Tennis Elbow: Age is nothing but a number except when it isn’t

January 26, 2015

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

Eventually—maybe even soon—the current era of men’s tennis, with three of the 10 greatest players ever, will end.

God will this suck so bad, am I right? That’s what you’re thinking, right? You’re thinking that, because it may ruin an event like the Australian Open. Oh, it would make the event much more wide-open and thrilling, but it turn that would just make it more untenable for folks like yourself who live in the western hemisphere and have a regular 9-to-5 job. There are only so many nights that you can go to bed at 4 a.m. and in this era, you’ll obviously focus on potential matches between Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer to stay awake all night. And not to watch, say, Gilles Muller beat John Isner. (Though what a win for Muller!)

(Of course, you understand that complaining about this is very much #FirstWorldProblems, but the act itself of watching tennis is very #FirstWorldProblems—let’s carry on.)

You think that the new ATP World Tour will suck, because the predictability of Djokovic/Nadal, or Nadal/Federer, or Federer/Djokovic (currently the best rivalry of all time, as per FiveThirtyEight), is what has made the sport so fascinating in the past decade. We all knew, sort of, that they would be among the remaining few still standing at any given event and what has made this more fun than unpredictability has been to see how far they would push each other.

But what happens when none of the three players can go? That’s what you don’t like—what happens then? Then, the ATP World Tour becomes one full of surprises and seemingly random results. One where everything can, and often does, go. A more unpredictable Tour where someone, if we’re lucky, turns out to be our new champion… or one closer to the WTA Tour, but without even a Serena Williams.

Has the first domino fallen this past week in Melbourne when Federer lost against Andreas Seppi in the third round, you wonder? Maybe it’s too premature, but then again maybe it isn’t because this Australian Open result is the Swiss’s worst result since 2001.

And 2001 is such a long time ago, you say, that it might as well be a lifetime away. In 2001, it’s not just that Federer hadn’t won a Grand Slam yet. He was a 19-year-old whose highlight was a fourth round loss at Roland Garros and who was another two years away from a first Grand Slam title. In 2001 for the Australian Open, Federer was ranked No. 29—he certainly wasn’t King Roger. He had a ponytail in 2001.

Those are all your fears. Change can be good, but not all change is good—and how could any change away from this current triumvirate of men’s tennis be potentially good?

Well, while you complained about it all, you missed out on probably what was the best match of this first week between Seppi and Nick Kyrgios. Sure, maybe Federer should have been there, but what we did see was excellent tennis.

Let’s never complain about excellent tennis.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: The “underdogs” of the 2015 Australian Open

January 19, 2015

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon previews the 2015 Australian Open.

God, it feels good to be back in Melbourne—not that we, by which I mean “I,” actually am in Australia, but the tennis world certainly is.

The tennis season is so constructed that it unofficially launches right away with one of the four biggest events of the year. In tennis, there’s never any easing back in—the calendar starts, and you jump right in. It’s wonderful and reason No. 938 why this sport is the greatest.

The Australian Open also perhaps is my favourite Grand Slam tournament, if only because it allows me to momentarily forget about the awful cold winter I otherwise live in. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the lesser-known players who may make a dent on both the men’s and the women’s draws.

I could just write about the usual suspects that are Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Eugenie Bouchard, but where’s the fun in that? (Plus, my colleague Tom Cochrane has already written quite the excellent preview and analysis.)

*****

Men’s draw

Juan Martin Del Potro

Juan Martin Del Potro could have been the great equalizer. The former World No. 4 came back after almost a year off following, what else, a wrist injury at the Apia International Sydney tournament and promptly reached the quarterfinals. The tall Argentine is likely too rusty (and currently at No. 338, he’s probably too far removed to make any lasting impression in Melbourne). But he would have made things very interesting in his section. But alas, he is out with a, yep, wrist injury.

Feliciano Lopez

The Spaniard enjoyed a string of good results last summer and a solid overall 2014 season and, as a result, he could be poised for a good Melbourne run. He’s ranked No. 14, which gives some kind of respite. In reaching the third round a year ago, Lopez lost to Andy Murray. This year, he should have no problem equaling last year’s result. Lopez has the strokes to give a few players headaches, and his higher seeding should give him at least a few matches where he’ll be the favourite.

Gael Monfils

…Except that Gael Monfils would be Lopez’s opponent in the fourth round if everything goes according to plan. Very quietly, Monfils bounced back in 2014 to play relatively injury-free tennis—the flying Frenchman made two Grand Slam quarterfinals at Roland Garros and at Flushing Meadows (along with, erm, a second round at Wimbledon and a third round in Australia), and he will give anyone playing him fits. What we see as showmanship is annoying to his opponents, but that’s how Monfils plays. He has good groundstrokes, but this is probably more wishful thinking on my part—he needed a little luck in the draw in order to realistically hope a Melbourne breakthrough. Instead, he’s slated to play the aforementioned Lopez in the third round, or Milos Raonic should he win that match.

Nick Kyrgios

I have to be consistent, right? I can’t say that I expect the young Aussie to challenge the better players on the ATP World Tour in one column, and then not mention his name among those we should keep an eye for at the Australian Open, right?

But a breakthrough at his home major, in front of friends and family, in the same country he was raised? The tennis world isn’t Hollywood—it comes close, but it isn’t.

*****

Women’s draw

Sania Mirza

Alright, Sania Mirza isn’t actually playing in Melbourne, but her story is worth telling.

Sara Errani

You never quite know why, but the Italian always seems to hang around at major tournaments. Since breaking through in 2012, Sara Errani has made the quarterfinals, or better, at every Grand Slam except for Wimbledon. Just last year, there she was among the final 8 at the US Open and Roland Garros. (She also lost in the first round in Australia and England, so I suppose she’s a little boom or bust.)

Errani will never overpower her opponent, but she’s smart and will not beat herself.

Venus Williams

What should we make of Venus Williams? The older Williams sister arrives in Melbourne after winning the ASB Classic in Auckland to continue building upon a strong 2014 season, where she captured one title (i.e. in Dubai) and reached three other finals (i.e. Auckland, Montreal and Quebec City). Williams will likely only go as far as her health allows her to, but it’s good to see her back and stringing together a few good matches in a row. It’s also bad, bad news for the rest of the players on the WTA Tour.

Sloane Stephens

A coach who meets one player’s displeasure only needs to look elsewhere and find acceptance again, is that it? Nick Saviano, who was last seen getting axed by Canadian Eugenie Bouchard because he (perhaps) didn’t want to embark on a full-time relationship, will now coach Sloane Stephens. And the American needs it, after a 2014 season where she stalled and finished the year at No. 37 only 12 months after being No. 12. Stephens’s confidence likely isn’t at an all-time high, but she knows she can win big matches in Australia—before her fourth round loss in 2014, she had beat Serena Williams on the way to the semifinal in 2013.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: The hard knock life of Eugenie Bouchard

January 12, 2015

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon looks at the latest controversy of Eugenie Bouchard.

Could there be trouble brewing for the #GenieArmy? Because the Eugenie Bouchard headlines sure abound, but they’re not always pretty.

Take this most recent one, for example, where Bouchard is front and center in a dispute between the WTA Tour and the Hong Kong Tennis Association. According to the South China Morning Post, association president Herbert Chow Siu-lung has said that the women’s tour has tried to bully and intimidate the folks of the inaugural Prudential Hong Kong Tennis Open last September.

What does this really have to do with Bouchard? Right. Well, at the last minute in September, Bouchard had decided to pull out of this tournament, and that accusation from Chow stems from the WTA’s decision to impose a $10,000 fine after tournament officials had had “disparaging” remarks about the Canadian.

“We are very disappointed that Bouchard is not honouring her commitment even though she lost in the fourth round [at the US Open],” Chow had said then, “and it took her until now to officially inform us that she is not coming.”

Wait, didn’t you say disparaging? Oh right, there’s a follow-up quote. “If Bouchard was injured, we would understand and would wish her well. But she is simply tired,” Chow said. “To say she is tired and cannot turn up because she is tired is poor form.”

We get it, too. The tournament was in its very first year of existence, which will always be a stressful time of uncertainty. Bouchard was and is among the brightest stars on Tour, and Chow and co. wanted to avoid creating the precedent that their tournament can’t attract the best players.

But we also understand that this fine was a given, considering Chow’s remarks—it goes against article F of the WTA code of conduct. The star players are the reason why the sport is successful, right or wrong, and to publicly slam them is to be begging for a fine.

Part of me thinks that Chow knows and understands this very well, and that the association doesn’t fully mind the fine despite the group’s decision to appeal it. $10,000 is not nothing, but it isn’t $1,000,000 either—it’s a relatively small penance for a group that could otherwise manage $250,000 in prize money. Could it be that they believe that the potential payoff of making other star players think twice about skipping out on participating at the event far outweighs this cost? My guess is yes. (Maybe a safer bet to do so would be to act humbled, be grateful of players even considering the event.)

I don’t know if I side with one over another in this debate, but it’s at least refreshing. I don’t endorse slamming a player publicly, but it wasn’t too long ago that the Rogers Cup, then named the du Maurier Open, had difficulty attracting the better players. (Or in the case of Serena Williams, it still does—this past summer the American played her first match in Montreal since 2000.) In retrospect, that’s how the likes of Andrei Pavel and Chris Woodruff won the event—many others just thought the event happened too close to the start of the US Open.

And that’s probably the gist of the issue. Above anything else, this is a scheduling problem. And if it is a scheduling problem, this means that the fault probably lies within the WTA itself… although it is true that it’s a little annoying to learn that someone has decided to withdraw for fatigue. But it’s Bouchard’s prerogative to do it.

If nothing else, this is a first controversy for the young Canadian, who has had about as smooth a sailing as anyone can have to launch her career but now sees that her star has faded considerably since the Wimbledon final.

And yet, among the most recent headlines is also this one—the Canadian has been selected by the agency IMG/WME, with whom she has signed a contract for representation, to join the IMG Models Worldwide roster.

See? Life is still plenty good. Now, she just needs a new coach.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: 15 wonky predictions for the 2015

January 5, 2015

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon comes up with a series of predictions for the upcoming season.

They say that whenever God closes a door, he opens a new one. This holds true for tennis seasons as well, as the closing of one means the start of another one. Now, the 2015 season has technically already started, I know, but I’ve never been one to be about technicalities.

We tried the exercise exactly a year ago and loved it, so let’s try again. Here are 15 wonky predictions for the 2015 season. Keep in mind that they are supposed to be wonky by design.

Novak Djokovic has a season for the ages

It’s impossible for Novak Djokovic to ever repeat his 2011 season, because that one will live on in the short list of greatest ever, but his supporters have reason to believe that the Serb is the best player on Tour. The Djoker was dominant in 2014 and will start this season with the knowledge that he withstood an onslaught on his year-end No. 1 ranking—the four Grand Slams will not have four different champions in 2015, because Djokovic will win more than one.

Novak Djokovic completes the career Slam

I mean, I’ll keep rolling with this one until it happens. Both because I think he’s likely to win one French Open title in his career and because I wish that he does.

Roger Federer calls it quits

We keep thinking Roger Federer will one day remember how old he is and fade to black. It’s his prerogative to want to keep playing and, if he continues to play as well as he did over the second half of the 2014 season, why wouldn’t he? He’s a great ambassador to the sport, a great champion and, most importantly, a father of four. Let’s all enjoy watching him play in 2015, because it may not happen again in 2016.

…Probably because he wins something else

There. This prediction, that Federer wins yet another Grand Slam title despite having only one since 2010 and turning 34 during this upcoming season, is legitimately bold. Or a compromise—let’s say that Federer wins the year-end Barclays World Tour Finals and say it’s a worthy and meaningful title, okay?

Eugenie Bouchard wins a Grand Slam title

The #haterswillhate, especially given the sudden and oddly-timed decision to part ways with longtime coach Nick Saviano, but I’ll go the other way. Instead of breaking Eugenie Bouchard, this decision will galvanize and fuel her new season.

…And the Rogers Cup

There will be hiccups first, however. The Canadian will be under intense scrutiny right away and has about 273,083 points (i.e. approximate) to defend at the first three Grand Slam tournaments—I’ll go out on a limb and say that Bouchard will not reach a final and two semifinals as she did in 2014. But she’ll make everyone forget about last summer’s Montreal choke job and use that title to launch a New York takeover for the US Open.

Serena Williams does not win a Grand Slam title

Serena Williams plays for Grand Slam titles, so her 2014 season has to go down as a failure. Before winning at Flushing Meadows, she had a second round loss (i.e. Roland Garros), a third round loss (i.e. Wimbledon) and a fourth round loss (i.e. Australian Open). I don’t believe Williams will fail to reach the second week at the first three majors again this year, but I don’t believe she’ll add to her haul of 18 Grand Slams. Expect a weird season in 2015 on the women’s side.

…But still finishes the year at No. 1

Who else would it be? Serena Williams had about as bad a 2014 season until the US Open as she possibly could have, and yet she was never threatened at the top. There’s her, then there’s everyone else on the WTA Tour.

Rafael Nadal has a 2013-lite season

More and more, it seems like excellence comes at a price for Rafael Nadal and that a major title is the lone bright spot before a few weeks/months of darkness. At the beginning of the season, the Spaniard is presumably healthy and I like his odds over just about everyone when he is healthy. If you recall, he followed a seven-month hiatus in 2012 with arguably the greatest season of his career in 2013, one that included 10 titles, including two Grand Slam, and over $12 million in prize money. I don’t foresee all this again, but why not a few gut wrenching major finals against Djokovic? We haven’t had these in some time.

Postmodern Andy Murray will be just fine

Wikipedia defines postmodernism “as the skeptical interpretation of culture, literature, art, etc.” and Andy Murray signing a sponsorship deal with Under Armour is postmodern tennis. Murray knows he’s not Nadal nor Federer, and will never be, and he now embraces it. No more adidas. And the 27-year-old will be fine.

…And adds to the hardware collection

The only way this previous prediction makes sense is if I throw Murray a bone. At Flushing Meadows, the Brit will prove to everyone, including himself, that he wasn’t just a creation of Ivan Lendl.

Nick Kyrgios makes a Grand Slam final

Because why not? I like the guy, his shots and passion both, and think the 2015 season will be his breakout. If Federer scales back a little bit, and I sure am predicting as much, then I might as well say that someone like the Aussie can pick up the scraps. Let’s just as well etch it in stone right now—Kyrgios will lose to Murray in the US Open final.

Simona Halep wins Roland Garros

Simona Halep should have been a bigger deal, but I live in Canada. And if there’s one thing that Canadians love beyond sports, it’s supporting their own Canadian athletes. So while Halep’s 2014 season was not quite on par with Eugenie Bouchard’s, it was still excellent. But it may as well have been nonexistent here in Canada.

Stanislas Wawrinka becomes the foremost “Swiss guy” on the ATP World Tour

And not only because I hinted at the fact that this season may be Federer’s last (ish)! Stanislas Wawrinka may not repeat his successes of 2014, but he’s firmly entrenched at the top of the ATP World Tour rankings. He’s not the favourite to win every tournament, but he’s a threat at every event he plays in.

Novak Djokovic finishes the year at No. 1 again

Yep, those predictions are both wonky and subjective.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: The “Elbows” of the 2014 season

December 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 recaps the 2014 season in the form of a fake awards show.

Is it possible for a season to have been both wide open and yet fairly clearly dominated by a single player?

The 2014 season on the ATP World Tour had four different players win the four different Grand Slam tournaments, yet it was still pretty clearly just another year in the reign of Novak Djokovic.

The Djoker broke through in a major way in 2011—we all know that—and we’ve been living in his world ever since, save for a short time in 2013. We’ve all loved it, too. (Or, at least I’ve loved it. HA!)

As I’ve done year since this Tennis Elbow column started, I’ll use this year-end edition to create an awards ceremony. The Elbows of the year reflect one man’s experience of the 2014 season as a fan and a columnist. They are totally pointless, fake, and arbitrary (and at times irrelevant)—because how fun would it be if they weren’t?

The Alpha Male of the Year Elbow

…To Novak Djokovic. For the third time in four years, the ATP World Tour is Novak Djokovic’s world and the case for the Serb as player of the year is rather simple. The captain of the #myguyyy all-stars has more wins than anyone else but Roger Federer in the Top 10, more tournament wins, better tournament wins and more prize money.

Djokovic is the best player on Tour, and 2014 was his year once more. You don’t have to agree with it, as long as you can live with the knowledge that you’re wrong.

The Mission Impossible Elbow

…To Roger Federer. If we’re totally honest, King Roger was always unlikely to catch Djokovic for the year-end No. 1 ranking—he was too many points behind (i.e. he was No. 8 as late as March) and too little time, but he sure made Djokovic work for it. After a loss against Ernests Gulbis in the fourth round at Roland Garros, Federer won 36 of the 40 matches he played to enter the Barclays finals with a (very long) shot at overtaking the Serb. He fell just short, but it was still amazing.

The Superstar Elbow

…To Eugenie Bouchard. The young Canadian saw the Phenom Elbow she won in 2013 and told herself, “I can do better.” Where do you go when you’ve broken through the glass ceiling as the WTA newcomer of the year in 2013? Well, it turns out that you see a second glass ceiling, and that’s what you aim for—it’s one with things like the No. 1 ranking, Grand Slam titles, etc., and it’s damn hard to reach. After two Grand Slam semifinals and one final in 2014, the stakes will be at their highest for Bouchard. Will she be up for it?

The Flameout of the Year Elbow

…To Eugenie Bouchard. The 20-year-old will have a chance to meet raised expectations so long as she’s not up to task the same way she was for the 2014 Rogers Cup. Let’s set the scene, in case you forgot how she wasted her summer. After semifinals at the Australian Open and the French Open, and a final at Wimbledon, Bouchard was coming home. Tickets sales were high, tennis was on every Montrealer’s mind and… she promptly chocked. Bouchard lost to qualifier Shelby Rogers 6-0, 2-6, and 6-0 in a darkened Stade Uniprix that had no scoreboard and had lost power earlier in the day. By the end of the match, the entire Rogers Cup was without power.

The This Is So Weird For Canada Elbow

…To Canada and Canadian tennis fans. For the majority of my life, Canada has been terrible at tennis. We played the sport, sure, and even had players in the Top 100, but we never won anything of note at the highest level. In fact, Canada was the country you left in order to maximize your earning potential (see: Rusedski, Greg).  For a while, Sebastien Lareau was the country’s best singles player and the best thing you could say about him was that he was a great, great doubles player.

But in 2014, Canada has Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard and, though we still haven’t won anything of note, we’ve come much closer than ever before. That’s what stung about Bouchard’s loss in Montreal—for once, we were disappointed. We had never been good enough to feel disappointment, because disappointment comes from expectations. And we had never been good enough to have any.

The Anybody Wants It? Elbow

…To the WTA Tour. We like to think that the WTA Tour goes as the great Serena Williams does, but what happens when she has an off year? Well, not much, it turns out! In 2014, Li Na retired, two young players enjoyed a career year, and otherwise we basically just spent our time waiting for the younger of the Williams sisters to assert herself and her will.

The Injury of the Year Elbow

…To Rafael Nadal. Increasingly, it seems like the new normal for any given season is for the Spaniard to 1) win Roland Garros every year, because it is his birthright and 2) get injured. It’s only about a year ago that Nadal finished perhaps the best overall season of his career, though that one had come on the heels of a seven-month hiatus in 2012. Our days with the Spaniard are numbered, sadly. We’ll all miss him while he’s gone, but let’s hope Nadal can bounce back in 2015 and play (relatively) injury-free.

The Non-Beef Beef of the Year Elbow

…To Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka. It’s all fun and games when the cheering and the “come on” are between two rivals and countrymen. When that’s the case, the two friends can remain just that—at the end of a match, there’s a winner and a loser, but it’s just business. It isn’t personal, because it never is… until Mirka Federer starts chirping against Wawrinka. No one would dare criticize Federer, because no one ever does but I’ll be that guy. Let me say that Mirka’s reaction is terrible, and that it likely would have compromised things between two other men. (So maybe that’s why no one ever criticizes Federer.)

The week after that dust-up in London, the two Swiss guys teamed up to give Switzerland its first ever Davis Cup. That’s a testament to Stan.

The This Should Have Been a Bigger Deal, But You Live in Canada Elbow

…To Simona Halep. Yet for all her excellence, Bouchard wasn’t the young player who enjoyed the biggest breakthrough in 2014—Halep played in the very last possible match of 2014, against Serena Williams for the Singapore finals, and finished ranked No. 3. The Romanian has had the shots for a while, but it’s only in 2013 that she learned how to win on Tour, and in 2014 that she managed to put it all together for the Grand Slam tournaments. Halep reached the quarterfinals in Melbourne, the final in Paris, the semifinal at Wimbledon (and the third round in New York)—but because I live in Canada, I never heard about her. She deserves better.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Where’s your new coach when you need one?

December 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 examines Eugenie Bouchard’s off-season so far.

Eugenie Bouchard still has no coach. The 2015 season starts in just two weeks and the young Canadian still doesn’t have a coach.

Maybe you’ve heard about this pseudo controversy already—it’s a pretty big deal over here in Canada.

After a 2014 season where she perhaps established herself as the future of the WTA Tour, Bouchard has decided to part ways with her longtime coach—Nick Saviano is the same person she had been brought up under since breaking through two years ago. And because neither Bouchard nor Saviano was especially forthright about explanations and motives behind this decision, it’s up to us to read into signs that probably mean nothing because it’s likely just a tennis decision.

Is there more to it? Meh. Bouchard is currently ranked No. 7 and will have about 80,987 (approximate) points at just the Grand Slam events, where she made one fourth round, two semifinals and one final. While the 2014 season was magical in many ways, the one thing it did highlight was that Bouchard couldn’t win the biggest matches of her season—she was on the wrong end of the Australian Open and Roland Garros semifinals, as well as the Wimbledon final.

Of course, she was. No 20-year-old ever wins her first big matches, especially not when they come against Li Na, Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova.

The thing is, Bouchard will have about 88 (again, approximation) big matches during the 2015 season and maybe she doesn’t feel like Saviano is the one person who can help her the most. That’s certainly her prerogative and a player will always be right until he/she is proven wrong—coaches, for the most part, are said to be interchangeable.

A relative unknown could be stepping into the spotlight for the #GenieArmy. Marko Dragic, 30, is a former pro and supposedly is working with the Canadian on a trial basis right now. We’ll see if he sticks over the long haul—he’d presumable have to be willing to travel with Bouchard on a full-time basis, which is what may have led to the split between Saviano and his former pupil.

After the 2014 season, Bouchard has used this off-season to capitalize on her image. She joined the IMG/WME agency, signing on as another face on the modeling roster of IMG Models Worldwide, and will thus likely maximize her earnings off the tennis courts. “I am really excited about joining WME/IMG, a company that is in the best possible position to help me achieve my business goals and maximize the value of my brand,” Bouchard says.

In 2014, every athlete becomes a business and a brand, and Bouchard understands this. But of course, the value of a brand only goes so far if the tennis results aren’t up to par.

Knowing that, it makes sense that she would want a new tennis coach to bolster her. Who that new coach becomes is really just fodder to help us make it to the new season. The difference between the very best (non-Serena Williams) players is minimal, but in a way that only makes the decision of hiring a coach that much more critical.

So no, it’s not ideal that Bouchard hasn’t found her replacement so close to 2015, but there’s one thing that’s even worse.

It’s hiring the wrong coach.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Welcome to the International Premier Tennis League

December 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 celebrates a league that has helped the off-season go by just a little quicker in 2014.

A theme that I’ve been harping on in the past month is that the off-season is rather short. And that I’m thankful that this is the case, because just because there isn’t tennis played doesn’t mean that I don’t need to write every Monday.

Yet, the 2014 off-season is different. In 2014, there still is tennis played in November.

WAIT, what??

Yes, that is right. This November and December, you were watching television late one evening and you found yourself watching live tennis matches. It was the International Premier Tennis League, sure, but tennis is still tennis, right?

Well hold on before I answer you, answer me this. What is the International Premier Tennis League?

The IPTL had its inaugural season in 2014, from November to December 13, and the Indian Aces were crowned champions.

That technically does tell me what the league is, but can you be more specific with details? Also, who plays, and where?

Sure thing, buddy. The IPTL is the creative offspring of an executive team that includes former tennis greats like Carlos Moya and Mahesh Bhupathi. The aim of the league is to “fulfill the increasing demand for top-level tennis in Asia,” as per its website.

The IPTL has four teams in Asia, each of which has a stronger name than the other—the Indian Aces, the Manila Mavericks, the Singapore Slammers and the UAE Royals. Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur were also supposed to have a franchise, but oh well.

Sure, but I still don’t know who plays in the IPTL. I guess what I’m really asking is, should I care?

Yes, the answer to “who plays in the IPTL?” question is also the reason of why you should care. (It’s as if one person who set up this fake Q&A did so with the intent of having seamless transitions.)

The IPTL held a draft in March.

Wait, what? A draft?

Hold on, let me finish. The IPTL held a draft in March, yes, and the four franchises participating could choose players from a pool of—as best as I can tell—80 current and former WTA Tour and ATP World Tour players.

In 2014, the players drafted ranged from the icons of yesterday (i.e. Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi) to those of today (i.e. Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer), from the solid players of yesterday (i.e. Goran Ivanisevic, Patrick Rafter) to those of today (i.e. Gael Monfils, Thomas Berdych). Each team also has two WTA players, and most are current greats (i.e. Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka).

Okay, this sure seems like all fun and games but how do the games actually work? Is it just typical tennis, with the team format added to it?

Actually, no. The IPTL crowns a champion at the end of a round-robin tournament—the team with the most points at the end wins the title (and the $US 1 million prize money).

What??? A round-robin tournament?

Yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Each team plays 12 matches total, and each match consists of five sets: men’s singles, women’s singles, men’s doubles, mixed doubles and past champions’ singles. Win six games before your opponent, and you win the set. Each team must also keep a running tally of games won, because you may get points depending on how many games you won over five sets.

The IPTL has more subtle differences, like no-ad scoring, power points, timed shoot-outs, but that’s basically it. Win the match, and you get four points. Lose and get to 20 games? Two points. Lose and get to 10 games? One point. (Lose and get fewer than 10 games? You don’t deserve a point.)

Alright so maybe I should care, but should I be a fan?

That’s a trickier question to answer—I’m personally still on the fence. I watched the set that Djokovic and Federer played, and it was great because tennis is still tennis and tennis is great. But the stakes were nowhere near as high as what we’re used to, right? It’s not Wimbledon, but the thing is that it never pretends to be either. The IPTL is a show put on for the people—think a cross between the typical Davis Cup tie and the annual Player X showcase.

Any #hottakes out there?

Ah, yes! The year 2014 also happens to be the year of the contrarians and that of the provocateur. Of course there already is a #hottake out there.

The league is still young and will continue to evolve. I’m willing to give it a chance, which is something not everyone seems intent on doing. There’s this semi lukewarm #hottake already, complaining that the IPTL “is a circus, most likely mounted for TV, to hook couch-potatoes to the idiot box’s version of tennis.”

This author is right—the IPTL is a business, and tennis is its product. Just like it is at the US Open—how do you really think the tournament can foot almost a $30-million bill just for prize money?

The IPTL isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s still tennis. It’s a sport. It’s a business, like it’s supposed to be.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Let’s revisit those 14 wonky predictions

December 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 revisits the predictions he made at the beginning of the 2014 season.

The off-season is short in tennis.

On the ATP World Tour, it lasts about seven weeks while it’s a little over two months on the WTA Tour. (Unless you count some of the more minor tournaments that happen after the tour finale in the latter’s case, but you shouldn’t.)

So yeah, two months is a short period of time. And yet for a writer with a weekly column on the sport, two months is a long, long time—just because they don’t play matches anymore doesn’t mean that I don’t have to write. During the season, I keep a list of a few potential topics that aren’t necessarily time-related and which I may write about at this time.

But sometimes, I just decide to revisit the 14 predictions that I made at the very beginning of the season and see where I was right (highly unlikely) and where I was wrong (mostly everywhere, I bet).

Keep in mind that these are supposed to be wonky by design.

1. Novak Djokovic wins the 2014 Australian Open: NAY

Well, I was off to a rocking start. While the loss in the quarterfinals was bad, the fact that it occurred against the eventual tournament winner, and the fact that Stanislas Wawrinka enjoyed a strong 2014 season, means that the logic was sound. Wrong prediction, but sound logic.

2. Novak Djokovic completes the career Grand Slam: NAY

Wrong again on this one, because winning Roland Garros might as well be Rafael Nadal’s birth right. Still, I don’t care—I’ll keep rolling with this prediction until it happens.

3. Serena Williams wins the Grand Slam: NAY

No. Instead, she had to win the US Open to salvage a dismal Grand Slam season, where she lost in the fourth round in Australia, in the second round in Paris and in the third round at Wimbledon.

4. Andy Murray is still Andy Murray: YAY

There it is—my crowning achievement of the 2014 prediction season. After spending, oh I don’t know, seemingly 87 years as the fourth wheel to the triumvirate of Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, Andy Murray was as peculiar as ever in 2014. It’s not right, or fair to him, that he’s always been grouped with the head trio, especially pre-Ivan Lendl and pre-Grand Slam titles, but because he has been he has always had a lot of pressure to live up to. Just the fact that he made it to London for the O2 Finals was a minor miracle for the man who was ranked as low as No. 12 as late as Sept. 15.

5. Roger Federer has his swan song: YAY

Roger Federer finished the 2014 season at No. 2 after having made Djokovic fight for the year-end No. 1 ranking with every might of his body. I choose to believe that in a way this was his swan song. I choose to believe that his disappointing 2013 season is as indicative of his level of play as his stellar finish in 2014. I choose to believe that the Swiss turned 33 in August and that at some point, this will mean something.

Mostly, I choose to celebrate while I still can.

6. Roger Federer doesn’t finish in the top 15: NAY

This may have been the prediction I was most wrong about. Let’s just move on.

7. Eugenie Bouchard is not a superstar yet: NAY

Or maybe it’s this one. She’s not a superstar, she’s just ranked No. 7 and has finished a 2014 season with a 19-4 record in Grand Slams, including two semifinals and a final. Right, she’s totally not a superstar.

8. Canadians don’t eat their cake at the 2014 Rogers Cup: NAY

The 2013 Rogers Cup in La belle province unfolded like a dream, with superstars Nadal and Djokovic in one semifinal and Canadians Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil in the other. All the reasons were there for a successful encore this season, notably that Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard were both now established stars in tennis and that they were playing in their hometown.

And yet, this meant that the stage was set for a massive disappointment. Raonic lost in the quarterfinals in Toronto, a miracle compared to Bouchard’s flameout in the first round in Montreal. In the end, the cake was there but Canadians couldn’t even blow out the candles before it was taken away.

9. Roger realizes the racquet makes a bigger difference than the coach: YAY

After playing for quite a long part of the 2013 season with a prototype Wilson racquet, Federer again switched things up in 2014. He let go of his classic Pro Staff frame for one that was better suited to his style. The 2014 results show that the move paid dividends. Federer also hired a new coach, but even the man doesn’t think the word “coach” is appropriate—who are we to disagree?

10. Victoria Azarenka’s don has his moment under the sun: NAY

I mostly wrote this one as more of a wish than an actual prediction… In the summer of 2013, we learned that Stefan “Redfoo” Gordy, he of LMFAO fame, had decided to see if he could party-rock all the way to Flushing Meadows. In another life, the pop star was apparently a fairly decent tennis player and he tried to qualify for the 2012 US Open. He failed miserably and in spectacular fashion. I thought that he might make it in 2014, but he didn’t. This makes me sad.

11. Sugarpova is a horrible name for a horrible candy: YAY

Unfortunately, I never managed to find Sugarpova candy anywhere—not that I really looked that hard, of course—but let’s look exactly at what this prediction entails… For me to have been proven right, all I would need would be the Sugarpova monicker. Whether the candy tastes horrible or not is irrelevant, because Sugarpova is still a terrible name.

12. Rafael Nadal plays injury-free tennis in 2014: NAY

The 2013 season may have been the very best of Rafael Nadal’s career, proving to all of us that sometimes if you hope to come back healthy, you just need to shut it down for six months prior to your return. And yet, at what price did that success come?

The Spaniard played in only three tournaments after his loss in the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2014 before deciding to shut it down for good. This looks to be the new normal for him—he’ll put his everything into defending his French Open crown every year, and anything else has to be treated as a bonus. It sucks, because the ATP World Tour is better with a healthy Nadal.

13. … But he doesn’t finish the season ranked No. 1: YAY

I was right on this one, in part because I am such a homer, yes.

14. The reign of Djokovic continues: YAY

It wasn’t always easy, and he had to make us patiently wait until the very last tournament, but Novak Djokovic is still the best and top-ranked player on the ATP World Tour. Maybe he didn’t win multiple Grand Slam tournaments, but no one else did either. For the third time in four years, he finishes as the year-end No. 1. Whether you want to admit it or not, this is Djokovic’s world.

Add it all up and I went 6/14. This is not good.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Novak Djokovic is my choice for player of the year

December 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 celebrates the incredible year Novak Djokovic has enjoyed.

You’ll say that I’m a homer making a homer pick, but it can’t be a homer pick if it’s the right pick.

Novak Djokovic is the player of the year this season. The ATP World Tour does this thing where it names the year-end No. 1 player its player of the year, and I guess there is some truth to this but it’s not an exact science. They know what they are doing—surely, if the award were dependent on anything but who finished the year as No. 1, there could and would debates about it. That’s where all the fun lies, though you can’t fault the ATP for avoiding it.

But if there were a Player of the Year award, I say that Djokovic would deserve to win it. Now, I know that deserve has nothing to do with it and that just because you deserve to win something does not mean that you will. But let’s examine Djokovic’s candidacy for the 2014 season.

Right off the bat, let’s explain that for all his excellence on the courts, he may have shined most in his every day life. He started a family, getting married to longtime girlfriend Jelena Ristic in July and welcoming a son in October. Tennis is great, but real life is better. But this is a tennis award, so I must look at tennis reasons for giving it to him.

Let’s look at match wins then. He has 61 for the year, more than anyone else but Roger Federer (i.e. 73) in the Top 10. And yet, he is the only player with fewer than 10 losses—he has eight. He’s won 88 per cent of his matches, which is a large reason why the Serb finishes the year ranked No. 1 once more. Second best, here, is Federer with almost 86 per cent of his matches won.

Let’s look at the tournament wins as well. He has “only” one Grand Slam, Wimbledon, but that’s because four different men won the four major tournaments in 2014. He did make two finals though, losing against Nadal in Paris because life, and that’s more than anyone else can say. No one can point out his lack of overall tournament wins either, because his haul of seven is more than his counterparts. Not all tournaments are created equal, either, and that’s another advantage Djokovic has—he won one Masters 500, four Masters 1000’s, one Grand Slam and the ATP World Tour Finals.

The 27-year-old has the quantity and quality of tournament wins, but still there’s more. You can look at his current 19-match unbeaten streak, or his 24-6 record against fellow top 10 players in 2014. What’s that mantra? To be the best, you have to beat the best? Djokovic did just that this season, at an 80 per cent clip. (Federer, by comparison, won 68 per cent of his matches against the Top 10.)

These are all great reasons, but that’s not why I’m choosing him as the player of the year. For a while after the US Open, it seemed like his year-end No. 1 ranking might be in danger. Because he had won so often after the US Open in 2013, there was a worry as to whether Djokovic would be able to hold on to the distinction this season. Would he have even enough points, mathematically?

Well, that’s when Djokovic doubled down and, basically, said “Only over my dead body will you have this.” He then proceeded to kill everyone in sight, figuratively of course, winning Paris and London while dropping only a single set in the Paris semifinal against Kei Nishikori. We thought we would have a suspenseful end to the season and for the most part, we did. Until Djokovic said there was no way he would lose. And he didn’t.

It’s 2014 and Djokovic is the ATP’s Player of the Year Award for the third time in four seasons. We all are living in Djokovic’s world, and I love it—because I’m a homer, yes.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

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

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