A sporting smörgåsbord of a summer

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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.

A Tour For The Ages

After three weeks of punishing pedalling the torture is finally over and the 167 finishers can rest easy in their beds, safe in the knowledge that they don’t have to get up and ride another 180 km over the toughest roads in France in the morning. This Tour will go down as one of the most fiercely contested in recent history, the yellow jersey was settled in the penultimate stage’s time trial, the green jersey on the Champs-Elysees and the polkadot jersey went down to the final climb up l’Alpe d’Huez. It was a year of firsts as well, Australia got its first Tour Champion with Cadel Evans, Britain got its first green jersey winner with Mark Cavendish and a true climber and GC contender won the KoM jersey, Olympic road race Champion Samuel Sanchez, for the first time since Richard Virenque in 2006 (I’m not counting Michael Rasmussen’s ‘titles’ in 2005 and ’06).

Yellow jersey

The yellow jersey or 'maillot jaune' in the Tour de France is the biggest prize in cycling. Photo: Stewart Dawson

Before I look at the star’s of this year’s race let’s have a quick recap of how the last week’s racing unfolded:

Stage 16

Thor Hushovd got his second win of the race and tenth in total, outwitting fellow Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen to win the final sprint into Gap.  The real action came behind though as Evans, Contador and Sanchez stole time from the Schleck brothers with some aggressive riding on the descent from the Col de Manse which left Andy complaining of dangerous race routes.

Yellow – Voeckler, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Vanendert

Stage 17

A second consecutive stage for Norway and a second for Boasson Hagen and Team Sky. The race ventured on to foreign soil for the only time this year as the peloton crossed into Italy, Boasson Hagen attacked from the breakaway on the ascent of the final climb and distanced Jonathan Hivert and Bauke Mollema with a combination of aggressive descending and mistakes from those in pursuit. Contador and Sanchez attacked again on the final descent but didn’t have enough in their legs to stay away as they were caught in the final 500m by the group containing all the race favourites.

Yellow – Voeckler, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Vanendert

Stage 18

The climbing got serious today, three hors category climbs, all over 2350m and the highest summit finish ever in le Tour on top of the Col du Galibier. Fresh from the criticism he faced over his comments made earlier in the week, Andy Schleck attacked on the Col d’Izoard and no-one could go with him as he rode up the road to find support in the form of two teammates from the day’s early breakaway. They couldn’t help him for long though as he powered past them and up the Galibier to win the famous stage with one of the gutsiest rides in modern Tour history. Meanwhile behind Evans effectively rode solo up the Izoard and Galibier as Contador struggled to stay in touch with his group and Frank Schleck understandably hitched a ride on Cadel’s back wheel. Andy’s lead over the Evans and yellow jersey group was up around the four-minute mark at the foot of the Galibier but the tireless work from Evans and a final burst from Voeckler saw the heroic Frenchman reduce his deficit on the line to 2 mins 21 secs, meaning he kept the yellow jersey by just 15 secs.

Yellow – Voeckler, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Vanendert

View from the Col du Galibier

The Cold du Galibier gave the Tour its highest ever summit finish. Photo: Guido Bellomo

Stage 19

Not content with one trip up the Galibier, the Tour organisers scheduled another gruelling stage as the riders hauled themselves over the Col du Telegraphe before tackling the Galibier once again and finishing atop the iconic Alpe d’Huez. Contador, out of the GC reckoning after ‘hitting the wall’ on the previous day’s final climb, attacked on the first climb of the day and was followed by Andy. Evans, Sanchez and Voeckler couldn’t, or didn’t, follow the attack and the two attackers rode to the head of the race, leading the field over the Telegraphe and the Galibier. They could never establish a significant gap over the chasing pack though and the whole field was back together at the foot of l’Alpe d’Huez. Yellow jersey holder Thomas Voeckler knew he didn’t have it in him to follow the attacks that would come so his right-hand man Pierre Rolland was set free to steal some glory for himself as he attacked on the Alpe along with Canadian Ryder Hesjedal. Contador countered the attack and compatriot Samuel Sanchez followed, last year’s champion caught and passed Rolland and Hesjedal and looked like the Contador of old as he set a tempo that no-one else could live with. Sammy Sanchez wasn’t done though and he worked with Rolland to claw his way back to Contador only for Rolland to spring another attack and ride away from both of them to the finish line. Sanchez crossed the line in second to seal the KoM jersey ahead of Andy Schleck, who in turn took the lead in the race as Thomas Voeckler finally surrendered the maillot jaune.

Yellow – A. Schleck, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Sanchez

Stage 20

Heading into the decisive 42.5 km time trial Andy Schleck had a lead of 53 secs over brother Frank and 57 secs over Cadel Evans. They were the only 3 with real ambitions of wearing the yellow jersey on the Champs-Elysees, the big question was whether 57 secs was a big enough buffer for notoriously shaky time-triallist Andy. The question was answered emphatically by Cadel Evans on the route around Grenoble with the outcome being a resounding no. The stage itself was won by German Tony Martin but the ride of the day came from Evans as he rode the time trial of his life to come in just seven seconds behind the HTC rider and 2’32” ahead of Andy. The Aussie was finally wearing the yellow jersey on the day it really mattered, on the final roll into Paris and on to the Champs-Elysees. The Schleck brothers occupy the remaining steps on the podium with Andy ahead of big brother Frank, Contador put in a champions ride to finish the stage in third and haul himself back up to fifth overall, leaving new French hero Voeckler to keep hold of his fourth place.

Yellow – Evans, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Sanchez

Stage 21

The roll into Paris now regularly sees celebratory sipping of Champagne by the team of the yellow jersey and this year was no different as Cadel Evans and the rest of his BMC team toasted a job well done  as the peloton ambled its way through the Paris suburbs. The real action started once they reached the capital and it finished as it has done for the past two years, HTC caught the breakaway in the final lap and set up a procession win for Cavendish, only this year it had the added bonus of a green jersey for the fastest man on two wheels at the end of it.

Yellow – Evans, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Sanchez

Stars Of The Tour

Cadel Evans in the Dauphine

Cadel Evans had prior knowledge of the TT course having ridden it in the Dauphine Libere in June. Photo: Petit Brun

Cadel Evans – The oldest post-war Tour winner at 34 years and the 2009 World Champion becomes the first Southern hemisphere rider, not just Aussie, to win the yellow jersey. The nearly man finally emerged victorious in the world’s biggest bike race after plenty of attacking riding in the first week, consolidation in the second week, and mountains of solo work in the Alps as those around him refused to help him drag attacks back. It was then all finished off with a stunning time-trial to take the yellow jersey when it really mattered.

Mark Cavendish – Only the second Brit to ever win a jersey at Le Tour, the first since Robert Millar won the climber’s polkadot jersey in 1984 and the first Brit to win the coveted green jersey for sprinters. A change in tactics to target the intermediate sprints paid off and another five stage wins capped a near faultless tour for the Manx missile.

Samuel Sanchez – Olympic road race champion and last year’s 4th placed rider was Mr. Consistency in the mountains and his second place on the final climb up l’Alpe d’Huez clinched the polkadot jersey for the Spaniard. A change in the points allocation for this competition meant the jersey went to a true climber who finished high up the GC instead of an opportunist who simply racked up the points over the early climbs of the day.

Pierre Rolland – France may have stumbled upon their next star of road cycling as Thomas Voeckler’s chief helper in the mountains turned in a virtuoso performance in the final mountain stage of the race to win on l’Alpe d’Huez. He followed it up with a solid time trial to hold off Estonian Rein Taaramae and win the young rider’s white jersey competition.

Thomas Voeckler – The new hero of French cycling, surpassing his deeds of 2004 to hold on to the yellow jersey for another ten days through the Pyrenees and the Alps, finally giving it up on the final climb of the race.

Thor Hushovd and Edvald Boasson Hagen – Two stages apiece for the Norwegian duo and a 1-2 in stage 16 as world champion Hushovd got the better of his heir apparent. Their achievements were widely celebrated as a large contingent of Norwegian fans lined the streets of every stage to cheer on their heroes.

Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha – Victims of the Tour’s most bizarre incident as a television car crashed into Flecha who inadvertently bundled Hoogerland off the road and into a barbed-wire fence. Both riders got up and finished the stage, had the next day off on the first rest day and then emerged battered and bruised to ride to the finish in Paris.

So it’s all over for another year, it’s hard to imagine how next year could match the tension, competitiveness and excitement that this year’s edition has brought us but it will give it a go anyway. 2012 will hopefully see a fully fit Contador and a motivated Wiggins back to battle it out with the Schleck brothers and reigning champion Evans, and who knows there might even be another French contender for the GC in the shape of an older and wiser Pierre Rolland.

Photos: Yellow jersey – Stewart Dawson, Galibier – Guido Bellomo, Evans – Petit Brun