he’s used to in order to stretch his foe, explore his deficit of mobility and force off-balance strokes. Still, despite all that, he usually finds a way to escape from the brink of defeat. This time, he didn’t and his goal of a record-breaking 7th Australian Open went in fumes.

It was Djokovic’s earliest defeat in Majors since Wimbledon 2008 and a third consecutive Major below expectations after looking untouchable just 8 months ago. It may not be panic time for the Serb, yet the term “crisis” is now unavoidable as he closes on his 30th anniversary and may not be able to rely on his physical prowess for much longer. Is this just a bad phase he will snap out off to restitute his domination? Has the hunger for more just left him for good? Is he already slowing down? The plot thickens. Stay tuned.

Defending Australian Open Champion Novak Djokovic found no answers during his stunning defeat in round two.

Defending Australian Open Champion Novak Djokovic found no answers during his stunning defeat in round two.

Djokovic’s farewell was still on everyone’s thoughts when another heavyweight was upended three days later, none other than World No.1 Andy Murray, who similarly to Angie Kerber was making his debut as the top seed at a Grand Slam draw. The 29-year-old, a runner up in Melbourne on five occasions, breezed past his first three opponents in straight sets, and was already envisioning a coronation following his main rival’s departure when he was tricked by the unorthodox style of 29-year-old Mischa Zverev.

A serve-and-volley specialist, the German understood he had to stick to his guns to have a chance and followed his strategy to a tee. He managed to rattle the favourite with a combination of clutch holds of serve, incessant net approaches (65/118 at the net) and copious amounts of sliced backhands, disrupted Murray’s rhythm and limited the rallies from the baseline, a staple of the Scot’s game, sealing a famous win that made his young brother jealous. Who would have wagered Alex wouldn’t be the first Zverev on the QF of a Major?

Sir Andy was the last of the leading knights to be overrun before the tournament evolved to the second week, where the clashes of the remaining titans were looming and a new batch was sent packing.

Women’s singles 2nd week: The contenders who missed out

In the women’s side, the quarter-finals proved to be the final stop for a couple of high-flying players that were picked by many as the two biggest threats to Serena Williams in Melbourne. For many pundits, World No.5 Karolína Plíšková was the player to watch and those predictions looked on point as she overwhelmed her first two opponents while dropping just four total games, yet the Czech barely survived in the third round against up-and-coming Latvian Jelena Ostapenko, who served to close the match twice in the third round before getting “so tight” with an eminent triumph in sight.

World No.5 Karolína Plíšková was caught watching on her QF match against Mirjana Lučić-Baroni

World No.5 Karolína Plíšková was caught watching frequently on her QF match against Mirjana Lučić-Baroni

A convincing win over the last Aussie still alive in Melbourne, Daria Gavrilova, promised to put her back on the rails, but in the quarter-finals Plíšková was bested by the stirring Mirjana Lučić-Baroni, who beat her to the punch on her own game. The best server in the WTA Tour got broken seven times, amassed less aces than her rival and was out-powered, losing the winner count 42 to 23. Still, she was in position to edge through, up 3-2 in the third set, until the Croatian reeled off 12 of 13 points contested after a medical timeout to close out the match and end the 24-year-old’s dreams of a maiden Grand Slam title.

A feat that Johanna Konta also had circled as she skidded through a loaded part of the draw at Melbourne Park. Feisty Belgium veteran Kirsten Flipkens and Japan’s Naomi Osaka, one of the prominent youngsters in the WTA Tour, were her first victims, yet most fans only took notice of the Brit’s tremendous form when she crushed Caroline Wozniacki in round three, as the tenacious Dane, a deft defensive player, looked helpless trying to deter a boatload of winners blowing past her left and right. Konta’s next opponent, Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova, was dumped out unceremoniously in just over an hour, setting up a meeting with Serena in the last eight.

Everything was going according to plan for Johanna Konta until Serena Williams showed up.

Everything was going according to plan for Johanna Konta until Serena Williams showed up.

The 25-year-old was oozing confidence, having yet to concede a set in the tournament and been broken just twice as her serve and both groundstrokes got showered with plaudits, however she was about to experience the toughest task in women’s tennis for the first time and it showed. Konta’s serve faltered, producing more double faults than aces, Serena’s return netted four breaks, the errors doubled the winners (22 to 11) and, in the end, an anticipated meeting had turned into yet another routine victory for the American. Nevertheless, the Brit’s splendid improvements turned a lot of heads Down Under, on the land of her birth, and if she can maintain the level displayed, the top-five can be a reality in no time.

Unexpected Final Four contestants

With Konta and Plíšková falling short of expectations, the semi-finals pitted the Williams’s sisters against surprising opponents, and for seniority reasons we’ll start with the older challenger.

Mirjana Lučić-Baroni's campaign in Melbourne surprised even herself

Mirjana Lučić-Baroni’s campaign in Melbourne surprised even herself

Throughout this article, we’ve already underlined how Mirjana Lučić-Baroni’s power game clicked against top-level adversaries, yet her success had the ancillary benefit of bringing back to the forefront her incredible life story. The 34-year-old was once a tennis prodigy, winning her last match in Melbourne back in 1998 and reaching the semi-finals of Wimbledon in 1999, but, while still underaged, she was forced to flee Croatia to escape an abusive father. It wasn’t long before her fledgling career went down the drain and financial troubles derailed successive attempts to come back to the Tour for a few years.

Her return to a major stage happened at Wimbledon 2010 and four years later she upset second-seed Simona Halep at the US Open 2014, yet few could have predicted a run like this from the World No.79, who failed to contain her emotions in the on-court interview after beating Plíšková to reach the second semi-final of her career, 18 years after the first. Serena Williams would then dispatch the Croat in just 50 minutes, but that’s just a footnote on her fairy-tale.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the draw, a novel tradition of the women’s singles event was continued as a fresh face secured a place in the semi-finals for the 15th consecutive Grand Slam. The lucky girl was American Coco Vandeweghe, whose breakout tournament encompassed much more than the scalp of Angelique Kerber. The 25-year-old swept aside 15th seed Roberta Vinci in the first round and then outmuscled Eugenie Bouchard in the third round on a match that exemplified her best qualities. Down a break on the decider, she let the arm loose to exert pressure and crawled back into contention riding her booming serve, eventually prevailing due to superior mental resiliency. The same cocktail got her out of trouble against the fizzling World No.1, with Vandeweghe lambasting on Kerber’s short balls, and on her “first-strike” battle with Roland Garros Champion Garbiñe Muguruza, another player that succumbed to her aggressive groundstrokes on the way to a humiliating 0-6 partial on the second set.

The ferocious Coco Vandeweghe made her maiden appearance at a Grand Slam SF.

The ferocious Coco Vandeweghe made her maiden appearance at a Grand Slam SF.

Still, amid this succession of victories, Vandeweghe looked always cool and unimpressed with herself, shrugging off the pressure of the big points and showcasing unusual self-confidence for someone of her status, as if the conscience of her tremendous athleticism and power was a guarantee that success was just a matter of time.

In the semi-finals, Venus Williams’ long limbs softened the blow of Vandeweghe’s kicked serve and the veteran edged forward with a delivery that posed different challenges to Coco’s return, with the Californian  failing to catch up to the score in the third after surrendering an early break. Nonetheless, the tournament accounted for Vandeweghe’s ability to become an impact player on the WTA Tour in the near future, especially on faster surfaces, such as the grass of Wimbledon.

Defying time, Part I

After a season that promised a change of the guard on the women’s tour, the final of the first Major of the season would be a return to the past, with the Williams’ sisters facing off once again at a Grand Slam final, almost 8 years after the last encounter (Wimbledon 2009).

It was the 28th meeting of the most celebrated sibling rivalry in the history of tennis and probably the perfect finale, as two woman inextricably bounded eyed each other on opposites sides a staggering 19 years after the first time, a period where they first helped change the perceptions of tennis fans, later reshaped the matrix of the female game with their ground-breaking style, and finally rewrote the record books.

Moreover, while it was strange Serena held the opportunity to leap past Steffi Graf on the singles’ Grand Slam titles count against her older sister, the match provided a singular chance to honour the remarkable career of Venus Williams, whose endearing joviality was in full display in Melbourne as she reached a Grand Slam final for the first time in 7 years. After every win, she flashed a beaming smile, danced like she had just been blessed for tasting victory one more time, and followed it up with the whimsical words of a person enjoying life. Battling a debilitating disease for the last while, the 36-year-old could have stuffed her racket anytime knowing her HoF-worthy accomplishments were established long ago, yet she kept persevering despite never knowing in what conditions she would show up on court.

The unbridled joy of Venus Williams captivated the audiences in Melbourne Park

The unbridled joy of Venus Williams captivated the audiences in Melbourne Park

In Australia, even with a full day of recovery between games, her limitations were supposed to ruin any ideas of getting back to the end stages of two-week tournaments if not for the fast surface playing to her advantage and a draw that broke her way, with Venus squaring off against only one seed (Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, QF) en route to encounter her sister.

Still, while Venus deserves full credit for sticking to her habits and strengths, standing on the baseline to swing hard at the rising ball, smashing it flat and deep on the other side, it was inevitable the lights would shine brightest on her sister as they have for so long. Serena has always been just a tad better on the serve and off the ground, hitting harder and with more accuracy, and especially displaying a meaner competitive drive, and that edge was once again the difference at the Rod Laver Arena after a tense start, as she roared louder in key instances, flushing aces when it mattered and exposing the less reliable second serve of her partner.

The conquest padded Serena Williams’ trophy case with a 23rd Grand Slam trophy, just one off Margaret Court’s all-time tally, but also re-established her indomitable aura, which pulsates much more due to her ability to roll through a Major at age 35 without dropping a set than for wrestling back the World No.1. Furthermore, the American has now collected Majors standing 18 years apart, a singular case of longevity, and hasn’t failed to reach the last four in three years. It’s fair to say that while the others are playing hide-and-seek, Serena just shows up, flattens the field, sets new rules and collects the spoils. When will it stop?

Serena Williams, World No.1 and Grand Slam Champion for a 23rd time. Order is restored on the WTA Tour.

Serena Williams, World No.1 and Grand Slam Champion for a 23rd time. Order is restored on the WTA Tour.

Men’s singles 2nd week: Setting up the inevitable

With the voices of the past floating around Melbourne Park, the cracks in the men’s draw resulting from the removal of the top two favourites seemed primed to supply another nostalgia-inducing final, one that had been on the back of the mind of tennis fans around the world from the beginning but necessitated a tremendous amount of swivelling to coalesce.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were, by virtue of their absence late last year, just the 9th and 17th seeds, respectively, and naturally multiple top players stand in their way to a repeat of the five-set thriller of 2009. However, after the landscape cleared at the end of the first week, they presumptuously jumped to the front as only one other player left had a Slam in his curriculum (Stan Wawrinka) and none could boast a decent head-to-head record against either the Swiss or the Spaniard.

Thus, it wasn’t long before the takedown of the remaining seeds started. Roger Federer decimated 10th seed Tomáš Berdych in the third round before seeing off Kei Nishikori, 5th in the hierarchy, in five sets as the Japanese executed the usual physical breakdown late. Crucial would prove the next step, as the 35-year-old was able to escape a brutal QF with Murray and instead bustled past Mischa Zverev to set up an all-Swiss SF against Stan Wawrinka, a five-set battle that would tilt to the most experienced  contender.

Roger Federer outlasted Stan Warinka to book a place on the men's singles final.

Roger Federer outlasted Stan Warinka to book a place on the men’s singles final.

Meanwhile, Rafa Nadal prevailed in five against German wunderkind Sascha Zverev in a game where his body proved ready to withstand the rigours of Grand Slam action, and the boost of confidence was in full display as he dominated 6th seed Gaël Monfils in the fourth round. Most saw the QF showdown with Milos Raonic, the highest ranked player left, as the final exam to Nadal’s condition and the Spaniard passed with flying colours, defeating the lanky Canadian in three sets after his opponent withered by wasting six set points in the second. Finally, in probably the best match of this year’s Australian Open, Nadal faced the rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov, who had grasped with both hands the opportunity afforded by Djokovic’s early demise. During five gruelling hours, the Bulgarian exchanged pleasantries from the baseline with Nadal, whipping his backhand like never before, amassing more winners and points from long rallies, but eventually falling due to the Spaniard’s nerve and timely prowess at the net (25/29).

Defying time, Part II

It was clear both men faced a daunting task to reach the decisive match, but Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were able to persevere and the 35th chapter of one of the greatest (and most affable) sports rivalries of our days was arranged against the odds and conventional wisdom, providing an extra opportunity to appreciate the contrast of styles that for so long split the tennis world in two. The classical, elegant one-handed backhand against the thunderous, high-bouncing forehand. The nimble feet-movement versus the shuddering stride. Brute force opposing God-given flair. In so many previous occasions, Nadal relentlessly beat down Federer into submission, but under the brisk conditions in Australia things could prove different and the Swiss Master soon understood what he had to do to make it happen.

After so much time off, Federer believed he was playing with house money and that freedom from outcome was expressed on a much more attacking mindset, as he looked to aggressively take the ball as early as possible – especially on his backhand – and go big instead of holding back, slice it down and wait to be cornered.

Roger Federer caught in full swing after unleashing another backhand during the men's final

Roger Federer caught in full swing after unleashing another backhand during the men’s final

The success rate of the strategy fluctuated throughout the encounter and, likewise, the effectiveness of both contestants ebbed and flowed, with Federer coming out guns blazing to take the first set and later scorching through the third, while Nadal took advantage of a stuttering Swiss to bag the second before holding court on a fourth decided by a single break. When the fifth set rolled on, Nadal drew first blood to complement his momentum but, surprisingly, Federer didn’t fold – like it had happened regularly in other confronts – and upped the pressure at the net and from the baseline, jumping all over the short balls that Nadal was leaving consistently. For the audacity, he was eventually rewarded by hoarding five consecutive games to seal the Championship, the elusive 18th Grand Slam of the Swiss’ unparalleled career and certainly one of the sweetest and most unexpected.

For Nadal, who hadn’t been to a Grand Slam Final in 30 months, this is a loss that will sting for a while, at least until he lands in Paris to try to recapture his crown at Roland Garros. After bouncing back from yet another surgery, and having already disavowed those who claimed he was in steep decline, the 30-year-old couldn’t have asked for a better situation: he stared at a man he defeated in 9 of 11 Grand Slam confrontations and 6 of 8 Major finals, was up a break in the final set and held the mental edge. Still, he let it slip away as the fatigue of the semi-final sank in, his shot timings fell by the wayside, his balls started retreating back on the court and his rival sniffed weakness before wrestling control of the match for good. Nevertheless, Nadal is back healthy, performing at an elite level, his favourite season is on the horizon and the defending Roland Garros Champion is mired in a personal crossroads. The stars are aligning for the Spaniard’s goal of ending his Major drought, which is approaching 3 years.

Rafael Nadal's gutsy performance wasn't enough to break Federer on the night

Rafael Nadal’s gutsy performance wasn’t enough to break Federer that night

Meanwhile, Federer’s five year Slam-less spell was ripped apart in a rather unbelievable fashion, as the Swiss fended off four top 10 players on the same big tournament for the first time and became the oldest player to gather a Major trophy in 45 years. As it stands, the time off in the second part of 2016 proved a blessing in disguise as the Swiss arrived in Melbourne springy and fresh, needing just two rounds to attune his condition to the intensity of a Grand Slam. From then onwards, he quickly showcased his prototypical gliding hop, the venomous, multi-faceted serve of his best days, the sweeping strokes that backed his rise in the early 2000’s, and the killer instinct that consolidated his legacy and had vanished in recent years.

Furthermore, to cement his credentials as the best of all-time, Federer needed to score a meaningful victory over his arch nemesis before retiring, concealing the memories of so many instances where he capitulated for lack of answers, and it’s just perfect that it included a furious late rally that completely flip-flopped the screenplay we grew expected to wait. With, admittedly, few else to accomplish, Federer can now focus on being a pain-in-the-ass for his foes and #19 may just tumble to his lap.

Roger Federer kissing his 18th Grand Slam trophy. An image many believed we would't live to see.

Roger Federer kissing his 18th Grand Slam trophy. An image many believed we would’t live to see.

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A career-defining match bookended the 2017 Australian Open, and it’s fair to say it fell in line with what can only be described as an all-around majestic tournament, a promotion of the best attributes of sports competition: riveting levels of sports excellence, cliff-hanging drama, concurrent jubilation and despair, the rise, fall, revival and collapse of heroes.

Venus Williams described it best after her emotional semi-final triumph and I’ll leave you with her words:

“What I will say about sport, I think why people love sport so much, is because you see everything in a line. In that moment there is no do-over, there’s no retake, there is no voice-over. It’s triumph and disaster witnessed in real-time. This is why people live and die for sport, because you can’t fake it. You can’t. It’s either you do it or you don’t.

People relate to the champion. They also relate to the person also who didn’t win because we all have those moments in our life.”

Seven indelible sports moments in 2016

Another year has just ended and, as happened in 2015, I decided to look back on the most memorable sports moments we were able to witness in the last twelve months, an exercise of paramount importance in order to cherish and vindicate the hundreds of hours that were left behind on the road to placate this passion.

As you certainly noticed, 2016 was an Olympic year and the action in Rio de Janeiro was front and centre on the summer news, yet in this article I’ll only reflect on the other memories that stuck out, encompassing monumental upsets and comebacks, titanic clashes, extraordinary team and individual achievements and brilliant performances. Therefore, seven moments were selected and recollected as I tried to provide some background on what was at stake, recap the events as they happened, and point out their importance in the context of the respective sport.

As usual, keep in mind the inherent subjectivity of this list, tremendously affected by my own predilections, knowledge and desire to supplement as much diversity as possible, from the amount of sports referenced to the type of realization celebrated, but without venturing into areas I don’t comprehend (I’m sorry, Chicago Cubs fans).

Before diving in, let me stress out again that no Olympic moment was considered in this article as I’ll reminisce on them and the Rio Games as a whole in a few days. Come back later for that.

Leicester City wins the English Premier League

By now you’ve seen the number: 5000-to-1, the odds assigned by an English bookmaker to a potential Premier League triumph by Leicester City in 2015-16, the quantitative assertion of one of the greatest upsets in sports’ history and a beacon for every team hoping to break the established hierarchies.

Jamie Vardy (#9) and Riyad Mahrez (#26) celebrate another crucial goal for Leicester City's Premier League title campaign.

Jamie Vardy (#9) and Riyad Mahrez (#26) celebrate another crucial goal for Leicester City’s Premier League title campaign.

The Foxes barely staved off relegation in 2014-15 and the appointment of Italian journeyman coach Claudio Ranieri, whose career was stacked with near misses, was far from inspiring, yet a strong start of the season, capped by four consecutive wins from fixtures 10 to 13th, surprisingly propelled Leicester to the top of the League at the end of November.  It was still early and around the corner loomed a demanding segment of the calendar, consequently many expected things to fall into place, however that didn’t happen.

Starting with a home draw against Manchester United in the game that allowed Jamie Vardy to beat the record for scoring in consecutive matches, passing through a crucial 1-0 victory at White Hart Laine over Tottenham, and ending with a superb triumph at Manchester City in early February, Leicester turned from surprise bunch to full-fledged title contender by standing ground against every Premier League heavyweight (except Arsenal), leaving unscathed and, more importantly, in the lead.

Later, when Leicester racked up four straight 1-0 wins in March, it started to sink on everyone that they would really complete the miracle, with the celebrations exploding on May 2nd as pursuers Tottenham Hotspurs blew a two goal-lead at Chelsea in matchday 36.

Dilly Ding, Dilly Dong. Ranieri’s boys and their fairy-tale adventure had just reached its epic conclusion and time had come to revel in their party and laud its main characters. Kasper Schmeichel, the Danish goalie whose saves kept the Foxes together in so many occasions. The Captain Wes Morgan and partner Robert Huth, the unflinching central duo patrolling the defence. Danny Drinkwater and the indefatigable N’Golo Kanté, always pacing the midfield. Riyad Mahrez, the creative fulcrum with a magical left foot. Jamie Vardy, the late-blooming spearhead whose 24 goals validated Leicester’s blistering counter-attacking style. We owe them all a story to remember for years to come.

LeBron James wills the Cleveland Cavaliers into the Promised Land

When LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach back in 2010, few would have predicted how his story would unfold to culminate on the night of June 19, 2016. The local prodigy turned hero turned villain turned saviour returned home in 2014 tugging two rings on his fingers and a promise to finally bring a Championship to Northern Ohio, yet you would be hard pressed to find a better script converting a dream into reality.

For the second consecutive year, the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers faced off in the NBA Final and once again the frontrunners were the Californians, coming off an historic 73-win regular season. Steph Curry and his band crafted a 3-1 lead just like had happened in 2015, but the turning point came late in Game 4, when Draymond Green, the Warriors do-it-all centre, punched James in the nuts. The NBA couldn’t turn a blind eye and Green was suspended for game 5, a potential clincher where LeBron and Cavaliers’ point guard Kyrie Irving banked 41 points each to extend the series. Despite the return of Green, the Warriors were flustered in Game 6 back in Cleveland and the stage was set for an epic Game 7 at the Oracle Arena, probably the loudest atmosphere in the League.

Cleveland's Kyrie Irving rises above Steph Curry to hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in Game 7

Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving rises above Steph Curry to hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in Game 7

As lead changes abounded throughout the match, the sides remained tied at 89 in the closing minutes before a series of devastating events unfurled, moments that will be forever etched in Cavaliers’ history as “The block”, “The Shot” and “The Stop”. First, a thunderous chase down block by James on Andre Iguodala avoided a layup that would give a 91-89 advantage to the Warriors. Then, Irving danced in front of Curry before launching an incredible go-ahead three-pointer for the visitors. A few seconds later, the oft-criticized Kevin Love locked down Curry, the unanimous regular season MVP, on the perimeter to preserve the vital lead. A free-throw by James with 10.6 seconds to go would set the final score at 93-89 and complete the first comeback from 3-1 down in the history of the NBA Finals.

Fifty-two years had passed since the last major professional sports title for the city of Cleveland and LeBron James’ emotional words in the end summed up the dramatic feat: “Cleveland, this is for you”.

With that, the prodigal son, the Kid from Akron, was finally a legend to his people and the city that had adopted him was no longer the laughingstock of American sports.

Novak Djokovic finally conquers Roland Garros to complete the Career Grand Slam

On my list of top sports moments of 2015, Novak Djokovic’s performance at Roland Garros made an appearance as the Serbian wasted a golden opportunity to knock off the major missing piece on his résumé and I wondered whether he would have as good a chance again. It turned out the answer was positive, since the 29-year-old redeemed himself in 2016 to become the eight man to complete the career Grand Slam and, in the process, established a milestone for modern tennis.

This year’s edition of the French Major – already missing Roger Federer – lost its all-time winningest player early, since Rafael Nadal withdrew before the third round, and that occurrence flung open the door for Djokovic, who waltzed to a fourth Roland Garros Final appearance by dropping a single set in six matches. Meanwhile, on the other side of the draw, Andy Murray had to overcome two five-setters in the first week before grinding past home-favourite Richard Gasquet (QF) and defending champion Stan Wawrinka (SF), clocking five more hours on court than his rival.

A blissful Novak Djokovic's finally lifts the winners' trophy at Roland Garros

A blissful Novak Djokovic finally lifts the winners’ trophy at Roland Garros

Nonetheless, the dream contest between World No.1 and World No.2 was arranged and it was Murray who came out guns blazing, snatching the first 6-3 due to an imposing serve and consistent strokes off both wings. The Scot had never beaten Djokovic after losing the inaugural set, and he came close to taking a grip on the match in the first game of the second, yet the Serbian held serve and managed to turn the tide by breaking Murray right after, forging a momentum he would not relinquish. With his forehand dominating the rallies and exhibiting an air-tight defence, Djokovic cruised through the second and third sets, winning 6-1, 6-2, and later broke Murray twice in the fourth to close on the trophy.

With the crowd on his side, hoping to glimpse history, and serving at 5-2, the 11-time Grand Slam Champion was engulfed by the nerves, eventually conceding a break, but he managed to pull through the intolerable tension of the moment, clinching the match after Murray plopped a ball to the net on the third Championship point.

Nole had finally secured Roland Garros to complete his Grand Slam set and, more importantly, guarantee a place on a list none of his contemporaries has been able to crack. Already the reigning Champion at Wimbledon (2015), the US Open (2015) and the Australian Open (2016), Djokovic joined Don Budge (1937-38) and Rod Laver (1962/1969) as the only three men to hold the four tennis Grand Slams at the same time, further implanting his name in the history books.

Back in June, Djokovic still dreamed of completing the calendar Grand Slam, but it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe he will find his way back here in 2017 after unlocking yet another of tennis’ ultimate accomplishments.

Kielce snatches Handball’s Champions League title after astonishing comeback

Pitting two sides gunning for a maiden EHF Champions League title, the 2015-16 Final of handball’s premier club competition provided a thrilling, dramatic finish that won’t be forgotten by the 20,000 fans who watched inside Cologne’s LANXESS Arena.

The finalists, Poland’s Vive Tauron Kielce and Hungary’s Veszprém KC, had upset French Champions PSG and three-time Champions League Winners THW Kiel, respectively, in the semi-finals to set up an unanticipated showdown, and both sides made good on the opportunity.

The Magyars began better, jumping quickly to a 3-0 lead which they governed through the first 30 minutes to reach the half in command (17-13). A smothering defence, Aron Palmarsson’s prowess from afar and the vibrant support of their fans then powered Veszprém to a nine-goal advantage (28-19) with just 14 minutes to play, prompting the first winning chants to break as the game seemed decided.

Based on the presence in this list, evidently it was not and what followed was a sensational comeback by the Polish Champions, who were led by goaltender Slawomir Szmal, star right winger Tobias Reichmann and the masterful play of Uroš Zorman. In just 10 minutes, the gap was erased as Vesprém crumbled piece by piece with Kielce’s resurgent, and the bleeding could only be stopped at 28-28, when veteran Momir Ilić netted the 29th goal for the Hungarians before Michał Jurecki desperation shot beat the buzzer to force overtime.

In extra-time, the two opponents traded leads until the roles reversed on the dying seconds, with Vesprém’s Cristian Ugalde tying the game at 35 apiece and setting up the first penalty shootout in an EHF Champions League Final.

Kielce’s Ivan Cupic was the first to miss from the 7m mark, but the Polish goalkeeping duo of Slawomir Szmal and Marin Sego saved one each to allow Julen Aguinagalde a chance to end the stalemate. The Spanish pivot hammered home and the yellow portion of the stands erupted as Kielce became the first Polish side to be crowned European Champions just minutes after appearing on the ropes.

As for Veszprém, also previously defeated on the final in 2002 and 2015, a lesson was learned in the most traumatic way possible. Their pursuit of continental glory will have to continue in spite of this nightmare-inducing collapse.

Vive Tauron Kielce, the 2016 EHF Champions League winners

Mathew Hayman edges past Tom Boonen to wrestle the Paris-Roubaix

The “Hell of the North” and its tough, perilous journey of 250+ kilometres through deteriorated, slippery cobble roads has always been a race prone to surprises due to his unpredictable nature, yet few victories were as unexpected as Mathew Hayman’s.

The 37-year-old had already endured the arduous expedition from start to finish for 14 times on his career, closing on the top-ten in 2010, however his preparation for the 2016 edition was less than ideal. After breaking his left arm at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad six weeks earlier, Hayman was forced to build his form on a stationary bike in his garage, but he eventually felt fine come the day and convinced Orica Bike-Exchange’s management to confirm his name on the final roster.

An exhasperated Tom Boonen looks down as Matt Hayman rises after crossing the finish line

An exhasperated Tom Boonen looks down as Mat Hayman rises after crossing the finish line

Hayman immediately rewarded his director’s fate by jumping into the early breakaway, and the Australian would cling to the front for the rest of the evening while the usual havoc decimated the field of candidates further back, hampering pre-race favourites Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara, both caught in the maelstrom of crashes and mechanical problems.

Ultimately, in the end at the Roubaix velodrome, five men were in contention and the odds seemed to be stacked towards Tom Boonen, the four-time Champion and a renowned finisher. However, sensing the opportunity of a lifetime, Hayman bravely surged forward to lead out the sprint with 200m to go and stunningly managed to hold off Boonen, looking in disbelief as he crossed the line to seize the biggest triumph of his career.

The dependable domestique lifted the iconic cobblestone trophy on the podium and on his right side stood, applauding, a legend of Roubaix, the man he had just pipped to deny a record-breaking fifth triumph. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that.

Auston Matthews’rewrites the NHL’s history books on his debut

Unlike every other moment evoked on this list, Auston Matthews’ magical night didn’t come with a trophy, a title or a championship on the line. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly one of the best debuts in the history of any professional competition and the kind of performance people will talk for years to come, thus it’s not out of place.

After honing his talents in Europe during the 2014-15 season, Auston Matthews was selected last June by the Toronto Maple Leafs with the first pick on the 2016 NHL draft, immediately receiving the brunt of attention at the hockey-mad Canadian city. Toronto’s new season kicked off in Ottawa on October 12th and naturally Matthews was in the lineup, yet not even the most optimistic fan could predict such a remarkable performance.

With eight minutes played in the first period, Matthews took advantage of deficient coverage in front of the net to score his first NHL goal on his first shot, and moments later he turned the ice into his own backdoor pond, eluding five Ottawa Senators – including all-star defenseman Erik Karlsson – in succession before firing the puck short side for a magnificent goal.

Auston Matthews shoves the puck past Craig Anderson for the fourth goal of his incredible NHL debut

Auston Matthews shoves the puck past Craig Anderson for the fourth goal of his incredible NHL debut

Twenty minutes in, it was already a night to remember but the American wunderkind wasn’t yet satisfied, adding a third goal on a quick shot from the slot early on the second period. By this time, his parents were already freaking out in the stands, since the young American was just the fourth rookie to notch a hat-trick on his first NHL game, but the cherry on top was still to be served.

With just a few seconds to go before the final intermission, a 2-on-1 rush for the Leafs developed quickly and culminated on a tap-in for the inevitable Matthews and his fourth tally of the night, something no player in the centenary history of the NHL had ever achieved on his debut. Moreover, to put that in perspective, the third leading goal-scorer in NHL history, Jaromír Jágr, has compiled 756 goals in 1668 games, yet boasts the same number of four-goal outings as Matthews…

Toronto would still lose the game in overtime, however that’s just a footnote on a surreal, extraordinary night that put the entire ice hockey world on notice for a 19-year-old phenomenon improbably raised on the sun-kissed state of Arizona, USA.

Portugal slays the ghosts of the past to win the Euro 2016

Did you really think this one wouldn’t make an appearance? I can’t risk having my lone citizenship removed, so let’s go back to the night of July 10th 2016.

The place is the Stade de France, located in the outskirts of Paris, and duelling for the Henry Delaunay trophy are two countries which have had their fair share of battles in the late stages of international competitions. The Euro 1984, also contested in France. The Euro 2000. The 2006 World Cup. In all those occasions, the French came out on top to advance to the final while the Portuguese were left to lick their wounds despite deserving better luck.

Furthermore, comparing the respective runs until the decisive match, it was fair to assume a similar outcome was in the cards, as the hosts were over the moon after bouncing out reigning World Champions Germany, whereas Portugal counted its blessings for making it this far in spite of an all-around tentative campaign.

However, as they say, anything can happen in a single match and the main trump card – some fella named Cristiano Ronaldo – resided on Portugal’s bundle. Until it didn’t, as the three-time Ballon D’Or winner was knocked out by a Dimitri Payet tackle, and later forced to abandon the field just past the midway mark of the first half.

The ball shot by Éder (center, in red) is already on his way to the back of the net

The ball shot by Éder (center, in red) is already on its way to the back of the net

With their captain out, the Portuguese receded further into their underdog role and the minutes went by according to a relatively simple script: France’s attacks were systematically repelled by Portugal’s staunch defence and in the few instances they managed to break through goalkeeper Rui Patrício dealt with it. Meanwhile, when the pressure subsided, the Portuguese moved the ball around, tried to buy a mistake and hoped for a lucky bounce.

They would get one just before regulation ended when André-Pierre Gignac hit the post from close range, and eventually the visitors decided to open things up in extra-time to take advantage of fatigue and an opponent growing frustrated. Hence, substitute Éder almost scored on a header and left back Raphaël Guerreiro shook the post on a free kick before the deadlock was broken in the 109th minute.

Portugal’s Éder picked up a pass, entered the final third, fended off center back Laurent Koscielny and pounced on the ball like his life depended on it to drill a low shot past the outstretched Hugo Lloris, instantaneously sending an entire nation into raptures and revamping the clumsy striker into a god-like figure.

Fifteen minutes later (or fifteen hours, depending to whom you ask), the final whistle was blown and Portugal were confirmed as the Champions of Europe, securing their first major title twelve years after letting the honour escape, at home, on the Final of the Euro 2004. It was certainly fitting they could atone for it in similar yet reversed circumstances.

What I’m thankful for in 2016

Although I grew up in a country that includes no similar date on the calendar, “Thanksgiving”, an holiday originally “celebrated as a day of giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest and the preceding year” is a tradition that I respect, even if the evolution of modern societies has diluted the meaning of it and its religious and cultural roots are disregarded by most these days.

Therefore, since I hold some appreciation for the values that are (supposed to be) exalted on Thanksgiving,  I decided to take Christmas time, a period based on much of the same ideals, to reflect and be grateful for what the subject of this blog, sports, inspires in me every day.

The result is the following miscellanea of topics, a list that, despite inherently personal, I believe is much less about my own preferences than the experience and pleasure one takes from the deeply misguided love for sports.

A final remark: While necessarily influenced by it, the choices don’t reflect only what happened over the last 12 months.

Jaromír Jágr – Recency bias be damned, it’s an absolute joy to be able to follow the footsteps of one of ice hockey’s greats as he approaches age 45. I may have lost his time for the team I support and definitely haven’t forgot the sting of his decision to spurn a return in favour of signing for the cross-state rivals, yet can’t stop admiring his uplifting love for the game, inexorable work ethic and ability to stay competitive night after night facing guys that weren’t even born when he was an NHL rookie, back in 1990-1991.

Jaromír Jágr's flow in all its glory at age 44

Jaromír Jágr’s flow in all its glory at age 44

Jágr still got that singular propensity to stuck his bottom out and protect the puck like very few can, the fluidity to weave through the neutral zone and gain the line with possession and the vision to offer his teammates easy tap-ins. If he says his legs haven’t slowed down and he can handle the load of an entire season, who are we to disagree? You can make it to 50, Jags!

The wealth of young NHL talent – The best hockey league in the world is, by definition, stacked with elite players at every position, nonetheless the recent influx of newcomers that can take over games right from the get-go has to be described as unusual and extraordinary, and you have to look no further than Team North America’s showings at the World Cup of hockey to illustrate the point.

Connor McDavid, a once-in-a generation prodigy with lightning acceleration and a phenomenal ability to execute in full speed, obviously leads the charge, but he’s not short on dazzling running mates. Jack Eichel, McDavid’s bridesmaid who can hammer one-timers from the right slot on his sleep. Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary’s elusive offensive dynamo. Toronto’s rookie trio of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, who have electrified an entire city. Finland’s Patrik Laine, ripping pucks into the upper-corners from the top of the circles with the same nonchalance employed while dealing with the media. Show-stopping talents like Nathan MacKinnon, Artemi Panarin, Jonathan Drouin, Mike Hoffman, Leon Draisatl or Mark Scheifele.

Patrik Laine's shot has earned rave reviews during his first NHL season

Patrik Laine’s shot has earned rave reviews during his first NHL season

All names that may one day figure in the Hall of Fame, alongside the rest of the League’s stars in their prime, such as Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Evgeni Malkin and Patrick Kane, and without disregarding the likes of Vladimir Tarasenko, John Tavares, Jamie Benn, Erik Karlsson, Nikita Kucherov or Claude Giroux.

The future is bright for the NHL should they understand how to take advantage of the embarrassment of riches that fell on their lap, which contributed to a move towards a much faster, more entertaining version where skill is more important than ever before.

3-on-3 overtime – One year has passed since its introduction at the NHL level and more top leagues are already following suit hoping to ride the wave of success. While coaches have made strides in bringing structure and trying to reign in their players, there’s only so much they can do to slow down the game with an inordinate amount of ice available. The 3-on-3 overtime is enthralling on its Intensity, pulsating and dramatic on its inherent chaos, a cradle of end-to-end action, odd-man rushes, turnovers, chances, near-misses, startling saves and… goals. Some criticize it for resembling pond hockey..but where’s the harm on that?

Lionel Messi – Like him there has never been and never will be. The ultimate talent powered by (near) flawless decision making, immaculate technical skill and advanced vision and perception of the game. Leo apprehends, selects and executes before the rest and better, and that’s why he’s peerless. The prototype of the human brain solving problems at high speed and driving football’s running and unrelenting evolution towards an era where sheer physical prowess will be essentially irrelevant.

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Lionel Messi, the best football player ever

Some fifty years from now, when those at the different levels and spheres of influence will be equipped with a superior understanding of the game, the next generations will laugh at “our” decisions to elect others based on the random outcome of a couple of games per year.

Peter Sagan – A unique figure inside cycling’s world, a sport still trying to overcome an uphill battle to restore credibility and regain fans. While the clashes on the mountains, that made so many fell in love with bike racing, can’t escape the veil of suspect, what Peter Sagan does can only be admired, which means you’ll have a hard time finding someone that actively roots against him.

Whether he is squeezing through the middle of the bunch to secure a sprint victory, jumping the gun to escape and arrive by himself, powering up a hill to a finish or collaborating doggedly on a breakaway, Sagan’s versatility is mind-boggling yet only a reflection of his personality. The Slovak is a risk-taker, follows his instincts, never gives up in face of adversity and has a hell of a time riding his bike, enjoying himself and entertaining the fans. In the end, we’re all looking for fun and Peter Sagan delivers that in spades.

The Big Four (Five?) – With Federer and Nadal sidelined for much of the year, the incredible supremacy exerted by tennis’ Big Four wasn’t exactly paraded throughout 2016, yet the season confirmed two other talking points.

First, despite a meagre Grand Slam total (3), Andy Murray’s evolution has led him to a level where’s he’s every bit part of the group. Knocking Djokovic off the perch and securing the No.1 in London with authority were the final formalities for a man that’s no longer the guy the other three secretly hope to face in the semi-finals.

The remaigning doubts about Andy Murray's greatness were erased in 2016

The remaigning doubts about Andy Murray’s greatness were erased in 2016

Meanwhile, Stan Wawrinka’s sensational panache at the Majors guarantees that the competition tightens up, at least, from the last eight onwards. If we ever get Juan Martin Del Potro back to his best (and that’s a big if with those wrists), we can have as much as six clear-cut contenders with Grand Slam triumphs on their résumé and a plethora of dark-horses trying the bridge the gap (looking at you, Raonic and Nishikori). We may be in for a dandy of a season in 2017.

Angelique Kerber – With all due respect for Serena Williams’ application to the title of best female athlete of all-time, her towering presence over the rest of the field in the WTA Tour well into her thirties is (was) boring. For different reasons, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka were never able to consistently challenge her, therefore Angelique Kerber’s rise was a breath of fresh air. Helped by Serena’s minimalist calendar? Definitely. However, raise your hand if you believed any player other than Serena could win two Grand Slams in the same season?

While I’m not convinced the German can clamp down the World No.1 for long, she has already done the most important. She changed the paradigm and kicked off the dog-fight to pronounce a new Queen. Let the Hunger Games begin!

The Olympic legends of our time – In 120 years of modern Olympic action, countless athletes have produced epic sports moments in the biggest stage of them all. However, few were able to elevate their respective sports, the Olympic movement and its motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” quite like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. We should be forever grateful for the chance to witness their incredible exploits in the beginning of the XXI century, achievements that will resonate for generations to come and conveyed to our children and grandchildren.

Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, arguably the two greatest Olympians of all-time

Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, arguably the two greatest Olympians of all-time

As their careers end, new heroes will take over and the show will continue, but we shouldn’t take for granted the unique opportunity to appreciate true, unrepeatable greatness. May their spirit inspire the ones to come.

Sports fans – An integral part of all memorable sports achievements and condition sine qua non for spectacles that bring together the world, sports fans can entertain, impress and inspire as much as the ones they support.

From the kind, joyful and passionate Brazilian fans at the Olympics, cherishing the opportunity of a lifetime at every arena even when their athletes didn’t stand a chance or even took part, to the hordes of Iceland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Ireland supporters that provided a singular beauty to the Euro 2016. From the deafening rendition of “You’ll never walk alone” by Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund fans in unison on their Europa League double-header, to the emotional tributes all over the world after Chapecoense’s tragedy, especially the touching reaction from Atletico Nacional (and Colombian) fans. From the masses that crowd the roadsides of Belgium during the spring, the peak of cycling’s classics season, to every fan that hit the road and dispensed hard-earned money and time simply to voice the support for his colours miles away from home.

My teams – For so many wonderful memories, which I will treasure for a long time, and for hitting the jackpot in 2016.

Looking back on the 2016 ATP Tour season through the final rankings

A few weeks ago, I looked at what happened in the 2016 WTA Tour season and now it’s time to do the same for the men’s game, a more character-driven setting that at times seemed to undergo a transition year.

Indeed, with two of the most decorated Grand Slam players of all-time (Federer, Nadal) spending most of the season on the shelf and their main counterparts (Djokovic, Murray) splitting periods of dominance as they approach the 30’s, a lot of ink was spilled on the immediate future of tennis on the male side, and there’s reason to believe it will be a bright one. As the focus was broadened from the tier of players maturing right below the Big-Four (Nishikori, Raonic, Čilić) to the new wave of talent that the ATP has been pumping incessantly over the last couple of years, the so-called “#NextGen”, the budding impact and scrutiny surrounding names like Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios and Sasha Zverev can only anticipate a swift changeover when the time comes. Furthermore, an old friend and fan favourite made a thrilling return to the Tour, providing a cathedra of memorable moments and strengthening the depth of contenders for next editions of the major events on the calendar.

You can check the introduction of the women’s piece to better understand the aim of this article since the reasoning is the same and there’s no need to repeat it, however one key difference is worth mentioning. Instead of starting at the top of the rankings (locked on November 21st ) and gradually going down the ladder, this time we’ll reverse the order and start with a young phenomenon on the depths of the top 100, slowly making our way to the surface, the top-10, which this season features players hailing from 10 different countries.

Let’s jump right into action then.

  1. Taylor Fritz (USA)

Coming off his 19th birthday celebrated in late October, Taylor Fritz ended 2016 as the youngest player among the Top 100. One of the faces of the new generation of American tennis alongside 18-year-olds Francis Tiafoe and Michael Mmoh, 19-year-old Reilly Opelka and 20-year-old Jared Donaldson, Fritz enjoyed a breakout season highlighted by the Final in Memphis, becoming the youngest ATP Tour finalist since his opponent, Kei Nishikori, did it in 2008.

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19-year-old Taylor Fritz is a name to bookmark for the future

The 2015 US Open Junior Champion managed to reach two other QF in Acapulco and Atlanta, falling to two established compatriots, Sam Querrey and John Isner, respectively, and it was also another American, Jack Sock, who ended his adventures at the US Open and Australian Open, both after gruelling five-set encounters. Fritz’s 15 wins guided him to the 53th position on late August, but it’s expected he’ll blow past that career-high in no time. It’s been four years since Andy Roddick retired but, finally, the USA’s wait for a new high-end talent seems to be coming to an end.

  1. Kevin Anderson (RSA)

The South African is just another example of the fleeting nature of achievement in tennis. Anderson reached the top 10 in October 2015 a few weeks after dispatching Andy Murray at the US Open, yet 12 months later his situation has changed radically.

The 6’8’’ journeyman, who barrelled his way into relevancy on the strength of a pugnacious serve, was forced to withdraw or retire from more than a dozen events in 2016 due to several ailments (knee, shoulder, ankle, groin), losing almost three months after pulling out of the Australian Open. Upon returning to action, the 30-year-old suffered through some tough losses, chiefly in Wimbledon where he wasted a two-set advantage over Denis Istomin in the first round, and couldn’t get past the QF in six tries, including at Toronto’s Masters 1000, with his ranking plummeting to the 70’s, a place he last experienced in 2010. Will he rebound in 2017?

  1. Karen Khachanov (RUS)

A few months ago, this 20-year-old Russian was a complete unknown, however a late season charge grafted his name into this list. Khachanov failed to reach the main draw in the first three Grand Slams of the year but would take a set off Kei Nishikori in the second round at Flushing Meadows, a sign of things to come. After playing Challengers for most of the season, the Moscow-native stunned everyone by winning in Chengdu, leaving four top-35 players on his trail, and guaranteed a 46-spots jump on the rankings (from 101 to 55), entering “get to know” territory.

While Khachanov has only contested 32 matches at the ATP level, advancing to the QF’s in Kitzbühel and Vienna, he hails from another world power in search of a (men’s) tennis torch-bearer, thus expect his development to be closely monitored in 2017.

  1. Borna Ćorić (CRO)

Since his scalping of Rafael Nadal at Basel in 2014, the Croat has been regarded as a star in the making on the ATP Tour. He was the youngest top-100 finisher in 2014 and top-50 in 2015, but couldn’t make the next step this season despite a few landmarks.

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Young Croat Borna Coric scored a win against Rafael Nadal in 2016

Ćorić made his first ATP Tour Final appearance in Chennai on the dawn of the year, losing to Wawrinka, and later repeated the feat at Marrakech (l. to Federico Delbonis), yet his upmost attainment this season was becoming the youngest quarter-finalist in a decade on a Masters 1000 at Cincinnati, curiously defeating Nadal once again. However, the Croat fell in the 1st round on three Grand Slams (3rd round in RG) and was forced to shut down his season after a right knee surgery in September, missing selection to the Davis Cup Final and a chance to ride his season-record into positive territory (22W-24L). The promising 20-year-old ought to target a maiden ATP title and a top-30 breakthrough in 2017.

  1. Kyle Edmund (GBR)

While Andy Murray produced a banner-year for himself and the history of British Tennis, one of his teammates on the 2015 Davis Cup triumph took a few more steps on his upward trajectory. Kyle Edmund improved his final ranking for the fourth straight year, amassing 21 triumphs on a season where he reached his first ATP Tour SF, seeing off David Ferrer before losing to Richard Gasquet in Antwerp, and the 4th round of a Major, succumbing to Djokovic at the US Open.

The 21-year-old also advanced to the last eight three times, with Murray ending his run at Queens and Beijing, however he will be disappointed to leave 2016 without his first match victory on the holy grounds of Wimbledon, where he fell on the first hurdle for the fourth consecutive season. Definitely something to aim for in 2017, since a good first half of the season can deliver a seeded position.

  1. Juan Martin Del Potro (ARG)

Olé Olé Olé Olé DELPO, DELPO! Olé Olé Olé DELPO, DELPO! The tune bawled at every major court by the enthusiastic Argentinian fans at the sight of their hero left an indelible mark on the 2016 season.

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Juan Martin Del Potro’s played marvellously with his country’s colours this season

After competing in just five tournaments over the last two years due to persistent wrist problems, the Argentine returned to competition in February carrying a ranking outside the top 1000 and escalated all the way to the top-40 due to a bounty of beautiful moments.

Del Potro still missed the Australian Open and Roland Garros on the first half but would announce his presence at Wimbledon with a four-set triumph over Stan Wawrinka in the second round, a prelude to his heroics in Rio. Defending the bronze medal of London, he shocked Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal on his way to the final, forcing Andy Murray to play four hours before settling for silver. A few weeks later, Dominic Thiem was the latest prominent victim on his comeback trail but Wawrinka would get him back on the QF at Flushing Meadows, with the tables turning in relation to Murray on the Davis Cup SF, where Del Potro rescued a deciding rubber that took more than five hours.

“La Torre de Tandil” wasn’t yet satisfied and after capturing his first title since early 2014 in Stockholm – without conceding a set, no less – he exorcised the demons of a nation on an emotional Davis Cup Final, coming back from two sets down for the first time in his career to stun Marin Čilić and save the tie, contributing decisively to Argentina’s maiden trophy in the competition on the fifth Final appearance.

The 28-year-old was fairly named the 2016 ATP Comeback Player of the Year and tennis fans just can’t wait to see what’s in store next year for one of the most cherished players in the world.

  1. Alexander Zverev (GER)
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Alexander “Sasha” Zverev, one of the brightest young players on the ATP Tour

The youngest top-100 finisher of 2015 shot up the rankings this season, with his remarkable 44 wins landing the teenager a top-20 cameo in October, something not seen since Novak Djokovic did it in 2006.

The precocious Hamburg-born talent defeated top-20 opposition 10 times this season and he galloped those triumphs into a plethora of excellent results, including his maiden ATP Tour title, which arrived in St. Petersburg over “big-match player” Stan Wawrinka, two other final appearances (Nice and Halle) and three semi-finals (Montpellier, Munich, Washington). More impressively, his three deciders were played on three different surfaces, whereas he managed to hold his own on the Grand Slams, reaching the third round in Paris and Wimbledon after being trounced by Murray earlier in Melbourne. At age 19, “Sacha” Zverev is bound for another leap in 2017, when he should become a regular second-week feature at the Majors.

  1. Jack Sock (USA)

The 24-year-old is a slow-burner that may to be on the edge of a breakthrough year. For the sixth consecutive year, Sock improved his year-end ranking and win total to complete an entire season engraved inside the top-30, yet he’s looking for more.

The Nebraska-native was a runner-up at Auckland, Houston and Stockholm, but it was his play on higher-profile tournaments that sustains greater expectations, with Sock consistently picking up wins over top players in 2016, something he wasn’t able to achieve in years past (1-14 against top-10). He thrashed Marin Čilić in three sets before reaching the 4th round at the US Open for the first time, fell on the third round at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and qualified for his first two Masters 1000 QFs late in the season, dumping Raonic in Shanghai and Dominic Thiem in Paris.

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Two-time medallist in Rio 2016, Jack Sock will be looking to climb the rankings in 2017

Additionally, he was the only tennis player (male or female) to leave the Rio Olympics with two medals, gold in mixed doubles and bronze in men’s doubles. It’s thus natural that Jack Sock’s confidence is on the rise and with the window to assert himself as USA’s No.1 player still wide open, he can quickly become dangerous to everyone.

  1. David Ferrer (ESP)

The extenuating style of play employed by the former World No.3 finally caught up with his body, and the Spaniard tumbled outside of the top-20 for the first time in seven years. Since 2005, Ferrer had always collected 40+ wins, including six consecutive 50+ wins seasons, yet he recorded just 36 in 2016 and failed to advance to a final for the first time in 12 years, falling short on title defences at Doha (1R), Rio de Janeiro (QF), Acapulco (2R) and Vienna (SF).

The 34-year-old still reached the QF at the Australian Open, losing to Murray, but after that couldn’t do better than the 4R on the clay of Roland Garros, accumulating an uncharacteristic six first round losses, no last eight appearances in Masters 1000 or victories over top-10 players. The industrious Valencian will probably slide further down the rankings before closing out a splendid career, which delivered so much more than his natural talent anticipated.

  1. Grigor Dimitrov (BUL)

The Bulgarian enjoyed a nice bounce back season following a 2015 where he struggled to build on his status as one of the game’s finest talents, a prominence crafted during a breakthrough 2014 season. Dimitrov escalated 11 positions from last year’s finish (from 28th to 17th) but most of the heavy lifting was left for the second half of the season.

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The exquisite tennis of Grigor Dimitrov was in full display in Beijing

The 25-year-old reached the Final in Sydney, was eliminated on the 3rd round in Melbourne Park by Roger Federer and produced solid showings until late April, yet after losing on the decider in Istanbul he hit a rough patch, being unable to earn a victory for almost two months.

Dimitrov broke the five-tournament winless streak at Wimbledon (3R) but still dropped to the 40th position before ramping up his efforts in the summer. He went to the QF in Toronto, then the SF in Cincinnati, rolling over Stan Wawrinka, and his campaign at New York was going well until Andy Murray showed up. The Scot would also halt his run at Beijing, taking the trophy after Dimitrov dumped out Rafael Nadal in the QF, yet he should be in joyful mood entering the new season. It’s entirely possible that, at age 25, the Bulgarian has finally found the maturity level necessary to consistently pile up good results and sustain a place amongst the elite.

  1. Roger Federer (SWI)

After logging so many miles over the last 18 years, maybe a season like this was simply in the cards for the Swiss legend.

The 17-time Grand Slam Champion still advanced to the Australian Open SF in January, but shortly after he damaged his knee on a freak accident while preparing a bath for his daughters, requiring surgery for the first time on his career. Federer recovered to play in Monte Carlo and Rome while clearly impaired and then, for the first time since 1999 (a total of 65 straight appearances), skipped a Grand Slam, missing Roland Garros to prepare a healthy return on the grass.

The new generation, symbolized by Dominic Thiem in Stuttgart and Alexander Zverev in Halle, kicked him out before Wimbledon but he still rebounded to display his majestic tennis in London, coming back from two sets down against Marin Čilić in the QF before being knocked off by Milos Raonic in a scintillating five set SF. However, the knee flared up again and thus that would be the last time the 35-year-old step on court in 2016, ending the season with just seven tournaments contested and no titles to his name for the first time since 2000!

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Roger Federer isn’t the No.1 anymore, but he still showcased his magic at Wimbledon in 2016

Federer only dropped from 3rd to 4th on the hierarchy in August, but the slide eventually took him outside of the top-10 in early November, ending a run of 734 weeks – over 14 years – among the very top of men’s tennis. Healthy and fully rested, Federer’s return will be one of the major storylines of 2017, as that elusive 18th Major still looms large on his dreams. How nice would look a picture of him lifting a record-breaking eight Wimbledon trophy before riding into the sunset?

  1. Lucas Pouille (FRA)

The Frenchman entered 2016 as a relative newcomer to the top-100 and closed the year chosen by his peers as the most improved player on the ATP Tour, capping a year of tremendous progress.

Dispatched by Raonic on the first round in Melbourne, Pouille drifted outside the top-80 until the clay season arrived, with a string of great performances, including a final run in Bucharest and a surprising SF campaign in Rome as a lucky-loser, putting him on the map and inside the top-50. The 22-year-old would then take down Del Potro in route to his first Grand Slam QF at Wimbledon before confirming his credentials at the US Open, reaching the same stage after winning three consecutive five set matches, the last one over Rafael Nadal.

A win of such magnitude resonated around the Tour and Pouille would still find a way to collect his maiden title in Metz before the calendar flipped. With 15 victories in 21 matches decided on a final set, a 4-0 record in fifth sets and five triumphs over top-10 opponents, Pouille proved his worth in pressure situations, warranting close scrutiny next season.

  1. Nick Kyrgios (AUS)

Tennis’s ultimate “bad boy” couldn’t escape a few more boorish episodes this season, adding novel entries into his personal list of shenanigans, yet 2016 mainly represented his affirmation inside the sport’s elite. The 21-year-old rose from 30th to 13th in the hierarchy to end the season as the youngest top-20 player, and he splattered vivid brushes of his explosive potential around the Tour all year long.

Kyrgios collected the first three ATP Tour titles of his career (Marseille, Atlanta and Tokyo), with the path in France proving especially magnificent, since he held his serve throughout the week despite the challenges of Richard Gasquet, Tomáš Berdych and Marin Čilić. Among the Aussie’s 39 wins in 2016, a career-high, also deserve mention triumphs over Milos Raonic in Miami, on his way to a first Masters 1000 SF, and Stanislas Wawrinka in Madrid, with Kyrgios more than holding his own against the best in the World. He took 6 of 13 matches against top-10 players, but succumbed to Berdych in Melbourne, Gasquet in Paris and Andy Murray at Wimbledon, reaching the second week of a Grand Slam only once since he later retired at the US Open 3R.

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Nick Kyrgios earned his first ATP Tour titles in 2016

Kyrgios’ last title, in Japan, merited a career-high ranking but he failed to push even further after being suspended for blatantly tanking a match in Shanghai, ending the season once again under a storm of criticism and deflecting questions about his drive to succeed at the level his talent calls for. Will some clarity on his career endeavours be provided in 2017?

  1. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA)

Almost nine years after his thumping run to the 2008 Australian Open Final, we can safely assume the Frenchman won’t reach the heights many predicted at the time.

At age 31, Tsonga finished once again inside the top-15, but he keeps losing relevancy as a major tournament outside bet since injuries started taking a toll on his imposing athleticism and ability to produce fireworks off his forehand. That much was evident in 2016 as he withdrew from a slew of important events (Rome, Queen’s, Beijing), retired at Roland Garros (3R) and the US Open (QF), and couldn’t push through when time came to show his muscles, falling to Murray in 5 sets at Wimbledon’s QF, to Raonic on the QF of Paris’ Masters 1000, to Nishikori at Melbourne’s 4R, to Roberto Bautista Agut in the QF of Shanghai, or to Gaël Monfils in the SF of Monte Carlo.

All in all, Tsonga reached a single final, in Vienna (l. to Murray in straight sets), downed (a beat-up) Roger Federer in Monte Carlo and outlasted Nishikori in Paris before failing to ride the momentum.  It’s not a lot for a former World No. 5 with aspirations of regaining notoriety at a time a new generation is finally emerging.

  1. Tomáš Berdych (CZE)

Not unlike Tsonga, the Czech is another player whose best seasons seem to be on the rearview, with Berdych finishing outside of the Top-7 for the first time since 2010 but managing to hold his place on the Top-10.

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Tomáš Berdych renewed his title in Shenzhen

The 31-year-old successfully defended his title in Shenzhen to pick up his only trophy of 2016 yet was unable to reach another final on the year despite four other SF appearances, including at Wimbledon, where Andy Murray advanced in three quick sets. As has been the norm for much of his career, Berdych supplied what was expected of a player of his stature, reaching the QF at Melbourne and Roland Garros, as well as in four Masters 1000 (Miami, Madrid, Toronto and Paris), but couldn’t break through when facing the alpha males, losing three times with both Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray plus once with Roger Federer.

His career tally against Top-10 players ballooned to 49 wins and 117 losses, which perfectly depicts a player that has been really good for a long time – Berdych is the only active player outside of the Big-Four to reach the SF in all four Grand Slams – but never truly great.

  1. Rafael Nadal (ESP)

The Spaniard returned to action in 2016 after missing the final months of the previous year but injuries never stopped being an ever-present concern on court, forcing Nadal to navigate cautiously through the first few months. Nonetheless, when the clay season arrived, he looked prepared to take flight, securing his ninth triumphs at both Monte Carlo and Barcelona, the two places where his aura matches Roland Garros. The 30-year-old was on his way to challenge for a first Grand Slam title since 2014, but his problematic wrist ceded once again, derailing his hopes in Paris and shoving him out for the next two months.

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Rafa Nadal played some of his best tennis of 2016 in Rio at the Olympics

Still, Nadal didn’t accept the prospect of missing a second consecutive Olympic tournament, and recovered in time to be the flagbearer of his country in Rio de Janeiro, trudging through an exhaustive run of 11 matches in 8 days to secure gold in men’s doubles and nearly add another medal in singles, with Del Potro and Nishikori prevailing in three-set battles on the SF and bronze-medal playoff.

The massive effort jeopardised the rest of the season as Nadal fell precociously in New York to end a year without a Grand Slam QF for the first time since 2004, yet he managed to qualify for the ATP Tour Finals for the 12th consecutive season, a tribute to his perseverance and astonishing level of performance in face of regular adversity.

  1. Dominic Thiem (AUT)

The young Austrian put the finishing touches on his breakthrough season by debuting on the ATP Tour Finals, closing the book on a lengthy season where he virtually competed week in week out.

In fact, among the Top 25, no player matched the 28 tournaments he entered, totalling 72 matches contested and 58 victories, a tally which tied Kei Nishikori’s and only trailed Djokovic and Murray. Despite such unwise scheduling, which resulted in more than a handful of retirements and withdrawals, Thiem enjoyed a highly successful campaign, taking four titles from three different surfaces (clay: Buenos Aires and Nice; hard courts: Acapulco, grass: Stuttgart), reaching two other finals (Munich, Metz), advancing to a Grand Slam SF for the first time at Roland Garros and displaying nerves of steel in decisive sets, where he mustered a sparkling return of 22 wins and just 3 losses.

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The 23-year-old broke into the Top-10 in June right after Paris, and stuck there for the rest of the season even if fatigue kicked in on the second half of the year, leading to a few lacklustre performances and the need to rely on the assists of others to qualify for London. Now positioned amongst the elite, Thiem should scale back his participation on ATP 250 tournaments in 2017, an important step towards targeting longer runs on the flagship events of the calendar.

  1.  Gaël Monfils (FRA)

“Lamonf” returned to the Top-10 for the first time since late 2011 on a season adorned by some of his most spectacular tennis, with the 30-year-old hopefully turning a corner on his career towards an injury-free period of consistent results against the best in the business.

The Frenchman conquered in Washington the biggest title of his career and also advanced to another final in Rotterdam, yet his most striking performances were saved for bigger stages. He didn’t drop a set on his way to the US Open SF, where he was ousted by Djokovic, reached the final of Monte Carlo, falling to Rafael Nadal, qualified for the SF of Toronto, and was one of the last eight men standing at Miami, Indian Wells, the Australian Open and the Olympics, a panoply unlike any other in years past of his career.

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Gaël Monfils flies at the 2016 Australian Open

Nevertheless, Monfils still struggled at times, with an untimely virus costing him Roland Garros and a rib injury limiting his play during the ATP Tour Finals, to which he qualified for the first time after ascending to a new career-high No. 6 in November. We already know Monfils’ unparalleled athleticism can defeat any opponent in a given day, but are we about to find out it can also be the foundation of a preeminent Top-5 player?

  1. Marin Čilić (CRO)

The most consistent season of the Croat’s career was, paradoxically, also a roller coaster of emotions, with a few milestones intercalated by devastating losses in high-stakes matches.

The surprising 2014 US Open Champion collected his first Masters 1000 title at Cincinnati, becoming the second-to-last man to defeat Andy Murray, captured his maiden ATP 500 tournament at Basel, finally beat Novak Djokovic  – in the Paris’ Masters –  on the 15th try and qualified for the ATP Tour Finals for a second time, yet he will mostly be remembered for what slipped away. With Roger Federer on the ropes, Čilić wasted 3 match points and a two-set advantage at Wimbledon’s QF, suffered the same fate in a Davis Cup QF rubber against Jack Sock, let Gaël Monfils turn the tide on the last 16 in Rio, and ultimately choked in Zagreb with the Davis Cup trophy in sight, allowing Juan Martin Del Potro to comeback from two sets down.

Western & Southern Open - Day 9

Marin Čilić’s emotions run wild in several occasions this season

That’s a lot to chew up on the offseason, even if the 28-year-old amassed 49 wins while missing much of the clay season, finished the year on a career-high sixth position and won 7 of 12 bouts against top-10 players, breaking an 11-match losing streak on that front. What kind of mindset can we expect from Marin Čilić in 2017?

  1. Kei Nishikori (JPN)

On the second full season enmeshed inside the top-10, the slight Japanese continued to showcase top-five talent, colleting 58 wins, third-highest total in the ATP Tour, despite the usual setbacks related with fitness shortcomings and untimely injuries. Nishikori captured a single title, a three-peat in Memphis, but reached four other finals, surrendering his Barcelona crown to Rafael Nadal, failing to take revenge on Marin Čilić (from the 2014 US Open Final) at Basel and losing to Novak Djokovic on the Masters 1000 of Miami and Toronto.

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Kei Nishikori exhibits his flexibility during a match

Moreover, the 26-year-old conquered Japan’s first tennis medal in 96 years by leaving Rio with bronze, and also took positive steps on the Majors, advancing to the second week in every occasion. His signature victory on the year came in five sets over Andy Murray at the US Open QF and further sanctioned an incredible stat: Nishikori owns the best deciding-set win pct (+16 matches) in the Open Era (99-29, .773), attesting that his tremendous cadence is a fearsome weapon when he’s fit.

Therefore, if he’s able to hone his physical preparation (maybe Andy Murray can offer some tips), the sky’s the limit.

  1. Stan Wawrinka (SWI)

The Swiss’ late career resurgence acquired a new brilliant chapter in 2016 with a 3rd Grand Slam triumph, this time in New York, improving his record against the World No.1 in Major finals to 3-0 whilst elsewhere he’s yet to win once (0 in 20). Those numbers illuminate Wawrinka’s reputation as a force to be reckoned in the biggest stages and his ability to get in rampaging form, but also the struggles to figure out ways to execute week after week.

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Stan Wawrinka, the King of New York in 2016

The 31-year-old obtained multiple tournament victories on the year (Chennai, Dubai, Geneva) but also accumulated unexpected upsets by the likes of Jan-Lennard Struff, Mischa Zverev, Juan Mónaco or Andrey Kuznetsov, which means he finished a third consecutive season as World No. 4 despite boasting a single Masters 1000 on his résumé (Monte Carlo, 2014). Nonetheless, Stanimal’s defeats in the rest of the Majors were nothing to freak about (Raonic, 4R AO; Murray, SF RG; Del Potro 2R Wimbledon) and his 11-final win streak, snapped at St. Petersburg by Alexander Zverev, demonstrates his ability to turn it on when necessary.

After all, you don’t need to collect 60+ wins and pack up 7, 8, 9 titles per season to be a leading contender for a Major, and Wawrinka knows that, as he’s quietly one Major away from a career Grand Slam. You might as well just pencil him as the 2017 Wimbledon winner.

  1. Milos Raonic (CAN)

The Canadian started the year by slaying Roger Federer in the Brisbane Final and never looked back, improving by leaps and bounds to end the season as a worthy No.3 player in the World despite a single tournament win to his name and a difficult couple of months (September – October)

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Milos Raonic’s improvements were in full display throughout 2016

The 25-year-old amassed his first 50+ win season by reaching the last eight at seven of nine Masters 1000 (except Shanghai and Rome) and advancing to four finals, but lacked silverware mainly because he kept running into the pesky Andy Murray. The Brit came out on top at the Australian Open SF, on Raonic’s maiden Grand Slam Final at Wimbledon, on the Final at Queen’s, and, lastly, at the ATP Tour Finals SF, where the Canadian wasted a match point, yet Raonic seldom looked overmatched.

Now much more than a tremendous server, the remarkable evolution of Raonic’s all-around game is a testament to the hard-working nature of a player who incessantly strives to maximize his potential, and the best may still yet to come. Perhaps, already in 2017.

  1. Novak Djokovic (SRB)

The 2016 season was a tale of two halves for the Serbian superstar, who romped through the season in a form reminiscent to 2011 and 2015, but along the way lost his balance and eventually relinquished the lead on the ATP rankings.

Djokovic demolished Rafael Nadal in Doha at the onset of the year, conquered the Australian Open for the sixth time, swept Indian Wells and Miami for the third year in a row, and finally reigned at Roland Garros to complete the career Grand Slam and hold all four majors at once, but things strangely fell apart after that.

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Novak Djokovic finally secured Roland Garros’ iconic Coupe des Mousquetaires

The 29-year-old’s steely resolve just wasn’t there at Wimbledon and the shocking loss to Sam Querrey in the third round triggered a final few months permeated with atypical presentations. There was the heartbreak on the first round in Rio against Juan Martin Del Potro, a subpar showing on the US Open final, allowing Stan Wawrinka to take over after the first set, and the sudden tumbles in Shanghai and Paris against Roberto Bautista Agut and Marin Čilić. The last hiccup, coupled with a rival on an absolute tear, determined the change at the top, something no one would dare to predict just a few months earlier.

In London, with year-end supremacy on the line, Djokovic was beaten squarely by Murray and the following offseason period has already brought a coaching shakeup. With Nadal and Federer back on the Tour and Murray on top of his game, what Djokovic can we expect to watch next year? The ruthless, nearly-unbeatable version that went on a preposterous sequence of 17 straight finals between 2015 and 2016, or the disengaged self that had no answers to Murray at the Finals?

  1. Andy Murray (SCO GBR)

Seven years after first becoming the World No.2, Andy Murray finally arrived to the peak of the mountain, culminating an incredible season with the cherry on top: a commanding victory over Novak Djokovic on the ATP Tour Finals decider, just his second triumph on the pairs’ last 15 encounters.

That was an unforeseen outcome for a year which started with the Serbian holding the trophy at Melbourne as Murray lost his fifth Australian Open final, and saw the Scot take some time to gain traction, dropping out of Indian Wells and Miami early, before facing Djokovic in consecutive finals in Madrid and Rome. Murray earned a split by winning in the Italian capital and then pushed the envelope at Roland Garros, eventually fading but setting the scene for a stunning turnaround of fortunes.

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Andy Murray celebrates one of his triumphs en route to a second consecutive Olympic gold medal

The Glasgow-native then racked up 22 straight victories to conquer Queens, his third Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, and an unprecedented back-to-back singles gold medal at the Olympics, yet Marin Čilić crashed the party at Cincinnati and later Kei Nishikori would prevail at the US Open QF, surely ending Murray’s dream of challenging Novak Djokovic lead this year.

Not really. It would take a monumental unbeaten run of 24-matches and five-tournaments (Beijing, Shanghai, Vienna, Paris Masters, ATP Tour Finals) but Murray pulled off the improbable, finishing off by defeating the World No.5, 3, 4 and 2 in succession. Once derided by his fellow Islanders as a grumpy Scot that couldn’t close it out in the big moments, Murray is now in the conversation as the greatest ever British sportsman. After so many stretches when he was overshadowed by three of the game’s greatest of all-time, he thoroughly deserves to relish this moment and enjoy the experience of being the man to beat.

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Andy Murray, the best tennis player in the world in 2016, holds the ATP Tour Finals trophy

Looking back on the 2016 WTA Tour season through the final rankings

The 2016 Tennis season is on the final stretch – with the ATP Masters’ currently being contested in London and the Davis Cup soon to follow – and thus this is the right time to look back on what happened this year in a sport that is inching ever closer to becoming a full calendar spectacle. Moreover, while the men are still rapping up the schedule, the ladies have been enjoying their well-deserved vacations at paradisiac destinations since the festivities were completed a few days ago.

Shortly after that, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) published its year-end rankings (November 7th), which reflect the success achieved over the months-long campaign by the best female tennis players in the World and encompass week after week of routine triumphs, stunning upsets, miraculous comebacks and heart-breaking defeats into an individual score. However, at the end of the day, these point totals don’t recount the tale of their intense journey, the ebbs and flows of a season punctuated by dozens of tournaments played above different surfaces, under changing climacteric conditions and in different parts of the globe, which is obviously the most fascinating part.

Therefore, in this article, I used these rankings to steer my way towards the characters that shaped the 2016 WTA Tour season, starting at the top with the World No.1, Angelique Kerber, striding down step by step for the extent of the Top-10, and speeding things up after that to highlight some distinguished names scattered throughout the rest of the Top-100. Along the way, I managed to tap the revelations of the Tour, the most improved players, the athletes that flamed out and the one’s that fell short of expectations, thus gradually weaving a tapestry of the past, present and (near) future of Women’s Tennis.

Unless I get dispatched to an hospital bed again, I hope to do a similar post about the ATP Tour in the coming weeks, but, for now, time to set the stage for the ladies.

  1. Angelique Kerber (GER)

The rise of Kerber was undoubtedly the story of the tennis world in 2016 and she ends the year with an advantage of more than 2000 points over Serena Williams.  Pretty much all has been said of the marvellous season put on by the 28-year-old, who hoarded her first two Grand Slam titles, was a finalist at Wimbledon, triumphed also in Stuttgart and won an outstanding total of 63 matches, highest on the circuit. However, with a target on her back, she tailed off a bit after the US Open and couldn’t close out the season on a high after faltering on the decisive match of the WTA Finals’, a game that will haunt her during the offseason alongside the stunning loss at the Olympic Final.

  1. Serena Williams (USA)

The American was knocked off the perch, failing to end the season as the World No.1 for a fourth consecutive year, yet it will take a bit more to relinquish the crown for good, as she’s still the dominant figure on the WTA Tour. At age 35, Serena spends most of the season embroiled on her off-court affairs and saving energy for the top tournaments, which meant she only signed up for eight tournaments in 2016. Furthermore, after the US Open, she called it a season for the second consecutive year to nurse a few ailments, and surely her body isn’t getting any fresher going forward.

Serena Williams is no longer untouchable. How much longer will she stay to defy the new generation?

Serena Williams is no longer untouchable. How much longer will she stay to defy the new generation?

Although it’s anyone’s guess whether 2017 will mark her farewell season, Serena won just Rome and Wimbledon in 2016, and the competitive fire still seems to burn inside her as she pursuits a few more Majors to add to a peerless résumé.

  1. Agnieszka Radwańska (POL)

A sixth consecutive top-ten finish for the gracious Pole and the highest to date with this third position, which represents a remarkable run for a player that is bound to be overpowered every single day. Radwańska added three more titles (Shenzhen, New Haven and Beijing) to her mantle, upping her career total to 20, yet 2016 wasn’t the season she finally got over the hump on the Majors. The farthest Radwańska advanced was in Melbourne, where she got ousted by Serena in the Semi-Finals, and, at age 27, it’s time to wonder if her time simply won’t come. Maybe winning seven matches in two weeks is asking too much of a player that doesn’t possess the physical tools to swiftly dispose of her opponents early nor outmanoeuvre several top players in succession late in the fortnight.

  1. Simona Halep (ROU)

Halep ended 2016 two spots below where she started, but the Romanian still performed reasonably well, collecting two Premier-level tournaments in Madrid and Montreal, to which she affixed the Bucharest title.

Simona Halep, here pictured with the Madrid Open trophy, has proved competitive year-round but is yet to crack the code at the Grand Slams

Simona Halep, here pictured with the Madrid Open trophy, has proved competitive year-round but is yet to crack the code at the Grand Slams

At the Grand Slams, after a shocking first round defeat in Melbourne, her results got progressively better as the year went on (4R at RG, QF at Wimbledon and the US Open) following the same pattern of her improved form, with the Romanian reaching, at least, the quarter-finals of all but one (Beijing) tournament entered after Roland Garros. Owning a counterpunching style that in some ways resembles Angelique Kerber, maybe a similar leap is in the cards for Halep.

  1. Dominika Cibulková (SVK)

After tumbling outside the top 30 at the end of 2015, Dominika Cibulková enjoyed a dramatic comeback season that would end in tears as she held the WTA Finals’ trophy rewarding a brilliant triumph over the World No.1 in Singapore. That match was the 74th of an extenuating year for the Slovak, which only after triumphing at Katowice, in April, started her ascension.

Later, finals on the Premier events of Madrid and Wuhan delivered important pockets of points, as did the triumph at Eastbourne and the quarter-Finals at Wimbledon, with Cibulková securing a debut appearance on the year-end festivities after conquering Linz. She wasn’t done surprising though, and both Halep and Kerber would still fall to the tenacious 27-year-old in route to a fourth title on the season, a number that doubled her lifetime total to eight and assured a career-best No. 5 ranking.

The last smile of the season belonged to Dominika Cibulková

The final smile of the season belonged to Dominika Cibulková

  1. Karolína Plíšková (CZE)

The gangly Czech collected two more WTA titles in 2016 (Nottingham and Cincinnati) but the spotlight truly only shone on the big-serving Plíšková after a dazzling triumph over Serena Williams at the US Open semi-finals’. She couldn’t break Kerber in her maiden Major final, yet the much-awaited breakthrough Grand Slam performance propelled her into 6th place on the WTA rankings and Plíšková stuck there despite an uneven end of the season. The 24-year-old will enter the new season under greater expectations and the next step involves becoming a regular big-stage contender.

  1. Garbiñe Muguruza (SPA)

The hype around the Spaniard was huge after a breakout 2015 season highlighted by the Wimbledon final, but Muguruza – except for a notable exception – never seemed to get into rhythm, amassing striking early exits on a series of important events (Australian Open, US Open, Wimbledon, Olympics, Madrid, Indian Wells, Wuhan…).  A 35W-20L season-record is definitely paltry for a Top-10 player and only three semi-final appearances during the season duly showcase that, although winning Roland Garros, particularly by defeating Serena Williams, is obviously a tremendous achievement. Despite being far from an uncommon trait for talented big-hitters like her, Muguruza’s maddening inconsistency raises some enquiries whose answers weren’t broached in 2016.

The French Open title was the only one of Garbiñe Muguruza's season

The French Open title was the only one of Garbiñe Muguruza’s season

  1. Madison Keys (USA)

The Florida-native kept her steady progression in 2016, reaching a career-high 7th position in October to cap a season that saw her take off as the heir apparent to Serena Williams. The 21-year-old collected her second career-title on the grass of Birmingham, was a finalist in Rome and Montreal, and reached the last four in Beijing and the Olympics, yet was stopped on the fourth round of every Major, dropping battles she ought to have seized. Nonetheless, Keys’ abilities and potential were evident throughout and probably won’t take long for her to put it all together.

  1. Svetlana Kuznetsova (RUS)

The Russian veteran came out of the blue to reclaim a Top-10 position on the year-end rankings for the first time since 2009, the year she won her second – and last – Major at Roland Garros. Kuznetsova started the season strong, triumphing in Sydney and reaching the Final in Miami, then passed incognito through all Grand Slams, and unexpectedly returned to prominence in the fall, delivering a vintage late-season push in Wuhan (SF), Tianjin (SF) and Moscow (W) to clinch a place in Singapore at the last minute. She rode the wave to wins over Radwańska and Plíšková before falling in the semi-final, leaving everyone uncertain about what the near future holds for the 31-year-old.

  1. Johanna Konta (GRB)

The 25-year-old takes the cake for most improved player of 2016 in a year that saw her surge from a greenhorn top-fifty player all the way to the top-ten. Her jumping off point was the upset of Venus Williams on the first round in Melbourne – where her campaign would be halted by Kerber in the semi-finals – and the older Williams’ sister would also take the fall on Konta’s first tournament victory at Stanford last July. Elsewhere, she saw some promising runs end at the hands of better opponents, including the Olympics (QF, Kerber), Eastbourne (SF, Plíšková), Wuhan (QF, Kvitová) and Beijing (F, Radwańska), but ultimately looked the part at this level, something no British woman can boast over the last three decades.

  1. Petra Kvitová (CZE)

After five straight top-ten finishes, the Czech starlet slipped out in 2016 due to a downright awful stretch of results that went on until Wimbledon. She tried to shake things up by parting ways with long-time coach David Kotyza after the Australian Open but the bleeding didn’t stop, since Kvitová left Roland Garros shaken by an embarrassing third round loss to Shelby Rogers, and cobbled up a mediocre grass court period.

Petra Kvitova finished 2016 playing superb tennis and will look to keep the momentum going after the break

Petra Kvitova finished 2016 playing superb tennis and will look to keep the momentum going after the break

However, the robust lefty displayed some signs of life at the Olympics, claiming bronze, and would rediscover her best after the US Open and the canning of Kotyza’s successor, František Čermák. Her booming forehand was on point in Wuhan as she blew past four seeds on her way to the title, and the 26-year-old would collect more silverware in Zhuhai at the season’s epilogue, sending a subliminal message to her main competitors ahead of the new season.

  1. Victoria Azarenka (BLR)

After convincing tournament victories in Brisbane, Indian Wells and Miami on the first three months of the season, Azarenka seemed well on her way to challenge Serena Williams at the top before unexpected circumstances arose to curtail her season. A back injury derailed the preparation on the clay, she retired in the first round in Paris, missed Wimbledon injured, and then, out of nowhere, announced her pregnancy and the decision to step out of the game for the foreseeable future. After a couple of seasons bugged by recurring injuries, it’s a shame tennis will once again be deprived of one of its most charismatic personalities.

  1. Venus Williams (USA)

We knew following up a resurgent end of 2015 would always be a tall task for a 36-year-old coping with Sjögren’s syndrome, hence it was barely a surprise to watch Venus struggle for much of the campaign, punctuating a chunk of exits in the first couple of hurdles with the occasional deep run. Ultimately, she added the 49th title of her illustrious career at Kaohsiung, was a semi-finalist at Wimbledon, and reached the fourth-round in Roland Garros and the US Open. Many all-time greats would have cherished a similar season at the twilight of their occupations.

  1. Roberta Vinci (ITA)

The 2016 season may well mark the end of the road for the Italian veteran and she can be proud of her achievements. Vinci lifted St. Petersburg’s trophy, her tenth in singles and first in three years, and on her (eventual) farewell Grand Slam appearance reached the quarter-finals before falling to Angelique Kerber in the stadium that last year huffed and puffed during the most beautiful moment of her career. The 33-year-old will go down in tennis history as the author of one of the biggest upsets of all-time, but there’s way more to her legacy, including a distinct playing style grounded on a patented backhand slice, four Fed Cup titles and five Grand Slam triumphs in doubles.

Italy's Roberta Vinci prepares to return a ball on her backhand

Italy’s Roberta Vinci prepares to return a ball on her backhand

  1. Caroline Wozniacki (DEN)

Entering the US Open in late August, the former World No.1 was toiling in the 74th place of the WTA hierarchy as a consequence of a disastrous campaign to date. However, something clicked in New York, and she not only stringed a surprising semi-final run at the last Grand Slam of the season, but also went on to win two tournaments (Tokyo, Hong Kong) before the curtain closed. It was enough to stamp a ninth consecutive Top-20 finish for the Danish girl, and open the door for a possible return to the upper echelon of the sport.

  1. Caroline Garcia (FRA)

The 23-year-old won two singles tournaments (Strasbourg and Mallorca), four doubles titles and became the second-best doubles player in the World, leading her country within a whisker of the Fed Cup title. On the process, Garcia became the new face of France’s women’s tennis, positioned herself on the verge of the Top-20 and raised expectations entering 2017. The Lyon-native is a strong candidate to enjoy a breakout season next year, and that would likely entail a debut on the second week of a Grand Slam.

Expect to hear much more of France's Caroline Garcia in 2017

Expect to hear much more of France’s Caroline Garcia in 2017

  1. Monica Puig (PUR)

Monica Puig, the 2016 Olympic Champion. Based on the weight of those words, she should be higher on the ranking but, alas, the Olympics don’t award points. The 23-year-old still has a lot to prove in 2017, front and centre that she’s not a one-time wonder, yet her season can’t be reduced to the exploits in Rio. Puerto Rico’s hero reached the final in Sidney, the semi-finals at Eastbourne despite having to navigate the qualifying, and appeared twice more in the last four of a WTA tournament.

  1. Sloane Stephens (USA)

In 2013, Stephens ended the season on the cusp of the Top-10 (12th) after advancing to the last four of the Australian Open and the QF at Wimbledon. In the three years since, she’s seldom been able to crack the Top-30 and her stock is dropping due to an inability to show up on the big stages. Not even three titles (Auckland, Acapulco and Charleston) on a season cut short by a foot injury ease the feeling that she must perform better.

  1. Naomi Osaka (JAP)

A slew of newcomers started making a name in the WTA Tour in 2016 (Daria Kasatkina, Yulia Putintseva, Jeļena Ostapenko, Ana Konjuh), but none was more impressive than the exotic Naomi Osaka. Groomed in Florida despite being born in Japan, Osaka shot up from outside the Top-200 due in large part to noteworthy appearances in the Grand Slams, reaching the third round in Melbourne, Paris and New York until Victoria Azarenka, Simona Halep and Madison Keys, respectively, were called to action. Additionally, in Tokyo, she outlasted Dominika Cibulková and Elina Svitolina before succumbing to Caroline Wozniacki in the final. Promising signs for a player that spent months playing qualifying matches to climb the ladder.

  1. Belinda Bencic (SWI)
Belinda Bencic's fledging career faced a few roadblocks in 2016

Belinda Bencic’s fledging career faced a few roadblocks in 2016

After experiencing the glitz of the WTA Tour in 2015, when the Swiss teenager won the Premier-event of Toronto on her way to the Top-15, Bencic endured the other side of the coin this season, struggling to string a decent run of victories amidst an injury-marred season. Following the Australian Open, where she was defeated by Maria Sharapova in the fourth round, the 20-year-old still achieved a new career-high No.7, yet, from there, she moved steadily downward.

In the 21 tournaments contested in 2016, Bencic was defeated in the first match on 12 occasions and could only advance to the last four three times – at ‘S-Hertogenbosch (SF), Sidney (SF) and St. Petersburg (Final) – which is far from what was expected from one of the smartest players on Tour. Can she rebound in 2017?

  1. Eugenie Bouchard (CAN)

The memory of Eugenie Bouchard’s coming out party in 2014 fades by the day as the Canadian writhes to rediscover the level that drove a bubbling novice to the Top-5 and the Wimbledon final. In contrast with 2015, when an injury and concussion disrupted her season, the 22-year-old had no impending situation slowing her down this season, yet still failed to gain any traction again. The beginning was auspicious, with final appearances in Hobart and Kuala Lumpur, but from March onwards, Bouchard couldn’t win more than two matches in a single tournament in spite of collecting a pair of triumphs over Top-10 players: Angelique Kerber in Rome and Dominika Cibulková in Montreal. The potential is definitely there, but is the hunger?

  1. Lucie Šafářová (CZE)
Lucie Šafářová struggled throughout 2016

Lucie Šafářová struggled throughout 2016

Šafářová’s breakthrough last season, at the springy age of 28, was one of the most refreshing stories on the WTA Tour, and therefore it was a shame the former Roland Garros’ finalist couldn’t build on the success in 2016.

The same bacterial infection which tormented her on the final months of 2015 made her miss the Australian Open, and Šafářová was unable to win any encounter on the first five tournaments back on Tour. She broke the streak in Prague and went on to gather the trophy, but that was the single bright spot on a season where the Czech never took off. Losses on the first and second rounds were the norm throughout, with a combination of tough draws and rustiness determining the fall on the standings. Good for Šafářová that she could make up for it with a highly-successful year in doubles, which included an Olympic bronze medal alongside Barbora Strýcová.

  1. Ana Ivanović (SRB)

In June of 2017, the calendar will mark the 9th anniversary of Ana Ivanović’s triumph at Roland Garros, and it’s fair to assume that, at the time, few predicted she wouldn’t attend another Grand Slam Final for the rest of her career. The curious revival of 2015 ended up being short-lived and the Serb was absolutely non-descript this season, failing to secure three consecutive wins and accumulating five straight defeats before deciding to shut down her campaign after the US Open. Ivanović will turn 30 in twelve months and her focus on tennis seems to be dwindling as the off-court distractions continue to pile up, with the 65th position on the year-end rankings being her worst since…2004!

Is Ana Ivanovic's head drifting apart from her tennis career?

Is Ana Ivanovic’s head drifting apart from tennis?

  1. Catherine Bellis (USA)

The youngest player in the Top-100 finally decided to forego her college-eligibility and turn professional after reaching the fourth round of the US Open last September, so 2017 is poised to be her first season travelling the World. The adaptation of Bellis’ 17-year-old body to the demands of the WTA Tour will dictate her success in the near future, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her ranking skyrock pretty quickly, especially after she turns 18 next April and consequently gets freed from the restrictions on the amount of tournaments she can enter.

  1. Sabine Lisicki (GER)

Lisicki, a former Wimbledon finalist, ends the year ranked lower than in any other (healthy) season since 2007,and it’s difficult to explain her sudden plunge at age 27. The German was the 32nd seed in Melbourne last January, lost in the second round, and crashed hard from there, celebrating a triumph just 16 times during the entire season. In fact, only at Kuala Lumpur, Wimbledon and Guangzhou, Lisicki savoured victory twice in the same week, which is unacceptable for a player possessing weaponry (huge serve and heavy strokes) many of her opponents can only dream off. She’s a name to keep an eye on in 2017.

European Tour of Sports – Belgium

The Basics

Population: 11.25 M

Area: 30 528 km2

Capital: Brussels

Summer Olympic Medals: 148 (40 G-53 S-55 B)

Winter Olympic Medals: 5 (1 G-1 S-3 B)

 

Popular Sports and History

Belgium is a state culturally and linguistic divided between the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders and the French-speaking community of Wallonia and that reality naturally spills into sport, with most sport federations split into two branches overseeing the development of the games in their own backyards. Football, field hockey and basketball are some of the sports that escape that paradigm, yet many more present unified competitions at the highest level, with nationwide leagues held to sort out the Belgian finest athletes and teams.

The country’s evolvement on sports at the international stage dates back to the second Olympiad, culminating in the 1900 Games in Paris, and Belgium has the honour of having organized one edition of the Summer Games, at Antwerp, in 1920. Sending by far their largest delegation ever, the hosts tallied an incredible 36 medals, including 14 golds, to underline their most successful Olympic participation ever on an edition that comprised 28 other nations. The Olympic movement has grown immensely since those early editions and Belgium never approached the totals of 1920, however they’ve managed to regularly add a handful of honours in every appearance, coming home empty handed for the only time in Los Angeles 1936.

After the Rio de Janeiro Games, Belgium’s medal total is at 148 medals and it is symptomatic that the highest slice was provided by the nation’s number one sport, one that stretches his influence to every nook and cradle of land, uncompromised by linguistic barriers or cultural tensions. Riding bikes through the whole of Belgium, cycling’s marquee names are revered across the country and the populations flock to the roadsides to attend some of the sport’s legendary competitions.

Eddy Merckx riding uphill wearing the rainbow jersey as the reigning World Champion

Eddy Merckx riding uphill wearing the rainbow jersey as the reigning World Champion

It’s thus perfectly fitting that cycling’s greatest of all-time, Eddy Merckx, hails from Belgium, with “The Cannibal” boasting an unmatched trophy cabinet that includes, among dozens of other triumphs, five Tour de France GC wins, five Giro d’Italia, one Vuelta a España, three World Championships titles and victories in all five cycling “Monuments”. However, if no one could ever match Merckx’s achievements, Belgium boasts countless other cycling Champions, with the country amassing more Road Race World Championships titles (26) than any other nation.

Furthermore, Belgium cyclists combined to conquer 18 Tour de France and 7 Giro d’Italia, numbers only surpassed by the hosting nations despite remaining stagnant since 1976 (Tour) and 1978 (Giro). On the other hand, Belgium’s decorated history on one-day classics is still receiving new additions, with the country dominating in accumulated triumphs at three of the Monuments (Tour of Flanders, Liège–Bastogne–Liège and Paris-Roubaix) and coming after hosts Italy on the other two.

Belgium’s cycling prowess naturally extends to the Olympics, with a total of seven gold medals in the sport, the most recent by Greg Van Avermaet at Rio on the men’s road race, yet the other disciplines shouldn’t be forgotten. In mountain biking and track cycling, Belgium athletes have achieved Olympic success in multiple occasions, while in cyclo-cross no country has matched their dominance at the World Championships and World Cup level.

Cycling is definitely the belle of the ball but football has its own predominance in terms of team sports. Two editions of the European Championships (1972 and 2000, this one in a shared organization with Netherlands) were held in Belgium, and the national team has regularly qualified for the major competitions, playing in 12 of 20 World Cups and five Euros. From 1982 to 2002, Belgium never missed the sport’s biggest competition, peaking with a fourth place in 1986, while they were runner ups in the 1980 European Championships, losing the final to West Germany.

The best period of the “Red Devils” history comprehended the 1980’s and 1990’s, with names like Jan Ceulemans – whose 96 caps are a record -, Eric Gerets, Jean-Marie Pfaff, Franky Vercauteren, Enzo Scifo, Marc Wilmots, and Michel Preud’homme deserving recognition, but a new era of glory seems in full swing, with Belgium fresh of reaching the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Euro founded on a tremendous collection of talent that plies its trade abroad on the best European clubs. On the women’s side, the wind is also blowing favourably, as Belgium recently qualified for its first international competition, the 2017 European Championships.

Diego Maradona's Argentina downed the Red Devils at the 1986 World Cup semi final, Belgium's best performance in the competition

Diego Maradona’s Argentina downed the Red Devils at the 1986 World Cup semi final, Belgium’s best performance ever on the competition

From 1976 to 1988, while the National Team racked up successful campaigns, Belgium clubs took advantage of the available resources to also achieve unprecedented heights, collecting a total of seven European trophies, five of those courtesy of the nation’s most successful emblem, R.S.C. Anderlecht. The 33-times National Champions conquered the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1975–76 and 1977–78, the UEFA Cup in 1982-1983 and the European Supercup in 1976 and 1978 to tower over Belgium football, but others also left their mark. Club Brugge K.V, who holds 14 National Championships, played in the premium European Cup Final in 1977–78, something no other Belgium club can claim, and also contested the UEFA Cup Final in 1975-76, while 4-time National Champions K.V. Mechelen won the 1987–88 European Cup Winners’ Cup and the 1988 European Super Cup. With no European feats to pamper but 10 National titles and 7 National Cups laying on their museum, Standard Liège is also one of Belgium’s traditional clubs, while Royale Union Saint-Gilloise dominated the scene before World War II, amassing 11 National titles from 1903 to 1935, as of today still the third highest total.

The clout of cycling and football stars isn’t easily overshadowed, but you could make the case that two tennis players carried the Belgium flag worldwide like few others could after the turn of the century. Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters were both World No.1 in the WTA Rankings in the 2000’s and their résumés speak for the tremendous popularity both enjoyed among tennis’ fan base. The Liège-born Henin won seven Grand Slam titles, including three at Roland Garros, and the single’s tournament at the 2004 Olympics, while Clijsters, a Flanders-native, conquered four majors, including three at the US Open. The duo also led Belgium to its only Fed Cup triumph, in 2001, finishing as the runner- up in 2006 by losing the final on home soil, something emulated nine years later by the men at their maiden Davis Cup final.

Belgium tennis stars Justine Henin (L) and Kim Clijsters (R), friends, teammates and arch rivals for much of their brilliant careers

Belgium tennis stars Justine Henin (L) and Kim Clijsters (R), friends, teammates and arch rivals for much of their brilliant careers

Meanwhile, Athletics is another sport where Belgian woman have bested their male counterparts recently, accounting for the last three Olympic medals in the sport after the men bagged all previous nine. Sprinter Kim Gevaert, twice European Champion in 2006, led the 4x100m relay to silver in Beijing 2008 – in a race won by a Russian team that has recently been disqualified – while high-jumper Tia Hellebaut conquered gold in the same edition, a accomplishment matched by heptathlon’s Nafissatou Thiam in 2016.

Belgium’s track record in team sports other than football isn’t exactly striking but a few deserve further mention.

The Belgium basketball team has participated in the EuroBasket on 17 occasions, with the best result being the fourth place in 1947, yet from 1979 to 2011 they only qualified once (1993). This down period is being put to bed with a fourth consecutive participation looming in 2017, but the country is far from a contender on the continental scale, even at the club level. BC Ostende and Spirou Charleroi may have combined to take 15 of the last 16 national titles, but can’t make a dent in European Competitions.

As for volleyball, the outlook is more promising in face of both national teams’ recent progresses. The men conquered the European League in 2013, and rode the success to guarantee a spot on the World League and secure qualification for the 2014 World Championships, a competition Belgium wasn’t part of since 1978. The women’s national team contested the European Championships in 2007 for the first time in two decades, lost in the final of the 2013 European League and won bronze at the 2013 European Championships.

 The women's national volleyball team of Belgium celebrates an historic bronze medal at the 2013 European Championships

The women’s national volleyball team of Belgium celebrates an historic bronze medal at the 2013 European Championships

At the club level, the main teams have also proved competitive internationally, since Knack Randstad Roeselare won the men’s CEV Top Teams Cup in 2002 and Asterix Kieldrecht won the same competition on the women’s side in 2001, adding the CEV Challenge Cup in 2010. Before that, men’s Noliko Maaseik reached and lost two finals of the CEV Champions League in 1997 and 1999.

In futsal, the national team appeared in the first three World Cups (1989, 1992 and 1996) but has failed to qualify ever since. A fourth place in the 1996 edition is their best outcome, while at the European Championships Belgium were third in the same year but have been ousted in the first round in every subsequent participation, including 2014, edition they organized. However, Action 21 Charleroi, 10-time National Champions since 1999, were crowned European Champions in 2005 after being runner ups in 2002 and 2003.

Another Belgian club with extensive continental pedigree is table tennis’ side Royal Villette Charleroi, which counts seven European Club Cup of Champions since 1994, including five victories in nine finals played in the European Champions League (since 1998-1999), making it the most successful club in this competition. The foundation of all those triumphs was Belgian table tennis legend Jean-Michel Saive who competed in seven Olympics from 1992 to 2012, and was the single’s European Champion in 1994 and runner up at the 1993 World Championships.

Furthermore, in the first editions of the Olympic Games, Belgium piled up medals in water polo (four silvers and one bronze) but since 1964 they haven’t been able to qualify , while the national field hockey team was a force until the 1970’s (winning bronze in 1920) before a down stretch that was only stopped at the turn of the century. The silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics culminated a return to form that had already delivered a third place at the 2007 European Championships and a second position on the same competition in 2013.

Belgium's field hockey national team won a silver medal at the 2016 Olympic Games

Belgium’s field hockey national team won a silver medal at the 2016 Olympic Games

Archery is the sport in which Belgium has amassed the highest number of gold medals (11) at the Olympics, yet those achievements mainly date back to the early 1900’s, since the country broke in 2016 a period of 20 years without representation in the sport at the highest level. Moreover, after the aforementioned cycling and athletics, three other sports can brag to have secured double-digit medals at the Summer Games: Equestrian, Fencing and Judo, with the latter being the most interesting case since it’s been part of the calendar for a shorter period. Belgium judokas brought medals from every edition between 1988 and 2004, with Ingrid Berghmans and Ulla Werbrouck taking gold in 1972 and 1996, both on the -72kg category.

As for sports figures outside of the Olympic range, a shout-out to billiards player Raymond Ceulemans, who dominated several variants of his sport for most of five decades (1963 to 2001), collecting a staggering 35 World titles and 48 European Championships in the process, and motocross racer Stefan Everts, World Champion ten times from 1991 to 2006.

In the winter disciplines, the representation of Belgium is usually reduced to a handful of athletes, nevertheless the country has been able to gather five medals in the Winter Olympics: one in speed skating, two in figure skating (including gold in 1948) and two in bobsleigh. The most recent – and first in 50 years – belongs to speed skater Bart Veldkamp, who finished third in the men’s 5000m in Nagano 1998.

Star Athletes

Tom Boonen (Cycling)

As soon as he closes the book on his storied career, the best eulogy that will be given to Tom Boonen is the nationwide understanding that he undoubtedly merited his place amongst the pantheon of Belgium’s cycling Champions. After all, the three-time Sportsman of the Year (2005, 2007, 2012) provided his compatriots with so many magical journeys over the last fourteen years that they’ll miss watching him power up the hills of Flanders or turbocharge through the cobbles on the roads towards Roubaix.

Tom Boonen took victory in the Paris-Roubaix for the fourth time in 2012

Tom Boonen took victory in the Paris-Roubaix for the fourth time in 2012

Born in Mol, Flanders, in 1980, Tom Boonen has rode all but one season of his professional career for Belgium-based Quick Step and it was draped in blue and/or black that he compiled a list of achievements few can match. The legend started taking shape in 2005, when he became the first man to win the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and World Championships in the same year, and since then it hasn’t stopped growing. About to turn 36, he’s tied for the record of triumphs in two of cycling’s Monuments, having won the Paris-Roubaix on four occasions (2005, 2008, 2009 and 2012) – like compatriot Roger de Vlaeminkx – and the Tour of Flanders three times (2005, 2006, 2012) – similarly to five other men – yet he’s been far from just a single day specialist that hoarded classics in bunches from 2005 to 2012. At the top of his powers, Boonen was also a strong sprinter in bunch finales, tallying six Tour de France stage victories during his career and securing the green jersey in 2007, winning two National road race Championships and finishing in the podium twice at the Milan-San Remo (3rd in 2007 and 2nd in 2007).

With over 100 professional triumphs to his name, “Tornado Tom” is reaching the twilight of his career but he may have a final card up his sleeve: the one he revealed at the 2016 Paris-Roubaix, where he came so close to an unprecedented fifth triumph.

Nafissatou Thiam (Athletics)

Nafissatou Thiam may have exploded into the international scene at the Rio Olympics, but it should be attested her country had already noticed the gem in hands way before that.

The Namur-native, a daughter of a Belgian mother and a Senegalese father, entered her maiden multi-event competition at age nine and would grab the first headlines in 2013, when she broke the women’s pentathlon junior WR indoors at Ghent. The mark wouldn’t be ratified for lack of an anti-doping control, but it didn’t take long for the young Thiam to prove herself in the main senior stages, taking bronze in the heptathlon at the 2014 European Championships and ending the season as the Belgian Sportswoman of the Year.

Nafissatou Thiam trumped a host of more experienced opponents to win gold at the 2016 Olympic Games

Nafissatou Thiam trumped a host of more experienced opponents to win gold at the 2016 Olympic Games

Still, the 22-year-old was considered an outsider heading into the 2016 Olympic Games, where a lifetime performance would deliver the Olympic title. Tapping on her superior length and power, she made ground on the throws (shot put and javelin throw), astonished on the jumps (long jump and high jump) and defended her position on the racing events to claim victory with a Belgium record of 6810 points and five new personal bests. If she keeps the upward trajectory, the charismatic and supremely talented “Nafi” has the tools to dominate the heptathlon for the next decade, and eventually became one of Belgium’s greatest athletes ever.

Eden Hazard (Football)

Picking one guy from the absolute collection of riches that forms the current Belgium football team isn’t an easy proposition, yet I deemed it necessary as a nod to the excellent work made by everyone involved with the revival of the game around the country.

The slick Eden Hazard is one of the stars of Belgium's Red Devils

The slick Eden Hazard is one of the stars of Belgium’s Red Devils

A son of former footballers, Eden Hazard crossed the border to France at age 14 to join Lille’s youth academy and he needed just two years to guarantee a debut for the senior squad in 2007, quickly becoming a key player for the Ligue 1 outfit. Over the next five seasons, Hazard developed into one of the most vibrant players in France due to his pace and creativity, eventually leading the club to a league and cup double in 2010-11, which earned him Player of the Year honours.

After he backed up the individual performance in 2011-12, the giants of Europe lined up to sign him and it was Chelsea FC who snapped the young Belgian winger, who’s been a mainstay at the club since then. In London, Hazard conquered the 2013 Europa League, was elected Young Player of the season in 2014 and flourished during 2014-15, meriting the distinction as Best Player of the Season by powering Chelsea to victories on the League Cup and English Premier League with a bundle of devastating exhibitions.

At age 25, Hazard has already represented his country in two major competitions (2014 World Cup and Euro 2016) since his debut in 2007, and is widely considered one of the top offensive midfielders in World football, making use of his deft technique, mazy runs and clinical finishes.

Other Athletes: Thibault Courtois, Kevin de Bruyne (Football), Pieter Timmers (Swimming), Thomas Van der Plaetsen (Athletics), Charline Van Snick (Judo), Evi Van Acker (Sailing), David Goffin (Tennis), Greg Van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert (road Cycling), Jolien D’Hoore (track Cycling), Sanne Cant (cyclo cross), Bart Swings (Speed Skating), Thomas Pieters (Golf), Jaouad Achab (Taekwondo), Delfine Persoon (Boxing)

Venues

Brussels, capital of the European Union, centre of international cooperation and major multicultural city, was the place of one of the most disgraceful events in the history of European football: the Heysel Stadium disaster, which occurred before the 1985 European Cup Final between Juventus and Liverpool and took 39 lives as fans of both sides engaged in vicious confrontations in the stands.

Such dark episode of hooliganism was possible because of the wretched conditions of Belgium’s national stadium at the time, a venue erected in 1930 which was crumbling in several sectors and in serious need of repairs by his 55th anniversary. With capacity for almost 60,000 people, the Heysel Stadium hosted 7 finals of European Club competitions and the 1972 European Championships Final until the tragic contingencies forced a shutdown only interrupted for sporadic athletics competitions.

By 1995, under the name of King Baudouin Stadium and completely renovated, the largest stadium in Belgium was reopened, in time to receive the 1996 Cup Winner’s Cup Final and  be a part of the 2000 UEFA European Championships, with the opening ceremony and one of the semi-finals taking place in Brussels. The seating capacity is now 50,000 and the infrastructure is used regularly by Belgium’s national team and for annual events such as the National Cup Final and Athletics’ Memmorial Van Damme meeting. Moreover, over the last two decades, the King Baudoin Stadium also hosted international rugby matches, a record-breaking exhibition tennis match between Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams in 2010, and several concerts from luminaries such as U2, Beyoncé and the Rolling Stones.

The King Baudouin Stadium clad in red for a game of the National Team

However, despite a fruitful second life, there are plans for a brand-new National Stadium to be built in Northern Brussels in time for the 2020 UEFA European Championships. The proposed “EuroStadium”, still without a date to break ground, should welcome more than 60,000 people and would ditch the athletics’ track, being used by the National Team and RSC Anderlecht.

Anderlecht currently plays at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, whose initial foundations date back to 1917 and the actual formulation from the latest major renovation in 1983, when all stands were built from scratch and covered. Situated at the border of the Astrid Park, the Stadium, which carries the name of a former Anderlecht chairman and player, hosts just 28,000, including 6,900 standing people; therefore in European matches less than 22,000 tickets can be sold.

The second stadium in Belgium is Liège’s Stade Maurice Dufrasne (or Stade de Sclessin, in honour of the district where it is located). Used by Standard Liège, the venue was opened in 1909 and revamped several times until 2000, when it hosted three games of the European Championships and the capacity was set in 30,000 seats.

Coming right behind in maximum occupation is the Jan Breydel Stadium in Brugge, home of top-flight clubs Cercle and Club Brugge. A venue opened in 1975 as “Olympiastadion” after Club Brugge won the National Championship, the stadium was renamed and expanded in 1998, before the Euro 2000, to reach the more than 29,000 fans it can welcome today.

The other two stadiums that can hold over 20,000 are still relatively new. The 25,000-seats Luminus Arena in Genk was concluded in 1999, while the impressive, state-of-the art Ghelamco Arena was inaugurated in 2013. The new home of KAA Gent counts 20,000 seats and has already been bestowed with the club’s maiden National title celebration in 2014-15, plus some UEFA Champions League action the following season.

The spectacular Ghelamco Arena in Gent is the new landmark of the Belgium city

The spectacular Ghelamco Arena in Gent is the new landmark of the Belgium city

Running contrary to the trend emerging in most European countries, Belgium doesn’t possess a premium indoor arena in its capital city, a big venue that can be relied upon to host big-time sporting events, instead dividing the main competitions held in the state for a handful of locations.

The largest multipurpose arena in Belgium (by seating capacity) is the Ethias Arena in Hasselt – the capital of the province of Limburg – which seats 16,000 but can hold up to 21,000. Built in 2004, is a modern hall part of a broader exposition centre that is preferably used for concerts and cultural fests rather than sports events.

In Antwerp, the Sportpaleis, opened in 1932, was originally built for sports, including a cycling track where the 1969 and 2001 World Championships were contested, but has been reshuffled to fit other purposes. The latest renovation, in 2013, increased the total capacity to over 23,000 people, but nowadays music fans are the ones entering the gates, as concerts book the place regularly, leaving other events to the odd date. Still, the Sportpaleis hosted the 2013 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships and, in early 2015, over 17,000 fans attended a record breaking basketball match.

Nonetheless, most sporting events in Antwerp are now held at the adjacent Lotto Arena, a 5,200 seats-venue opened in 2007. Basketball’s Antwerp Giants are the regular tenants of the place, with the infrastructure also used for WTA and ATP Tour tennis tournaments.

The intimate Lotto Arena, in Antwerp, during a voleyball match

The intimate Lotto Arena, in Antwerp, during a voleyball match

The Flanders Expo in Ghent, a convention center built in 1986, is another location that regularly hosts important sports demonstrations. The biggest hall of the complex, Hall 8, is capable of welcoming 13,000 and was the venue chosen for the Final Four of the 1988 FIBA Champions Cup as well as the 2015 Davis Cup final.

Elsewhere in the city, a smaller amphitheatre, the Flanders Sports Arena, is used primarily for indoor athletics’ competitions, with the best example being the 2000 European Athletics Indoor Championships, while the “Kuipke” is the main velodrome in Belgium. First opened in 1927 on the city’s Citadelpark, and renovated in 1965 following a destructive fire, it seats 3,000 fans during the popular Six Days of Ghent, a track cycling competition held every November.

In Wallonia, the biggest indoor arena is Charleroi’s RTL Spiroudome, inaugurated in 2006 and with capacity for 6300 people, usually the fans of basketball powerhouse Spirou Charleroi. Meanwhile,  in Liège, the Country Hall Ethias Liège is the place to go for sports presentations, as the multi-purpose arena renovated in 2005 is used by Liège Basket and received the 1973 FIBA European Champions Cup Final and the 1977 EuroBasket Final.

Also located in the French-speaking region of Belgium is one of the country’s most iconic venues, the circuit of Spa-Francorchamps, where the Formula One Belgium Grand Prix, the Spa 24 Hours, and a multitude of other motor racing competitions are held. Capable of welcoming around 70,000 fans, the racing track first used in 1922 is one of the most challenging circuits in the world, being a favourite of most drivers and fans for its hilly and twisty nature, as well as the background of the Ardennes forests.

An overview of the dashing Spa-Francorchamps circuit

An overview of the dashing Spa-Francorchamps circuit

And we couldn’t close out this section without a reference to the roads of Belgium, which are paved by cyclists competing almost on a daily basis. From the winding Flanders-based classics rich in short, cobbled hills, to the Ardennes one-day races populated with consecutive, steep climbs, the beautiful countryside of Belgium and its charming towns are part of a giant outdoor venue that showcases to the World the passion of millions of Belgians.

Yearly Events

The list of significant cycling races held in Belgium is so extensive that you can virtually attend a major sports spectacle (for free) every week, anywhere, from March to October.

However, if cycling isn’t your thing, the best option is football, with the Belgium Championship, a mid-level European league, running from late July to May. The clubs are mainly located in Flanders and the Brussels region, with Liège and Charleroi as the main exceptions.  Meanwhile, the Basketball League starts in October and ends in June, whereas Volleyball’s regular season goes from October to March, with the playoffs stretching the play to early May.

For a summary of the rest of Belgium’s main yearly sporting events, look below:

Tour of Flanders (Ronde Van Vlaanderen), Cycling

Flanders region, early April

Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Cycling

Wallonia, Ardennes region, late April

The peloton of the classic Liège-Bastogne-Liège is saluted by a mass of people

The peloton of the classic Liège-Bastogne-Liège is saluted by a mass of people

Spa 24h, Motorcycle Endurance Racing

Spa-Francorchamps Circuit (near Stavelot, Liège Province), July

Belgian Grand Prix (Formula One World Championship), Automobile Racing

Spa-Francorchamps Circuit, August

Memorial Van Damme (IAAF Diamond League Meeting), Athletics

Brussels, September

Brussels Marathon, Athletics

Brussels, October

European Open (ATP Tour), Tennis

Antwerp, October

Six Days of Ghent, Track Cycling

Ghent, November

Cross Cup Brussels, Cross Country running

Laeken Park (Brussels), December

 

The Notebook: US Open 2016 (II)

The last of tennis’ Grand Slams ended last Sunday in Queens, NY after two first-time Champions were crowned during the weekend, and it was fitting that a season oversaturated of competition during the summer months was capped with the triumphs of two dogged, late-maturing sensations.

Both Angelique Kerber and Stan Wawrinka devoted huge chunks of their career to ironing out playing styles that lacked some fundamentals to reach the summit, but since their breakthroughs they’ve wholly justified their place amongst the game’s rarefied heaven of big-time Champions, with the performances on the courts of Flushing Meadows solidifying a legacy few would have predicted not too long ago.

However, much more transpired in New York over the second part of the fortnight and it was worth compiling a few considerations on some of the other players that found themselves under the spotlight, whether by defying the odds or falling short of expectations.

I obviously encourage you to check out the first instalment that focused on the earliest action before diving into this final chapter, in which I started by highlighting a few ladies before moving to the men. Miss Kerber is the first on the spot while Mr. Wawrinka closes the book.

 

Angelique Kerber

Absolutely astonishing is how one would describe the year Angelique Kerber is having, fuelling one of the major storylines of the sports world in 2016.

The German, which had her breakout performance at the 2011 US Open by reaching the semi-finals as an unassuming 23-year-old, established her niche on the top 10 since then but always seemed to lack substance or power to take the next step into “Grand Slam contender” territory. Thus, for a player that hadn’t made it past the third round of a Major in 2015, outmanoeuvring Serena Williams at the Australian Open in January during a punishing third set battle was stunning and, in hindsight, the moment that unlocked the door to greatness.

Except for the underwhelming appearance at RG, where the weight of being a Grand Slam Champion was still sinking in, Kerber’s season has been close to impeccable, delivering at Wimbledon (Final) and the Olympics (silver) before putting the cherry on top at the US Open. She has amassed the most wins on Tour by a large margin (54 to Halep’s 40), attended seven finals, including her first three in Majors, and her tennis improved by leaps and bounds in every surface. When the World No 1 was secured late last week, she had already backed up the achievement with her performance and regularity, regardless of Serena Williams’ self-imposed (extra-) light schedule.

Angelique Kerber’s forehand has been fundamental for her improvement in 2016

In New York, the progresses in her game flourished in the latter rounds to perfectly summarize her improbable ascendance in front of a horde of casual tennis fans. First, she was able to patiently overcome a tricky player that denies any kind of rhythm during ball exchanges in last year’s finalist Roberta Vinci, stepping in the court aggressively to control the points while keeping the unforced errors in check. Then, she wrestled against a motivated Caroline Wozniacki that ventured much farther than usual, and dealt with continual moonballs with aplomb, displaying improved agility to whip accurate forehands inside out and down the line.

Lastly, facing in the final a player that had recently delayed her dream of becoming the world leader with a humbling loss, the German showed everything pundits had been raving about. Her improved fitness, essential to sustain the haymakers coming from the other end, the killer instinct to pounce when Plíšková’s serve flinched, and the mental strength to dial back in after losing her first set on the entire tournament. Her lefty swats on the run turned some points upside down delivering winners from unsuspected positions, and she picked her spots thoughtfully, with her forehand opening angles that explored the Czech’s debilities moving around the court and forced untimely net approaches.

At age 28, Angie Kerber is the oldest player to debut at the top of the WTA rankings by more than three years, but she has enough time to add more silverware to her résumé at a time when Serena Williams seems to be finally sliding downhill, established names are out (Viktoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova), and other challengers struggle to find the right balance (Garbiñe Muguruza, Madison Keys, Petra Kvitova). The future will bring new tests, none more significant than entering every match with a target on her back, but the German’s maturity resonates well with an ultimately fruitful period at the top of the game.

Karolína Plíšková

The tall Czech finally took a much awaited step forward at the US Open

The tall Czech finally took a much awaited step forward at the US Open

The first thing that stands out when looking at Karolína Plíšková are those infinitely long legs. The second is her serve, and both are inherently correlated, as the Czech boasts one of the best deliveries in the WTA Tour, capable of banking aces with unmatched consistency. Couple that with a powerful forehand that can cause havoc from the baseline, and you’ve got a player with the tools to supplant any opponent on a good day.

Unfortunately for Plíšková, those days never seemed to arrive at a Slam, as the 24-year-old struggled to deliver in the biggest tournaments despite competing in more than a dozen finals since 2014. Until the 2016 US Open, the Czech had never reached the second week of a Grand Slam in 17 appearances, but at least she made it count when the opportunity finally arose, taking down both Williams’ sisters in the process, something only three other players had done before at a Major.

Escaping a thunderous fourth-round encounter against Venus, when she had to save match points, was probably the click she needed and Serena was left to palate the finest version of Plíšková’s game. For instance, on the semi-final match, the long-limbed Plíšková was absolutely impenetrable on her service games, winning more than 80% of the points on the first serve and surrendering just one break point to one of the most accomplished returners in the game. Additionally, the 24-year-old also rocketed several laser shots past Serena, especially in important points, and exhibited an ice cool presence with the sets on the line, with no discernible signs of distress on her play when it counted the most.

Perhaps tapping on her experiences on a couple of Fed Cup finals, Plíšková seemed to thrive with all eyes on her and produced the shock of the women’s draw to extend a run of 11 consecutive triumphs dating back to Cincinnati.

On those, she had defeated five top ten players, including Angelique Kerber, but the rematch against the German wouldn’t be as successful under different circumstances. Kerber neutralized Plíšková’s serve and lethal groundstrokes with solid defensive skills and superior stamina, and was able to puncture back using her own delivery, regularly angling the ball towards Plíšková’s backhand and taking advantage of feeble returns to assume control with her forehand. Nonetheless, the Czech was still able to snatch the second set before falling at the end of the decider, a brave performance at her maiden Grand Slam Final

Karolína Plíšková should use the US Open as a springboard for more roars in the future

Karolína Plíšková should use the US Open as a springboard for more roars in the future

Even if the most successful fortnight of Plíšková’s career didn’t end with the trophy aloft on her hands, the lanky Czech left New York under an entirely different aura, having discarded the underachiever label, and with newfound objectives after sealing a new career-high ranking of No.6. She should be excited for what lies ahead, especially if she keeps improving her movement and finds a way to ensure bigger margins of error when dictating the play.

Serena Williams

Coming off a dispiriting loss early at the Olympic competition, Serena Williams arrived in NY under intense scrutiny over her mental and physical condition, but for the first four matches she was her usual self, looking unattainable, dispatching opponents with ease and cruising without conceding a single service game. However, at the quarter-finals, Simona Halep would force the American to long rallies and a taxing three-set battle,  which exposed a few cracks that Karolína Plíšková would accentuate 24h later.

Reportedly hobbled by a knee injury and supporting a shoulder in less than ideal conditions, the mighty Serena was beaten at her own game, unable for much of the match to deal with the Czech’s vertiginous serve and struggling to impose her ball-striking powers. The defeat in just two sets was finalized by a double fault on match point and Serena was left to re-enact the scene of last year, striding to the net to congratulate a foe that had just achieved her most memorable victory whereas the Arthur Ashe Stadium processed what had just happened.

Serena saw her title hopes in NY dashed at the SF for the second consecutive year

Serena saw her title hopes in NY dashed at the SF for the second consecutive year

Soon to be 35 years old, the American lost her World No.1 after 186 consecutive weeks, a record-tying period that she’ll probably share for a long time with Steffi Graf, but it’s reasonable to expect she’ll regain the honour until the end of a season that hasn’t been up to her lofty standards.

Serena reached three Grand Slam finals and one SF in 2016, but only conquered one big trophy (Wimbledon) while looking more vulnerable than ever. Until Wimbledon 2015 her W-L record in Grand Slam semifinals and finals was 46-7 but is just 4-4 since, a sign that her rivals are finally catching up. It’s almost certain she’ll get that elusive 23rd Major sooner or later, but maybe somewhere next year (not yet at Australia, if healthy) she’ll start a big tournament without being the odds-on favourite. It’s about time for a change of the guard.

Ana Konjuh

On the tournament that crowned the oldest No.1 in women’s tennis history, another statistic caught my eye: only 8 teenagers were entered in the main draw in comparison with 20 players aged 30 or older. Slowly but steadily, the female tour is going through the same path experienced by the men, one where youngsters increasingly need more time to mature their game and emerge at the top.

Thus, in this era is naturally newsworthy that an 18-year-old woman breaks into the last eight of Slam, even if Ana Konjuh has been tipped as a future star for some time. A two-time Junior Grand Slam Champion, the Croatian’s progress was slowed down by injuries after she turned professional in 2014, shortly after celebrating her 16th birthday, but she always seemed primed for the type of breakout performance we got to witness in New York. World No. 4 Agnieszka Radwańska may have survived match points in the second round of Wimbledon last July, when an untimely step on a misplaced ball incapacitated Konjuh, but this time she was unquestionably bested by the teenager from Dubrovnik.

18-year-old Ana Konjuh prepares for another powerful shot that may put the opponent on her heels

18-year-old Ana Konjuh prepares for another powerful shot that may put the opponent on her heels

Throughout the match, spectators watched as winners rained on the Pole off both sides with Konjuh mingling eye-popping power with efficient shot selection and ample doses of spin, conjuring a heavy ball that her opponent just couldn’t handle and is bound to claim more victims in the future. Moreover, the Croat also showcased a booming serve that yields a fair amount of aces and is part of Konjuh’s arsenal despite her unremarkable frame.

A lopsided quarter-final defeat at the hands of Karolína Plíšková proved the Croatian prodigy still has a ways to go to fully deliver on the promise, but the potential is evident. Konjuh is now on the verge of the top 50, yet regularly competing in the latter stages of top events should be her hallmark in the near future.

Anastasija Sevastova

For me it’s one of the appeals of women’s tennis: the amount of unseeded players that Major after Major are able to break through the draws, reach the latter stages of the tournament and then proceed to keep toiling away after that. It’s a product of a WTA Tour that is, recognizably, more susceptible to upsets and Cinderella campaigns seldom seen in the men’s tour.

Just in 2016, we had already seen Shuai Zhang, who had never won a match in a Grand Slam, take down Halep and Madison Keys to grab a last eight spot in Melbourne, no less than three unheralded players (Kiki Bertens, Shelby Rogers and Tsvetana Pironkova) sweep away seed after seed at Roland Garros, and Elena Vesnina plod around Wimbledon to set up an encounter with Serena in the SF.

Anastasija Sevastova in action at the US Open

Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova in action at the US Open

At Flushing Meadows, the feel-good story had the face of a 26-year-old Latvian still fresh of a two year retirement due to several nagging injuries, who just one year ago passed incognito through the US Open qualifying while on a season-long comeback to the top 200.

While true that on her first tour of duty Sevastova had been a solid performer, ranking as high as 36 at age 21, winning a WTA title and reaching the second week of the Australian Open, there wasn’t a lot pointing to a possible breakthrough before the US Open, as her top performance of 2016 was in Bucharest, where she was battered (6-0, 6-0) by Simona Halep in the final.

However, with a lot of help from a discombobulated Garbiñe Muguruza, she notched her maiden top-five win in the second round, and later avoided the dreaded hangover by further shocking 13th-seed Johanna Konta. She deserved better luck than rolling her ankle early against Caroline Wozniacki, but by then her clean, smooth shots off both sides and resourcefulness to mix slices, drops and invasive strokes had gained admirers. Poised and talented, Sevastova is a name to keep under attention over the next months, joining rising star Jelena Ostapenko as a top-50 player hailing from the small Baltic nation.

 

Kei Nishikori

For the first season in his career, Kei Nishikori reached the second week of every Grand Slam in the calendar but he’ll end the year with a sour taste on his mouth. With Nadal and Federer yo-yoing on and off the Tour, and Djokovic suffering after slaying the Roland Garros’ dragon, the Japanese had a great opportunity to find his way into a second Major final but couldn’t capitalize. In Flushing Meadows, he once again proved worthy of those stages but his chances were nixed by the usual Achilles heel: a fragile body that rarely levers the rigors of consecutive battles against top players.

Despite besting Andy Murray in the QF, Kei Nishikori wasn't able to keep the ball rolling long enough to emerge victorious at the US Open

Despite besting Andy Murray in the QF, Kei Nishikori wasn’t able to keep the ball rolling long enough to emerge victorious at the US Open

Case in point: in his quarter-final appointment he played well (especially after the weather conditions determined an indoor affair) and was able to penetrate into Andy Murray’s astonishing defence to wrangle a famous victory, yet couldn’t do the necessary follow up against Wawrinka. He still managed to go a set and a break up on the Swiss with authority, but couldn’t keep the foot on the pedal and would let the rival off the mat on the second set. A sudden fitness breakup followed before long, and it opened the door for Stan to turn the table completely and take the driver’s seat, edging through in four outings.

It’s been validated Nishikori’s game, an attractive variety of flat, wheezing strokes from both wings and off-pace shots depicting every trick in the book of tennis, is well-rounded and adequate for a potential multi-Slam winner, but he can’t continue to let opportunities like this slip through his fingers. And they’ll just keep skirting Nishikori if he can’t find a way to trade blows with his prevailing opponents for as long it takes.

Juan Martin Del Potro

Meanwhile, Juan Martin Del Potro may have also been betrayed by physical shortcomings but his defeat at the hands of Wawrinka stemmed mainly from other sources. The Argentinian looked mentally drained after an emotional summer on what it is still an incomplete comeback trail, and faced an opponent that held the keys to slow him down.

With the upset at Wimbledon still fresh in his memory, the Swiss defused Del Potro’s bread-and-butter weapon, the massive forehand, with his own exceptional shot, a strong backhand that pressed the rival towards the corner during crosscourt exchanges, limiting his opportunities to seize control and dictate from the baseline. Thus, Del Potro’s sub-par backhand had to absorb responsibilities and, in his current form, proved no match for Wawrinka’s fiery forehand, a much more consistent backup plan. If the Argentine hopes to add to his 2009 US Open title, he better improve the backhand so that it might carry some water over two weeks and seven best-of five encounters.

Juan Martin Del Potro, the 2009 US Open Champion, still has work to do before getting back to his best

Juan Martin Del Potro, the 2009 US Open Champion, still has work to do before getting back to his best

Gaël Monfils

Just three months after missing his beloved Roland Garros with a virus, the greatest opportunity for Gaël Monfils to leave his mark at a Major presented itself in NY, and the Frenchman’s reaction was to throw it down the court, out of bounds, aimlessly, just like he would if he was down match points during a rout.

For just the second time, tennis’ ultimate showman was in the last four of a Grand Slam and judging by what stood on the other side, he simply had to do better. Yes, it was the World No. 1, the reigning Champion, one of the best hard-court players of all-time, and someone he hadn’t beat in 12 confronts on the professional ranks, but also an ailing, slightly out-of-sorts Novak Djokovic that was there to be conquered.

The defiant Gaël Monfils pings the ball back during the match against Novak Djokovic

The defiant Gaël Monfils pings the ball back during the match against Novak Djokovic

Yet, a few minutes into the volatile contest, Djokovic was 5-0 up and not even the guy that had yet to concede a set in the tournament had the mental fortitude to believe he could go head-to-head for hours and come out on top. His efficient, measured, business-like attitude went out of the stadium (through the roof?), and instead fans were treated with a deliberate attempt to rattle the opponent with insistent slices, heartless chips and lackadaisical play, the total opposite of what had endeared him to the audience in his previous matches.

The trick shots, the leaping blows, the unparalleled athleticism that fascinates viewers, would make a short return later on, but Monfils’ decision making and focus faltered down the stretch in spite of Djokovic’s evident struggles. The grimacing Serbian could barely serve on the fourth set with the shoulder pulsating, yet his foe sealed by himself a disappoint finish to a story that pledged so much. At age 30, Monfils’ time was there, and he squandered it.

Lucas Pouille

The final few days of the men’s Grand Slams are usually populated by the same faces, as the group that challenges for the top-honours is eminently hermetic. The same 10-12 names (and that may be stretching it) arrive at the latter rounds regularly, and true shocks are far and few between until the quarter-finals, when the competition gets stiffer. When they do happen we can normally pinpoint the reason the favourite got upset, ranging from health /conditioning reasons to an uncharacteristically bad day at the office where everything goes awry. What happened to Rafael Nadal at the US Open was different, as the 14-times Grand Slam Champion, who breezed through the first week, was simply outlasted by an opponent that was just slightly better… at a five-set marathon, no less.

Lucas Pouille had already impressed at Wimbledon by defeating Juan Martin Del Potro to reach the quarter-finals, but grinding a triumph over the Spanish legend was even more special as the two exchanged pleasantries over five scintillating sets.

Lucas Pouille's reaction after upsetting Rafael Nadal provided some of the wackiest photos of the tournament

Lucas Pouille’s reaction after upsetting Rafael Nadal was ….intense

Despite having already endured two long battles in the initial rounds, the 22-year-old blitzed Nadal in the first juncture with tremendous flat strokes from every possible angle, and kept his nerve through the ups and downs of the slugfest, negotiating the long rallies until he could go for massive winners or attack at the net. Even trailing a break in the decider, with everyone expecting a quick finish, Pouille hang on physically, didn’t waver and overcome a legendary competitor like the Spaniard to snatch victory in the tiebreak.

It was a stunning epilogue for one of the top matches of the 2016 US Open, and the signature triumph for a player that broke into the top 100 for the first time last year and boasts the firepower to settle in the top 10 very soon. Exhausted, Pouille was no match for Gaël Monfils two days later, having to resort to consecutive, ill-timed net approaches in order to speed up the points, but it didn’t matter that much. The hype won’t wane anytime soon.

Stanislas Wawrinka

Who would have predicted, back in January 2013, that the man that had just been defeated by Djokovic on a sparkling five-set thriller would be three quarters of the way towards a career Slam less than four years later?

A brawny player with a backhand to behold was the scouting report on the Swiss for the first few seasons on the Tour, but maddening inconsistency impeded his progress inside the second week of the best tournaments worldwide. However, that battle with Djokovic showed Wawrinka he had the means to swing with the best and he rose from Roger Federer’s Davis Cup partner to Grand Slam Final world-beater in three stunning acts.

At age 31, he’s growing more dangerous by the day and his big-match panache is reaching legendary levels, with 11 consecutive triumphs in finals and a perfect record in the decisive game of Majors.

There were plenty of opportunities for Stan Wawrinka to show off his trademark celebration at the US Open

There were plenty of opportunities for Stan Wawrinka to show off his trademark celebration at the US Open

Yet, at the US Open, the Swiss had to survive a scare on the first week, nearly falling at the hands of unheralded Dan Evans in the third round before he righted the ship. Later, Stanimal summoned his beast mode to conquer the challenges posed by Del Potro and Nishikori as his superior physical condition made the difference and helped set up a much waited rematch with the World No.1, Novak Djokovic.

In another duel from what has grown to become a highly entertaining rivalry, the Swiss stunningly dictated the terms of the contest for the near four hours of back and forth action. His heavy strokes controlled the rallies and took time away from Djokovic on both wings, forcing the hand of the Serbian several times. Having to toe the line between keeping the ball deep and opening angles, Djokovic was consistently burned with explosive winners down the line in return.

Moreover, the fluid one-handed backhand of the Swiss, one of the most lethal weapons on the Tour, opened seams in Djokovic’s usually impermeable defence and flustered the Serbian in so many occasions that the defending Champion couldn’t muster the alertness to take full advantage of the opportunities he still managed to produce.

Djokovic went an uncharacteristic 3-of-17 on break points in the final, and looked clunky on his serve after the first set, whilst his rival synched body and mind with each passing point, displaying a courageous form that could only stir from the deep belief on his own chances of making history. And so he did, pointing to his temple after another error by his opponent on match point.

Third Grand Slam Trophy for Stanislas Wawrinka

Third Grand Slam Trophy for Stanislas Wawrinka

Wawrinka is now only the fifth man to gather two Slams after turning 30 and his burly figure shows no sign of decay as his late-career blooming continues to intensify on the events where players are asked to push the limits of their bodies. Indeed, Wawrinka boasts a single Masters 1000 title (Monte Carlo, 2014), but has reached the QF’s in 10 of the last 13 Majors, where the larger margins of error allowed on best-of-five matches suit him perfectly. Step by step during the fortnight, he calibrates his power shots, builds his physique and exercises the mental resilience necessary to zone in and thrive in the biggest stages at the right moment.

By equalling Andy Murray’s Grand Slam total, “Stan the Man” has now tinted an inescapable new reality. He’s not only a sure-fire Hall of Famer, but one of the top players of the XXI century and full member of the elite of men’s tennis, joining the Big Four. May we toast to tennis’ “Fab Five”.

The “Notebook”: US Open 2016 (I)

It’s been a while since I wrote about tennis and the last Major of the season represented a perfect opportunity to end that drought. The first 8 days of both singles’ main draws are already in the books – with the quarter finals looming – and it seemed appropriate to compile a few remarks on the major storylines of the competition so far.

This post is a miscellany on a few topics, from players that have impressed or gone home early, pre-tournament expectations that have delivered or went off the rails, overarching trends that are breaking out or have fizzled, or just simple rants on specific individuals. It isn’t exactly rich in tactical/technical considerations as the time to watch the multitude of games is limited, but maybe we can tackle that a bit soon enough

On a second part I expect to dissert on what transpires in New York on the closing days of the fortnight, delving into the top players that have cruised through the competition without too much trouble until now and some of the lesser known names still alive entering the final stretch (Ana Konjuh, Karolina Pliskova or Lucas Pouille, for example).

(I expect to sharpen the concept behind this “Notebook” on future occasions – and not necessarily just tennis tournaments -and present a more concerted effort that doesn’t resemble a patchwork)

The American Men: Present and Future

For a country that’s been looking for a torch-bearer in the men’s side since Andy Roddick retired, the US Open has proved enlightening about the United States’ ATP prospects in the near future. And it began shortly after the first balls were popped for the main draw, with a doubleheader between up-and-coming aces and the more established names. Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz, both 18 years old, duelled John Isner and Jack Sock, respectively,  to tight five-set encounters that fired up the crowd and were a few bounces away from knocking out their compatriots, further amplifying the expectations of future stardom for the two prodigies.

Isner, the main American of the last couple of seasons, has seen his status threatened by Sock and Steve Johnson, and didn’t help his case with a four-set defeat to British youngster Kyle Edmund. Meanwhile, Jack Sock went on to impressively make quick work of former Champion Marin Cilic in three sets before falling to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The 23-year-old with a remarkable ability to spin his forehand was the last American man playing and he left without breaking a curse that has plagued the home boys recently: Since Andy Roddick in 2011, no American has been able to reach the quarter-finals.

Jack Sock (right) authored one of the upsets of the US Open when he defeated former Champion Marin Cilic in three sets

Jack Sock (right) authored one of the upsets of the US Open when he defeated former Champion Marin Cilic in three short sets

As for Johnson, he was unceremoniously dumped out by Juan Martin Del Potro in the second round, just a few days after publicly calling out the decision to award the Argentinian a wild card that was destined for a young native.

The player that had to navigate the qualifying because of that decision? 20-year-old Jared Donaldson, one of the major surprises of the first week by stringing five consecutive wins in Flushing Meadows, including a first round upset of Belgium’s David Goffin in the first round and a straight sets triumph over Serbia’s Viktor Troicki later on. When he succumbed to the invigorated Ivo Karlovic on Saturday night, Donaldson had already gone further than any other American wild card receiver, with his serve and return game deserving accolades. It’s expected he shouldn’t need an invitation the next time around.

Reaching the same stage as Donaldson was fellow qualifier Ryan Harrison, the former phenomenon who dispatched fifth-seed Milos Raonic on the second round in a match marked by the Canadian’s vicious cramps.

Germany: The female powerhouse that sputtered

Lost amongst the emergence of Angelique Kerber as the most consistent challenger to Serena’s dominance is the gradual erosion of the rest of Germany’s star quartet: the group that waltzed together into the top 20 in 2011/12 and created expectations of a Fed Cup dynasty that never materialized.

The careers of Angelique Kerber and Sabine Lisicki have followed different paths over the last seasons

The careers of Angelique Kerber and Sabine Lisicki have followed different paths over the last few years

In those years, Julia Goerges (15th, 3/2012), Sabine Lisicki (12th, 10/2012) and Andrea Petkovic (9th, 10/2011) posted career-highs in the WTA rankings, but if Kerber has finished in the top 10 in every season since, the rest has stumbled as their careers advance. Injuries partly justify the decline but it’s still disappointing that those three have combined for a single Grand Slam final appearance (Lisicki, Wimbledon 2013) and two semi-finals (Lisicki, Wimbledon 2011; Petkovic, Roland Garros, 2014).

At the US Open, Petkovic was brushed aside by Belinda Bencic in the second round, tying her season-best at Slams, while Goerges got dumped out by Venus Williams on the same stage. Meanwhile, Lisicki, currently ranked 84th, was pummelled by Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva in the inaugural round and is in danger of dropping out of the top 100 soon. All are still in their 20’s, but time is running out as other names emerge, from 22-year-old’s  Annika Beck and Anna-Lena Friedsam to the slightly-more experienced Laura Siegmund, already ranked 27th in World after reaching the top 100 for the first time in 2015.

As for those Fed Cup results, the Germans only once went to the final, in 2014, where they were beaten by their tiny neighbours Czech Republic, who have collected four of the last five titles…

The Great Dane is giving signs of life

Since being upstaged from the top of the World Rankings after the 2012 Australian Open, Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki has endured a steady decline that was only briefly halted in 2014, when she reached the final of the US Open. As her off-court commitments have become more prominent, she’s become an afterthought in the biggest tournaments, with that 2014 campaign in NY as her single appearance in the last eight of a GS since early 2012. Despite hovering around the top 10 for a long time, sometimes one gets the sense that Wozniacki stays relevant because she’s Serena’s BFF and a pretty face to put in front of a camera.

However, just 26 years old and under the glittering Big Apple lights, maybe things are changing just as her career seemed to be approaching a fork in the road. Ranked an aberrant No.74 entering the last Major of the year, Wozniacki’s classic counterpunching style just wasn’t proving as effective as in the dawn of her career, since opponents have adapted and can either blow the ball past her and match the stamina and consistency that function as the staple of her game.

Pundits said she needed to step forward, use her athleticism to drive the ball and put her rivals under pressure, and in this tournament she has followed suit. More aggression functioned against the 9th-seed Svetlana Kuznetsova in round two and helped dispatch Monica Niculescu (a player that forces opponents to set the pace), contributing to an important boost of confidence.

The resolution of the past is back on Caroline Wozniacki's face

The resolution of the past is back on Caroline Wozniacki’s face

With her coolness restored, came a vintage Wozniacki performance to outlast the favourite Madison Keys. Tactically savvy to force the opponent out of the comfort zone by deftly varying her shots and serve placement, unfazed through the swift barrages of winners, and composed as her rival entered a tailspin due to the Dane’s vaunted defensive skills and ability to prolong the rallies. In one week, the former World No.1 beat more top-10 players (2) at a Major than during her entire stint at the top of the game (1). Maybe a renaissance has started on a place that Wozniacki clearly loves.

The intricate succession of Serena Williams 

The grasp of Serena Williams on American tennis has been so absolute for so long that seeing another female player (outside of Venus) step out of her shadow has taken more time than it should on a country like the USA. The US Open is the tournament where candidates showcase their credentials and every year new names are added to the ballot. However, few go on to break into the top echelon of the game, displaying year round consistency and a firm growing curve. Until last year, Sloane Stephens (who pulled out injured in NY) looked well on his way to that level, but it was eventually Madison Key’s door to knock wide open.

Keys’ 2015 highlights – SF in Australia and QF at Wimbledon – may flash brighter on her résumé but the regularity achieved during this season points to an evolution that is hitting all the right notes, with good performances spread across different tiers of tournaments and surfaces. At the US Open, Keys was pushed to the brink twice in the tournament and came out roaring like a Champion – not unlike the Queen of the WTA Tour – leading many to believe the story would go on unblemished. Aged 21, bursting with lethal groundstrokes and a powerful serve adorned with a striking mechanic that resembles many of the finest male players, Madison Keys was a superstar in the making that would lead the American aspirations as soon as she fine-tunes his amazing qualities.

Madison Keys' inate firepower is one of the reasons she's been tabbed as the future of USA's tennis

Madison Keys’ inate firepower is one of the reasons she’s been tabbed as the future of USA’s tennis

Not so fast…as Caroline Wozniacki so eloquently illustrated on their fourth-round encounter, with Keys’ game neutralized by a rival willing to deny her intents of pocketing points in a hurry with her overpowering acceleration. She learned a valuable lesson and we quickly remembered  it too: the American’s game, as most heavy-hitters (Petra Kvitova is a good comparison), is beautiful to watch in the peaks, but excruciating in the valleys, with blasts sailing meters wide (or long) and harried executions dyeing at the bottom of the net. The learning curve is still steep to threaten the Queen.

For the rest of the American roster on the women’s side, the US Open wasn’t a banner event either. 29th seed Coco Vandeweghe, a big-serving player quietly on the verge of her 25th anniversary, followed up a really strong grass season with a first round defeat to 18-year-old Japanese sensation Naomi Osaka. The once-promising Christina McHale couldn’t resist the 2015 finalist Roberta Vinci in the second round, while the top 50-ranked Madison Brengle and Shelby Rogers, a surprising quarter-finalist in Roland Garros, were upset by younger compatriots. Brengle retired before 16-year-old Kayla Day, the US Under-18 National Champion, could complete the job, but Rogers was outplayed by 17-year-old Catherine Bellis, who burst onto the scene in similar conditions in 2014.

The Brits are finally coming

Andy Murray arrived in New York as the odds-on favourite to take a Grand Slam title for the first time in his career, but Great Britain’s media has had more to rejoice than just the spoils very much left in play by Novak Djokovic’s sudden drop from the pedestal. A few years ago, the Scot’s footsteps in major events were supposed to be followed by two promising young girls in Heather Watson and Laura Robson, but those two have failed to deliver, leaving the 2016 US Open on the first round without much fanfare. On their place have step up three names that created a buzz for British Tennis in the first week.

The 25-year-old Johanna Konta – who came out of nowhere to reach the fourth round one year ago – justified the hype that has surrounded her rise following the semi-final run in Melbourne by dismantling Belinda Bencic in the third round, even if she then lost a winnable match against Anastasija Sevastova.

The youngster Kyle Edmund is Great Britain's best male prospect since Andy Murray

The youngster Kyle Edmund is Great Britain’s best male prospect since Andy Murray

On the men’s side, Kyle Edmund and Dan Evans are still riding the impulse of the Davis Cup victory last fall, joining Murray to become the first British trio to reach the third round of the US Open in 48 years. The 26-year-old Evans, an offensive talent with a knack for net play, shocked the highly-touted Alex Zverev in the second round before producing a thriller against Stan Wawrinka in the third, even wasting a couple of match points in the fourth set before succumbing in the decider. As for Edmund, a former junior star, his lightning-quick forehand and heavy style were too much for the crafty Richard Gasquet in the first round and for John Isner later on, with Novak Djokovic putting a stop to his progress on the last 16.

Setbacks, declines and darkhorses

To end, a few lines on some renowned players dropping out early on the women’s event plus a brush stroke on everyone’s preferred dark horses on the men’s side.

Ana Ivanovic, who’s yet to string three consecutive triumphs in 2016, kept her mediocre season going with a straight sets defeat to Denisa Allertova in the first round. The slow eclipse continues for the former World No.1, whose Semi-Final run in Roland Garros last year, the first on a Major in seven years, is looking more like a thing of the past by the day.

Eugenie Bouchard’s bumpy ride over the last two years caught another rut in New York with a disappointing first round loss to Katerina Siniakova, World No. 72. The Canadian hasn’t been able to amass any type of momentum that favours an approach to the level displayed in 2014, her breakout season, and the net point loss from this result will make her ranking spill outside of the top 50 again.

The World No. 3, Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza, suffered a startling exit at the hands of Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova in the second round, prolonging her listless form since a maiden Grand Slam triumph in the clay of Paris. After quick exits at Wimbledon and the Olympics, the 23-year-old looked apathetic against Sevastova, losing her serve seven times in two sets and lacking the spirit to take full advantage of her opponent’s shakiness on the verge of a famous triumph.

Garbiñe Muguruza has been left looking for answers regularly over the last few weeks

Garbiñe Muguruza has been left looking for answers regularly over the last few weeks

The newly crowned Olympic Champion, Puerto Rico’s Monica Puig, crashed out at the first hurdle in NY but I’m certain few were wholly stunned by it. The 23-year-old has never reached the quarter-finals of a Major, and all the partying following her improbable achievement was far from an ideal preparation for a debut under an entirely different limelight. Undoubtedly a letdown for failing to capitalize on the newfound recognition, but Puig gets a pass for a few more weeks. After all, becoming a national hero overnight certainly takes some time to assimilate.

On the flip side, most of the men’s narratives have hovered around the positive vibes emanating from the top-notch level of play exhibited by some beloved crowd-pleasers. Above all else is, obviously, Juan Martin Del Potro, who has carved through the draw with his hammer of a forehand. Building on the upset of Stan Wawrinka in Wimbledon and the fairytale campaign at Rio de Janeiro, the gangly Argentine is yet to relinquish a set in four matches, dispatching on the way the American highest seeded player, Steve Johnson, and the ever-unrelenting David Ferrer.

Also yet to cede a set is French Showman Gael Monfils, whose spectacular style has been toned down slightly to provision for an uptick in effectiveness. With his rare athleticism visibly intact, the 29-year-old may now be approaching that sweet spot we’ve all been waiting for years, a scary proposition for everyone standing on the other half of the court.

With Nadal eliminated, Federer watching on television from the other side of the Atlantic and Stan Wawrinka prone to some dangerous bouts of inconsistency, Del Potro and Monfils headline the list of candidates to hinder the Djokovic-Murray rematch.

Rio 2016 Olympic Preview (II): Major events to book on your schedule

With 306 medal events on the Rio 2016 Olympic calendar, it´s impossible to follow all the action coming in droves from Brazil over the next fortnight. Daily, there will be multiple alternatives that cater to every profile of sports fan, but a few selected competitions stand above the rest, either from the magnitude of the sides in battle, the significance of the potential victors on the broader heritage left from this specific edition, or the traditional media coverage expected. With these criteria in mind, I tried to mine some of the most relevant events that are on the program, and adjusted to collect Brazil’s best chances of producing riveting displays for the hollering native audiences on site.

I’m obviously spitballing on the athletes or teams that will reach the decisive encounters on these events, and undoubtedly my own predilections guided a few of the choices, but I believe the list below is sensible enough to pass the sniffing test.

Team competitions are in vast majority in this article as they are easier to pinpoint (for example, if you don’t follow fencing on a regular basis, it’s difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff on a program containing dozen of events,) but keep in mind that on the final two parts of this preview I’ll dive into the must-watch events of the Olympics’ two blue-ribbon sports, Swimming and Athletics.

So, in chronological order (all hours in BST, four more than in Rio):

Cycling Men’s road race, 1.30 pm, August 6

The major event of day 1 of the Olympics will see the world’s best road cyclists compete on a 256.4km course that passes through Rio de Janeiro’s landmarks. With two circuits that include cobble sections and a total of 10 climbs, counting a 8.5km ascension that is run three times, there’s an excellent chance the historically chaotic race is decided by a highly selective group of riders equipped to power in the hilly parkour. The 20km flat run-in to the finish may prove too much for Chris Froome, who dreams of becoming the first man to complete a Tour de France-Olympic Gold medal double, but other Grand Tour contenders have a major opportunity, including Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, who always seems to be the bridesmaid when wearing his national colours, or Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali.

Kazakhstan’s Alexander Vinokourov took top honours in London 2012

The reigning World Champion, Slovakia’s Peter Sagan, will be absent to focus on the mountain bike competition, but one-day specialists like Belgium’s Greg Van Avermaet and Phillipe Gilbert or France’s Julian Alaphilippe can pose major threats if they’re not eliminated uphill. With the traditional powerhouses Spain, France, Italy and Belgium (plus Great Britain) possessing a pair of team leaders, the dark horses come from the loaded rosters of Colombia and Netherlands, where every man can legitimately envision succeeding Kazakhstan’s Alexander Vinokourov, the winner in London 2012.

Gymnastics Women’s team final, 8 pm, August 9

In one of the tent-pole events of every Olympics, the USA’s girls want to repeat as Olympic Champions, something they’ve never been able to do. After dominating the team competition in the 2014 and 2015 World Championships, the Americans are the clear frontrunners possessing a unit highlighted by  Simone Biles, the brightest gymnast of the last few seasons, and the returning pair of Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas, two multiple medallists in London.

The USA, which took five of the last seven world titles, edged Russia four years ago and the successors of the Soviet Union, an historic powerhouse, are once again a strong contender, while Romania, bronze medallists in 2012 and podium-bound in every Olympics since 1976, did not qualify this time. A prominent position is thus opened for China and Great Britain, respectively second and third at the 2015 Worlds.

The United States are hoping to rehash this image in Rio de Janeiro

Tennis Men’s Singles Final, 4 pm, August 14

For a competition that prematurely lost half of the top ten players in the ATP rankings largely due to concerns about the Zika virus, a tournament-saving Final pitting Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray would be a welcome sight for tennis officials looking to save face. With Roger Federer out injured, the Serbian’s quest for a career-crowning Olympic gold medal is the storyline the game needs, and nothing looks better than a potential five-set thriller against the defending Champion.

Anything else, except for an unforeseen run by a homeland boy, would put the event squarely on the backburner in the middle of the Olympic festivities, and cast doubt over the sport’s future inclusion in light of the masses of players evidently disregarding the competition.

Beach Volleyball Women’s Final, 4 am, August 17

Brazil’s Larissa Franca came back from retirement to take another shot at Olympic Gold

With the majestic backdrop of Copacabana Beach, this midnight fest may turn into an absolute classic if the Brazilian pair that has dominated international competition makes the final. Larissa Franca, maybe the best beach volleyball player of all-time, has won everything except for the Olympic title, and halted retirement in 2014 to join forces with Talita Antunes in route to Rio. The pair amassed 61-straight victories topping in the 2015 World Tour Finals title, and reaches the Olympics as the prohibitive favourites, determined to give Brazil the first gold medal in this event since 1996.

Larissa was a bronze medallist in London behind two American pairs, with Kerri Walsh Jennings collecting his third consecutive title alongside Misty May-Treanor by defeating April Ross and Jen Kessy. With May-Treanor’s abandon, Jennings partnered with Ross and they appear poised to become the main challengers to Franca and Antunes. The Brazilians hold a 5-1 head-to-head record and will count on the rowdy home crowd, but don’t discount the experience of Jennings, going into her fifth Olympic Games.

Football Women’s Final, 9:30 pm, August 19

In five previous Olympic tournaments, never the reigning World Champions were able to add the Olympic title the following season. The USA will try to do just that and since they’ve won the last three editions and four of five, the odds seem to be in their favour.

With a roster slightly retooled and revitalized from the squad that triumphed in the 2015 World Cup, the Americans’ more dangerous opponents are the hosts, silver medallist in 2008, Germany, the three-time bronze medallists and twice World Champions, and France, an enormously talented ensemble that has mind-bogglingly failed to reach the podium in successive international competitions. Japan, the finalists in 2012, are shockingly absent after being surpassed by Australia and China on Asia’s qualifying tournament.

Carli Lloyd (#10), the 2015 FIFA World Player of the Year, was on target twice at the 2012 Olympic Final

Football Men’s Final, 9:30 pm, August 20

The future of men’s soccer in the Olympics (at least in the current stripped-down configuration) may well depend on a long run from the hosts, with Brazil desperate to complete their mantle adding an elusive gold medal that escaped four years ago at Wembley. With a side once again led by Neymar but significantly less potent than in 2012, the hosts will be on a mission to exorcise the demons of the humiliating 7-1 semi-final defeat on home soil during the 2014 World Cup.

Incidentally, Germany may cross their path in the SF should both teams win their respective groups, and a possible rematch with Mexico or a derby with Argentina might coalesce in the final. Either way, its gold or bust for Brazil and the home boys missing the Final would significantly decrease the relevancy of the match to be contested at the iconic Maracanã Stadium.

Volleyball Men’s Final, 17:15 pm, August 21

One of the hottest tickets in the Olympics is the Volleyball men’s event, where the hosts have a great chance to reclaim the title after the gold medals of 1992 and 2004, and the silver medals of 1984, 2008 and 2012.

The Russian’s soared above Brazil at the 2012 Men’s Volleyball Final

A powerhouse boasting several World Cup, World League and World Championship triumphs since the turn of the century, Brazil will nonetheless face stiff competition from the likes of Russia, the reigning Olympic Champions, the USA, winners in 2008 and the current World Cup Champions, Poland, the World Championship holders, and Italy, bronze medallists in London 2012.

Men’s basketball Final, 19:45 pm, August 21

The last event to complete at the Olympic Games should once again affirm USA’s basketball domination, with the complement of NBA stars massively favourite to collect a sixth title in seven editions since the “Dream Team” shook the 1992 Games held in Barcelona. Despite missing a plethora of the World’s finest players, the Americans – unbeaten internationally since 2006 – should cruise through the competition much like they did in the last two Olympics, where they defeated Spain in the final. With the eternal Paul Gasol still leading the way, the Iberian side may once again reach the decisive game despite some important absences (NBA All-Stars Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka).

Can Spain (or any other team) halt USA’s rise to the top of the men’s basketball podium?

However, other teams are vying to outdo the European Champions, from their continental counterparts France, Serbia, Croatia and Lithuania to South America’s Argentina, Champions in 2004, and Brazil, which obtained their last medal in 1964.

 

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