Preview – FINA Water Polo World Championships

What is it?

The water polo World Championship forms part of the FINA 2017 World Aquatics Championships, which also includes diving, swimming, open water swimming and synchronised swimming competitions (look out for more on some of these in the weekly review and in upcoming previews). It is a biennial competition, and is the name suggests, the aim is to crown the best water polo playing nation in the world. The 2017 edition will be the 13th women’s World Championship, having been established in 1986 (while a men’s competition has been running slightly longer, since 1973, with 2017 marking the 17th edition).

Where is it?

The 2017 World Aquatics Championships are taking place in Budapest in Hungary. Hungary has a long tradition of success in water polo, and the championships are expected to draw large crowds. The water polo matches are taking place at the Alfréd Hajós National Swimming Stadium on Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube River flowing through the heart of Budapest. The pool is named after Alfréd Hajós, a Hungarian swimmer who won two gold medals at the 1896 Olympic Games in Athens. Hajós was a versatile athlete, and as well as his swimming medals, he won Hungary’s 100m sprint, 400m hurdles and discus events in 1898, played football for the Hungarian national team, served as a football referee and coached the national team. After his sporting career, he then went on the become an award-winning architect and designed the stadium that now bears his name.

What is the format?

Sixteen teams have qualified for the 2017 tournament. These are split into four groups of four teams, which play each other in a round robin format in the Preliminary Stage. The top team in each group qualifies automatically for the quarter-finals, while the second and third placed teams have playoff matches to decide the remaining four quarter-finalists. From the quarter-finals onwards, the tournament is a straight knockout to the final on 28th July, although all sixteen teams play on after having been knocked out to give a full ranking at the end of the tournament.

Who are the qualifiers?

The groups for the Preliminary Stage are as follows:

  • Group A: Brazil, Canada, China, Italy
  • Group B: New Zealand, Spain, South Africa, USA
  • Group C: France, Hungary, Japan, Netherlands
  • Group D: Australia, Greece, Kazakhstan, Russia

Hungary qualified automatically as hosts. USA and Spain qualified thanks to their performance in the 2016 World League competition. Italy, Russia, Australia and China qualified at the 2016 Olympic tournament. France, Greece and the Netherlands qualified at the 2016 European championships. Brazil and Canada qualified at the Pan American Games. Japan, Kazakhstan, South Africa and New Zealand then qualified through their respective continental qualifying tournaments.

Who are the historical powerhouses?

Where men’s water polo has traditionally been dominated by Eastern and Southern European countries (predominantly Hungary, Serbia and Croatia in recent years), the women’s game has historically been less predictable, although in recent competitions the USA have begun to assert a level of dominance. In the twelve World Championship tournaments to date, the USA have four wins, Italy and Hungary have two apiece, and Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Greece have each won one.

What are the home team’s chances?

The Hungarian women’s team have struggled to match the success of their male compatriots, having finished no higher than 4th at an Olympic Games, and not having won the World Championships since 2005. Their best performance in recent times came in 2013, where they took the bronze medal.

Who are the players to watch out for?

  • Maggie Steffens (USA) the US captain led the way at the Olympic tournament in Rio, notching 17 goals as the team won the gold medal.  Steffens also won gold in 2012 in London, at a tournament where she was also prolific, scoring 21 goals. Steffens was named the Female Water Polo Player of the Year in 2012 and 2014.
  • Rita Keszthelyi (Hungary)Keszthelyi will lead the Hungarian women in their home tournament, and her talent has long been recognised in her home country, as she was named Hungarian Female Player of the Year in 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016, as well as being named in the Dream Team in the 2016 Olympic Games.
  • Giulia Emmolo (Italy) – Italy won the silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and will be hoping to go one better in Budapest. If they are to do so, they will be relying on Emmolo to make her mark, as one of their key goalscorers.
  • Rowie Webster (Australia) – Australia’s captain has played over 200 games for the national team, and won bronze as part of the Australian Olympic team in London in 2012. She also holds the record for the most goals scored in one Australian National League season, with 99 goals scored.
  • Alexandra Asimaki (Greece) – 29-year-old Asimaki is the star centre-forward of the Greek team. She helped guide the Greek team to a gold medal in the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai, and was named the FINA Female Player of the Year as a result of her goalscoring exploits. At club level, she has helped her team Olympiacos to the Greek title in each of the past three seasons, and won the LEN Euro League and LEN Super Cup in 2015.

What has happened already?

The Preliminary Stage of the tournament finished on 20th July. The quarter-finals will look like this:

  • Italy will play the winner of the playoff between Russia and the Netherlands
  • The USA will play the winner of the playoff between France and Australia
  • Hungary will play the winner of the playoff between Canada and New Zealand
  • Greece will play the winner of the playoff between China and Spain

The USA have looked particularly dangerous, scoring 58 goals in their three Preliminary Stage matches, although the majority of those goals came against minnows New Zealand and South Africa – the US team raced to a 6-1 lead at the end of the first quarter against eventual Group B runners-up Spain, but then lost the remaining three quarters 7-6, suggesting they may not have everything their own way over the rest of the tournament. Italy have progressed with limited difficulty, winning 10-4 against Canada, 18-4 against Brazil and 15-8 against China. Hosts Hungary also qualify as group winners, mainly thanks to a hard-fought 10-8 win over the Netherlands.

Where can I watch it (UK only)?

Sadly, I have no idea – I’m yet to find any coverage anywhere, including online. If anyone knows anything more, could you let me know please!

Report – England 6-0 Scotland

eng women

England women (picture courtesy of joshjdss under license)

Jodie Taylor became the first England women to hit a hat-trick in a major tournament (and the first England player full stop to score one in the European Championships) as England sent out an emphatic message to their Euro 2017 rivals with a thumping victory over the Auld Enemy Scotland in their opening group game. Having failed to win their opening game at any major tournament for the past 12 years, this was an encouraging sign, although the Lionesses will likely encounter stiffer opposition in the remainder of the tournament.

Usually, the opening games of major tournaments are cagey affairs, with neither side wanting to make mistakes or drop points. This match, however, had much more of a derby feel to it, and the early period saw end-to-end action, with some chances for both teams. Indeed, it was Scotland who took the game on immediately, with a long range shot from Jane Ross tipped over rather nervously by Karen Bardsley in the England goal. From there, however, the action clearly favoured England, who found space down both flanks and had the dangerous Fran Kirby looking threatening on the counter-attack, and dropping between the lines to cause havoc with the Scottish defence.

After just ten minutes, England were ahead. A through ball from Lucy Bronze seemed intended for Kirby, but a clever dummy dragged two Scottish defenders with her, and left Taylor clean through on goal, with Gemma Fay unable to prevent the striker stroking the ball home. This is unlikely to have been the Scottish goalkeeper’s dream for her 200th cap. Scotland continued to look for the direct ball up to Ross up front, but the striker looked increasingly isolated as the game progressed, and the England midfield soon began to control the game. The Lionesses showed impressive fitness, with Jordan Nobbs particularly visible, and Bronze and Stokes providing an outlet on either side as they bombed forward to support the attack.

As the game seemed to be pausing for breath, Kirby earned a dubious free kick out on the left hand side of the penalty area. Nobbs floated in the cross and Bronze leapt for the header which was hacked off the line by the Scottish defence. The ball fell kindly to Taylor, who showed excellent composure to steer it into the goal, although questions should be asked of Fay’s positioning and command of her six-yard box. England’s two goal lead quickly became three as Jill Scott launched a long range shot which cannoned back off the bar. Ellen White, although a few yards behind the Scottish defence, was first to react, and pounced on the rebound to direct the ball past Fay for the third time.

Shortly after half-time, Taylor completed her hat-trick. Captain Steph Houghton hit a long free kick, which was flicked on by White into the path of Taylor, who dinked a lovely weighted lob over Fay and into the net. With the game won, coach Mark Sampson was able to shuffle his attacking pack, taking off Taylor to a standing ovation, and replacing her with Barcelona-bound Toni Duggan, and also taking the opportunity to rest Kirby and White for Parris and Carney respectively.

With the game won, it seemed that England were happy to take their foot off the gas and see out the remaining minutes, although Bardsley and Houghton both seemed determined to maintain their clean sheet. As the game entered the final five minutes, Nobbs volleyed in a sublime finish off a deflected cross from Carney to cap an excellent performance, and with the last kick of the game Nobbs swung in a corner which was headed goalwards by Houghton before being tipped past Fay in true poacher’s fashion by Duggan.

England now move on to arguably the trickiest match of their group stage against Spain (who defeated Portugal 2-0 yesterday), while Scotland need to regroup quickly ahead of their match against Portugal. Goal difference will now not be their friend in their quest to make it to the knockout stage.

Preview – UEFA Euro 2017

What is it?

The UEFA Women’s Championship is a competition between the best women’s international football teams in Europe. It takes place every four years. The 2017 edition (which I’m just going to refer to as Euro 2017, since there isn’t another international football competition happening in Europe this summer) will be the 12th version, and will be taking place across the Netherlands from 16th July 16th to 6th August.

What is the format?

The competition this year has expanded to 16 teams, up from the 12 that contested Euro 2013. The teams are split into four groups, who play each other in a round-robin format during the Group Stage, earning three points for a win and one point for a draw, as usual. The group winners and runners-up qualify for the quarter-finals, and it’s then a straight knockout to the final in Enschede on 6th August. There are various permutations in the event of a tie at the end of the group stage, starting with the results, then goal difference, then goals scored in the games between the tied teams, then the same criteria across all of the group games, then potentially a penalty shoot-out if there are only two teams tied and they happen to be playing each other in the final round of matches. After that it’s down to a ‘fair play’ factor (with teams given points for yellow and red cards during their games), and if that doesn’t solve it, the higher ranked team will progress. During the knockout stages, extra-time and penalties will be used in the event of a draw.

What is the prize?

The winning team will take home €1.2m, with a total prize fund of €8m. By comparison, the winning men’s team from Euro 2016 took home €27m.

Who are the qualifiers?

The groups for the Group Stage break down as follows:

  • Group A: Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands, Norway
  • Group B: Germany, Italy, Russia, Sweden
  • Group C: Austria, France, Iceland, Switzerland
  • Group D: England, Portugal, Scotland, Spain

Austria, Belgium, Portugal, Scotland and Switzerland are making their first appearance at a European Championships.

Who are the historical powerhouses?

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Germany defend a corner against Sweden (picture courtesy of Blondinrikard Froberg)

Germany are the standout European team in women’s football. They have won the European Championships on eight separate occasions (including once in 1989 as West Germany) and have won the previous six tournaments. The only other teams to have won the competition are Norway (who won in 1993 and in 1987, when the tournament was badged as the ‘European Competition for Women’s Football’) and Sweden (who also won the ‘European Competition for Women’s Football’ in 1984). Denmark and Italy won unofficial tournaments in 1979 and 1969 respectively.

Germany are the second-ranked team in the world currently, although they will have strong competition from other high-ranked teams France (ranked 3rd), England (ranked 5th) and Sweden (ranked 9th).

What are the home team’s chances?

The Dutch side (following their recent rebranding exercise) go into the tournament ranked 12th in the world, and will hope that their home support can inspire them to victory. Captained by Reading defender Mandy van den Berg, they will be hoping that Arsenal striker Vivianne Miedema can continue her excellent goalscoring record, with 41 goals in 51 matches for the national team. Also included in the squad are veterans Sherida Spitse and Loes Geurts.

What about the Home Nations?

eng women

England women (picture courtesy of joshjdss under license)

England have improved in recent years, and finished third at the 2015 World Cup in Canada, defeating Germany in the third-place playoff match. They were unbeaten throughout their qualifying campaign, with seven wins and a solitary draw at home to Belgium. Captained by Manchester City defender Steph Houghton, and with the experienced Jill Scott, Alex Scott (no relation) and Fara Williams in the side, they will be hoping that Toni Duggan’s recent move to Barcelona can inspire her to goalscoring glory, while midfielder Frank Kirby was described by coach Mark Sampson as a ‘mini-Messi’ following her performance against Mexico during the 2015 World Cup.

Scotland qualify for the European Championships for the first time in 2017. They are ranked 21st in the world, although their ranking has been gradually increasing over recent years, and they will hope to surprise some of the other participants, not least big rivals England, who they meet in their opening match on 19th July. Captain Gemma Fay will win her 200th cap if selected for that match, while Manchester City forward Jane Ross is their main goalscoring threat.

Who are the players to watch out for?

  • Dzsenifer Marozsan (Germany) – the German captain will be hoping to make it seven wins on the trot at the European Championships. Born in Budapest, she became the youngest scorer in the Bundesliga at just 15-years-old, and in recent years has inspired Germany to an Olympic gold medal, and has won the Champion’s League with her club Lyon. She was named 2016’s best female playmaker in the world by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics, and was selected in FIFA’s FIFPro World XI 2016. She has scored 30 goals in 75 appearances for the national team.
  • Pernille Harder (Denmark) – the striker and Denmark captain has been prolific in recent years, scoring 45 goals in 84 matches for Denmark, as well as 70 goals in 87 games for Linköping FC between 2012-2016, earning her a move to German side Wolfsburg earlier this year. Harder is often at the centre of Denmark’s better play, and links up very well with compatriot Nadia Nadim.
  • Jordan Nobbs (England) – while Kirby and Williams often grab the headlines, Nobbs has overcome injury at the 2015 World Cup to quietly develop into a linchpin of England’s play. An energetic midfielder, she was recently crowned England’s player of the year, and helped her team Arsenal to FA Cup victory in May.
  • Lotta Schelin (Sweden) – her country’s leading goalscorer is often compared with compatriot Zlatan Ibrahimovic, more for her goalscoring exploits and rangy physique than for weird philosophical discussions and referring to herself in the third person. Although the Swedish side have a lot of young talented players coming through the ranks, they will still rely on Schelin to chip in with goals to guide them to the latter stages of the tournament.
  • Camille Abily (France) – after Lyon and PSG made it an all-French final in the women’s Champions League earlier this year, hopes are high that France can improve on recent disappointments in international tournaments. At 32, Abily is one of the older players in the French squad, but is playing as well as ever, and the attacking midfielder’s helped guide Lyon to the double-treble this year (winning the French Division 1 Féminine, the Coupe de France Féminine and the Champions League in both 2015 and 2016).

What has happened already?

The tournament kicked off on 16th July, and six matches have already been played:

  • Netherlands 1-0 Norway
  • Denmark 1-0 Belgium
  • Italy 1-2 Russia
  • Germany 0-0 Sweden
  • Austria 1-0 Switzerland
  • France 1-0 Iceland

What are the key matches in the rest of the Group Stage?

The big matches (‘derbies’ and against the top two seeds in each group) to look out for are (with local times i.e. one hour ahead of BST):

  • Spain v Portugal – 19th July 18:00
  • England v Scotland – 19th July 20:45
  • Germany v Italy – 21st July 20:45
  • England v Spain – 23rd July 20:45
  • Belgium v Netherlands – 24th July 20:45
  • Norway v Denmark – 24th July 20:45
  • Switzerland v France – 26th July 20:45

The other Home Nations matches are:

  • Scotland v Portugal – 23rd July 18:00
  • Portugal v England – 27th July 20:45
  • Scotland v Spain – 27th July 20:45

What do the bookies think?

Looking today, Betfair have the following (approximate) odds:

  • Germany 2-1
  • France 5-2
  • England 7-1
  • Netherlands 8-1
  • Sweden 9-1

Where can I watch it (UK only)?

Channel 4 have the UK broadcast rights, and are showing England v Scotland live on 19th July. The BBC are providing radio coverage.

Preview – ICC Women’s World Cup 2017

What is it?

The ICC Women’s World Cup is the oldest and most prestigious competition in international women’s cricket. It serves as the world championships for the One Day International (“ODI”) cricket format. The women’s World Cup actually predates the men’s version, with the first World Cup being held in 1973. However, some larger gaps between editions due to funding issues around the early championships mean that the 2017 edition is the 11th Women’s World Cup, whereas the men held their 11th edition in 2015. Prior to 2005, the competition was run by International Women’s Cricket Council (“IWCC”), and post-2005 it was taken over by the International Cricket Council (“ICC”), following their merger with the IWCC.

What is the format this year?

Eight teams qualified for the World Cup. In the initial group stage, all eight teams play each other in a league format. Following the group stage, the top four teams qualify for the semi-finals, with the top-ranked team playing against the fourth-ranked team, and the second- and third-ranked teams facing off against each other. The winners of each semi-final then meet in the final on 23rd July. There is no 3rd place playoff.

Who are the qualifiers?

Between 2014 and 2016, eight nations (Australia, England, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka and the West Indies) played seven rounds of one-day series, with each team playing the other seven once. At the end of this ICC Women’s Championship, the top four teams (Australia, England, New Zealand and the West Indies) qualified for the World Cup, and the bottom four went into a World Cup Qualifier tournament against six other nations: Bangladesh and Ireland, who qualify by virtue of having ODI status: Zimbabwe, who won an African regional competition; Thailand, who won an Asian regional competition; Papua New Guinea, who won an East Asia-Pacific regional competition; and Scotland, who won the European regional competition. Unsurprisingly, the bottom four from the ICC Women’s Championship came through the Qualifier, leaving us with the same eight teams to contest the World Cup.

What are the home team’s chances?

Only three teams have won the World Cup: Australia; England; and New Zealand. Going into the 2017 tournament, Australia are the top ranked team in the world, but England are ranked second, and will hope that home advantage can give them the competitive edge. England lost their opening match against India, but since then have won six matches on the spin, and have qualified for the semi-finals as the top team in the Group Stage.

Who are the players to watch out for?

Meg Lanning from Australia tops the batting rankings going into the tournament, followed by India’s Mithali Raj and fellow Aussie Ellyse Perry. From an English perspective, Natalie Sciver has the highest ranking at number 7, but Tamsin Beaumont has topped the scoring charts in the Group Stage, ahead of Perry and Raj. For the bowlers, South Africa’s Marizanne Kapp tops the rankings, ahead of Australia’s Jess Jonassen and the Windies Stafanie Taylor. In the Group Stage, India’s Ekta Bisht has taken the most wickets, with 13, ahead of compatriot Shikha Pandey with 11 and South Africa’s Dane van Niekerk with 10.

What is the schedule now?

England play South Africa in Bristol on the 18th July. In the Group Stage, England beat the Proteas by 68 runs in the a high-scoring match. South Africa showed their potency in becoming the first women’s team to score more than 300 runs when batting second, but England’s total of 365, built on the back of a partnership between Tammy Beaumont and Sarah Taylor worth 275 runs, proved to be beyond them. The second semi-final will see Australia take on India in Derby on the 20th July. India are the only team to have beaten England at the tournament, defeating them in the opening match, but were comfortably defeated by Australia in the Group Stage. In the match against Australia, Mithali Raj became the leading run-scorer in women’s ODIs, passing England’s Charlotte Edwards (5,992 runs) and 6,000 runs on her way to 69.

The final will take place at Lord’s in London on the 23rd July.

Where can I watch it (UK only)?

Sky Sports are showing all of the World Cup matches live, and listeners can tune in to TMS on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra or via the BBC Sport website.

Review of the Week – 17th July 2017

Another wonderful weekend of sport, and I couldn’t help but reflect on how much more enjoyable summer sport is.  I think the best thing for me is the variety – for me, this weekend was tennis, cycling, tennis, formula one, tennis, para-athletics, cricket and a little more tennis.  I also find that the sports pages are much more interesting when they don’t just have half of their content taken up with the Premier League.  But then the Premier League season rolls around once more and I forgot all that amid the whirlwind of wondering whether this year will indeed be Liverpool’s year.  Sigh.

KEY HEADLINES

Tennis – Garbiñe Muguruza is the new Wimbledon champion

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/tennis/40619110

The Spaniard beat former champion Venus Williams in straight sets 7-5 6-0 to claim her second Grand Slam title.  The first set was a tight affair, with Williams looking the more dominant.  But when Williams failed to capitalise on set points in the tenth game, Muguruza pounced, breaking the Williams serve to take the first set, and then taking advantage as Williams crumbled.

 

Golf – Park Sung-hyun wins US Women’s Open

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/golf/40627394

In her debut season, the 23-year-old South Korean Park took her debut LPGA title.  China’s Shanshan Feng started the day one shot clear of two more South Koreans: 17-year-old amateur Choi Hye-Jin; and Amy Yang, with Park a further two shots back.  Feng, seeking to become the first Chinese winner of the US Open, shot a disappointing 3-over-par 75 to drop out of contention, while Park finished with a final round 67 to take the title with an overall 11-under-par score.

 

Cricket – England through to World Cup semi-finals after sixth straight win

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/cricket/40618796

England defeated the West Indies by 92 runs in Bristol to claim their sixth straight victory of the tournament, and qualify for the semi-finals of the World Cup at the top of the league table.  They will face South Africa on Tuesday, while the second semi-final will see Australia take on India.

 

Lacrosse – USA in ominous form

http://www.englishlacrosse.co.uk/RWLC17/

It looks like it will take something special to dethrone red-hot favourites the USA in the Lacrosse World Cup taking place in Guildford.  The USA defeated Canada 17-3 to make it four wins out of four, having already dismantled hosts England 18-1 on Saturday, Australia 18-5 on Friday and Scotland 19-3 on Thursday. The group stage concludes on Tuesday, with quarter-finals, semi-finals and the final scheduled for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday respectively.

 

Football – Netherlands ‘lionesses’ in crest rebrand

https://www.buzzfeed.com/ikrd/people-really-love-that-the-dutch-womens-football-crest-has?utm_term=.vkjDmog1P#.enRezZJXR

In advance of the UEFA Women’s European Championships, which kicked off this weekend, the Netherlands have announced a change to the crest of their women’s team.  For the past 46 years, the Dutch women have shared the same crest as the men (heraldry isn’t really my thing, but I guess it’s something along the lines of ‘an azure lion rampant on a field of tangerine’), but from this tournament onwards, they will be represented by a lioness.  I have to say I think it’s a pretty cool change, although, most Dutch kit decisions are pretty cool – what can’t you love about bright orange everywhere?!

 

Water polo – England win EU Nations Cup

http://www.waterpoloengland.org/2017/07/16/gold-for-englands-senior-women-in-the-2017-eu-nations/

England’s senior women have lifted the EU Nations Cup with a 12-6 victory over South Africa in Plisen, Czech Republic.  Despite missing two penalties and trailing 4-3 at half time, England came back strongly in the second half.  Katie Hesketh led the scoring charts with three goals, while goalkeeper Kate Read was named Tournament’s Best Goalkeeper.  England now hold both the senior and junior versions of the EU Nations Cup.

 

Football – Lewes FC become first professional club to pay men and women equally

https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/jul/12/lewes-fc-first-club-equal-pay-men-women

Lewes FC announced this week that, as part of their Equality FC campaign, they will pay both their men’s and women’s sides equally, as well as provide equal resources for coaching, training and facilities.  Lewes FC men play in the Isthmian League Division One South and the women play in the FA Women’s Premier League Southern Division.

 

Para-Athletics – Stef Reid wins long jump gold at World Para-Athletic Championships in London

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-paraathletics-championships/2017/07/15/stef-reid-upgrades-silver-win-long-jump-gold/

Having so often left major championships as the silver medallist, on this occasion there was only ever going to be one winner, as Stef Reid gave an impressively consistent display to take her first major gold medal in the T44 long jump.

 

COMING UP THIS WEEK

  • Football: UEFA European Championships, Netherlands – July 16th-August 6th
    • England v Scotland – July 19th, 8:45pm (live on Channel 4)
  • Parasport: ParaAthletics World Championships, London – July 14th-23rd
  • Cricket: ICC Women’s World Cup – June 24th-July 23rd
  • Swimming/Aquatics: FINA World Championships, Budapest, Hungary – July 14th-30th
  • Lacrosse: World Cup, Guildford – July 12th-22nd
  • Volleyball: FIVB U20 World Championships, Mexico – July 14th-24th
  • Hockey: World League, Johannesburg – July 8th-23rd
  • Parasport: Deaflympics, Turkey – July 18th-30th
  • Multi-sport: Commonwealth Youth Games, Bahamas – July 19th-23rd
  • Fencing: World Championships, Leipzig, Germany – July 19th-26th
  • Athletics: European Junior Championships, Grosetto, Italy – July 20th-23rd

 

Report – Venus DeMolition! Garbiñe Muguruza is the new Wimbledon champion

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Garbiñe Muguruza (picture by Carine06, shared under licence)

For almost an hour, it seemed possible that Centre Court would witness yet another episode in the saga of Williams triumphs that have dominated women’s tennis in the past decade. In the absence of her younger sister Serena, Venus was rolling back the years, showing her strength on serve and from the back of the court, and moving with a freedom that belied her age. On the other side of the net, the comparative rookie Garbiñe Muguruza seemed to be struggling under the pressure of only her third grand slam final. Her usually reliable forehand seemed vulnerable, and a serve which had only been broken four times in the entire tournament now looked under serious threat.

In the tenth game of the first set, Williams pressure and Muguruza errors took the score to 15-40. Two set points for Williams to take a huge step towards her sixth Wimbledon title. And what a chance she had on the first point, moving Muguruza around the baseline, and then, when all she needed was a trademark forehand winner, Venus dumped the shot into the net. Chance gone, and a big clutch serve from Muguruza on the next point took away the break chance. Muguruza held two points later.

Much is made of ‘turning points’, those crucial moments where momentum seems to swing. Here, though, was the epitome of such a moment. Up to that point, Williams had seemed strong and assured, but suddenly she was nervous and drained of energy. Muguruza was energised, and as Williams missed first serves and committed double faults at crucial moments, the Spaniard pounced, grabbing a break for 6-5 and serving out to win the first set.

All of a sudden, the match was all Muguruza. She immediately broke the Williams serve, backed it up with a hold of her own, and Williams seemed to visibly crumble, the scoreboard ticking over ever more rapidly. 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 4-0, 5-0. Suddenly Muguruza was serving for the title. Williams, ever the warrior, tried to dig deep, but seemed depleted of any reserves. The final point of the match was decided, somewhat unsatisfactorily, via Hawkeye, which determined that Williams had indeed hit her final shot long. Muguruza took a moment, before realisation set in: she was the new Wimbledon champion. She sank to her knees, before signalling her delight to her player’s box, including coach and 1994 Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez.

Immediately after the match, Muguruza reflected on her previous experience, having been beaten by Venus’s sister Serena in the Wimbledon final in 2015: “I didn’t want to lose this time, because I know the difference. I’m happy that once again I see myself winning a Grand Slam, something that is hard to do. It means a lot of confidence,” she said. She also paid tribute to her opponent: “She’s such an incredible player. I grew up watching her play. I was so excited to go there and win especially over someone like a role model.”

In the analysis of the match, Williams refused to blame her long-standing battle with auto-immune disease Sjogren’s syndrome for her dramatic loss of form. Avoiding direct questions on the matter, she said “[Muguruza] competed really well. So credit to her. She just dug in there and managed to play better. There’s always something to learn from matches that you win and the ones that you don’t win. So there’s definitely something for me to learn from this. But at the same time looking back, it’s always about looking forward, too.”

Having lost to sister Serena in the Australian Open final, and now to Muguruza at Wimbledon, this season can still be regarded as a success for the 37-year-old, but she must be concerned that her future opportunities for grand slam success will become more and more limited.

Indeed, this victory for Muguruza felt something like a changing of the guard. Her baseline play throughout the tournament has, at times, seemed to be laser-guided, and with her main rivals either out of action or struggling with form, she has an opportunity to step into the void created by Serena’s absence. Martinez has no doubt about the opportunity facing her student: “She has the potential and she can win more. She is very happy with her game. She beat the world number one, Kerber, and she can go all the way.”

Opinion – On Serena Williams and Sporting Greatness

In the days leading up to Wimbledon, former champion-turned-commentator John McEnroe found himself on the receiving end of a social media storm, after some fairly ill-advised comments about Serena Williams’s place in the pantheon of tennis stars. I have some limited sympathy for McEnroe, in that he made the comments as part of an interview where he was undoubtedly led down the garden path by the interviewer (although, since the interview was as part of a promotional tour for his recently released book, it’s also quite possible that McEnroe knew exactly what he was doing). It led to some lively debate in our house, and off the back of that, really made me think about how I quantify this idea of “greatness” in tennis, so I thought I’d try to explain my thoughts on the matter, for what they are worth.

How do you define sporting greatness?

The first thing to point out is the absolute futility of trying to ‘rank’ sporting stars according to their ‘greatness’. How can you even define such a nebulous concept? When talking about Serena, McEnroe’s approach was black and white, ultimately coming down to ‘who would win in a match between two players?’ (which automatically discriminates against all female tennis players, since, for reasons of physiology, they are at a disadvantage when compared against male players). Other people, when faced with a question of greatness, look to statistics: titles won; rankings achieved; opponents defeated.

For me, both of these arguments have always seemed too clinical. For me, greatness needs something more, needs to transcend simple numbers and tap into something altogether more primal. This becomes more obvious when we talk about greatness in team sports – when we talk about the greatest footballers in history, we talk of Pele and Maradona, and while both have numerous titles, wins and goals to their name, they also had something more undefinable – a little sprinkling of magic. Both Pele and Maradona came before my time, but I recognise something similar when watching Lionel Messi – as soon as he receives the ball, your excitement and anticipation increases and you wait for him to do something unbelievable.

Of course, there has to be a balance between the statistics and the magic. The whole reason sport exists is to see someone win – otherwise, as someone wiser than me once said, why do we bother keeping score? Magic without the results alongside it gives you something different. I’d describe a player like that as a ‘cult hero’ – someone talented but ultimately unsuccessful. Likewise, to me, having results without the magic leaves it just a little short. Michael Schumacher has won more Formula One titles than anyone else, but is he a greater driver than Ayrton Senna? Johan Cruyff never won a World Cup, so does that mean he is not a great footballer? Tom Brady has won five Superbowls to date, so is he a greater quarterback than Dan Marino, who never won one?

The questions above highlight the immediate issue with this premise. I know what my answers to these questions are (No, No, Yes), but ask someone else and they will most likely have a different view. This idea of ‘magic’ is purely subjective, and therefore can never be proven, never be agreed and therefore the debate can never be ended. So, in facing a question about sporting greatness, we’re always into fantasy land, and any answers associated with this should be treated accordingly. It’s an opinion.

Looking specifically at tennis, how can you compare male and female players?

When asked about Serena Williams’s greatness, John McEnroe answered that she couldn’t be the best player in the world, because (in his opinion) “if she played the men’s circuit, she’d be, like, 700 in the world”. Cue opprobrium. Putting aside the fact that McEnroe has taken the clinical approach that I think misses a key element of ‘greatness’, I think there is a fundamental problem in comparing male and female tennis players, because the two games that they play are so different. The key difference (in my opinion) is that women only play the best of three sets, while men play best of five, and while that may seem like a minor difference, in practice it turns it into a completely different game.

Physically, of course, there are implications. One of the characteristics that I certainly associate with Serena Williams is her ability to physically dominate other players. Watching her play, it often seems that she serves faster and hits harder than most, if not all, of her compatriots. This physical dominance is, again in my opinion, one of the key facets to her game. But would she be able to maintain that level of dominance across five set matches? Maybe she would, maybe it would only magnify her dominance, or maybe she would struggle to maintain that physical level, and it would bring some her opponents back into the game. We can speculate, but we have no way of knowing, because she has never had to play a five set match.

More than just the physical element, though, is the mental fortitude needed in a five set match. I watched a match this week at Wimbledon, between Rafael Nadal and Gilles Muller, that can only be described as epic. One commentator noted that Muller had played “lights out tennis” for the first two sets, before Nadal clawed his way back into the match in the third and fourth sets. Muller then showed incredible grit to come back and win the fifth set 15-13. In almost five hours on the court, the momentum in the match swung like a pendulum. But in a best-of-three-sets match, Muller would have been home and hosed after two (admittedly very impressive) sets. Now, while this does also happen in the women’s game (I watched Jo Konta play Simone Halep in the quarter finals and thought it felt similarly epic), there don’t tend to be the same number of momentum shifts, and as a result the mental resilience needed won’t be as great. Combine both the physical and mental implications, and hopefully you begin to understand my point about male and female tennis being two different games.

So what about Serena Williams?

Accepting my ‘stats and magic’ premise above, there’s no question she ticks all the boxes statistically: she has won more singles Grand Slam titles than any other female player in the Open era; she is one of only ten women to have won all four Grand Slams, and has twice completed the ‘Serena Slam’, holding all four Grand Slam titles at once; she has won more matches at Grand Slams than any other player in history; she has won four Olympic Gold medals; she has won the Fed Cup; she has won 16 Grand Slam doubles titles; she won the 2017 Australian Open at a point in her pregnancy where my wife can barely keep food down or muster the energy to move from the bed to the sofa. It’s without doubt that she is unique and should be remembered as such.

As well as the statistics, I also believe she does have the sprinkling of magic needed. She has unquestionably dominated matches and at times played amazing tennis shots. As well as that, she has dragged herself back from serious injury on more than one occasion, and her success also needs to be considered with reference to the fact that she has flourished as a black woman in a predominantly middle-class, white sport. For me, there is absolutely no question that she is the greatest female player of all time.

Hang on, hang on. You’ve caveated it just like McEnroe did! In the words of Lulu Garcia-Navarro (who interviewed McEnroe) “Some wouldn’t qualify it, some would say she’s the best player in the world. Why qualify it?”

Here is where, in my opinion, McEnroe went wrong (or, if you accept the ‘self-publicist’ theory, did exactly what he planned). Because the answer to this question has nothing to do with where she would rank in the men’s game.  Instead, the answer is, quite simply, “Because she is not the best player in the world ever.” Step forward, Roger Federer. He’s got the stats, but crucially (and I’ll say one last time, in my opinion), he really is a magician with a tennis racquet. When he plays tennis, I watch in awe of his ability to find angles, retrieve unwinnable causes and hit with power and panache, and I can’t help but admire the fact that, for the vast majority of the time, he makes it look almost effortless. It’s no slight on Serena Williams to caveat her greatness to women only, it’s only recognising that, in Roger Federer, we are talking about arguably the greatest sporting star of all time. I’ll just leave that opinion here for the debate/argument to continue.

Review of the Week – 10th July 2017

The weekend went by (for me anyway) in a sort of sporting blur: rugby union, watching the Lions drag themselves to a draw against an unusually profligate All Blacks; tennis, as the Gentlemen’s Singles looks likely to be dominated by the Big Four, while the Ladies’ Singles is wide open following the defeats of early favourites; cycling, following the Tour de France (get well soon Geraint Thomas and Richie Porte) and the Giro Rosa; Formula One, disappointed to see Lewis Hamilton drop back further in the Drivers’ Championship; athletics, watching the (rather boastfully named) Anniversary Games; cricket, seeing England win the first test against South Africa; and football, where we’re still subjected to endless speculation about the transfer market despite the fact the Premier League season is still weeks away.

KEY HEADLINES

The following are some of the key headlines from the main events in women’s sport over the past week:

Cycling – Anna van der Breggen wins Giro Rosa 2017

http://www.girorosa.it/

Having led since the end of the second stage, van der Breggen saw off the challenge from Elisa Longo Borghini and Annamiek van Vleuten on the final climb on the side of Vesuvio. Van Vleuten took the purple and green jerseys for the points and mountains classifications as consolation prizes, while Longo Borghini took home the ‘maglia azzuro’ as the best-placed Italian rider. 2016 champion Megan Guarnier finished fourth overall, and had to content herself with the final stage win. The main coverage of the race in the UK centred on the fate of Italian rider Claudia Cretti, who unfortunately sustained a head injury in a crash on Thursday’s stage and had to be put into an induced coma. The organisers of the race released a medical update on Friday, with the permission of Cretti’s parents, which described her as being in a “critical but stable condition”.

 

Tennis – Wimbledon Ladies’ Singles competition wide open

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/tennis/40544725

Ahead of the tournament, the big story was the return of Petra Kvitova, and the bookies were backing Karolina Pliskova. However, with both of those having lost earlier in the week, the competition goes into its second week with no standout favourite remaining in the last 16. British hopes rest on the shoulders of Johanna Konta, who came through a tough examination in the second round against Donna Vekic. Surprisingly, the world number one Angelique Kerber seems to be flying under the radar, while others to watch include 37-year-old Venus Williams, French Open champion Jelena Ostapenka, and ‘best player in the world who has not yet won a major’ Simona Halep.

 

Cricket – Women’s World Cup continues

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/cricket/37842307

England beat Australia on Sunday to make it four wins on the bounce, following on from their opening day defeat to India. With each team having played five matches so far, the current top four are England, Australia, India and New Zealand, with South Africa level on points with New Zealand, but trailing on run rate. The round robin stage continues ahead of the semi-finals, due to take place on the 18th and 20th July.

 

Tennis – Mandy Minella reveals unorthodox ‘doubles’ pairing

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/tennis/40486706

Mandy Minella revealed after the first round of the Ladies’ Singles championships that she is four-and-a-half months pregnant. Sadly, she was unable to emulate Serena Williams’s Australian Open heroics, falling to a straight sets defeat. She also went on to play in the Ladies’ Doubles competition alongside Anastasija Sevastova, against losing in straight sets.

 

Football – England’s Toni Duggan signs for Barcelona

http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/40514401

England striker Toni Duggan has become the first English player to sign for Barcelona since Gary Lineker in 1986. No transfer fee was paid, as Duggan’s contract was due to expire in November 2017. Since 2013, Duggan helped Manchester City to the Women’s Super League One title in 2016 and the 2017 FA Cup.

 

COMING UP THIS WEEK:

  • Tennis: Wimbledon – July 3rd-16th (Ladies’ Singles Final 15th July)
  • Hockey: World League, Johannesburg – July 8th-23rd
  • Basketball: U20 Women’s European Championships, Portugal – July 8th-16th
  • Lacrosse: World Cup, Guildford – July 12th-22nd
  • Parasport: ParaAthletics World Championships, London – July 14th-23rd
  • Volleyball: FIVB U20 World Championships, Mexico – July 14th-24th
  • Football: UEFA European Championships, Netherlands – July 16th-August 6th

Preview – Giro Rosa 2017

What is it?

The 2017 Giro Rosa (previously the Giro Donne or the Giro d’Italia Femminile) is the 28th edition of the women’s Giro d’Italia. Since 2010, when the Tour de l’Aude Cycliste Féminin was cancelled, the Giro Rosa is the only remaining women’s Grand Tour and today it is the biggest and most prestigious stage race in women’s cycling. In 2017, the race consists of 10 stages across Italy, and runs from 30th June until 9th July. 24 teams will compete across the 10 days, each taking six or seven riders. The course for the 2017 race features fewer climber’s stages and competitors will only face second and third category climbs this year. That, combined with a strong field means that it could be a very close race.

What is the prize?

The winner of the ‘general classification’ (i.e. the cyclist with the shortest combined times across the ten stages) wears the ‘maglia rosa’ or pink jersey, and wins a prize of €1,130, which is pretty pitiful compared to the €115,668 pocketed by Tom Dumoulin for winning the men’s equivalent earlier this year, even when taking into account the different lengths of the competitions (21 stages over 23 days for the men’s Giro d’Italia). The organisers also award four more jerseys for individual competitions: the ‘maglia ciclamino’ or (rather less poetic) purple jersey is awarded to the best sprinter, who accumulates points for high placing finishes at the end of each stage and at intermediate sprint points around the course; the ‘maglia verde’ or green jersey is awarded to the best climber, who accumulates points for being one of the first riders over the top of the classified climbs during the race; the ‘maglia bianca’ or white jersey is awarded to the highest placed U23 rider in the field; and the ‘maglia azzuro’ is awarded to the highest placed Italian rider.

Who are the main contenders this year?

Three riders in this year’s race have previously taken home the ‘maglia rosa’: Megan Guarnier is the reigning champion, coming off the back of an excellent 2016 in which she also won the US National Road Race Championship and the overall title in the UCI Women’s World Tour; Anna van der Breggen was victorious in the 2015 Giro Rosa, and also had a successful 2016, winning a gold and a bronze medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics road race and time trial respectively, and winning the European Road Championships; and Claudia Lichtenberg (née Häusler), who won the Giro Rosa back in 2009. Also in the mix this year is Annemiek van Vleuten, who is recognised as an excellent time triallist, but is hoping to build on that to feature strongly in the general classification this year.

Who is the home hope?

Elisa Longo Borghini and Elena Cecchini are the highest ranked Italian riders on the UCI Women’s World Tour in 2017, at 6th and 8th respectively. Longo Borghini won in the season opening Strade Bianche, and led the overall competition through the first four rounds before dropping down the rankings.

Who are the historical greats that I should know about?

Italy’s Fabiana Luperini holds the record for the most Giro Rosa victories, winning four back-to-back titles from 1995 to 1998, and then adding a fifth a decade later in 2008. She also finished runner up in the Giro Rosa in 2004, and also won the Grande Boucle (the women’s equivalent of the Tour de France) three times in succession, from 1995 to 1997. Marianne Vos, from the Netherlands, often cited as the finest female cyclist of her generation, won the Giro Rosa three times, in 2011, 2012 and 2014, to go alongside her five Women’s Road World Cup overall titles, and her gold medal from the London 2012 Olympics.

What has been happening so far this year?

As of 5th July, six stages have been completed, with four remaining. The Boels-Dolmans team of Guarnier and van der Breggen won the opening team time trial, with Karol-Ann Canuel taking the leader’s ‘maglia rosa’. Stage two saw a late breakaway by van der Breggen, van Vleuten and Longo Borghini, with van Vleuten taking the stage win and van der Breggen taking over the pink jersey. Stage three was a flat stage, won by Britain’s Hannah Barnes, with no impact on the general classification, while the fourth stage was also a sprint finish, won by Belgian Jolien D’Hoore. However, the big news from the day was that Annemiek van Vleuten dropped down the classification after being caught the wrong side of a split in the peloton, caused by windy conditions on the course. Fortunately, day five was the individual time trial, allowing specialist van Vleuten the chance to claw back some lost seconds, taking her second stage win of the competition. Stage six was another sprinters’ stage, won this time by Finland’s Lotta Lepistö, leaving the general classification unaffected, with Anna van der Breggen leading by 1’03” from Elisa Longo Borghini, 1’39” from Annemiek van Vleuten, and 3’11” from Megan Guarnier. The key stage looks likely to be the eighth stage, on the 7th July, as the main mountain stage of the competition.

Where can I watch it (UK only)?

The race will receive only limited coverage in the UK, so your best bet is to track it online and to look out for highlights on YouTube

Preview – Wimbledon Ladies’ Singles Competition 2017

What is it?

‘The Championships, Wimbledon’ (aka ‘The All England Tennis Championships’, ‘The Wimbledon Championships’ or simply ‘Wimbledon’) is only the greatest tennis competition there is, has been and ever will be (speaking, of course, as a Brit)! Wimbledon is one of the four ‘grand slams’ of the tennis world, taking place on the pristine grass of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club in Wimbledon, London. It is the oldest tennis competition in the world, having been established in 1877, although the Ladies’ Singles competition wasn’t introduced in 1884.

What is the prize?

The winner of the Ladies’ Singles championship is awarded the ‘Venus Rosewater Dish’ – a sterling silver salver 18.75 inches in diameter. The dish is decorated with mythological figures, including Temperance on the central boss, and Minerva around the rim. Champions receive a three-quarter size replica of the trophy, which bears the names of past champions. As well as the trophy, the 2017 champion will take home prize money of £2.2m. Since 2007, the Ladies’ Singles champion received the same prize money as the Gentlemen’s Singles champion.

Who are previous winners I should know about?

In the ‘Open Era’ (i.e. since 1968, when professionals were allowed to compete in the previously amateur-only championships) the Ladies’ Singles competition has been dominated by four women: Martin Navratilova (9 victories), Steffi Graf (7 victories) and the Williams sisters Serena (7 victories) and Venus (5 victories). These ‘Big Four’ account for 28 of the 48 competitions held since 1968. Other notable names are Billie Jean King (6 victories, 2 in the Open Era), Helen Wills Moody (8 victories between 1927 and 1938) and the wonderfully named Dorothea Lambert Chambers (7 victories between 1903 and 1914).

What is the big story this year?

In the absence of Serena Williams, who has been on maternity leave since her victory at the Australian Open earlier this year, and Maria Sharapova, whose comeback after a doping ban was cut short by injury, the field in the Ladies’ Singles competition is wide open. The main focus before the event has been on the return to competition of Petra Kvitova, the two-time champion who returns to competition after she was injured in an awful knife attack in the Czech Republic in December last year. She has said in interviews prior to the competition that the attack “took her smile away” and that she thought that she was going to be sick when she first saw her hand following surgery, but that she is improving and slowly getting her “strength and power” back. She is seeded number 11 in the competition, but has also said that she “doesn’t think it is realistic” to win a third title, and feels her main victory has been in recovering in time to take her place in the draw.

Who is the home hope?

The last British winner of the Ladies’ Singles championship was Virginia Wade in 1977. In the subsequent 40 years, no British woman has come close to emulating Wade. However this year, alongside Kvitova, the other big story in the British press is the possibility, finally, of a genuine British challenger for the Ladies’ Singles title. Since switching to represent the UK in 2012, Johanna Konta has climbed the world rankings, from 153rd in the world to 10th at the end of 2016 and 7th in the world at the start of the competition, making her the 6th seed. Her game seems well suited to the grass of Wimbledon, as long as she can make the most of her big serving and attacking groundstrokes. However, she does not have the best record at Wimbledon, having only previously reached the 2nd Round for the first time in 2016.

Who are the bookies’ favourites?

I’m a bit late to the game, but at the moment the favourites on Betfair are Karolina Pliskova and Kvitova, both priced around 5-1, with another bunch around 16-1 including Konta, Venus Williams, Jelena Ostapenko, Simona Halep and Number 1 seed Angelique Kerber.

Anything else I should know about?

In the build up to the tournament, there was a bit of a hoo-ha when previous Gentlemen’s Singles winner John McEnroe was reported as saying that Serena Williams, arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time, would not beat the 700th–ranked male player (and therefore couldn’t be considered the greatest tennis player of all time). I have a vague plan to cover this in a bit more detail later, but suffice it to say that this has not gone down particularly well, not least with Serena herself, who has asked McEnroe to “respect her privacy”.

In one other notable piece of news, former world number one Victoria Azarenka hit out at the way the tournament is scheduled, after her match was not scheduled for a specific court on the order of play, meaning she was not certain when she would compete. Azarenka, who gave birth to son Leo in December, said it was “a little tough” to expect a new mum to wait around all day for her match to be scheduled. Due to her late start, Leo was not there to watch his mum complete her first round victory, and Azarenka was quoted after the match as saying it would have been too disruptive to his routine “It’s tough to know what time I was going to play, and this is way past his bedtime. So I wouldn’t do that to him.” In their defence, Wimbledon do provide a crèche for competitors (both men and women), and a spokesman responded to Azarenka’s comments by explaining that her match was “scheduled as ‘not before 5pm’ on the official order of play, so the competitors have the assurance of knowing their matches won’t be called to court before 5pm and can plan their day around that”.

Where can I watch it (UK only)?

There is extensive free-to-air coverage on the BBC.