WTA

Weekend Roundup (October, 15th): Roger Federer’s rampant 2017 season continues in Shanghai

More than Federer’s return to the top of his game at age 36, one of the sports stories of 2017 has been the meticulous, unanticipated turnaround we’ve been able to witness on year 13 of “Fedal”, the biggest rivalry in tennis history. Since that sensational fifth set in Melbourne, when Roger Federer came back from a break down to stun Rafael Nadal and collect the Australian Open, the dynamics of the pair’s meetings have shifted significantly, and after comprehensive straight set wins in Indian Wells and Miami, Shanghai hosted yet another magnificent display from the “Swiss Maestro” against his long-time foe.

Playing under a closed roof and in fast conditions that favour his wicked offensive game, Federer jumped on his rival from the onset in Shanghai, breaking serve in the first game of the match, and never looked back on his way to a commanding, 71-minute, 6-4, 6-3 victory. When the one-handed backhand is dissecting the court and the serve firing on all cylinders, the Swiss is virtually unbeatable in hard courts, and those two weapons were once again the main catalysts to a fifth straight victory over Nadal, who fought till the very end but never managed to dent his rival’s delivery, failing to muster a single break point all night and capturing just 17% of the points contested on Federer’s first serve.

The two tennis legends share a moment in Shanghai after another chapter of their rivalry (Reuters)

With the victory over the World No. 1, which guaranteed a 94th professional trophy – just 14 off Jimmy Connors’ Open era record – Federer is now 10-1 against top-ten players in 2017, the only setback coming in Toronto to youngster Alex Zverev in what was also his only loss in seven finals to date. Moreover, he further diminished his head-to-head deficit with Nadal to 15-23, shaving off the 31-year-old’s lead at the top of the ATP rankings to 1960 points.

Three tournaments are still left on the schedule for both men: the Swiss Indoors in Basel, the Paris Masters and the ATP Tour Finals in London, hence there’s an outside chance the lead changes hands to allow the Swiss a six year-end No.1, an incredible feat that would come eight years after the last. For that to happen, Rafa would have to stumble early somewhere along the way, which is unlikely, yet we’ve seen far stranger things in this tennis season…

In the WTA Tour, the biggest news of the weekend was the return of Maria Sharapova to the titles, more than two years after triumphing in Rome (May 2015), and just on the seventh tournament appearance since the end of her doping suspension. In Tianjin’s WTA International, the Russian star, ranked No. 85 in the World, brushed aside a fearless Aryna Sabalenka in two sets, 7-5, 7-6 (8), with the 19-year-old from Belarus handling her first WTA Tour Final with impressive poise.

Aryna Sabalenka (L) and Maria Sharapova (R) exhibit their trophies after the Final in Tianjin (Reuters)

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, a tournament which lost plenty of star power in one fell swoop with the withdrawals of Elina Svitolina (1st seed) and Caroline Wozniacki (defending Champion) coupled with defeats for Venus Williams (2) and Agnieszka Radwanska (4) in the same day, was rewarded with a gripping Final between two Russian-born players.  Rallying from a set down, the 26-year-old Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (6th seed) prevailed over Daria Gavrilova (7) by 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (3) to claim the third title of the season (Monterey, Rabat) and 11th of her career.

Finally, in Linz, Austria, with no top 25 players in the draw after Jelena Ostapenko and defending champion Dominika Cibulkova dropped out, the Final was contested by the first and second favourites, a rarity in the wildly unpredictable female professional Tour. Entering the decider under the weight of an ugly 1-6 record in WTA Finals, Czech Barbora Strýcová was able to rise to the occasion this time, besting Slovak Magdaléna Rybáriková by 6-4, 6-1 to capture her first title since September 2011, when she lifted her maiden singles’ trophy in Québec City.

Football: Juventus startled as Napoli marches on

With the top-six sides in direct confrontation, round 8 of the Serie A promised fireworks and it delivered in spades, beginning with Juventus’ first loss in 41 home league games. The Vecchia Signora, resting the likes of Paulo Dybala or Miralem Pjanic ahead of an important Champions League clash, still managed to get in front when Douglas Costa scored in the 23th minute, yet the raging Ciro Immobile took over in the second half, tallying twice in seven minutes to power Lazio in front.

The in-form Ciro Immobile fired Lazio past Gianluigi Buffon’s Juventus

The burly striker passed Dybala in the goal scoring race, and Massimiliano Allegri was forced to send in his Argentinian joker, with the No.10 coming off the bench to hit the post and then waste a last minute penalty, the second consecutive match where his shot from the 11m mark was parried by the goalkeeper.

The final 1-2 outcome meant Lazio caught Juventus in the table, the two sides square at 19 pts, and now five back of Napoli, who preserved their perfect record with an impressive 1-0 victory at the Stadio Olimpico. It would belong to winger Lorenzo Insigne the role of expressing the Partenopei superiority over AS Roma on yet another show of strength by the well-drilled squad of Maurizio Sarri.

Finally, in a Milan Derby that elicited flashbacks of great battles of the past, Inter ruled in an emotional, back and forth thriller (3-2) decided by striker Mauro Icardi, who converted a penalty in injury time to complete a hat-trick. The Nerazurri collected their seventh win in 8 matches, and are in second place, just two pts behind Napoli, while the revamped AC Milan, despite all the good signs, are tenth, already 12 pts off the top.

Ligue 1

Even with Edinson Cavani safeguarded for the battles to come and a misfiring Kylian Mbappé, Paris St. Germain collected three points in Dijon (1-2) to extend their lead at the top of the Ligue 1 table. A late equalizer by Benjamin Jeannot put a scare on the visitors, yet right back Thomas Meunier emerged in additional time to complete his brace and help PSG capitalise on the stumble by the closest opposition.

Conceding in injury time for the second consecutive round, this time a perfect free kick by Olympique Lyon’s captain Nabil Fékir, defending Champions AS Monaco lost (3-2) for the second time in the league to let the leader out of sight. Now six points adrift, they need to start watching their back as the pack is approaching, with five teams positioned at arms-length.

One of them is Lyon, who rose to fifth, catching Bordeaux, who drew at home to Nantes (1-1), allowing the Canaries to secure an important point away to keep pace with Marseille, involved in the round’s best game in Strasbourg (3-3), and Saint Etiénne, who rallied from a goal down to beat Metz (3-1). Further back, reference to the persisting Lille crisis, with the Northerners still looking for a first triumph since the opener after a late penalty allowed Troyes to snatch a point (2-2) at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy.

Bundesliga

In Jupp Heynckes’ first game back in charge, Bayern Munich thrashed SC Freiburg (5-0) at the Allianz Arena and the victory allowed the Bavarians to approach the top after leaders Borussia Dortmund lost for the first time.

In a tumultuous match between Champions League teams, RB Leipzig went 3-1 up in Dortmund, responding in style to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s early tally, but two bookings in succession by midfielder Stefan Ilsanker levelled the number of men on the pitch just nine minutes after Sokratis had been sent showering. Borussia pressed to rescue some dignity, with Aubameyang cutting the deficit from the penalty spot however that was all she wrote, with the defeat shrinking Dortmund’s advantage at the top to just two points.

Forward Yussuf Poulsen scores RB Leipzig’s second goal in Dortmund. (Foto: Lars Baron|Bongarts|Getty Images)

Meanwhile, with the triumph, Leipzig managed to climb to third since Hoffenheim dropped two points at home, an 89th minute own goal by Kevin Vogt cooperating to let Augsburg leave Sinsheim with a 2-2 draw. Borussia Moenchengladbach and Schalke 04, who captured assertive victories at Werder Bremen (0-2) and Hertha Berlin (0-2), respectively, approached European territory, while FC Köln’s agony continues as their 7th loss in 8 games was settled by a 94th minute game-winner for Stuttgart.

La Liga

At the eight hurdle, FC Barcelona finally tripped to concede points for the first time on the 2017-18 campaign. Facing a difficult test at Atletico Madrid, the Catalans found themselves chasing following Saúl Ñíguez long-range shot 21 minutes in, and they couldn’t do more than draw level when Luis Suárez found the end of an excellent delivery by Sergi Roberto with 8 minutes to go.

The leaders have amassed 22 pts to date, retaining a six point advantage over Diego Simeone’s team, which got leapfrogged by city rivals Real Madrid this weekend. Cristiano Ronaldo’s first goal of the campaign oddly arrived deep into October, but the Portuguese superstar at least saved it for when it mattered, notching in the 85th minute to overcome a pesky Getafe side (1-2).

Concurrently, Sevilla, who were second entering round 8, fell in Bilbao (1-0) to an Athletic team that was on a six-match winless streak, while Valencia’s trip to Andalusia turned into an exhilarating experience. The visitors scored four times until the 74th minute to get a firm handle on the match, yet Real Betis countered with three in a five minute spam to set up a furious finish where Valencia tallied two more to come out victorious by 6 goals to 3. With these three points, Los Che are now in second place, 4 pts behind Barcelona.

Premier League

The calendar of the Premier League is saturated with exceptional clashes year round, but none is quite like the most traditional match in English football, the North-West derby between Liverpool and Manchester United. For their 169th league encounter, Anfield Road hosted a colorless 0-0 that didn’t really help anyone, even if Liverpool can claim to have carried the better of the play for most of the afternoon only to be deterred by a sublime David de Gea.

With the result, the Reds of Jürgen Klopp picked up their 13th point in 8 games, seven less than Man United, who lost contact with their city rivals after they unsurprisingly pummelled Stoke City (7-2) at the Etihad Stadium. Although it wasn’t as easy for Man City as the score might indicate, the Citizens holding a three-goal advantage inside 27 minutes and the visitors scoring twice around halftime before the game truly got out of hand. Nevertheless, Pepe Guardiola’s side, boasting a staggering 29-4 goal record, are finally clear at the top and few would bet that anyone will reel them back.

Rolling five points behind City, Tottenham Hotspur edged Bournemouth (1-0) with a lone tally from Christian Eriksen securing their maiden Premier League triumph at Wembley, while Chelsea plunged down the table after a shocking defeat (2-1) at Selhurst Park to Crystal Palace. The last-place team was still looking for their first goals and points of the campaign, and César Azpilicueta’s own goal was the kick they needed to clinch a famous victory over a side whose lack of depth was exposed by the absences of N’Golo Kanté and Álvaro Morata.

Wilfried Zaha shoots past Thibaut Courtois to put Crystal Palace 2-1 up on Chelsea (Reuters)

The London Blues are now levelled in points with Liverpool, Burnley and Arsenal, who have yet to win away from home following another disappointing result at Watford, where the hosts earned a come from behind victory (2-1) that vaulted them to fourth.

Cycling: Diego Ulissi presides over the Tour of Turkey during Sam Bennett’s party

At the same time most of the world’s best lay on some paradisiacal holiday destination, the 2017 cycling season slowly trundles to the finish line under a small fraction of the attention destined to the major races in the rear-view.

The (Presidential) Cycling Tour of Turkey may have been elevated to the World Tour this season, yet you would be hardly pressed to believe it simply by looking at the peloton that departed last Tuesday. Comprising a total of 104 riders and 13 formations, including just four from the premier category (Astana, UAE Team Emirates, Trek-Segafredo, BORA-hansgrohe), it’s fair to say the change from late April to October did nothing to increase the profile of the event and, as a consequence, many shrugged the forgettable, uninspiring competition of the six-stage race, concluded in the bustling Istambul on Sunday.

Sam Bennett (BORA-Hansgrohe) celebrates his triumph in stage 5 of the Tour of Turkey (Bettini Photo)

Many but certainly not Sam Bennett, the 27-year-old sprinter from BORA-hansgrohe who did his best Peter Sagan impression to dominate for most of the week, taking four of the first five stages and later missing out on the finale after falling on a corner in the final meters. Opportunity for Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo) – twice runner-up to Bennett – who took advantage to bag the stage victory on that last day, and for the race Champion, Italian Diego Ulissi, who snatched the general lead after sweeping the field on the uphill finish in Selçuk on day 4.

Moment of the weekend

The tremendous volley on the run by Dijon forward Benjamin Jeannot, which left goalkeeper Alphonse Aréola rooted to the ground and threatened to halt Paris St. Germain’s triumphant march in Ligue 1. Unfortunately for the 25-year-old, it was worth no points in the standings, but that’s no reason we can’t celebrate it here.

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Weekend Roundup (October, 8th): Simona Halep’s special day

In sports, just like in life, you’re seldom granted second chances to realize your ultimate dreams. A third or fourth opportunity to hop on the train headed to your divine destination? Forget about it.

Nonetheless, if Simona Halep should thank a whirlwind 2017 WTA Tour season for affording multiple occasions to stand a single triumph from “becoming” the best tennis player in the world, such an achievement can’t, in any way, be called fortuitous.

In fact, it is the deserved recognition for three years of top-notch tennis from the longest active member on the WTA Top-10, the reward for the regular appearances in the latter stages of tournaments this season (11 quarter-finals and 7 semi-finals in the last 13 events she contested), the deserved compensation for the hard work and difficult decisions undertaken to convert into one of the fittest players in the Tour and, above all, the triumph of resilience and determination to overcome successive setbacks as she edged ever closer to her lifelong goal.

The 26-year-old, who pursued the World No.1 incessantly through 2017, could feel it within touching distance in three previous instances this year only to languish when it went away. First, in Paris, when Jelena Ostapenko recovered from a set and a break down to snatch Roland Garros and crush the Romanian’s thoughts in double fashion. Later succumbing in three sets to Johanna Konta on the quarter-finals of Wimbledon, when all she needed to do was capture the second set tie break. Finally, in Cincinnati, when Halep was annihilated by Garbiñe Muguruza in the Final, opening a door the Spaniard walked into after the US Open.

Hopes dashed in heart-breaking fashion over and over again until last Saturday, at the Premier Mandatory of Beijing, the Romanian’s tortuous odyssey coming to its happy end, to a certain extent culminating her steady rise since a breakthrough 2013 season. Poetically, Halep faced the same Ostapenko that had delivered the first and most scathing blow, and she fought  through the nerves to expunge all the demons in a convincing 6-2, 6-4 triumph which showcased the assets that brought her here: consistency, superior speed and agility, the ability to turn defence into offense in a blink, the understated aggressiveness.

Reunited after the 2017 Roland Garros singles final, Jelena Ostapenko was the first to congratulate Simon Halep on her achievement (Getty Images)

In the grand scheme of things, it may have been just a semi-final of a late season tournament, but this match meant the World to Halep, the first Romanian to reach the pinnacle of the female tennis rankings, the 25th woman to hold the top position since 1975, and the third to do it for the first time this year, after Muguruza and Czech Karolína Plíšková. It was indeed her special day, even if that elusive Grand Slam title still looms large on the career arch she will follow from here on.

Somehow lost in the shuffle of Halep’s milestone was the reality that a Final still had to be played in Beijing the next day, and another woman also craved her share of the spotlight. Fresh of a title in Wuhan the previous weekend, Caroline Garcia scampered to the Chinese capital and proceeded to reel in victory after victory to reach a second consecutive Final, eventually toppling the impending No.1 in a tight decider (6-4, 7-6(3)) to lift her first Premier Mandatory title.

An upset that capped a stunning fortnight and improbable eleven-match winning streak for the soaring 23-year-old, vaulted into the Top-10 (No.9) for the first time, and now firmly enmeshed in the race to Singapore, where the WTA Finals will be contested later this month.

Caroline Garcia compiled an unprecendented Wuhan/Beijing double (Getty Images)

Meanwhile, as a new No.1 emerged on the women’s tour, the ATP’s top dog was strengthening his grip in same venue. The week may have started with a scare for Rafael Nadal, who fended off two match points from Lucas Pouille in round one of the ATP 500 of Beijing, but he quickly got acclimated to the Asian humidity and blossomed into his dominant self for the rest of the event, demolishing 8th seed Nick Kyrgios by 6-2, 6-1 in the Final to collect his 6th title of the year and 75th of his career.

Concurrently, in Tokyo, David Goffin confirmed his push for a spot on the ATP Tour Finals by securing a second straight title following the triumph in Shenzhen the previous week. The Belgian defeated France’s Adrian Mannarino in the Final in two sets (6–3, 7–5) to pick up an ATP 500 for the first time, and denied his 29-year-old rival of a maiden tournament victory on the highest professional circuit.

Cycling: Vincenzo Nibali reigns at Il Lombardia for a second time

Contested against the spectacular background of Lake Como, the “race of the falling leaves” is the last landmark of the cycling season, the final Monument Classic of the year and a gruelling finish to the autumnal series of Italian one-day classics. Almost 250km long, featuring plenty of steep uphill sections and treacherous, swerving descents, it favours the riders that can sustain their form until the latter stages of the season, are well versed on the terrain in hand and have the technical skills to operate the bike in challenging conditions.

In resume, it is perfect for Vincenzo Nibali, the pugnacious Italian star that is not only one of the greatest climbers in the World, but also a great terrific time-trial list and exceptional descender. Victorious at Il Lombardia in 2015 and unable to defend his title last year after an unfortunate crash at the 2016 Olympics, the Shark of Messina was the prohibitive favourite heading into the 111th edition of the famous event, and he made his presence felt when it mattered.

Home favourite Vincenzo Nibali captured his second win at the Giro di Lombardia (Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com)

With less than 20km to go, as the action picked up on the penultimate climb (Civiglio) of the race, Nibali sniffed the danger when Thibault Pinot (FDJ) went on attack for a third time and he lunged across to join the French before the hill’s crest. From there, the Bahrain Merida leader furiously hurried downhill, skimming the bends to distance Pinot and opening a gap that only widened in the final ascent to San Fermo della Battagli and short run-in to the finish line in the city of Como.

With authority, the 32-year-old sealed the 69th triumph for the home nation in the history of the event – but only the second in the last 9 years – while, further back, Pinot’s forces faded with Nibali out of the sight and he was absorbed by a small chasing group from which compatriot Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step) free wheeled in the final kms to take second on the day, 28 seconds off the winner and 10 ahead of Italian Gianni Moscon (Team Sky), who won the skirmish for third.

Italian and French riders split the top seven at the Giro di Lombardia, and when attentions shifted to France for the prestigious Paris-Tours the following day, the hosts wanted to get their neighbours back. It wouldn’t happen since the in-form Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step) once again displayed his mettle, pushing the pace on an elevation inside the last 10km to break away from the pack alongside Danish youngster Søren Kragh Andersen (Team Sunweb), and then imposing his will in the final sprint with a small boost from teammate Nikki Terpstra, the only man who had managed to bridge across.

Matteo Trentin edged Søren Kragh Andersen (Team Sunweb) on his final race for Quick-Step Floors (Getty Images)

By securing a seventh victory in just over two months, Trentin bid a perfect adieu to Quick-Step after six and a half seasons with the Belgium outfit. The Italian will represent Orica-Scott when the peloton returns to the European roads next season.

Football: Taking the temperature at the 2018 World Cup qualifiers

No domestic leagues action this weekend, so we’ll instead dive into the final stretch of the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. One Confederation at a time, which teams have already punched their ticket and who’s still in play?

CONCACAF

Costa Rica joined Mexico in the group of qualified nations after a last-gasp goal by Kendall Waston secured a dramatic draw against Honduras on Saturday, and the United States are in the driver’s seat for the last spot after a commanding 4-0 win over Panama.

Due to their superior goal difference, a draw in Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday should be enough for the Americans to clinch third place, while Honduras and Panama will fight for fourth and the corresponding playoff wild card to face the Asian representative. Panama currently holds the tie breaker by a five-goal margin, and therefore any triumph over Costa Rica may do the trick.

AFC

Regulars Iran, South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia are already gearing up for Russia, and that prominent list is only missing Australia, pipped on goal-difference by the Saudis on the group stage.

The Socceroos can still make it for a fourth straight time, but they’ll need to finish off Syria in Sidney on Tuesday before tackling a final playoff round with the fourth place team from the CONCACAF.  Meanwhile, the Syrians are eyeing an astonishing debut appearance in the midst of a raging Civil War that forced their home leg (1-1) to be held in Malaysia.

Syria and Australia will meet again in Sidney on Tuesday to decide who advances to the final playoff round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers (AP Photo/ Vincent Thian)

CONMEBOL

With Brazil having already booked their trip a few months ago and Uruguay virtually qualified by virtue of a +10 goal difference, the South American 18-game marathon will meet its explosive finale on Tuesday, four days after a sensational round of games scrambled the standings even more.

Five teams (Chile, Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Paraguay) are currently separated by two points and there’s only a pair of direct slots up for grabs plus a wild card for a final playoff with New Zealand in November. Strap down, this is going down to the wire.

CAF

The first two African nations to arrange their trip to Russia were Nigeria, who bagged group B after edging 2012 African Champions Zambia, and Egypt, who secured qualification for the first time in 28 years with an injury time winner from the penalty spot against Congo on Sunday.

In group A, Tunisia and DR Congo are still in the race, with the Tunisians only requiring a draw from the reception to Libya next month to return to the World stage for the first time since 2006, while in Group C it’s down to Ivory Coast and Morocco, who will square off in November with the Ivorians ahead in the table and holding home advantage. Conversely, Group D is a mess, with all four teams alive after the decision to repeat the polemic South Africa-Senegal, whose original outcome was invalidated for allegations of match manipulation.

UEFA

In the first round of the final group-stage double-header, powerhouses Germany, Spain and England joined Belgium and hosts Russia on the list of qualified teams, with Poland securing their spot on Sunday following a nervy victory over Montenegro.

With four groups yet to settle, there are a lot of moving parts to take into account regarding the remaining group winners and the eight teams that will advance to the playoffs, but it’s safe to say France (Group A), Serbia (Group D) and Iceland (Group I) should qualify when they host weak opposition (Belarus, Georgia and Kosovo, respectively) on the closing match day.

After a spectacular 3-0 win in Turkey, Iceland is on course to reach a first World Cup tournament (STR / AP)

That leaves a trio of games to track feverishly on Monday and Tuesday. Wales and the Republic of Ireland (Group D) clash in Cardiff and Ukraine meets Croatia (Group I) in Kiev in pair of encounters where draws could sentence both sides, while the Lisbon battle between Portugal and Group B immaculate leaders Switzerland sees the European Champions in need of a win to leapfrog their rivals.

Moreover, welcoming Gibraltar to Athens, Greece (Group H) is three points away from pairing with Northern Ireland (Group C), Italy (Group G) and Denmark (Group E) in November’s two-legged playoffs, while only a disaster – an inconceivable seven goal defeat – in Amsterdam would stop Sweden (group A) from doing the same. Finally, with their schedule complete, Slovakia, the Group F runners-up, can’t do much more than crunch numbers and wait as others determine whether they did enough to reach the playoffs.

Moment of the weekend

“El Mundial! El Mundial! El Mundial!”

It’s probably the dream of every live sports announcer. Nailing the call of an everlasting moment for the history of their nation.

The 95th minute equalizer by Kendall Waston, which secured Costa Rica’s fifth appearance at the FIFA World Cup, certainly fits the description, sending into raptures every one of the 35,175 spectators blessed to celebrate inside the Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica, and most of the other 4.9 million that populate this Central American country.

Weekend Roundup (October, 1st): Manchester City puts the Premier League on notice

Sixteen unanswered goals in the previous three Premier League Games and seven straight victories in all competitions provide a nice cushion for a team that is about to enter the ground of the defending Champions, yet Manchester City’s presentation in Stamford Bridge was a different show of strength.

A comprehensive, meticulous supremacy that a man like Antonio Conte, the pragmatic, sly, single-minded manager of Chelsea has seldom suffered on his decade-long career; a preeminent football lecture founded on sharp, crisp passing, intelligent player movement, coordinated pressing and utter domination of the ball that would rank amongst the best performances of any Pep Guardiola-led squad, not just his Man City era.

Consequently, it came to be that nobody even remembered the visitors were without the insidious Sergio Agüero, involved in a car accident in the Netherlands, as they bossed over the thwarted Londoners, jumbled by the gracious, lavish play of midfielders Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva and Fernandinho, the agility of the rapidly-improving Gabriel Jesus and the incisive dashes of Raheem Sterling and, particularly, Leroy Sané. The stats tell it all, with Man City amassing 63% of possession and 17 shot attempts (5 on goal) to just 4 (2 on net) from the hosts, seemingly even more befuddled following Álvaro Morata’s departure in the 35th minute with an hamstring injury.

It’s true that the scoreboard only motioned once, a courteous bow to Kevin de Bruyne’s wonder goal in the 67th minute, the Belgium star playing a beautiful one-two with Gabriel Jesus before unleashing a thunderous left-foot screamer past the outstretched Thibault Courtois, yet the message resonated loud and clear through the Islands and the continent apart. Pep Guardiola’s Man City 2.0 is an incommensurable grander beast than last year’s side, which finished 15 pts back of Chelsea, and they’re here to subjugate, as much in substance and style.

The ball shot by Man City’s Kevin de Bruyne flies by Thibault Courtois on the late evening of Stamford Bridge (Getty Images)

Nevertheless, for all the class they’ve exuded in the pitch this season, the Blues of Manchester, now six points up on Chelsea, have yet to ditch their rivals at the top of the Premier League table. Manchester United may not be as aesthetically pleasant, but you can’t question the outcomes as José Mourinho’s side pumped four goals for the sixth time in eleven matches across all competitions in 2017-18. Their victim this time being the bottomless pit of despair that is Crystal Palace right now, seven losses in equal number of matches this term and still without a single goal to lean on.

Tottenham, also in a free-scoring mode in recent times, rose to third after a routine 4-0 win at Huddersfield Town with the inevitable Harry Kane netting a brace to elevate his September tally to 11 goals in 6 matches. The Spurs have 14 points, five less than the leaders, and one more than Chelsea and Arsenal, who have quietly climbed up the standings over the last few weeks and beat Brighton (2-0) at the Emirates Stadium in round 8.

Conversely, Liverpool has been sliding, compiling just one win in their last seven matches (all competitions) after drawing 1-1 at Newcastle. Philippe Coutinho scored for a third consecutive game, but the hosts levelled by Joselu seven minutes later, and Jürgen Klopp’s team now shares the sixth place with the surprising Watford (2-2 at West Bromwich) and Burnley, whose 1-0 victory at Goodison Park resulted in Everton’s fourth defeat in just seven Premier League games.

Ligue 1

For the second consecutive week, Monaco opened the round in France, however not even the indomitable predatory instinct of Radamel Falcao was enough to make amends three days after an embarrassing Champions League home defeat to FC Porto. The Colombian striker scored in the first half, but Montpellier would erase the deficit with a stoppage time marker by Souley Camara.

With the slip up, PSG had the opportunity to retake the three-point advantage squandered in round 6, and they walked right through it, acing what was supposed to be a real test against the unbeaten Bordeaux, who were third. An irresistible first half with 6 goals – five for the hosts – showcased once again the full might of the Parisians’ attack, with Neymar tallying twice and assisting Edison Cavani for the 2-0 before Kylian Mbappé also found the back of the net on the 6-2 drubbing.

With Bordeaux blitzed in Paris and St. Etiénne succumbing at Troyes (2-1), three sides parlayed wins in round 6 to leap the duo, with the spotlight falling on Olympique Marseille, who rallied from a two-goal deficit in Nice with four straight goals.

L’OM now sits at 16 pts, three behind Monaco, levelled with Nantes (1-0 vs Metz) and one above Caen (0-1 at Rennes) on the table of the Ligue 1, which also hit the news this weekend for two disparate moments: the hilarious sent off of Lyon’s center back Marcelo on the team’s 3-3 draw in Angers and, on a much sombre note, the suspension of the match between Amiens and Lille when several visiting fans got injured celebrating a goal after a barrier collapsed in the stands.

Serie A

Locked in a stare down from match day one, one of the leaders would eventually have to blink first and Juventus’ draw in Bergamo did the job, as the Old Lady’s perfect record came to an end to grant Napoli sole possession of first place.

The six-time defending Champions scored two times inside 24 minutes in Atalanta’s stadium, however Juventus’ loanee Mattia Caldara and a potent header by Bryan Cristante tied the proceedings at two. There was more to tell, though, since Paulo Dybala’s penalty kick in the 84th minute was denied by Albanian goalkeeper Etrit Berisha, and, in turn, Napoli now leads the league by two points.

Paulo Dybala’s missed penalty denied Juventus the three points against Atalanta (La Presse)

Mauricio Sarri’s men grabbed a full complement against Cagliari (3-0) at the San Paolo to go 7 of 7, while Inter won at last-place Benevento (1-2) with a brace from Croatian midfielder Marcelo Brozovic to level Juve in second. Fourth-place Lazio recorded the rout of the week, thrashing Sassuolo 6-1 at the Stadio Olimpico.

In the round’s marquee matchup, AS Roma triumphed (0-2) at the San Siro to distance AC Milan in the table. The hosts attacked more, but it was Bosnian striker Edin Džeko who broke the deadlock with a superb shot from distance in the 72nd minute, before Alessandro Florenzi poked in the insurance five minutes later.

The result means the Rossoneri are now 9 pts behind Napoli, but a lot can chance in an explosive round 8 to be played after the international break, when the top six sides will be in confront. In a couple of days, Juve will host Lazio, Napoli will visit Roma and the Milan teams will battle each other at another chapter of the Derby della Madonnina.

Bundesliga

Carlo Ancelotti may be gone, but the problems at Bayern Munich didn’t magically disappear with the departure of the Italian manager. After the paltry performance in Paris, the Bavarians travelled to Berlin and they blew a two-goal lead for the second time in as many fixtures, with the goals of Mats Hummels and Robert Lewandowski cancelled in a five-minute span by Hertha’s Ondrej Duda and Salomon Kalou.

Hertha’s Salomon Kalou bangs in the equalizer against Bayern Munich at the Berlin Olympiastadion on Sunday (Reuters)

Bayern is now five points adrift of leaders Borussia Dortmund, who passed at Augsburg (1-2) in spite of Aubameyang’s missed penalty, yet they actually surged one spot on the table by virtue of Hoffenheim’s loss at Freiburg (3-2).

Hannover 96, defeated in Moenchengladbach (2-1), also eschewed the “unbeaten” label this week, tumbling to fifth, while RB Leipzig  visited last place FC Köln and came out victorious (1-2), cutting the deficit to Bayern to a single point and aggravating the situation of their opponents on the day. The Goats of Cologne are still stuck at one point after seven matches and the relegation line is already six away.

La Liga

On a politically charged weekend in Spain, football couldn’t manage to dodge the circumstances as FC Barcelona was forced to play its round 7 encounter inside an empty Camp Nou. Naturally lethargic for 45 minutes, the Catalan’s came out in the second half with extra resolve and cracked a problem named Las Palmas with three goals, the first from Sergio Busquets and the next two ascribed to Lionel Messi.

The day FC Barcelona’s motto meant more than just words sprayed on the seats of Camp Nou (Getty Images)

Incidentally, the other team from Barcelona, RCD Espanyol, was on the Spanish capital this week, yet they failed to put another dent on (Real) Madrid’s ambitions. Two goals from Isco were enough to finally secure the defending Champions’ maiden home victory of the campaign and to preserve the 7-point chasm to the top.

In between the two giants, though, there are still teams to take into account, and both Sevilla (2-0 vs Malaga) and Valencia (3-2 vs Athletic) fulfilled their duties in the weekend. The same cannot be said of Atlético Madrid, who can thank goaltender Jan Oblak for leaving nearby Leganés with a draw (0-0) before the reception to Barcelona at their brand-new Wanda Metropolitano.  At the bottom, Alavés surprised Levante (0-2) to pick up the first points in 2017-18, and left Málaga to hold the red lantern.

Tennis: Caroline Garcia conquers Wuhan in battle of outsiders   

The Wuhan Open – the last of the Premier 5 events on the 2017 WTA Tour calendar – took place last week in the most populous city in Central China, and in spite of the presence of eight of the top ten female players in the World, the scene was stolen by two unseeded players, who combined to play a thrilling Final that lasted almost three hours.

France’s Caroline Garcia, who had eliminated two of the tour’s best players in 2016, (Angelique Kerber and Dominika Cibulková) to reach her first final of the year, made it count in the end, lifting the biggest trophy of her career after a 6-7 7-6 6-2 triumph, however her opponent was the true star of the event.

An elated Caroline Garcia holds the trophy of the Wuhan Open (Xinhua/Xiao Yijiu)

Australian Ashleigh Barty, a 21-year-old who abandoned tennis for 18 months to become a professional cricket player, served twice for the Championship in the second set, and it would have a been a fitting reward after such a remarkable campaign in Wuhan. In fact, on her way to a third career final, Barty collected four consecutive wins over top ten players – Johanna Konta (5th seed in Wuhan), Agnieszka Radwanska (9), Karolína Plíšková (4) and Jeļena Ostapenko (8) – to compile a breakthrough performance which validates her new career-high ranking of 23. She will stand eight spots behind Garcia, who also reached a milestone after authoring the greatest triumph for French woman’s tennis since Marion Bartoli stunned the world at Wimbledon in 2013.

Besides Wuhan, the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, also hosted a WTA tournament last week. With only one top-50 player in town, the defending Champion Krystina Plíšková, the title fell to Ukrainian Kateryna Bondarenko, who upset second seed Tímea Babos on the Final in straight sets (6-4, 6-4). For Bondarenko, the World No.153, this was a second WTA Tour success, more than 9 years after taking the spoils in Birmingham, while the Hungarian Babos dropped a second singles final this month – after Québec City two weeks ago – but still found some level of redemption by winning the doubles event alongside Czech Andrea Hlaváčková.

Kateryna Bondarenko, draped in traditional Uzbek attire, shows off the Tashkent Open trophy (Tashkent Open)

On the men’s side, the ATP Tour made stops in two Chinese cities last week for a pair of ATP 250 tournaments.

In Shenzhen, on the southeast coast, broad smiles were reserved for Belgian David Goffin, who finally won a Final after six consecutive setbacks, including two earlier this year (Sofia, Rotterdam), with the trophy in sight. The 26-year-old needed three sets (6–4, 6–7, 6–3) to scrape by Ukraine’s Alexandr Dolgopolov, but he finally ended a three-year trophy drought, a puzzling stretch if we take into account that Goffin broke into the top-ten in between.

Meanwhile, in Chengdu, a decider pitting two of the ATP Tour journeyman, 32-year-old Marcos Baghdatis and 31-year-old Dennis Istomin, was terminated after just five games when the Cypriot Baghdatis couldn’t cope any more with acute pain on his back. The former World No. 8 was fighting for his first tournament win in seven years, but he had to abandon, thereby conceding the title to the powerful Uzbek player, best known to tennis fans for defeating Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open early this season. Two years after triumphing in Nottingham, Istomin claimed his second career ATP Tour event.

Dennis Istomin won the title in Chengdu (ATP World Tour)

Cycling: Giovanni Visconti tricks the peloton to win the Giro Dell’Emilia

The World Championships have come and gone, but cycling season isn’t over just yet. The last monument of the season, the Giro di Lombardia, is just days away, and some of main candidates gauged their form on Saturday at the 100th edition of the Giro Dell´Emilia.

With the start located in Bologna and finishing just outside the city, on the hill leading to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, the race course asked the peloton to weave through the roads of the Emilia-Romana region before tackling five times a finishing circuit that included the climb to San Luca. On the penultimate of these laps, with 16 km to go, Italian veteran Giovanni Visconti bolted the main bunch and quickly took a 30-second advantage that would prove enough to secure victory.

The favourites woke up late and tried to reel in the fugitive on the final ascent up Monte della Guardia, which included slopes of 18%, however all attempts were successively shut down by Vincenzo Nibali, Visconti’s teammate at Bahrain-Merida, and the 34-year-old would be able to finish with a 12-second lead on the runner-up, which ended up being Nibali.

Glory for Giovanni Visconti in Bologna on Saturday (Tim de Waele / TDWSport.com)

Colombian Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale-Drapac) completed the podium on a day that was overshadowed by the news regarding his compatriot – and defending Champion – Esteban Chaves. The Orica-Scott rider took a nasty fall negotiating a bend while in hot pursuit of Visconti, fractured his right shoulder, and will miss the remainder of the season, including the defence of his title at “Il Lombardia” on October 7th.

Also on Saturday, German Andre Greipel picked up a much-needed victory for Lotto-Soudal, claiming just his fifth win of the season on the final sprint of the Omloop Eurometropool. The following day, Spaniard Luis León Sanchez (Astana) upset Italians Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain -Merida) and Elia Viviani (Team Sky) to earn his first triumph in 18 months at the Gran Premio Bruno Beghelli, while British Daniel McClay (Fortuneo-Oscaro) snatched victory in dramatic fashion at the Tour de l’Eurométropole, pipping an unsuspecting Anthony Turgis (Cofidis) right at the finish line.

Moment of the weekend

In perfect alignment with our headline, it has to be Kevin de Bruyne’s sensational strike that gave Manchester City a momentous 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge.

The Belgium‘s top-notch execution wrapped up a swift, smart, incisive connection in the final third, perfectly symbolizing the blend of artistry and ruthlessness present in the 2017-18 iteration of the Northwestern outfit.

Weekend Roundup (September, 24th): Peter Sagan writes history at the 2017 UCI World Championships

It took 84 editions of the Cycling Road World Championships for a man to win the road race three consecutive times. That man wasn’t supposed to be a Slovak. Not when the Italians, the Belgians and the French have dominated the sport and the event since the beginnings back in the 1920’s. Not when the ten major nations are able to field rosters of 9 riders, giving them ample resources to control and mould the race to their liking, and to isolate a guy like Sagan with dozens of miles to spare. Yet, somehow, the 27-year-old is a three-time World Champion – something only four other men had done before – by adding the gold obtained in Bergen to the 2015 title in Richmond, when he launched a daring solo attack to ride to victory in the final kilometres, and last year’s triumph in Doha, wrestled at the sprint.

Yesterday, in Norway, it all suggested a return to his old days at Cannondale, before he had a team set up to cater to his needs, a target on his back and a distinctive rainbow jersey gleaming everywhere he went. In a discreet, blue and white Slovakian jersey that blended inside the peloton seamlessly, Sagan ghosted through the race. Definitely through the first 200kms riddled with doomed breakaways, but also during Tom Dumoulin’s attack on the penultimate passage in Salmon Hill, and the short spurts of action that followed as the powerhouses looked ready to actually trim the pack.

The peloton rode near the fjords of Bergen during the first hours of the Worlds men’s elite road race (Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com)

Still, an inordinate bunch of 80 riders would make it back one final time to the key climb of the circuit, and someone had to break the race apart. It was France’s Julian Alaphilippe, who sinuously wheeled up the hill to peel away from everyone except Italy’s Gianni Moscon. At the time, it felt like the day’s decisive moment had come and gone, and Sagan was still to show his cards, uncharacteristically inconspicuous among the 25 cyclists that chased the front duo standing 15 seconds adrift on the crest of Salmon Hill.

Under the circumstances of such a long race, that advantage might have been enough for a proven rouleur, but the skinny Alaphilippe committed the tactical error of discarding Moscon too early, and he would pay for it when the bunch caught up to him inside the last two kilometres, ushering in a final sprint and Sagan’s opportunity for a “Three-Pete”.

As the group buzzed to the finish line, home favourite Alexander Kristoff jumped ahead by exploding off the final curve with 300m to go, but the Slovak was, as usual, in the right spot, slipping out of the Norwegian’s wheel to gobble up the deficit, and then thrusting his bike forward to edge Kristoff in a photo-finish by all of 20cm. Euphoria ensued for the Slovakian fans in attendance, disappointment transpired from the majority in Bergen, and bronze medallist Michael Matthews (Australia) got caught on camera punishing his bike while crossing the end line. So close, yet so far from his dreams.

A third gold medal and a brand-new rainbow for the Slovak superstar (Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com)

The men’s Under-23 road race, contested on Friday, was won by France’s Benoit Cosnefroy, who beat Germany’s Lennard Kämna in a two-man sprint, with Michael Svendgaard, of Denmark, securing the bronze by finishing top of the peloton. Meanwhile, on Saturday’s women’s elite road race, the sun shined on Dutch Chantal Blaak, who kicked off from the front group on the flat 9 km run-in to the line, and ended up 28 second ahead and flapping her arms on the air. Australia’s Katrin Garfoot leaped the rest of the field for silver, while the 2016 World Champion, Denmark’s Amalie Dideriksen, completed the podium.

Tennis: Rookie joy at the ATP Tour

On the eve of a mass migration to Asia for an important three week swing, the last seven days felt very much like a transitional period in the ATP Tour before things get serious again. Consequently, while many of the top players had fun in an exhibition tournament, two ATP 250 tournaments were available for the lower rungs scalping for points ahead of the home stretch of the season. It was in this scenario that something rare happened: two first time ATP Tour Champions in the same week.

In St. Petersburg, with defending Champion Alexander Zverev absent, the trophy fell into the hands of Damir Džumhur, who not only conquered his maiden trophy at this level, but also became the first player representing the Bosnia-Herzegovina to hold an ATP Tour title. In the Final, the 25-year-old from Sarajevo fended off third seed Fabio Fognini in three sets (4-6, 6-4,6-2) taking advantage of the Italian’s fatigue after a tough, come-from-behind semi-final triumph versus top-seed Roberto Bautista Agut.

A delighted Damir Džumhur kisses his maiden ATP trophy in St. Petersburg (AP)

Meanwhile, in Metz, a deflated crowd watched as German qualifier Peter Gojowczyk ousted home favourite Benoît Paire, the 7th seed, in two sets (7-5, 6-2), to capture his first ATP Tour trophy and secure a new career-best singles ranking of #66. Devilish stuff, no doubt about it.

Nonetheless, most tennis fans spent this weekend not with their eyes in France and Russia, but glued to the action in Prague, where the inaugural Laver Cup took place. Named after the Australian legend, this tournament pitted Team Europe and Team World in a Ryder-Cup style event where players squared off on a series of singles and doubles matches over three days.

Team Europe, containing five top-ten players, including Rafael Nadal (ATP No.1) and Roger Federer (No.2), was the overwhelming choice heading into the series, however the winners only emerged on the last of 12 scheduled matches. And not without some heroics from Roger Federer, who needed to save a match point against Nick Kyrgios (4-6, 7-6, [11-9)) to clinch the trophy for Team Europe by a final tally of 15-9.

While the men are still boarding planes to Asia, the WTA Tour is already entering the second fortnight of action in the Far East. On Sunday, three tournaments met their new holders and the highlight was the victory of Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki on the Pan Pacific Open, a WTA Premier Event that gathered most of the top-ten women taking the courts this week.

Wozniacki, the World No.6, was defending her title in Tokyo and she signed off in style for a second consecutive year, clobbering newly-minted World No.1 Garbiñe Muguruza (6-2, 6-0) in the semi-finals before sweeping past Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchekova in the Final (6-0, 7-5).

Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki poses with the Championship trophy from the Pan Pacific Open (AFP Photo/Kazuhiro NOGI)

Across the Sea, French Open Champion Jeļena Ostapenko confirmed her top seed status in Seoul by overpowering first-time finalist Beatriz Haddad Maia (6-7, 6-1, 6-4) to collect the Korea Open, while, four years after winning her first WTA title in Guangzhou, Zhang Shuai found bliss at home soil again. The 28-year-old Chinese beat Serbia’s Aleksandra Krunić by 6-2, 3-6 and 6-2 in the decisive match to hold the trophy aloft in front of her compatriots.

Athletics: Eliud Kipchoge wins Berlin Marathon but misses out on World Record

Many hailed it as the greatest men’s marathon lineup of all-time, and for good reason. After all, taking part were the reigning Olympic Champion and 2015 winner Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) – who raced in a blistering 2:00:25 in May at Nike’s Breaking2 project, an event which took place in Monza, Italy, under controlled (and non-conforming) conditions – , the 2013 Champion and former world record holder Wilson Kipsang (Kenya), and the defending Champion, track legend and 5000m/10000m world record holder Kenenisa Bekele (Ethiopia).

Three athletes with personal bests below two hours and four minutes running together, in Berlin, where flat roads, a fast surface and mild temperatures collude to power the elite to record breaking performances. Three men bidding to smash Dennis Kimetto’s marathon world record of 2:02:57 (Berlin, 2014) and fantasizing with a sub-two hour time.

And then, when the day came, it brought the rain with it. And Bekele going empty shortly past the midway mark. And Kipsang suddenly dropping out at the 30kms. The blockbuster showdown for history up in smoke and drizzle.

Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge crosses the line to win the 44th Berlin marathon on Sunday. (Michael Sohn/The Associated Press)

Nevertheless, there was still a race to be won, and Kipchoge ended up crossing the finish line in 2:03:32, just 35 seconds off the fancied mark after being pushed by a neophyte, 26-year-old Guye Adola (Ethiopia), whose 2:03:46 now stand as the best marathon debut ever. Far behind, Mosinet Geremew, also of Ethiopia, clocked 2:06:09 to claim third.

In the woman’s event, Gladys Cherono imitated her compatriot to repeat the 2015 triumph in 2:20:23. She was flanked in the podium by Ethiopia’s Ruti Aga (second) and fellow Kenyan Valary Ayabei (third).

Football: Juventus and Napoli remain perfect

Serie A

Another week, another victory for the duo of leaders, as Juventus and Napoli made it 6 out of 6 to maintain the pace at the top of the table. The Neapolitans suffered to overcome a feisty SPAL 2013 in Ferrara, yet a goal from left back Faouzi Ghoulam 7 minutes from time secured the 3-2 triumph. Meanwhile, Juventus throttled rivals Torino with another inspired performance from Paulo Dybala, who netted twice in their 4-0 romp.

Juventus forward Paulo Dybala starred at the Derby della Mole on Saturday (EPA)

Internazionale fans had to wait until the 87th minute for Danilo D’Ambrosio’s lone tally against Genoa at San Siro, but the victory maintains Luciano Spalleti’s side just two points behind the leaders. In the nation’s capital, AS Roma comfortably beat Udinese (3-1) and are now at 12 points with a game in hand, nipping at the heels of heart rivals Lazio, who capitalized on Ciro Immobile’s superb run of form (9 goals in the last 6 matches) to win in Verona. Conversely, the new look AC Milan couldn’t negotiate the difficult trip to the Luigi Ferraris, losing 2-0 to Sampdoria to fall six points back of the leaders.

Finally, in a game between newly-promoted sides, Crotone defeated Benevento 2-0 to escape the relegation zone, and guarantee the debutants will continue to wait for their first Serie A points.

Bundesliga

Dortmund increased their lead at the top of the table with an impressive 6-1 drubbing of Moenchengladbach in a battle of Borussias. Recruited from SC Freiburg in the offseason, Maximilian Phillip tallied the first two at the Signal Iduna Arena before Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang notched a hat-trick in a smashing evening.

BVB are now three points up on Bayern Munich, who allowed Wolfsburg to steal a point at the Allianz Arena in the round’s opener. Robert Lewandowski and Arjen Robben scored in the first half, but Maximilian Arnold cut one back with some help from Bayern goalkeeper Sven Ulreich, and Daniel Didavi completed the shocker four minutes from time.

Standing in for the injured Manuel Neuer, Sven Ulreich’s howler cost Bayern Munich two points against Wolfsburg (Getty Images)

Sandwiched between the two giants is now Hoffenheim, who hosted and beat (2-0) Schalke 04, while fourth-placed Hannover 96 welcomed bottom side FC Koln and couldn’t get off the 0-0 to collect a second consecutive draw.

Ligue 1

On the strength of another brace from Radamel Falcao, Monaco waltzed in Lille (4-0) on Friday – pushing their opponent into the relegation zone – and then took a seat to watch as Paris St. Germain got swamped at Montpellier (0-0) without Neymar. After a tumultuous summer, where half of their team was swarmed with offers from greener pastures, the defending Champions proved they won’t relinquish the title easily and cut the deficit at the top to one point.

The red-hot Falcao is already up to 11 goals in 7 Ligue 1 matches this season (AFP / Denis Charlet)

After the top two, the battle for third position is also shaping up nicely. The still-undefeated Bordeaux took the mantle from St. Etiénne (2-2 against Rennes) after brushing past Guingamp (3-1), while Marseille (2-0 vs Toulouse) and Nantes (1-2 at Strasbourg) stand two points behind. On the other hand, Lyon (3-3, Dijon) and Nice (2-2, Angers) dropped points at home in entertaining affairs to lose ground on their adversaries.

La Liga

It wasn’t supposed to be that difficult, but Real Madrid eventually held on (1-2) to leave the home of bottom-feeders Alavés with the three points. Newly-recruited midfielder Dani Ceballos scored the two goals for the struggling behemoths, and the distance to the top remains at seven points after Barcelona made the best out of the short trip to Girona. The “Blaugrana” manufactured a relaxing 3-0 victory with the help of two own-goals and Lionel Messi could even afford to take a night off in that department.

On his first start for Real Madrid, Dani Ceballos tallied twice to save his team at Alavés (AP)

In Madrid, in a fight between La Liga’s best supporting actors, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Antoine Griezmann helped Atlético upend Sevilla (2-0) to climb to second, four points off Barcelona, whilst Valencia confirmed their good season start by snatching a precious 3 points away to Real Sociedad in a thrilling five-goal game (2-3). It wasn’t the only high-scoring affair of round 6, though, as Celta de Vigo triumphed 4-0 at Eibar, Espanyol beat Deportivo 4-1, Málaga picked up their first point of the campaign after drawing 3-3 to Athletic Bilbao, and Getafe crushed Villareal (4-0) to send the visitors coach, Fran Escribá, packing.

Premier League

We’ve reached the end of round six and most of the cream has already risen to the top of the Premier League table, particularly after a pair of vital 3-2 away victories for Tottenham and Liverpool this week.

Visiting Leicester for the second time in a matter of days, Jurgen Klopp’s side avenged the League Cup elimination on the return to grace of Philippe Coutinho (goal and assist), while the Spurs edged city rivals West Ham at the London Olympic Stadium with a two-goal performance from Harry Kane. Tottenham and Liverpool are now fourth and fifth, respectively, with 11 points each.

The front trio of City, United and Chelsea all won, even if the Red Devils had to suffer to preserve Romelu Lukaku’s winner at Southampton (0-1). Meanwhile, to the blue side of Manchester, the weekend reserved a routine 5-0 thrashing of Crystal Palace, which Chelsea almost matched (4-0) in the usually tricky confines of the Britannia Stadium. The (London) Blues vanquished Stoke City and the four goals originated from Spain: three belonged to striker Álvaro Morata and the other to Pedro Rodríguez.

Elsewhere, Everton claimed an important victory over Bournemouth (2-1), dodging the last places for now, while Watford triumphed at Swansea to cling to sixth (1-2).

Moment of the weekend:

The gripping finale to the men’s road race of the World Championships in Bergen, obviously.

While technical problems with the broadcast meant TV viewers around the World were unable to watch most of the final three kilometres, fixed cameras still managed to pick up the riders in the final 900m to complete the job. Hence, revel on the fleeting seconds of the titanic sprint between Sagan and Kristoff as commentated in the Slovak television, and then check the replay (2:30m) from an overhead view.

 

Weekend Roundup (September, 17th): Slovenia wins the 2017 EuroBasket

Welcome to our new weekly report in Wheeling a round puck: the Weekend Roundup, where we’ll provide a rundown of the events that happened in the world of sport on the two busiest days of each seven-day spam.

While this concept is still a work in progress that is sure to see a few chances over the next months, the hope is that these pieces – mostly informative, but veering into commentary at times – will deliver a sensible summary of the most important incidents and results from a selected group of sports.

Therefore, football (mostly the five major European leagues), cycling (World Tour races) and tennis (ATP and WTA Tour) will be ever present – except in the offseason, of course – and it’s probable we’ll also venture regularly into the World Cup of the major winter sports (alpine skiing, ski jumping, cross country, biathlon) when time comes.

Moreover, we’ll tackle other sports as the calendar rolls around and major competitions from the likes of Athletics, Swimming or ice hockey take the spotlight. As you’ve already guessed, in this first post basketball makes an appearance due to the end of the 2017 EuroBasket, and that’s precisely the model to follow. So, let’s jump right into the hoop(s).

Basketball: Slovenian delight in Istanbul

After 18 days of competition across Europe, the European Basketball Championships ended this Sunday at the Sinan Erdem Dome in Istanbul, Turkey, the location selected to host the knockout rounds of a competition whose group stage span four different countries (Finland, Israel, Romania, Turkey) for the second time.

Slovenia and Serbia, two nations that were once part of the Republic of Yugoslavia, made it out of the 24-team field to contest the decisive match and, following a thrilling spectacle, the Slovenians were crowned European Champions for the first time by virtue of a 93-85 win.

Built around an explosive backcourt that featured Miami Heat’s point guard Goran Dragić, and 18-year-old wunderkind Luka Dončić (Real Madrid), the Slovenian’s high-flying offense had earned rave reviews throughout their flawless campaign (8-0 in the final tournament, 6-0 in qualifying), yet the Serbian’s were able to establish control in the first ten minutes and close the first quarter up 22-20.

However, with the nerves of a maiden Final put on the rear view, Slovenia took charge in the second inspired by a sublime Dragić – who ended the game with 35 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals – and they crafted a nine point advantage (56-47) at the half.

After the break, Serbia’s hopes were hanging by a thread as Slovenia looked to pull out, yet disaster struck with 4.44 min to go in the third when the influential Dončić hurt his left ankle. A consternated green-and-white fan section looked frozen as his prodigy was helped off the court, and the situation offered a perfect rallying call for their opponent. Led by Bogdan Bogdanović, which served as Serbia’s primary facilitator in the absence (from the tournament) of the entrancing Miloš Teodosić, the deficit shrank and, by the middle of the fourth period, the lead was changing hands in every possession.

It was right around this time that Slovenia’s captain Goran Dragić was also forced to leave with an injury, and few believed his team would still be able to pull off victory without its two best players. But, stunningly, they did, with their backup guards Jaka Blažič and Aleksej Nikolić coming up big in crunch time, shooter Klemen Prepelič icing big three pointers all night, naturalized forward Anthony Randolph stepping up in the final minutes, or center Gašper Vidmar making a huge block on a Bogdanović reserve lay-up to stunt Serbia’s chances of a late comeback.

Slovenian players exult after the final buzzer (credits: fiba.eurobasket)

A truly epic team effort to seal a sensational run by Slovenia, which swept Group A (Helsinki, Finland), dispatched Ukraine in the round of 16, fended off a Kristaps Porzingis-led Latvia in the quarters, and vanquished the defending Champions Spain in the semi-finals to surpass their previous best result at the EuroBasket: a fourth place in 2009, when they fell to Serbia in overtime on the semis. Not bad for a country of just 2.1M people.

Moreover, to cap it off, Goran Dragić was elected the tournament MVP, and he was joined by Dončić, Russia’s Alexei Shved, Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanović and Spain’s Pau Gasol on the EuroBasket All-Tournament Team. In the third place game, Spain defeated Russia (93-85) to claim bronze and provide a fitting send off for retiring captain Juan Carlos Navarro, who collected a staggering tenth international medal with the national team.

Tennis: Belgium and France qualify for Davis Cup Final

Third consecutive week without ATP Tour events, as Grand Slam action in New York was immediately followed by the last batch of Davis Cup ties highlighted, naturally, by the semi-finals of the World Group.  France and Belgium hosted Serbia and Australia, respectively, and they took full advantage of home court to book a spot on the Final, scheduled for late November in France.

In Lille, the French faced a Serbian team missing Novak Djokovic and Viktor Troicki, but they couldn’t avoid an early scare when Lucas Pouille succumbed to Dušan Lajović in four sets at the opener. However, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga made quick work of rookie Laslo Đere to level on Friday, and then two-time Grand Slam Champions Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicholas Mahut won in doubles to set France on the right path.

Tsonga completed the job by ousting Lajovic on Sunday, laying waste to the final rubber, and thus sending the team captained by Yannick Noah to a third final in seven years (2010, 2014). With no Novak Djokovic (2010), Roger Federer or Stan Wawrinka (2014) standing on their way, France has no excuses this time. They should end their 16-year drought in a couple of months.

France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga jubilates after winning the Davis Cup semi final against Serbia (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

Meanwhile, in Brussels, pundits expected a cracking matchup and it delivered. Belgium’s No.1, David Goffin, dropped the first set against John Millman but rebounded quickly to pull the hosts in front, while Nick Kyrgios rallied back from 2-1 down to brush past Steve Darcis in five sets and level at 1-1.

On Saturday, Australia’s pair (John Peers/Jordan Thompson) captured victory in commanding fashion, yet Belgium was able to respond with their backs to the wall 24 hours later. The resolute Goffin slowed down Kyrgios to triumph in four, and then Darcis snatched the vital third point in a straight sets victory over Jordan Thompson. Elation in Brussels. Belgium will make a short trip south of the border to contest a second Davis Cup Final in three years after capitulating at home to Andy Murray’s Great Britain back in 2015. Maybe they’re reserved better luck as huge underdogs on the road.

The plucky Belgians are back in the Davis Cup Final (Emmanuel Dunand /AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

In the World Group playoffs, Canada (without Milos Raonic), Croatia, Germany (missing  the Zverev brothers and Philipp Kohlschreiber) and Switzerland (no Wawrinka or Federer) were able to guarantee another year amongst the elite, while Russia was upset by Hungary and the 2012 and 2013 Champions Czech Republic fell to the Netherlands. Without Del Potro, Argentina lost at Kazakhstan to become just the third nation to be relegated the year after winning the title, while the Japan-Brazil (3-1) tie was only concluded on Monday after rain and an incoming typhoon cancelled play in Osaka on the weekend.

On the WTA Tour, the aftermath of the US Open brought a week imbued with two small, 125k international tournaments (Tokyo and Québec City) boasting rather unremarkable draws. Consequently, it wasn’t exactly a major surprise that the Japan Women’s Open Final pitted two qualifiers, World No. 171 Miyu Kato and Kazakhstan’s Zarina Diyas (No.100), nor that the slightly more experienced competitor eventually prevailed.

Diyas, a finalist on the same tournament back in 2014 (loss to Sam Stosur), conjured better memories this time and triumphed by 6-2, 7-5 to hold aloft her first WTA Tour trophy. Incidentally, despite a stronger field, similar scenes were observed in Canada, where Belgium’s Alison van Uytvanck defeated Hungary’s Tímea Babos in three sets (5-7, 6-4, 6-1) to conquer the 25th Tournoi de Québec and her first title at this level.

Zarina Diyas, of Kazakhstan, kisses the trophy of the Japan Women’s Open

Cycling: Irrepressible Matteo Trentin keeps rolling

With no World tour races on the calendar ahead of the World Championships, the highest ranked competition of the weekend was the Primus Classic (1.HC), also known as the GP Impanis-Van Petegem. A Belgium event won by the likes of Fernando Gavíria, Andre Greipel or Greg van Avermaet in recent seasons, this year’s edition reaffirmed the credentials of one of the most in-form riders on the tour.

Fresh off four stage wins in Spain, Quick-Step Floors’ Matteo Trentin flexed his muscles once again to triumph in Boortmeerbeek, Flanders, on Saturday. Part of a 15-men group sitting in front of the peloton late, the 28-year-old disregarded a highly-advantageous situation for his team – numbers in the break and sprinter Gaviria lined up to take victory – when he took off with 6.5 km to go carrying just BMC’s Jean-Pierre Drucker on his trail. A risky move bound to upset his directors had it gone wrong, but one the Italian would follow up perfectly when he eschewed his partner-in-crime with a couple of kilometres to go and rode solo to raise his arms at the finish line.

Victory for Matteo Trentin in Belgium

With the World Championships road race one week away, that was a mightily impressive display from the man that should lead a strong Italian contingent looking for a first title since 2008.

This weekend also concluded the 2017 Tour of Denmark with a fourth consecutive overall triumph for a local boy. About to complete his first World Tour season, 21-year-old Mads Pedersen (Trek Segafredo), the Danish National Champion, held off two-time winner (2014, 2016) Michael Valgren (Astana Pro Team) to secure his best career win to date in front of his compatriots. Pedersen had obtained the lead after winning stage 3, edging Valgren at the finish, and he administered his meagre advantage during Friday’s ITT and Saturday’s last stage, when he finished second to Max Walscheid (Team Sunweb) to clinch victory in the general classification.

On Sunday, the UCI World Championships kicked off in Bergen with the team time trial competition. Since the rebirth of the event, in 2012, only five teams (BMC, Quick Step, Orica-Scott, Sky and Movistar) had managed to medal, yet the day would belong to Team Sunweb, still regarded as an outsider despite boasting, probably, the best time trail specialist in the World.

Team Sunweb won the team time trial title at the start of the World Championships in Bergen (NTB Scanpix/Cornelius Poppe via REUTERS)

With Tom Dumoulin and fellow Dutch Wilco Kelderman powering the six-men unit, the German outfit upended pre-race favourites BMC, who repeated the second place of 2016, and the star-studded Team Sky, whose lineup contained Chris Froome and former World Champions Vasil Kyrienka (ITT, 2015) and Michal Kwiatkowski (road race, 2014). Quick-Step Floors, who has won a record three times, including in 2016, finished fourth, 35 seconds off Team Sunweb’s pace.

Football: Shorthanded Real Madrid pulls through at San Sebastián

La Liga

Traditionally, Real Sociedad’s Anoeta is one of the toughest grounds in Spain, and Real Madrid didn’t make their task any easier by dropping points unexpectedly in the previous two matchdays and lining up without Marcelo, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema (all injured) and Cristiano Ronaldo (suspended). Zidane’s team couldn’t afford to give Barça more leeway at the top of the table, and they didn’t, scrapping a 3-1 victory against a team that was three of three up to this game.

One day earlier, at Getafe, FC Barcelona suffered to keep their 100% win record intact and the four-point gap on the rivals. The hosts scored first, on a screamer from Shibasaki – the first goal allowed by the Catalans on the league – but substitutes Denis Suárez and the much-scorned Paulinho turned the game around. The bad news would came later, when it was announced their 105M addiction Ousmane Dembélé had been ruled out for a few months with a thigh injury.

Paulinho’s first goal with FC Barcelona allowed the Catalans to grab the three points at Getafe (Denis Doyle/GettyImages)

Elsewhere, Atlético Madrid opened their new stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano, with a narrow 1-0 victory over last place Málaga. Antoine Griezmann scored the game’s lone goal and the “Colchoneros” moved up the table to fourth, tied with their city rivals, while Sevilla passed at Girona with a goal from Colombian forward Luis Muriel and rose to second, with 10 pts. At the bottom, Málaga is still stuck on neutral, as is Alavés, still goalless on the season and comprehensively beaten at home by Villareal (0-3) this week.

English Premier League

Heading into round 5, Manchester United and Manchester City shared the Premier League lead with 10 pts, and things didn’t change in the weekend after both sides picked up easy wins and watched as their competitors left points on the board.

On Saturday, Manchester City cruised to another rout, pumping 6 goals at Watford, who had entered the round undefeated (2W, 2D). Kun Agüero tallied three times on the afternoon to  push the Citizens goal scoring record over the last seven days to a staggering 15-0, while their rivals responded by dispatching the struggling Everton (1 win in five matches) by 4-0. It wasn’t as easy as it looks though, since Old Trafford was only allowed a sigh of relief when Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored the second goal in the 83th minute.

Argentine striker Sergio Agüero was on top form in Man City’s visit to Watford (AFP Photo/Ben STANSALL)

Chelsea continues in pursue of the front duo, but they lost ground after drawing 0-0 against Arsenal. Liverpool dropped points at home once again, this time to Burnley (1-1), while Tottenham couldn’t break past Swansea’s wall and have yet to win at Wembley for the Premier League. It stands to reason their mid-week triumph over Dortmund didn’t broke the curse, and that’s good news for a team like Newcastle, who won for a third consecutive week after dropping the first two matches of the campaign, and leaped to fourth.

At the bottom, Crystal Palace’s sacking of Frank de Boer and subsequent appointment of Roy Hodgson didn’t pay immediate dividends, as the former England manager oversaw a 0-1 defeat to Southampton that saw the South Londoners write some history…

And the nightmare may not end soon since their next three opponents are Man City (a), Man Utd (a), and Chelsea (h)…

Serie A

Inter, Juve and Napoli had collected three points in every game played and they kept the pace in round four. The Nerazzurri found two late goals at Crotone to snatch victory, Paulo Dybala bagged a hat trick to steer Juventus on their visit to Sassuolo and now counts eight goals in four matches, and Napoli schooled newly-promoted Benevento (0 pts, last place) at the San Paolo (6-0).

Ciro Immobile’s brace helped Lazio came out victorious at Genoa (2-3), keeping the capital side two points off the top, while AC Milan bounced back from last week’s loss with the Laziale to climb to fifth, with 9 pts, after overcoming Udinese (2-1)

Bundesliga

After being surprised on the Europa League mid-week, Hoffenheim couldn’t beat Hertha Berlin at home on Sunday, and were thus dumped out of the front carriage. Hannover and Dortmund, who routed Cologne (5-0) and have yet to concede a goal, are now the duo ahead, with ten points each, while Bayern Munich is right behind.

The Bavarians calmed their fans with a cool 4-0 home win over Mainz courtesy of their star forwards. Thomas Müller, Arjen Robben and Robert Lewandowski (2) were on target, and the five-time defending Champions now accumulate nine points, the same as Schalke 04, who triumphed at Werder Bremen.

Thomas Muller (#25) and Robert Lewandowski (#9) celebrate one of the goals scored against Mainz on Saturday (Andreas Gebert/dpa)

Last year’s runners-up RB Leipzig were stifled by Borussia Mönchengladbach (2-2), while Bayer Leverkusen finally picked up a win (4-0, Freiburg) to leave the relegation zone.

Ligue 1

Monaco hosted Strasbourg after the humbling 0-4 defeat in Nice last week, and they did what was asked, with Falcao notching twice in their 3-0 victory to keep them three points off PSG. The Colombian now has 9 goals in 6 games to top the Golden Shoe race, and distanced himself from Edison Cavani, who was held off the scoresheet as the Parisians eventually broke Lyon’s opposition late. It took own goals by defenders Marcelo and Jérémy Morel, but PSG is now a perfect six of six.

Saint-Etiénne, winners 1-0 at Dijon, are in third place with 13 pts, followed by Bordeux, Lyon and Marseille, while Marcelo Bielsa’s Lille lost in stoppage time at Guingamp, and haven’t taken three points since the opening fixture. They have 5 pts amassed in six matches, and are just one above the red line.

Moment of the weekend

A couple of outstanding football goals around the world this week, but we’ll grant the stage on this first Weekend Roundup to another debut.

After 50 years at the Vicente Calderón, Atletico Madrid revealed their new home and Antoine Griezmann was the man on duty, directing home the ball after an excellence play down the right flank by Angel Correa. A goal worth three points for Diego Simeone’s team, and just another reason to celebrate on a special night.

 

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.”

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.

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.