Tennis Elbow: Tennis and doping (or not) with meldonium

April 25, 2016

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon discusses the latest in the meldonium doping saga

At long last, we have new developments in the ongoing tennis doping saga.

Alright alright, maybe we’re overselling it with this opener, because who knows if it’s really a saga at all, but there certainly appears to be some news in what has become our favourite story of this 2016 season.

Let’s remind folks that since January 1, 2016, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has banned meldonium. Let’s also remind folks that Maria Sharapova has been out of tennis since March 8 when she announced that she had tested positive for the substance at this year’s Australian Open, and that she’s (or had) been using meldonium for the better part of the past decade.

Okay, but you knew that already. So what’s new?

What’s new is that we may know when Sharapova’s disciplinary hearing will happen and, most importantly, that a ruling may come before the start of Wimbledon. This is important, because the Russian Federation wants Sharapova to compete in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games and, also, well that the following is the punishment that the 29-year-old faces.

…unless it doesn’t come to that?

Oh you’ll accuse us of burying the lede, we know, but we don’t mind; it’s just too good.

You see, while there have been 172 positive tests for meldonium in 2016, not to mention Sharapova and the fact that the Russian U18 hockey team pulled out of competition on the eve of a tournament, WADA now has released one incredible mea culpa. “There is currently a lack of clear scientific information on excretion times,” the organization mentioned.

We’ll put this in clearer terms: WADA really has no idea just how long meldonium may stay in an athlete’s system.

Really? Really.

You can see the logical conclusion: this means that an athlete like, hmm, say Sharapova may have consumed meldonium for the last time at some point in 2015 (when meldonium was legal) but still see signs of the substance in their system in 2016 (with meldonium now illegal). WADA even recognizes that in this case, said athlete may be capable of proving that they «could not have known or suspected» that a positive test would occur.  “In these circumstances, WADA considers that there may be grounds for no fault or negligence on the part of the athlete,” added the organization.

Again, in clearer terms, this means that an athlete could argue that they shouldn’t be punished because, well, that trace of meldonium is just an old residue from 2015.

So again we ask: really?? Really.

Of course, incoming WADA director general Olivier Niggli has said that Sharapova’s case absolutely must move forward. “For her, given her levels [of meldonium], it is not even a question,” Niggli told The Associated Press this week.

Niggli is a dreamer, so we’re inclined to continue allowing him to show his ass. Keep going, WADA, because you see, it actually is a question with Sharapova whether she should be punished at all—and it’s all your own fault.

See, that’s the problem with our ever-going quest to clean our sports: we’re stuck with organizations like WADA. We’re stuck with organizations that would rather hastily declare that a substance appear on the list of banned substances before they, and we, truly understand it. We’re stuck with organizations who will suspend athletes who test positive for a banned substance, again, before we know how long this substance stay in an organism’s system. We’re stuck with organizations that seem hellbent on treating every singular case as if they were a reflection of some sort of morality, or lending it some sort of meaning when it’s not.

Oh you’ll say that we’re exaggerating, that painting a grim picture from one unfortunate case, that we’re not saying all this in good faith. Sure—and we’re actually doing precisely what WADA is doing: because punishing athletes before they’ve done their homework is anything but good faith.

Otherwise, we’ll simply repeat what we wrote in this space not so long ago: that we’re not looking to grandstand anyone here, and that in our eyes the difference between someone injecting a substance like meldonium in their body and someone replacing a torn ligament in their elbow with a tendon; well that difference is mostly one of degree.

It’s a topic we’ll revisit again once the Sharapova ruling is announced.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: One last Monte-Carlo hurray for Rafael Nadal, or a sign of bigger things to come?

April 18, 2016

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon reviews the 2016 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters.

Is it too late now to say sorry to Rafael Nadal? (You’ll get that song stuck in your head now, I know. Sorry.)

Last week, the Spaniard continued his excellent start to the 2016 this past week, capturing the 2016 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters title by defeating Gael Monfils 7-5, 5-7 and 6-0 in two hours and 46 minutes. This, of course, marks the ninth time in his career that Nadal emerges from the pack with the crown in the principality. “The victory here confirms that I am better and I am very happy… It’s been a very, very emotional week for me, a very important event,” Nadal said after the win. “Monte-Carlo is one of the most important places in my career without any doubt. To win again here after three years is so special for me.”

The win accomplishes a few things. First, it gives the Spaniard yet another title, one of the Masters 1000 kind. Why is this noteworthy and important? This Masters 1000 title is Nadal’s 28th career; if you remember, we made a big deal of it when Djokovic reached this number only two weeks ago, so we shall mention that in this case it’s a big deal as well. A record is a big deal, even if there’s a tie between two players in first place.

Nadal also became the sixth man in history to reach at least 100 tournament finals, and won his 68th career title. This win also reestablishes Nadal’s standing on the ATP World Tour. What do we mean by that? Despite a rather excellent 2013 season, the Spaniard really hasn’t been up to his former self over the past few years: lest we forget, the 29-year-old very nearly slipped out of the Top 10 only eight months ago.

But now Nadal is back, firmly entrenched in the top 5, looking as dangerous as he has in a long time and seemingly ready to nip at Roger Federer’s heels. What has long contributed to Nadal’s legend was an aura of invincibility: he looked more physical and played more physical than his opponents, yes, but it’s not just that.

For a long time, the myth of Nadal was that he seemed simply unstoppable in a few places. Once upon a time, Monte-Carlo was one of those places. Between 2005 and the 2013 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters final, Nadal won all 46 matches that he played in Monaco. This period recalls the time when he would almost routinely capture more or less every clay court event on the calendar—including, of course, Roland Garros, and it’s there that this win should be most beneficial in 2016. Indeed, Nadal’s confidence should be as high as it has been in recent time.

If he can recapture past glory in Monaco, why couldn’t he do it in Paris as well, right? Well, right, except that this logic ignores the fact that he may well need to overcome Djokovic if he hopes to add another French Open title to his name. Of late, that rivalry has been quite lopsided, with Djokovic winning the previous six matches and 10 of the previous 11.

Already in 2016, he has lost twice against the Serb. But that comes later. For now, let’s just add another chapter to this story.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: 2016 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters draw preview and analysis

April 11, 2016

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 2016 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters.

Now is when the fun can start.

Every year, the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters signifies the start of the year’s clay-court season and always the dawn of what becomes a sprint all the way until the end of August at the US Open.

That may be even more the case in 2016, an Olympic year with the end result that an already loaded calendar may be as overloaded as it ever has.

There is no time to waste in the tennis world. One week you’re just finishing a back-to-back of the two mini Grand Slams in Indian Wells and Miami, and the next you’re in Monaco for the Monte-Carlo Masters.

The latter, FYI, is no slouch.


Let’s have a preview of this 2016 Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters, discussing some of the pros and cons of this tournament.

Main draw

Pros

-The return of Roger Federer. Though we’re on the record as saying that we believe this 2016 season may be Roger Federer’s very last, or at least very last near the top of the rankings, we take no pleasure in seeing his body send him signals. Lest we forget, the Swiss hasn’t played a match since his semifinal loss at the Australian Open, after injuring his knee while «walking with daughters.» (Hey, it’s the headline that uses those exact words.) But for this week at least, King Roger is slated to be back in action. He’s looking mighty good, too.

-Novak Djokovic and his rival Federer pitted in the same half. Let’s double on all things with the Swiss, as the main draw has slotted the No. 1-seeded Novak Djokovic in the same half as the No. 3-seeded Federer. Djokovic tends to render most things moot these days, but the Swiss usually at least manages to make things interesting for a little bit.

-The overall setting and scenery of the Monte-Carlo site. Really, this can’t be overstated: the site of the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters is absolutely stunning. Just look at this—arrive for the tennis, stay for literally everything else.

Cons

-A diminished Rafael Nadal. Lest we forget, Rafael Nadal used to do pretty well in Monte-Carlo. Indeed, as recently as 2013, this Masters 1000 was seemingly Nadal’s lordship, his Roland Garros before Roland Garros: between the first round in 2005 and the 2013 final, the Spaniard won 46 consecutive matches, and eight overall titles, in Monaco. In 2016, he’s already lost six times in 18 matches. Growing old sucks.

-The lack of suspense? Maybe it’s a good thing that Djokovic and Federer were drawn into the same part of the draw: these days, it seems like the 34-year-old Federer remains the most (lone?) credible threat to the Serb on the ATP World Tour. The Swiss is 6-9 over his previous 15 matches against the Serb since the start of the 2014 season; those six defeats account for 40 per cent of Djokovic’s losses over that time frame.

-The fact that I’m publishing this a day after the start of the event? I don’t know, I’m really grasping at straws here, because the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters is awesome.

Quarterfinals: Novak Djokovic over David Goffin; Roger Federer over Richard Gasquet; Dominic Thiem over Stanislas Wawrinka; Milos Raonic over Andy Murray

Semifinals: Novak Djokovic over Roger Federer; Dominic Thiem over Milos Raonic

Final: Novak Djokovic over Dominic Thiem

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Novak Djokovic stands alone at the top of the Masters 1000 food chain

April 5, 2016

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 2016 Miami Open on the men’s side.

No one’s ever going to take this from him.

In winning his sixth career title at the Miami Open (thereby equaling Andre Agassi’s record) over Kei Nishikori by the score of 6-3 and 6-3, Novak Djokovic won all 12 sets he played at the tournament this year. “I have a very special connection to this tournament,” Djokovic said after his win. “In 2007 it was the biggest title I had won in my career. It has been a springboard for everything coming after that. I certainly hope that the love affair continues in the years to come.”

The years to come will come later—because the present time is damn good already: Djokovic’s sixth title in Key Biscayne was also his 28th career Masters 1000 title, which is a record in the Open era.

That’s right. The man who’s had to withstand the prime of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two of the five players in history, before ascending to the throne, this man has now stepped into his own. “As I go along, and as I have achieved so much success in the last two years, I give myself more opportunities to make records,” Djokovic said. “So [the singles title record] is in the back of my mind somewhere. But I don’t give myself that as main motivation. Because then things can go a little out of control. It can create a distraction that I don’t need.”

The Serb may never get enough credit for being, as Peter Bodo says, master of the Masters—but he really should.

This 2016 season marks the third in a row where he’s managed the Indian Wells and Miami double. If his streak that means something of 17 straight tournament finals is over, he’s got another one going right now: 11 straight Masters 1000 finals, which started in the fall 2014 and which is equally ridiculous. Over that span, Djokovic has managed a 55-2 record, which, you know isn’t too shabby considering that these tournaments are played against the alleged best players in the world.

But of course, “best players” really doesn’t mean much when they have to go up against the Djoker.

What’s that? You want more specific? Alright, alright.

Djokovic has amassed his 28 titles at eight of the Masters 1000’s (i.e. with the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati having eluded him to this day) and, considering how he’s playing and how Federer and Nadal are, this record may be his to keep for quite a while.

Why is it a big deal? Consider that behind Djokovic’s 28, Nadal’s 27 and Federer’s 24, Andy Murray is next on the list of current players with most Masters wins, with 11. After him? Well, good luck. Stanislas Wawrinka, Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer—you know, fairly decent players—each have only one Masters 1000 to their name. Meanwhile, the next one that Marin Cilic, Nishikori and Richard Gasquet win will be the first of their career.

How well have previous champions fared? Ivan Lendl has 22 titles, John McEnroe has 19 and Jimmy Connors has 17. Tied with him is Andre Agassi, followed by Boris Becker with 13 and Pete Sampras with 11. Not one player in that group will ever catch the Serb.

So winning a Masters 1000? Quite a big deal because not every does it (often).

Despite all this, and being quite the clear best player on the ATP World Tour at the moment (and having been so for a good three-four-five years if we’re honest), Djokovic is behind Federer and Nadal for Grand Slam titles. And, ultimately, that’s what matters. In tennis, it’s not “How good were you and how much did you win?”; it’s “How many Grand Slam titles did you win?”

Also important? Djokovic has become the all-time leader in career prize money won after his win in Miami, ahead of Federer. It pays to be this good!

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Tennis has a sexism problem

March 28, 2016

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

Tennis has a sexism problem.

It’s not exactly news because we’ve all known about it, but it’s dominated headlines over the past week when four of the sport’s key figures—or rather, three of them, plus an ex-tournament CEO—ventured into some thoughts about women in tennis.

Raymond Moore, still then the CEO of Indian Wells Tennis Garden where the BNP Paribas Open was hosted, first went down that well with some remarks that ended up costing him his cushy seat at the big table. Here, we’ll remind you.

What do you think; pretty wild, right? We’ll underline the point where Mr. Moore says women players should get on their knees and thank God, and where he calls the next generation of WTA players “physically attractive and competitively attractive.”

We knew you were an old white man, Raymond, but you didn’t need to spell it out so clearly for us!

That was at the 2016 BNP Paribas Open, a tournament which Novak Djokovic won. After the final, reporters asked the Serb to comment on Mr. Moore’s remarks and, well, just see for yourself.

“I think that our men’s tennis world, ATP world, should fight for more because the stats are showing that we have much more spectators on the men’s tennis matches. I think that’s one of the reasons why maybe we should get awarded more. Women should fight for what they think they deserve and we should fight for what we think we deserve.”

There’s an opinion there—that men and women maybe shouldn’t get equal prize and should fight for what they deserve separately; it’s not a particularly good one, but still a relatively coherent one from Djokovic. Then, the Serb veers into weird territory.

“I have tremendous respect for what women in global sport are doing and achieving. Their bodies are much different to men’s bodies. They have to go through a lot of different things that we don’t have to go through. You know, the hormones and different stuff, we don’t need to go into details.”

“I have great admiration and respect for them to be able to fight on such a high level. Many of them have to sacrifice for certain periods of time, the family time or decisions that they make on their own bodies in order to play tennis and play professional sport.”

We’ll marvel at Djokovic’s brilliance and say that, yes by God men tennis players do incredible things on a tennis court. Just look at this brilliance.

That’s the good stuff and why you deserve the big bucks, Novak, right?

In all seriousness, Djokovic’s remarks weren’t especially surprising because the trope of men believing they are better, or deserve better, than their female counterparts isn’t new.

Here’s Janko Tipsarevic, Djokovic’s old buddy, saying that “99 per cent of male tennis players can’t stand women’s tennis”—which, okay whatevs bro. Here’s dumb-dumb Justin Gimelstob calling female players “sexpots.” Here’s Gilles Simon, maybe the world’s most boring man, saying men’s tennis “is more interesting than women’s tennis.”

Have you seen enough? No, no there are more; read on. Here’s Sergiy Stakhovsky saying that, “almost every other player is a lesbian” and showing his homophobic side all at once. Here’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga saying women “are more unstable emotionally than us.” Here’s Marinko Matosevic saying he could never hire a woman for head coach.

Let’s stop there. Here are they are, all of them current or ex-pro and, as such, all of them relatively important figures in the sport—most importantly, all of them with relatively damaging and backwards opinions.

Also? Also, this: all of them basically dumber than a sack of potatoes. (For more from this author, read this.)

Here’s where we mention that at this same Indian Wells event, Serena Williams was asked about Mr. Moore’s remarks and that she basically ether’d him.

But that was to be expected, right? Since Moore essentially called her out, Williams responded in kind, not to mention that she’s worked so hard on this issue of equal rights throughout her career (random exhibit here).

Also expected, though maybe not at first glance, was Andy Murray’s foray into the limelight on this issue. “Men’s tennis has been lucky over the last nine or 10 years with the players they’ve had, the rivalries which have come out of that. That’s great but the whole of tennis should capitalize on that – not just the men’s game,” he said. “I think there should be equal pay, 100 per cent, at all combined events…I think it will happen one day.”

Essentially, that’s what we believe in, too: equality between men and women in every regard for equal accomplishments. By winning the 2015 Miami Open, both Djokovic and Serena Williams pocketed $900,400; that’s good. By winning the 2016 BNP Paribas Open, the Serb added a nice $1,028,300 and Victoria Azarenka, $1,028,300; that too is good.

Both of those are good, yes, but they hide deeper problems. They hide the fact that overall and outside of joint events like the BNP Paribas Open, the Miami Open and the four Grand Slams; outside of these, players “on the WTA Tour earn 76 cents on the ATP’s dollar.”

And there’s no real reason for that. Two men and women who win the same tournament deserve the same prize—because it’s the same tournament.

Here’s where you’ll counter that well, nope the ATP and WTA do not have joint events every single week. Of course not, it wouldn’t be feasible. But maybe that’s something that the International Tennis Federation should look into: tournaments are already categorized in both men’s and women’s tennis according to their prestige and their strength. The ATP has Masters 1000’s while the WTA Premier Mandatory events, and so on.

If you feel like they need to play the same number of sets, or whatever, then sure change that. But give both men and women the same prize money for accomplishing the same things.

Then let players distinguish themselves through spokesperson gigs, sponsors, and the likes.

Otherwise, yep: equality in every regard.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: 2016 Miami Open men’s and women’s draw preview and analysis

March 22, 2016

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 the latest with BNP Paribas Open CEO Raymond Moore and the Miami Open men’s and women’s draws.

Apparently, the tournaments follow one another in pretty similar fashion, right?

The last time we were set on writing an event preview, the news that Maria Sharapova had failed a drug test broke just at the Australian Open.

This, in fact, made for a richer and better preview—and I’m glad it’s happened again this week, just before the 2016 Miami Open, presented by Itau. In this case, it’s Indian Wells tournament director Raymond Moore who, maybe out of spite, jealousy, stupidity, or whatever else, decided to say something incredibly 1) sexist, 2) offensive and 3) idiotic.

But wait, there’s more.

See? Pretty moronic, right? Don’t give me that «everyone is entitled to their own opinion» stuff; the consequence of that is that I’m entitled to my opinion of thinking your opinion is fairly moronic. And if you don’t believe me, please understand that Moore has since resigned from his position.

In all likelihood, this will become a thing where any- and everyone will start debating the merits of gender equality in tennis, asking past, present and future champions what  they believe on the topic and taking mostly everyone unprepared as they stumble through a somewhat coherent opinion.

Come back next week to see us discuss this in earnest and more detail, as well as Novak Djokovic’s problematic thinking on the matter. For now, we’ll give you Serena Williams’s answer and move on to the draws of this 2016 Miami Open.

*******

Women’s draw

Pros

-Uncertainty at the top? Could it be that for the first time in a long while, Serena Williams isn’t quite as all-powerful as in years past? It would make sense given her age, sure, but we’re probably grabbing at straws here: while Williams has lost the two finals she reached in 2016, the fact of the matter is that she did reach the final of the two tournaments she competed in this year. Still, a two- or three-headed WTA Tour, rather than a Serena Williams monopoly, wouldn’t be bad.

-The return to form of Victoria Azarenka. Credibly, Victoria Azarenka could be one of the challengers to Williams’s dominance.

Cons

-The absence of Maria Sharapova. Face it, the Russian is perhaps the second biggest name in women’s tennis and her suspension and scandal hurt the sport. She wasn’t necessarily the best player, but she was a credible force at the top—at least until she faced Serena Williams, against whom Maria Sharapova is mostly hopeless.

-Upsets galore. Once again, we’ll mention that there is a fine line between an event where upsets create a good buzz and one where upsets reign supreme to the point where the average fan finds it overwhelming.

Quarterfinals: Serena Williams over Elina Svitolina; Simona Halep over Agonisezka Radwanska; Victoria Azarenka over Johanna Konta; Belinda Bencic over Angelique Kerber

Semifinals: Serena Williams over Simona Halep; Belinda Bencic over Victoria Azarenka

Final: Belinda Bencic over Serena Williams

*******


Men’s draw

Pros

-The dominance of Novak Djokovic. Well whaddayaknow, it turns out that the end of the streak that means something… really doesn’t mean much other than it took the perfect storm to create a streak that ultimately doesn’t matter. He still hasn’t lost in 2016 in matches he hasn’t had to walk off the court and he still profiles as the favourite just about everywhere. Just, you know, don’t listen to him on prize money and gender equality.

-The return of Roger Federer. King Roger has been missing in action for over a month after injuring his knee, missing the BNP Paribas Open where he’s typically played and excelled. But he lit up the Twittersphere when he announced he was coming back this week.

Cons

-Milos Raonic’s injury. Before the season, Milos Raonic made changes to his coaching staff, naming Carlos Moya as his head coach and parting ways with Ivan Ljubicic; this prompted us asking whether we’d see a different Raonic in 2016 and, so far, we can probably say that yes, we have. While he was mostly non-competitive against Djokovic in the Indian Wells final, that he made it this far after returning from an abductor injury is a net positive. As of this writing, the Canadian still hasn’t announced that he would miss this Miami Open; even if he does compete, he may be diminished, which is too bad because this draw is within his grasp.

-But will Federer’s return be one to form? Still, it remains to be seen just how good and ready Federer will be in his first matches back from injury. We’re on the record as saying that we don’t believe the Swiss will manage to snatch a singles gold medal this year in Rio; if that’s the case, will he keep playing beyond this season? In other words, is 2016 the final curtain call for Federer?

Quarterfinals: Novak Djokovic over Benoit Paire; Roger Federer over David Ferrer; Stanislas Wawrinka over Jack Sock; Andy Murray over Alexandr Dolgopolov

Semifinals: Novak Djokovic over Roger Federer; Andy Murray over Stanislas Wawrinka

Final: Novak Djokovic over Andy Murray

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: What we know about Maria Sharapova and cheating in tennis

March 14, 2016

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 the latest in the Maria Sharapova doping saga.

A week ago, the news had just broken and we said we would inevitably know more in the days ahead, which didn’t stop us from discussing some of the things in the case of course.

Here’s where we were just before the start of this 2016 BNP Paribas Open.

We said we would know more in the days following Maria Sharapova’s surprise announcement that she had failed a drug test at this year’s Australian Open and, well, now a few days after learning the news, we know more.

Yep.

For one thing, we know that Sharapova is far from the lone athlete to have been caught using meldonium—oh, she’s still the only one in tennis, which is maybe why a player like Andy Murray has strongly condemned her and believes she should be banned.

But we know that Sharapova isn’t alone, no. We know that 60 athletes have tested positive for the substance since January 1—unless that number is actually at 99, if you read the Associated Press over the New York Times. Hell, the former even tweeted it.

See? Ninety-nine.

Another thing we know is that up to 490 athletes (out of the 6,000 who participated), including 13 who won a medal, had consumed meldonium during the 2015 Euro Games. We also know that top Russian ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova failed a drug test for the same substance as Sharapova has too.

We also know that Sharapova was warned at least five times about the pending meldonium ban in the month leading to her failed test. Maybe this is what has forced corporations to rethink their partnership with the 28-year-old, as have Nike, Tag Heuer and Porsche, which we also know about?

So we know a few things, right? Do you want more?

We know that new WTA CEO Steve Simon made a statement following Sharapova’s announcement, which we’ll even include here.


Okay, sure, but what do we really know considering all of this?

Well, it’s rather murky. Despite being praised as «a woman of great integrity» by Simon, Sharapova faces very real and potential consequences: it’s a two-year ban if she’s found to have used meldonium unintentionally to enhance her performance, and a four-year ban if she’s found to have done so intentionally.

If she does receive either of the punishment, our bet is that she may walk away from the sport altogether—though we don’t know that for sure. What we do know, if you recall, is that «pending determination of the case,» Sharapova was to be suspended until March 12.

Let’s see, what else do we know?

We know that we will not rush to judgment.

We know, and this will surely play a big part in deciding for one punishment or another in this case, that Sharapova has denied being warned five times about her use of meldonium. The case will likely hinge on whether or not Sharapova had knowingly taken performance-enhancing drugs and with the avowed goal to enhance her performances; ignoring five warnings make it that much harder to plead denial plausibility.

We also know that the substance has been declared illegal only in January 2016. While the Russian has mentioned that she’s been using it for about a decade, we know it wasn’t illegal then for her to do so and don’t really care that she did—and that she shouldn’t be penalized for that decade, but only since January.

We know that in sports it’s becoming increasingly easy to point your fingers at the so-called bad guys for supposed lapse in judgments in pursuit of excellence. We know we are not looking to grandstand over anyone here.

Because the difference between Sharapova’s apparent cheating and, I don’t know, Novak Djokovic’s pressurized egg or Kobe Bryant’s non-FDA approved knee treatment program, for which he travelled all the way to Germany, isn’t nearly as large as we would like it to be.

In every case, an athlete is only trying to better their chances of competing and excelling; why would it be illegal to do so if you’re using meldonium but not if you’re, I don’t know, replacing a ligament in your elbow with a tendon elsewhere in your body?

But now we’re getting philosophical, we know.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: 2016 BNP Paribas Open men’s and women’s draw preview and analysis

March 9, 2016

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 2016 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.

The plan was to write a relatively straightforward intro to this preview column ahead of the 2016 BNP Paribas Open. That plan stayed intact until late afternoon on Monday, March 7, when it, well, changed.

As you’ve heard and read since, Maria Sharapova hijacked a good portion of the news cycle of this early week, with a relatively impromptu press conference to announce that she had failed a drug test at this year’s Australian Open.

The test, we now know, detected traces of meldonium in Sharapova’s sample. “I wanted to let you know that a few days ago, I received a letter from the ITF that I had failed a drug test at the Australian Open. I did fail the test and I take full responsibility for it,” a composed Sharapova said. “For the last 10 years, I have been given a medicine called Mildronate. A few days ago, after I received the ITF letter, I found out it also has another name of meldonium, which I did not know.”

As she said, it’s a substance the 28-year-old had been taking for about a decade prior to this drug test; and if you wonder why this positive test didn’t occur before, it’s because the substance has only been added to the International Tennis Federation’s list of banned substance at the beginning of 2016.

What happens from now? We’ll undoubtedly know more in the days and weeks to come, including why exactly Sharapova managed to announce the scoop herself, and we’ll probably tackle the topic in full in next week’s edition of the #TennisElbow.

For now, all we know is that the Russian will not participate in the 2016 BNP Paribas Open. Still, let’s write a preview of sorts, by which we mean that we’ll run through two pros and two cons for both the men’s and women’s draws.

*****

Women’s draw

Pros

-The return of Serena Williams. While the American stopped her boycott of the event in 2015, it’s nice to see her come back to Indian Wells and the world’s largest ATP and WTA tournament in the world (non Grand Slam edition) for the second year in a row. Presumably, with how she performed at the Australian Open, Serena Williams will even arrive in California motivated and eager to impress and do well.

-A deep and dangerous draw. As we’ve witnessed at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, women’s tennis has a very deep and very dangerous and powerful middle class, with Williams alone (more or less) at the top.

Cons

-Upsets galore. But if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then so is chaos. One person’s upset is another’s sign that the sport is in a down cycle and shouldn’t be followed all that closely because whomever is at the top one day will not be there the following day. (Never mentioned is the fact that before this current golden age, men’s tennis was really mostly in a similar predicament.)

-The shadow of Maria Sharapova. As mentioned above, the likely pending and upcoming punishment of the Russian looms over the entire event.

Quarterfinals: Serena Williams over Simona Halep; Petra Kvitova over Coco Vandeweghe; Belinda Bencic over Victoria Azarenka; Timea Bacsinszky over Ana Ivanovic

Semifinals: Petra Kvitova over Serena Williams; Belinda Bencic over Timea Bacsinszky

Final: Belinda Bencic over Petra Kvitova

*****

Men’s draw

Pros

-The presence of Juan Martin Del Potro. Remember him? The tall and powerful Argentine had inspired me to overhaul my forehand in the summer of 2013 and, more relevant and important here, has battled injuries for the better part of the six years since his win at the 2009 US Open. He’s back in Indian Wells and, if we get bad Tomas Berdych, who looms in the second round, then maybe Del Potro can break through to the quarterfinals.

Taylor Fritz the new American superstar. A year ago this week, Taylor Fritz was ranked No. 941 in the world; in 2016, the young man has gained a wild card into the main draw of the BNP Paribas Open, and he’ll be paired up against fellow wild card entry and fellow young American Frances Tiafoe. He’s the answer to “Who’s got next?” in American tennis.

Cons

-Too many good matches? I don’t know, I’m really trying here. This 2016 Indian Wells draw seems really pretty good; just look at these potential blockbusters.

No Roger Federer. Roger Federer is injured, getting older, and won’t be able to maintain this form for much longer, etc. etc. But we’ll never get tired of watching him play. Get well soon, Rog!

Quarterfinals: Novak Djokovic over Dominic Thiem; Kei Nishikori over Rafael Nadal; Stanislas Wawrinka over Alexandr Dolgopolov; Tomas Berdych over Andy Murray

Semifinals: Novak Djokovic over Kei Nishikori; Tomas Berdych over Stanislas Wawrinka

Final: Novak Djokovic over Tomas Berdych

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Novak Djokovic and the streak that means something

February 29, 2016

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 end of Novak Djokovic’s incredible finals streak.

In the end, did the streak really mean much?

Novak Djokovic walked on the court on Feb. 25 at the 2016 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships to face Feliciano Lopez and knowing that a few more wins would give him another final. He walked off a loser, unable to reach an 18th straight tournament final, despite not ever facing a match point.

He withdrew, overcome by an allergy and an eye infection. “I’m really sad to end the tournament this way,” Djokovic said afterward. “It’s the first time I’ve had such a problem.”

One may have hoped fans in Dubai would react accordingly and, for the most part, folks were comprehensive—though not everyone was.

Do you know who may have said the exact opposite as Djokovic did? Ivan Lendl, the man whose streak of 18 straight finals remains intact and an Open era record.

It’s cruel for Djokovic, who will have to wait another time to possibly tie one of the sport’s most random and randomly difficult records—or, you know, he won’t because it’s such an unlikely occurence. Here’s what will go down the record books for the Serb, a streak that lasted over a full calendar year.

Djokovic probably won’t mind that the streak is over, because it ultimately is relatively meaningless. He said as much after his loss against Lopez. “My match record is the least of my thoughts at this moment,” Djokovic said. “I just hope that this problem will fade away in the next few days.”

Ultimately, it doesn’t mean all that much because so many other things are within his grasp. He just notched his 700th career win, which is quite a nice milestone (i.e. only 12 men have managed the feat on the ATP).

After his next Masters 1000 event—because doesn’t it feel like just about a guarantee that he will win one, and soon?—Djokovic will tie Rafael Nadal’s with 27 for most all time. If the Serb gets another ATP World Tour Finals at the end of this season, he will become the event’s career leader with six titles and, should he defend his Australian Open title in 2017, he would become the first man to win seven times down under.

Perhaps most importantly, a win at Roland Garros this season, then later in the summer in Rio, would polish his resume and only cement his standing among history’s greats. He knows it. “I try not to be overconfident, but being at the peak of my career at the moment,” he said, “I’m trying to use this momentum that I have, take everything out of myself, and achieve more.”

And yet, it would be silly to entirely discredit this streak. Stan Wawrinka, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych are the only three players outside of Roger Federer, Nadal and Andy Murray to have battled Djokovic during this streak of 17 finals. Notably, only one of the losses the Serb suffered occurred at a 500- or 250-level tournament.

By and large, against presumably the finest and best players of the sport, the Serb finished 13-4 and lost only 13 total sets on the biggest stages of the ATP World Tour.

Not bad, right?

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Is chaos a good or bad thing on the WTA?

February 22, 2016

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 WTA’s 2016 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

Sara Errani captured the 2016 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships WTA title this past weekend, beating Barbora Strycova in the final by the score of 6-0 and 6-2 in 68 minutes.

Three years after being on the receiving of a beatdown in the Dubai final—she lost 2-6, 6-1, 6-1 against Petra Kvitova in 2013—Errani was the dominant player this time. Evidently, she was thrilled. “It’s an unexpected title for me. It has been a tough moment, tough year so far,” the Italian said after her win. “To win here is amazing, it’s such a good tournament.”

We’ll focus on the first part of that quote, if you don’t mind.

If you believe the Italian, she apparently very nearly passed on the chance to compete in Dubai and to collect the winner’s cheque for $465,480. “I was thinking maybe not to come here,” she explained after her win. “I was thinking of taking two or three weeks to relax, to recharge my energy.”

These Tennis Championships will live on as not only the time Errani made a great decision to delay a week of rest, but as the time ultimate chaos reigned. In this 28-player draw, none of the eight seeds made it past the second round—and that’s only because the top 4 had a first-round bye. In short, none of the tournament’s eight seeds won a match.

Is that a good or bad thing? Namely, is this extreme string of upsets a sign that the top players are especially vulnerable or one that those in the lower tiers are especially strong?

Can it be both, that an upset means lower-ranked player are stronger than we think and that the top ranked players are more vulnerable too? Steve Tignor of tennis.com has examined the question, and let’s highlight some of his most relevant points.

It starts, first, with the perfect storm that made this carnage possible in Dubai.

Despite quite a large purse (i.e. $2 million), Dubai remains a 500-level event. Perhaps for that reason, the two best players on the WTA Tour, Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber, had pulled out. Likewise for the relative heavyweights that are Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Victoria Azarenka.

Seeded No. 1 and No. 2, Simona Halep and Garbine Muguruza shouldn’t have had much problems with their first match but they have both had a terrible start to this 2016 season. They were vulnerable and, well, they lost. It happens.

Because the Dubai draw is so small but still a rather prestigious (read: lucrative) affair, scattered throughout were many dangerous players, like ex-No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, ex-No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Garcia and the two finalists. On paper, there were no real easy matches, and at least in this case this held up.

The Dubai draw had plenty of players who, at various times, have been ranked in or near the top; they made the most of their opportunities. This is proof that the pool of WTA players is very deep, which is ultimately a good thing.

But still, this doesn’t answer the real question: is too much chaos a bad thing for the sport? We may contrast it with the situation atop the ATP World Tour rankings, where the same three (or four, if you want to include Andy Murray) have reigned supreme for the past 11 or 12 years.

But we shouldn’t compare the two; lest we forget, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will likely go down as three of the five greatest players in history. There’s a reason why we call this the golden era of tennis: it’s because it will never be equalled.

Men’s tennis has thrived in the past decade, more so than women’s tennis, but it won’t last forever. During that time, the lone constant in women’s tennis has been Serena Williams, and perhaps that’s where the problem lies: women’s tennis needs an established group of rulers, not just one. If any given tournament turns into a random series of events, it’s tough for a casual fan to follow.

Upsets are a good thing, because they make the sport unpredictable—but that’s also why they’re sort of a bad thing.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

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