Sunday, March 1, 2015

DUBAI: Federer downs Djokovic to claim seventh title in the Emirates

Photo via Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships
Thirteen years ago, Roger Federer’s appearance fees and prize money in Dubai were withheld after the former tournament director accused him of not trying hard enough. It seems like a lifetime ago but Federer still remembers it.

He eventually got his prize money and was given his appearance fees the following year, upon his return to the event. Since then, the Swiss has gone to win the title in the UAE seven times from nine finals – the last of which was captured Saturday night with a 6-3, 7-5 victory over world No1 Novak Djokovic.

Over a decade after he received that accusation, Dubai now joins Wimbledon and Halle as the only three tournaments Federer has won seven times – the most he’s ever amassed at one event.

I had a rough first visit here to Dubai where I was accused for not putting in my best effort, I remember, and I came back the following year and won it and went on a roll,” said Federer.

I really felt like I had something to prove after that, and I guess that's what got me to my winning ways here in Dubai. And then ever since then I fell in love with the tournament and the crowd and the city here.”

Yesterday’s triumph gave Federer his 84th career singles trophy and saw the 33-year-old legend cross the 9,000 aces mark, joining Goran Ivanisevic (10,183), Ivo Karlovic (9,375) and Andy Roddick (9,074) as the only players to hit that milestone since the ATP started keeping count in 1991.

You’d think with all the records he has smashed, Federer would not be focusing much on hitting 9,000 or more aces, but the Swiss revealed that he was actually keeping track and caught himself counting in the second set to see if he had achieved it.

I think I remember which one it was even because I was even counting a little bit,” he said of his 9,000th ace. “I wasn't sure. I think it was one of the swinger wides maybe. But I think it happened in the second set at some point. But clearly it is nice to get past that so now I don't have to think about it ever again for the next 1,000 or so.”

Facing Djokovic for a 37th time, Federer was looking to beat the Serb two times in a row for the first time since 2012, when he defeated him at Wimbledon then Cincinnati.

The stadium was already filling up a couple of hours before kick-off which was great news for the preceding match featuring the doubles finalists, who rarely get this kind of attention.

A buzzing atmosphere and a full house awaited the pair – tickets were oversold and there were spectators standing in every corner. The crowd seemed evenly split, looking to out-chant each other with their N-O-L-Es and their R-O-G-E-Rs.

Federer was the first to face break points, saving two in a lengthy third game before holding on for a 2-1 lead.

The games got closer and tighter but the set remained on serve until game eight. An overcooked forehand, a double-fault and a long backhand from Djokovic helped Federer get a crucial break and lead 5-3. The Swiss served out the set with a service winner.

The second set was just as tense as the first and neither player saw any break chances until the eighth game, where Djokovic got his hands on two. But Federer produced four service winners in a row to hold for 4-all, and brought his serving best once again two games later, saving two set points in similar fashion.

In a bizarre 11th game, Djokovic went up 40-0 before getting pegged back. The world No1 double-faulted to face a break point and Federer didn’t blink, hitting an inside out forehand winner to move forward 6-3, 6-5.

The Swiss got his first match point on a wide passing shot attempt from Djokovic and gave out a huge ‘come on’. But Federer missed an easy drive, perhaps reacting to an ill-timed cry out from the stands. He then double-faulted and it looked like Djokovic might still have a chance with a break point in hand.

But an average overhead helped Federer save it and on his second match point, the No2 seed did not falter, firing a big serve and following it up with a forehand drive winner to claim the dhow boat trophy for a seventh time in 12 appearances.

I don't think it's changed much over the years. This is nice. Some trophies keep changing. This looks familiar,” said Federer admiring his shiny boat.

I felt very good about the way I was playing today, was very positive ball striking, and then I just needed to make sure that I mixed it up enough and served big when I had to.”

Thursday, February 26, 2015

DUBAI: Berdych claims 500th career victory with tough win over Bolelli

 Photo via Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

Tomas Berdych refused to get dragged into a controversial conversation regarding the inaccuracy of Hawk-Eye or a questionable decision made by umpire Mohamed Lahyani, the Czech choosing instead to celebrate his 500th career win in peace.

Berdych, the No4 seed in Dubai, was taken the distance by Simone Bolelli on Wednesday before becoming just the eighth active player to hit the 500 victories mark, beating the in-form Italian 7-6 (7) 5-7, 6-0 in two hours and 24 minutes to advance to the quarter-finals.

It feels great. But we just talked about it last night with (my coach) Dani (Vallverdu), that I just need to really make sure that I keep my body fresh and let's make another 500. Let's try to chase Roger now,” Berdych said with a laugh.

This (1000 wins) is really something too far. It's a good sign, just try to keep hitting more and more and be strong for tomorrow. That's it.”

The match with Bolelli was a tight affair with neither player managing to make a break of serve for the first 24 games.

Berdych had two arguments with Lahyani during the match, the first came in the opening set where he was hoping to break for 5-4, but the other one had a greater effect late in the second set.

Serving to stay alive in set two at 5-6, 15-30, Berdych won a Hawk-Eye appeal but instead of being awarded the point, Lahyani called for a replay. A frazzled Berdych then double-faulted giving two set points to Bolelli, who took the set and levelled the match.

Berdych’s response was a 6-0 blitz in the decider and the 29-year-old admits it was a frustrating affair.

I would say that actually was needed for me. I felt that I need to put some steam out and get it done and probably lost the second set because of that. But the outcome, it's much better. I got the rhythm back. I had a great third set, and I think it was worth it,” said Berdych, who faces Sergiy Stakhovsky in the quarter-finals today.

Asked to discuss his arguments with Lahyani, Berdych said: “It's always going to be about the decision of the chair umpire. That's how we deal with that situation, so in the end I have to respect that.”

At one point, Berdych had looked like he was disagreeing with Hawk-Eye, but again the world No8 would not dwell on whether the technology was accurate or not.

I think it's quite silly to talk about it, because we all have to respect that. It doesn't work the way that whatever you see on the court that's what the Hawk Eye said, so it's how it is and it's better not to talk about it and just leave it as it is,” added the two-time Dubai runner-up.

DUBAI: Federer schools Verdasco to make the quarter-finals, Ilhan shocks Lopez

 Photo via Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

Roger Federer impressed even himself with one of the most emphatic mid-match stretches in recent years when he won 20 points in a row to climb back from a break down against Fernando Verdasco on Wednesday night.

The six-time Dubai champion fell behind 0-3 early on in his second round against Verdasco, who was showcasing some ninja-like tennis, pulling off some incredible shots.

But down 1-4, Federer, buoyed by a loud crowd that resembled a Davis Cup audience, won 20 successive points, breaking the Spaniard twice to love to take the opening set in 30 minutes.

I didn't even know it happened until somebody told me afterwards,” Federer said of that remarkable sequence.

I remember when I broke him the second time around, I was like ‘was that a Love game the first time around already?’ I wasn't sure anymore. But then I forgot about it, because all I cared about was trying to stay ahead in the score, focus point for point, serve for serve.

Looking back it's quite a lot of points in a row. It's not the first time it's ever happened to me, but it's a great comeback because I did feel that Fernando was hitting the ball well and came out and played very committed, serving well, so you wouldn't expect that.”

Federer was playing some explosive tennis and put pressure on the Spanish lefty’s backhand any chance he got, which earned the No2 seed a break in the opening game of the second set.

But Verdasco tried not to go down without a fight and broke back. But Federer got the advantage he needed in the fifth game and it was suffice to close out the match 6-3, 6-3 in exactly one hour to set up a quarter-final with Frenchman Richard Gasquet.

I'm looking forward to playing against him,” Federer said of Gasquet, whom he has beaten in their last five showdowns.

Last time we played was Davis Cup final on that Sunday in front of that big crowd, and it was a lot of pressure. I think this time is going to be a bit more relaxed going in. He's had a great start to the season, also, winning a title and seems like he's playing well.

He had a tough one today, but that gave him probably a lot of match time and court time. We will see how he recovers, but we will play tomorrow night. That shouldn't be a problem.

I just love his backhand so it's always a pleasure playing against him.”

Gasquet, who sports one of the most beautiful one-handed backhands on the tour, recovered from a 2-4 deficit in the final set, saving a match point in the tiebreak, against Spanish No7 seed Roberto Bautista Agut to advance 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (6).

It was the second straight time Gasquet has had to climb from behind in a final set, having also pulled a Houdini act against Andreas Seppi in round one earlier this week.

Turkish qualifier, Marsel Ilhan (pictured right), ranked No104 in the world, delivered a huge upset over world No13 Feliciano Lopez, who is twice a runner-up in Dubai, ousting the Spanish lefty 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 to reach his first career ATP quarter-final.

In doubles, the Bryan brothers made a successful Middle East debut, eliminating Bautista Agut and Joao Sousa 6-2, 6-2 in the first round.

DUBAI: Djokovic sees himself in Murray's quarter-final opponent Borna Coric

Andy Murray will on Thursday in the quarter-finals take on talented teenager Borna Coric, a player which Novak Djokovic feels he sees himself in.

The world No1 spent time practicing with Coric last December in Dubai and feels a special connection to the 18-year-old Croat, who already has Rafael Nadal as one of the victims of his very short career.

He's definitely one of the most talented players right now the world. He beat Nadal in Basel four or five months ago, and since that tournament you can feel he has matured a lot. He feels comfortable playing with top players,” said Djokovic of Coric, who will be facing a top-10 player today for just the fourth time of his career.

I try to help him because I see, in a way, myself through him I've never felt that way when I practice with somebody as I felt with him. It's like playing myself. Very similar game.

Great fighting spirit, disciplined, focused, committed, confident, very young but confident, which is important.

I think he has a bright future if he is able to stay on the pathway he is on right now and be patient. He has a good team of people around him.”

Both Murray and Djokovic earned swift victories to reach the last eight but Coric escaped from the brink of defeat against Marcos Baghdatis, who was up a double break in the final set and served for the match at 5-3 before allowing the young Croat back in the match.

Baghdatis, a former Australian Open finalist, suffered from cramps and was forced to retire from the final set tiebreak at 4-4, allowing Coric to continue riding the wave of luck that has now seen him reach the quarter-finals as a lucky loser with this 6-4, 3-6, 6-6 (retired) two hour 56 minute battle.

After the match, a barefoot Baghdatis was seen hobbling with his wife Karolina Sprem and their daughter in tow, while an exhausted Coric was anxious to get to the locker room and start his recovery, hoping to get ready for a tough test against Murray, who destroyed Joao Sousa early on centre court, 6-0, 6-2 in 57 minutes.

Djokovic was just as impressive, easing past Kazakhstan’s Andrey Golubev 6-1, 6-2 in an hour.

The Serb faces zero break points and broke his opponent four times in a routine affair in front of a sellout centre court crowd.

More comfortable than yesterday, that's for sure,” Djokovic said. “Basically I didn't have as much pressure from the opponent's serve as I did last night. Having one match under my belt before today's encounter helped to feel a bit more comfortable to move around on the court quicker, and I tried to take away the time from my opponent today.”

Monday, February 23, 2015

DUBAI: Federer apologizes for upsetting Pakistani fans

 Photo via Roger Federer' Facebook page

Roger Federer concedes that he did not expect the backlash that resulted from him posting a photo of himself on Facebook holding the Indian cricket jersey, accompanied by the hash-tag “#BleedBlue”.

The Swiss’ post upset Pakistani fans the world over and a letter, written by a Pakistan native, who is a self-proclaimed Federer fan, published on the Express Tribune in which he explained why he will no longer be supporting the 17-time major champion due to the photo, has gone viral.

Federer, who says he only follows cricket when he’s in Australia or sometimes in the UAE, admits he did not see the furor coming.

“It wasn’t the idea (to upset anyone). It was more of a Nike thing to be quite honest. It was a Nike campaign they had because I met some of the Indian players and I had just spent some time in India so they presented the shirt to me," Federer said in Dubai on Sunday.

"I support South Africa, everybody knows that. The idea wasn’t to spark any fire there. So I’m sorry that it did."

The letter, written by Sulaiman Ijaz, a PHD student at the University of Cambridge, said Federer’s move made his Pakistani fans feel “expendable”.

“After you posted the picture, I did an informal poll of the dozen biggest Pakistani Roger fans I know,” Ijaz wrote. “All very serious fans, mind you. Two of them were not bothered by the picture. But 10 of the 12 felt seriously hurt or betrayed. Six of those 10 said you had acted ‘like a sell-out’ and have stopped supporting you altogether.”

DUBAI: Berdych not content with long-time top-10 status

Tomas Berdych feels like he is making one last attempt to spark change in his game and career as he hopes to transition from being a regular top-10 player to a serious contender at majors and a challenger to the ‘Big Four’.

Berdych, who after beating Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open quarter-finals last month, is just one of two players – alongside Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - to beat every member of the ‘Big Four’ at a grand slam, hired Andy Murray’s former hitting partner Dani Vallverdu as his coach at the end of last season, concluding his six-year partnership with Tomas Krupa.

Linking up with Vallverdu has already started to pay dividends as Berdych started his 2015 season by making the final in Doha, the semis in Melbourne and the final in Rotterdam.

While it can be seen as one of his best starts ever to a season, Berdych wants more.

I feel really good. I would have felt much better if I had at least one title under my belt, but I think there are many new things that I am trying to put into my game and I can already feel that they are working well, they are successful,” said Berdych, a runner-up in Dubai the last two years.

So, it’s a good sign and gives me belief and promises good things for the future.”

At 29, Berdych has spent the last four and a half years consistently in the top-10. A year after teaming up with Krupa in 2009, he made his first and only grand slam final, finishing as runner-up at Wimbledon.

He feels his decision to change his coach was both bold yet necessary.

The thing I felt is that I got to stage where my team could not be helpful in the way I wanted them to be. So I felt I needed something different. I needed a change if I want to get better,” said the world No8.

It’s nice to spend four, five years among the top-10 but the years are coming and this could be my last opportunity to change something and try to get higher or try to aim for bigger results.

That’s why I made this decision. Bringing Dani to my team, I believe he is the right person with all the experience that he has.”

Berdych says Vallverdu has been very helpful when it comes to having the right tactics on court but the Czech also knows he must work on his fitness if he plans on causing any real damage.

I think it is always going to start with the fitness. I am a tall guy, quite a heavy guy and when you want to compete with guys like Andy, Novak (Djokovic), Rafa (Nadal) and Roger (Federer), you are going to have to be extremely fit and prepared for that,” says Berdych.

So that’s the reasons why I am saying you cannot just play at that level for a set or two when you are at the slams. You have to be ready to play at that level for five sets, no matter what’s going on.”

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Federer glad Serena Williams is going back to Indian Wells

Roger Federer is happy Serena Williams will be returning to Indian Wells for the first time since 2001, after the American world No1 decided to end her boycott of the tournament.

Williams hadn’t set foot at Indian Wells since she was booed during the 2001 final, where her father Richard was also the subject of racial slurs, as spectators accused him of deciding the previous semi-final match between his daughters Serena and Venus, who reportedly withdrew with an injury minutes before it was due to start (Venus later said she had told organisers much earlier but it was only announced late).

Serena made a surprise decision recently, announcing she would be returning to the tournament in the California desert. Her sister Venus will not be joining her however.

Federer, who begins his title defence in Dubai on Monday against Mikhail Youzhny, was asked about his thoughts on Serena’s choice to go back. He said: “I expected it to happen much earlier to be honest, especially as soon as Larry Ellison came in.

"At some stage I thought they would have talked about it and worked it out in some shape or form and just say like ‘what happened before, let’s move on’.

I understand it was a big deal for her but it’s nice seeing that she’s moving on. It’s such a nice tournament and… would she have played the last 14 years she probably would have won at least five, 10 times the event. Maybe cost her many weeks at world No1.

If you think about it, if you would have added those 500 to 1000 points throughout, so it was a big sacrifice from her side. And I think it’s nice to see her back in Indian Wells I must say.”

Serena had announced her decision in an exclusive column published on earlier this month.

It has been difficult for me to forget spending hours crying in the Indian Wells locker room after winning in 2001, driving back to Los Angeles feeling as if I had lost the biggest game ever — not a mere tennis game but a bigger fight for equality,” Serena wrote.

I’m fortunate to be at a point in my career where I have nothing to prove. I’m still as driven as ever, but the ride is a little easier. I play for the love of the game. And it is with that love in mind, and a new understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness, that I will proudly return to Indian Wells in 2015.”​