Saturday, 19 November 2011

ATP World Four Finals

Two years ago, in the first ATP World Tour Finals in London, Nikolay Davydenko won the tournament. The Russian was ranked 6th after a season where he made just 1 Grand Slam quarter final (French), and won only 1 title all year. No-one would claim that our bald Mr Consistent was the best player in the world that year but the truth was, everyone else was knackered. Del Potro, newly crowned US Open Champion, fought through to the final and then proceeded to put in one of the weariest performances of his career. With Nadal, Murray and Djokovic all eliminated in the groups, it was very much a damp squib of a season climax.

Then last year, the tournament exceeded all expectations, the big four filling the semi-final slots and Murray/Nadal producing one of the most epic 3 set matches in recent history. It also saw Roger Federer playing the sort of breathtaking tennis that he's capable of but only sporadically produces and inflicting upon Djokovic his last defeat before his marathon winning run, ended 6 months later at Roland Garros by the Swiss himself. 

So which way will this year go? The few months after the US Open are always strange, players missing tournaments and retirements/withdrawals aplenty. But after a run of tournaments that aren't prioritised by the top players, the O2 presents a crucial challenge to all 8 of the competitors this year.

Djokovic has unquestionably been the best player in the world this year, with a season virtually unmatched in history (that said, RF went 81-4 in '05 and 92-5 in '06, ND is currently 69-4). It is only fitting surely that he finishes the year off by sealing his second Tour Finals victory (won in '08). But he's been struggling with a shoulder injury and hasn't won anything since the US Open. He'd be a deserving winner but is that going to be enough?

Nadal has never won the Tour Finals and, given that he's one of the greatest players ever, he must claim it at some stage. His physical style batters his body and so he usually comes to the end of the season weary and not performing his best. In the final against Federer last year he was certainly affected by the length and intensity of the semi against Murray the day before. He's not played since Shanghai in early October so how he's playing or what kind of fitness he's got will be as hard to predict as the overall winner.

Murray will of course never win a Grand Slam, purely by virtue of the fact that he's British, so is this the biggest prize to target? He's never really threatened to win the whole thing, but knows he can beat any of the 7 and there's surely no better time to be in Djokovic's group. With the crowd behind him but less pressure than at Wimbledon, if he is fit, this may well be his year.

Federer has found some incredible form, claiming his first Paris Masters' title, and is unbeaten in 12 matches since the US Open. He's won this title 5 times and showed last year that he can produce even when he's been written off. How he'd love to show people yet again that he's as good as ever, and with the form behind him, you can't blame the bookies for making him favourite.

For Ferrer, Fish, Tsonga and Berdych, this title, especially against the other four competitors would undoubtably be the highlight of their careers thus far, but unless it's a 2009 repeat, I don't give them much chance.

Given that whatever I predict on this blog, it goes completing the opposite way, I won't jinx anyone. I just hope it's more like last year than the year before.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Can Anyone Stop Man City?

We've got that Dentyl mouthwash that has both green and blue liquid in it. You shake it and it becomes somewhat turquoise and then after a while the colours settle back down into separate layers.

The first few months of the Premiership are much the same. Teams like Blackpool last year find themselves flying, only to settle back to where they're destined to fight for survival. And teams like Arsenal of this year struggle initially only to slowly rise and challenge for the European places. By early November, the table has started to roughly resemble how it will look in May (with a few exceptions - sorry Toon Army, it ain't gonna last)

Now that we're into double figures in the Played column and it's no longer what can be appropriately described as 'early season', the question really must be

"Can anyone stop City?"

They're 5 points clear, have dropped just 2 points all season and since beating Everton 2-0 on 24th September, they have scored 20 goals in 5 league matches, never failing to score at least 3 goals in a 
match. Which of Aguero, Balotelli, Silva, Nasri, Dzeko, or Toure would fail to get into any team in the league? My Football Manager experience tells me that a squad rotation system is for blooding youngsters and giving the players you rely on a bit of a break, not just because you've got so many world class players it's fun to experiment. My mistake.

The only comfort for Utd, Chelsea et al. is that City haven't been here before. They have multiple league winners in their squad but as a club they're very much new to leading the league and being title favourites. They could yet turn out to be a Newcastle of 95-96, who led by 12 points at Christmas time, only to be overhauled by Utd.

Every team has poor spells of form or a month with a few key injuries, the only question is how City will cope when that inevitably comes. So far they've managed to combine devastating (e.g. at Old Trafford) with gritty (e.g. yesterday at Loftus) and get the results every time. When the Champions League knockouts, the FA Cup, even the Carling Cup, are all knocking at the door, Mancini's plate-spinning skills are really going to be tested.

But I think the hardest challenge for City this season could be the 2012 African Cup of Nations in January. So far this year Yaya has been their driving force, providing infinite energy and power as well as attacking prowess. Most importantly for City he combines the ability to go forward and create & score goals with the defensive skills required to allow Mancini to play multiple forwards. Players like Barry/Hargreaves/De Jong offer the defensive side, players like Silva/Nasri/Johnson offer the sleight, skilful attacking side. When Yaya is away for what is likely to be the full 3 weeks, it is going to really test the depth and mental strength of the new league leaders, especially during what is traditionally United's strongest period of the season...