A sporting smörgåsbord of a summer

Every year the football season ends, and every year the television and radio broadcasters roll out their trailers for the ‘summer of sport’, complete with soundtrack from Dodgy or Mungo Jerry.

You can forgive them for going a little overboard this year though, this year’s slightly different; in case you weren’t aware of it yet (although I’m not sure that’s possible), there’s the small matter of a summer Olympic Games in London to think about.

The games have become such a sporting behemoth that they have, and will, influence just about every other sporting event on the 2012 calendar.

London's Olympic Stadium

London’s Olympic stadium will be at the centre of the sporting world this summer. Photo: Phil Jones

With this in mind I’m going to add to the list of summer previews and give my take on the events in store for us in the next 3 months.

I won’t cover all the events, mainly because there are just too many to talk about, but I will give a brief overview of what I will be keeping an eye on, why it is worth your attention, and giving my prediction of how events might unfold (there’s no real insight involved in my predictions and any money lost from bets placed is not my responsibility).

Where to start then? Well we’re in the middle of the French Open tennis so that’s as good a place as any:

French Open Tennis (May 28 – June 10):

Why? – The potential for numerous pieces of history to be made. Rafael Nadal can set a record of seven titles in the Paris suburbs and join Bjorn Borg on 11 major titles. Novak Djokovic could become the eighth man to win the career grand slam, whilst simultaneously completing the ‘Djoko Slam’ of holding all four major trophies at once, and keeping alive his chances of completing the calendar Golden Slam. Federer could become only the third man to complete a second career grand slam were he to win, and Maria Sharapova could complete her first if the Russian gets her hands on the women’s title.

Who? – Nadal and Sharapova. I’d be stupid to bet against Nadal really. If Djokovic makes the final I’d still back Nadal, but he’d be less of a certainty to win. If he’s up against Federer though, then I can’t see the Swiss getting anywhere near the trophy. On the women’s side it just seems like everything has come together for Sharapova to triumph – the Williams sisters are both out, as is Francesca Schiavone and world number one Victoria Azarenka, Na Li hasn’t been too convincing either. I’d keep an eye out for Sam Stosur though.

UEFA European Championship Finals (June 8 – July 1):

Why? – It’s England in a football tournament, no matter how much we say we don’t expect anything, we can’t help but get caught up in the excitement. The Euros tend to provide more entertainment than the World Cup, less meaningless games and the football is generally of a higher quality. Any tournament with an Irish presence is better for it as well.

Who? – I’ll be very boring, play it safe, and say Netherlands v Spain in one semi, Germany v France in the other. That means the final could be a repeat of Euro 2008, but I’ve a sneaky feeling the Germans might just get their revenge and win their first tournament since Euro ’96.

Andy Murray at Queen's 2011

Andy Murray faces a potentially career defining summer in 2012. Photo: Carine06

Queen’s Club, Aegon Championships (11 – 17 June):

Why? – It marks the start of the British sporting summer, it means Wimbledon is just around the corner and there are few finer sights than watching a load of professional athletes slipping around at the back of a slick grass court.

Who? – If Murray’s fit then I’d take him to make it three titles in West London. He humiliated Roddick there last year and the American is worse now than he was then, suggesting that Murray’s only real competition will come from Big Willy himself, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Olympics Athletics trials (22 – 24 June):

Why? – The cream of British athletic talent all fighting for their place at a home Olympics. There’ll be some surprises, athletes who come from relative obscurity to book their place in the Olympic village, and there’ll no doubt be the odd high profile one who misses out too.

Who ? – I’m going to go for James Dasaolu to make headlines for all the right reasons. I interviewed him last summer during another period of rehab from injury, even at that stage his only focus was getting fit for the Olympics in his home city of London. The second fastest Brit over 100m last year, he’s already bagged an A standard qualifying time this season – all he’s got to do now is finish in the top two in the trials for his dream to become a reality. I also reckon a certain Mr. Chambers will fail to qualify for the individual event, his form this season doesn’t look good and I think the emotional roller coaster he’s been on over the past few years may have finally taken its toll.

Wimbledon Championships (June 25 – July 8):

Why? – Because it’s Wimbledon. Centre court has played host to some of the greatest finals of all time in the past five years and as is the way with any major tournament in this era, there are records to be broken. Federer could finally equal Pete Sampras’ record seven titles, or (depending on how events unfold in Paris) Novak Djokovic could march on to the third piece of the Golden Slam, Nadal could potentially win his twelfth major title or (whisper it) Andy Murray could win his first/second major title (OK 2nd is a little ambitious).

It’s not just the men’s draw that entices though, Sharapova will most likely be the favourite on the women’s side but those Williams sisters always save their best for the grass of South West London. Petra Kvitova won’t give up her title without a fight and Victoria Azarenka will be determined to reassert her authority on the women’s game. Throw into that the unpredictability of the women’s game at present and you may as well pick the quarter finalists out of a hat.

Who? – I’m going to stick with my Roland-Garros predictions and go for Sharapova and Nadal. Djokovic just isn’t quite on the high that he was last year, and if he’s not right on the top of his game then I think Nadal has the edge over him – as shown by the two clay court finals they’ve contested thus far this spring. You can never completely write off Roger either but his recent record at Wimbledon (only QF’s in the past two years) is worse than Murray’s, so you’d have to give Murray more chance than the Swiss magician.

On the women’s side, Sharapova has been pretty consistent in 2012, generally only losing to Azarenka, and should she make the final in Paris she’ll be coming to London with the number one ranking, a more consistent serve than she’s had for a couple of years, and potentially the confidence that comes with just having won a major title.

Dwain Chambers doing interview.

Will Dwain Chambers have be forced to run at in Helsinki to confirm a place at the Olympics? Photo: maxzix74

European Athletics Championships (June 26 – July 1):

Why? – Taking place the week after the trials, it’s surely the final opportunity for British athletes to grab the third discretionary place on offer at the Olympics if they didn’t perform at the trials. There may well be a lack of big names as the already qualified athletes will take a week’s rest in preparation for the games, but the competition is sure to be intense with so much at stake for those who do make the trip to Helsinki.

Who? – Who knows? It all depends what happens in Birmingham the previous weekend, who will have guaranteed their place and who will still be desperate to impress the selectors?

Tour de France (30 June – 22 July):

Why? – A sporting highlight every year for me. I can understand why people may find it boring and I can understand why some may be disillusioned with the regularity with which drugs cheats are highlighted in cycling. But I’ve been watching it since I was young, when I didn’t know what EPO was and when channel 4 gave me coverage in bite sized chunks at 6:30pm every evening. I remember Tom Steels blinding past me in 1998 to sprint to another stage victory, and I remember sitting having dinner in Lausanne, watching Marco Pantani ride past on his way to winning a post Tour criterium. Much has changed in the world of professional cycling since those days but much is reassuringly the same, Gary Imlach’s hair and the voices of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen are synonymous with the Tour de France, bringing an air of class to proceedings come those three weeks in July.

Who? – Without wishing to sound too myopically patriotic, Britain’s riders genuinely have the potential to make history at this year’s Tour. Bradley Wiggins has what will probably be his best chance ever to grab himself the yellow jersey in Paris, and Mark Cavendish doesn’t look to have much serious competition in defending his green jersey. Doubt comes in the form of Wiggins’ main rivals for yellow, whom we should know more about after this week’s Dauphiné, in which Brad is looking to defend his title from last year. There will also be doubt over Team Sky’s ability to support both Wiggins and Cavendish in their separate goals, the squad as a whole is looking good though and if any squad is capable of winning two jerseys, then I’d suggest Sky are the team to do it. With that in mind I’ll go for Wiggins in yellow, Cavendish in green and Cadel Evans and Pierre Rolland rounding off the podium places.

Test Series v South Africa (July 19 – 20 August):

Why? – The top two ranked test nations in the world going head to head. England desperate to hang on to top spot and Graeme Smith’s South African side desperate to wrestle it away from them. Eight of the world’s top twenty batsmen will be on show (four each), seven of the world’s top twenty bowlers (4-3 to England), the world’s best all-rounder, this series has it all.

Who? – Take your pick really. Dale Steyn is the best bowler in the world, Vernon Philander is chasing him for that moniker and James Anderson would like to have a say in the matter too. Andrew Strauss could become England’s most prolific century maker of all time, Kevin Pietersen always likes to put on a show against his former compatriots, Ian Bell loves batting in the English summer and Jacques Kallis is a match winner with bat or ball. Were it any other year this would be the most anticipated sporting contest of the summer.

Olympic Games (July 27 – August 12):

Why? – The biggest sporting occasion in history, in London. Do I really need to add anything more?

Who? – Too many to mention and that’s why I love the Olympics – wherever you look there are stars being born. The obvious star is a certain Jamaican sprinter, Yohan Blake will push Bolt all the way for the sprint double but I think Bolt will still win both and add the relay title to cement his place in sporting legend.

Elsewhere I think Jess Ennis might just falter, but I reckon Phillips Idowu, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford could all have a golden summer.

In the hockey I think the GB women could go all the way to the final. They beat the world number 1s Argentina twice recently, however the Argentinians were missing their star player in Luciana Aymar, so I’ll hold fire on predicting a definite gold. The GB girls are more than capable of delivering it though. For the men I think the best they can do is fifth, since winning the European Championships in 2009 and a silver in the 2010 Champions trophy, they seem to have been on somewhat of a downwards spiral of results – I’ll go for a German victory over Australia in the final.

Laura Trott riding for GB

Will Laura Trott ride away with omnium gold? Photo: Rob Duin

We won’t be as all-conquering in the velodrome as we were in Beijing. I still think we’ll come away with five golds though; both pursuit teams, the women’s omnium and one each from Sir Chris Hoy and Vicky Pendleton – not a bad return really!

On the road (providing safe passages through the Tour) I think it’ll be win or bust for Mark Cavendish, IF he makes it over Box Hill 9 times and is still on the front then the gold is his for the taking – if not then someone like Tom Boonen or Thor Hushovd is more than capable of riding away with gold. In the time trial I think Wiggins can get a medal, probably not gold but I’d be surprised if he didn’t make the podium.

For the women I’m not so au fait with the opposition, although in Nicole Cooke and Lizzie Armitstead we have two of the best road racers in the world, and Emma Pooley has previous in the time trial as well.

In the triathlon I’d be hugely shocked if there wasn’t a Brownlee on the top step of the rostrum. Don’t ask me to say which one but Jonny’s early season form and Alistair’s pedigree suggest that if they’re both fit they’ll be fighting between themselves for gold and silver. For the women then Helen Jenkins looks to be in top form so far this season, she’s not as far above the rest of the pack as her male teammates but anything less than a podium place would be a big shock.

I could keep going and going but my knowledge starts getting a bit patchy for other sports now, so I’ll let you make up your own minds as to who’ll take home the medals in the greco-roman wrestling.

Novak Djokovic at the French Open

Will Djokovic have had a record-breaking summer when he gets to New York? Photo: Carine06

US Open Tennis (Aug 27 – Sep 9):

Why? – For every reason I’ve mentioned previously. Nadal, Djokovic and Federer are a joy to behold, throw in Murray’s penchant for the hard courts and crowds of New York and we’ve got the recipe for another cracker on our hands. On the women’s side, Serena would dearly love to put last year’s meltdown in the final behind her, Sharapova could well be coming to New York with two major titles and an Olympic gold medal round her neck, and Azarenka could have bounced back on the hard courts she loves to be a favourite again.

Who? – We’re still three months away from the action kicking off at Flushing Meadows with an awful lot of tennis to be played in between so it’s too early to say really. All the usual suspects will be there, but I’d throw the names of Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin Del Potro, Agnieszka Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki into the mix as well.

That’s me done for now, no doubt I’ll go into more detail for specific events as the summer progresses. I’d be interested to see how many of my predictions you agree with though, and if anyone fancies calculating how much I’d win if I put an accumulator on all my predictions then you can have a cut of the proceeds when they all come good!

What have I missed?:

Three golf majors, England vs. Australia ODI series, a summer of Formula 1, a summer of Moto GP, Royal Ascot, Eastbourne tennis, domestic T20, Paralympics, Vuelta a España, World T20.

Enjoy your summer.

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Talking SPOTY

With BBC’s Sports Personality Of The Year taking place this coming Thursday (22nd Dec) and the furore regarding the all-male shortlist having died down temporarily I think it’s time for me to give my opinion on all things SPOTY.

Media City UK, Salford

Media City UK, the new home of BBC Sport, will host SPOTY 2011. Photo: Magnus D.

First of all the top-10 itself:

The Controversy

The fact that this year’s ten nominees are all male can be viewed in different ways. The most obvious is that the female sports stars of the United Kingdom aren’t receiving the same recognition for their successes as their male counterparts. However this is a fairly simplistic and reactionary view to take, not one that is totally incorrect, but one that needs more consideration.

The women that have been most successful in 2011 and could justifiably feel most aggrieved at being left off the list are Rebecca Adlington, Keri-Anne Payne, Chrissie Wellington and Sarah Stevenson. All of these women have been crowned world champion in 2011, however were you to ask a selection of the general public which sport they competed in I’d wager that the vast majority of people would come unstuck after Rebecca Adlington. The fact of the matter is that open water swimming, Ironman triathlon, taekwondo and to some extent swimming, are all minority sports.

We have male world champions in swimming (Liam Tancock) and squash (Nick Matthew) and plenty of other sports, who also failed to make the shortlist – suggesting that the issue isn’t solely one of sex but also the coverage certain sports receive. The fact that all the above mentioned females received three or more votes (out of 27) when Tancock and Matthew received none, could be viewed as positive discrimination (not my opinion but a possible interpretation).

Were the exploits of all our world champion athletes in minority sports publicised more, then I’m sure more of them would have featured more prominently in the voting. Unfortunately the nature of the competition means that success in your chosen sport doesn’t guarantee you recognition.

World Ironman Triathlon Champion, Chrissie Wellington

Chrissie Wellington has been very vocal in her condemnation of the shortlist. Photo: Mal Booth.

One thing we can categorically say was wrong though was Gary Lineker’s assertion on The One Show that “perhaps it hasn’t been the best year for women in sport”, I think we’ve seen enough gold medals around women’s necks in 2011 to refute that claim.

Onto the trivial side of things now but one of my biggest annoyances with SPOTY is people’s argument that just because the award features the word ‘personality’ in its title then past winners such as Nigel Mansell and Steve Davis, or current nominee Andy Murray, aren’t worthy because they lack ‘personality’.

The word personality has several different definitions, one of which being “a well known person in a certain field, such as sport or entertainment” (that comes straight from the dictionary by the way). Therefore the fact that some perceive a certain sportsperson to be boring should bear no influence on whether or not they are nominated.

Another of my annoyances is with those who solely criticise the BBC for the fact that this year’s shortlist is an all-male affair. The BBC make it quite clear that the shortlist is drawn up by sports editors from newspapers and magazines across the country. Therefore the majority of the ire that is spouted in the BBC’s direction should mainly be aimed at the journalists of the country who failed to recognise the fantastic achievements of our female athletes in 2011. I say the majority of the ire though as the BBC is responsible for selecting the publications that receive a vote so must take some flack for their choices.

The main cause for criticism of the BBC is the inclusion of the magazines Nuts and Zoo. I don’t think it is unfair to say that these publications are aimed squarely at the male market, and as such may skew the voting process in favour of male sportspeople (neither included a female in their top-10s). Why should publications whose primary objective is to titillate teenage boys get a say in who wins a sports award?

A popular argument I have heard to counter this bias is to include their female equivalent publications in the voting process. Unfortunately mainstream women’s magazines are not sport-specific enough to warrant a vote either in my opinion. Therefore my solution would be to just get rid of Nuts and Zoo.

The voting for a sports award should be restricted to publications whose sole focus is high quality sports journalism and the reporting of currents affairs, which by definition will cover sporting events. There should also be no local bias to the publication, therefore the BBC’s decision to include the local paper from whichever city is hosting SPOTY is also questionable. When you take a look at the Manchester Evening News’ top-10 you can see why I’m sceptical (their list included four Manchester based footballers and the Lancashire CCC captain).

I am pleased to say that as a result of the controversy the 2011 shortlist generated the BBC have announced that they are to review their list of publications who receive a vote.

The Awards

Enough of the politics now and on to the actual awards, my personal top-10 would be slightly different to the final shortlist but I’ll do my best to justify everyone’s inclusion.

World Champion triathlete - Alistair Brownlee

Alistair Brownlee, closely follow by younger brother Jonny. Photo: Adolf Boluda.

My Top 10

Alistair Brownlee – the elder of the Brownlee brothers cemented his position as the undisputed king of the Olympic distance triathlon this year, he won the world series title, the world championships, the european championships and combined with little brother, training partner and biggest rival, Jonny and women’s world champ Helen Jenkins to take the world team crown as well.

Mark Cavendish – the Manx Missile has had a phenomenal year, first Brit ever to win the Green Jersey at the Tour de France and the first Brit since Tom Simpson in 1965 to pull on the rainbow jersey of the world road-race champion.

Darren Clarke – won the Open, not a stellar year otherwise but that one achievement can make a career in itself, let alone a single season.

Luke Donald – the first person to win both the European and PGA money lists in the same year, world number 1, PGA Tour and European Tour player of the year. He didn’t win a major but four tournament victories, 14 top 10 finishes out of 19 PGA events and the lowest scoring average on the PGA tour have made 2011 quite a year for Donald.

Mo Farah – 5K gold and 10K silver at the world championships meant Mo Farah had finally fulfilled his potential and announced himself on the world stage.

Dai Greene – adding the 400m hurdles world title to his ever-growing collection and beating all-comers in the Diamond league meant 2011 could scarcely have gone better for the Welshman.

Rory McIlroy – he became the youngest winner of the US Open for many a year with a dominant display of golf reminiscent of Tiger in his prime, pushed Donald all the way in the European money list and rose to number two in the world. To top it all off he’s started dating world tennis number one Caroline Wozniacki – the shaggy haired Northern Irishman has had a year to remember.

Keri-Anne Payne – she regained her world open-water (10km) swimming title this year, in the process qualifying for next year’s Olympics, and was dominant throughout the year to be named the FINA open water swimmer of the year.

Jonathan Trott – the South African born batsman has been Mr. Consistency in 2011 for England, playing a critical role in retaining the Ashes in Australia as well as contributing to the 4-0 whitewash of India which took England to the top of the test rankings. He also scored 5 half centuries in the world cup and was named the ICC cricketer of the year, England cricketer of the year and Wisden cricketer of the year for 2011 – not a bad set of awards to have to your name.

Chrissie Wellington – the Queen of Ironman triathlon won her fourth world title whilst carrying an injury, she also broke her own world record earlier in the year and remains unbeaten over the Ironman distance (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, 26.2 mile run).

My Omissions

I have omitted Amir Khan, Andy Murray, Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook from the official shortlist but as brilliant years as those four have had I think my four replacements have had better years.

Amir Khan has failed to capture the public’s imagination and lost his world title last weekend with an immature performance. Andy Murray may have had his most successful and consistent year to date but until he breaks into the top two or wins a major then I feel world champions deserve their place amongst the top 10 more than the Scotsman. Andrew Strauss may have captained his side to the top of the world but on a personal level he has not had the best year with the bat.

England Batsman - Jonathan Trott

Jonathan Trott has been a consistently high performer for England in all forms of cricket in 2011. Photo: TGIGreeny

My most controversial omission will probably be the one they call ‘Chef’. Alastair Cook had an outstanding winter with the bat but only really made one meaningful contribution in the test series against India (admittedly it was a magnificent 294). I believe Trott has had a more consistent year overall, contributing more in the 50-over format of the game, and warrants selection over Cook.

My Winners

SPOTY – Mark Cavendish

TeamEngland Test Side

CoachAndy Flower (England cricket)

Overseas – Novak Djokovic

Young SPOTY – Eleanor Simmonds

What Can We Learn?

With all that I have said regarding the lack of females on the shortlist, the lack of recognition for our world champions in minority sports and the way in which the shortlist is drawn up it is important to remember that this award isn’t the reason athletes take up sport. I don’t believe that people dream of becoming BBC SPOTY as a child, I believe they dream of being world champion, winning a major, setting world records or being world number one. This award is a nice accolade to go with all the other more important titles you must’ve won to be even considered for it, so we shouldn’t take it too seriously (not that I won’t complain to anyone who will listen if Mark Cavendish doesn’t win on Thursday of course).

If any messages can be taken from the controversy this year’s award has created then hopefully they will be as follows:

  • Female sport is under-represented in the media when compared to the male equivalent
  • Successful athletes in minority sports don’t get enough coverage
  • Mainstream female publications need to feature female sporting role models more
  • The publications that criticised the BBC for not including any females in the shortlist should examine how their sports editors voted and how they cover female sport before castigating the BBC

Finally, because I’m very sad and some of you may be interested, I’ve trawled the voting list and counted just how many votes each sports personality received (out of a possible 27 votes):

27 – Rory McIlroy, 26 – Darren Clarke, 24 – Mo Farah, 23 – Mark Cavendish, 19 – Alastair Cook, 15 – Dai Greene, 14 – Andy Murray, Andrew Strauss, 11 – Luke Donald, 7 – Amir Khan, 6 – Rebecca Adlington, Stuart Broad, Jenson Button, 5 – Keri-Anne Payne, Graeme Swann, 4 – James Anderson, Alistair Brownlee, Sam Warburton, 3 – Gareth Bale, Carl Froch, Scott Parker, Sarah Stevenson, Sam Tomkins, Sam Waley-Cohen, Chrissie Wellington, 2 – Katherine Grainger, Victoria Pendleton, 1 – Nicola Adams, Ben Ainslie, Ian Bell, Dimitar Berbatov, Glenn Chapple, Hannah England, Jessica Ennis, Dario Franchitti, George Groves, Tony McCoy, George North, Shanaze Reade, Stef Reid, Jamie Roberts, Wayne Rooney, Paul Sholes, Louis Smith, Yaya Toure, Jonathan Trott, Judd Trump, Hayley Turner, Patrick Vieira, David Weir.

Photos: Media City – Magnus D, Chrissie Wellington – Mal Booth, Alistair Brownlee – Adolf Boluda, Jonathan Trott – TGIGreeny

The Green Green Grass Of Home

It’s that time of year again, time for the nation’s two-week love affair with tennis to begin and for some to discover that Fred Perry was actually a tennis player and not a designer of colourful polo shirts. Yes Wimbledon fortnight is upon us once more and with it come the annual questions of why we haven’t produced a home-grown champion in so long? (75 years now, and England football fans thought they had it bad!). And the more recent quandary of whether Andy Murray will be able to end that drought?

Roger Federer serves on Centre Court

Centre Court will be the centre of the nation's attention for the coming fortnight. Photo: Phil Jones

I’m not here to answer the first of those questions and I’ll get around to the second one in a little while. All I can say is that it gets rather tiresome listening to Roger Draper (Chief Exec. of Lawn Tennis Association) come up with the same old lines every June and announce a new initiative to get more people playing the game. He has been head of the LTA for five years now and I’m fairly certain he said when he got the job that it would take a few years to see the benefits of the changes he would make and that we have to be patient. Well he said the same thing last week and will no doubt say the same next year, in fairness it is the same schtick his predecessor came out with though and his protestations that we have a good crop of youngsters coming through does actually have some evidence to back it up this time.

British Talent

On the boys side we currently have one boy in the world’s top 10 and a further two in the top 20. Oliver Golding (no.5) made the semis at Wimbledon last year and followed that with a run to the final of the doubles at the US open and a quarter-final place on the clay of France this year. Promising results indeed and he was hardly embarrassed on his senior tour debut last week in his straight sets defeat to grass-lover Nicolas Mahut at Queen’s. George Morgan (no. 11) has also shown promise by winning the coveted U18 Orange Bowl trophy in Miami last December. It wasn’t Morgan’s first triumph in Florida though having already won the U14 title three years previously, his success there made him the first Brit to win the U18 trophy after Andy Murray could only succeed in the U12 age group. Victory in the Orange Bowl doesn’t guarantee you success on the senior tour but when you look at the previous winners there you can see that it’s not a bad guide when looking for the stars of tomorrow. Finally there’s Liam Broady (no. 17), he may be the lowest ranked but he’s the only one with grand slam pedigree, having already won the boys doubles at last year’s Wimbledon with fellow Brit Tom Farquharson, beating Morgan and his partner in the all British final. So the mens side of the game should be looking a bit more rosy in a couple of years time if these three can all make the jump up to senior level, however this cannot be taken for granted as we’ve had talented juniors before but they’ve failed to progress after their early promise.

Heather Watson at the French Open

Watson's win at the French Open propelled her into the top 100. Photo: Carine06

The girls are a step ahead of the boys in all departments it seems. They have two players in the senior top 100 compared to just Murray on the men’s side and a further six in the top 300 as opposed to just one man. The up and coming juniors are no longer juniors though, we don’t have a single girl in the top 100 juniors as our recent successes have seen both Laura Robson and Heather Watson make the step on to the senior tour in the last year or so. Both of them have junior grand slam singles titles to their name, something they share with Murray but a feat yet to be achieved by any of the promising boys. Watson has so far better of the pair, she recently turned 19 and became the first British woman to reach the second round of the French Open in 19 years (soon followed by Elena Baltacha), a result that propelled her into the top 100 for the first time in her career. Robson’s progress has faltered this year, her ranking has dropped to 247 having cracked the top 200 towards the end of last year, she split with her coach this week and is currently focussing on taking advantage of the wildcard she has been given into the main draw at Wimbledon.

Who will win?

On to the serious stuff now, Wimbledon is quoted by the great and the good to be the holy grail of tennis tournaments, so who will end up holding those famous old trophies aloft in a fortnight’s time?

WOMEN

No-one seems to want to take control of the women’s game at the minute, extended absences from the Williams sisters gave a perfect opportunity for someone to sweep up and dominate the game but it all seems to be a bit ‘no after you….’ at the moment. Caroline Wozniacki has been rewarded for consistent form by keeping hold of the number one spot, but she has yet to develop an attacking side to her game that can take her all the way to a grand slam title. Kim Clijsters won the US Open last year and the Australian Open at the beginning of this in Serena’s absence, but a bizarre ankle injury sustained whilst dancing at a wedding seems to have ruined her chances of success this summer and rumours of another retirement are starting to surface again.

Li Na is in good form having made the final of both majors so far this season, losing to Clijsters in Melbourne earlier in the year but then becoming the first Asian player to win a grand slam singles title in Paris earlier in the month. The world number four has a reasonable record on the grass as well having made the quarter finals twice in the last 5 years, last years run seemed to provide the catalyst for her rise up the rankings as well.

Sharapova serves on centre court

Maria Sharapova's serve, if working well, will be big weapon in her assault on the title. Photo: Phil Jones

Maria Sharapova must be considered a real contender this year after a good run of form recently that saw her win on the clay in Rome and then make the semi finals in Paris. She is previously quoted as saying that she feels like a ‘cow on ice’ when playing on clay, so if she can play that well on the red stuff she must be in good form. If her serve can stay consistent over two weeks then there’s no-one in the draw that she will be afraid of and even fewer that will have a chance of stopping her getting her hands on the Venus Rosewater dish for a second time.

Outsiders:

Marion Bartoli has just won in Eastbourne, she made the semis in Paris and has form at Wimbledon.

Petra Kvitova made the semis last year and her all-out attack game took her to the final of Eastbourne this week.

Victoria Azarenka has had a very good first half of 2011 but her form has dipped somewhat since leaving the hard courts of America, back on to a fast surface she will be a formidable opponent for anyone.

Last but not least the Williams sisters are back. They returned at Eastbourne this week and both looked rusty as they tried to shake off some cobwebs in preparation for the trip to SW19. Venus has won the title 5 times but age seems to be catching up with her and lack of matches will probably be her downfall this year. Serena is looking for a 5th title to equal her big sister but the serious health problems that followed her long-term foot injury have placed a question mark over her fitness and preparation for Wimbledon. She’s a fighter though and as strong as an ox so you wouldn’t put it past her levelling things up with Venus. The seedings committee have certainly given her a helping hand as well – bumping her up from her ranking of 26 to be seeded 7th.

My prediction? Sharapova to come through a tough top half of the draw and beat Azarenka in a ‘battle of the shriekers’ final to take her second Wimbledon title.

MEN

The usual contenders are there and in tip-top condition. Rafa has just won a record-equalling 6th French Open crown, is on a 14 match winning streak at the All England Club and has the added motivation of fighting for his number 1 spot. He lost in the quarter finals of Queen’s last week and looked a little lethargic in doing so but that can be forgiven considering it came straight on the back of a gruelling clay court season in which he had to fight harder than usual to eventually reign supreme at Roland Garros. He was pushed all the way by Murray in the Madrid semis and lost twice in finals to Djokovic in Madrid and Rome but put everyone in their place to equal Bjorn Borg’s record in Paris.

Novak Djokovic has had a simply phenomenal 2011 to date, 42 matches played and only one loss, seven tournament victories, including the Australian Open and all five Masters 1000 tournaments played this season. It took an inspired performance from Roger Federer to bring his 43 match winning streak to an end in the semi finals at Roland Garros. He pulled out of Queen’s to rest a knee problem, but his improved strength and endurance has played a large part in his sustained level of success this year. The jovial Serb has switched to a gluten-free diet this season and has since banished the breathing problems that have blighted his career to date. He was known as a player that was always susceptible to a physical breakdown when the going got tough but that hasn’t been the case this year so there is no reason he can’t improve on his previous best semi final performance and win Wimbledon this year.

The Fed-Express had been rather less than express since his last grand slam victory at the 2010 Australian Open, but since starting to work with Paul Annacone (Pete Sampras’ old coach) in July of last year he has steadily been getting back to somewhere near his best. Unfortunately his best is now not always good enough, he seemed to have the upper hand against Nadal in this year’s French Open final having dominated the first set but somehow Nadal still won it. Federer’s game seems to be more attacking than it was during much of last year, he puts it down to being fully fit again after prolonged back issues during 2010. He will have to hope that the Wimbledon courts are playing particularly quick this year if he is going to break Nadal’s winning streak on Centre Court and equal Sampras’ record 7 Wimbledon titles.

Andy Murray serves at Wimbledon

Andy Murray will need a high 1st serve percentage to be successful at this year's Wimbledon. Photo: pk2004

Last of the main contenders is Britain’s own Andy Murray. Fresh off his most productive clay court season ever and regaining the Queen’s Club title this week, Murray couldn’t have wished for a better Wimbledon preparation (ankle injury sustained at Roland Garros not withstanding). Successive semi final losses at Wimbledon have left the British public wondering whether they have another Henman on their hands? This is a little harsh though, Murray is still improving and still has time on his side, he just happens to be playing in one of the strongest periods ever for men’s tennis. Murray has made three grand slam finals so far and he is more than capable of improving that figure at this years championships but he will need to be at the peak of his powers for the whole two weeks, with no lapses in concentration in order to have a chance – he isn’t good enough to have a 5 minute relax against the big-3 without getting punished. His semi final victory over Andy Roddick at Queen’s showed that when he plays attacking tennis and goes for the kill early in the rally he can be devastating. The draw hasn’t been kind to him either, he is scheduled to meet Nadal in the semis for the second successive year but faces a stern test to get that far, Marin Cilic, Richard Gasquet and Andy Roddick all lie in wait in one of the toughest grand slam final routes you could pick.

Outsiders:

Tomas Berdych made the final last year, not in the best of form at the minute but can never be counted out.

Robin Soderling and his massive forehand will always pose a danger but having since split with Magnus Norman will he revert back to his old ways?

Andy Roddick may have missed his best chance to win on the hallowed turf in London but with that serve and a formidable grass-court pedigree he could play himself into some form with a few early wins.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the enigmatic Frenchman known as ‘Ali’ loves to play on grass and if he can play to his best consistently then he has a big enough game to beat anyone.

Juan Martin Del Potro is still on the way back from the wrist injury that ruined his 2010 season but a couple of tournament wins this season show he’s getting back to his US Open winning best. The biggest forehand in the game (based on wingspan anyway!) could do some damage if the courts play quickly.

My prediction? I’d love to see a Murray v Djokovic final but I’ll play safe and go for another Nadal v Federer classic with Nadal shading it to keep Pete’s record safe for another year.

Anyone else confident enough to leave their predictions below?

To tweet or not to tweet?

Twitter may only be five years old but it has already made enough headlines to last a lifetime. It has quickly become the go to place for breaking news and to gauge the subjects on the nation’s fingertips.

The social networking site has many uses in the sporting world; athletes use it as a tool to converse directly with fans, clubs use it as another way to inform and update their loyal supporters, journalists use it as a medium to rapidly break news and event organisers use it as an extra means of publicity. It isn’t always a tool for good though, an errant tweet can land the user in plenty of hot water – as the saying goes, ‘act in haste, repent in leisure’.

Twitter Over Capacity

Twitter use has grown rapidly and it often faced server problems as they struggled to cope. Photo: Sandip Bhattacharya

The site’s growth in the past few years has been mirrored within the sporting world. As more and more people sign-up it is inevitable that some will fall foul of the tool’s immediacy and lack of recourse. Once a message has been tweeted it is there for the world to see, you may try to delete it but you won’t catch it in time and if it is newsworthy then someone will retweet it and the situation will snowball. Kevin Pietersen is a prime example of this, in 2010 he inadvertently revealed the England selectors’ decision to drop him hours before it was set to be officially announced. He didn’t stop there though, he further angered the selectors by launching into a four letter tirade about them and the merit of their decision. Pietersen insists that the tweet was intended as a direct message to a specific user and therefore not to be seen by the rest of his followers. This may be the case but it is somewhat irrelevant after the event, it was a stark lesson to sports stars the world over that life on the internet can never be truly private.

This wasn’t the first time a team selection had been let out of the bag early on twitter though. The first time I can recall it happening was before the second test of the 2009 Ashes series. Out of form opening bastman Phillip Hughes revealed on his twitter account that he had been dropped, two hours before the official announcement was made prior to the toss. Reports suggested that his manager took responsibility for the slip-up, he was still in Australia and claimed to have mis-calculated the time difference and tweeted the message too early. That is little consolation to Cricket Australia though who were seen to have lost an element of control over their playing staff, this was before the true power and independent nature of twitter had been discovered though it must be said.

Pointless Twitter

Many people, Sir Alex Ferguson included, fail to see to point of Twitter.

Nothing can truly claim to be a part of British sport until it has infiltrated the world of football, and nothing can truly be a part of football until there has been a scandal about it. So as the headlines over the last year can testify, twitter has definitely arrived. Darren Bent, Carlton Cole, Danny Gabbidon, Ryan Babel, and Wayne Rooney have all made the news as a result of ill-advised tweets. Offences ranged from retweeting a lighthearted photoshopped image (Babel), to a rage-fuelled sign-off from the site (Gabbidon), to offering a follower out for a fight (yep you guessed it, Rooney). One of twitter’s greatest selling points has proven time and again to be many of its users downfalls. The medium is so immediate, so direct, and the lack of censorship acts as a perfect illustration of why agents and managers started giving athletes media training in the first place.

I shouldn’t just focus on the pitfalls of twitter though. Sportsmen and women have used it as a force for good and this should be noted. Yes there are many sportspeople who have got into trouble because of their tweets but there are far more who use it as a tool to reconnect with their fans and become human again. Not just in this country but around the world as well, we revere our sports stars and put them on a pedestal that is impossible for us to ever reach. Managers and agents then build a wall around that pedestal to further distance us from our heroes, only allowing us to hear from them in sanctioned press conferences and interviews where they give calculated answers to keep their sponsors happy and their noses clean. If twitter can humanise our sports stars then its use should be encouraged.

A recent example of this is Judd Trump, the 21 year old snooker player who made a name for himself by tweeting in the mid-session intervals during his run to the final of this years world championships. Mid-game tweets are not always desirable though, the NBA have banned its players from using twitter and other social media sites from 45 minutes before the game until after all official post-match press obligations have been completed. This is likely to be due to the loss of impact that its own coverage will attain if news and opinions have already been broken by players on their personal twitter feeds.

The majority of the England cricket team are regular tweeters and used it as a tool to keep in touch with supporters on their recent tour of Australia and the Asian sub-continent. The camaraderie between the group is clear to see as they regularly engaged in gentle ribbing and mocking of one another in their spare time, a tactic which ingratiated themselves to their fans as it shows they don’t take themselves too seriously.

Twitter on mobile phone

The rise of smartphones has made tweeting on the move more accessible. Photo: stevegarfield

Twitter can be a fantastic way to connect with fans and display your personality away from the sporting environment in which athletes are normally seen. Graeme Swann is a prime example of this, a sample tweet from his timeline will see that he is just a normal person like you and I, with a good sense of humour: “I saw on the news that today is supposed to be judgement day? Do I have time for a cheese n pickle sandwich before the machines rise?”. There are others as well, many believe that Mark Cavendish, the bolshy yet prodigiously talented cyclist, is made for twitter. His  sponsors may disagree as he has hardly cultivated a squeaky clean reputation in his short professional career so far, but twitter gives him an uncensored voice to air his views and convince some people that there is more to him than the arrogant, surly character people perceive. A recent tweet of his shows his dedication to his team and his gratitude for the efforts they make for his ultimate glory: “Haters will hate. But a group of people who support me like my incredible teammates did today will always mean more. So proud of you guys.”

Of course for twitter to work you need to have the personality to show off in the first place. Andy Murray is persistently labelled as boring and monotonous, I personally don’t think this should matter too much but it has to be said that he doesn’t help himself. His description of himself on twitter simply reads “I play tennis”. However dig a little deeper and you will see a sense of humour in there that many people miss. This was tweeted on 1st April: “Ross hutchins (doubles player and training partner) will be my new coach alongside dani starting in barcelona! Can’t wait to get startedd, full statement on personal website”, followed by “Felt like I needed another yes man”. All of which was a thinly veiled jab at the critics questioning his decision to surround himself with a team of friends rather than a single coach who would question the Scots views.

All of this pales into insignificance when viewed against the impact twitter can really make on a global scale though. As a tool for breaking news it is now unsurpassed, the first I heard about Wouter Weylandt’s recent death in the Giro d’Italia was via twitter. Of course some tweets must be read with caution, due to the speed with which news is now disseminated there are bound to be some errors, but on the whole you get enough of the story to go on before you can read a full report.

Not only can twitter break news, but it can also break governments as well, as the recent uprising in Tunisia demonstrated.

So twitter really is a powerful tool, one that the world is only just discovering the full potential of. Sports stars were some of the first to realise its strengths, and some of the first to experience its pitfalls. With the world-changing around us at such a pace it is impossible to say with much certainty whether twitter is here to stay, but you can rest assured that it hasn’t finished writing its headlines yet (just ask Ryan Giggs!). Be those headlines good or bad is up to the user, just remember one thing for the future – tweet if you want to, but tweet with caution.

Photo credits: Twitter over capacity – Sandip Bhattacharya, Pointless little messages – jmilles, Mobile twitter stevegarfield