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.

Tennis Elbow: The new normal on the men’s side?

September 15, 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 US Open on the men’s side.

Marin Cilic captured the 2014 US Open title by defeating Kei Nishikori in three sets of 6-3, and we should have seen this coming. Not so much the way that the final unfolded, but rather that the final pitted two relative newcomers.

It’s always easy to say so with the benefit of hindsight, but we really should have. Heading into the tournament, the ATP World Tour was in as much upheaval as it had been in about a decade. Novak Djokovic had just enjoyed the greatest summer of his life by getting married and learning that his wife was pregnant. Oh and on the tennis courts, he hadn’t wn many matches, which I guess is the point here. Roger Federer was playing great, probably as good as he had in a few years, but we would all see in New York that maybe the days of him winning Grand Slams are simply gone. Meanwhile, the last match Rafael Nadal had played was at Wimbledon, and he’d soon withdraw from Flushing Meadows. Finally, Andy Murray was Andy Murray-ing, just trotting along, but he had hardly been the same since injuring his back about a year ago.

Knowing all this, should it have been a surprise that none of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer (to say nothing of Murray) would reach the final of a Grand Slam even for the first time in 39 majors?

Of course. Even if prior to the start of the event, we would have had the opportunity to pick two long shots to reach the final, I’m not confident Cilic and Nishikori would have been the choices of many of us.

Nishikori, 24, bucked the recent trend that he was the little engine that could… but only if the match didn’t last long. (Just Google “Kei Nishikori withdraws.”) That’s a reputation that the Japanese has had to overcome even if, you know, numbers really show that it’s simply not true. Nishikori is 10-2 in the fifth set in his career, and 62-18 overall in a deciding and final set. He’s fine.

In reaching the US Open final, the 24-year-old outlasted Milos Raonic (in five sets), Stanislas Wawrinka (in five sets) and dominated Djokovic (in four sets). He grew tired, but only in the final against Cilic, who by then was playing as well as he’s ever had. Nishikori grew tired, sure, and so would you if you were playing a seventh match.

Oh and Nishikori had hired Michael Chang at the beginning of this 2014 season on a part-time basis. There has been no word yet on whether he’d ask him to come on full-time, but we should expect this announcement anytime now.

Cilic, 25, had only made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament three times in his career up to that point—though to be fair, he’s now up to four, and three of those instances have come in New York. He has now equaled his career-high of No. 9 on the Tour rankings, but that’s likely not why you know him. In fact, maybe you didn’t even know him at all before he won his first Grand Slam title.

But I’m inclined to say that you knew of him, at least a little. This is a website dedicated to, presumably, tennis fans. And most tennis fans probably knew of Cilic as the player who was suspended for doping just about a year ago. (Seriously. The news broke on Sept 15, 2013, and we wrote about it.) His original ban of nine months was reduced to four and, before Cilic returned for the Brisbane International a few days ahead of the Australian Open, his ranking had reached a low of No. 47.

Now he’s at No. 9. Once more. He’s working with Goran Ivanisevic too, and maybe that’s why we should have seen this first title coming. Ivanisevic is awesome.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Where will Serena Williams stop?

September 9, 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 Serena Williams’s win at the 2014 US Open.

There’s nothing routine about winning a Grand Slam title, but Serena Williams sure made it seem that way on Sunday.

In the final against Caroline Wozniacki, she won in convincing fashion in two sets of 6-3—and it probably wasn’t that close. The match lasted all of 75 minutes, with the World No. 1 dominating on aces (i.e. 7 against 3), breaks (i.e. 5 against 2), winners (i.e. 29 against 4) and total points won (i.e. 65 against 49). About the only place where Wozniacki had an advantage was in unforced errors (i.e. 23 against 29), but that statistic also tells the entire tale. She could only react and most of the time could only put the ball back in play to live to see another day.

This win salvages Williams’s difficult 2014 season and gives her a three-peat at Flushing Meadows, a sixth US Open title and an 18th Grand Slam title, tying her with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for second most in history. She’s almost 33 years old now and in her 19th season on the WTA Tour and, because we’ve already asked everything else, there’s really just one thing left to settle.

Is she the greatest of all time?

It’s not exactly fair, but that’s the heights she’s reached. In part, it’s due to the fact that she is so clearly the very best player of her era, having won those 18 titles against just four other defeats in the finals. (And two of those defeats came against her sister Venus.)

It’s not entirely fair, and neither is it new of course. This is a question we’ve even asked here in this column, not once but at least twice. And it’s one for which the answer might depend on how long Williams plans to keep playing.

If this latest US Open title is any indication, she probably has a few more years—Williams never lost more than three games in the 14 sets that she played in New York. And if she does plan on playing a few more seasons, the odds are high that she breaks the tie for second place. And right now, she needs four more major titles to get to Steffi Graf’s tally of 22.

Is that possible? Likely? She’s enjoyed a fine trio of seasons since 2012 with five Grand Slam titles, but these have come at age 31, 32 and 33. At some point, Williams will stop. And yet, it’s set up perfectly for her. The other top players on the WTA Tour are either young (e.g. Simona Halep and Eugenie Bouchard), what we think they are (e.g. Caroline Wozniacki), clay-court specialists (e.g. Maria Sharapova) or injured (e.g. Victoria Azarenka, Li Na). Williams is old, but she’s still the best of the group.

Of course, a Wozniacki win at Flushing Meadows would have made for a great story as well. This is the same woman who was chastised as an unworthy No. 1-ranked player in 2010 and 2011 because, of all things, she hadn’t won major tournaments. This despite the fact that she was quite clearly a worthy No. 1 since she lorded over the WTA rankings for a full 67 weeks.

If it takes so long to mention Williams’s opponent in this final, it’s because it seemed like this match was far beyond Wozniacki’s reach. It wasn’t, of course. She should have played better. And if she had, then the match might have been closer. It might have even reached a third set, as it did in their previous two meetings over the summer—but it didn’t because she didn’t.

It’s telling that Wozniacki’s best shot is her backhand. Traditionally, this is the weaker shot, the one that’s used on the defensive, the one which players run around of in order to attack from their stronger, forehand side. There are iconic backhand shots, Novak Djokovic’s shot down the line being the shot that propelled him to the top in 2011.

There are also notable exceptions, Wozniacki’s the prime example. We’ve seen the 24-year-old run around her forehand in order to attack with the backhand. Hers is a shot that’s reliable, strong and, at least if you listen to my tweets, it “belongs in a museum… because it’s everything that is right in this world.” (I tend to exaggerate, but ever so slightly.)

Of course, the symbolism isn’t lost on most readers. Against Williams in the US Open final, she was on the defensive and never dictated play. Wozniacki lost, but she’s fine—just look at her Instagram feed. “Out and about NYC with @serenawilliams !! #selfie

That’s the lesson here. If you lose a tennis match, take a selfie. And if you win too, do it. In fact, just take a selfie. It’s just tennis.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Podcast: Cilic and Serena rule NYC in 2014; Federer fails

September 9, 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 US Open.

With a surprising win by Marin Cilic, we discuss the remainder of the year for the Croat and how the likes of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray will finish of 2014. We also discuss Serena Williams’ much-needed win in the Big Apple over good friend Caro Wozniacki. Finally, we look forward to a potentially interesting fall 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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US Open 2014: Men’s Final Review

September 8, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

Marin Cilic is the 2014 US Open men’s singles champion, the Croatian defeating a visibly fatigued Kei Nishikori in straight sets on Day 15 to claim his first Grand Slam title.

Day 15 Recap

Both players were competing in their first Grand Slam final in what is the biggest tennis stadium in the world and, not surprisingly, there were signs of nerves on both sides of the net in the first set. Cilic struck first blood however, breaking for a 4-2 lead in the opening set when Nishikori, down 0-40, saved 2 break points but was unable to save the third. Continuing his excellent serving form, which saw him drop just one point on his first serve in the opening set, Cilic maintained the advantage to take the set, 6-3.

Putting constant pressure on the Nishikori serve, Cilic again lined up a trio of break points in the second set. This time, the tenth seed was able to get back to deuce, only to then throw away the game when he netted a backhand. After his epic duels against Raonic, Wawrinka and Djokovic, Nishikori was finally showing signs of lethargy, and a second break to Cilic in the seventh game of the set put the Croatian in the driver’s seat to secure the set. The Japanese star managed to claim back one of the breaks, only for Cilic to claim the set on Nishikori’s serve in the very next game.

With his pupil up 2 sets to love and within sight of the finishing line, coach Goran Ivanisevic was looking decidedly twitchy, but Cilic remained composed. The Croatian broke the Nishikori serve in the fourth game of the set and kept his nose in front from there, eventually claiming the championship with a 6-3 6-3 6-3 win in 114 minutes.

For Cilic, it was a fairytale finish after he was forced to miss last year’s tournament due to his suspension for taking a banned substance. The Croat used his time away from the ATP Tour wisely, vastly improving his serve and returning to tournament play with a reinvigorated attitude to boot. Judging by his last 3 matches at Flushing Meadows, which saw him beat each of Berdych, Federer and Nishikori in straight sets, Cilic will be a prime contender in the majors in 2015 and is clearly an emerging force in the men’s game.

For Nishikori, it was a disappointing end to his collection of heroic performances during the tournament. The Japanese star wasn’t at his best on Monday, and he was simply unable to match Cilic in raw firepower, serving just 2 aces to Cilic’s 17 and hitting only 19 winners to 38 from Cilic. Still, the past fortnight has shown Nishikori that he belongs in the upper echelon of the men’s game and, at age 24, I have no doubt that his best tennis is still yet to come.

That’s it for this year’s US Open. I hope you have enjoyed the coverage. Enjoy the tennis as the tours move towards the indoor season, and I’ll be back with another serve soon. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

Cilic wins first US Open title in easy fashion over Nishikori

September 8, 2014

US Open 2014—Flushing Meadows, New York

Croatian Marin Cilic won his first-ever Grand Slam title at the US Open on Monday, defeating Kei Nishikori 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. Hitting 17 aces and breaking serve on five occasions, Cilic hit 38 winners to only 27 unforced errors. Taking home three million dollars for his victory, Cilic won his third meeting against Nishikori in eight meetings. Nishikori, who was looking for the first major title of his career, defeated Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic on the way to the finals. Both Cilic and Nishikori will now be ranked in the top 10.

US Open 2014 Day 15 Preview: Marin’s momentum vs. Kei’s courage

September 8, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

For the third year in a row, and for the sixth time in her career, Serena Williams in the US Open women’s singles champion, the American capturing her first Grand Slam of 2014 and the eighteenth major of her illustrious career with a straight sets win over Caroline Wozniacki.

Tonight, the tournament concludes with the men’s singles final, in which Croatia’s Marin Cilic will take on Japan’s Kei Nishikori, with each man looking to collect his first Grand Slam title.

Day 14 Recap

Coming into the tournament in strong form, which saw her collect tournament victories in Stanford and Cincinnati, Williams had breezed her way into the final without the loss of a set, and the American veteran started the final in ominous form, racing out to a 2-0 lead. From there, Wozniacki managed to settle herself but was unable to regularly hold her serve, trading breaks with Williams as both players struggled with their first serves in the windy conditions inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. At one stage, there were 5 successive breaks of serve, but Williams was able to hold her serve when she needed to, producing 15 winners for the opening set to take it, 6-3.

Going into the second set, Wozniacki had produced just one winner and was finding it difficult to push Williams around the court. The American underlined her brilliant front-running abilities, which have seen her only lose once at Flushing Meadows after winning the first set, improving her first serve percentage and establishing a 5-3 lead in the second set. Serving to stay in the championship, Wozniacki was powerless to stop the Williams juggernaut, and an errant backhand handed the top seed the championship after 75 minutes, 6-3 6-3. Fifteen years after claiming her first major in New York as a teenager, Williams was again reunited with the championship trophy.

Fittingly, legendary rivals Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, each of whom won 18 singles majors during her career, were on hand to congratulate Williams on joining the 18 majors club. One wonders, however, just how long Williams will remain in that club. Judging by her performance over the past fortnight, which saw her annihilate the field, it won’t be long before she is knocking on the door of Grand Slam number 19.

Match of the Day – Day 14

Marin Cilic vs. Kei Nishikori

For the first time since the 2005 Australian Open final, men’s tennis will see a Grand Slam singles final that is not contested by Federer, Nadal or Djokovic. There have been various players during the past decade who have been able to put together a hot streak and make it to a Grand Slam final (including David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga) but, apart from Andy Murray, no player has been able to regularly compete with Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Wawrinka and Del Potro are the only players outside of the Big Four who have claimed majors during the past decade, but each of them has made just the one Grand Slam final.

All of which brings me to today’s intriguing showdown. So often a player surges from the pack to make a Grand Slam final, only to find a member of the Big Four waiting for him there. This time, however, it is different – both Federer and Djokovic suffered shock losses in the semi-finals and so we have Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic both into a Grand Slam final for the first time. So much of this match will depend on how the players handle their emotions throughout the course of the match. On one hand, it is completely new territory for each player; on the other hand, each player knows that he will most likely never get a better opportunity to be crowned US Open champion.

Cilic has been a revelation since returning from his 2013 suspension for taking a banned substance, the lanky Croat improving his serve enormously under the guidance of compatriot Goran Ivanisevic and drawing confidence and inspiration from the former Wimbledon champion. Cilic was ruthlessly efficient against Tomas Berdych and then played the match of his life to whip Roger Federer in straight sets in the semi-finals. Cilic’s serve will be crucial in this match, for Nishikori is a fabulous returner and will be favoured from the baseline in the longer points. My biggest concern for Cilic is his ability to back up mentally and emotionally from his win against Federer. It was a near-perfect match, but the reality is that he will find it hard to replicate such quality of execution in the final. Often athletes will suffer a let-down after such a sublime performance, and I suspect that this will be the case for Cilic.

Nishikori, on the other hand, has been performing at an extremely high level for multiple matches without ever playing the perfect match. The Japanese star was forced to endure gruelling 5-setters against Raonic and Wawrinka, but didn’t seem fatigued against Djokovic in the semi-finals, where he collected a 4 set win. Perhaps the inclusion of the freakishly fit former French Open champion Michael Chang in Nishikori’s coaching team has helped the tenth seed with his stamina and his belief in long matches.

The Japanese star holds a 5-2 advantage over Cilic in head-to-head meetings, although both of Cilic’s wins have come on hard-courts, including at the 2012 US Open. Both meetings this year have been won by Nishikori, and I think that the tenth seed has a very good chance of winning the championship if he can simply get a decent number of Cilic’s first serves back into play. Cilic has been virtually unplayable on his first service points in his last couple of matches, but Nishikori’s lightning quick reflexes and compact swings should give him a chance of getting more returns into play than Federer and Berdych did in their contests with Cilic.

It’s not the final that anyone expected, but I think that this will be a fascinating and close match all the same. I suspect Cilic will tighten up a little and not serve as well as he did in the quarter-finals and semi-finals. If so, I expect Nishikori to take full advantage and be too solid from the back of the court for the Croatian. Nishikori in 4.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the tennis and I’ll be back with another serve tomorrow to recap the men’s final. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

US Open 2014 Day 14 Preview: Serena vs. Caro (Bring it)

September 7, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

Monday will see Flushing Meadows play host to a men’s final that nobody expected, a match-up whose odds of eventuating were 5000-1 at the beginning of the tournament. Day 13 saw Kei Nishikori shock top seed Novak Djokovic and Marin Cilic outclass second seed Roger Federer to set up a surprising and historic men’s singles final. Meanwhile, Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki go head to head today in a battle for the ladies’ singles championship.

Day 13 Recap

After back-to-back 5-setters against Raonic and Wawrinka, Nishikori was given little chance of upsetting the world number one Djokovic in the opening men’s semi-final. The Japanese star had spent 3 and a half hours more on court than Djokovic in the lead-up to the semi-final, but Nishikori showed no signs of wilting in the hot and humid conditions, the weather clearly suiting the 24 year old, who has been based in muggy Florida for the majority of the past decade.

After the tenth seed edged Djokovic in the opening set, 6-4, the Serb immediately fired back, racing through the second set for the loss of just one game. The third set proved decisive, with Nishikori forced to save multiple break points before squandering a chance to serve out the set at 5-3. The set went to a tiebreaker and for once it was Djokovic who was unable to deliver under pressure, dropping the opening 4 points of the tiebreaker and eventually losing it 7 points to 4. An immediate break in the opening game of the fourth set by Nishikori, and a crucial hold in the next game, which saw him save 3 break points, put the Japanese star in sight of the finishing line and 7 games later he became the first Asian male to make a Grand Slam singles final, claiming a famous 6-4 1-6 7-6(4) 6-3 win.

Having seen Djokovic’s surprise exit, Roger Federer must have been pumped up for his semi-final against Marin Cilic, with the Swiss great no doubt sensing that the title was his for the taking. Cilic, however, had other ideas, delivering another sublime serving performance to completely outplay the 17-time major winner. The first set saw Cilic drop just 5 points on serve, with a solitary break enough to give him the lead after 28 minutes. A similar scenario unfolded in the second set, with  a sloppy service game from Federer handing Cilic the requisite break as the fourteenth seed claimed the set, 6-4, to the delight of coach Goran Ivanisevic. After a little more than an hour, Cilic was just one set away from competing in his first ever Grand Slam final.

At 2 sets to love down, the crowd willed Federer on, perhaps sensing that they were in for another fabulous fight-back along the lines of the recovery the second seed made against Gael Monfils in the quarter-finals. An early break to the 5-time US Open winner had the crowd roaring, as Federer went up 2-0. But this time the Federer recovery was short-lived, with Cilic claiming an immediate break back and then blasting another winner, one of 43 for the match, to claim the critical break in the seventh game of the set. Any threat of Cilic seizing up when serving for the match quickly evaporated, as the Croat sent down a trio of aces before securing the win with a sublime backhand winner.

Match of the Day – Day 14

Serena Williams vs. Caroline Wozniacki

Close friends Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki will contest the women’s singles final today, and you can be sure that both players will be putting their friendship to one side in this encounter. Both players have held the world number one ranking, with Williams currently at the top of the summit, but that’s about where the similarities between the players end. Williams is a 17-time major champion who is looking to capture her third consecutive US Open crown and sixth overall, whilst Wozniacki is into just her second major final and is still looking for a maiden Grand Slam title after being denied the title in New York in 2009 by Kim Clijsters.

The players are also very different in terms of their approach on court, with Williams a master of first strike tennis and Wozniacki far more of a retriever and counterpuncher. The American will seek to dominate on her service games, hoping to score plenty of cheap points on her first serve. Look for Williams to step inside the baseline on the Wozniacki second serve and attack up the line on the return of serve, hoping to get a short ball and to finish the points quickly thereafter. By contrast, Wozniacki will be looking to implement plenty of variety from the baseline, mixing up the pace and spin of her shots as she seeks to keep Williams off-balance and out of position. The Dane’s chances of winning a point increase significantly the longer it goes, so withstanding the initial onslaught from Williams at the beginning of each point is critical to Wozniacki’s chances.

Williams holds a commanding  8-1 advantage in career meetings with Wozniacki, although the tenth seed pushed the American to 3 sets in both of their recent meetings on hard-courts. I think Wozniacki will give a good account of herself and is in the sort of form to take advantage of any weakness from Williams. However, I can’t see Wozniacki having the ability to dictate much of this match. Win or lose, I think this match will be played on Williams’ terms, with the American going for her shots and her success being dependent on her ability to execute. Given her recent success during the North American hard-court swing, it’s hard to imagine Williams not being able to execute successfully. Williams in 3.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the tennis and I’ll be back with another serve tomorrow to recap the women’s final and preview the men’s decider. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

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