Race Day

Australian Grand Prix 2017

The weather is just perfect for the first Grand Prix of the season at Albert Park, Melbourne. From the qualifying rounds of Saturday, Mercedes has topped the qualifying rounds with Hamilton securing his 62nd pole with Bottas at 3rd. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel secured the 2nd position while his team mate Raikkonen took the 4th slot on the grid to complete Mercedes and Ferrari domination in the qualifying. Max Verstappen, Romain Gorsjean, Felipe Massa, Daniel Ricciardo and Fernando Alanso completed the grid positions.

Many in the stands would have expected a run-away victory for the world champions Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton to sweep the title at Albert Park. But Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel had other plans. With a much superior car, which was flying in pre-testing, and a race defining pit stop strategy, allowed Vettel to literally pull the carpet from under Hamilton feet to record the first win for the Prancing Horse since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix, 28 races ago, and Vettel’s first win in 18 months.

It was the German’s 43rd career victory, but the way he dominated from the word go, told a lot on his attitude and the current state of his car. He relentlessly applied pressure on Lewis, forcing the Briton to make an early pit stop. Lewis regretted the decision immediately, as he ended up in a traffic behind Max Verstappen. And Vettel returned from his own pit stop in front and never looked backed after that, surging to victory by almost 10 seconds. There was little to separate between the two supremely talented racers and the battle between Vettel and Hamilton, who have won six of the past seven championships between them, has been drawn. The Ferrari’s proved beyond doubt that they are the ones to break the Mercedes stranglehold on this sport.

The local poster boy, Daniel Ricciardo, had a nightmarish weekend, as he pulled out of the race at lap 29 due to engine failure, leaving a strong 100 thousand Australian fans disappointed. Fernando Alonso had his share of misfortune too as he failed to finish the race. He had vehemently criticised his own Honda powered engines and swore that it would be an achievement if the McLaren car would even finish the race. But the Spaniard defined all expectation by lasting almost the full distance at 10th place, before a suspension failure forced his withdrawal.

Valtteri Bottas, the man who replaced the big shoes of Nico Rosberg, had an outstanding week, and finished third in his first race for Mercedes. Whether he would give Hamilton a run for his money in the races to come, only time can tell.

In the move of the day, at lap 52, Force India’s Esteban Ocon swept past Fernando Alonso with exquisite timing, bringing the crowd to their feet and lauding the young Frenchman, who is tipped to be a future Formula One champion.

But it was a bad weekend for Team Haas, as both their drivers, Romain Grosjean, who qualified in a surprising fifth, and Kevin Magnussen, failed to finish the race for the sole American team.

As the curtains comes down on the first Formula One race, all eyes now shift to Shanghai in China in a fortnight time. FI’s new CEO Chase Carey and his team at Liberty Media would like to sustain the momentum now as they leave the legacy of Bernie Ecclestone behind.

 

First Pit Stop: Melbourne

The 2017 Formula One season gets underway at the Albert Park, Melbourne from 24-26 March.

Every race track has its own history and Albert Park is no exception. When Formula One came to Australia in 1985 it set up home in Adelaide. However, ex-racer-turned-entrepreneur Bob Jane wanted a race in Melbourne. He created a huge ‘thunder dome’ and invented the AUSCAR series, bringing NASCAR action to Australia.

The desire to have a race in Melbourne did not wane. Despite the popular end of season slot for the Adelaide race, pressure was growing from the Melbourne motor sport community, and in 1992 Jeff Kennett was elected the new premier of the State of Victoria. He immediately set about improving Melbourne’s profile. First on his list was the Australian Grand Prix. An agreement was reached with Formula One in 1993, but the contract with Adelaide did not expire until 1995, so Kennett had plenty of time to prepare.

A track was developed in Melbourne’s beautiful Albert Park, part of it using closed-off public roads, and in 1996 the city held the first round of the world championship.Since then the race has become very popular with drivers and fans alike, and the party atmosphere of Melbourne keeps them coming back year after year.

So, what is new in the 2017 season. Changes are part of this sport, with new rules and regulations brought forth by FIA (Federation of Internationale DeL’Automobile), making the sport more interesting to the global audience. The most important is the exit of Bernie Ecclestone, the Chief Executive of Formula One, who ran the sport virtually single-handedly for 40 years. Liberty Media completed the purchase of Formula One in January and Chase Carey replaces the 86 year old as its Formula One Chairman and Chief Executive, bring to an end the chequered career of Bernie Ecclestone.

There have been some changes to the cars – aerodynamics and tyres – which would mean faster lap times.The change in the car aerodynamics would increase corner speeds as this would give the machines improved down force. However straight line speed is expected to be slower as the cars are made heavier, longer and wider, making overtaking manoeuvres difficult.

The tyres are now fatter with both the rear and front tyres expanded. The tyres are now expected to give more grip and last longer. We could now see more one stop races. There is a marginal increase in fuel allowance; but this would not make a big difference as the extra grip would eat away more fuel.

There would be one team and one racer shorter in the 2017 season. The departure of Manor racing team would see the grid shrink to 10 teams and the absence of the German Grand Prix means there would be 20 races this season.

The much- awaited showdown between friends turned foes; Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg; is now all part of history, as the 2016 world champion called it quits for the 2017 season, leaving Lewis Hamilton as the overwhelming favourite to win the title for the fourth time. The retirement of Rosberg means that for the first time in 23 years, there will be no reigning champion on the starting grid. The last time this anomaly happened was in 1994, the season after Alain Prost won his fourth Formula One title and then retired.

2016 saw the two Mercedes drivers fight tooth and nail for the championship, which was decided in the season’s final race at Abu Dhabi. And after a decade in Formula One, Rosberg clinched his maiden championship, the winning margin being a mere five points. Rosberg won nine of the 21 races fought during the season, with Hamilton finishing on top in 10. While Rosberg’s reliability with his car was the talking point, the Briton had mechanical issues to contend with, most notably in Malaysia when an engine failure almost certainly cost him victory and swung the balance in Rosberg’s favour. Looking closely at some of the stats, shows how close these two drivers challenged each other for the coveted world championship.

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Rosberg would be the best example for a man of resilience. At the end of 2014, when he finished runner up to Lewis Hamilton, it would have been heart breaking. Then in 2015, he picked himself up but only to lose the title again to Hamilton. Any driver would have thrown in the towel, acknowledging the fact that they have lost to a better driver. But not Rosberg. He proved that he is a better driver than Hamilton and won the 2016 championship. His perseverance is remarkable and his resilience alone makes him a worthy champion. He thus emulated his father, Keke Rosberg, who won his formula one title in 1982 and thus becoming only the second son of a Formula One champion to win a title; the first being Damon Hill, after his father Graham won in 1968.

As the 2017 season bids goodbye to the champion, let us celebrate his achievements in the words of BBC Radio 5 live commentator Tom Carlson “You have the car: 11,000 parts; you have the team: 1,000 people; you have the sponsors: $400m a year for a top team, and you have the drivers. To maximise all of these different areas is a huge challenge and Rosberg has been the glue that’s held it all together at Mercedes in 2016.” Nico Rosberg’s feedback is the best in Formula One, according to his engineers; he is fluent in six languages and is the sponsor’s dream. He started out with Williams in 2006 and was named Britney (after singer Britney Spears) by his team mate Mark Webber. A worthy champion indeed.

ValtteriBottas replaces Rosberg at Mercedes as Lewis Hamilton’s new partner. Whether the Finn would be able to fill the big shoes of Rosberg is a million-dollar question. The world watches with bated breath as the drivers prepare to vroom around the 20 circuits, challenging the versatile Briton Lewis Hamilton.

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Day 12

Nadal’s date with history

With a shot against Roger Federer in the Australian Open final up for grabs, a resurgent Rafael Nadal and an upstart Grigor Dimitrov will vie against each other for the coveted spot in today’s semi-final. Nadal last played a major final in the 2014 French Open, and after a series of ailments and injuries, he has silenced the critics who felt whether the Spaniard has it in him to make another major final.  Dimitrov, famous for reasons other than tennis; he was the ex-boyfriend of Russian superstar Maria Sharapova; is yet to win a major despite having oodles of talent. Nadal leads the head to head record 7-1 and 1-0 in grand slams (2014 Australian Open quarter-finals). The pair last played in the China Open quarters, where Dimitrov won 6-2,6-4 to eke out his first victory. The Bulgarian is on a roll this year, having won the Brisbane International and 5 successive matches in the Australian Open. With young legs and an aggressive approach, he should give Nadal a run for his money.

The first set started strongly for Dimitrov as the Bulgarian starts hitting the ball strongly to run up 0-30, forcing a couple of unforced errors on Nadal’s forehand. He couldn’t convert a break point and Nadal holds his serve to set the ball rolling. In the fourth game Nadal breaks with a whipped forehand pass to go up 3-1. Nadal then cruises through the set winning 6-3. Though both won a total of 20 points, Dimitrov’s 7 unforced errors did him in. He would have rued not able to convert the break point that was on offer in game one. The second game started strongly yet again for Dimitrov as he held his serve and broke Nadal’s serve for the first time in game four to go up 3-1 and hold his next service game. Both players trade break of serves. Dimitrov goes up 6-5 and Nadal serving to stay in the second set loses focus to hand over the set to the Bulgarian 7-5 and one set apiece. What a set it turned out to be for Dimitrov. In the third set, Nadal takes the initiative in game five as a forehand on 30-40 from Dimitrov sails long to hand Nadal the break. But Dimitrov breaks back to be back in the match at 3-3. There are no further breaks and the set goes to a tie breaker where the Spaniard wins handsomely 7-5.

The set takes one hour and ten minutes. The fourth set starts after two hours and fifty minutes of pulsating tennis. Can Nadal close the issue in four sets or will Dimitov take it to the fifth set. The set had its up and down. Rafa was strong with his returns and backhand       winners from the base line while Dimitrov is tenacious, mentally strong and willing to suffer. Both the players take their chances but are unable to break their opponents defences. Games go on serves and it is tie breaker in set four. Dimitrov turns the tide this time and takes the tie braker at 7-4. We are on to the deciding set.

The opening game of the fifth set lasts 13 minutes as Nadal squanders 3 break point opportunities to break serve. Dimitrov is now starting to believe in himself that he could turn it around. Game two saw the longest rally played where 29 shots were traded, Nadal winning eventually. One game all. The game goes on serve and in the ninth game Nadal gets the most important break of the match and he duly completes the formalities in 4 hours and 56 minutes on the third match point to meet Federer for a dream final on Sunday.

Day 11

Williams day out

Venus and Serena booked themselves a career ninth meeting in grand slams when the sisters won their respective semi-final matches against CoCo Vandeweghe and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni respectively. While Venus spent 3 tiring sets to over-power her much younger opponent, Serena took a mere 50 minutes to swat the challenge of the 34-year old Czech. Mirjana has taken a pounding on her body as she has played ten matches (singles and doubles) in eleven days and had a heavy strapping on her left leg. But Serena showed no mercy for her great survivor and eased through to a 6-2.6-1 victory. Venus, on the other hand, spent much longer time on court (146 minutes) as CoCo indulged in some hefty hitting of the ball and won the first set on a tie break. Venus had to bring all her experience to the fore and converted 5 of 9 break points against the big-serving Vandeweghe while Vandeweghe could convert just one of 13. Venus went on to clinch the next two sets 6-2,6-3 and through to the finals.

The rivalry between the sisters is nineteen years old and after 27 meetings, Serena leads 16-11. Their ninth grand slam final meeting feat is only eclipsed by Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, who have met in 14 grand slam finals. As Serena rightly said in her post match review that Venus is her toughest opponent and none have beaten her more that her big sister.  Whoever wins the title on Saturday, each would have achieved a milestone. If Serena wins her 23rd grand slam title, she will go one better than Steffi Graf (22) and one short of Margaret Court (24). Or Venus will earn the reward that her determination deserves. Apart from being one of the oldest players on tour at 36, she also suffers from Sjogren’s Syndrome, an incurable auto-immune disease. Let us wait and watch Saturday’s action.

The Swiss bandwagon continues to roll as senior pro Roger Federer raced to his 28th grand slam final and a shot for an 18th grand slam title and a fifth Australian Open crown. It would also mark his 100th Australian Open match on Sunday. In a five-set epic, which lasted three hours and five minutes, Federer came out winner 7-5,6-3,1-6,4-6,6-3 with some fine hitting on both flanks of the court. What makes this final more-sweeter for the Swiss magician is the combination of being in the twilight of his career and not having played competitive tennis since his Wimbledon semi-final exit last year.

The first set lasted 50 minutes as both men traded heavy blows, with Federer finally managing to break Wawrinks’s serve in the 12 game to win the set 7-5. Federer broke the 2014 Australian Open winner’s serve early in the second set and closed the set 6-3. Wawrinka was clearly frustrated with his game and cracked his racquet in two over his left knee and after the loss of the set went for a long medical break with his trainer. Regrouping himself and with Federer losing his focus, Stan the Man found a chink in Federer’s armoury and broke twice to run away with the third set 6-1. Federer was finding his rhythm not going as desired and while serving to stay alive in the fourth set lost his serve as well as the set 6-4. It was now the turn of Federer to take a long medical break and on his return to court found his bearing to break Wawrinka in the sixth game to go up 4-2. There was no let up later as Federer completed a stunning victory, much to the delight of a record crowd. Federer awaits the winner of the other semi-final between Rafael Nadal and the man whom they call “Baby Federer”, Grigor Dimitrov.

Stay tuned until tomorrow.

Day 10

Age no barrier for seed’s

Action began at Melbourne Park with Karolina Pliskova of Czech losing to Croatian Mirjana Lucic Baroni in three tight sets 4-6,6-3,4-6. Mirjana was a semi-finalist at Wimbledon in 1999 as an 18-year-old who had just started playing professional tennis. This is the best showing in her last eight visits to the Australian Open. She had lost 7 times in the first round and managed to reach the second round only once in 1998. With no clothing contract and guarantees, life has been a big struggle for this 34-year old Czech. Battling an abusive father, financial ruins, seeking asylum in the United States and having nothing to show for career titles, Mirjana has seen it all. This victory has once again reinforced the fact that players in mid-30’s are ruling the roost.

Serena accompanied elder sister Venus to the semi-finals of the Australian Open and stay on course for her 23rd grand slam title, winning in straight sets against Johana Konta of Britain. The second seeded Serena was tested by Konta in the second set when the British player broke her to go up 2-1. But Williams broke back at love to level the score at 3-all and saved another break point in her next service game before closing out the match. Serena finished with 10 aces and is second on the list with 41 aces in this tournament. She is now the third player after Mirjana and Venus in the over 30-category to reach the semis and ensuring that there would be at-least one player of over 30 years in the finals.

The men’s quarterfinal match between David Goffin and Grigor Dimitrov was a straight set affair with the Bulgarian winning hands down. This is his first grand slam semis after the 2014 Wimbledon. Goffin’s deft mix of court craft and speed were expected to trouble Dimitrov, but the Belgian’s serve let him down and coupled with a high unforced error stats of 46, he couldn’t stem the free-flowing tennis of Dimitrov. Goffin saved two match points in the penultimate game of the match, but it only delayed the inevitable, Dimitrov serving it out to love with a huge backhand winner down the line.

The last quarter final match turned out to be damp affair as Nadal beat Canadian giant Milos Raonic in straight sets 6-4,7-6,6-4 to reach his fifth Australian Open semi-final and face Dimitrov. The Spaniard was in control from the word go and broke in the seventh game with two passing shots winners to go ahead 4-3. He produced a wide range of shots; serves; returns, forehand down the line, backhand pass; to go one up in the set. The second set was closely fought with Raonic threatening to break Nadal’s serve in the second game. After a short medical time-out, Raonic served much better and took the set to a tie break. Nadal bounced back in the tie break to regain control and won the set to take a two set to love lead. The third set was all Nadal’s as he belted an inside out winner to lead 4-3. Nadal broke as Raonic was serving to stay in the match. Three unforced errors by the Canadian gave Nadal a passage to the semi-finals.

Day 9

Federer sets date with “Stan The Man”

Today’s quarters at the Australian Open featured two men’s and two women’s matches.

Thirteenth seeded Venus Williams is making a silent progress into the event and does not mind her younger sibling take all the accolades. The 36-year-old, seven-time slam winner, has not won an Australian Open title, finishing runner up to sister Serena in the 2003 finals. With her 49th title coming at the Taiwan Open in January 2016, Venus would love to add a 50th career title and a first Australian Open. And she stayed on course, with an emphatic straight sets victory over twenty fourth seed, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia. Venus dropped her serve four times, but still packed a punch in decisive moments to become the oldest woman to reach a grand slam semi-final since Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon in 1994. In her post match statement, Venus revealed that she would like to be champion.

In the next match, Garbine Muguruza couldn’t stop the inform CoCo Vandeweghe from reaching her first grand slam semis. The Spaniard, aiming for her second grand slam crown, after her 2016 French Open triumph, and having not lost a set en-route to the quarters, came a cropper in the second set and lost tamely 4-6,0-6.

As the crowd waited in bated breath to welcome the evergreen Roger Federer to the centre court for his round of 8 match, the German, Mischa Zverev, who is on song after defeating Andy Murray, was hatching a plot to dethrone the 17-time grand slam champion. Before the boisterous crowd could settle in, Federer rattled off the first set in a mere 19 minutes at 6-1, giving no room to Mischa to ply his trade. In the second set, Mischa slowly found his rhythm and broke Federer to lead 3-1. The Swiss magician broke right back to even at 3 games all and both the players held serve until 5-5. Federer broke again in the eleventh game for a 6-5 lead and closed the set at 7-5. He brought his volleying powers to the fore and his net approaches were at a staggering 72%. In the third set, Federer breezed to a 4-2 lead, and in game 7, that lasted almost 10 minutes, saw 10 deuces and 5 break points, Federer produced an immaculate winner to break Misha and served out the match at 6-2 in 1 hour 32 minutes. With 65 winners and 13 unforced errors, Federer has matched the semi-final runs of the previous two major appearances at Melbourne Park and Australian Open in 2016. In his post-match update, Federer was modest in his comments and said he did not expect himself to go this far when he started the tournament.

Stan Wawrinka fought it out against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France, with the Swiss coming out winner in three sets, to set up a date with Federer on Thursday. In the absence of the top two seeds and with all the spot lights on Federer and Nadal, the Swiss is quietly going about his business. With his leg’s heavily strapped, one expected Stan to be immobile. But “Stan the Man”, as he is known in the tennis world, matched Tsonga point for point and took the first set in a tie break. Having beaten Stan 3 times out of 7, with the last coming four years ago, Tsonga had to do something different to stop the Swiss. But it was beyond him and lost the next two sets 4-6,3-6.

Day 8

End of Denis Istomin’s fairy tale

After the chaotic Sunday results, where top seeds Andy Murray and Angelique Kerber made shocking exits, day 8 saw order being restored at Melbourne Park. It is for the first time since 2002 that both the top seeds haven’t reached the quarter-finals at the Australian Open. It will be for the first time since 2014 that we will have a winner in the men’s side that isn’t Andy or Novak. Wow, that sounds quite incredible about these two guys who have dominated world tennis in the last couple of years. Or will we have a new or an old-new champion? One can’t rule out old war horses Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer clashing in a grand slam final for the 9th time (Nadal has a 6-2 advantage). Or will it be Milos Raonic’s chance to establish himself as a grand slam champion. Having finished runner up in the 2016 Wimbledon, the Canadian would be itching to prove a point. The Swiss star, Stan Wawrinka, who has always been in the shadows of Roger Federer, would want to repeat his 2014 performance.

With expectations soaring and potential quarter-final spots in offering, young guns Dominic Thiem of Austria squared up against Belgian David Goffin. Having met each other seven times, with the Belgian leading 4-3, Goffin continued his domination against Dominic Thiem, winning his fourth-round match in four sets. Thiem is now the fifth top-eight seed that has been eliminated before the quarter-finals of the men’s draw.

Next up, Rafael Nadal continued his dream run in the first grand slam of the year, as he brushed aside the challenge of Frenchmen Gael Monfils in four sets. The ninth seeded Spaniard was far superior and consistent in his shot making and was cruising to a straight set victory but tightened up a bit in the third set to let the free style Frenchmen back into the match. In the fourth set, Monfils broke Nadal for a 4-2 lead and the crowd set themselves up for a decider. However, Nadal steeled himself and started serving strongly and with some solid backhand hitting, reeled off four straight games to book himself a last 8 berth and a 30th slam quarter-finals. Big serving Canadian Milos Raonic thumped thirteenth seeded Roberto Bautista Agut in four sets 7-6,3-6,6-4,6-1 setting up a tantalising quarter-final match with Nadal. Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov sealed his place in the quarter finals when he stopped the fairy tale run of Denis Istomin in another four-setter. The quarter final line up for the women’s section was also drawn, bringing the curtains down on an absorbing day of tennis

Quarter Final Schedule – Men

Milos Raonic v/s Rafael Nadal
Stan Wawrinka v/s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
David Goffin v/s Grigor Dimitrov
Roger Federer v/s Mischa Zverev

Quarter Final Schedule – Women

Serena Williams v/s Johana Conta
Karolina Pliskova v/s Mirjana Lucic Baroni
Garbine Mugaruza v/s CoCo Vandeweghe
Venus Williams v/s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

Australian Open 2017

The first grand slam of the season,           The Australian Open, is underway in Melbourne Will there be a new champion this year?

It’s a million-dollar question as both the men’s and the women’s schedule is packed with potential and former champions. The fab four of Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal would be competing against the likes of Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. There is always a surprise element like an Alexander Zverev, Nick Kyrgios, Dominic Thiem and Grigor Dimitrov who can put a spoke in the wheels of the fab four. The dice in the women’s draw is heavily loaded in favour of Serena William, who would be longing to lift her seventh Australian Open title and avenge her 2016 loss to Angelique Kerber, the new world number one. There are a few big match players who can stop Serena or Angelique in their bid to win the championship. Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland is fun to watch but lacks the temperament to last seven matches to take the crown. Simona Halep, the Romanian, has one of the most beautiful two-handed backhand in tennis today. But a shaky mental match dooms her tournament. The hard-serving Karolina Pliskova of Czech Republic is a former US open finalist, and having beaten Serena, could taste success in the open. The diminutive Slovakian, Dominika Cibulkova knows how to grind and win big matches and should be a threat in the tournament.

Novak has a tough opening draw against Fernando Verdasco of Spain. The two had met very recently in the semi-finals of the Doha Open. The Spaniard was on the verge of creating a major upset when he was a set up and had five match points to close the match in the second. But Novak played some inspired tennis, and drawing all his experience, closed out the match in a three setter and went on to beat Murray in the final to win the championship. Can we expect Novak to create that magic? He is coming off a very indifferent 2016 season. Having won the Australian and French Open titles to complete the career slam in tennis, Novak saw a slump in form and exited in the third round at Wimbledon. Though he reached the finals of the US Open, where he lost to Stan Wawrinka, he could not recreate the magic when he won seven titles by mid of the year. The loss at the Rio Olympics to Juan Martin Del Porto in the first round signalled his decline in form and he did not win a single tournament for the rest of the year and thereby losing the world number one ranking to the Scott, Andy Murray.

The 2016 season has been a standout year for Andy Murray, ultimately resulting in finishing the year-end as No.1 player in the world as well as clinching the year-end money title. He became the first man to win a Grand Slam, an Olympic gold, a Masters 1000 event and the World ATP tour final in the same calendar year. Andy ended the season with a whopping 78-9 record and 9 calendar titles. The Wimbledon crown and the Olympic gold added glitter to his trophy cabinet. The most imposing statement was the fact that he defeated world number 5 Nishikori, number 4 Roanic, number 3 Wawrinka and number 2 Djokovic in his last 4 matches of the 2016 season. Having lost 5 finals in Melbourne Park, it would be apt for Andy to rightfully win the championship in his sixth visit.

Roger Federer had an awful 2016 season, being side-lined by knee and back injury for most of the season. He went under the knife for his knee in February and returned to competitive tennis after a 10 weeks’ hiatus in the Miami Open. He pulled out of French Open, ending his record of 65 consecutive appearances at Grand Slams and reached the Wimbledon semi-final where he lost to Milos Raonic in 5 sets. Federer called in quits in July 2016 and ended the year at number 16, dropping out of the top 10 for the first time since 2002. It also marked the first time that Federer went without a title to show under his belt since 2000. Federer returned to action after a six-month’s sabbatical at Hopman Cup in 2017 where he could not stop France from beating Switzerland 2-1 despite beating Richard Gasquet in the semis. If Roger can manage to hold himself during the fortnight, who knows, a 18th Grand Slam title could be his for the taking.

The king of clay, Rafael Nadal, also found the going tough in the 2016 season. Nadal began with a first round loss against fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in the Australian Open and did not win a tournament until the European clay court season. Nadal won the Monte-Carlo Masters and Barcelona Open defeating Gael Monfils and Kei Nishikori respectively. An injury to his left wrist forced Nadal to withdraw from the third round in the French Open. After a two-month layoff, Nadal reached the semi-final of the Rio Olympics but lost an epic encounter to the Argentine giant Del Podro in 3 sets. An exhausted Nadal could not bring out his best in the bronze medal match and lost in a three setter to Kei Nishikori.It was all downhill for Nadal from then on and he finished the year with a 39-14-win-loss record.

Stan Wawrinka was the third player to win a Grand Slam in 2016 when he won the US Open in August, beating Novak in 4 sets. When in cruise mode, Stan, may prove to be a tough customer to the fab four and would relish to add a fourth slam title to his kitty.

The 2016 season of WTA saw the rise of Angelique Kerber as a potential threat to the dominant Serena Williams. Kerber reached three Grand Slam finals and won the Australian and US Open and finished runner up at Wimbledon to Serena.Starting the year at number 10, Kerber played a staggering 81 matches, with a 78%-win record and 3 calendar titles.Her consistent performance during the year raised her aggregate to around 9000 points, thereby displacing Serena, who could accumulate around 7000 points. Will Kerber be able to sustain her consistent performance in 2017 is a question to be asked and pondered. At 35, Serena is an old campaigner. She had a disappointing 2016 season by her standard, with one Grand Slam title and 2 other WTA tiles. However, Serena could tie Steffi Graf’s Open Era record for Grand Slam singles titles at 22 when she won the Wimbledon crown.  Serena was plagued by shoulder and knee injuries most of the season and could play only about 8 tournaments. Only time can tell whether her body and mind can withstand the gruelling 2017 season and she can regain the number one ranking, which she has made her own over the years.

Day 7

Top seeds packed off

The round 4 matches at the Australian Open got under-way at the Melbourne Park. The Fab 2, Andy and Federer, face contrasting opponents. While Andy faces unseeded German Mischa Zverev, who is the elder brother of Alexander Zverev (he lost to Nadal yesterday), Federer takes on fifth seed Kei Nishikori of Japan.

However, Andy Murray’s dream of a maiden Australian Open title took a blow as the Scott was beaten by world number 50 Mischa Zverev 5-7,7-5,2-6,4-6 on the Rod Lever Arena to crash out of the Open. The world number 1 lost serve eight times in the match and it was the Scott’s earliest defeat in Melbourne since 2009 and the lowest ranked player he has lost to at a Grand Slam since the 2006 Australian Open. The first set was closely fought with Murray holding on to a 4-1 lead, but the German pulled one back in the fifth and ninth game to take the set 7-5. Though under constant pressure, Murray found his rhythm in the second set and tied the match one set all. But midway from the third set, Zverev was in command and reeled off five straight games to take a 2 set to 1 lead and with a break in the fourth set, closed out the match in 3 hrs 30 minutes. It was a missed opportunity for Murray to land his first Australian Open crown as his arch rival Novak Djokovic was a surprise looser in round 2.

Federer is meeting Kei Nishikori for the 23rd time. with Federer way ahead at 17-5. Nishikori started strongly to race to a 5-2 lead, breaking Federer twice. When serving for the set, Nishikori was affected by nerves and lost his serve of his own twice, allowing Federer to come back. Both held serves to take the set to a tie breaker where Nishikori came through 7-4. The revival by Federer created the momentum needed and continued his rich vein of form into the second set, breaking Nishikori to go 4-3. He served out the second set to tie the score one set all. Three breaks in the third, fifth and seventh game ensured the third set for Federer in 26 minutes. With 60% of first service in and 8 winners, the Swiss floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee at crucial times. After a short bathroom break, Federer started with an ace and ended the game with an ace. In game two, the frustrated Nishikori flung his racquet angrily after committing his fourth double point. After a long drawn fourth game, Nishikori breaks Federer’s serve to lead 3-2 and starts to dictate terms with Federer. Nishikori was showing sign of discomfort, often massaging his abdomen.  He holds serve to tie the score 2 sets all to push the match to the fifth set. Federer’s record in winning 5 setters stands at 56.41% (22-17) till date. Can he win for the 23rd time is the question?

Nishikori calls for a medical time out and a physio massages his back to relieve the pain. Federer holds serve in the opening game of the fifth set. Nishikori is determined to stop Federer from running away with the match. Federer gets an early break, forcing Nishikori to hit a backhand into the net. A second medical time out was called for at the end of game 3 and it took almost 6 minutes to start game 4. Nishikori’s mobility was restricted and Federer took advantage and bombarded with forehand and backhand winners. The Japanese warrior hung on grimly to hold serve in game 6. However, it was Federer’s day and he closed the match in 3 hrs 22 minutes and through to the quarter finals for the 49th time in all Slams. Federer had 24 aces and 83 winners to his credit and now gives himself a chance to win a record 18th Grand Slam title.

In other important matches, fourth seed Stan Wawrinka and twelfth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga make their way to the quarters with comprehensive victories. While Stan got the better of Andreas Seppi in 3 tight sets, Tsonga stopped the giant killing run of Daniel Evans. The women’s event saw Venus Williams and Garbine Muguruza moving to the quarter finals in style. It was a mixed day for Indians as Leander Paes won his first round mixed doubles match partnering Martina Hingis. However, Sania Mirza and her Czech partner Barbora Strycova lost a close match to Japan’s Hozumi and Kato. In the junior girl’s singles first round, Mihika Yadav was a surprise winner against Ali Collins of Great Britain. At the time of writing this post, world number 1 Angelique Kerber is on her way out. The talented German did not find her bearings in the straight set loss to CoCoVandeweghe of USA losing 2-6,3-6 in round 4 and giving an opening to Serena to regain her top ranking. Serena can overtake Kerber if she wins the Australian Open.

Day 6

Nadal proves a point

The Next Gen can wait. That’s the point Rafael Nadal proved as he brushed aside 19-year-oldAlexander Zverev in a 5 set thriller to reach the fourth round. Defying both fitness and form, the 2009 champion quelled the challenge of Zverev in a pulsating 4 hour duel. Nadal has always backed the German to be a potential Grand Slamwinner and world number 1. One break was enough to settle each of the opening two sets but Zverev showed nerves of steel to clinch the third set in a tie breaker. Nadal took the fourth set after taking an early break and broke gain in the fifth set for a 2-1 lead. Zverev replied with a break back and at 2-2, the match was evenly poised. In the next game lasting around 9 minutes, Nadal, after missing 2 break points, cashed in on a Zverev forehand error to take a 3-2 lead. The Spaniard did not look back and served out the match, with the German hobbling with cramps.

Saturday’s win was Nadal’s first five set victory in a Grand Slam in 2 years and now plays Gael Monfils in the round of 16. In other matches, Canadian third seed Milos Raonic prevailed over Frenchman Gilles Simon; fifteenth seed Grigor Dimitrov defeated Richard Gasquet and eighth seed Dominic Thiem knocked out Benoit Paire to advance to the next round.

In the ladies’ singles, sixth seed Dominika Cibulkova was shown the door by the Russian 30th seed Ekaterina Makarova in 3 sets. The Australian interest was intact when Daria Gavrilova stormed to the next round beating Timea Bacsinszky in 3 sets. However, the great escape act was delivered by Karolina Pliskova, the 2016 US Open runner up, who rallied from 1-5 down in the final set to beat Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia 4-6,6-0,10-8 and reach the fourth round of the Open for the first time. Ostapenko served for the match twice, but was broken each time, winning only one point in each game.