Tennis Elbow: Robin Soderling: From tennis to paint

October 20, 2014

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon updates his readers on an old friend.

I suppose the easy (or cheesy?) way to start would be to say that I’ll try to paint you a picture. It’s not the picture of a painter, though Robin Soderling sure does dress like a painter these days.

It’s not one with the perfect ending, either. In fact, it has no ending to speak of, as if the painter had sort of stopped midway and said that he was done with it. To start the 2011 season, Soderling won three events out of four on the ATP World Tour and was soaring…until his ascent came to a brutal end, right around Wimbledon. He would be diagnosed with mononucleosis and the question would change from whether Soderling would ever win a Grand Slam tournament to whether he would ever come back.

About 1,200 days later, neither has happened. But The New York Times has caught up with the Swede last week for a fascinating feature (which starts with Soderling and paint, and thus the lede to my column). I recommend everyone to read it, but I’ve taken the liberty of underlining a few of my favourite highlights from The Times’ reporting.

-Robin Soderling is designing tennis balls.

That’s right. I don’t think I could possibly think of any more fitting occupation for the man who remains the only one in history to have had the fortitude and the cojones (and the deadly forehand) to overthrow Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros. Maybe the Swede doesn’t play tennis competitively anymore, but he has just been named tournament director of the Stockholm Open for a year—and in the meantime, he’s designing the tennis balls that he hopes will be used at the event next year. I know of no one else who designs tennis balls, and it’s only right. You probably need to have a win over Nadal in France on your resume.

-Robin Soderling discusses paint.

File this one under “sounds so good as a concept.” If all you do is read the lede of that feature, then all you’ll have is this: “Robin Soderling was not sure where the paint should go.” That’s all you’ll have—well, that and the photo that goes with the feature, which turns Soderling into some kind of fancy painter or artist. Regrettably, the only paint that he is not sure where to put is not on any postmodern tableau he may have designed. Rather, it’s just the paint with which the Stockholm Open logo will be painted. It’s too bad, you say, but you think that maybe Soderling reads this column. And you think that if he does, maybe he takes this suggestion to heart and becomes a painter. And signs his paintings “Robin,” not “Soderling.”

-Dora the Explorer conquers all.

The man who broke Nadal’s 31-match unbeaten streak at Porte d’Auteuil in 2009 is no match for the über-popular cartoon. In the feature, we learn that Soderling was watching a match during this year’s US Open when his daughter walked in the room. She watched with him for a minute, and then asked him to watch Dora. And, because she probably did that thing where children ask just the darnest thing but with the most adorable face, and because her father loves her very much, well, they watched Dora.

-Even Robin Soderling is powerless against his children.

And maybe this final one is related to the previous one, actually. Maybe Soderling’s daughter wants to watch Dora only because she doesn’t know what it’s like to watch tennis. No young child would want to watch tennis, but if it were his or her father playing? Then it’s something different. Then, maybe that child would want to watch tennis.

But only if daddy is playing. Which he might still do. (Ish.)

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Show some love for the WTA Finals

October 20, 2014

In my latest article for TennisCanada.com, I discuss this weeks WTA Finals from Singapore and how the top eight ladies look. Here’s an excerpt from the article right here:

“Notable obstacles in Serena’s way will be reigning French Open winner Sharapova and current Wimbledon champ Kvitova. Although Sharapova has a terrible head-to-head against Serena throughout their career meetings, it’s exactly this type of format that Shazza can work her way into the event and be ready for the brute force that the American possesses. As for Kvitova, she’s possibly the greatest threat to the top seed, considering that she’s dynamite on fast courts and has also made the finals or better of two events post US Open. For me, Kvitova is the second favourite to take the title after Serena.”

The full article can be found here.


Tennis Elbow: Roger Federer is like The Walking Dead in Shanghai

October 13, 2014

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon recaps the 2014 Shanghai Rolex Masters.

I fear that all I have is a poorly constructed metaphor and hyperbole. Today, Roger Federer is like The Walking Dead in that he’s still walking after having been left for dead just a little while ago (i.e. I’m the first culprit here). After nine months in 2014 and at age 33, he’s back and firmly in command on the ATP World Tour.

But let’s start somewhere else.

There’s always a first for everyone, even Roger Federer in 2014. Yeah, that’s a good place to start. There’s always a first.

It’s true. This past weekend, the great Swiss captured the very first Shanghai Rolex Masters title of his illustrious career, giving him 81 singles titles in total, by defeating Gilles Simon 7-6 (6) and 7-6 (2).

And here, it’s only a very tiny little hyperbole to believe that he came back from the dead.

In China, the big test for Federer was always going to be in the semifinal against Novak Djokovic, and in a way it probably still was, but for a while it seemed like he may not even make it that far. In the second round and in his first match of the tournament, Federer needed three sets and to save not one, not two, …but five match points to overtake Leonardo Mayer by the score of 7-5, 3-6 and 7-6 (7). And if one shot had made it over the net, then Federer would have lost.

But that ball didn’t make it over the net, and almost doesn’t count, and Federer won, and he kept winning afterward. Really. After beating Mayer, the Swiss didn’t lose a set on his way to the title. And that’s the thing with The Walking Dead, right? I haven’t actually watched it all, but enough to know that the zombies win. It’s just a numbers game, sure, but they always win. (I mean, that’s what I heard. When the season 5 premiere aired last night, I was watching the pilot episode of The Affair instead. Watch it, it’s very good.)

Against Djokovic, Federer survived. As Parsa Samii explains in the latest edition of the Tennis Connected podcast, the Swiss entered the match with the understanding that he couldn’t compete with the Serb from the baseline for long, so he adjusted. This meant that he went on the offensive whenever possible, but not every single time if only to give Djokovic something to think about.

The Swiss wakes up this morning ranked No. 2 on the rankings, with a semi decent shot at overtaking Djokovic. He has 1,060 points to defend before the end of the season. Contrast that with the Serb, who has an ungodly 2,500 points strictly in Paris and then in London. Not only that, but it’s inside hard courts from here on out. And that suits Federer just fine.

Could he reach No. 1 and overtake Djokovic there too? It might come down to who wins the ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena. If the tennis gods are good sports in any way, they’ll give us a Djokovic/Federer final there and let the boys duke it out.

And if King Roger gets to sit on his throne again, then we’ll have to say he’s almost assuredly the best ever. And it wouldn’t be a hyperbole.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Podcast: Reviewing Roger Federer’s first Shanghai title

October 12, 2014

Welcome back to another season of the TennisConnected Podcast.

On this week’s show, Parsa Samii and Nima Naderi are back review the 2014 Shanghai Rolex Masters.

We discuss Rafa Nadal’s recent set back, Novak Djokovic’s outlook into November, Roger Federer’s recent title and return to No. 2 in the world, and finally what makes Feliciano Lopez such a good player.

As always, you can alternatively listen to the #1 tennis PodCast via iTunes and never miss another episode. It is very easy and completely free.

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Tennis Elbow: 2014 Shanghai Rolex Masters: Draw preview and analysis

October 6, 2014

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon previews the 2014 Shanghai Rolex Masters.

Wait, did you think the tennis season was over? The Grand Slam portion certainly is, but there is still plenty more left to play for.

There is still plenty more tennis left to the season, or at least a good month of it, and this means that this column must go on. More precisely, it must go on to yet another in our series of tournament previews. This week, tennis concludes its Asian swing with a Masters 1000 event in China.

Who will win the 2014 Shanghai Rolex Masters? I have no clue, and this is why I’m the perfect candidate to write a tournament preview. Since the tournament will have started by the time you read this, please don’t hold it against me if I’m already proven to have been horribly wrong. It’s bound to happen anyway.

Main draw

The top quarter belongs to defending champion Novak Djokovic. While he does have a few decent early matches, I don’t see much trouble for him before the quarterfinals, where he’ll have to beat Andy Murray. The Scotsman has somewhat saved his 2014 season with a few great results recently, starting with the moral victory/loss in the US Open quarterfinals against this same Djokovic. I’m picking Murray over David Ferrer, because it’s been a hard few months since the Spaniard’s loss in the Cincinnati final—including Flushing Meadows, he’s lost three of the five matches he has played.

It’s time to say we were wrong, because all of us were—or at the very least, I very much was. When it came time for me to write my 2014 season preview in the form of 14 wonky predictions, I said Roger Federer would not “finish in the top 15” and actually believed it. A few months later, King Roger is ranked all the way down to… No. 3. Us mortals age, eventually, but Federer doesn’t. Expect to see him lose in the quarterfinals against Kei Nishikori, who seems poised to capitalize on his breakthrough in New York—the Japanese has played nine matches since and he’s won them all.

What does it say that I don’t necessarily have the same faith in Marin Cilic that I do about Nishikori after their respective breakthrough? Maybe it’s because the former is already 26 and seems set on who he is as a tennis player—though that’s false—while the latter has the promise of youth and potential. Maybe it’s also that Cilic hasn’t exactly set the world on fire since winning his first major title, playing in one tournament and reaching the quarterfinals—so let’s go ahead and pencil him in for more of the same in Shanghai. It’d be nice for Wawrinka to use this last part of the 2014 calendar to launch a solid and successful title defense in Australia next January, and I’m sure he knows it too.

If it’s in 2011 that Milos Raonic won the ATP World Tour Newcomer of the Year award, it’s really in 2014 that he has established himself as a mainstay of the upper echelon of the men’s game. The Canadian has a batch of quarterfinals, semifinals and even finals to his name this season, but only one title to show for all his excellence. That’s likely what comes next—to prove that he can win a final when he’s not pitted against his fellow countryman Vasek Pospisil. Raonic will beat John Isner in the quarterfinal in Shanghai, but I only want to mention Rafael Nadal. After a long layoff, the Spaniard comes back to the Tour this week, and that’s great—because when Nadal isn’t playing, then we hear about Uncle Toni.

Quarterfinals: Novak Djokovic over Andy Murray; Kei Nishikori over Roger Federer; Stanislas Wawrinka over Marin Cilic; Milos Raonic over John Isner

Semifinals: Novak Djokovic over Kei Nishikori; Milos Raonic over Stanislas Wawrinka

Final: Novak Djokovic over Milos Raonic

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Podcast: Previewing the 2014 Shanghai Rolex Masters

October 5, 2014

Welcome back to another season of the TennisConnected Podcast.

On this week’s show, Parsa Samii and Nima Naderi are back preview the 2014 Shanghai Rolex Masters.

With the end of the season looming, we look at the return of Roger Federer, the level of Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal’s motivation and Andy Murray’s chances of reaching the elite eight in London. We also discuss the chances of the Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic as they all contend of a place at the O2 Arena. We finish our Podcast with some words on Sam Querrey and Stefan Kozlov.

As always, you can alternatively listen to the #1 tennis PodCast via iTunes and never miss another episode. It is very easy and completely free.

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I-Formation October 2014: So, Toni, just how different are the men’s and women’s games?

October 1, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

By now, most tennis followers would have heard of the comments from Toni Nadal, uncle and coach of Spanish superstar Rafael Nadal, in relation to the appointment of Spain’s new Davis Cup captain. For those living under a rock, a brief summary: Spain, after an 18 year stint in the Davis Cup World Group which saw them reach 7 finals and win 5 Davis Cups, has been relegated from the competition’s top tier after collapsing against Brazil in Sao Paulo earlier this month. That loss saw former world number one Carlos Moya retire as the Spanish Davis Cup captain, with his replacement being former WTA top 30 player Gala Leon.

The appointment of 40 year old Leon surprised Toni Nadal, who noted that his preference was for the captain’s role to be assumed by someone “with a background in the world of men’s tennis”. Such a preference, Nadal went on to explain, was because of the fact that the men’s game “isn’t the same as the women’s game on the tactical level”. Unsurprisingly, the comments have provoked plenty of debate (along with cries of sexism), with Nadal back-pedalling hard in an attempt to diffuse the situation, and allies such as Feliciano Lopez attempting to act as mediator and make light of Nadal’s comments.

Nadal clarified that he would have had no issue with Leon’s appointment if she had spent 10 years coaching on the ATP Tour, which makes you wonder whether Amelie Mauresmo will be putting her hand up for the role of French Davis Cup captain next decade if her partnership with Andy Murray really takes off. Mauresmo’s long-time rival Martina Hingis, who used her considerable tactical nous to overcome far stronger and more powerful players, is another former female star who would seem ideally suited to becoming a Davis Cup captain. No doubt watching Hingis advise Federer and Wawrinka would be a sight to behold for Swiss tennis fans!

To my mind, the most interesting question to come out of all of the furore surrounding Nadal’s comments is whether or not significant differences between the ATP and WTA Tours actually exist. There are, without doubt, certain differences between the men’s and women’s games. In the women’s game, for example, the serve is less of a weapon, and there are more breaks of serve as a result. And of course, the men’s game is more powerful. But do these differences represent anything meaningful at a tactical level? Just because a man hits the ball harder, or has a more threatening serve, doesn’t mean that one’s approach to beating him should necessarily change. A player will always seek to break serve, and will consider the use of a variety of tactics, in order to win a match. Certain tactics are often employed against powerful players (such as trying to maximize the number of returns into play, moving the opponent around the court to get him or her off-balance, and mixing up the pace and spin of one’s shots in order to break down the opponent’s rhythm). These tactics, however, would be of use whether the opponent is a powerful female player or a powerful male player.

Other than raw power and the serve factor, I can’t identify any material differences between the men’s and women’s games, and I can’t think of any way in which (from a coaching perspective) I would advise a female player differently to how I would advise a male player. Of course, part of being a coach is analyzing the relevant opponent and coming up with a strategy to implement against the opponent, but there is nothing to stop Leon attending to these tasks. And from a strategic standpoint more generally, the assortment of players on the WTA Tour, from the power players to the grinders, from the volatile to the ultra consistent, from the superstars to the floaters, seems just as varied as it is on the ATP Tour.

Nadal’s comments are somewhat analogous to the comments that used to be made regarding the elite football leagues in Europe. For decades, the prevailing wisdom was that a manager could not succeed in multiple leagues, on the basis that the way in which the game was played differed dramatically between England, Italy, Spain, France and Germany, among others. Such a view has, of course, proved to be anything but accurate, with managers such as Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti showing that it is indeed possible for a manager to achieve success across multiple European leagues.

Nadal seems to be implying that Leon won’t gel with the players on the Spanish Davis Cup team, but after years of success fueled by their legion of stars, Spain now faces a challenge to get back into the World Group. Their stars, many of whom have been apathetic about Davis Cup in recent years, may want to see a rejuvenation of Spain’s approach to Davis Cup.  In hiring Leon, the Spanish tennis federation (the Real Federación Española de Tenis) has most definitely breathed new life into the country’s approach to the competition. Whether Leon prospers or flounders as captain remains to be seen, but I applaud the decision of the Spanish tennis federation to break new ground and appoint Leon. And, contrary to what Toni Nadal has said, I don’t think that there are material differences between the men’s and women’s game. As a result, I can’t see any reason why Leon can’t prosper as Davis Cup captain.

That’s it for this month. Enjoy your tennis and I’ll be back with another serve next month. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

Tennis Elbow: Li Na retires from tennis

September 29, 2014

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon bids adieu to a great champion.

In the end, Li Na retired the same way she arrived on the scene—after a long layoff.

She’s been a professional since 1999, but it’s only in 2004 that Li firmly established herself on the WTA Tour. And by that time, she hadn’t played in a little over two years because, depending on whom you ask, she wanted to focus on her university studies, of health reasons or a conflict with the Chinese Tennis Federation.

Well on Sept. 19, 2014, Li confirmed what had been a rumour for some time and retired. She hadn’t played since a loss in the third round of Wimbledon this July—it’s not 25 months, but three months is already plenty long. Li left little doubt as to the cause this time, with a heartfelt open letter. “It took me several agonizing months to finally come to the decision that my chronic injuries will never again let me be the tennis player that I can be,” she writes. “Walking away from the sport, effective immediately, is the right decision for me and my family.”

This quote is just a small part of the broader message that Li has for the entire tennis community. I recommend everyone to read it in its entirety because it underlines what a great ambassador she has been for the sport—even outside of her actual abilities.

If it seems like Li was rewriting history every step of the way over her career, it’s because she basically was. She was the first Chinese player to win a WTA title (in Guangzhou in 2004) and also to be ranked in the Top 10 (on Feb. 1, 2010). And, well, this may be where you jump in and say it’s not that impressive because it’s not like China has a very rich tennis history. Sure, but she helped introduce many millions of Chinese people to a sport they otherwise maybe would never have loved. She has created the Li Na Tennis Academy, “which will provide scholarships for the future generation of Chinese tennis stars.” Her native country only had two WTA events in 2008, but that number has grown to 10 in 2014 in part because of Li’s successes.

And before you dismiss these, consider that she was the first Asian Grand Slam champion ever (in 2011 at Roland Garros) and also is the highest ranked player in history at No. 2. That came after her second major title, this year in Melbourne.

Her two Grand Slam titles leave her tied for 19th of all time, which is certainly admirable. Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova are exceptions, as most players will only manage a few tournament wins. If they’re lucky, as the typical player usually is every once in a while, maybe those happen at Grand Slam tournaments.

Li is also the typical player in another matter, and that’s in dealing with injuries. After the Wimbledon loss this year, she underwent a fourth knee surgery, this time on her left one after three on the right. Fourth time wasn’t the charm, it turned out. “My body kept telling me that, at 32, I will not be able to compete at the top level ever again,” she writes.

So she retired. She’ll get to spend more time with her family now, or at least more time with her family in a non-tennis setting, because remember that for a long time her husband was her coach.

Li will be missed for her talent, her success and her charisma. “Be the bird that sticks out,” she writes in that letter. Tennis says goodbye to a great one today.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Gael Monfils is playing tricks on us

September 22, 2014

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon marvels at Gael Monfils’s trick shots.

Gael Monfils is your second favourite player, but you just don’t know it yet.

You’ve heard of him, of course. That’s not what I’m saying. You’re a tennis fan, so surely you’ve heard of the lanky Frenchman who’s been on the ATP World Tour for a decade, has won five titles and over 7 million $ in prize money, and reached a high of No. 7 in 2011.

You know him, and I know that. I just mean that there probably aren’t many players that you’d actively cheer for over Monfils if they played a match. For me, the list goes 1) Novak Djokovic 2) maybe no one else, depending on how I feel about Milos Raonic on that day. At 28 years of age, Monfils is the guy I cheer for and part of the reason why is because he’s battled so many injuries in his career. Seriously, go to his Wikipedia page, hit control+F and search for “injury”—you’ll see that there’s at least one per season, except for this year.

But there has to be more to Monfils than a few injuries, right? If I’m on #TeamMonfils, it’s not only because he’s had a few back breaks and I wish him well, correct? Well, of course.

If Monfils, ranked No. 16, is about 18 874 times more beloved than Tomas Berdych, ranked No. 7, it’s for different reasons. Tennis is something Berdych does—he plays tennis. For Monfils, the sport is a reason of being. Monfils is tennis.

That’s why he’s beloved. Monfils is beloved for reasons that go beyond belief, because he tries so many shots that go beyond belief. Here’s let’s start there. Monfils attempts—and often makes, but at least attempts—many shots that none of us have ever dreamed of.

I love Monfils, because he’s a human-highlight reel. Let’s run through a few examples. Though he had one against Roger Federer at the US Open in his five-set loss, that shot is the kind that is routine for him. Monfils trick shots are what our trick shots hope to become when they grow up.

First, there’s the in-betweener.

Monfils understands that the in-betweener is a tool to use when one is under duress. Rather than stop and turn, or stop and go, or move and go, you just put your racket between your leg and you hit your opponent’s return right at him. Life comes at you fast, and there’s no need to get cute. That being said, you can be cute if you so choose.

For Monfils, that something is a possibility only means that it must be tried. The Frenchman knows how fortunate he is to make a living by playing a sport. “Tennis is supposed to be fun, never forget this,” you can imagine his father telling him this so long ago. It’s doubly so when he gets to play a Davis Cup tie, and triply so when he gets to do so at home in France. The sport is plenty of moments that just suck, so you should never actively seek them out.

Then, Monfils has the pure trick shot.

Sometimes, you just need to be called a mutant. Oh, people don’t mean it in a bad way. Here, listen to the French commentators marvel at your jumping forehand. That’s why you do the finger wag—you know you’re a mutant. You just wonder how come it took them so long to notice. As you wait for the moments that never come, try the jumping forehand. It’s a silly shot to try, and you’d be silly not to try it.

With this shot, Monfils just may have etched his name for posterity because he shows that he doesn’t care that there are shots you should never attempt to make. In Halle last year for the quarterfinals, serving at 3-5 in the second set, the showman let a lob bounce between his legs, turned around and, with his back facing Tommy Haas, he then hit a smash. He lost the point, and the match, but he won our hearts that day. It’s important to note that Haas is German, as were, presumably, most of the spectators. It’s the German version of “When in Rome…”

That you shouldn’t attempt a shot isn’t a good reason to not attempt it. It’s just an excuse. And geniuses scoff at excuses. If you sit by a tree and glance at the sky for too long, you just might have an apple fall on your head—and that’s how you discover gravity.

Finally, let’s end our journey the only way we could, with the non-trick shot trick shot.

Soon enough, it feels like you’re just showing off. Like any and every forehand that you try that isn’t pure form, with your shoulders squared and your legs and feet perpendicular to the baseline, are just for show. Like you’re trying too hard to impress everyone.

Soon enough, we watch and just yawn. “Of course, he jumped like Superman! That’s who he thinks he is!” Meanwhile, that was clearly your only possible shot. And most importantly, as we bicker about the nonsense, we miss the one true ridiculous shot in this rally. The one that comes just before the Superman dive. The one where the ball just about propels you in the first row with those spectators you try so hard to entertain and impress. That shot is the real miracle here.

At long last, Monfils brings it all full circle. In order to find the ultimate trick shot, we first had to see the in-betweener. Then we needed to see him try shots that nobody in their right mind would dare attempt. And finally, we had to see him just show off.

This shot, perhaps my favourite in the history of all inconsequential shots, is perfect. Somehow, it makes so much sense that it is someone sitting in the first row who shoots this video is spot-on—because this shot belongs to the people. It happened in Rotterdam, YouTube will say, but I disagree. It happened in our hearts. Monfils’ reaction will say that it is he who won the point, but it doesn’t matter. The shot has no beginning, nor ending. It just sits there, perfectly still. Forever in our hearts.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

When the Slam season settles, there’s still plenty on the line

September 22, 2014

In my latest article for Tennis Canada, I discuss what’s left to play for after the slam season is over. For the likes of Nole, Serena, Federer, Rafa, Marin, Milos and Eugenie, there’s still plenty on the line.

Here’s a excerpt from the article:

” Newly crowned US Open winner Marin Cilic will also have something to say about how 2014 rounds out. The towering Croat stunned everyone in the draw with his comprehensive victory in NYC. Winning his last three matches in straight sets to claim his maiden slam victory, Cilic became the fifth major winner currently placed in the top 10. For Marin, this fall is a time for him to prove that he’s going to be a force at the top of the game for years to come.”

To read the full article, click here.

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