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

Tennis Elbow: Why is nobody talking about Carla Suarez Navarro’s season?

May 18, 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 quite the season for an overlooked player.

Her WTA Tour webpage says that Carla Suarez Navarro stands five-foot-four and, for having interviewed her twice, she can’t possibly be much taller.

Yet, she is ranked at No. 8 this morning after losing in the 2015 BNL Internazionali d’Italia final against Maria Sharapova by the score of 4-6, 7-5 and 6-1. That ranking is already quite the progression from the No. 18 echelon she reached at end of the 2014 season and for that, she can thank her performances in 2015.

Indeed, the small one is having quite the large season on the WTA Tour. Suarez Navarro has remained busy in 2015, already competing in 11 tournaments, and she’s certainly made the most of it: after her loss in the Rome final, she now has qualified for the quarterfinals or better at 10 of the 11 events, amassing over $1,273,672 in the process. If the 26-year-old keeps winning at this pace, a spot in Singapore for the year-end WTA Finals seems all but assured.

She’s currently 12-7 against seeded players in 2015, another reason why her season has been amazing. What is amazing, too, is that as far as I can tell there isn’t much fanfare about the kind of tennis the Spaniard is playing. (Maybe there is in Spain, but I can’t speak Spanish and I wouldn’t know.)

Maybe it’s because despite all the excellence, Suarez Navarro isn’t winning the tournaments. She has progressed so far in the draw of so many tournaments, but still hasn’t won in 2015. Maybe that’s why, but that would overlook the fact that she has lost finals against Andrea Petkovic, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, who aren’t exactly novice players on the WTA Tour.

Suarez Navarro isn’t winning tournaments and, in that respect, she’s pretty much like the vast majority on players on tour: much is made about the dominance of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the past decade on the ATP World Tour, but only a rare few players actually win tournaments in the WTA too. That’s the nature of tennis anyway—you battle an opponent only for the right, if you win, to repeat it all again the next day and against a new opponent.

In tennis, you’re much more likely not to win the events you do compete in. That doesn’t mean you’re not good enough.

Or maybe it’s not that she isn’t winning tournaments, but the fact that she couldn’t win at the big one. Remember that one tournament where Suarez Navarro couldn’t qualify for the quarterfinals? It happened at the Australian Open early in January, where the Spaniard lost in the first round against a player named Carina Witthoeft; Suarez Navarro’s worst event in 2015 also happens to have been the year’s biggest, and maybe that’s been what has doomed her.

Whatever the reason, I hope this modest column can help shine a light on Suarez Navarro’s excellence. She’s small in stature, but plays an exciting brand of tennis with topspin-heavy groundstrokes, and many attacking shots and volleys. She is equally as compelling off the courts in interviews, when she used her broken English to delight reporters (…on her way to the quarterfinals!) in last summer’s Rogers Cup in Montreal.

Another big tournament starts at the end of this month, with the tennis world descending on the City of Paris. This year at the French Open, Suarez Navarro has quarterfinals points to defend from a year ago; she should be fine.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: 2015 Internazionali BNL d’Italia: Men’s and women’s draw preview and analysis

May 11, 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 Internazionali BNL d’Italia.

This is it: the last big one before the big one.

The clay court season has just about concluded, as quickly as it has arrived and started. In only two weeks from now, the 2015 Roland Garros Grand Slam tournament will start, and 14 days later we will all move on to prepare for Wimbledon.

That’s tennis in 2015, folks; seldom is there ever any downtime. Andy Murray and Petra Kvitova won the 2015 Mutua Madrid Open titles for men and women just this previous week, and now we get to preview another joint ATP World Tour/WTA Tour venture.

Women’s draw

Serena Williams has finally lost in 2015, but will this matter?

Probably not. Serena Williams has lost, but she remains by far the best player on the WTA Tour and, though she has been dealt a relatively tough draw in Italy, the smart bet is always on the American. Meeting her in the quarterfinals? Fellow American Sloane Stephens.

The second portion of the main draw belongs to Maria Sharapova, who played again this past week in Madrid after taking some time off/losing matches she shouldn’t have. The Russian will be looking to complete her preparation for the French Open and I believe she can equal in Rome the semifinal she reached in Madrid: making it to the final four would pit her up against Serena Williams and, well, Sharapova hasn’t beaten the Williams sister in more than a decade.

Somehow, some way, through the controversy, the new coach and the many, many losses (i.e. six matches in a row now) Eugenie Bouchard is still seeded at No. 6 for a WTA Premier event. If the Canadian doesn’t start winning soon, this is likely to change, as she’ll be hard pressed to equal her French Open semifinal of 2014.

Simona Halep also needs a good showing in Italy, as she’ll hope to use the event as a springboard for a repeat of her 2014 French Open final; she lost her very first match in Madrid, never a good omen. The Romanian has a tricky draw in Rome, with two players in Lucie Safarova and Svetlana Kuznetsova who made the quarterfinals in Madrid.

Quaterfinals: Serena Williams over Sloane Stephens; Maria Sharapova over Angelique Kerber; Petra Kvitova over Carla Suarez Navarro; Simona Halep over Ekaterina Makarova

Semifinals: Serena Williams over Maria Sharapova; Petra Kvitova over Simona Halep

Final: Petra Kvitova over Serena Williams

*****

Men’s draw

Can Novak Djokovic keep it going this week? Would a loss hinder his confidence and his preparation for the French Open?

The Serb has played better than everyone in this 2015 season and the next big tournament he loses will be the first in about eight months. His draw is very manageable, but he was still dealt a difficult potential quarterfinal match against Kei Nishikori, a player who has the game to overtake him.

Andy Murray will arrive in Rome high on confidence; whether this is a result of him having won last week’s Mutua Madrid Open or the fact that he approves of Charlotte as the given name of the new Royal Princess, we may never know. Murray’s section of the main draw is littered with big names of players who haven’t played well recently and I wouldn’t be too concerned if I were the Brit. A place in the quarterfinals against David Ferrer should come rather easily for Murray.

We have come to this, yes: Rafael Nadal enters the last clay court tournament before the French Open as the …4th seed? Yep. The Spaniard has been better in recent weeks but in the same way that he can’t reliably count on his health, neither can the tennis world fully count on Nadal. What was once seemingly his given right, to win all clay court events in the world, is now more uncertain than ever. But why not one last vintage performance from Nadal this week?

The final section of the main draw will probably be the most contested of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia Masters 1000, with plenty of star power, tricky veterans and players in form. But because the previous three quarterfinals have been fairly conservative, I’ll pick a surprise contestant in Kevin Anderson.

Quarterfinals: Novak Djokovic over Kei Nishikori; Andy Murray over David Ferrer; Rafael Nadal over Stanislas Wawrinka; Tomas Berdych over Kevin Anderson

Semifinals: Novak Djokovic over Andy Murray; Rafael Nadal over Tomas Berdych

Final: Novak Djokovic over Rafael Nadal

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: 2015 Mutua Madrid Open: Men’s and women’s draw preview and analysis

May 4, 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 Mutua Madrid Open.

The tennis clay court season continues this week, as the world of tennis descends upon the Spanish capital. The Mutua Madrid Open is among the biggest events in the world every year with a joint ATP World Tour/WTA Tour venture, and this year it’s no different. This year, there are a few big names missing on both sides, but by and large the draws are loaded.

Our series of tournament previews continues this week for the Mutua Madrid Open. We have no idea who might win, but that has never stopped us before.

Women’s draw

If Serena Williams intends to keep her strong 2015 season going, she will certainly have to earn it.

The best player on Tour enters as the favourite, but she gets a much tougher main draw than she might otherwise deserve—though, of course, deserving something means nothing. Though she is in Spain, Williams will likely feel right at home, with potentially three matches against fellow Americans just to reach the quarterfinals. Waiting, and getting defeated, will be Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro.

The second quarter is full of players who either 1) don’t quite excel on clay or 2) are slumping. The section is wide open, so let’s have a quarterfinal prediction that reflects this.

The same thing could be said about the third quarter, which includes two qualifiers and three wild-card entries, except that there are three pretty large tenors as well. Agnieszka Radwanska has already played in 8 tournaments in 2015, but her results have been extremely poor: only three times has she won at least two matches at a same tournament. Maybe her turnaround can start this week.

The big winner, on paper, is the second-seeded Simona Halep, who gets a draw with very few potential stumbling blocks. Joining her in the quarterfinals will be the other big winner from this final section, American Madison Keys, but only if she can navigate a tricky match against Angelique Kerber in the second round.

Quarterfinals: Serena Williams over Carla Suarez Navarro; Andrea Petkovic over Sara Errani; Maria Sharapova over Agnieszka Radwanska; Simona Halep over Madison Keys

Semifinals: Serena Williams over Andrea Petkovic; Simona Halep over Maria Sharapova

Final: Serena Williams over Simona Halep

*****

Men’s draw

With the absence of Novak Djokovic, the 2015 Mutua Madrid Open is suddenly wide open; we expect (relative) chaos and the unknown to prevail.

Roger Federer isn’t quite the beast on clay that he was once upon a time, but he is still among the best. He will compete in Madrid to avenge a difficult Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters and to perfect his preparation for the French Open. After a potential tricky match against Nick Kyrgios, it should be smooth sailing until the quarterfinals against Tomas Berdych for King Roger.

Rafael Nadal is back on the ATP World Tour, but will this be the week that he finally, you know, is back? The Spaniard hasn’t been up to his standards in 2015 and, though he deserves some kind of benefit of the doubt, we’re probably at the point where he shouldn’t be considered the de facto favourite for Roland Garros. A good showing in his home tournament would go a long way toward helping him regain his confidence.

The third section of the main draw is the hometown draw, with no fewer than five Spaniards. Among them? David Ferrer, of whom we like to say that he is the man who simply never loses before, or wins after, the quarterfinals of tournaments…And yet, we see Ferrer bowing down relatively early, a round earlier than usual, against Fernando Verdasco. But Kei Nishikori stands alone in this draw.

Andy Murray hasn’t played in about five weeks and we’ll be curious to see what the birth of a new royal baby will have on his game. We know that the Scot had been beaming with anticipation and that he had managed to master his emotions in 2015, with excellent results at the Australian Open, the BNP Paribas Open and the Miami Open. Alas, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge still haven’t announced the name of their new baby girl and we suspect this might hurt Murray’s chances in Madrid. In his place in the quarterfinals against the Canadian Milos Raonic, count on the Frenchman Gael Monfils.

Quarterfinals: Roger Federer over Tomas Berdych; Rafael Nadal over Fabio Fognini; Kei Nishikori over Fernando Verdasco; Milos Raonic over Gael Monfils

Semifinals: Rafael Nadal over Roger Federer; Kei Nishikori over Milos Raonic

Final: Kei Nishikori over Rafael Nadal

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Novak Djokovic’s best season yet?

April 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 recaps Novak Djokovic’s excellent 2015 season.

When will Novak Djokovic stop this season?

He’s technically already lost in 2015, twice as a matter a fact—against Roger Federer at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships final and against Ivo Karlovic way back at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open at the beginning of the season.

Djokovic has already lost two matches, but his 2015 season could well be on its way to being more impressive than all that he accomplished four years ago, during his timeless 2011.

Oh, of course it isn’t right to compare the two. One season is finished while the other is only a third of the way through, so the accomplishments of the latter will certainly pale in comparison right now. The Serb’s 2011 season, when he didn’t lose over four and a half months and for 41 matches, is among the very best that the sport has ever seen. You likely remember it, but here are some of the highlights: Djokovic won three Grand Slam and 10 overall titles, over $12 million in prize money and compiled a 10-1 record against Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

If Nadal called this 2011 season “probably the highest level of tennis that I ever saw,” it’s likely because it very well could be. It’s also because the Spaniard lost six finals against Djokovic, on three different surfaces.

Djokovic’s 2015 season pales in comparison as I am writing this, but the clay court season has only barely arrived. Yet, already his accomplishments hint at perhaps an equally great season; it’s not only that Djokovic has won the 2015 Australian Open, it’s that he has won literally every event of note so far. His two losses have occurred at minor tournaments, after all.

It gets better. He’s made history in 2015, for example. In winning the 2015 Monte Carlo Rolex Masters, Djokovic became the first player ever to win the first three Masters 1000 events of a season. You have to go back to last season, in September for the 2014 Shanghai Rolex Masters, to find a tournament of note that the Serb hasn’t won; in total, the 27-year-old has emerged victorious at the previous six events he competed. (Tennis is a sport where, by and large, the larger public mostly cares about only the best players and the best tournaments.)

But the reason why I am so bullish for the remainder of Djokovic’s season is not because of something like #NoleFamDay, but rather that his two main opponents appear to be out of sorts.

Federer only plays tennis here and there and, while he will compete at Grand Slam events, he doesn’t appear to be up to the task of challenging the very best in the five-set formula. More and more, Federer needs to avoid one or two of Djokovic, Nadal and Andy Murray if he hopes to add to his haul of 17 Grand Slams, and even that might be a stretch: he had had the perfect draw at the 2014 US Open and couldn’t even seal the deal.

Meanwhile, the other pretender to Djokovic’s throne is in even worse shape. For the past few years, Nadal has always had difficulty staying healthy and in peak playing condition for long periods of time, but he never had problems competing mentally.

That might be changing. Rumours had had it that Nadal’s confidence was low, something he has confirmed, but it could be even worse than anticipated if we are to believe Dr. Allen Fox. Maybe Nadal isn’t quite a broken man, but the player of old wouldn’t have lost in straight sets to Fabio Fognini.

For the first time in his career, Djokovic could be relatively alone at the top and, as a result, could accomplish something that neither Federer nor Nadal have ever done: win the Grand Slam. Oh, but don’t take my word for it—this prediction comes from my colleague Parsa Samii.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Eugenie Bouchard’s unselfish decision at the Fed Cup

April 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 recaps the Fed Cup weekend in Montreal.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that at least the two losses will not count on her year-to-date official record. Eugenie Bouchard lost two Fed Cup matches, but I guess that they don’t count.

Canada lost its tie in the World Group Playoffs over the weekend against Romania by the score of 3-1, a result that relegates the country in the World Group II of the Fed Cup for the 2016 season; the team’s first stint in the main group since 1994 lasted all of a few months.

A look at the team’s roster for the tie says that captain Sylvain Bruneau settled on very much the same lineup as the one he had selected for the previous tie against Czech Republic (i.e. Sharon Fichman, Gabriela Dabrowski and Françoise Abanda), save for one exception.

Yep, hometown favourite Eugenie Bouchard was among those donning the Canadian colours, something she had decided not to do in Quebec City against Czech Republic earlier in 2015. Had she been available then, Bruneau would have of course picked Bouchard but the player had decided to forego the opportunity. As a result, she was criticized in many places, notably in this very column (i.e. my wish is that my readers bring the same passion that they criticize with when they praise someone; they were rough in that column).

But this week, let’s praise her. Let’s praise her for understanding that while the Fed Cup isn’t the biggest competition of the WTA Tour season, she knows that she shouldn’t turn down too many matches when her confidence appears shaken, no matter where these matches happen. She has withdrawn from the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix this week, sure, but that’s likely due to the fact that she wanted to compete in this Fed Cup tie.

Yes, this weekend back in her hometown only added to Bouchard’s misery, but at least she can hold her head high knowing that she competed and represented her country. It’s not a match won, but maybe it’s something?

Then again, maybe not. In the two matches that she played at Maurice-Richard Arena—yep, a Fed Cup tie played in an arena, only in Canada—Bouchard looked distraught and like she would have preferred to do ANYTHING but play tennis.

This malaise isn’t new for the Canadian. For the past few months, starting with the inaugural Prudential Hong Kong Tennis Open last September and then following this season with her coaching saga, Bouchard has made headlines mostly for the wrong reasons. This weekend also, maybe you want to overlook the two matches she lost against lower-ranked players, in which case you’re still left with a bad headline.

A bad headline and a non-handshake. When she was the young upstart, a stunt like not shaking an opponent’s hand at a press conference was adorable and tolerated because winning cures all ills.

But now? Bouchard has lost three Tour matches in a row (plus those Fed Cup matches) and has only a 15-15 record since losing the 2014 Wimbledon final. So when she decides to not shake her hand this time, it’s not quite as funny. What is funny, rather, is when the opponent that she shunned at the press conference beats her and then mocks her non-handshake gesture with her coach. Because, yep, winning cures all.

And yet, are we making too much out of this? Sure, her confidence appears incredibly shaken. But she did make the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and that’s what Bouchard’s fans (and optimists) will point to.

But if she continues playing this way, surely she will not equal that result at Roland Garros.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: 2015 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters draw preview and analysis

April 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 previews the 2015 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters.

Welcome to the clay court season, a part of the calendar where a whole lot happens in a matter of just a few weeks.

For us North American folks, the moment that we start seeing the red clay also usually coincides with the return of our green grass, with snow finally relegated to our nightmares and unfortunate situations.

This season has traditionally been the rock upon which Rafael Nadal has built his impressive empire, as he’s made it a habit of winning just about every clay court tournament, but there have been little chinks in his armor in years past.

Never has this been more obvious than in this 2015 season, as King Rafa’s confidence is at rock bottom. Will a return to his old kingdom cure all ills, or will the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters crown a different champion for the third season in a row?

Main draw

Yes. Yes, I believe so, that the 2015 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters will crown a non-Nadal champion for the third year in a row. It’s all yours, Mr. Novak Djokovic. With the way that the Serb is currently playing, his draw seems entirely inconsequential so why not throw up a prayer and predict that Mikhail Youzhny might join him in the quarterfinals? It will not matter anyway.

Unthinkably, Nadal is seeded No. 3 in his old kingdom and his quest for his first title of the season will be difficult. In succession, he is slated to face Dominic Thiem, John Isner and, yep, his old pal David Ferrer in the quarterfinals, because making the quarterfinals is what Ferrer (almost) always does.

The main draw was kind to Tomas Berdych and Canadian Milos Raonic. Both have a potential match with a Spaniard (i.e. Roberto Bautista Agut for the former and Tommy Robredo for the latter) standing in the way of their place in the quarterfinals. I don’t foresee many problems; if they need a three-set win to make it, then so be it.

If you had asked me before the tournament to name the defending champion, I don’t believe I would have guessed Stanislas Wawrinka: this shows how much he’s relatively disappointed since winning the 2014 Australian Open. Or maybe it’s not right to say that he has disappointed? Maybe we just thought that the man would take the ATP World Tour by storm after Melbourne and then Monte-Carlo, but that was never in the works. Wawrinka is yet again a member of the Top 10; that’s what he’s mostly been during his career. Despite the few bigger wins to his name, nothing’s really changed.

But anyway, the final section of the draw has a few potential titanic matches, notably Fernando Verdasco and Grigor Dimitrov in the first round. Fabio Fognini, Jerzy Janowicz and Alexandr Dolgopolov also all could have success against the right opponents… except that Wawrinka and Roger Federer aren’t the right opponents. I see the two Swiss emerging unscathed from this section.

*****

Quarterfinals: Novak Djokovic over Mikhail Youzhny; Rafael Nadal over David Ferrer; Milos Raonic over Tomas Berdych; Stanislas Wawrinka over Roger Federer

Semifinals: Novak Djokovic over Rafael Nadal; Stanislas Wawrinka over Milos Raonic

Final: Novak Djokovic over Stanislas Wawrinka

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: The season of Novak Djokovic

April 6, 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 Miami Open, presented by Itau.

They’re born a week apart, but that’s just about all they have in common these days.

The younger Novak Djokovic beat the older Andy Murray to take home the title at the 2015 Miami Open, presented by Itau. The 7-6(3), 4-6, 6-0 win is the Serb’s seventh over the Brit, with already three coming in 2015 after the Australian Open final and the BNP Paribas Open semifinal. Djokovic has an 18-8 head-to-head record against Murray and, most importantly, has already three important titles in this young 2015 season.

He’s playing as well as he can and he knows it too. After his win, Djokovic said that, “I’m trying to enjoy the moment and also utilize this time of my career where I’m probably playing the tennis of my life.”

This “tennis of my life” is probably between his current level in 2015 and when he excelled during the 2011 season, but I suppose that he would know best—at worst, this is the recency effect and who can blame him? Any which way you see it, Djokovic is playing excellent tennis right now, but just how excellent has he been?

There have been three tournaments of note thus far this season in the Australian Open, the BNP Paribas Open and the Miami Open, and the Serb has been crowned champion at each. He’s laboured a little bit each time, notably against Stanislas Wawrinka in Melbourne, or Roger Federer at Indian Wells, or Alexandr Dolgopolov earlier in Miami, but Djokovic has won each time.

Just how much has he excelled? The Serb has become the first man in history to pull off the Indian Wells/Miami combo in three different seasons. This week will be the Djoker’s 141st week on top the Emirates ATP Rankings, tying him with Rafael Nadal for the sixth-most in history. And with over 4,000 points more than Federer, the year-end No. 1 ranking could be his for the fourth time in the past five years.

“I’m feeling confident and physically fit,” Djokovic said after the final in Miami. “I am aware that this cannot go forever.”

Maybe not, but there’s no doubt that he’ll take it for now.

And wait, there is more. This win in Miami gives Djokovic a 22nd Masters 1000 title, one short of Federer and five away from Nadal.

We’ve often harped here, in part because we are such big Djokovic fans we know, that the man will go down in history as underappreciated because he will be remembered as the third banana to Federer and Nadal. But it seems increasingly likely that the Serb will both 1) reach 10 Grand Slam titles for his career and 2) complete the career Grand Slam. With a little luck, Djokovic could capture another three majors and move into a tie with Rod Laver and Björn Borg for fifth in history.

Should he reach those lofty heights, then suddenly he’s much better than just the best returner in history. Consider that 43 of Djokovic’s 142 career losses have come against Nadal and Federer, possibly the two greatest champions of the sport. We’ll remember him as one of the 10 best in history, but maybe it should be more considering that he’ll have played his entire career with the Fed and Rafa.

But of course, Djokovic will not win those tournaments all at once, or today. For now, this fifth Miami Open title suffices.

Murray, meanwhile, makes a return at No. 3 this week. Seven days older than Djokovic, he still lags behind on the tennis courts however. In fact, he continues his work as the de facto rich man’s David Ferrer, winning often and beating just about everyone but the top, top three players. There is no shame in that.

Murray was seven total points away from Djokovic on Sunday in Miami and his arrow is pointing upward, like Djokovic’s I guess, but that’s about where the comparisons end.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: The new normal of Rafael Nadal?

March 30, 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 Miami Open, presented by Itau.

We make predictions mostly to be wrong, sure, but sometimes we’d rather be right.

If only because our prediction had been on a safe bet and the fact that it went awry suggests that maybe something could be wrong. If only because this means that maybe that safe bet isn’t quite so safe anymore.

Rafael Nadal lost in his second match at the Miami Open, presented by Itau, against Fernando Verdasco by the score of 6-4, 2-6, 6-3. This is Verdasco’s second win over Nadal in a row, a feat that wouldn’t exactly be noteworthy if Verdasco hadn’t lost in the prior 13 times of this match-up.

So there it is, Rafael Nadal has lost it and will never be the same… unless, of course, if maybe this doesn’t mean much. That other loss against Verdasco only happened in 2012 in Madrid, so it’s not exactly right to say that Nadal has lost it based on two losses that occurred three years apart.

Neither is it right for the other three losses Nadal has suffered in 2015, against Milos Raonic (i.e. in Indian Wells), Fabio Fognini (i.e. in Rio de Janeiro) and Tomas Berdych (i.e. in Melbourne). Singularly, these losses aren’t significant or really meaningful—they’re only so when lumped together. Here are three men against whom the Spaniard had been riding a 27-0 combined streak.

What is significant, however, is that Nadal was relatively harmless against his countryman this past week in Miami. He had all the chances in the world, also known as 12, to break Verdasco’s serve, but only converted three times. The best players don’t win most, or all, of the points—they win most of the key points, and Nadal certainly didn’t do this in Miami. And he hasn’t really done it so far this season.

Part of the reason why has to do with the fact that he again and again chose to retreat against Verdasco. His backhand lacked any kind of bite and power and Nadal chose to hit rallies from behind the baseline. This strategy works on clay and the Spaniard will be ecstatic to see the ATP World Tour calendar now turn to the clay season.

Most of all, that’s why it’s important not to overreact to Nadal’s curious losses since the beginning of the year—he’ll always have clay, right? He will turn 29 in June and does not have many seasons left before he retires, which is another way of saying that Nadal can’t keep doing this forever. He knows it and we know it.

But he also knows that he doesn’t have to keep doing it forever, it’s only for two months at a time between April and May. Should he manage this, stay intent on focusing strictly on the clay court season, then he could add the points, the prize money and, perhaps, the Roland Garros titles to one day soon challenge Roger Federer. (Who knows? It’s only four more years, right?) And that’s when his “King of Clay” moniker would find all its meaning.

I’ll let Nadal leave out of his own accord however. He’s earned this distinction ten times over. For now, let’s just say that he had visions of excellence and grandeur for Indian Wells and Miami, as Chris Fowler noted on Twitter, but he couldn’t live up to his own expectations.

From now on, 250 points from two Masters 1000 events might be all that Nadal can manage away from the clay. But I certainly hope to be wrong with this prediction.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: 2015 Miami Open: Men’s and women’s draw preview and analysis

March 24, 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 Miami Open, presented by Itau.

There is no time to waste on the tennis calendar, where one big tournament does not wait for another.

Those of you lucky enough to have the means to escape our brutal (and never-ending) winter should head over to Miami with Grand Slam Tennis Tours for some sun and some excellent tennis. (A shameless plug: I’m happy and proud to announce that I’m joining our friends at GSTT for Travels & Tennis, a column that applauds readers who decide to combine business with pleasure.)

After an excellent 2015 BNP Paribas Open last week, we turn to the warmth of Florida for the Miami Open, presented by Itau. Right after the biggest non-Grand Slam is the second biggest. We’re the real winners here, folks.

Oh, and the tournament will crown two actual winners, of course. Read on for my predictions.

Women’s draw

Serena Williams closed the books on a traumatic and sad episode of her career by participating in the BNP Paribas Open for the first time since 2001. Now, she gets to focus strictly on tennis.

The No. 1-ranked player arrives in Key Biscayne as the defending champion and gets a fairly tricky draw. (This is saying a lot, knowing who she is.) She will likely play her first match against her old friend Monica Niculescu, then either Svetlana Kuznetsova or Angelique Kerber will be next. She’ll beat Garbine Muguruza before getting rid of Sabine Lisicki in the quarterfinals.

Simona Halep is playing as well as she ever has and, except for maybe fatigue, I don’t see how she loses in this second section. She will have tricky matches, possibly against fellow Indian Wells finalist Jelena Jankovic, but she should pull through. She’ll be matched up against American Madison Keys, who will have overcome Canadian Eugenie Bouchard in the “Who’s got next?” battle.

We are not in the business of patting ourselves in the back when we make a correct prediction, if only because it looks so tacky and is so much more convincing when a third party does the patting on our back, but we are proud of having called Carla Suarez Navarro’s march to the Indian Wells quarterfinals last week. We don’t get many predictions right, so we cherish the ones that we do nail. I’m trying it again this week.

There’s a fourth and final section, from which Maria Sharapova should emerge rather unscathed. There really aren’t many players that should give her fits, although if she were to stumble early then it would wreak havoc and open things up for someone like Andrea Petkovic. The German has enjoyed a good 2015 season thus far—though, it must be said, her lone title came on a walkover in the final at Antwerp.

Quarterfinals: Serena Williams over Sabine Lisicki; Simona Halep over Madison Keys; Caroline Wozniacki over Carla Suarez Navarro; Maria Sharapova over Andrea Petkovic

Semifinals: Simona Halep over Serena Williams; Maria Sharapova over Caroline Wozniacki

Final: Maria Sharapova over Simona Halep

*****

Men’s draw

The wins, and the money, keep piling up for Novak Djokovic. Can he add a fifth title at Key Biscayne?

Yes. Yes, he certainly can. The Serb has won 18 of his previous 19 matches in Miami and has a very favourable draw. Maybe Tommy Robredo can win a set off of him, sure. But not Lukas Rosol in the quarterfinals.

You have to feel for Canadian Milos Raonic. In his never-ending quest to further break through and maybe challenge and threaten the royal trio of Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Raonic keeps hitting the glass ceiling. He tries to soar so, so hard but it seems like every time, one of the three is there to hit a smash winner—or, when that first player fails, then another awaits and is successful. Raonic will likely be among the two or three best players on the ATP World Tour, but it may not happen before the current top 3 players have retired. To win a Masters 1000 event, a player shouldn’t have to beat, in succession, Nadal, Federer and Djokovic. One day, Milos. One day.

Andy Murray has fared well over the years in Florida and the 2015 season should be no exception. The draw is manageable and the Brit wouldn’t even mind finding Feliciano Lopez in his path in the quarterfinals—he’s 10-0 against the Spaniard for his career. (He should also pull through against Stanislas Wawrinka, but this implies that the Swiss makes it that far—far from a certainty, considering that he is only 2-2 in his most recent four matches.

The final section of the main draw belongs to Rafael Nadal and that would mean something at any other tournament except for this one. In his entire career, the Spaniard has yet to capture a single “Miami Open, presented by Itau” title. (I’m writing this as if it should be a gimme.) Nadal will prefer not to expand too much energy here, given that the clay court season is right around the corner, but he should make quick work of Fernando Verdasco and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in his first two matches. Tomas Berdych looms in the quarterfinals, and the Spaniard will get to avenge his loss in Melbourne.

Quarterfinals: Novak Djokovic over Lukas Rosol; Milos Raonic over Kei Nishikori; Andy Murray over Feliciano Lopez; Rafael Nadal over Tomas Berdych

Semifinals: Novak Djokovic over Milos Raonic; Rafael Nadal over Andy Murray

Final: Novak Djokovic over Rafael Nadal

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

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