Tennis Elbow: Robin Soderling: From tennis to paint

October 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

-Robin Soderling is designing tennis balls.

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

-Robin Soderling discusses paint.

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

-Dora the Explorer conquers all.

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

-Even Robin Soderling is powerless against his children.

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

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

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

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

October 13, 2014

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

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

But let’s start somewhere else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

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

October 6, 2014

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

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

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

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

Main draw

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Novak Djokovic over Milos Raonic

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

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

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

Tennis Elbow: 2014 US Open: A study in contrast at Flushing Meadows

September 1, 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 first week of the 2014 US Open through the eyes of his favourite match so far.

The leg cramps started in the middle of the fourth set for Nick Kyrgios.

At around midnight local time, the ushers had let the crowd from the upper deck come down to sit closer to the court and the action. It had all the makings of a classic night at the US Open, the kind that we remember because they produce memorable moments and last until the wee hours of the night. Think along the lines of the match between Andre Agassi and James Blake in 2005, or the one between John Isner and Philipp Kohlschreiber in 2012.

Up to that point, Kyrgios and Tommy Robredo had been playing quality tennis, too, but right around midnight is when it stopped. Or rather, when the Australian’s level dropped. Or rather, it’s right where Robredo finally managed to exert his will.

At 4-1 and on his serve, Kyrgios started cramping. He was broken, and the match would end only much earlier than the 2 a.m. time that had seemed a given just a set earlier. It was a fitting end, given that the match had started with the Australian jumping out to a 5-0 lead after barely 15 minutes of play. Considering that beginning, why shouldn’t it have ended this way, as a mirror image? Sometimes, the classics don’t happen, and it’s fine because the tennis that we did get was remarkable.

After two hours and 28 minutes and a 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(4) and 6-3 win, the Spaniard was through to the fourth round, where he will meet the other Swiss guy Stanislas Wawrinka.

In more ways than one, this Kyrgios and Robredo class was a study in contrast.

On one side of the net, there was the brash exuberance of young Kyrgios. It’s easy to dismiss the 19-year-old as overhyped, or as too foolish to know what exactly it is that he has accomplished this season, but Kyrgios is neither. He’s young, as evidenced by his one (flashy) earring, and has all the talent in the world.

Most importantly, if he’s brash it’s usually not for negative purposes. He’ll talk to himself, even commenting on the happenings of a match, but it’s not deconstructive in the same way that it used to be for, say, Marat Safin. He’ll scream between points, to himself and for himself, because for the most part it helps him. It helps him forget the previous point and focus for his next forehand.

The throne atop the ATP World Tour will quite possibly be Kyrgios’s before long, as he has all the shots. He has the powerful grounstrokes, the effortless serve and the technique you need to succeed—not to mention that he has a sense for the moment. It’s swag, the kids would call it, and oh is Kyrgios all “swagged out”! There’s the earring, but it’s so much more than that. At 6-5 in the third set and just after the changeover and Robredo about to serve, Kyrgios just looked into the camera. He also thanked a ball boy, because he had done his job. Kyrgios is a star, and he already knows it.

On the other side, there was experience. Robredo has been on the Tour seemingly 74 years (i.e. it’s actually only been 16 years), but it’s silly to describe his play against Kyrgios as simply experience talking. Once he had settled, and had let Kyrgios’s play catch up to him a bit after his blistering start, the Spaniard went toe to toe with one of the sport’s young upcomers and for large portions of the match, even dominated him.

Robredo is a versatile player who doesn’t miss much, but he took it to new heights in this match—in the pivoting third set, the Spaniard made 0 unforced errors. (That’s as many as you and I, and we were sitting on the couch in our respective living room.) For Kyrgios, this must have felt even worse than hitting the ball against the wall, because at least the wall will not try to beat you. The wall only bounces the ball back, but Robredo had plenty of pop and aggression in his shots.

But of course, Robredo is experienced, and a wily veteran would have an easier time to bounce back from a one-set, 0-2 and 0-40 deficit. If the Spaniard managed to do that, he has his forehand to thank, as it’s that side that inflicted most of the damage against Kyrgios. The 32-year-old also understands that Kyrgios is walking a fine line every time he screams to himself. It tends to be positive, but it isn’t always. And it’s then that Robredo makes things worse by giving Kyrgios yet another sliced backhand to hit back, or by attacking once more with his forehand.

In the end, Robredo broke Kyrgios physically. For one night in Flushing Meadows, experience trumped youth—you know, while it still could. We didn’t even need to stay up that late to watch it.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: 2014 US Open: This is America, man

August 25, 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 looks at a few of the more compelling North American players competing at Flushing Meadows.

Everything is better, or at least bigger, in North America—and that includes the tennis.

The US Open is the final Grand Slam of the season, and every year it also seems as if it’s ending the season. (But that’s probably more due to the fact that I live in Canada and because as soon as the tournament has crowned a champion, most of Canada starts anticipating the NHL season.)

As depressing as the conclusion of the US Open feels every year, in 2014 it’s double the trouble. Already, Rafael Nadal has pulled out the tournament, leaving the men’s draw with one fewer worthy foe. It’s too bad too, because the Spaniard is the one who pushes the ATP World Tour to its maximum.

That all said, let’s take a look at a few of the Canadians and Americans who seem poised for a great showing in New York—or whose play of late make for a great narrative. Because it’s really the latter that I’m looking for.

Men’s singles championship

Milos Raonic

Milos Raonic must be relieved. He’s seeded No. 5, and the draw put him at the 64th position, in the top half of Novak Djokovic rather than that of Roger Federer. The young Canadian has lost in this matchup against the Swiss all six times that they’ve played it—and if that unfortunate streak reaches the lucky 7, then at least it will mean that Raonic has reached the first Grand Slam final of his career.

By any measure, the 23-year-old has been a revelation this season, as he’s reached a career-high of No. 6 on the ATP World Tour. And yet, his problem now is to figure out how to keep progressing. It’s great to make the quarterfinals here, the quarterfinals there, but that’s not how you reach the top. You have to win major tournaments, otherwise you’re stuck being Tomas Berdych. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Raonic would disappoint all Canadians if he’s content with being Berdych.

Vasek Pospisil/Jack Sock

Can the tag team duo do it again? There wouldn’t be the mythical story this time, or the text messages. There would just be Canadian Vasek Pospisil and American Jack Sock taking New York by storm. (There’s your elevator pitch for the movie.) Flushing Meadows is sure to fall under the spell of the PopSock mania, at least to the extent that a doubles match ever does do it anymore in today’s tennis.

Can’t you see it already, the rowdy New York crowd at night on Arthur Ashe Stadium? Let’s hope they last until the second weekend, and beyond.

John Isner

This is it for John Isner. After seven years on Tour, this US Open is one of the remaining legitimate chances he has to make a splash. Though truth be told, at 29 years of age, it’s probably too late. Isner will forever be the tall American who couldn’t quite reach the height on the courts that his stature hinted at.

Yet, we tend to undervalue him a little bit. Since 2007, he has amassed a little under $7 million in prize money as well as nine titles. His career-best of No. 9 would also be the envy of many other players… but despite that, Isner’s legacy will forever be his five-set win at Wimbledon in 2010 against Nicolas Mahut. Now that I think about it, I mean, it could be worse.

Women’s singles championship

Serena Williams

Serena Williams took the week off, because what else might she have accomplished by playing tennis so close to the start of the US Open? In winning the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, Williams showed that she was as ready as she could be for the US Open. She played five matches against players ranked No. 22 (i.e. Samantha Stosur) or better, and she only lost one set. Why play at another event when she could rest instead and gun for a sixth title in Flushing Meadows, and a third in a row?

Just write her name down on one side of the draw and wait to see who meets her in the ultimate match.

Eugenie Bouchard

Well, the good news is that Eugenie Bouchard has finally won a match again. After suffering three losses in a row dating back to her disappointing Wimbledon performance in the final against Petra Kvitova, the Canadian hadn’t won a match. This week in New Haven for the Connecticut Open, Bouchard won a match. (The bad news, of course, is that she lost the very next match she played, 6-2 and 6-2 against Stosur.)

I’ve tackled her very real struggles just last week in this column, and I have only one more question. Can Bouchard make her fourth Grand Slam semifinal (or better) in 2014? That would give her probably a better haul than anyone else on this season—and yet, unless she wins in New York, you’d almost have to look at her season as a disappointment. So close, yet so far—though since July, she’s mostly been so far.

Coco Vandeweghe

It’s not so much that I believe Coco Vandeweghe can reach the semifinals in New York, or anything like that, because I don’t. If she even manages to make it through Carla Suarez Navarro in the second round, Vandeweghe would likely play Stosur, and then Serena Williams. What’s much more likely is that she wins one or two matches, but that’s all.

See this, rather, as overdue praise for the American’s great showing in Montreal, where she beat both Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic on her way to the quarterfinals. Vandeweghe has been playing well of late, and has a career-high ranking of No. 38 to show for it. In a sport where we tend to celebrate only the superhuman, it’s good to remember that most are just like us—happy to be playing and trying their damn hardest to win a match or two.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Don’t leave the Eugenie Bouchard bandwagon just yet

August 18, 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 looks at the recent string of disappointing results by Canadian Eugenie Bouchard.

This has been about as bad a run for Eugenie Bouchard as it could be.

How do we know? We know, because there are plenty of ways to document her misery, too. I mean, take a pick out of a large possibility of numbers, really.

At Wimbledon this year, Bouchard won six matches in a row and 12 of 12 sets to reach her first Grand Slam final. She reached a high of No. 7 on the WTA Tour rankings and since, well, the fall from grace has been rather abrupt.

Bouchard lost the Wimbledon title to Petra Kvitova, and she hasn’t really stopped losing since. She lost against Kvitova at the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, crashed out of the Rogers Cup in a nightmare scenario (though you may not have seen it due to a local power outage in Montreal on that day), and then lost in her first match in Cincinnati this past week.

That’s three losses in a row, all at different events—but wait, it gets better. (Or worse, I guess.) In the past month, Bouchard lost three matches in a row, six of the eight sets she played, and 42 of the 62 games that she played.

Talk about a slump, right?

Right. And more than the three losses, it’s the manner by which they happened. She couldn’t, or wouldn’t adjust. In the Wimbledon final, Bouchard lost 6-3 and 6-0 in a score line that was probably kinder to the Montreal native than the match really was. Bouchard couldn’t dictate play and wouldn’t adjust, so she lost. In Montreal, in her hometown, nothing worked against qualifier Shelby Rogers as she suffered a stunning loss that included, despite a good second set, two “bagels” and 6-0 sets.

She had chocked and to her credit, she didn’t hide from it. Regarding the expectations that she failed to meet in Montreal, she had told the press that, “I knew this coming into the match, so I can’t use that as excuses.”

Sometimes you wish for the best so damn hard and so damn much that the only possible outcome is the very worst one.

Bouchard turned professional for the 2013 season, though she had played in a few events the year before, and promptly was named the newcomer of the year that season. In just 18 months, she has become one of the best players on the planet. It’s easy to forget that it all happened so quickly. That it happened without the usual bumps in the road. It’s easy to forget that she’s still so young. That she still can’t buy alcohol legally in the United States.

Is this the time to jump ship and abort the mission on the Eugenie Bouchard bandwagon? Of course not. Perhaps we should look at this most recent loss, a 4-6, 6-3 and 2-6 decision against veteran Svetlana Kuznotseva, as progress. Bouchard battled and, well, sometimes you lose matches against tough opponents.

And that’s probably the lesson here. Sometimes you lose. There are a few outliers, namely Rafael Nadal’s godly 2013 season, Novak Djokovic’s equally great 2011 season (or any number of the prime years of Roger Federer), and Serena Williams’s 12 months overlapping the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, but the rest of us will suffer our fair share of losses in tennis.

Yet, Bouchard has suffered many losses this season, but doesn’t it seem like they’re mostly mostly the product of her having played so often? In 2014, she has won the first title of her young career, and her haul of two semifinals and one final at the three Grand Slams are unmatched. Every career, every year even, has ups and downs, and she was due for a letdown—because seemingly everything that could have gone right up to this point this year, even in her career up to this point, did.

Maybe that’s precisely why it’s so crushing that Bouchard doesn’t have any Grand Slam trophies to show for her great 2014 season. It’s easy to say that there will be more chances, but that doesn’t mean that any one occasion isn’t the perfect one for the breakthrough. By constantly hoping that the breakthrough can come the next time, unfortunately maybe it never will.

You want to say that it’ll be better for the rest of her career—and yes, it will be, as long as she does bounce back. (And if she doesn’t, well, she probably was never meant to really dominate the sport.)

Has all the air gone out from the balloon? No actually, that was just the excess air. We can soar again, just in time to see how Bouchard will react to all these losses.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

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