Tennis Elbow: Rog and Stan: End of a friendship?

November 24, 2014

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon revisits the one narrative everyone swept under the rug a week ago in London.

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

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

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

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

La femme de Roger Federer a bien perturbé Wawrinka par beINSPORTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Novak Djokovic’s meaningful win in London

November 20, 2014

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon recaps the 2014 Barclays ATP World Tour Finals.

In the end, it didn’t even matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Barclays ATP World Tour Finals 2014 Preview

November 9, 2014

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon previews the final event of the season.

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

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

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

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

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

The rookies: Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori

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

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

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

The enigmas: Stanislas Wawrinka, Andy Murray

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

The Tomas Berdych: Tomas Berdych

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

The favourites: Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic

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

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Milos Raonic helps himself, and Novak Djokovic

November 3, 2014

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon recaps the final Masters 1000 event of the season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

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

October 27, 2014

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon previews the final Masters 1000 event of the season.

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

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

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

Main draw

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final: Novak Djokovic defeats Roger Federer

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

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

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