Tennis Elbow: The five best Grand Slam players in the WTA this year

July 27, 2015

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 2015 season up to this point on the WTA Tour.

So tell me, are you still enjoying this down time in the tennis calendar?

Make sure you do make the most of it and see your family and loved ones, because before you know it tennis will be right back and you seemingly won’t have a minute to yourself.

This week, I complete what I started last week and look at the five players who have most dominated the three Grand Slams on the WTA Tour this season. Your first guess is to say that it’s been a wide-open season beyond the obvious one name but, as you’ll see, four other legitimate favourites have emerged.

1) Serena Williams

Welcome to yet another season in women’s tennis dominated by the very best player in the World. As odd as it may sound, Serena Williams is still getting better and is utterly alone at the top, with still only one non-walkover loss in 2015. She has just completed the second “Serena Slam” of her career at age 33 and will complete the calendar-year Slam next month if she can only win the US Open, in her native country for, oh I don’t know, the fourth year in a row.

You say that one day, her reign at the top will stop, but don’t act so sure: the tour is currently so devoid of talent that perhaps only retirement will stop her.

2) Maria Sharapova

Because wherever Serena goes, so must Maria Sharapova. At this point, it’s pretty apparent that the American exists mostly as the kryptonite of the Russian, or perhaps we should see things the opposite way: that by now, Sharapova exists as but the final stepping-stone in Serena Williams’s quest for excellence and greatness.

But continue to try is what Sharapova will keep doing, because she has no other choice. At this rate, she may never beat Williams again, but she is still a clear No. 2 on the WTA Tour. Things could be worse.

3) Garbine Muguruza

If the future of women’s tennis has a face, it very well could be Garbine Muguruza’s. The Spaniard followed up her claim to fame of having beaten Williams at Roland Garros in 2014 with an appearance in the Wimbledon final at the beginning of July.

Serena Williams praised her young opponent after beating her at Wimbledon, saying that she would win a few Grand Slams before long; most agree. The 21-year-old has all the tools and all the shots, and all signs point to her also having the mental fortitude and self-belief necessary to dominate for a long time.

4) Madison Keys

Or maybe it will be Madison Keys who dominates the sport once Serena Williams has retired? The 20-year-old has surprised at Grand Slams this year, with her three best results of her career at the first three majors of the season; she entered the Top 20 for the first time in February just after her semifinal in Melbourne.

Coached by Lindsey Davenport, Keys is tall and takes control of rallies behind her powerful serve and forehands: it’s not a coincidence that her third-round result on clay at the French Open this year is much worse than what she managed on the hard courts of Australia and the grass of Wimbledon (i.e. a quarterfinal loss). It bodes well for the US Open, played on hard courts, for the native of Illinois.

5) Timea Bacsinszky

Maybe we shouldn’t expect so much from Timea Bacsinszky, the Swiss who prefers the slower surface of Roland Garros to others; for that reason, it isn’t a surprise that she performed better in France, making the semifinal, than she did in Australia (i.e. she reached the third round) and at Wimbledon (i.e. she made the quarterfinals).

And yet, everything should be seen as a surprise. The veteran of 10 seasons, and once upon a time among the youngsters upon whom tennis invested so much, was this close of quitting tennis for good. That was in 2013: she was 23 years old and her home felt like a “prison”, she said.

In 2015, Bacsinszky is playing tennis because she wants to. And maybe that’s why she is winning her matches.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: The five best Grand Slam players in the ATP this year

July 20, 2015

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 2015 season up to this point.

There is scarcely any down time during the tennis season, but perhaps this qualifies as one.

The Australian Open, and Miami and Indian Wells Masters 1000 back-to-back seem to have happened in a different season altogether; and no sooner had Novak Djokovic’s dream had gone up in flames at Roland Garros that he had redeemed himself on the holy grounds of Wimbledon. Time waits for no one in tennis.

But this month? With apologies to the organizing committee of all tournaments on the calendar this month, July mostly serves to better anticipate the slate in August.

Such is the tennis season that you almost never have the time to reflect and ponder the meaning of what has just unfolded. But sometimes, you need to take the time. You need to understand how you have arrived where you are to better see where you are headed. For the next two columns, including this one, I will highlight the five men and women players who have marked the Grand Slam tennis season until this point.

1) Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic is certainly the man, but don’t believe me only because I said so on Canadian television. (#Humblebrag, I know. I know.) The Serb has been the best player on the ATP World Tour for the better part of five seasons, reaching at least the finals of 15 of the previous 19 Grand Slam tournaments. He is 47-3 this year, including 17-2 against members of the Top 10 and 7-1 against those in the Top 5. If not for the next man on the list, the Djoker would also be going for the calendar-year Grand Slam at the US Open in August.

As Rafael Nadal has succumbed to injuries, and Roger Federer has faded to age, it’s Djokovic who has emerged to push the boundaries of what we thought was possible in tennis.

2) Stanislas Wawrinka

But of course, Stanislas Wawrinka had to ruin history for all of us. Wawrinka lived up to both of his monikers in Paris, being very much the man and an animal possessed as he spoiled Djokovic’s bid to add a first Roland Garros title to his resume. The win gave Wawrinka his revenge on Djokovic, who had cut short his title defense in Australia in January because winning the Australian Open is just what the Djoker does.

3) Andy Murray

Maybe you feel for Andy Murray? The theoretical fourth wheel of the big four when the big four was a thing, Murray has entered the somewhat latter phase of his career but still does not appear to be capable of meeting the expectations that the tennis world has for him. We all would love so much for him to become tennis’s next great champion, and there’s a version of this universe where he would be just that if not for Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, but alas Murray is so incredibly Andy Murray. He’s got all the shots, but he’s playing in the golden age of the sport. He’s both underrated and overrated. He’s Andy Murray.

4) Roger Federer

Has Roger Federer become a sort of rich man’s David Ferrer? For years, Ferrer was the little engine that could, the one player who could never seriously threaten the four great champions ranked ahead of him, but also the one player who barely ever lost to anyone not from the Top 4. Now, Ferrer is 33 years old and our expectations for him have appropriately been lowered.

In 2015, Federer is entrenched as the second best player on the ATP World Tour and yet, he has one Grand Slam title since 2010. He’s still good for the occasional final here and there, but the one formerly known as King Roger seems overmatched in the bigger matches now; he’s also, quite possibly, just the second best player from Switzerland.

But he’s 33 years old and soon turning 34. Maybe it’s time to start expecting a little less from the man.

5) The lack of Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal’s best results this season have been two quarterfinals. At Wimbledon, the Spaniard lost in the second round, but an early Nadal loss in England has become so inconsequential. What was most telling is Nadal’s loss at the French Open: at the tournament that he has dominated so outrageously for the past decade, Nadal was overmatched and outclassed. What should have been such a landmark achievement didn’t feel as such, because Djokovic was too good for the Spaniard, even at Roland Garros.

We hope that Nadal fans have the stomach to endure what could very well be the new normal for their guy.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Serena Williams wants the Grand Slam

July 13, 2015

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 2015 Wimbledon Grand Slam.

And then there was one.

Serena Williams started the 2015 season as the favourite at the Australian Open, much like she has at just about any point in her career. She won the year’s first Major, much like she had five prior times already. And much of the season has unfolded following this same script, with the best player in the world winning four tournaments.

Most importantly, among the four titles she has won this season are the three first Grand Slam tournaments of the season. After Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final, and Lucie Safarova at the French Open, it was Garbine Muguruza’s turn to fall against the younger of the Williams sisters in two sets of 6-4 at Wimbledon.

Williams was far from perfect in the final, starting slowly but finally emerging with the win. “It feels so good,” she said after winning. “It’s been a little while. I didn’t even know it was over, she was fighting so hard.”

Fighting so hard, Muguruza certainly did—odds are that she will win a Wimbledon title or two before long; Williams said as much in her comments after the match. Indeed, the future is bright for the young Spaniard but Williams’s present is right now. And it’s as bright as ever.

Only once has Serena stepped on a court and lost this season, for the Mutua Madrid Open semifinal against Petra Kvitova. She has two other losses in her track record in 2015, but they don’t show up on her results page on the WTA Tour website because they were walkovers.

She has lost once in 2015, but she hasn’t lost at a Grand Slam in over a year. Yes, Williams is currently riding a 28-match unbeaten streak at the four most prestigious tournaments in the world, but again she has been far from perfect during the streak. Nine times she has needed three sets to win, and perhaps this is where her incredible and unparalleled experience has helped her most: per Greg Garber of ESPN, Williams won the third set by an average score of 6-2 over these nine matches.

If you need seven wins to win a major title, then this means that this Wimbledon title gives Williams the second “Serena Slam” of her career, only this time she will look to win a fifth major tournament in a row. Unlike her first Serena Slam in 2002 and 2003, she has a chance to win the four Grand Slams of 2015, because it’s the first time she has ever won the first three majors in a season. Quite apropos, she said that, “I’m having so much fun. I never dreamed I’d still be out here.”

We’ve already praised her for so many things over the years, but let’s also praise her efficiency: a win at the US Open at the end of the summer would tie her with Steffi Graf for most Grand Slam titles in history with 22, and give her the first calendar-year Slam since Graf in 1988. And it would also be the 69th overall title of her career, still “just” good enough for fifth in history: Serena Williams wins and has won tournaments, yes, but she mostly and especially wins Grand Slams.

Look at all that she has already accomplished this season and in her career all around the world. Now, she just needs to bring it all home.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: What the hell, Canada?

July 7, 2015

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 first week of Wimbledon on the Canadian side.

So that’s what it feels like to have the hero we need, but not the one we deserve? Or put another way: just what has happened to Canadian tennis?

For a few years now, the country has seemed on the verge of finally (finally!) breaking through and joining the ranks of the worldwide powers thanks to its three foremost flag bearers. Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard, ranked No. 8 and No. 12 respectively, are Canada’s best ever singles players in the ATP World Tour and WTA Tour, and have been for quite some time. Vasek Pospisil, ranked No. 56 but with a career-high of No. 25, would be just that too, if not for the presence of Raonic.

But the trio’s results in 2015 have been, erm, rather uneven. As Wimbledon marches on to its second week, Pospisil remains the lone Canadian standing after coming back from a two-set deficit and reaching the quarterfinals by defeating Viktor Troicki by the score of 4-6, 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-3 and 6-3.

This win was Pospisil’s first after trailing by two sets and also marks his first time reaching the quarterfinals of a major tournament; it’s also a win that has restored the country’s faith in the young man, who had been somewhat disappointing since helping Canada reach the Davis Cup semifinal in 2013. (This is where the reader complains and says, “Well actually doubles!” and, sure, yes Pospisil has excelled in doubles. But in tennis, there might as well only be singles and no doubles, considering the money and resources allocated to covering the former and not the latter.)

Raonic had bowed out of Wimbledon long before Pospisil finished off Troicki, falling in the third round against the fiery Australian Nick Kyrgios. The Canadian was seeded No. 7 this year at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club but, having been limited with an injury during the spring, a repeat of last year’s semifinal was always a long shot.

Most damning is Bouchard, who lost in the first round against qualifier Duan Ying-Ying only one year after reaching the final of this same Wimbledon Grand Slam. Her troubles, actually, can be traced back to this very match: Bouchard has now lost 12 of her past 14 matches, and only has 8 wins since falling on her face against Petra Kvitova in the 2014 Wimbledon final. It’s so bad that Canadian columnists are writing #hottakes, thinking that there simply has to be something wrong in Bouchard’s personal life—because, well, how else can you explain this?

What’s wrong? No one knows for sure, which is why it’s silly to give credence to any theory unless you would know for a fact. But Bouchard can’t win anymore, and this is now a problem. That’s because we’ve come to expect so many great things from Bouchard in so little time (and Pospisil and Raonic too, albeit to a lesser extent).

We’ve come to expect greatness from Bouchard, despite the fact that she is still only 21 years old and that she enjoyed about as perfect of a beginning to her career as you can dream of; unfair or not, it shouldn’t be surprising to see her struggle after not struggling at all.

More thoughts on Bouchard, here.

She’s not just “struggling” though, of course. Bouchard appears to have lost her confidence, abilities and self-belief, a dangerous combination. If this is the end for her, and the dream of our dream for her, then so be it. It would only mean that she never was meant to be the next Maria Sharapova, which would simply make her like literally every other tennis player: very good, but not excellent. It would be about time for Canada to meet that standard.

But there is still hope for Canada. Indeed, a season does not necessarily have make a career for the likes of Bouchard and Raonic; plus, if the lesser player of the trio in Pospisil is the country’s “new tennis hope,” then everything should be fine for Canada.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: The youngsters arrive at Wimbledon

June 28, 2015

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 third Grand Slam of the season.

The world of tennis has descended upon the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club for the prestigious Wimbledon Grand Slam. Already.

Every year is the same: the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals seem so far away in January but before you know it, you look up and Rafael Nadal has already crushed someone’s dreams at Roland Garros and Wimbledon is here. Switch Stanislas Wawrinka for the Spaniard for this season, but the point remains: time goes by so quickly.

The same thing can certainly be said about life in general: what once seemed so far away will arrive before you’ve really had time to realize that it has. Oh, you’ve graduated from elementary school? Congratulations, you’ll choose your major for college before you know it.

Time offers the promise of potential for young tennis players, but you have to work hard to turn potential into actuality: otherwise, you’ll find that the Wimbledons just seem to be coming and going, and you keep getting older, without getting better.

As we’ve done for Roland Garros, let’s the younger players to know at Wimbledon, because they could surprise us this year.

Women’s draw

Who: Belinda Bencic

Age: 18

Ranking: No. 31

Nationality: Swiss

First-round opponent: Tsevtana Pironkova

Feat of arms: Ever since Canadian Eugenie Bouchard has taken the WTA Tour by storm, it seems like we’ve reassessed the typical career trajectory and script of young players. Most don’t simply jump in and win matches at the Grand Slam events; they tend to first win at the relatively lower tournaments, and it’s certainly been the case for Belinda Bencic.

And yet, she does have quite one notable feat of arms: a year ago at the US Open, she enjoyed her first real breakthrough, reaching the quarterfinals and reminding everyone that the future of women’s tennis didn’t simply belong to Canada. Jump ahead to this month, and you’ll find a player who has reached two finals on grass and has captured the Eastbourne International title by beating former No. 2-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska in the final.

Who: Ana Konjuh

Age: 17

Ranking: No. 55

Nationality: Croatian

First-round opponent: Alize Cornet

Feat of arms: You say and think that Ana Konjuh is young and can’t drink champagne yet, and while this is certainly true, she does happen to have made her entry into the Top 100 in October of last year at age 16. So Konjuh is young, yes, but that hasn’t stopped her so far, including at the Nottingham Open where she became the youngest champion on tour since 2006.

The Croatian is great and has plenty of potential, as evidenced by her winning the 2013 Australian Open and US Open junior events and becoming the No. 1-ranked juniors. But she’s already started turning that potential into concrete results.

Who: Laura Robson

Age: 21

Ranking: Unranked

Nationality: British

First-round opponent: Evgeniya Rodina

Feat of arms: It would be silly to expect anything from Laura Robson, who enters the main draw of Wimbledon with a wildcard after a layoff of a year and a half due to a wrist injury. We simply mention her because 1) she is British, 2) she has been through a lot and we’d like to see good things happen to her, 3) she has received the kind draw for this to be possible and 4) we have mentioned Eugenie Bouchard earlier, and Watson and Bouchard still aren’t friends.

Gangnam Style seems so long ago :( .

*****

Men’s draw

Who: Nick Kyrgios

Age: 20

Ranking: No. 29

Nationality: Australian

First-round opponent: Diego Schwartzman

Feat of arms: Nick Kyrgios may not be the most talented of the new crop of players on the ATP World Tour, though I personally would pick him, but one look at him on a tennis court shows that he certainly is the most boisterous. He’s the most controversial too, reminding us of this when he admitted last week that he doesn’t love tennis and prefers basketball.

Mind you, he says this on the eve of his follow-up to his first breakthrough, when he beat Rafael Nadal and Richard Gasquet and reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon a year ago. And still, all is right for the most marketable Australian athlete.

Who: Borna Coric

Age: 18

Ranking: No. 40

Nationality: Croatian

First-round opponent: Sergiy Stakhovsky

Feat of arms: Hey, speaking of youngsters who have defeated Nadal… Borna Coric already loves “His Wimbledon” experience, and has the overall game to excel on any surface and a style of play that has drawn comparisons with the No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic.

Coric is the star of tomorrow, so long as you admit that tomorrow has already arrived. The draw hasn’t been especially kind for the Croatian, with Andreas Seppi likely on his path in the second round, before Andy Murray in the next match. A tough ask… then again, Coric has already beaten Murray once.

Who: Hyeon Chung

Age: 19

Ranking: No. 79

Nationality: South Korean

First-round opponent: Pierre-Hugues Herbert

Feat of arms: Let’s end with the 19-year-old South Korean, who has enjoyed his greatest result at the Grand Slam level this week at Wimbledon simply by making the first round of the main draw. Chung mostly focuses on the Challenger Tour, but his future is bright and, if not for a silly, silly mistake, his breakthrough at a major might have arrived earlier. He received a wildcard entry to the qualifying draw of the French Open from the Roland Garros officials despite being ranked No. 69 at the time: he and the Korean tennis association had missed the entry deadline for the tournament.

That’s right—Chung had become so good so quickly that he hadn’t anticipated he could compete in the French Open. That’s #humblebrag if I’ve ever seen it.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: The potential trump card of Serena Williams

June 22, 2015

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon asks an important question.

Can Serena Williams win the calendar Grand Slam this season?

This is another way of asking whether she can complete what she is already halfway through, after winning last month’s French Open, and win the remaining two Grand Slam tournaments of this season to put her career total at 22 and on par with the great Steffi Graf. The quest continues in a week when the tennis faithful descend upon the cathedral of the sport that is the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.

I’ll spare you the suspense and confess that yes this is another column praising the younger of the Williams sisters. But to say this isn’t right either, because it’s much more than that. What’s left to say about someone, after all, when everything has already been said?

Maybe you haven’t heard, but this Serena Williams is fairly great at tennis. She will turn 34 at the end of September and is still thriving on the WTA Tour. Williams has lost just once in 33 matches in 2015, and even that one loss doesn’t actually count: it came in a walkover in the third round of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia against Christina McHale.

Considering her record this year, and despite her age, Williams has to be seen as a clear favourite for the remaining two majors. It would simply meet the standard of excellence she’s long ago defined for herself: winning Wimbledon would guarantee her at least three majors this season, something she has already accomplished once, all the way back in 2002 when she was much younger. A Wimbledon win would also mean that she would hold all four Grand Slam tournaments at once yet again, a feat she is the last player to manage 12 years ago. So really, what’s a calendar Slam?

Williams’s journey starts in Wimbledon at tennis’s greatest cathedral, where she’ll likely have to overcome defending champion Petra Kvitova if she hopes to add a sixth title at yet another major. After a win there, Williams will have all the pressure in the world when she heads to the US Open, her home tournament where she has felt home only very recently: of her six US Open titles, three have come in the previous three years.

This potential calendar Slam would give Williams the ultimate trump card in the debate over which player is the greatest of all time. It would be more impressive than Martina Navratilova’s six Grand Slam titles in a row, more impressive than Steffi Graf’s 13 straight finals and 22 major titles, and 89.74 per cent winning percentage at majors, and more impressive than Chris Evert’s 34 overall major finals.

With a calendar slam, Williams would have accomplished something none of her historic peers has done. This basically describes her entire career—accomplishing what no one else has—so maybe we should expect those two wins. (Even though, at the beginning of the season, I certainly wasn’t expecting anything from her.)

It’s simple really. Win the last two Grand Slams of the season and become the best ever. She’s done it once already: this shouldn’t be too difficult.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Everybody loves everybody but Boris Becker hates this

June 15, 2015

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon ponders the rivalry between the top players.

Boris Becker would call this, what, too much love found? What’s the opposite of “No love lost”?

The German has published a new book, appropriately titled “Wimbledon: My life and career at the All England Club” considering his success at the place during his career, and discusses many topics. (Not that I’ve read it. I just know, because that’s how all books work. The book was released on June 8, 2015; why not buy it for your dad? Father’s Day is this weekend, and your father most definitely did watch Becker play about 20+ years ago.)

Among said topics the 47-year-old tackles is the current lack of rivalry between top players of the ATP World Tour. Notably, he insists that his protégé Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer “don’t particularly like each other,” despite the fact that there doesn’t appear to be any kind of contention between the two.

There’s no love lost between Federer and Djokovic is what Becker is saying, and it’s apparently because of the Swiss. “The reason Roger is one of the highest-paid athletes of all time is because he’s liked by everybody. But think about this—you can’t possibly be liked by everybody… He makes good money out of his image, but would he make less if we saw a bit more of his true feelings?”

Maybe.

It’s no secret that Federer has built an empire on being a gentleman, on being a man every parent can point to with their children and say, “See? That’s someone you should look up to” as they watch him play matches. Federer never speaks out, either because he never has anything bad to say or, more likely, because he chooses not to.

But the post-script of Becker’s quote is that if the 33-year-old were to speak his mind, then we may hear him say some not-so-gracious things about Djokovic.

That’s not exactly surprising.

The two have faced each other 39 times so far in their career, with the Swiss holding a slight 20-19 edge (but Djokovic leading the way at 9-5 in finals). Their last real classic confrontation happened, for my money, four years ago in the semi-final of the US Open.

After that match (which he lost, oh by the way), Federer acted out. He was, let’s not mince words here, a crybaby, a petulant child who couldn’t accept the result. “It’s awkward having to explain this loss, because I feel like I should be doing the other press conference,” he said. “To lose against someone like that, it’s very disappointing because you feel like he was mentally out of it already. Just gets the lucky shot at the end, and off you go.”

Djokovic was only starting his ascent by then, distancing himself from the likes of Andy Murray to join the firmament of the sport, where Federer and Rafael Nadal resided. And if there is a rivalry between him and Federer, it stems from a contrast between their two personalities: the Swiss is like his country, neutral and gracious, and friends with everyone; Djokovic is boisterous, a showman, and at times funny and silly. Becker would say that he finds Djokovic much less boring than Federer, but we can’t overlook that it’s coming from one of the Serb’s two coaches.

But in 2015, that contrast is overplayed: the Serb has matured, both on the court during matches and afterward, and is not quite the Djoker anymore. Gone are his player imitations: thrilling as they might have been, he’s understood that it will neither help him win matches, nor gain the respect of his peers.

Rather, it’s for moments like the following, at the Roland Garros final just over a week ago, that Djokovic is remembered now. In 2015, Djokovic is gracious in defeat, in part because he’s had so many sad moments at Grand Slam finals over the years; it’s like he’s taken a page out of the Roger Federer notebook.

Back to Becker now for a minute, he has since softened his stance re: Federer on his Twitter account.

To his credit, he doesn’t hide from the fact that it all has served as great publicity for his book.

Hey, I’ll buy his book. I don’t care. Either for myself or for my father, but I’ll sure buy his book.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Stanislas Wawrinka spoils Novak Djokovic’s party

June 8, 2015

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 first week of the 2015 Roland Garros.

Novak Djokovic has done it. The No. 1-ranked player has completed the career Grand Slam and won Roland Garros for the first time in his career.

That was supposed to be the lead for most columns today; most of us had decided on this after the Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals. But Stanislas Wawrinka had other plans and, in the end, he was the one left standing in this 2015 Roland Garros final after winning by the score of 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 and 6-4.

But the beginning of the match stayed true to the fairytale. The Swiss started the match on a strong note and didn’t make mistakes in the opening set; it was Djokovic who made these at the beginning, though it didn’t quite hurt him. The two stayed on serve until the Serb cracked the Swiss code to escape with the set.

That would be the last of the great times in this final for the Serb.

From the second set and onward, Wawrinka was the more ascendant, confident and aggressive player. And because Djokovic served a little worse in this second set and, most importantly, lost the all-too-important battle of second-serve points won, and eventually the set itself, to Wawrinka. The Swiss was holding his end of the bargain of the tournament thus far, making sure that his serve was just about as unbreakable as it had been up until this match.

After two sets, Djokovic and Wawrinka were tied at a set apiece, but the Swiss was the more deserving, and active, player: he had won one total points more than the Serb at 67-66, but the tally would be much more slanted to Wawrinka’s advantage by the end of the match.

This is where I slot in the reminder that Djokovic had played almost two hours more than Wawrinka in his “off day” against Andy Murray, when their semifinal match was interrupted on the last Friday of the tournament due to rain and darkness. This was partly due to the match’s late start, yes, but also and very much so self-inflicted from Djokovic: at 3-2 in the third set, he had two break chances to perhaps finish the match. He couldn’t and, because of it, couldn’t rest on the Saturday before the final, eventually needing all of five sets against Murray.

This is also where I slot in the reminder that the main draw hadn’t been especially kind to Djokovic, who had to take on a player who only had lost once in his career in Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals, and then one who was unbeaten on clay in 2015 in Murray.

But you can only beat the players that are standing across the court from you, and that’s all Wawrinka did, notably beating Roger Federer in the quarterfinals—though that isn’t quite what it once was. And in the final, or the first time in their previous five matches at Grand Slams, the two wouldn’t need a deciding and fifth set: Wawrinka beat the best player in the world, dominating a spent, drained and (as a result) very passive Serb over the remainder of the match to win the first French Open of his career in four sets.

The win gives Wawrinka a second Grand Slam title after his title in Australia a year ago, a remarkable feat for someone who has played his entire career in the era of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer, and who broke through in any meaningful way only in 2013 after teaming up with Magnus Norman and unleashing the deadly and heavy groundstrokes he has become known for.

A second Grand Slam title is big for Wawrinka, as history has been kinder to players with more than just the lone major title. He will now forever stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Patrick Rafter and, yes, Andy Murray. (Whether or not you think Murray is or isn’t better than Wawrinka depends on if you give credit to one for four Grand Slam finals lost, but the facts are that they have two Grand Slams each.)

But this debate of what place will be Wawrinka’s in tennis lore will be for the day he retires. On Sunday, against the world’s best player, he was the better one by quite a large margin. That should suffice.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: The kids are doing all right for themselves

June 1, 2015

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 first week of the 2015 Roland Garros.

Everything seems to have unfolded right according to plan so far in this 2015 Roland Garros tournament.

On the women’s side, favourites like Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova, Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova have been faring well and seem to be well on their way to making a star-studded final four. (Or maybe not, in light of today’s results…)

On the men’s side, there have been fewer overall surprises: in the fourth round, the only unseeded players have been Jack Sock, Jeremy Chardy and Teymuraz Gabashvili.

But this count could have been higher.

Over the weekend, the three youngsters I had deemed worthy of perhaps a surprise or two at this Roland Garros had their chance to deliver just that; and well, they couldn’t quite pull it off, as Thanasi Kokkinakis, Borna Coric and Nick Kyrgios each lost in straight sets.

The two Australians were going up against, respectively, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray and this means that the knee-jerk reaction is probably to condemn Coric for letting an opportunity pass by, considering that he was matched up with American Jack Sock and lost 6-2, 6-1 and 6-4. But it’s expecting a lot from an 18-year-old, even one as precociously talented as Coric is, to expect more than a place in the third round of a Grand Slam tournament. He had had his moment just a match earlier anyway, besting crafty veteran and 18th-seed Tommy Robredo.

Matched up against Andy Murray, Nick Kyrgios also had his moments in the third round. Namely, he certainly had one hell of a moment.

The 20-year-old ultimately lost pretty soundly against the Brit, losing 6-4, 6-2 and 6-3 on a surface that is far from his best. The future, which has very much arrived, is still very bright for the young Kyrgios, who has all the tools and the shots to be a champion.

Take this rally earlier in the year in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open.

As you see, Kyrgios is a showman and will go as far as his strong forehand can carry him…only if his emotions don’t betray him. Maybe that’s why my colleague Nima Naderi sees bigger and better things for Kyrgios’s countryman Kokkinakis.

The 19-year-old Kokkinakis appears to indeed be wise beyond his years, reacting with a grace and calm that is typical of older and more experienced players. Maybe Kyrgios can use his fire to rekindle his passion during a match, but you don’t need to pump yourself back up when you’re always even-keeled like Kokkinakis.

Djokovic also praised his young opponent after his win.

Big, but not big enough, they say.

In the end, maybe the results of this first week at Roland Garros are the best thing we could have hoped for. We got a glimpse of the very bright future ahead of us, but it also didn’t compromise the very bright present.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Can the youngsters hang with the old cats at Roland Garros?

May 25, 2015

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 2015 Roland Garros.

Youth offers the promise of potential. It’s the best time in your life, your mother has told you, because it’s the one time in your life where everything that is possible seemingly really is.

It’s the case in tennis, too. A promising youngster will have his or her fans dreaming and saying aloud things like, “Oh he/she could totally be the new No. 1 player in the world. Look how great he/she is right now, at 16/17/18.”

Yes, younger people, and players, have all the potential in the world, but the tricky part is to turn this potential into actual and concrete results. And with concrete results come heightened expectations, which somehow only sets the bar that much higher for players who often don’t have the mental tools to deal with these.

That being said, who are the young players to know because they could surprise at this year’s French Open?

*****

Women’s draw

Who: Belinda Bencic

Age: 18

Ranking: No. 35

Nationality: Swiss

First-round opponent: Daniela Hantuchova

Feat of arms: The tall Swiss has a career record of 105-59 and one doubles title, at the Prague Open this season, but her big breakthrough came a year ago. She became the youngest player since her countrywoman Martina Hingis to reach the quarterfinals of the US Open and in doing so, notched the first two wins of her career against Top 10 players in defeating Angelique Kerber and Jelena Jankovic. She was deservedly named the WTA Tour Newcomer of the Year.

Who: Ana Konjuh

Age: 17

Ranking: No. 94

Nationality: Croatian

First-round opponent: Margarita Gasparyan

Feat of arms: The Croatian turned 17 fairly “recently,” at the very end of December 2014. As such, we should probably temper expectations for Ana Konjuh, at least for the 2015 season. And yet! Oh yes, despite her young age, Konjuh is part of the Top 100 and notably scored a big win over fellow promising youngster Belinda Bencic at the Prague Open this year. Konjuh’s titles at the 2013 Wimbledon and US Open juniors’ events hint at a whole lot of greatness in the near future.

Who: Zheng Saisai

Age: 21

Ranking: No. 62

Nationality: Chinese

First-round opponent: Lucie Hradecka

Feat of arms: I know, she’s maybe not so young at 21 years of age but she does offer good potential still. She has been playing, and winning, often in China: of the 13 singles finals and the 14 doubles finals she reached, only three in total occurred outside of Asia. Still, Zheng Saisai is a member of the Top 100 and is already quite the accomplished doubles player. If the reader happens to know her from one performance and one tournament, it’s from a semifinal at the 2013 Australian Open; that or a quarterfinal at the 2013 French Open.

*****

Men’s draw

Who: Thanasi Kokkinakis

Age: 19

Ranking: No. 84

Nationality: Australian

First-round opponent: Nikoloz Basilashvili

Feat of arms: It’s mostly in 2015 that Thanasi Kokkinakis has made a name for himself. Sure, there were the two Australian Open and US Open juniors’ finals he reached in 2013, but come on. This season, the young Aussie broke in the Top 100 for the first time, perhaps being the first to contribute to Ernests Gulbis’s 2015 season of hell, while also making the fourth round at Indian Wells after receiving a wild card entry for the tournament. Before long, he won’t ever need these wild card invitations.

Who: Borna Coric

Age: 18

Ranking: No. 46

Nationality: Croatian

First-round opponent: Sam Querrey

Feat of arms: Remember that thing about potential? Borna Coric will turn 19 only at the very, very end of the 2015 season in November but already boasts a strong ATP World Tour ranking. His 2013 season was a banner year for him, as he made the semifinals in the juniors for the Australian Open, the French Open, the quarterfinal at Wimbledon and won the US Open and became the No. 1 junior in the world. Coric’s best at a Grand Slam event is a second round at last year’s US Open; that he qualified for the main draw makes me think that maybe, just maybe, he could eventually become the best player on tour.

Who: Nick Kyrgios

Age: 20

Ranking: No. 30

Nationality: Australian

First-round opponent: Denis Istomin

Feat of arms: Or if it’s not Borna Coric who replaces Novak Djokovic, then it might be this other young Aussie. We’d like to take credit for Nick Kyrgios’s excellence after predicting great and grand things for him in this very space, but we’re far too humble for that. We said in our season preview that we thought he would make a Grand Slam final in 2015 and while the French Open is not the event where his style of play is most likely to translate to success, he remains promising. Kyrgios is seeded at a major tournament for the first time in his career, which is the next normal step after making the quarterfinals of last year’s Wimbledon and this season’s Australian Open. If you’ve followed tennis recently, you know that Kyrgios beat some guy named Rafael Nadal on the way to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon last year.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

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