Tennis Elbow: Tennis and doping (or not) with meldonium

April 25, 2016

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon discusses the latest in the meldonium doping saga

At long last, we have new developments in the ongoing tennis doping saga.

Alright alright, maybe we’re overselling it with this opener, because who knows if it’s really a saga at all, but there certainly appears to be some news in what has become our favourite story of this 2016 season.

Let’s remind folks that since January 1, 2016, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has banned meldonium. Let’s also remind folks that Maria Sharapova has been out of tennis since March 8 when she announced that she had tested positive for the substance at this year’s Australian Open, and that she’s (or had) been using meldonium for the better part of the past decade.

Okay, but you knew that already. So what’s new?

What’s new is that we may know when Sharapova’s disciplinary hearing will happen and, most importantly, that a ruling may come before the start of Wimbledon. This is important, because the Russian Federation wants Sharapova to compete in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games and, also, well that the following is the punishment that the 29-year-old faces.

…unless it doesn’t come to that?

Oh you’ll accuse us of burying the lede, we know, but we don’t mind; it’s just too good.

You see, while there have been 172 positive tests for meldonium in 2016, not to mention Sharapova and the fact that the Russian U18 hockey team pulled out of competition on the eve of a tournament, WADA now has released one incredible mea culpa. “There is currently a lack of clear scientific information on excretion times,” the organization mentioned.

We’ll put this in clearer terms: WADA really has no idea just how long meldonium may stay in an athlete’s system.

Really? Really.

You can see the logical conclusion: this means that an athlete like, hmm, say Sharapova may have consumed meldonium for the last time at some point in 2015 (when meldonium was legal) but still see signs of the substance in their system in 2016 (with meldonium now illegal). WADA even recognizes that in this case, said athlete may be capable of proving that they «could not have known or suspected» that a positive test would occur.  “In these circumstances, WADA considers that there may be grounds for no fault or negligence on the part of the athlete,” added the organization.

Again, in clearer terms, this means that an athlete could argue that they shouldn’t be punished because, well, that trace of meldonium is just an old residue from 2015.

So again we ask: really?? Really.

Of course, incoming WADA director general Olivier Niggli has said that Sharapova’s case absolutely must move forward. “For her, given her levels [of meldonium], it is not even a question,” Niggli told The Associated Press this week.

Niggli is a dreamer, so we’re inclined to continue allowing him to show his ass. Keep going, WADA, because you see, it actually is a question with Sharapova whether she should be punished at all—and it’s all your own fault.

See, that’s the problem with our ever-going quest to clean our sports: we’re stuck with organizations like WADA. We’re stuck with organizations that would rather hastily declare that a substance appear on the list of banned substances before they, and we, truly understand it. We’re stuck with organizations who will suspend athletes who test positive for a banned substance, again, before we know how long this substance stay in an organism’s system. We’re stuck with organizations that seem hellbent on treating every singular case as if they were a reflection of some sort of morality, or lending it some sort of meaning when it’s not.

Oh you’ll say that we’re exaggerating, that painting a grim picture from one unfortunate case, that we’re not saying all this in good faith. Sure—and we’re actually doing precisely what WADA is doing: because punishing athletes before they’ve done their homework is anything but good faith.

Otherwise, we’ll simply repeat what we wrote in this space not so long ago: that we’re not looking to grandstand anyone here, and that in our eyes the difference between someone injecting a substance like meldonium in their body and someone replacing a torn ligament in their elbow with a tendon; well that difference is mostly one of degree.

It’s a topic we’ll revisit again once the Sharapova ruling is announced.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Nadal wins ninth Barcelona title over Nishikori

April 24, 2016

BARCELONA OPEN BANCSABADELL—BARCELONA, SPAIN

Top seed Rafael Nadal won his ninth career Barcelona Open title in Spain on Sunday, defeating No. 2 seed Kei Nishikori 6-4, 7-5. In a match that lasted two hours and five minutes, it was Nadal that won 60 percent of his first serve points, while hitting one ace and breaking serve on five occasions. Improving to 9-1 against Nishikori in lifetime meetings, Nadal backed up his victory in Monte Carlo last week and now stands at No. 2 in the Race to London. The Spaniard also took home his 49th career clay-court title and 500 ATP World Tour points. The Spaniard will next see action at the Madrid Masters in Spain.

Nishikori, who was the two-time defending champion at the event, was vying for his 12th title as a professional.

Tennis Elbow: One last Monte-Carlo hurray for Rafael Nadal, or a sign of bigger things to come?

April 18, 2016

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon reviews the 2016 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters.

Is it too late now to say sorry to Rafael Nadal? (You’ll get that song stuck in your head now, I know. Sorry.)

Last week, the Spaniard continued his excellent start to the 2016 this past week, capturing the 2016 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters title by defeating Gael Monfils 7-5, 5-7 and 6-0 in two hours and 46 minutes. This, of course, marks the ninth time in his career that Nadal emerges from the pack with the crown in the principality. “The victory here confirms that I am better and I am very happy… It’s been a very, very emotional week for me, a very important event,” Nadal said after the win. “Monte-Carlo is one of the most important places in my career without any doubt. To win again here after three years is so special for me.”

The win accomplishes a few things. First, it gives the Spaniard yet another title, one of the Masters 1000 kind. Why is this noteworthy and important? This Masters 1000 title is Nadal’s 28th career; if you remember, we made a big deal of it when Djokovic reached this number only two weeks ago, so we shall mention that in this case it’s a big deal as well. A record is a big deal, even if there’s a tie between two players in first place.

Nadal also became the sixth man in history to reach at least 100 tournament finals, and won his 68th career title. This win also reestablishes Nadal’s standing on the ATP World Tour. What do we mean by that? Despite a rather excellent 2013 season, the Spaniard really hasn’t been up to his former self over the past few years: lest we forget, the 29-year-old very nearly slipped out of the Top 10 only eight months ago.

But now Nadal is back, firmly entrenched in the top 5, looking as dangerous as he has in a long time and seemingly ready to nip at Roger Federer’s heels. What has long contributed to Nadal’s legend was an aura of invincibility: he looked more physical and played more physical than his opponents, yes, but it’s not just that.

For a long time, the myth of Nadal was that he seemed simply unstoppable in a few places. Once upon a time, Monte-Carlo was one of those places. Between 2005 and the 2013 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters final, Nadal won all 46 matches that he played in Monaco. This period recalls the time when he would almost routinely capture more or less every clay court event on the calendar—including, of course, Roland Garros, and it’s there that this win should be most beneficial in 2016. Indeed, Nadal’s confidence should be as high as it has been in recent time.

If he can recapture past glory in Monaco, why couldn’t he do it in Paris as well, right? Well, right, except that this logic ignores the fact that he may well need to overcome Djokovic if he hopes to add another French Open title to his name. Of late, that rivalry has been quite lopsided, with Djokovic winning the previous six matches and 10 of the previous 11.

Already in 2016, he has lost twice against the Serb. But that comes later. For now, let’s just add another chapter to this story.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

PODCAST: Reviewing Rafa Nadal’s roaring victory at the Monte Carlo Masters

April 17, 2016

Welcome back to the TennisConnected Podcast for 2016!

After the shocking exit of top seed Novak Djokovic, we discuss how the rest of the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters unfolded in this week’s show. Will Rafa Nadal’s newfound form elevate him to being the favourite at Roland Garros next month? Can we finally look at Gael Monfils as a consistent player on Tour? How did Roger Federer and Andy Murray look in Monaco? We discuss all of these topics and many more on this week’s show.

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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Nadal wins ninth Monte Carlo title over Monfils

April 17, 2016

Monte Carlo Rolex Masters—Monaco

No. 5 seed Rafael Nadal captured his ninth title at the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters on Sunday, defeating No. 13 seed Gael Monfils 7-5, 5-7, 6-0. In a match that featured great shot-making from both players, it was Nadal that took the first set after a double fault from his opponent. Not to be outdone, Monfils continued to show the great promise that he’s proven throughout the year by clawing his way back during the second set to force a decider.

With everything to play for in the final set, Nadal displayed his true class by winning six straight games to capture the title. Taking home his 68th career crown, Nadal also tied Novak Djokovic with 28 career Masters 1000 titles. The Spaniard is next set to appear at the Barcelona Open in Spain, which gets underway on Monday.

Tennis Elbow: 2016 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters draw preview and analysis

April 11, 2016

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 2016 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters.

Now is when the fun can start.

Every year, the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters signifies the start of the year’s clay-court season and always the dawn of what becomes a sprint all the way until the end of August at the US Open.

That may be even more the case in 2016, an Olympic year with the end result that an already loaded calendar may be as overloaded as it ever has.

There is no time to waste in the tennis world. One week you’re just finishing a back-to-back of the two mini Grand Slams in Indian Wells and Miami, and the next you’re in Monaco for the Monte-Carlo Masters.

The latter, FYI, is no slouch.


Let’s have a preview of this 2016 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters, discussing some of the pros and cons of this tournament.

Main draw

Pros

-The return of Roger Federer. Though we’re on the record as saying that we believe this 2016 season may be Roger Federer’s very last, or at least very last near the top of the rankings, we take no pleasure in seeing his body send him signals. Lest we forget, the Swiss hasn’t played a match since his semifinal loss at the Australian Open, after injuring his knee while «walking with daughters.» (Hey, it’s the headline that uses those exact words.) But for this week at least, King Roger is slated to be back in action. He’s looking mighty good, too.

-Novak Djokovic and his rival Federer pitted in the same half. Let’s double on all things with the Swiss, as the main draw has slotted the No. 1-seeded Novak Djokovic in the same half as the No. 3-seeded Federer. Djokovic tends to render most things moot these days, but the Swiss usually at least manages to make things interesting for a little bit.

-The overall setting and scenery of the Monte-Carlo site. Really, this can’t be overstated: the site of the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters is absolutely stunning. Just look at this—arrive for the tennis, stay for literally everything else.

Cons

-A diminished Rafael Nadal. Lest we forget, Rafael Nadal used to do pretty well in Monte-Carlo. Indeed, as recently as 2013, this Masters 1000 was seemingly Nadal’s lordship, his Roland Garros before Roland Garros: between the first round in 2005 and the 2013 final, the Spaniard won 46 consecutive matches, and eight overall titles, in Monaco. In 2016, he’s already lost six times in 18 matches. Growing old sucks.

-The lack of suspense? Maybe it’s a good thing that Djokovic and Federer were drawn into the same part of the draw: these days, it seems like the 34-year-old Federer remains the most (lone?) credible threat to the Serb on the ATP World Tour. The Swiss is 6-9 over his previous 15 matches against the Serb since the start of the 2014 season; those six defeats account for 40 per cent of Djokovic’s losses over that time frame.

-The fact that I’m publishing this a day after the start of the event? I don’t know, I’m really grasping at straws here, because the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters is awesome.

Quarterfinals: Novak Djokovic over David Goffin; Roger Federer over Richard Gasquet; Dominic Thiem over Stanislas Wawrinka; Milos Raonic over Andy Murray

Semifinals: Novak Djokovic over Roger Federer; Dominic Thiem over Milos Raonic

Final: Novak Djokovic over Dominic Thiem

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Monaco wins second Houston crown; Delbonis wins Marrakech title

April 10, 2016

FAYEZ SAROFIM & CO US MEN’S CLAY COURT CHAMPIONSHIP—HOUSTON, TX, U.S.A.

Argentine Juan Monaco won his second career title in Houston, Texas on Sunday, defeating defending champion Jack Sock 3-6, 6-3, 7-5. In a match that featured medical time-outs by both players, it was Monaco who gave up a 4-1 lead in the third set, only to break the American at 6-5 before serving out the title. Winning his first title in three years, Monaco won 67 percent of his first serve points, broke serve on five occasions and hit two aces over his American opponent.

Sock, who suffered from cramps during the third set, fell to 10-7 on the season.

*****

GRAND PRIX HASSAN II—MARRAKECH, MOROCCO

Argentine Federico Delbonis captured the second title of his career on Sunday in Marrakech, Morocco, dismissing Croatian upstart Borna Coric 6-2, 6-4. Capitalizing on his potent, left-handed baseline game, Delbonis won 80 percent of his first serve points, broke serve on three occasions and hit four aces during the championship match.

Coric, who was looking for his maiden ATP World Tour title, fell to 0-2 in Tour 2016 finals after losing to Stan Wawrinka in Chennai to begin the season.

PODCAST: Previewing the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters

April 10, 2016

Welcome back to the TennisConnected Podcast for 2016!

With the clay-court season beginning in full force, we discuss the field in Monte Carlo and attempt to solve the Novak Djokovic riddle. Will the Serb be beaten during the clay-court season?

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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Checking in with the Schüttler Waske Tennis-University

April 6, 2016

by: Nima Naderi

Bridging the gap between team sports and tennis

Walking through the doors of the Schüttler Waske Tennis-University and all you hear is a serious silence. This place breads tennis like no other and there’s no time for anything less than giving 100 percent. Co-founded in 2010 by former German Davis Cup players Rainer Schüttler (formerly ranked No. 5 in the world and 2003 Australian Open finalist) and Alexander Waske (ranked as high as No. 89 in singles and No. 16 in doubles), the Tennis-University is a place where players go to reach their maximum potential but also gain valuable assets for character development throughout life.

Working with the likes of recent Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber, former world No. 2 Tommy Haas, Janko Tipsarevic, Benjamin Becker, Yen-Hsun Lu, Philip Petzschner and Ricarads Berankis, the Tennis-University also focuses on a slew of top-level juniors, led by recent National German Championship winner, Niklas Schell.

Spending two days at the Tennis-University in late November, my initial intrigue toward the visit was created through their excellent on court training videos that popped up on various social media platforms. Being a coach for 19 years, I’ve visited numerous academies around the world, but I could tell right off the bat that the Tennis-University had something different to offer.

After meeting with Co-founder Waske, Head Tennis Coach Jakub Zahlava and Head of Marketing Benedikt Stronk, it was evident that the staff at the Tennis-University had all been carefully chosen with a longterm outlook of success in mind. The Tennis-University team work with the common bond of passion for the game and providing the maximum output for their players. However, I was warned of one crucial point before we moved on to an in-depth look into the philosophy of the company: To never look at the Tennis-University as a traditional “academy”. There’s a reason why they termed it a University.

Boasting a year-round training facility just outside of Frankfurt in Offenbach, Germany, the Tennis-University features indoor hard-court training in the Fall and Winter months, followed by a glorious red clay court environment during the Spring and Summer. Add to the mix a track and field for endurance work to be achieved, a gym for muscles and flexibility to be exhausted, and class rooms for students to engage their minds on daily basis, and The Tennis-University truly encapsulates the perfect blend of what a high-end tennis centre needs to be successful.

With that said, aside from the blistering forehands that were been seen on court or the pool of sweat that was left in the gym after famed trainer Christian Rauscher finished putting his clients through their paces, it was the overall team-building dynamic that separated the Tennis-University from its competition.

Events such as the Christmas Battle that took place during the holidays, saw teams formed from touring players (Petzschner participated this past December) as well as full-time students and staff. Teams participated in building exercises from a modified on court hockey game, followed by a trivia challenge and finally an obstacle course. The Tennis-University prides itself on these specific team-building exercises to create a productive and positive atmosphere that will ultimately keep players engaged longer in the sport and have them playing for a lifetime.

Throughout my own experiences in the coaching world, I’ve always felt that tennis has played catch-up when trying to compete with team sports such as football, basketball, hockey and baseball. It makes sense in the way that kids in general want to be part of a “team” setting and not be alone with a coach grinding away week-in and week-out. The comradery and memories that can be obtained throughout the dynamic of a team sport, simply can not be duplicated between the lines of a tennis court. For that reason, tennis has historically suffered in terms of its appeal to youngsters and parents who want their children to have the full experience of character and athletic growth.

Keeping these notions and stereotypes in mind, the Tennis-University has uniquely built a model that supports a need for character growth on a daily basis. Even though the meat and potatoes of their training regiment focusses on a two player to one coach ratio on court, there is more than enough time set aside to allow players and coaches to interact and feel that they are working toward a common and not singular goal. Throughout many years of experience, analysis and evaluation of their athletes, the Tennis-University coaches have found the right balance between on court and off court training, which has unquestionably become the trademark moto of the company and what has taken them out of the traditional academy mold.

To conclude, tennis certainly does have some ground to cover as it attempts to challenge the popularity of sport giants such as football, basketball and hockey. But when looking at the track record that the Tennis-University has achieved since its inception in 2010, not only is the game of tennis in a much better place, but so to is the landscape of how tennis development should be as we look to build a great foundation for youngsters playing this great game for a lifetime. Most importantly, we are looking to build great people.

*****

Nima Naderi is the Editor in Chief of TennisConnected.com. He is also an award winning coach and a PTR Professional rated coach in four categories with over 19 years of coaching experience. You can listen weekly to Nima on the No. 1 rated tennis PodCast on iTunes for @TennisConnected.

Tennis Elbow: Novak Djokovic stands alone at the top of the Masters 1000 food chain

April 5, 2016

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 2016 Miami Open on the men’s side.

No one’s ever going to take this from him.

In winning his sixth career title at the Miami Open (thereby equaling Andre Agassi’s record) over Kei Nishikori by the score of 6-3 and 6-3, Novak Djokovic won all 12 sets he played at the tournament this year. “I have a very special connection to this tournament,” Djokovic said after his win. “In 2007 it was the biggest title I had won in my career. It has been a springboard for everything coming after that. I certainly hope that the love affair continues in the years to come.”

The years to come will come later—because the present time is damn good already: Djokovic’s sixth title in Key Biscayne was also his 28th career Masters 1000 title, which is a record in the Open era.

That’s right. The man who’s had to withstand the prime of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two of the five players in history, before ascending to the throne, this man has now stepped into his own. “As I go along, and as I have achieved so much success in the last two years, I give myself more opportunities to make records,” Djokovic said. “So [the singles title record] is in the back of my mind somewhere. But I don’t give myself that as main motivation. Because then things can go a little out of control. It can create a distraction that I don’t need.”

The Serb may never get enough credit for being, as Peter Bodo says, master of the Masters—but he really should.

This 2016 season marks the third in a row where he’s managed the Indian Wells and Miami double. If his streak that means something of 17 straight tournament finals is over, he’s got another one going right now: 11 straight Masters 1000 finals, which started in the fall 2014 and which is equally ridiculous. Over that span, Djokovic has managed a 55-2 record, which, you know isn’t too shabby considering that these tournaments are played against the alleged best players in the world.

But of course, “best players” really doesn’t mean much when they have to go up against the Djoker.

What’s that? You want more specific? Alright, alright.

Djokovic has amassed his 28 titles at eight of the Masters 1000’s (i.e. with the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati having eluded him to this day) and, considering how he’s playing and how Federer and Nadal are, this record may be his to keep for quite a while.

Why is it a big deal? Consider that behind Djokovic’s 28, Nadal’s 27 and Federer’s 24, Andy Murray is next on the list of current players with most Masters wins, with 11. After him? Well, good luck. Stanislas Wawrinka, Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer—you know, fairly decent players—each have only one Masters 1000 to their name. Meanwhile, the next one that Marin Cilic, Nishikori and Richard Gasquet win will be the first of their career.

How well have previous champions fared? Ivan Lendl has 22 titles, John McEnroe has 19 and Jimmy Connors has 17. Tied with him is Andre Agassi, followed by Boris Becker with 13 and Pete Sampras with 11. Not one player in that group will ever catch the Serb.

So winning a Masters 1000? Quite a big deal because not every does it (often).

Despite all this, and being quite the clear best player on the ATP World Tour at the moment (and having been so for a good three-four-five years if we’re honest), Djokovic is behind Federer and Nadal for Grand Slam titles. And, ultimately, that’s what matters. In tennis, it’s not “How good were you and how much did you win?”; it’s “How many Grand Slam titles did you win?”

Also important? Djokovic has become the all-time leader in career prize money won after his win in Miami, ahead of Federer. It pays to be this good!

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

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