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

Tennis Elbow: 2014 Western & Southern Open: Men’s and women’s draw preview and analysis

August 11, 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 this year’s Western & Southern Open.

Where do we go once we’ve turned back the clock?

The 2014 Rogers Cup sure looked a whole lot like, oh I don’t know maybe the 2005 edition, with names like Roger Federer and Venus Williams playing up to their lofty standards of about a decade ago. Well alright, the older Williams sister never actually won, or even reached the final, of the Rogers Cup. But the year 2005 is when Federer won 11 titles and when Venus won Wimbledon. The point is they went to finals then, which is especially noteworthy.

The US Open series continues this week with the 2014 Western & Southern Open after what was an excellent Rogers Cup—or at the very least, I know that the Montreal portion of the tournament was, because that’s what I covered.

Let’s see what Cincinnati has in play. It’s the final step toward the final Grand Slam tournament of the year. The way that I see it, the big favourites will likely show up with a purpose.

Women’s draw

Serena Williams made the most of her first visit in Montreal since 2000, making me look foolish for not picking her to go farther than the quarterfinals. The good news is that she participated at this tournament in Ohio every year since 2010. Meeting her in the quarterfinals will be Jelena Jankovic, because that’s about all that she has been doing this year. The Serb seems to always manage a few wins per event before bowing out. I expect nothing else.

Agnieszka Radwanska aims to continue the great form she showcased in Montreal, where she won the first title of the 2014 season. In La Belle Province, the Polish was always calmer than her opponents, and she navigated her way through a fairly favourable draw. In the third round in Cincinnati, she could have a rematch against Sabine Lisicki, whom Radwanska beat in Montreal… in the third round. Waiting for the 25-year-old in the quarterfinals will be the player who impressed me most at the Rogers Cup, Caroline Wozniacki—though, yes, it’s the former and not the latter who took home the title.

Has the air gone out of the Eugenie Bouchard balloon? The Montreal native was coming home for the Rogers Cup and, though the event itself was a success, it couldn’t have been worse for her. The homecoming started with a 0-6 first set. That she managed a 6-2 win in the second set only made the second 0-6 in the decisive set all the more depressive. After such a successful 2014 season, Bouchard was home, finally…and she flamed out. Can Petra Kvitova regain her footing after a disappointing Rogers Cup? Cincinnati would be the time to do it.

The fourth section of the draw is about as wide open as these things get. Sure, there is Maria Sharapova, but she just about might have become a clay court specialist—as weird as that sounds, the Russian does have three titles this week, and they’re all on clay. Otherwise, it’s a bunch of players who had disappointing and short visits in Montreal. (Or Simona Halep, who hasn’t played in a month.)

Quarterfinals: Serena Williams over Jelena Jankovic; Caroline Wozniacki over Agnieszka Radwanska; Eugenie Bouchard over Petra Kvitova; Simona Halep over Dominika Cibulkova

Semifinals: Serena Williams over Caroline Wozniacki; Simona Halep over Eugenie Bouchard

Final: Serena Williams over Simona Halep

Men’s draw

Novak Djokovic was candid after his loss in the third round against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and I suspect he will avenge it this very week. The Frenchman is in fine form after defeating the all-world group of Djokovic, Andy Murray, Grigor Dimitrov and Roger Federer. Tsonga may very well save his 2014 season with a string of great results, but I believe Djokovic will right the ship before making his way to Flushing Meadows.

Next is the Spanish portion of the main draw, with four Spaniards not named “Rafael Nadal”. (I don’t exactly see them as a threat, just thought it should be noted…) Stanislas Wawrinka is the favourite here and, despite a disappointing Rogers Cup, he will look to use this event as a springboard for the US Open. Expect him to reach the quarterfinals, where he will lose to Dimitrov. The Bulgarian seems to have figured it out—by most accounts, he’s one of the top 8 players in the world and since Roland Garros his worst result has been a quarterfinal in Montreal last week.

The homecoming was a little kinder for Milos Raonic than it was for Bouchard, though the unexpected loss to Feliciano Lopez in the quarterfinals made it all the more difficult to accept because we had all started believing a little bit. The hard court is a good surface for the Canadian, and I expect him to book a ticket to the final in Cincinnati. First, however, he will defeat Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals.

Murray has decided to retain Amelie Mauresmo after a rather timid Wimbledon title defense, and he reached the final 8 of the Rogers Cup. A good way to salvage his 2014 season continues at the Western & Southern Open for the Scotsman, and I believe that he can do just that. A quarterfinal against Federer, who is playing as well as anyone on Tour with a streak of three finals at his last three events, is a tall order of course. Well, Murray stands six-foot-three.

Quarterfinals: Novak Djokovic over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga; Grigor Dimitrov over Stanislas Wawrinka; Milos Raonic over Tomas Berdych; Andy Murray over Roger Federer

Semifinals: Novak Djokovic over Grigor Dimitrov; Milos Raonic over Andy Murray

Final: Novak Djokovic over Milos Raonic

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Rogers Cup in La belle province: There is no crashing the Williams sisters’ party

August 8, 2014

The Williams sisters barely ever come to Montreal, and maybe that’s why the Montreal crowd seems to have cheered so loud for them at their matches.

Because they’re here. They’re here and they’re winning.

This year marks Serena Williams’s first visit in La Belle Province since 2000, and she’s certainly made the most of it. And if Venus Williams finally won a first match in Montreal in her career this week, it’s only because she finally played a match in our province.

Montrealers have also cheered this week, because the two players are legends of the sport, professionals for respectively 20 (i.e. Venus) and 19 (i.e. Serena) years and who will live on in history for much longer. (And in Serena’s case, the crowd also probably cheers because she speaks French. How well? Well enough for Radio-Canada’s Diane Sauvé to conduct her post-match conference entirely in Molière’s tongue. It was impressive.)

Maybe the crowd has cheered, too, because they know that the semifinal in the top half could always become a Williams sisters party. Indeed, the draw had put Venus and Serena in the same half, making yet another meeting between the two a possibility. “I definitely feel great when I see her playing so well,” Serena said. “Obviously not when it’s time for me to play her.”

It will be only the second time that the Williams sisters play each other since 2009 and, after her 6-1 and 6-2 win Charleston last year, and her 14-10 head-to-head record, the younger Serena can probably feel confident heading into this meeting.

Because on Friday, it all came to fruition. No. 1-ranked Serena Williams started the day with a 4-6, 7-5 and 7-5 win in 2:41:23 over 11th-seed and most impressive player thus far Caroline Wozniacki. She came very close of losing, down a set and a break only to finally pull away and end Wozniacki’s eight-match winning streak. “I just thought, ‘Just keep fighting. Hopefully I can just hold on and hold on, try to break’,” she said. “I just never wanted to stop and try to do the best that I could.”

She praised the play of her opponent after the match, who hadn’t lost a set entering the match. Williams said that, “She’s really fast, gets a lot of balls back. She makes you hit that extra shot.”

After her win, Serena looked ahead to playing against her older sister. “I definitely don’t like playing her,” she said. “She does everything well, so it’s not an ideal matchup for anyone.”

It was Venus’s turn on Centre Court afterward, and she lived up to her end of the bargain by defeating 14th-seed Carla Suarez Navarro by the score of 4-6, 6-2 and 6-3. “She just seemed really determined,” she said of her opponent. “She was playing so well, not missing a lot of balls.”

The match started slowly for Venus, who seemed to lack the energy and intensity that she had in her first few matches of the tournament. Much like it was for her sister, this quarterfinal was a grueling affair that lasted 2:11:31. “I tried to do my best to maybe control the point a little more, because she had me on a string running side to side,” she said. “It’s very difficult to win matches like that when you’re not in control.”

In part this was Suarez Navarro’s doing. The Spaniard used every bit of her five-foot-four frame to dictate play in the first set and, though she lost the second and the third, went shot for shot with the veteran.

After the match, reporters also asked Venus how she felt about playing against her sister. A little like her sister, she explained that she was looking forward to it, but not to the match itself. “There’s no secret or science to it. I think that anyone who has gotten any wins against her, they’ve pretty much played the match of their life.”

The good thing is, the Williams sisters won’t get to play this nice on the court this weekend in their semifinal. Montreal will cheer all the same.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Rogers Cup in La belle province: Short stay in Montreal for Maria Sharapova

August 7, 2014

In a rain- and break-filled affair that lasted 2:21:50, 14th-seed Carla Suarez Navarro defeated fourth-seed Maria Sharapova by the score of 6-2, 4-6 and 6-2.

The Spaniard was the last player standing in a match that saw as many as 25 service breaks (on 40 tries, so about a 63 per cent break conversion rate). “When I play [against] these players, I need to be solid all the time,” Suarez Navarro said. “No mistakes. No easy mistakes.”

She passed that test, giving her a fourth win against a top 10 player just this season. “If you want to win a tournament,” Suarez Navarro said, “you need to beat all these players.”

Though it clocked in at a little over two hours, the match actually took almost four hours to complete, with two rain delays complicating everything. The 25-year-old explained after her win that, “The rain is for both. Sometimes you are winning and you need to stop, (or) you are losing and you need to stop.”

Meanwhile, Sharapova explained that it’s silly to let that dictate your play. “I’ve been on the tour for way too long,” she said. “I know what to expect and to know that anything can be thrown at you.”

She knew, also, that she seemingly had always had her back against the wall in that match, and that’s a testament to Suarez Navarro. The Spaniard never let up, not even in the second set when she admitted to feeling a little nervous. “My opponent played a really good match,” Sharapova said. “I couldn’t find my rhythm from the beginning of the match.”

Because of that, Suarez Navarro was seemingly always ahead at the score. Her opponent explained that, “She covered the court. It’s quite wide and quite deep. I think that favoured her quite well today.”

It’s another short visit in Montreal for the Russian, who has yet to make it beyond than the third round since turning pro in 2001. (She also has a few withdrawals to her record in La Belle Province.) She’ll continue working to improve and get ready for the US Open at the end of the month, and she said that a loss like this one, where she doesn’t feel like she played her best tennis, at least tells her that she does need the extra work.

It’s too bad for Montreal, Sharapova said, because she likes the city and the fans. “When you see people come out at the beginning of tournaments, that’s really when you feel they’re really passionate,” Sharapova said. “As a professional player, that’s very meaningful.”

With the win, Suarez Navarro is through to the quarterfinal of the Rogers Cup for the first time of her career. She will play Venus Williams, who defeated sixth-seed Angelique Kerber by the score of 6-3, 3-6 and 6-4. “She’s a great player,” Suarez Navarro said. “She serves very well here on hard courts. It will be tough.”

She has a 2-1 head-to-head record against the older Williams sister, having won their most recent match this season in Rome. But Suarez Navarro would be the first to say that this was on clay, and Montreal is played on hard court.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Rogers Cup in La belle province: Caroline Wozniacki is the most dominant player thus far

August 7, 2014

They don’t hand out trophies for how impressive and dominant you are, but Caroline Wozniacki would deserve one if they did.

Through three matches at this year’s Rogers Cup, she has lost six games. Total. Your kid that’s in the third grade doesn’t need help knowing that this is an average of two games per match, or one per set, but what he may not understand is that this is really, extremely dominant.

Against qualifier Shelby Rogers, Wozniacki somehow bested that average and lost only one match on the way to a 6-1 and 6-0 victory. “I served really well, returned well,” she said. “(Rogers)’s a tough player. She has some big shots out there. I was able to just neutralize them and play my game.”

And her game, as it has since the beginning of her career, has always been about regularity. Yet this year, or at least these past eight matches if you count her win in Turkey, or at least these three matches in Montreal, Wozniacki has played aggressive tennis. And it’s paid off. “You kind of just get that feeling,” she said, “you get in the zone.”

You get in the zone to the extent that you miss only six first serves in a match, and that you only lose six points on that first serve.

After the win, Wozniacki told the press that she had practiced her serve and her return game a lot. “You know that you can pull it out when you need to. I think that’s really the key, just repetition, repetition all the time.”

It’s been a few years of highs and lows for the No. 13-ranked player. “Women’s tennis keeps improving as well, so you need to keep stepping up. It’s getting tougher,” she said. “The girls are hitting harder, making fewer mistakes.”

Count her among the group, though making mistakes was never Wozniacki’s problem. When she was the best player in the world, as she was for 67 weeks about three years ago, she looked like a player unworthy of the heights, like a player who forced you to beat yourself but could never stomach the pressure of winning the Grand Slam tournaments. Not all of it was deserved, of course, but it never is.

This week, Wozniacki is in Montreal after her first title of the season in Instanbul. “I think I always improve and I keep improving my game,” she said. “I make smarter decisions out there.”

Perhaps the Montreal public will rally around Wozniacki. After all, she did avenge the beatdown that Rogers gave their hometown hero Eugenie Bouchard. And she’s a past champion here, having won the title in 2010.

The 24-year-old will need all the help she can get, as her next opponent is Serena Williams. Wozniacki will likely settle on a spirited three-set affair even, if that’s what it takes to win.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Rogers Cup in La belle province: Petra Kvitova is convincing in her first match since Wimbledon

August 7, 2014

The day after the Wimbledon finalist flamed out of the Rogers Cup, the other finalist, the title winner that is, was convincing in her first match in Montreal.

One month after capturing the second Wimbledon of her career, Petra Kvitova started her 2014 Rogers Cup run successfully with a routine 6-3 and 6-1 win over Casey Dellacqua. While she might have said in her post-match comments that, “It’s always difficult to switch from grass to hard court,” she sure made it look easy.

The second seed was dominant on her serve, winning 72 per cent of the points, but it’s on the return, where she won almost every other point (i.e. she finished at 49 per cent for the match), that she was the most impressive. The 24-year-old plays with a controlled aggression, and she managed to harness it well on Thursday. “I play very aggressively,” she said, “but sometimes it’s too many risks.”

Right. It’s a controlled aggression on nights like this one, and just aggression when it leads to too many risks. Yet, not on that night. Against Dellacqua, it was just the right amount.

But although Kvitova was exceptional in the victory, it was actually close early on. In fact, Dellacqua had two break chances at 2-2 in the first set… and that’s when the rain started. “From the beginning, it’s always nervous,” Kvitova said, “we had never played each other.”

Beyond helping her make adjustments, it’s like this rain delay mostly helped her settle in the match. In fact, the Czech only lost two games after play resumed. It had been a month since she had last played a match, but it didn’t show.

Kvitova arrives in Montreal in 2014 after a second Grand Slam title, yes, but also as the defending Montreal champion. Her Montreal title “defense” continues in the third round on August 7 on National Bank Court, where she will meet the Russian Ekaterina Makarova. She has a 3-1 head-to-head record against the 26-year-old.

RDS had a short feature on Kvitova at the beginning of the Rogers Cup, and in it she explains that she has started working on the mental side of the sport. “I need to be focusing on every point when I’m playing,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what the score is.”

At least for one night, she can say mission accomplished.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

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