March 5, 2014
Here we are, the granddaddy of them all after the actual four granddaddies. The BNP Paribas Open is not exactly a Grand Slam event, because it can’t possibly be, but it also certainly feels a wee bit bigger and better than other Masters 1000 events. For one thing, its director is none other than Larry Ellison, he of the $48-billion fortune that ranks fifth (!!!!) in the entire world! For another, it’s a tournament of 96 players—a draw of 128, except that the 32 seeds get a bye.
It’s not fully Grand Slam, but it’s neither fully Masters 1000. It’s like a sphere of its own. A fifth wheel, if you will, only in this case it’s certainly a good thing to be stuck as the proverbial fifth wheel.
My esteemed editor-in-chief Nima Naderi asked me to contribute a few more tournament previews this year, and this is my first crack at it for the season. Just know that, like, if you bet the rent money, respect that “don’t kill the messenger” routine…
It would have been fun to just say “Serena Williams” and keep it moving, but she has withdrawn from the event. And maybe that’s for the best, because the last time I ran with Serena she didn’t exactly meet the expectations I had set out for her.
So instead of Williams, we have Na Li—and I definitely will not pick her without explaining some of my rationale. (In fact, I actually am not picking her to win the tournament…or am I? Read on!) The draw is fairly easy for the Chinese and but for a match against No. 15 seed Sabrine Lisicki, her place in the quarterfinals is likely assured. And since this is Indian Wells and not Wimbledon, the German shouldn’t be a problem. Expect the No. 1 seed to waltz in to the last 16…where she will meet Dominika Cibulkova, the little one who could. With a final in Australia and a title in Acapulco, the Slovak is playing as well as anyone on the WTA Tour.
In the second quarter, I find it a shame that Sloane Stephens and Ana Ivanovic may meet as early as the third round because this is a match-up worthy of bigger and better things. But alas, it’s the little things in life… I see Stephens winning that match, and then meeting and beating Russian Maria Sharapova in the quarterfinals—neither of the two has played much this season, but I think this could be the year the young American breaks through in a big way.
I’m Canadian so I will of course look for any possible reason to give Eugenie Bouchard the upper hand, but I feel like this draw breaks perfectly for her and that I barely need to stretch the truth. Sara Errani is certainly within the Canadian’s grasp and, from there it’s Simona Halep? Are we sure that the Romanian is that good? She’s playing as well as just about anyone, but she entered the 2013 season ranked No. 47. In the quarterfinals, Bouchard will lose to Victoria Azarenka, and she shouldn’t be ashamed of it if that’s how it unfolds.
Caroline Wozniacki always seems to reach the later stages of tournaments but not win, doesn’t she? So let’s say this hold true—Wozniacki reaches the quarterfinals, and even beats Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska in a match where both combine for all of three unforced errors. Remember when you were younger and you watched your dad play tennis against the wall, and how the wall never missed? That’s how this quarterfinal will feel.
Quarterfinals: Na Li over Dominika Cibulkova; Sloane Stephens over Maria Sharapova; Victoria Azarenka over Eugenie Bouchard; Caroline Wozniacki over Agnieszka Radwanska
Semifinals: Na Li over Sloane Stephens; Victoria Azarenka over Caroline Wozniacki
Final: Victoria Azarenka over Na Li
***See the main draw here.
Doesn’t it feel like this year, the ATP World Tour may be more open than any other in the previous decade? This sure should help the accuracy of previews like this one, only the exact opposite.
The Great Golden Odyssey starts now for Rafael Nadal, as he must defend no fewer than 10,110 of his 14,085 points to defend between now and the U.S. Open. (And you thought you had it rough!) To make matters worse, the powers that be dealt him a fairly rough draw here, with Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka all in his portion. It’s not fair, but it doesn’t have to be. To reach the quarterfinals against Murray however, the Spaniard could play right-handed and still be fine.
I know that “Crazy” Stan has won the Australian Open and that he’s been playing as well as anyone for about six months, but it still feels weird to see a  next to his name in the main draw of a relatively large tournament, which this BNP Paribas Open certainly is. Likewise, a  seems a bit harsh for the way that Federer is currently playing. While the tour isn’t King Roger’s kingdom anymore, I think he’ll get to prove he’s still top dog in Switzerland in an all-Swiss quarterfinal. (Please, tennis gods, make this happen. I don’t ever ask you for much.)
The third quarter of this main draw is a weird one, and it’s usually these conditions that allow for a random “Wait, it’s a quarterfinal between Ernests Gulbis and Grigor Dimitrov? How did we get here?” realization from the tennis fan. Alas, we will not get there, the two players slated to meet in the third round. I say this quarter is weird, because there isn’t one player I am confident in predicting a Final 8 berth. Could it be Richard Gasquet or Philipp Kohlschreiber? Sure, why not? I could see Dimitrov or Fernando Verdasco also making it—so instead I’ll predict good things for Tomas Berdych and Dimitrov. But I don’t feel good about it!
I have two things to say about this portion. First, it’s a ridiculously easy draw, on paper, for Novak Djokovic. Before the quarterfinals, he will likely play against three players against whom he has a career 14-1 record in Victor Hanescu, Ivan Dodig and Tommy Robredo. Also, the match between Canadian wunderkind Vasek Pospisil and Juan Martin Del Potro deserves better than the third round. It’s a shame.
Quarterfinals: Rafael Nadal over Milos Raonic; Roger Federer over Stanislas Warinka; Grigor Dimitrov over Tomas Berdych; Novak Djokovic over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Semifinals: Rafael Nadal over Roger Federer; Novak Djokovic over Grigor Dimitrov
Final: Novak Djokovic over Rafael Nadal
***See the main draw here.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG
February 24, 2014
There wasn’t much that happened this past week in tennis, neither on the men’s side nor the women’s. I looked everywhere and, yeah, not a whole lot to talk about.
On the men’s side, there was Rafael Nadal winning the Rio Open, Marin Cilic winning the Delray Beach Open and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga taking the Open 13 crown in France. There was my guy too, Novak Djokovic, somehow going fake-skydiving in anticipation of the defense of his Dubai Duty Free championship title—so yeah, not much.
But even if there’s nothing necessarily relevant to discuss, it doesn’t mean that I won’t have anything to write about. As fun as last year’s Waiting for Godot column was, and it really, really was, it’s a cop-out to write a column about nothing just because I have nothing. (But I don’t totally cross out the possibility of revisiting that column about nothing later in the year. It was just that good.)
So I looked at the WTA Tour. I looked, first, at Kurumi Nara’s win at the Rio Open—and, well, as much as I appreciate what it takes to win a tournament in this sport, and that there are no minor titles—yeah, this doesn’t quite cut it. So I looked at the Dubai Duty Free Championship and saw that Venus Williams had won the title, and thought that this was—hey why not?
Williams’s third title in Dubai was her first on the tour in about 16 months, which seems like a mighty long time for a player of her stature.
That was my first reaction, but then I realized that it might be wrong. The older of the two Williams sisters is among the tour’s biggest stars, but she’s currently ranked No. 29. In 2014, and at age 33, she resides on tour much more as dean would than as class president.
When the Williams sisters broke through in 1994 (i.e. Venus) and 1995 (i.e. Serena), tennis didn’t know what to do with them. It was obvious early on that they would take over the sport, and that the sport had never seen anyone like them—it wasn’t exactly a malaise, but there was uneasiness. The two African-American teenagers were taking over the tour and destroying the Caucasian teenager that was Martina Hingis.
They were expected to take over the world together, and for a while they did. They were more powerful than anyone else, especially at their young age, and would only improve from there. They won tournaments and often played, or forfeited, finals against one another. So many finals had the two of them, because they were the two best players on Tour.
Venus became the first African-American player ever to be the top ranked WTA player almost 12 years ago to the day today, and sister Serena was right there as 1a. That same year, in 2002, it’s Serena, not Venus, who captured three Grand Slam titles. Right when Serena took off farther to another stratosphere, Venus crashed. Serena might have won a Grand Slam before her sister, but it’s Venus who had won four in a row afterward. She was still the big sister, but then she crashed.
Well alright, I realized that that’s not exactly right. Venus’s No. 1-ranking was followed by a French Open title that same year, and an Australian Open the following year. It’s only afterward that she couldn’t keep up with the rhythm of Serena.
I thought further and realized that Venus’s following years were marred by injuries and that we’d come very, very close to never see her ever again on a tennis court.
I continued thinking and found it telling that her other Grand Slam titles all came at Wimbledon (in 2005, 2007 and 2008). Because that shows the type of player that she is. The Williams sisters were grouped together when they first came on, but the latter part of their respective careers has proven that it wasn’t totally accurate to do so. While Serena was always going to be a great, great champion, Venus wasn’t that.
There are differences. Venus has been a great champion, but not to the extent of her sister. Venus was always just a girl along with the other ones. She had, still does actually, a great serve and a great forehand, and it made sense that the grass was and is where she was, and has been, most successful. She could beat a Lindsay Davenport, or a Jennifer Capriati, just as well as she could lose to either of them. That’s basically what she was, and it’s fine—one of the top girls.
She wasn’t marred by controversy either the same way that Serena was, and continues to be. There hasn’t been an outrage like this one, or that one, and Venus has never crip-walked all over the hollow grounds of the All-England Club (let me stress this: as ridiculous as this criticism was) the way that Serena did.
Likewise, a common reaction to the ascent of the Williams sisters was a malaise with the way they played, all physical and power, when the sport was always so graceful. But that was always more about Serena than Venus, who stands six-foot-one. Venus is a tall and graceful woman who isn’t built like her younger sister. She’s pretty too, but that has nothing to do with her tennis skills.
She currently has 45 career titles and an 80.3 career winning percentage. Is she underrated? Probably not, she’s among the biggest stars of the sport, in that second tier of players after the rarified air that her sister breathes along with Steffi Graf and the likes—and that’s precisely how Venus is viewed, I think.
But she’s definitely underappreciated. Given her health issues, it’s a wonder just to see her playing, let alone winning matches and tournaments.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG
February 17, 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 examines a different way to tackle the debate of the best player ever.
It’s something that I’ve been waiting on for close to a month now, waiting for the right moment (read: lull) in the tennis season to tackle it. Well this week I decided to stop waiting, because there are no right moments, in tennis as in life, only moments.
So I decided to write the damn thing.
But first, a question for you, my dear reader—who is the greatest tennis player of all time?
As it stands right now, the main method of ranking players in history is to look at their performances on the biggest of stages—with one Grand Slam title being better than none, and than a Masters 1000 event title, and so on. According to that logic then, the Mount Rushmore of men’s tennis includes Roger Federer (i.e. 17), Pete Sampras (i.e. 14), Rafael Nadal (i.e. 13) and a tie between Rod Laver (i.e. 11) and Bjorn Borg (i.e. 11).
But should it be that way? Could it be that there is a way to determine the right answer to that question, at least with some math and science that goes beyond the typical “Federer has the most Grand Slam titles of anyone ever” argument? (Granted, for all we know, this argument may be the correct one.)
Probably not, but we may approach that day. Indeed, Deadspin published an article last month that answers that question with a “Yes.”
The premise, really, is simple: it’s definitely fine to reward a player for winning major titles, but what if someone has constantly performed well and reached the later stages of major tournaments? What is most impressive, Federer’s haul of 17 majors or his streak of 23 straight semifinals? (Probably the fact that the same man managed both, I agree!)
What Deadspin does, rather than just counting the major titles, is smart, and it’s something I wish I had thought of myself. (That’s why the people of the website are paid the big bucks. And I’m not.)
The website does a few things. (I suggest that you follow along to the Deadspin charts. Listing the actual numbers for each of the steps here would do nothing.)
First, it tallies the amount of points that each player accumulated at the Grand Slam tournaments during his career, based on the 2014 point system. The biggest advantage of this method is that it allows comparing players from different eras. This contextualizes and tries to isolate the influence of things such as equipment and traveling on a player’s successes. It’s simple: how did a player fare compared to the other players in his era? In this case, Federer’s lead only increases and he appears to be the clear King of History.
Yet it’s not perfect. Borg moves from fourth to seventh, because he ended his career so early, so abruptly, and only played in one Australian Open tournament. Likewise, is Jimmy Connors really the third best player ever or is his point total that high simply because he played about 34 seasons on Tour?
What if we flip it then? What if we rank players according to how many points they tallied relative to how many Grand Slam tournaments they played? In this case, three things happen. First, Borg is the big winner since he never played past his prime years nor did he suffer through difficult results in his later years. Then, the current triumvirate of Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic is ranked 4th, 3rd and 5th according to this method—our era very well may be the golden age of the sport.
Except that it’s not really fair to throw Djokovic in that top four, a top four which, oh by the way, is very similar to the one with which we first started with: Borg, Laver, Nadal and Federer. Djokovic appears to be clearly in the second tier of superstars according to that method. I’d say it’s one of those good problems to have!
Now, Deadspin continues and examines at the different players’ streaks of Grand Slam finals made and the average amount of points per event during that streak (i.e. Federer being first for both), but I’ll spare you the details.
It’s clear already, anyway. This exercise started with a Mount Rushmore of Federer, Sampras, Nadal and Laver/Borg and, save for Sampras, it ends with just about the same one. Welp. So much for that! Perhaps the better question should be whether it all matters. Why do we need to say that one player is better than another, that he is the best ever, or that he has the best earring or the best hairstyle, etc.?
We really don’t.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG
February 10, 2014
So it’s this time of the year—well, this time of every other two years, when nations come together to celebrate the best of sports, athleticism, athletics and competition. It’s time for the Olympics, this time the one of the winter kind in Sochi, Russia.
And if it’s time for the Olympics, it means it’s also time for patriotism. It’s time for you to wear your CANADA toque, or sweater, or sox though no one will see them, and scream at your TV when young Mark McMorris nails his second run in the slopestyle final. It’s time to get your Canada flag and wave it proudly, especially when two-thirds—19-year-old Justine and 22-year-old Chloé—of the Dufour-Lapointe sisters capture the gold and silver medals of the freestyle skiing women’s moguls.
So here’s my rally cry—Go Canada! Go Québec! Just GO! Original, I know… We wake up today, and my beloved country has four medals. And, well, sure this isn’t tennis exactly (okay, precisely isn’t!), and the United States has four medals as well anyway, so let’s move on.
So yeah, patriotism… Somehow, this relates to tennis, I just ask that you stay with me a little while longer.
Whereas the international community focuses on patriotism every two years between the Winter and Summer Olympics, the tennis world does so every single year at this time. The Australian Open has just concluded, and the tennis hemisphere fills the void with international team tennis—this year, there was the first round of both the Davis Cup and the Fed Cup in back-to-back weekends in late January and early February.
These competitions are where the tennis fans, who perhaps aren’t that interested in flying abroad, to Sochi or elsewhere, can show their patriotism.
It just so happens that Canada played host to Serbia in my native Montreal this weekend and won the tie 3-1. Eugenie Bouchard and Aleksandra Wozniak, two fellow Québécois, assured the tie when they capture three wins in as many matches to start the weekend.
Look, I’m proud of this. There are definitely plenty of sides that come with identifying yourself as a Québécois in Canada in 2014—I don’t even really believe in separatism nor do I want the province to secede from Canada. I’m a Québécois living in Toronto, is all—that should tell it all. To me, it’s akin to Ontarians being proud of Ontarians when they compete and success. I love my country, definitely. But an essential part of that country is the fact that inside that country is my province.
In other words, I’m happy when Mark McMorris wins Canada’s first medal at the 2014 Sochi Games, but I’m especially happy when young Justine wins Canada’s first gold medal of the Games. Because when Dufour-Lapointe, and her sister Chloé who wins silver, and her other sister Maxime who finishes 12th, and Audrey Robichaud who finishes 10th, all succeed in making the women’s moguls finals at the 2014 Sochi Games, then it’s all of Canada who wins—but in my eyes, especially Québec.
On the men’s side in tennis at the Davis Cup, the team that came oh so close of going all the way last season lost to Japan 4-1 a week ago. It was no surprise, as Milos Raonic wasn’t available, and head coach Martin Laurendeau had to rely on a little bit of Vasek Pospisil, Daniel Nestor and Peter Polansky, but mostly a whole lot of Frank Dancevic.
Would that tie have unfolded differently had the Canadian team relied on Québécois players? No, that’s stupid and silly logic. I’m just happy to see Québécois do well at their sport if and when that happens—and in men’s tennis, there is no player from my province ranked in the ATP World Tour Top 200. The tie against Japan would have been just the same with players from Québec.
Go Canada! Go Québec, too, but that means the same thing.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG
February 3, 2014
It’s so easy to do.
You look at the career-high ranking, at the fact that she just made the semifinal of a Grand Slam tournament at the tender age of 19, and at the fact that she appears fully ready to back-up that award she won last year (i.e. newcomer of the year). You look at it all, and you think that there’s no way she can’t not be destined for greatness.
It’s such an easy prediction to make, given all that she has already accomplished, because it must be true.
But of course, the flipside to that is that she certainly hadn’t accomplished greatness in her rookie season. She had accomplished things, great things even, but she hadn’t accomplished greatness. Then came the 2014 Australian Open—and while it wasn’t greatness, it was close. Really close.
This Australian Open was Bouchard’s first, and it just about broke perfectly for the teenager—prior to her match against Ana Ivanovic, her draw had unfolded perfectly. But you can only beat the players in front of you, and Bouchard did precisely that. That she beat no player ranked higher than her doesn’t matter—she was going to have to play Serena Williams in the quarterfinals, after all.
Only, she didn’t.
She didn’t play Williams, instead taking on Ivanovic after she had defeated the World No. 1. For all her excellence, Ivanovic isn’t always the strongest player mentally (plus, she had just been jinxed by this very columnist the day of the quarterfinal match). Ivanovic was set to play a young upstart in Bouchard after having had a lot of time to reflect on and digest what was probably her biggest win in maybe five years. And she lost. That Bouchard then lost in straight sets in the semifinal matters little.
Eugenie Bouchard has it all. She plays a big game and is aggressive on the court because she knows she’s gifted at the net. What I find most impressive, however, is her self-belief and mental fortitude. During the Australian Open, there was not a time when she wavered, when she seemed overwhelmed by emotion and by the moment. (There probably was, but the key is not to have this define your play. Bouchard didn’t.) The 19-year-old believes in herself and doesn’t seem to fold easily. That, right there, bodes well. It’s the reason why she may, one day, rule the WTA Tour because it’s a contrast to many, many of her fellow players.
Another reason, well, is the way she looks—tall, blond and well spoken. (She also loves Justin Bieber—which probably still is a good thing.) Look, there’s no way around it. Plenty of fans, Canadian or otherwise, have followed her every move, because she’s an approximation of Maria Sharapova. She’s a great player, but she’s also a good-looking young woman. Lest we forget, Anna Kournikova was once the biggest name in the sport despite having exactly as many career singles titles as you and I. Right or wrong, beauty plays a part in women’s tennis. Now, is Bouchard Sharapova, or Kournikova? Who knows. It’s a silly exercise to try to say that one will become bigger than the other, or not, because it’s so subjective and you’re likely not relying just on tennis abilities. The good news is that Bouchard is probably a much better player than Anna K. ever was. (Though, well, Kournikova did make the Wimbledon semifinal in 1997 at age 16.) For now, Bouchard seems intent on letting her play, and her results, do the talking.
But before Bouchard gets big—too big—let’s get one thing clear. It’s Eugenie Bouchard. Genie is for the #GenieArmy.
She’ll make it.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG
January 27, 2014
Before the 2014 Australian Open started, I gave Stanislas Wawrinka the “Crazy Stan” nickname.
I didn’t really have a reason to choose that, but hey—if you only ever could give a nickname because you had a reason for it, no one would ever have one. (My esteemed editor, Nima Naderi, calls him “Stan the Man,” which is probably more appropriate for the moment.)
But now, I think that I might have one reason. He’s Crazy Stan, because it was crazy to consider that he may win this elusive first Grand Slam title of his career.
Consider this: in his past 40 matches against Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, Wawrinka had won exactly once. For all his excellence—and he’s been a top 15, or so, player for the better part of five years now—the 28-year-old had only one more win than you do against the top trio during his career.
Consider also the following: Wawrinka comes from the same country of Federer, who very well may be the greatest to ever play this sport. At the very least, Federer is the greatest Swiss to ever play this sport, and Wawrinka has had to come of age during King Roger’s reign, has had to make a name for himself when the biggest name in the sport is that of your countryman.
Consider this, too: Wawrinka entered the Rod Laver arena on Sunday riding an 0-for-12 match streak, and an 0-for-26 set streak, against Nadal, his opponent for this final.
But before he even stepped foot on the court for this final, Crazy Stan had another obstacle to overcome. Consider that he entered this tournament knowing full well that to date, the two greatest matches in his career had been two grueling and bitter losses in five sets against Djokovic, in Australia and in New York last year. Consider, then, that Crazy Stan, and his No. 8 seeding, had been placed in Djokovic’s section of the main draw, and that a quarterfinal was looming large.
Because Crazy Stan and Djokovic love us all, they both won their matches until the quarterfinals, and then they played perhaps what could well be the match of the year. But because it’s 2014, and not 2013, Crazy Stan won. Then in the final, he won his first ever set against Nadal, then his second and soon enough he had won his first match against the man.
So again, the facts were stacked against him. But if only those men for whom the odds were ever favourable could win major titles, then no outsider ever would—which, admittedly, is basically what has happened since 2005 on the ATP World Tour. Consider, at long last, that with this win Crazy Stan has added his name to the list of the Grand Slam title winners who aren’t part of tennis royalty (i.e. Federer, Andy Murray, Nadal and Djokovic) since the start of the 2005 season. The others on that list? Juan Martin Del Potro at the 2009 U.S. Open, and Marat Safin in Melbourne in 2005.
Whether it’s Federer’s disappointing season last year, or something else, Wawrinka is now standing on his own, fully out of the King’s considerably large shadow.
The man who had never made a semifinal at a Grand Slam tournament first made one in Flushing Meadows last September. Now he’s made his first final and won his first title, too. He’s ranked No. 3 on the world rankings. And he’s just beaten the two men above him.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG
January 20, 2014
I have a confession—this column is the second one that I write this week. I had some time on Saturday and decided that I would write my column ahead of time.
I had a good idea for it, too. I was going to write about how the first week of the Australian Open had been relatively devoid of surprises both for the men and the women, and about how everything that was supposed to happen really did happen. And that this included the incredible heat wave, which lived up to the doomsday scenario that had all of us talking. (Speaking of, Courtney Walsh, an acquaintance and a colleague from Australia, foreshadowed it on Twitter a few days prior.)
I was done. I had mentioned the stunning upset of Juan Martin Del Potro, by Roberto Bautista Agut, but I was saying that the season’s first Grand Slam had been otherwise devoid of drama up to this point. I was insisting that no foe had proved greater than the weather in this first week. I had written it all, and it was an easy and good column.
And I will write that column about what to do in the face of extreme weather, and I will publish it at some point—but not this week when Ana Ivanovic has beaten Serena Williams in the fourth round.
Talk about throwing a wrench into everything—the tournament, blowing up one half of the women’s draw and, most importantly, my wonky prediction that Williams would complete the yearly slam this season. All of it, gone before it even started.
In all seriousness, my plight at having been proven wrong pales in comparison to the joy that I feel for Ivanovic. There was a time, not too long ago but still kind of a while back, when it seemed like Ivanovic was set to rule the WTA Tour the same way that she was ruling my heart and that of every other young, 20-year-old man. (Don’t front.)
The Serb first broke through in my hometown, in 2006 at the Rogers Cup for the first major title of her life. Then she was a runner-up at the 2008 Australian Open before winning the French Open a few months later, and was the no. 1 player on tour. It lasted all of 12 weeks and it’s been an uphill battle ever since, a battle to live up to that ranking and that potential. That 2008 French Open title remains her lone major title and there have been ups and downs, with a low of 65 (!!!) in the world.
Well in 2014, Ivanovic is now ranked No. 14 and has just beaten the best player in the world. Yes, maybe Williams was injured but a win is a win is a win. And after the match, the American didn’t want to take anything away from Ivanovic’s performance. “Again, I don’t want to blame anything. I feel like Ana deserves all the credit,” Williams said. “I feel she played unbelievable today. I think she went for her shots. It’s not like I gave her the match.”
Could this be a career renaissance of sorts for Ivanovic? Maybe, who knows. But she has all the shots to be dominant, always has. It’s always been mentally that she’s had problems—well that, and an unquestionably weak serve. Maybe that’s all behind her now, as she faced only three break points against Williams. Mentally? Well let’s see, she just beat a player against whom she had never won a set, let alone a match, and she did it after losing the first set. “I had to remind myself all the time just to stay in the moment, because there were moments in the match where it could have gone either way,” Ivanovic said. “But I really just believed in my game and stepped up when I needed to.”
And now she is in the quarterfinal of the Australian Open for the first time since 2008. She’s playing Eugenie Bouchard, a precocious talent who is playing with confidence and who has taken advantage of a very kind draw.
This may be Ivanovic’s time to shine. Again.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG
January 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 looks at the top contenders of the Australian Open and what they need to do.
The good thing with the beginning of a tournament is that technically, all 128 players have a fair chance at taking home the trophy. Everything is possible, except that it really isn’t—not all 128 spots of a main draw are created equally. That’s why there are 32 seeds for example.
With that in mind, I have selected four main contenders and here are the keys for each of them if they wish to be crowned champion in two weeks. I’m a man of the people so I’ve prepared a little dossier on both ATP and WTA players—with a little nickname for each.
Let’s make one thing clear—Stanislas Wawrinka is not actually crazy. But the shoe seems to fit, at least in my mind, hence “Crazy Stan.” The 28-year-old is playing the best tennis of his life, and the key for him to finally break through in a meaningful way might be to avoid Novak Djokovic. Twice last year, including once in Melbourne, Wawrinka did just about everything but win against the Serb. Stan is poised to overtake Roger Federer as the resident “the Swiss guy” (i.e. a prestigious title, if there ever was one) on tour. He has a strong serve and a stronger forehand to dictate points with.
The missile DelPo
If Crazy Stan has a crazy good forehand, Juan Martin Del Potro has a missile for one. It’s strong, it’s fast but most of all, it’s just so damn heavy. DelPo remains the only man other than Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Federer and Andy Murray to win a Grand Slam tournament, at the 2009 U.S. Open, since 2005. If all goes well, the missile will be Nadal’s problem in the quarterfinals. And all of us will watch.
Some players don’t need nicknames—who am I to say that the great Rafael Nadal should go as the Spanish stallion, or as Torrero? The encore to Nadal’s best season yet starts this week in Melbourne, and we’ll see pretty quickly whether he is ready to set the ATP World Tour on fire as his quarter of the draw is littered with tough opponents. He’ll be fine. Nadal leaves it all on the tennis court and no one has a shot as effective as his lefty and topspin-heavy forehand to the opponent’s backhand—except maybe this next guy.
Novak Djokovic is seeded No. 2, but he’s the favourite in Melbourne. The Djoker has won the previous three Australian Open titles and is gunning for a fifth title there, which would be a first in the Open era. This tournament often goes to the man who is better conditioned, an irony for someone who earlier in his career was said to be precisely the opposite. According to his Instagram account, Djokovic appears to treat the off-season as the time to travel and generally enjoy life, and maybe that’s the recipe. His game has few weaknesses, especially on hard courts—and this year he’s been gifted a preeeetty preeeeetty good draw, one with a possible quarterfinal against Crazy Stan. His backhand down the line is the signature shot of the past three seasons, so it’s better to attack him on the forehand.
Bonus: Andy Murray
Believe it or not, Andy Murray is the nickname I give to Andy Murray. The mercurial one has won two Grand Slam titles, including Wimbledon on his home soil this past season, and that was supposed to be enough for him to take over the universe afterward. Someone must have flipped the script, because it’s more of the same. He’s only getting back into playing form, too, so don’t expect much from him in Melbourne.
A week ago, I wrote that Serena Williams would capture the Grand Slam this season—Melbourne is the first step on that journey. Her quarter is very much within her grasp and she should have little problems navigating through possible matches against Daniela Hantuchova, Sam Stosur or Eugenie Bouchard. How do you beat the World No. 1? You hope she has a bad day—she’s got all the moves, otherwise.
A to Z
Victoria Azarenka looms in the last quarter and, while she’s not quite in the same stratosphere as Queen Serena, she’s a notch above most of the other players on the WTA tour. She uses a shriek, one unlike anything in this galaxy, to complicate every shot of her opponents—alright, alright, a bad joke, I know. A to Z has a solid serve, a solid forehand and a solid backhand. She’s not so great at the net, but no one really is on tour.
It’s not recommended to rally with Agniezska Radwanska as doing so is akin to hitting against with a wall—and a wall never misses. Radwanska can be overpowered, but she’s a clean player and will never beat herself. And despite a perceived lack of power, she came pretty close of beating Williams at the 2012 Wimbledon final. She’ll play A to Z in the quarterfinal, and it should be a doozy. Aga has reached that stage in the past three seasons in Australia, but the fourth time is always the charm.
You’d be ill advised to try to rally with Petra Kvitova too. The 23-year-old goes by Boom-Boom around these parts, because that’s the sound you keep on making as you’re running down her winners. Kvitova is perhaps the player with the heaviest groundstrokes on the women’s side, and it’s too bad there’s no mercy rule in tennis. She’ll beat you by beating you down, by crushing you.
Much like Murray on the men’s side, Maria Sharapova is only rounding into playing form. Most don’t expect much from her at this tournament, so maybe she’ll win.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG
January 6, 2014
On the usual week, this column looks back at the week that was in the tennis universe. But with apologies to Rafael Nadal, who won the Qatar ExxonMobil Open, and to Serena Williams who won the Brisbane International, not a whole lot happened last week. This means that it’s the perfect time to look ahead, to look at what the 2014 season may have in store for all of us.
This means that it’s the perfect time for 14 wonky predictions. Please keep in mind that not all 14 are likely to happen. (I’d be surprised if I get even half of them true.)
Novak Djokovic wins the 2014 Australian Open
Let’s start with the beginning and with me announcing that I believe Novak Djokovic will make it four wins in a row in Melbourne. Four of his six Grand Slam titles have already come in the land down under and another one this year would make it five. Five Australian Open titles is something that’s never been done before in the Open era, but Djokovic will write his name in the history books this season—not strictly for his win in Melbourne, either.
Novak Djokovic completes the career Slam
This might be my boldest prediction of the “unlikely, but there’s a chance!” group, but I do think the Serb does it. If he does win the first major of the year, Djokovic will be fully confident—and the Djoker’s self-belief hasn’t lacked since 2010 anyway. There’s a rub, too—not only will Djokovic win at Porte d’Auteuil, he’ll do it by defeating the King of Clay in the final. And beating Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros would be like dancing at the big boys dance and being named Prom King… or something.
Serena Williams wins the Grand Slam
There is absolutely no shot that this happens, but I’ll put it there just for the sake of it. Serena Williams has enjoyed perhaps the best two seasons of her career in 2012 and 2013, losing only 8 of a combined 144 matches and taking home a gold medal, two WTA Tour Championships and four Grand Slam tournaments. No player is as dominant as the younger of the two Williams sisters on the WTA Tour, and she can win everywhere. So why couldn’t she win everywhere in 2014?
Andy Murray is still Andy Murray
Andy Murray turned a corner in 2012, winning his first Grand Slam title in Flushing Meadows, and then gave every Brit a present better than even the Royal Baby in winning Wimbledon this past July. He seemed poised to take over the world, or at least that of the ATP, but we’ve arrived to 2014 and it seems like not a whole lot has changed. Three years ago, he was the fourth wheel to the head triumvirate. Presently, it’s basically worse—Murray is the third wheel to the royal family of Nadal and Djokovic. So bittersweet. So, so Andy Murray.
Roger Federer has his swan song
There had been signs before, but the 2013 season was when it all settled in that the end was definitely nearing for Roger Federer. Losses piled up, but it’s the mediocrity of those losses that were telling—against Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon, or against Tommy Robredo at the U.S. Open. Federer will turn 33 next summer and his streaks of Grand Slam 23 semifinals and 36 quarterfinals in a row both came to an end last season. Let’s all enjoy him while we still can.
In fact, let’s double down on Federer…
Roger Federer doesn’t finish in the top 15
At No. 7, the Swiss is already ranked the lowest that he has been in a few years—and he’s only getting older, not younger. King Roger said numerous times that he’d stop playing once he wouldn’t be relevant at the top. If he meant the top 15, then I think we’re about at the end.
Eugenie Bouchard is not a superstar yet
Last season, Canadian Eugenie Bouchard took the WTA Tour by storm. She rose through the rankings, gaining over 100 spots and peaking at No. 32 (i.e. she’s now ranked No. 31) on her way to deservedly winning the 2013 WTA Newcomer of the year award. If the future is bright for Canadian tennis, it’s in part because of her. Bouchard has it all—the looks, the shots, and the potential. She’s a phenom. But she’s not a superstar—not yet, at least. The rise becomes harder the higher and higher you reach. That’s true for anything in life, even the WTA Tour rankings.
Let’s keep on with the canucks.
Canadians don’t eat their cake at the 2014 Rogers Cup
The 2013 Men’s Rogers Cup was the absolute perfect storm, with one semifinal pitting two Canadian wunderkinds and the other pitting the two best players on tour. Let’s go ahead and etch this one in stone: there is not a single chance that this happens again. Not only would the draw have to make it possible and put the four in four different sections of the main draw, I just don’t believe Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil will match their performances from that week in heaven in Montreal. They’d have to do so in Toronto and that city, while it does have its perks, is not Montreal.
Roger Federer realizes the racquet makes a bigger difference than the coach
I never understood why Federer, at age 31, decided to switch to a prototype Wilson racquet in 2013. Maybe it’s easy to say in hindsight, what with the frustrating season that King Roger enjoyed, but maybe switching to an unknown of a racquet wasn’t the right move. He’s a bit old to decide to experiment with new possibilities for his shot-making tool on a tennis court. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it? I play with the Wilson Pro Staff 90 BLX, like Federer used to. Believe me, that racquet is not broken.
Victoria Azarenka’s don has his moment under the sun
Victoria Azarenka is likely the second best player on the WTA Tour and possibly the third biggest name in the sport, which means that she can have anything she wants. And in 2012, she decided that who she wanted was party-rockin’ Stefan “Redfoo” Gordy, from the pop group LMFAO. The pair has reportedly been dating since then, and here’s to a great modern love story unfolding just the way we all wish ours will end—with lots of love, health, money and a great family. Redfoo reportedly also wants a shot at sporting glory. Before he partied and rocked our summers, he must have apparently been a good junior tennis player. And this past year, he halfheartedly made a push to qualify for the main draw of the U.S. Open. GTFO, seriously?!? It was a non-story, but I hope it isn’t this year when he tries again.
Sugarpova is a horrible name for a horrible candy
Maria Sharapova is among the biggest superstars and celebrated champions on the WTA Tour, and because of that she was able in 2013 to launch a line of candy called Sugarpova. Now, I’m as much a fan of the bad pun as the next guy, but this one doesn’t work. I was hoping to have a taste last summer when Sharapova was set to launch the candy in person at the Loblaws megastore in downtown Toronto—but she cancelled the event. I’m hoping/predicting that this year I will learn the taste behind the ugly name of this candy.
Rafael Nadal plays injury-free tennis in 2014
Here’s one that’s as much a wish as it is a prediction. If Nadal’s 2012 season showed just how fickle the life of a professional tennis player could be, the 2013 season showed that redemption is a dish you best cook yourself. He was an unknown twelve months ago, and the only thing unknown by the end of last season was where exactly Nadal’s season ranked in history. (Pretty high, it turns out, but trying to be any more specific is probably useless.) Nadal will not come close to matching his 2013 season—there’s absolutely no way he could—but this season will be far from a failure. It’ll only be a failure by comparison to his previous, because merely excellent is not timeless.
…But he doesn’t finish the season ranked No. 1
Nadal doesn’t finish the season as the top-ranked player. Djokovic does.
The reign of Djokovic continues
Hey, just because they’re wonky predictions doesn’t mean that they absolutely must be objective.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG
December 30, 2013
Roger Federer announced this week that he was adding Stefan Edberg to his coaching team for the 2014 season. Essentially, that’s Federer turning to his compadres on tour and telling them that, “Well anything you can do, I can do better.”
Today’s players have apparently taken to heart the old saying that, “If you don’t understand the past, you are doomed to repeat it.” Federer hiring Edberg is just the latest proof of that, with the Swiss imitating a current great who himself had imitated another current great who had hired an ex-great. Federer’s decision is the third of the kind in the previous 24 months, or so, and though we’ve covered the main points as recently as last week, let’s quickly recap.
In 2012, Andy Murray was seemingly tired of losing Grand Slam finals and decided to do something about it, hiring Ivan Lendl as his head coach. The decision made sense—like Murray, Lendl had lost the first four Grand Slam finals he participated in. But Lendl had managed to turn things around on his way to 8 career Grand Slam titles, and the hope was that he would help Murray do the same.
If he has, it’s because he addressed some of Murray’s shortcomings on the biggest stages. If the pairing made sense then, and has been successful since, it’s because Murray had clear weaknesses (i.e. a weak forehand) and improvements on these helped the Scot buck the trend.
Then, about 10 days ago, it was Novak Djokovic’s turn to announce that he was naming ex-ATP great Boris Becker his head coach. But this is a weird decision. If Djokovic hired him because he feels his game is lacking, well that’s simply not true—he hasn’t lost a match since the U.S. Open final. And if he hired him with the clear goal of completing the career Grand Slam this season in Paris, well Becker might again not be the best choice possible—his six career Grand Slam titles include zero at Roland Garros.
The Serb sure can, and will, proceed as he please, and I wish nothing more than for him to prove me wrong, but this hire strikes me as an overreaction to a problem that doesn’t exist, to a couple of tough breaks (i.e. losses to Rafael Nadal in the semifinal in Paris and in the final at Flushing Meadows) and in the face of something beyond his control (i.e. the best season in the career of one of the three or four best players in history of the sport).
Well this week, Federer continues this game of musical chair, this trend of hiring yesterday’s greats to be the coaches of today’s greats. Could King Roger have decided to hire Edberg to join his coaching team perhaps because he fears he might soon become tomorrow’s great of yesterday? That would be the only place where this hiring makes sense. Not only is the throne not his anymore (i.e. it hasn’t been for a good three years, if we’re being honest), but also he can barely even call the ATP World Tour his kingdom.
Federer is fading, at his age, but it’s still surprising to see him way, way down in the rankings. The 2013 season was a frustrating one for him, to say the least, and he had to do something about it. But I personally thought getting rid of that Wilson prototype racket (i.e. to use that prototype in the first place is a decision I will never understand, not when Federer is turning 32) was supposed to be just that.
But maybe Edberg will help. He was always a master of the serve-and-volley, and perhaps that’s what he’ll teach King Roger. At the very least, he’ll likely want to have him shorten the rallies in a match, and that should only help the 32-year-old.
But in 2014, the Big Three doesn’t include Federer anymore. Maybe Edberg will help him on what I maintain will essentially be a swan song this year. If Federer is to capture little moments of magic this season, he will need to do so against Murray or Djokovic. Because he’s hopeless against Nadal, and will remain so until he hits with two hands on his backhand shot.
And not even Edberg will change that shot.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG