I-Formation November 2014 – The Importance of Losing

November 26, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

When Roger Federer stepped onto the court on the opening day of last weekend’s Davis Cup final, he did something that he does very rarely, something almost completely foreign to one of the winningest players in the history of the sport. The Swiss superstar, a 17-time Grand Slam champion, winner of 82 tournaments and holder of a commanding 8-2 head-to-head against his opponent on day 1 of the Davis Cup final, Gael Monfils, actually expected to lose.

Now, don’t get me wrong, you don’t gather 82 tournament wins without a fierce competitive streak and a ruthless desire to win. But, after a back injury forced Federer out of an eagerly anticipated contest against Novak Djokovic in the ATP World Finals, the world number 2 was forced to rest and rehabilitate, and was only able to get in a limited amount of practice on the clay-courts in Lille in the lead-up to the Davis Cup final.

After countryman Stan Wawrinka took down Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the opening rubber of the final, Federer had a golden opportunity to give his country a commanding 2-0 lead in the tie. However, Federer knew his limitations going into the match against Monfils. As the old sporting adage goes, one learns more in defeat than in victory, and so it was with Federer last Friday. The enigmatic, flamboyant Monfils is a handful at the best of times, as Federer knew only too well going into the match, having been forced to save a pair of match points to defeat Monfils in New York in September.

For Federer, the match with Monfils was instructive in a number of ways. It gave him an opportunity to get accustomed to the courts in the Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille, and this was critical in a couple of respects. First, the Swiss star had not played a tournament on clay since May, having focused on the North American and Asian hard-court swings and the European indoor circuit in recent months. Second, with the Stade Pierre Mauroy (the home of French Ligue 1 football club Lille) being diplomatically described as a “multi-use stadium” and more accurately described as a “very makeshift tennis venue”, it was essential that Federer inform himself about the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the main court in a match situation, and get a sense of just how vocal (and patriotic) the French crowd would be during the course of the final. Moreover, the Monfils match allowed Federer to assess the state of his back in a live match scenario. It’s one thing to practice following an injury, but there is simply no substitute for a match in order to determine whether an injury has fully healed.

And so the match went, with Monfils collecting a routine straight sets victory over Federer (arguably Federer’s worst loss ever in Davis Cup competition) and Federer looking a shadow of his usual self. For someone whose career has been based around effortless court movement and exquisite timing, Federer frequently looked rushed, out of position and downright rusty. But Federer had his eyes on a bigger prize. He knew that 1-1 was a reasonable result for the Swiss at the end of the first day’s play, and that Saturday’s doubles contest would be, as is so often the case in Davis Cup, the pivotal rubber in the tie.

Having learned plenty about his back, the court and the crowd in the Monfils match, it was a far more energized and dynamic Federer at work in the doubles encounter. A gold medalist in doubles with Wawrinka at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Federer again showcased his formidable doubles skills, with a number of stunning stretch volleys indicating that his back was most definitely on the mend. A straight sets win for Federer and Wawrinka gave the Swiss a vital 2-1 lead over the French going into Sunday’s reverse singles and, when Tsonga was forced out of the fourth rubber due to an arm injury, Richard Gasquet was given the task of toppling Federer and keeping France in the contest.

Gasquet, having beaten Federer in just 2 of their previous 14 encounters, was required to produce something special to beat the world number 2, but by this stage Federer was in full flight, having grown comfortable with the main court over the previous couple of days and having boosted his confidence with the win in the doubles. Spurred on by the parochial crowd, Gasquet battled valiantly, but in the end could conjure up just 8 games for the match as Federer, for so long the sole face of men’s tennis in Switzerland, finally handed his nation its first ever Davis Cup trophy after 15 years of involvement with the competition.

As the superstar collapsed to the ground and had tears welling in his eyes, it was obvious how much Switzerland’s win meant to Federer. As he later remarked, “This one is for the boys…This is not for me, I have won enough. I am just happy we can give everyone in our country a historic moment”. Whilst that statement is definitely true, it’s clear that it was only by being willing to lose on Friday that Federer was able to assist in delivering the Davis Cup trophy to Switzerland and to add another impressive achievement to his impeccable career record. And for that, no doubt all tennis fans in Switzerland are eternally grateful.

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: Rog and Stan: End of a friendship?

November 24, 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 revisits the one narrative everyone swept under the rug a week ago in London.

Roger Federer insists that he and Stanislas Wawrinka “are friends, not enemies.”

You read this and say, “Gee, of course they are. Why does Fed feel like he must insist and has to clarify to us that they are friends. They’re both from Switzerland and about the same age, so why wouldn’t they be?”

If you say that, it’s because, yes, you don’t know the reason why they maybe wouldn’t be friends right now. (I think that double negative was used correctly.) In London at the O2 Arena for the Barclays ATP World Tour semifinals, the scandal-less one Federer came as close as he ever has to find himself in the thick of a full-pledged “he said, she said, I said” war. With the score at 5-5, and at deuce on Wawrinka’s serve after he had squandered, count ‘em, five match points, the 29-year-old motioned toward Federer’s box and asked that they keep quiet between serves.

That didn’t sit too well with Mirka, whom you might know as Federer’s wife, and she answered in kind to the other Swiss, using the dreaded “crybaby” insult. (I suppose the insults that sting the most are the ones you used to hear in the schoolyard in 1st grade.)

La femme de Roger Federer a bien perturbé Wawrinka par beINSPORTS

Again, let’s reiterate that Federer has yet to do anything at this point. His image of the perfect tennis player, and the perfect gentleman, shouldn’t be shot to pieces just because someone relatively directly related to him actually showed a lack of class, right? Well actually yes, but no one would ever dare blame Federer because no one ever does.

It’s not fair to say that this is Federer’s fault because, though Mirka is a large part of his life (“awwww”), she isn’t him. It’s also not fair to expect Federer to not reply to Wawrinka after the match (and his win). He does confront him about it, as he should have done. Likewise, it’s not fair to Wawrinka to have to battle not only the man who is perhaps the best player ever, but also his wife. For his entire career, Wawrinka has been known as “The Other Swiss guy” but in 2014 he’s as much a part of the tennis firmament as his countryman. He had a right to be angry, pissed, whatever.

Just like now he has a right to make “bunny ears” behind Federer.

As you can see, they have since made up, just in time for the start of the Davis Cup final. (I could talk about that, but I’ll save it for my kicker—it’s a little thing called strategy.)

Mirka Federer insulting and disturbing Wawrinka during a match reminds me of something else. Just because these are professionals, and just because the cameras are on them at all times, and just because they’ve been playing this game their entire lives, it doesn’t mean that they don’t still love the sport so much.

And Mirka is just like the average “hockey dad” or “soccer mom.” She cares that her loved one wins and, because she can’t possibly hit the balls for him (it wouldn’t really help anyway, though she remains an accomplished player in her own right) she helps in any way that she can. And that includes doing something very dumb and stupid like heckling Federer’s opponent.

As for Federer and Wawrinka, well, winning cures all ills, anyway.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Federer dismantles Gasquet to win Davis Cup for Switzerland

November 23, 2014

World Group – Final

FRANCE 1, SWITZERLAND 3
Stade Pierre Mauroy, Lille, France (Indoor, Clay)

S. Wawrinka (SUI) d. J. Tsonga (FRA) 61 36 63 62
G. Monfils (FRA) d. R. Federer (SUI) 61 64 63
R. Federer (SUI) / S. Wawrinka (SUI) d. J. Benneteau / R. Gasquet (FRA) 63 75 64
R. Federer (SUI) d. R. Gasquet (FRA) 64 62 62

Tennis Elbow: Novak Djokovic’s meaningful win in London

November 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 recaps the 2014 Barclays ATP World Tour Finals.

In the end, it didn’t even matter.

As a sports fan, you always hope that the matches and games will remain meaningful until the very last one, and that’s the beauty with tennis—the matches are basically always meaningful, because they basically always are a one-off affair. Win or lose, you move on to the next day (or the next tournament). That’s almost always the case. Players don’t win, say, the US Open by the eighth day of the event, right?

There are no playoffs in tennis, but there is the year-end No. 1 ranking that depends on the year at hand. In the end in 2014, Novak Djokovic was just good enough to secure this ranking a little bit before the last match, not having to sweat it out until the very last possible moment. Djokovic, actually, didn’t sweat at all in the final, but more on that in a minute.

The task was straightforward for the Serb in London for the 2014 Barclays ATP World Tour Finals—win your three matches in the round robin and finish the year at No. 1. Regardless of anything else, of how many beatdowns Roger Federer handed out in Group B and of what happened beyond the group stage. Win three matches in the round robin and finish first.

So what did Djokovic do? He won the entire tournament and didn’t really sweat in the final because Federer pulled out.

Every year, this event lets the eight best players in the world duke it out, but the 2014 edition felt different. It felt like the tournament between the two best players and the other six, and it’s exactly what we got. Djokovic and Federer were as efficient as they possibly could have been in reaching the semifinal—they were playing some of the best players on Tour, but it didn’t matter. They didn’t lose a set before moving through to the final in a pair of tough (especially for Federer’s) semifinal wins.

Of course, the odds were tilted in the World No. 1’s favour at the onset of the tournament. Federer could win all his matches, but he also needed help from others to beat Djokovic…and he never received that help. Djokovic just needed to win, and that’s what he did.

Knowing what we know today, namely that Federer still has the Davis Cup final to play, can we say for sure that he would have still pulled out of the final at the O2 Arena if it had been against, say, Kei Nishikori? If he had a chance to finish at No. 1, would Federer have still pulled out? Probably not, but then again I do not doubt the severity of whatever ailment he may or may not have had on Nov. 16 for the final.

But I understand that he may not have wanted to push his body further and play a match where he had nothing to gain, especially that the Davis Cup Final follows. And that’s definitely a meaningful event, that title being one of the last ones he still hasn’t conquered.

I’ll get back to my choice for player of the year, or what it all means for 2015 and moving forward but later because, hey, it’s the offseason and I still have another six columns to write before the calendar moves to a new season.

For now, Djokovic ends the year at No. 1. For the tennis fan that I am, that’s all that matters.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Crazy Eights in London

November 19, 2014

In my latest article for Tennis Canada, I discuss the Crazy Eight in London at the O2 Arena.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

” The absence of Rafa Nadal in London ultimately means that the player finishing in ninth position this year would get into the draw. Never one to shy away from his aspirations as being the best ranked player in the world, Milos Raonic will make his first trip to the O2 Arena this year, via a strong finish at the Paris Masters. Defeating Federer for the first-time in a master-class serving performance, Raonic will be eager to ride his monster delivery and great inside-out forehand as deep into the tourney as possible. Following Eugenie Bouchard into the final event of the season on his respective Tour, 2014 has been a great year for Canadian tennis.”

The full article can be read here.

Podcast: Reviewing the 2014 ATP World Tour Finals that never was

November 16, 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 ATP World Tour Finals and review the Paris Masters from France.

We discuss the final event of the year and look back at the tremendous level of play from Novak Djokovic and the last minute withdrawal of Roger Federer. We also discuss the lack of competition from the rest of the field at the O2 Arena and what lies ahead for 2015.

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: Barclays ATP World Tour Finals 2014 Preview

November 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 previews the final event of the season.

Novak Djokovic appears motivated to finish the 2014 season with a bang.

In Paris last week, Milos Raonic helped him a tiny bit by beating Roger Federer in the quarterfinals and all he received for his trouble was a thorough beatdown from Djokovic in the final. The score was 6-2 and 6-3 but if it could have been 6-0 and 6-0, it would have been.

So much for Paris being the city of love, right?

This season has mostly been Djokovic’s, but a recent push from Federer has threatened to ruin it all. The stakes are clear this week in London—if one of Djokovic or Federer wants to finish first, then he must win. (And in the case of the latter, he must also hope that the former loses.)

When that’s the case, all of us tennis fans win. This week, I’ll preview the final event of this 2014 season. I could do it the same way that I have for all other events I’ve previewed this year, but where’s the fun in that? Let’s get cute with it.

The rookies: Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori

Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori could be on their first of many London berths. In that sense, they’re rookies, sure, but I do expect more from the pair at O2 than I would from typical debutants. Since his final at Flushing Meadows, the Japanese has only won two tournaments (i.e. Malaysian Open and Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships) and made the semifinals of another (i.e. BNP Paribas Masters). He hits the ball well and will give a member of Group B fits. Meanwhile, Raonic would be my pick for a surprise winner. Playing on an indoor court, the Canadian will have a massive advantage every time he serves.

The rookie who’s there because he got hot in New York: Marin Cilic

I don’t put Marin Cilic along with the previous two players even though he’s also making his London debut. It’s nothing personal against the man, but I just don’t expect much from him—there’s always one guy who gives the “Happy to be here” vibe, and I don’t see why it couldn’t be Cilic. He has a poor head-to-head record against all three of his Group A opponents and hasn’t played a Top 10 player since his US Open win against Nishikori. And yet, I’ll be happy to have the 26-year-old prove me wrong—I’m the one with a weekly column, but it really doesn’t mean that I know what I’m talking about.

The enigmas: Stanislas Wawrinka, Andy Murray

Stanislas Wawrinka and Andy Murray are two players who could spoil everyone’s plan and very possibly meet in the final if everything breaks right, and they each go on a roll—because both are surely capable of doing so. Wawrinka has proven this past January that he’s got the nerves and the shots to beat the best, and a strong finish in London would give him confidence for his title defense in Melbourne. As for Murray, if he can overcome contentment at simply being there after playing 173 matches since the US Open, he could surprise. He’ll definitely make Federer earn it.

The Tomas Berdych: Tomas Berdych

Though he has been a fair bit more reliable from week to week this season—or at least, that’s the impression that I get—Tomas Berdych is still very much one of a kind. He’s the mercurial one, but he’s also 29 years old now so maybe it’s time for us to recognize that he’s just a very solid tennis player who makes the quarterfinals, or better, at most tournaments that he plays. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s something I could only dream of. (But I don’t, because I don’t like to feel down.)

The favourites: Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic

I’ve said at least twice already that I hope the tennis Gods will simply let these two duke it out for the title in the final. They even put them in opposite groups, now the least they could do is go undefeated until there. No pressure, guys.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Podcast: Previewing the 2014 ATP World Tour Finals

November 6, 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 ATP World Tour Finals and review the Paris Masters from France.

With the top eight now set for the London Finals, we look forward to the final show-piece event of the year as well as wrap up the event that took place in Paris. Some clutch play by the likes of Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych and Milos Raonic simply stole the show. We also discuss the race for the No. 1 ranking, which is a two way finish between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

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: Milos Raonic helps himself, and Novak Djokovic

November 3, 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 final Masters 1000 event of the season.

There is no tournament on the ATP World Tour calendar this week, so the players were always going to settle this eventually in Paris at the BNP Paribas Masters.

Entering the final Masters 1000 events of the season, not all eight spots for the ATP World Tour Finals were secured. Then, the tournament started and the suspense lasted until the day of Halloween, when Milos Raonic did his part in beating Roger Federer and Kei Nishikori booked the Canadian’s ticket (and his own) in the following match by beating David Ferrer, all in the quarterfinals. This meant that the Japanese and the Canadian will join Novak Djokovic, Federer, Stanislas Wawrinka, Andy Murray, Marin Cilic and Tomas Berdych in London, but that’s something I’ll tackle next week in a preview.

What happened in Paris? I’m glad you asked.

Djokovic defended his title with a 6-2 and 6-3 win (the 600th of his career so kudos) in the final, and I’ll get to him shortly, but let’s start with our Canadian boy. Let’s start with him beating Federer, who had been perhaps his biggest nemesis on Tour with six wins in as many tries. The Swiss was entering the match riding a 12-match unbeaten streak and playing as well as he had all year, but he found his match in Raonic. The 23-year-old is perhaps the one player whose game is as well suited for indoor courts as Federer’s and it showed in his 7-6(5) and 7-5 win.

With the win, Raonic booked his London ticket, yes, but he also helped Djokovic. It’s no secret that Federer has used his surge this past month to fuel a possible return to World No. 1. (Well, he used his two tournament wins and also the fact that Djokovic had about 173,273 points to defend from last season.)

For the first time in a while, Federer lost points in Paris, because he couldn’t reach the semifinals. He lost points, because Raonic beat him and he now sits 1,310 points behind Djokovic at No. 2. In London, the Swiss can win 1,500 points if he goes undefeated. Meanwhile, Djokovic has a title to defend. If the tennis Gods are half as good as they think they are, they’ll put the two in the final and let them juke it out.

But here’s where I’ll spoil my big preview next week and mention that I believe Raonic will spoil some of those plans. His 2014 season was his “Are you not entertained” Maximus moment where he proved that he belonged at the top with the best. Raonic is here to stay and the O2 arena is perfect for his style of play.

In the preview for this BNP Paribas Masters, I had predicted a Djokovic win. The Serb is long removed from his semi lull in the middle of the summer. He’s playing great again and seems more focused. It’s as if Federer’s bid for No. 1 gave him a renewed motivation for the season. And in a way, it sure has.

And so has the birth of his son. I’m not a father, but I know better than to pick against a newborn son. Especially, yes, if that newborn son is that of my favourite player’s. Win-win.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: 2014 BNP Paribas Masters: Draw preview and analysis

October 27, 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 final Masters 1000 event of the season.

For the second time of the year, welcome to Paris! Everyone in tennis seems to keep forgetting that while there’s only one tournament in the French capital (i.e. Roland Garros), there are actually two.

Not only that, but this BNP Paribas Masters is a rather major one on the ATP World Tour calendar. It’s not Roland Garros, but it’s close. (And anyway, with the way that Nadal is playing in France for Roland Garros it’s great that this event is not the French Open.)

It’s a big event and this year’s event should be even bigger than usual. Because the 8 places in London for the ATP World Tour Finals aren’t decided yet. And because it’s technically possible—if, like, Novak Djokovic breaks a leg and retires before his first match while Roger Federer captures the title—that we could have a new World No. 1 player at the end of the week. But the most likely thing is that this event will make the tour finale that much more interesting for the year-end race to No. 1.

Main draw

It’s just about the thick of (Cap’n) Crunch Time for World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who has, oh you know, just 2,500 points to defend in the final two events of the season. It’s pretty simple for the Serb if he hopes to finish 2014 as the top-ranked player—he cannot lose. I see him beating Andy Murray in the quarterfinals here, and then taking home the title. And not losing… Maybe that won’t actually happen, but who wants to bet against a newborn son?

The second section seems poised for chaos, with a few favourites in David Ferrer and Kei Nishikori going through a difficult post-US Open stretch—despite, yes, the former’s great run to the Erste Bank Open final in Vienna. Frenchmen Gilles Simon and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga are also in this part of the draw and could meet in an all-France quarterfinal. Here, let’s give the French cousins some love and give the quarterfinal they deserve.

Tomas Berdych has quarterfinal points to defend this year in Paris, and doing so successfully would go a long way toward possibly securing a spot in London in two weeks. He has a fairly favourable draw and, if he can’t make it to the remaining 8 in Paris, he just doesn’t deserve a spot at the O2 Arena either. I give the Czech the advantage over Stanislas Wawrinka, who simply hasn’t played since New York. Well, okay, he’s played but he hasn’t won—except for one Davis Cup match, Wawrinka has three losses in as many matches. It doesn’t bode well for Paris or for London.

No one in the world is playing better (or as much) than Roger Federer right now, so let’s just ink his name in the final. It’s an easy draw for him, so there’s no need for me to waste your time. (Nor mine.)

Quarterfinals: Novak Djokovic defeats Andy Murray; Gilles Simon defeats Jo-Wilfried Tsonga; Tomas Berdych defeats Stanislas Wawrinka; Roger Federer defeats Richard Gasquet

Semifinals: Novak Djokovic defeats Gilles Simon; Roger Federer defeats Tomas Berdych

Final: Novak Djokovic defeats Roger Federer

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

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