A sporting smörgåsbord of a summer

IMG_2052

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.

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?