French Open preview: World number ones Djokovic and Williams eager for victory

The French Open is set to start on Sunday, with world number ones Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams both having a point to prove.

For the Serbian, the Paris-based tournament remains the only Grand Slam that he is yet to win in a glittering career, while American Williams has not been at her best in 2016.

In the men’s tournament, Stan Wawrinka shocked Djokovic in last year’s final and will take on Lukas Rosol in the first round of his title defence.

Djokovic has been the dominant force in tennis over the last two years, with defeat in the French Open final the only blemish in his copybook in 2015.

Having won the other three major competitions, the Serb started 2016 in fine fashion by claiming the Australian Open.

Elsewhere, Roger Federer has withdrawn from the tournament after suffering from a back injury, while Rafael Nadal will fancy his chances of winning a competition he has claimed a staggering nine times previously.

The Spaniard has proven that he can be devastating on a clay surface and will hope to claim his first Grand Slam since winning in 2014 at Roland Garros.

World number two Andy Murray has been paired with Czech veteran Radek Stepanek in the first round and will fancy his chances given that he is the in opposite side of the draw to both Djokovic and Nadal.

The Scot also defeated Djokovic on clay earlier this month in the final of the Italian Open.

Russia’s only competitor in the men’s tournament is Evgeny Donskoy, who faces 11th seed David Ferrer.

In the women’s tournament, Williams remains the world’s number one and the player to beat.

The 34-year-old American has won the French Open on three previous occasions but the competition in Paris is her least successful major tournament as she has won the other three six times apiece.

Williams was stunned in the semi-finals of the US Open last year by Italian Roberta Vinci, which robbed her of winning all four major tournaments.

She also started this year with an upset defeat at the hands of Angelique Kerber at the Australian Open, but did win the Italian Open on clay earlier this month. Williams starts against Magdalena Rybarikova.

World number five Victoria Azarenka is a dark horse after returning to full fitness and beating winning the Miami Open earlier this year.

Russia’s Svetlana Kuznetsova, who lost to Azarenka in the final in Miami after defeating Williams, will start her campaign against Kazakhstan’s Yaroslava Shvedova and hope to make the latter stages of the tournament in France.

Other Russians to compete in the women’s tournament include Margarita Gasparyan and Vitalia Diatchenko, who face Sloane Stephens and Lucie Safaova respectively, while Maria Sharapova remains banned.

Vladimir Putin and Sharapova sponsor criticize WADA

Sports equipment and clothing manufacturer Head has backed Maria Sharapova over her use of meldonium.

Sharapova is set to face a hearing after testing positive for the banned substance, despite the recent admission by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) that there is ‘currently a lack of clear scientific information on excretion times’ for the drug.

WADA confirmed earlier this week that athletes who tested positive for meldonium before 1 March could avoid bans, but the International Tennis Federation said Sharapova’s case will proceed.

Meldonium was added to banned substances list from January 1, with the Russian subsequently failing a test at January’s Australian Open.

Head chief executive and chairman, Johan Eliasch, said: “It is now quite clear that WADA made the decision to ban meldonium based solely upon the alleged prevalence of use among Eastern European and Russian athletes.”

“This highlights a wholly flawed decision-making process by WADA whereby the ban on meldonium has no justification.”

“Until clinical testing is undertaken to prove that meldonium has indeed performance-enhancing potential, WADA should provide amnesty to athletes who had been taking the drug at the direction of a doctor for a proven medical condition, if not all athletes.”

Over 170 athletes have tested positive for meldonium since it was added to the list, and with WADA admitting it’s uncertain how long the drug remains in the body support for Sharapova is growing.

Ex-Russian men’s tennis star Marat Safin has given his backing to his compatriot.

“I believe that Maria is a professional and a team of professionals is working with her,” he said.

“I also believe that some sort of a technical mistake could be behind her situation with meldonium.

“It takes meldonium quite some time to leave the body system, up to three months. Meldonium remained in the body systems of many Russian athletes, who tested positive for the drug.”

“Perhaps they consumed the drug in September or October. It all depends on the individual physical peculiarities of the body system of an athlete.”

“In some cases, meldonium dehydrated from the body system and in some it did not.”

Russian president Vladimir Putin has also criticized WADA for not properly researching meldonium to understand how much time the drug takes to leave the system.

When speaking on a phone-in on Russian television, the Russian president said “there was no proper data” available to WADA on meldonium use and that WADA moved too quickly to ban the drug.

While he did not think Russian athletes were being targeted by WADA, he re-iterated that meldonium was not a performance enhancing drug.

“This substance was never considered as doping,” Putin said. “It doesn’t influence the result. That’s totally certain. It just keeps the heart muscles in good condition under high load.”

With the meldonium case still hanging over Sharapova, she has chosen not to enter the upcoming 2016 French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros despite being listed as eligible to compete.

Sharapova hasn’t played since the Australian Open and her participation at the 2016 Olympics in Rio remains in doubt.

Despite support from elsewhere, the former world number one has seen other sponsors distance themselves from her, with TAG Heuer saying it wouldn’t seek to extend its sponsorship with the Russian even if she received an amnesty from WADA.

Sharapova’s previous contract with the Swiss watch maker expired on December 31 2015.

Djokovic wins Indiana Wells, argues for men’s tennis getting more money than women

Novak Djokovic continued his domination of men’s tennis with a 6-2, 6-0 win against Milos Raonic in the final of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells on Sunday.

The Serbian raced to victory in one hour 17 minutes to move to 22-1 for the year and tie Rafa Nadal with a record-equalling 27th ATP Masters 1000 crown.

Djokovic, who beat Nadal 7-6, 6-2 in the semi-final, also maintained his perfect record against Raonic as he won their sixth career meeting.

“Best match of the tournament for me today and probably the worst for Milos,” said Djokovic. “He was not feeling his best and I wish him a speedy recovery.”

“He just told me that he might have injured the same part of the leg as he did at the Australian Open, which took him off the tour for a month.”

The Canadian suffered a groin injury at the Australian Open in January, but Djokovic showed his opponent no mercy as he claimed his fifth title at Indian Wells.

“It’s sad to have the finals like this in one way but I played a great tournament. I’ve got to be happy with what I’ve done from my side today,” he added.

“Every time he would miss the first serve, I was on top of the second serve. I was not allowing him to control the pace from the baseline, I moved him around the court. Tactically, I did everything right.”

Victoria Azarenka upset world number one Serena Williams to claim the women’s title with a 6-4, 6-4 victory.

Williams was playing in the tournament for the first time in 14 years, after taking a self-imposed exile from the event over allegations of racial abuse from fans after sister Venus pulled out minutes before their semi-final in 2001.

Azarenka took full advantage of some erratic play from her opponent, with the American making 33 unforced errors during the game.

The two-time Australian Open champion served out the first set to love, before resisting Williams’ fightback in the second to clinch her 19th WTA Tour title.

The finals were shrouded in controversy following comments about the women’s game made by Indian Wells CEO Raymond Moore.

During a Sunday morning news conference, Moore said that the WTA Tour was “very, very lucky” because it “rides on the coat-tails of the men”.

“If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport. They really have,” Moore said.

Williams responded with great poise to Moore’s “offensive” statement, which he later retracted, calling the remarks “mistaken and very, very, very inaccurate”.

She added: “If I could tell you every day how many people say they don’t watch tennis unless they’re watching myself or my sister, I couldn’t even bring up that number.”

But the highlight of the day belonged once again to Djokovic, who argued that men’s tennis should fight for more prize money than women because it had a greater viewership.

Maria Sharapova dropped as UN goodwill ambassador after doping scandal

Shamed Russian tennis superstar Maria Sharapova has received another blow following the recent doping scandal, with the United Nations suspending her status as a goodwill ambassador.

The 28-year-old was catapulted into the global limelight earlier this month after admitting she failed a drugs test at the Australian Open.

Sharapova tested positive for recently outlawed substance meldonium, which was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibited substances list on January 1st.

The Russian claims that she has been described the drug by her doctor in recent years as an answer to health issues, but WADA state meldonium enhances athletic performance.

The United Nations Development Programme has released a statement clarifying that Sharapova will not represent the organization until the doping investigation concludes.

“The UNDP remains grateful to Maria Sharapova for her support of our work, especially around the Chernobyl nuclear disaster recovery,” a spokesperson said.

“However, in light of Ms Sharapovaís recent announcement, we last week suspended her role as a goodwill ambassador and any planned activities while the investigation continues.”

Sharapova became a UN goodwill ambassador in February 2007, signing a symbolic $1 salary, and has been a prominent figure for the body over nine years.

Much of her work for the United Nations has been based around assisting the survivors of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the Russian has donated $100,000 in the past to youngsters impacted by the nuclear accident.

Sharapova has family roots in the region, with her parents from the Belarusian city of Gomel.

The shun from the UN follows on from a number of commercial deals with the tennis star being cancelled by leading global companies such as Nike, Porsche and TAG Heuer.

The news will be another blow to Sharapova personally and sully her reputation further given the criteria needed to become a UN goodwill ambassador.

The organization states that ambassadors are selected based on their integrity, personality and conduct.

Sharapova could be banned for up to four years for the use of meldonium, with her participation in this summer’s Olympic Games looking increasingly bleak.

The investigation over her use of the drug is likely to be based around her motives for taking it and the information and guidance provided to her by advisors and doctors.

Support from the tennis community has been mixed, with Serena Williams offering words of encouragement while the likes of Murray and Nadal have spoken about the need for a ban.

When asked whether he personally read all communications on anti-doping, Nadal had replied: “To be honest I don’t read it. I have my doctor that I have confidence in. My doctor is the doctor of the Spanish tennis federation for a lot of years. He is the doctor of all the Spanish tennis players so I have full confidence in him. And I never take anything that he doesn’t know.

“I am 100% confident with my team and at the same time, I know all the things that I am taking so it is difficult to imagine that something like this can happen. But it is obvious that mistakes can happen – everyone can make mistakes.”

Nadal’s comments about not knowing what’s on the banned list himself are an important reminder that elite sports stars are as much a product of their own talent as they are of the teams that support them, and Sharapova’s defence hinges on this fact that she herself did not know that meldonium was banned and that she trusted her doctors.

What is Meldonium and how many more athletes will be suspended like Sharapova?

The news of Maria Sharapova’s failed drug test has seen the world’s gaze focus on the little-known meldonium, with fears that a host of other Russian sports stars are set for a similar fate.

The tennis star has been at the center of media attention over the last 24 hours, with the level of blame that should be applied to the 28-year-old still to be determined.

Sharapova has been banned indefinitely by the International Tennis Federation as an investigation takes place, while the affluent sportswoman has seen backing from major sponsors such as Nike and Porsche rescinded.

However, the Russian star claimed that she had been prescribed meldonium for health issues, spanning back to 2006.

“I was getting sick very often, and I had a deficiency in magnesium and a family history of diabetes, and there were signs of diabetes,” Sharapova said.

“That is one of the medications, along with others, that I received. I was first given the substance back in 2006. I had several health issues going on at the time.”

Meldonium is a drug that is prescribed to help deal with heart problems and blood flow, and as such the reasoning behind Sharapova’s use of it adds up.

Despite this, the World Anti-Doping Agency stated as long as six months ago that meldonium was set to be banned, even if this only came into effect on January 1.

Former WADA chief Dick Pound stated that Sharapova and her advisors should have acted quicker.

“You are taking something on a list. I am sorry, that is a big mistake – of course she should have known,” he said.

“She is taking something that is not generally permitted in her country of residence [USA] for medical purposes, so she says, so there must be a doctor following this.

“All the tennis players were given notification of it and she has a medical team somewhere. That is reckless beyond description.”

Meldonium is manufactured by Latvian company Grindeks, who state its course of treatment should be four-to-six weeks. It is recommended to be used no more than for three periods per year.

Sharapova’s attorney John Haggerty has been quick to defend the Russian, stating she used mildronate, which contains meldonium, only when prescribed by her doctor.

Although the tennis star is facing a ban of up to four years, Russian Tennis Federation president Shamil Tarpischev believes Sharapova should still be allowed to compete in this summer’s Olympic Games.

“I think that it’s nonsense,” he said.

“Athletes take what their physiotherapists advise them. I believe that Sharapova will still have a chance to play at the Olympics though we will see how things are going to develop.”

Sharapova is seemingly set to be followed by some of her compatriots in testing positive for meldonium.

The prohibited substance was found in a doping test of Russian bicycle racer Eduard Vorganov last month, while former European ice dancing champion and Olympic gold medallist Ekaterina Bobrova has also failed a test this year.

Russian speed skater Pavel Kulizhnikov’s coach, Dmitry Dorofeev, has confessed that the athlete has tested positive for meldonium, without stating specifics of when this happened.

The Russian sports minister has said Sharapova’s case could be the tip of the iceberg.

“There won’t be a huge wave but I suspect there could be several more cases,” he said.

“Maybe this will wake up our trainers and federation a bit. Unfortunately, a lot of athletes took this medicine.”

Despite Sharapova’s claims that she used meldonium for medical reasons, German anti-doping expert Mario Thevis confirmed the drug can “facilitate recovery and enhance physical as well as mental workload capabilities.”

Just how much Sharapova knew about the impact of meldonium remains to be seen and whether it is the tennis star or those advising her that should face the brunt of disciplinary action is to be determined.

However, some prominent members of the sports community have backed Sharapova and showed her sympathy.

Tennis world number one Serena Williams, who has had a hex over the Russian on the court, extended her support for Sharapova.

“I think most people are surprised and shocked by Maria,” she said.

“But, at the same time, I think most people were happy that she was up front and very honest, and showed a lot of courage to admit to what she had done and what she had neglected to look at in terms of the list at the end of the year.

“It’s just taking responsibility, which she admitted she was willing to do, and I just hope for the best for everyone in that situation.”

Sharapova dumped out of Australian Open by Williams

Serena Williams continued her dominance over Maria Sharapova with an emphatic victory in their Australian Open quarter-final match.

Williams defeated Sharapova 6-4, 6-1 to record her 18th successive win against the Russian.

Sharapova matched the defending champion for much of the first set, but eventually succumbed to her opponent’s power to lose in just over 90 minutes.

She commented: “She’s at a different level. She makes you work. That’s inspiring.”

The American, who now faces Agnieszka Radwanska in the last four, added: “It was super intense. She’s an incredibly intense and focused player who was world number one.”

“When you’re playing someone so great you have to come out with a lot of fire and intensity.”

Radwanska easily progressed to the last four after seeing off Carla Suarez Navarro 6-1, 6-3 in one hour and 22 minutes.

Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer will meet in the men’s semi-finals after securing straight-set wins in their last eight ties.

Djokovic defeated Japan’s Kei Nishikori 6-3 6-2 6-4, while Federer beat Tomas Berdych 7-6, 6-2 6-4.

Five-time champion Djokovic produced a polished performance against Nishikori, which was in stark contrast to his error-strewn effort against Gilles Simon in the previous round.

After making 100 unforced errors against Simon, the Serbian took a day off to recharge his batteries and reaped the rewards against the Japanese player.

He said: “I know Kei very well. I lost to him in the US Open. He plays very aggressive tennis and I just needed to weather the storm.”

“I didn’t hit a tennis ball yesterday. It happens sometimes – it’s good to rest your mind and rest your body. Sometimes less is more. It’s a reset button. I played a lot of tennis in the last few weeks.”

Federer was in control for much of the contest against Berdych, serving well against an opponent who has often been a thorn in his side.

“Tomas has caused me a lot of problems over the years, but it’s been a pleasure playing against him,” said Federer.

“He’s the type of player who makes you better.”

Djokovic crushes Murray to claim Paris crown

Novak Djokovic continued his recent dominance over Andy Murray to secure the Paris Masters title for the third time in a row. It took the Serbian just 90 minutes to seal a 6-2, 6-4 win to claim a record fourth title in Paris.

The result marked the world number one’s 10th success against Murray from their last 11 meetings, also earned Djokovic a 10th title of the season plus a new record six Masters titles in one calendar year.

He now has 22 straight wins having not lost since the final in Cincinnati in August and has played in 14 consecutive finals – another new record.

Murray made too many unforced errors against an in-form Djokovic, who has now beaten him in six of their seven encounters this year.

The British number one competed better than their last meeting in Shanghai in October when he was demolished 6-1 6-3 in the semi-finals, but he was still unable to break the hold the Serb currently has over him.

Djokovic, who has lost only five matches this year, dominated from the outset, breaking in the third and seventh games, to claim the first set after just 42 minutes.

Murray put up more of a fight in the second despite being broken in the third game. He broke back to love to level at 2-2, but Djokovic punished the Scot’s dip in intensity in the seventh game to secure the crucial break.

Djokovic said: “It was a tough match and I wish Andy all the best for the rest of the season, both in London and the Davis Cup Final. I know he wants to do well.”

Murray hit twice as many winners as Djokovic, but 34 unforced errors were simply too many and he did not serve well enough to apply any meaningful pressure on his opponent.

“It’s progress,” said Murray of reaching his first Paris Masters Final. “We’ll try next year to go one better. Congratulations to Novak for another fantastic week. He fully deserves the number one spot. Hopefully I can get a bit closer next year.”

Djokovic is now the hot favourite to successfully defend his title at the ATP World Tour Finals in London starting next week.

Federer beats Nadal in Swiss Indoors Final

Roger Federer fought off stern resistance from Rafael Nadal to claim the Swiss Indoors title at Basel’s St Jakobshalle Arena on Sunday. Their first match for almost two years was eagerly anticipated and didn’t disappoint.

Federer rolled back years to win his seventh Swiss Indoors title after a stunning display of attacking tennis against old rival Nadal.

The top seed ended a five-match losing streak against Nadal to win 6-3 5-7 6-3, in their first meeting at his home ATP event in Basel.

The fast hard court surface suited Federer’s aggressive game, but he was pushed all the way by the defiant Spaniard. Nadal was broken in the fifth game of the opening set after some superb baseline play from Federer, and when he dropped serve again to lose the set the writing looked to be on the wall.

Federer looked poised to run away with the match early in the second, but Nadal refused to go down quietly, saving a break point while serving down 2-3.

He continued his stubborn battle against his opponent’s brilliance and at 5-5 his patience was rewarded, a punishing forehand leaving Federer floundering helplessly on break point. Nadal forced a decider with a hold to love.

The relentless pace continued in the third, with both players looking to open the court and keep rallies short. A Nadal double fault in the third game gave Federer a break chance, but the Spaniard dug deep to hold.

The Swiss ace finally broke Nadal’s resistance, grabbing the decisive break for 5-3 and serving out for the game after two hours and three minutes on court.

It was Federer’s 11th win over Nadal in 34 meetings, a victory that ended a run of five successive defeats, and he was understandably delighted.

“It was one of my best weeks in Basel, considering everything I’ve done throughout my career here,” said Federer. “I thought the match was close. I had my chances in the second, but he fought back well, like he’s done throughout the week really. Overall I was really happy how I played and it was a very special day. ”

Nadal, who has also reached the final of the China Open and the last four of the Shanghai Masters in recent weeks, was happy with his performance.

“My goal is to get back to my level and be competitive against the top players again,” he said. “The match wasn’t far away from me. He played well and I played well too. I want to congratulate him for the victory and I had a lot of quality things in my game and mental side to take away from the week.”