for the French toast
IN THE NEWS
The world’s premier claycourt tennis event promises a mouth-watering showdown between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, while Justine Henin is aiming for her third title on the trot, writes Ramandeep Singh
THE most gruelling Grand Slam event of them all, the French Open, begins tomorrow. The claycourt season this year has progressed on familiar lines with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer being in prime form. The Spaniard won titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome, while the Swiss ended Nadal’s 81-match winning streak on clay in the final of the German Open in Hamburg last week.
Both start overwhelming favourites, but Nadal has a slight edge for the simple reason that he is an overall better player on clay, has won more titles on the surface and is the only contemporary player who leads Federer in head-to-head matches.
Federer, who recently split from his coach Tony Roche, was in the middle of his worst run — since he went to the top of the rankings more than three years ago — before he won the German Open.
Since winning the Australian Open in January and the Dubai title five weeks later, Federer has suffered four defeats. One in the final at Monte Carlo, where Nadal recorded the most impressive of his seven wins over the world No. 1, but the others have been in the early stages of tournaments and against opponents he would have beaten comfortably, Guillermo Canas (Indian Wells and Miami), and Filippo Volandri at the Italian Open.
But now he seems to have regained his touch and if he wins the French Open title, he will become only the third man after American Don Budge and Australian Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time.
Though he was outgunned by Federer in Hamburg, Nadal has perfect command of the claycourt, having been brought up on the surface like most Spanish players. He hits the ball with pinpoint accuracy and power, particularly off the forehand.
He is also a fierce competitor, with stamina and speed to match. Rivals know there is scarcely any point playing a drop shot, as the Spaniard will invariably reach it. If they try to force him wide, he is capable of turning desperate saves into winners, thanks to that raw power again.
The evidence from Hamburg, however, suggests that it is still possible to get Nadal into trouble. Lleyton Hewitt pushed him to the brink in the semifinals and then Federer pushed him over.
But it will be foolish to bet against Nadal not lifting another French Open crown.
Of the others who are likely to upset the Federer-Nadal applecart are world No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko of Russia and the rising star, world No. 6 Novak Djokovic of Serbia. Both are in good form and are fully capable of beating anybody on their day.
Then there are the "usual suspects" from Spain, like former champions Juan Carlos Ferrero and Carlos Moya, besides David Ferrer and Tommy Robredo. They all thrive on clay, but their best is behind them and they have been outplayed whenever they have come up against Nadal or Federer.
The dark horse could be Chilean Fernando Gonzalez, who had a scintillating run to the final of the Australian Open before he ran out of steam and ideas against Federer.
Herculean task for Sania
Sania Mirza’s build-up to the French Open has been dreadful as far as singles is concerned. Returning after a two-month injury layoff, she bowed out in the first round in Morocco as well as Istanbul. At Fes, Morocco, the 20-year-old shockingly lost to Argentine qualifier Maria Emilia Salerni. She went on to win the doubles title with Vania King, but it is in singles that her fans want her to regain her form.
Her track record at Roland Garros is unimpressive, which shows that clay is not her favourite surface.
Among the top women contenders, Jelena Jankovic is likely to give Justine Henin a run for her money. The Italian Open title was Jankovic’s third of the year and her second on clay following her victory at the Family Circle Cup in April. She is the next big thing to come out of Serbia after Monica Seles. She has steadily progressed since her quarterfinal-finish at Rome last year.
Lifting the trophy at Roland Garros will be a glorious achievement for a player who thought of quitting the sport after losing 10 straight matches before the start of the Italian Open last year.
World number one Henin will be vying for her fourth French Open title in five years.
The 24-year-old Belgian, who has won three tournaments this year (Dubai, Doha and Warsaw), says she has never felt in better form or health than in the past six months. If she triumphs in Paris, it will be a hat-trick of Roland Garros crowns for her.
Since professional tennis began in 1968, only Seles has notched up three wins in a row at the claycourt Grand Slam (1990, 1991 and 1992).
There is no doubt that 2006 was Henin’s year — during which she won more titles, more matches and more prize money than any of her rivals. She also reached the finals of all four Grand Slam events and finished the season by beating Amelie Mauresmo in November to reclaim the number one spot.
Six months ago, it would have seemed unlikely that Serena Williams would be billed as one of the favourites. But her overwhelming win over Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final changed all that.
Serena again thrashed Sharapova in Miami on her way to winning the Sony Ericsson title. In the final, she lost the first set to Henin 0-6 before storming back to stun the Belgian.
The Russian brigade —
Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Anna Chakvetadze, Dinara Safina,
Nadia Petrova, Elena Dementieva and Vera Zvonareva — is not in great
touch. The Russians have not won anything significant this year but they
will always will be a threat. Ana Ivanovic, Patty Schnyder and Amelie
Mauresmo will be the other pretenders to the crown.
Dempo Sports Club re-asserted their supremacy by pocketing their second National Football League title in three years. The Goan team finished its ONGC Cup league engagements with a solitary-goal win over Mohun Bagan at the Nehru Stadium in Margao recently.
Dempo, who had won the title earlier in 2005, finished atop the table with 36 points from 18 matches, five points ahead of runners-up JCT.
Dempo coach Armando Colaco was excited after winning the title for the second time, the only Goan side to achieve the feat.
"It was a great achievement. Our boys played consistently. Winning the Durand Cup helped us to remain focussed," said Colaco, who is also the general secretary of the All-India Football Federation.
Dempo got richer by Rs 40 lakh, while JCT and Mahindra United pocketed Rs 22 lakh and Rs 18 lakh for finishing second and third, respectively.
Dempo were already assured of the title before their last league match, but they did not let down their guard and emerged triumphant before their home crowd. Quite aptly, it was prolific Nigerian striker Ranty Martins Soleye who got the match-winner for Dempo. Substitute Jerry Zirsanga sent a cross from the right, which deflected off Bagan defender D. Ravanan and came to Ranty, who coolly put the ball into the net.
Ranty ended up with a total of 16 goals, but he lost the golden boot award for the top scorer to Churchill Brothers’ Odafe Okolie, who got 18, including a hat-trick against Mohammedan Sporting in Kolkata on May 2.
Other players who played a big role in Dempo’s title triumph were Anthony Pereira, Roberto Mendes Silva, Climax Lawrence and Clifford Miranda. There were three Dempo players in the top 10 scorers’ list — Ranty, Silva (7) and Pereira (6).
Dempo recorded 11 victories, three draws and four defeats. They scored 37 goals and conceded 21. Their biggest win was against Mohammedan Sporting at home (5-0). The Goan side lost twice to Mahindras (1-2 and 0-1), and went down 2-3 and drew 0-0 with JCT. Their only other loss came at the hands of Mohammedan Sporting (2-3). Their record against other sides was: 3-1 and 2-1 (HAL); 0-0 and 5-3 (East Bengal), 2-1 and 1-0 (Mohun Bagan); 2-1 and 2-2 (Air-India); 3-2 and 2-0 (Sporting Clube de Goa); 2-0 and 3-1 (Churchill Brothers).
Defending champions Mahindra United could not recreate last season’s magic. They had only one player in the top 10 — Ghanain Andrews Mensah (11 goals).
Star forward Bhaichung Bhutia, who has dominated the Indian football scene for a decade and a half, did not find a place in the top 10 (he scored only four goals). He and his strike partner, Brazilian Jose Ramirez Barreto (five goals), were supposed to strike big for Mohun Bagan, but they failed to set the stands on fire.
It was a disappointing league for the Kolkata clubs. Three-time champions East Bengal finished fifth, while Mohun Bagan, also winners thrice, ended up a poor eighth. The third outfit, Mohammedan Sporting, finished ninth and were relegated to the second division. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Sports Club were also relegated as they brought up the rear in the 10-team event.
This was the last season
for the ONGC National Football League. The inaugural Pro League will
start later this year to replace the NFL. The 2007-08 season will be the
first for the new league. — Agencies
THE high point of the rain-hit India-Bangladesh Test at Chittagong was the superb all-round display of man-of-the-match Mashrafe Mortaza. After taking four wickets in the Indian first innings, the Bangladesh pace spearhead got going with the bat too when it mattered the most.
India were in the driver’s seat with Bangladesh tottering at 149-8, still 39 away from avoiding the follow-on, but a 77-run ninth-wicket stand between Mortaza and Shahadat Hossain dashed India’s hopes. Mortaza’s contribution was 79 off 91 balls, including seven boundaries and three sixes. He took another wicket in the second innnings to finish with match figures of 5-133.
In the preceding ODI series, he had smashed 42 off 22 deliveries in the second match. His knock featured five sixes, including four in a row off Dinesh Mongia.
Incidentally, Mortaza learnt vital lessons at the Chennai-based MRF Pace Foundation a few years ago. He had a flaw in his bowling action, but it was corrected by legendary Australian pacer Dennis Lillee, a visiting coach at the foundation, about three years ago.
Bangladesh look up to the 23-year-old to provide breakthroughs and win matches. He was instrumental in his team’s startling victory over India in the recent World Cup with a lethal four-wicket haul (he was deservingly named the man of the match).
Mortaza’s heroics in the Chittagong Test earned praise from Indian skipper Rahul Dravid, who said the youngster was shaping up into a genuine allrounder.
"Bangladesh are lucky to have such a cricketer. He is very good with the ball and his contribution down the order with the bat is also important for his team.
"There are not many like him around at the moment, especially a fast-bowling all-rounder," Dravid added. — Agencies