Interview features

                       BORIS BECKER: 'Bayern will win 3-1'

This article was published on Al Jazeera English.

Boris Becker believes he is one of the biggest sports fans around.

And who is to argue with him? The former tennis world number one, six-time grand slam champion and TV commentator is so finely tuned with tennis he has built his life around the sport. Even 14 years after his retirement, Becker remains a sporting icon both inside and outside of his native Germany.

But whereas tennis is his first love, on Saturday Becker will be embracing his second – football. The 45-year-old will be one of the 86,000 fans packed into Wembley to see Dortmund square up to Bayern Munich in the Champions League final.

Will Becker be there just to celebrate a festival of German football? Not exactly.

"I have supported Bayern since I was a young boy. I wanted to be with the best club. When Germany hosted the World Cup in 1974 the best players were Franz Beckenbauer, Sepp Maier, Gerd Muller - they all happened to play for Bayern Munich," Becker told Al Jazeera English on a hotel balcony overlooking Wembley Stadium.

A devoted fan he might be – but Becker’s links with Bayern go deeper. He was on the Bayern board of directors for over ten years and is still an advisor to the Bundesliga champions.

He cried with the players after their loss to Chelsea last year in Munich.

"Having scored after 83 minutes through Thomas Mueller we felt the trophy was ours - but Drogba and Chelsea had different plans. Chelsea are my favourite English team but in my heart I am Bayern Munich... Last year was a nightmare."

Becker was there in Munich, but he was also there for the last five Champions League finals featuring Bayern, including their memorable 2-1 loss to Manchester United in 1999. While Bayern have found it hard to lose matches this year under Jupp Heynckes, who is closing in on a treble, they have been Champions League runners-up twice in the last three years.

However, despite recent disappointments, Becker is positive and believes his team will win 3-1 on the night.

German dominance

Whatever the result, Germany will be the victors. Dortmund and Bayern's convincing semi-final wins over Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively has triggered plenty of soul-searching in Spain.

So why is German football so good at the moment, Boris?

"It is not an overnight sensation – the work of Matthias Sammer, Jurgen Klinsmann, Oliver Bierhoff with the national team – and Jurgen Klopp and Heynckes with Dortmund and Bayern - they have found a way to include youth players and youth programs."

"The clubs are represented by local players and maybe there heart is more into it than other teams," says Becker.

Sadly while German football is blossoming, German tennis is not courting such success.

"I wish I could give you a long speech about how many promising juniors we have... we don’t. We are struggling. The federation wasted the past 10 years trying to find the right system of management to support German tennis, it didn’t find it. We have a new team who are better but they’ve only been there for the last year."

The glory days of German tennis are certainly a thing of the past. And the level of achievement is partly why there is a lack of talent these days says Becker.

"We had taken success for granted. We had Steffi Graf, Michael Stich and Boris Becker week in and week out winning big tennis tournament, Wimbledon, becoming world number one. I think the federation became complacent."

In the battle of the sexes - Germany’s women are winning. There is no German male in the top ten but Angelique Kerber is currently ranked 8th and the spritely Sabine Lisicki made a name for herself reaching the Wimbledon semis in 2011 and quarters in 2012.

While football will be upmost in Becker’s mind this weekend – it is the home of tennis, not the home of football, that brings out the best in Boris.

Home is where the heart is – and for Becker that’s SW19.

"Wimbledon is always the highlight of my sporting season. I played here, qualified here, commentated on the last 10 finals. I happen to live in the neighbourhood so it’s really, really personal for me. To be able to experience coming from home every day to Wimbledon is an absolute pleasure."

Never one to shy away from a bet, Becker has already got his favourites for this year’s tournament which starts on June 24th. In the men’s game he is predicting an Andy Murray and Roger Federer final. Becker believes Murray’s recent decision to pull out of the French Open with a back injury might be ‘a blessing in disguise’ as he can now concentrate on the grass-court season.

On the women’s side of the draw, Becker finds it hard to look past one woman.

"If Serena Williams is healthy and motivated she is pretty tough to beat on any surface especially on grass. Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova are strong players on grass too – but Serena is the one to beat."

Becker is a big fan of women’s tennis but recognises the game frequently lives in the shadows of the men’s top four.

"The problem is the number one position keeps changing. The key is you want a dominant number one and a healthy rivalry between number one or two – but you haven’t had this on the women’s side for a long time and that’s why it’s not as popular as it should be."

Rivalry. Well that’s one thing Saturday’s final won’t be lacking. The rivalry is ripe and ready – it’s south Germany v west Germany, Heynckes v Klopp, Becker v Dortmund.

And if the winner is Bayern, Becker says his lucky Bayern scarf and jersey might be taken off in celebration.

Spoken like a true football fan.

     ANGELIQUE KERBER: On the prowl for first major

Sharapova (L) and Kerber are two of the WTA's toughest fighters

Two competitors who would not be beaten.

Two and a half hours of gritty and aggressive tennis you couldn’t take your eyes off for a second.  

Arguably one of the greatest battles of Wimbledon 2014 was between Angelique Kerber and Maria Sharapova in the fourth round.

It was a match that showed that at its peak, women’s tennis has everything its male equivalent has to offer.

It was also a match Angelique Kerber can draw inspiration on ahead of the final major of the season.

“That victory means a lot to me,” recalls Kerber. 

“It meant mentally I could take over a Gram Slam Champion, that I was able to focus that long and not let myself get distracted by her saving so many match points."

Seven agonising match points to be precise, it took to outmuscle Sharapova - the 2014 French Open champion who fought from the depths of her soul to stay in the game.

“It was a big mental victory, a great step. This is one of the matches you try to remember to give yourself a boost when you might be down,” Kerber tells me.  

Ahead of the US Open, the sixth seed will take every boost she can find as she comes up against a strengthening crop of female talent which includes Romanian Simona Halep and Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard.

"One of the most interesting aspects of the US Open for me will be to see whether Eugenie Bouchard can find her confidence again in a Grand Slam setting because she looks so much less of a player on the WTA tour," says tennis writer and broadcaster, Richard Evans. 

“There are a whole gang of hugely talented women players seemingly on the brink of a breakthrough.

“But for intensity, Sharapova and Kerber would be right up there as the most focused and determined competitors in women's sport, let alone tennis.”

Kerber is excited to be returning to 'the city that never sleeps' - a place where she reached her first Grand Slam semi-final in 2011.

"Everything started there for me, that’s where I started to get a significant result and see my hard work finally pay off."

"It’s the last Grand Slam of the year and the atmosphere both on site and in the city is amazing. I like the energy that New York gives you and I enjoy playing on hard court."

Another competition on the German's mind is the Fed Cup final against the Czech Republic in November. Kerber and Germany have the chance to win the tournament for the first time since 1992.

"It has been such a long time since the German team have been in a Fed Cup final, which gives even more intensity to our feelings and maybe pressure also."

"We are all really proud. It’s been an amazing experience, fighting for your country, with your friends and getting good results. It is just unbelievable."

Williams warren 

Kerber could have to draw upon her memories of that battle against Sharapova, if she comes face-to-face with another tricky customer - World Number One Serena Williams.

The players have already met this month, with Serena defeating Kerber 7-6, 6-3 to win the Stanford Classic in California. Entering the competition as favourite and with the chance of claiming three home grand slams on the bounce, the unshakable Williams has put poor performances at the French Open and Wimbledon behind her.

“She is a real complete athlete and not the World Number One for no reason,” says Kerber.

“Technically, physically and mentally, she is really, really strong. Playing against her is always a big challenge, you have to be ready and focus on yourself, trust your game and try to forget she is the one on the other side of the net.”

At her home Grand Slam, it may be easier said than done to forget the Williams presence. 

If the American legend does win another title at Flushing Meadows, she will draw level with compatriots Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert on an astonishing 18 Grand Slam titles.

“Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska (winner in Montreal) are well suited to playing on the hard court. I think Simona Halep will leave her mark at this tournament,” says Jason De La Pena, sport presenter and broadcaster at Fox Sports.

"But Serena's win in Cincinnati makes her very dangerous. For me she will win. She was personally wounded by abject performances in Paris and London - she'll win this slam." 

Once more Novak Djokovic and Williams go into a Grand Slam as familiar favourites, but Kerber is one of many who believe a major title could be just around the corner.

"I can always improve everything; my game, fitness, mental strength," said Kerber.

"But I believe in hard work and I will keep working hard every day to reach my personal goal, moving into the Top 5, winning a Grand Slam and then more titles."

Whether a Grand Slam is in Kerber's destiny remains unclear, but she is not a face any rival will want to see at the other side of that net.

            ROY KEANE: 'Keep your neighbours quiet!'

Just a few minutes with Keane taught me he doesn't beat around the bush
This article was published on Al Jazeera English

The English Premier League’s most decorated captain Roy Keane is not going to be dragged into pre-match hype before his former club Manchester United meet Manchester City on Sunday 23rd October.

It comes as little surprise that Keane, a player who has won the Premier League seven times with United, believes the talking should be done on the pitch.

Keane may be uncomfortable with pre-match exaggerations but could the derby be an occasion for manager Alex Ferguson to fire his side up with a passionate dressing room speech.

"Ferguson has good players, good strategy and good organisation but he doesn’t really say too much before a game. He likes to think his players are well equipped," Keane told Al Jazeera English.

"Manchester City are challenging for the title and are local rivals. If you cannot be fired up for this game you should get out of it."

Once described by Ferguson as 'noisy neighbours' Keane agrees that a good performance is vital to keep the blue side of Manchester quiet.

"It is important to keep your neighbours quiet. When you’ve been at the top you want to stay there."

After a 17 year playing career and four years of management, Keane holds a special place in his heart for the big derbies.

From his days at United and Celtic, and as manager of Sunderland - who have a vicious rivalry with Newcastle - Keane has a good knowledge of the passion involved when two local teams clash.

"Derbies are special. You just feel it in the atmosphere, on the pitch, on the streets where you live. People are talking about the game all the time."

"It isn’t just three points. People talk about bragging rights but it is more than that. It is all about keeping your neighbours quiet. If you lose you never hear the end of it."

Regardless of what happens between United and City at Old Trafford on Sunday, Keane thinks it might be another team that benefits from the big occasion.

"Chelsea will be enjoying the fact United and City are getting all the headlines and are the two favourites to win the league," he said.

"If you were Chelsea manager you would be extremely pleased with what is going on in Manchester.

"They will be kicking lumps out of each other and if it is a draw and Chelsea get a win, they will be top of the table."

The arrival of Andre Villas Boas has boosted a Chelsea side that have slowly improved through the season and who few would rule out from being eventual champions come May.

With United no longer enjoying the supremacy they did a decade ago, the English Premier League is arguably more popular that ever.

"All this is great for the league. It is good to see Man City are making progress. Then you've got Chelsea and Liverpool. For the neutral it’s great, that’s why the league is so popular."

'Two sides to every story'

On the Carlos Tevez affair, Keane is wise enough not to cast his own judgement.

The Irish star caused his own scandal when he packed his bags and left the 2002 World Cup after a huge row with manager Mick McCarthy over preparations for the tournament.

“There are two sides to every story. Tevez was trying to defend himself but I cannot possibly understand why a player wouldn’t want to come off the bench."

What would Keane have done if Tevez had refused to play for him?

"It is difficult to comment on what you should have done, there has been a lot of confusion in the aftermath. I’m not sure what I would have done but I’m pretty sure I would have been pretty angry."

From a player who saw a record breaking 13 red cards in his career, this is perhaps an understatement.

Although his loyalty still lies with United, Keane is quick to praise the City players for the way they have responded to the incident around their troubled striker.

"The players have won all their games since Bayern Munch and I think they have reacted pretty well over the last couple of weeks."

Although millions will be tuning in to watch United's match-up with their ever-improving local rivals, far fewer are likely to be placing a bet on the game.

Keane is equally undecided about the outcome.

"I am predicting a draw for Sunday. I can’t see them beating United. But what I have learned to do is never bet against United, they enjoy the challenge and are dangerous at home."

After talking to Keane, it is clear he would give anything to be involved in the match on Sunday, and have the chance to sway the game one way or the other.

While the game on Sunday is massive for both teams, Keane only cares about the action on the pitch.

"There is too much hype. I’ve probably spoken about it too much. But I have to make my money by talking about the game now that I no longer play. Talking on the pitch, it is about talking on the pitch. It is about performing on the day."

SERGI CANOS: Surging into the Championship

3rd November 2015 - Published in Bees Review - Joanna Tilley 

Sixty seconds is all it took for Sergi Canos to make an impression during his home debut for Brentford. The 18-year-old winger, on loan from Liverpool, exploded off the bench to provide the assist for Lasse Vibe’s equaliser against Preston North End.

If his cross didn’t catch the eye of the fans, the attacking energy he brought to the team certainly did.

“Before the match against Preston, I was nervous,” Sergi told Bees Review. “I didn’t know if I was ready for the Championship, or even to be on the bench."But it was nice to get an assist in my first moments on the pitch. It made me feel that I’m ready to play at this level."

The Griffin Park faithful immediately responded to the player who changed the tide of the game with some cheeky flicks and a fearless attitude.

"The reception I’ve got from the fans so far has been incredible and to get the fans’ man of the match for my home debut was unbelievable. I don’t know if the fans expected something from me but I was really happy with that.”

It is possible Bees fans were expecting something special from a youngster with a notable footballing CV. Canos is the product of FC Barcelona’s La Masia youth academy and signed for Liverpool much to the frustration of the Catalan giant.

Championship Player of the Month for October, Alan Judge, has been impressed with the Spaniard's attacking style but it is clear to anyone who watches him for more than a few minutes that Canos is not afraid of taking on opponents, or using an audacious piece of skill when required.

“I’ve always played like that. Since I started playing football at the age of five, we would play on concrete in my hometown of Nules; we always had cuts and grazes. Now you see the boys playing on grass, whereas I played on rock.”

The quality of the pitches improved somewhat for Canos when he joined Barca’s Academy at the age of 13.

“I think the most important thing I learned from La Masia was how to be more responsible and independent. I was living alone there, although surrounded by other boys, but there was more responsibility playing for Barca.”  

Although Sergi wasn’t sure how seriously to take Bees Review’s claim that Brentford were the Barcelona of West London, he recognised that the clubs do have their similarities, as well as differences.

“Of course there are some – we play football. Not long balls or anything like that. We are not like Barcelona because we do not have Messi! But we are playing attractive football and that’s why I came here, because I knew this was the style I wanted to play.”

Currently on loan until January, Sergi says he would like to be at Griffin Park a little longer. 

“I want to stay until the end of the season. That’s my objective – to stay. I’m really happy here. I enjoy each day and am learning new things: the intensity at training and the type of football, plus playing with men like Judgey and Alan McCormack. I can learn a lot from them." 

Ultimately, he will be looking to get a place in the Liverpool first team. The city is not just home to his football club but also his family, who moved with him to the UK.

“Moving over here in 2013 was a difficult transition. But it was the best decision of my life because my family came with me and my sister is at school and speaks English like an English girl.”

“We are going to open a restaurant in Liverpool. It should be open any day now. All our lives have changed. They live in Liverpool and come to watch me play. They give me a lot of confidence and when I warm up and see them – it gives me strength.”

The Canos family are working in collaboration with renowned Spanish chef Miguel Barrera, whose restaurant Cal Paradis in Castellón has a Michelin Star.

“For me he is the best chef in Spain, that’s why he’s at our restaurant," says Sergi with a laugh. "It is a Spanish restaurant and his speciality is in rice, although there is a tapas section.”

Despite leaving Liverpool for London, Sergi was excited about the news Jurgen Klopp was to become manager of the Reds.

"It is amazing. Klopp and Liverpool is the perfect match – there is so much passion amongst the fans. And he seems very passionate. Hopefully in the future I will have a chance to talk to him.”

When he is not playing for Brentford, or keeping an eye on Liverpool, Sergi is cheering on Valencia.

“I am a big fan,” said Sergi. “When I was five-years-old I was going to the Mestalla Stadium regularly. My dad supports Valencia, although my sister supports Barcelona. When I went to Barcelona she was so excited, it was a dream for her.”

There is no doubt Sergi’s talent has already brought plenty of excitement, and changes, to the lives of his family and others around him.

But his career in England is just beginning, and if his first minute on the Griffin Park turf is anything to go by, it could be quite a ride.

          GRIGOR DIMITROV: A work in progress

Tennis' new playboy? Just as long as you don't call him Baby Fed!

"I like Wimbledon. I like England," says Bulgarian tennis player Grigor Dimitrov.


"Because I like the weather."

Dimitrov is being serious – and a group of English journalists are looking at him questioningly.

"Why?," I probe him.

"Because I like the rain – the gloominess, the clouds coming in," he replies.

These are strange words to hear at Wimbledon, but perhaps someone like Dimitrov can afford a bit of gloominess in their life. Because things are going rather well for the 22-year-old.

Dimitrov is through to the second round of Wimbledon, is ranked world number 31 and is dating the desirable Maria Sharapova.

Outside of tennis’ fab four, he is the name on people’s lips. There is potential in Dimitrov.

Court number 18 was chock-a-block with fans as he defeated Italian Simone Bollelli in three sets. There he had commentators in the palm of his hand, gushing over his technique and charismatic court persona.

As well as enjoying ‘a good win’, Dimitrov would have inevitably liked the weather, with plenty of clouds joining the party on day two.

Something that isn’t as much to his liking though is the ‘Baby Federer’ tag which has been cast upon him.

"I think this thing is getting pretty old. That’s one thing I’ve learnt in past month. I have built up my own style and game and everything has been going according to Grigor Dimitrov. Of course it’s nice to hear but this thing comes to an end," he says, in a manner rather dissimilar to the Swiss great.

Yet – the similarities with Federer end when you start talking about trophies. His lack of a significant title exposes the fact Dimitrov is still is a work in progress, something he readily admits himself.

Despite reaching the third round in Roland Garros, he is not sure how far he can go at Wimbledon.

"I feel good for this tournament but I have to work on a lot of things – I know I can do much better."

Dimitrov is also in action on Wednesday, taking part in the doubles alongside Danish friend Frederick Nielson. Whilst clearly excited about doubles tennis and playing with Freddy (as he calls him), Dimitrov says it might be the last time he takes part in both competitions. His singles schedule is firmly a priority.

Unsurprisingly Dimitrov would not entertain questions about his new relationship with world number three Maria Sharapova or her spat with Serena Williams, in which his name was dragged through the mud.

"I won’t comment on that. I’ve played a great match today and I’d rather talk about my tennis than this other side."

In a way questions about Sharapova seem rather futile when you consider the potential and character of this young man.

Dimitrov is leading Bulgarian tennis to new heights, he is the first Bulgarian male to rank inside the top 30, to reach the third round of a grand slam and to claim $1m in prize winnings. He has already given his nation's tennis fans something to cheer, and one wonders if there is much more to come.

Outside of the top ten, Dimitrov is one to watch at his tournament and into the future. Not because of his good looks, famous girlfriend or love of the rain – but because he has the talent and quiet confidence of someone who could one day be a grand slam winner.


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