Tennis Elbow: Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl, back like the first time

June 21, 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 yet another Queen’s Club title for Andy Murray.

Maybe it will all work out for Andy Murray?

At the Aegon Championships finals, in front of a boisterous and pro-Murray crowd, the Brit continued his excellent 2016 season and added a title to his name by beating Milos Raonic 6-7(5), 6-4 and 6-3.

“To do it means a lot… It’s a tournament that obviously means a lot to me. It’s been my most successful tournament. […] My best tennis is there. I’m happy with that,” Murray said. “I didn’t come in, like I said, with hardly any preparation so maybe consistency could be better. But when I needed to this week, I stepped up and played my best tennis.”

That, he certainly did—though for a time it looked like his best tennis might not be good enough. For a while, Raonic looked as good as he had all week at the Queen’s Club, going up a set and a break and seemingly on the verge of going away with the match.

“Normally I’m pretty confident in a situation up a set and a break. There were two very close challenges there, maybe could make a difference or not, but I thought he played well,” Raonic said after his loss. “He stepped it up after that and came up with an incredible return on the first break point chance he had.”

On his first chance, Murray managed to do what no one else had up to this point in London and broke Raonic’s, which hadn’t happened in 55 games.

This win is a memorable one for a few reasons for the 29-year-old Murray, who becomes the first man to win five titles at the Queen’s Club, where they’ve played a tournament since 1890. It’s also Murray’s seventh grass title of the Open era, which brings level with Ken Rosewall and Boris Becker. He’s only a few behind another few of history’s best in Lleyton Hewitt, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras. (He’s far, far from Roger Federer at the top, but that’s fine: we’ve never confused Murray for the Swiss.)

This win also validates him for making the decision to rehire Ivan Lendl as his coach.

If you recall, their first partnership had ended somewhat suddenly when the coach couldn’t fully commit to Murray’s schedule. “I would try to impress my girlfriend a lot more the first few months I was with her than I do now,” Murray said at the Australian Open two years ago, after the split. “It’s the same with Ivan.”

By then, the player and the coach had barely spent any time together in the previous six months and, despite what had been and still the best moments of Murray’s career, they parted ways.

Now Lendl is back in Murray’s corner. Who knows for how long, but their second stint is off to a good start.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Is this the end for Maria Sharapova?

June 13, 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 verdict of the Maria Sharapova doping case.

The verdict arrived with little to no fanfare.

Alright, maybe it’s just that we’re all fairly busy but as far as we’re concerned, this past Wednesday was just about to be a typical Wednesday, when—boom!

That’s right, this past Wednesday turned out to be the day that the International Tennis Federation gave its verdict in the Maria Sharapova doping scandal, suspending the player for two years.

Oh, the Russian may not be away from the courts for that long, as she’s already said that she planned to appeal the decision (we’ll get to her note in a minute). But for now, one thing’s certain: she’s suspended for two years. What else is crystal clear from the ITF’s 33-page decision?

Well for one thing, this saga continues to fascinate us. We’ve said more than once that we just love mostly everything about it, and it continues to be the case. If you recall, Sharapova was facing a potential two-year if she was found to have taken meldonium unintentionally for performance-enhancing reasons.

Is the ITF’s decision to suspend her two years a sign that Sharapova’s un-intention was actually quite possibly intentional but they couldn’t prove it, or simply a sign that they fully expected her to appeal and that maybe the sanction will be diminished?

Here are quite a few more things that continue to have our attention as this saga inevitably carries on.

We’re eager to see whether the ITF continues calling Sharapova on her bullsh*t.

This excerpt from the 33-page decision, which you can read in full here, makes pretty clear that the ITF does not believe that Sharapova was taking meldonium for any other reason but to boost her performance. It’s all fine and dandy that the 29-year-old may have once upon a time been prescribed meldonium for legitimate reasons, but the organization believes the player had since gone out of her way to conceal her meldonium intake; where there’s smoke, there’s fire, if you will.

You can’t get something prescribed for a legitimate issue, but then only take the substance on match day. It doesn’t make sense, says the ITF.

The next step would be for the organization to respond to Sharapova after her apology turned out to be one of the best non apologies we’ve seen in recent times. There’s a lot of BS in that statement.

We’re also eager to see if WADA can get its sh*t together. Last we checked, WADA still didn’t know how long meldonium took to leave a person’s body; what does that mean for the Sharapova case? Will it change anything now that she’s been suspended?

Probably nothing, sure, but it’s mightily ballsy of the ITF to then react with such verve.

What, ITF? Have you never sinned, and thus you now feel compelled with proceeding to stone Sharapova incessantly?

We’re eager to see what comes next for Sharapova. Sure, she has appealed now and, considering that she has amassed quite a large deal of money in her career, will likely fight this thing until the end—but what if the decision is upheld? What then? Will the Russian just walk away?

We’re eager to see whether this decision, as well as the other athletes who have tested positive for meldonium since Jan. 1, may shine a light on the broader doping culture. Why was Sharapova, then just a teenager at 18 years old, prescribed meldonium in the first place? Why did this first doctor who gave her the substance also prescribe her 18 (!!!) medications and supplements at such a young (and critical) age?

We would like to have a discussion on doping and sports in general: why do we punish someone for taking meldonium but tolerate a basketball star that travels to Germany for a non-FDA surgery on his knee? Why do we punish someone for blood doping, but not for replacing a torn ligament in an elbow?

On that last part, here’s what we’ll say: sure, there are actual reasons, we know. But if you’re being honest, you know that the difference is not nearly as large as you would like it to be.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Novak Djokovic makes tennis history

June 6, 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 first week of the 2016 French Open and looks ahead at the second.

At long last, Paris smiled back to Novak Djokovic.

After quite a number of failures at the French Open, the Serb is finally a career Grand Slam champion after beating Andy Murray in the Roland Garros final by the score of 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 and 6-4. “It’s a thrilling moment,” Djokovic said after the win. “One of the most beautiful I have had in my career…”

The win makes him the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four Grand Slam titles at once, as well as the eight man in history to win a title of each of the four majors and complete the career Grand Slam. This win feels like a big deal, because it is.

This wasn’t lost on the No. 1 player in the world. “It’s incredibly flattering to know that Rod Laver is the last one that managed to do that. There are not many words that can describe it. It’s one of the ultimate challenges that you have as a tennis player. I’m very proud and very thrilled,” he said. “It’s hard for me to reflect on what has happened before and what’s going to happen after. I’m just so overwhelmed with having this trophy next to me that I’m just trying to enjoy this moment.”

Murray, in defeat, also echoed many of the same sentiments. “This is Novak’s day,” he said. “Winning all four Grand Slams at once is a great achievement. This is something that is so rare in tennis. What he’s achieved the last 12 months is phenomenal. I’m proud to be part of it today.”

In our era of #hottakes and #instantanalysis, the reflex would be to look to understand this win in its broader context and to give to Djokovic the place in tennis lore that is rightfully his after such a win.

But that’s not what we’ll do; we’ll keep the broader context for another day because ours is also an era of social media, GIFs, videos, tweets and photos. So we’ll turn to Twitter to examine Djokovic’s first career French Open title under a few different lights—because there’s really a tweet for any- and everything.

See, here are tweets for the actual match itself, and Djokovic’s reactions to his win.

There are also good tweets that show us just how wonderful and dominant Djokovic was against Murray, and has been over the past year.

But of course, you’ve been following tennis for quite some time now and already knew this, so you think the above tweets are a little boring. In which case you are in luck, because Twitter is also great for illustrating with images or emoji what we used to have to write in words.

In 2016, social media are also excellent for putting things into their broader and historical context—and Twitter, after Djokovic’s win, was no exception.

Oh but right, we weren’t supposed to discuss the historical significance of this win; let’s keep that for another day.

See? There’s plenty to see and examine on Twitter and for the most part, we’ve stayed in the moment; we didn’t want to reflect on this landmark win for the Djoker, so we didn’t. We simply wanted to celebrate the win, and so we did.

Enjoy this French Open win, Novak. You’ve earned it.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Two titans lost, but a third one’s still there at the French Open

May 30, 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 first week of the 2016 French Open and looks ahead at the second.

A week ago, we said that the 2016 French Open seemed destined to become one of the better ones in recent memory.

Well we were wrong on it being “better”: a French Open that lacks the people’s champ in Roger Federer AND the best clay court player ever in Rafael Nadal can’t be “better” in any sort of way.

But we were right on the nose in predicting that it would indeed be memorable.

While we’ve had over a week to process the Swiss’s absence—maybe we’ll just need to start acknowledging that he’s an old man now?—Nadal’s withdrawal stings a whole lot right now.

Nadal has played 12 French Opens
9 titles
72 wins
2 losses (Soderling, Djokovic)
1 withdrawal with left-wrist injuryhttps://t.co/Wb1S4i000A

— Carl Bialik (@CarlBialik) May 27, 2016

Consider that this is the first time in the Spaniard’s career that he withdraws from a Grand Slam event he has entered, and that it comes at the French Open, the tournament he has traditionally owned.

Life comes at you fast, and now’s probably as good a time as any to think about a tennis world where neither Nadal nor Federer is as relevant as they have been.

Let’s see, what else did we get over the first week at Roland Garros?

Hmm, well we know that Milos Raonic, though he was very much still in the running when it was announced (i.e. the Canadian has since lost 2-6, 4-6 and 4-6 against unseeded Albert Ramos-Vinola), will add the great John McEnroe to his coaching staff for the grass season.

'Milos has a great team with Ricardo Piatti and Carlos Moya. I'm going to be a consultant on the grass. I'm excited'. McEnroe (Eurosport)

— DavidLaw (@DavidLawTennis) May 27, 2016

Raonic is probably one of a select few players capable of winning Wimbledon, and his hope has to be that the presence of McEnroe can help make the difference in a tight match.

Oh, there was also tennis played this week in Paris and, as usual at the French Open, it was excellent; perhaps none as crazy as this point between Barbora Strycova and Agnieszka Radwanska.

The most fun point of the year, from Barbora Strycova and Agnieszka Radwanska. #RG16: https://t.co/MOzJshp5ZZ

— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) May 27, 2016

As for what lies ahead, all eyes will be on the likely two favourites, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic.

For the former, this French Open is a chance to fully sink her teeth into this 2016 season, where she still has only one title to her name. She’s won a bunch of matches, as she typically always has, sure, but Serena Williams is known for winning tournaments. Better yet, she’s known for winning major tournaments: of her 70 career titles, a full 30 per cent have occurred at Grand Slams.

Williams very well may add a 22nd major title this week in Paris, as she’s yet to truly be bothered in winning her three first matches in straight sets. She’d take it.

Meanwhile, Djokovic will hope to make history at the end of this week by winning his first French Open title, thereby completing the career Grand Slam. It’s become harder and harder to ever doubt his credentials, but possessing at least one title at each Grand Slam would forever etch his name in tennis lore. If ever there remained doubt whether he belonged alongside Federer’s and Nadal’s names, this win would fix everything—and possibly push him over the top.

Djokovic is odds-on favorite to win the French Open. Murray is a distant second; Wawrinka a really distant third https://t.co/SFAvGs6qyK

— Carl Bialik (@CarlBialik) May 27, 2016

And with the withdrawal of his two chief rivals, Djokovic has as good a chance to win Roland Garros as he ever has.

Since Sept. 2010, Djokovic has won 74 of 78 matches against the guys he could face before the final: https://t.co/cYZ582wTo0

— Carl Bialik (@CarlBialik) May 27, 2016

The folks at FiveThirtyEight believe Djokovic would already two French Opens if not for Nadal. Let’s go get the first one.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Looking ahead to Day 3 of the 2016 French Open

May 23, 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 first weekend of the 2016 French Open.

Already, this edition of Roland Garros profiles as one of the better ones of recent memory—right?

Okay, it sure is too soon to decide anything when there’s a good 14 days of the event remaining, but the first day of this 2016 French Open sure was a memorable one.

Though, really if we’re being honest, the memorable headlines started before Roland Garros even did.

Indeed, on May 19, the Swiss (and people’s champ) Roger Federer withdrew from the event and ended his streak of 65 straight Grand Slam events at which he had competed. “I have been making steady progress with my overall fitness, but I am still not 100 percent and feel I might be taking an unnecessary risk by playing in this event before I am really ready,” Federer said. “The decision was not easy to make, but I took it to ensure I could play the remainder of the season and help to extend the rest of my career. I remain as motivated and excited as ever.”

Just like that, one of the sport’s most impressive streaks was over.

Federer’s (fake) alter ego took to the Twitterverse to ease the pain of his legion of fans, reassuring them that while we may not see him on the court in Paris, he would certainly remain active on the social media platform with the little blue bird: because while you may need good knees to hit tennis balls, you don’t need them for #goodtweeting.

Still, not all was lost. While the Swiss and foremost tennis player in the world wouldn’t be present, plenty of others would be. And the tennis Gods made sure to heal our wounds a little bit, creating two wonderful, wonderful main draws.

Roland Garros has now started and, well, it seems to have taken a few favourites by surprise. Garbine Muguruza, seeded No. 4 and working on two career French Open quarterfinals, needed all of two hours and 24 minutes to beat Anna Karolina Schmiedlova by the score of 3-6, 6-3 and 6-3.

Boom or bust candidate Stanislas Wawrinka, meanwhile, very nearly busted his way out of the main draw escaped a forceful escape bid from Lukas Rosol and managed to see another day by winning 4-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 and 6-4. Will it propel him to another French Open title?

Wawrinka and Muguruza weren’t the only two either, as a number of big names had more difficulty getting through their opening match than what most had anticipated.

What’s the end result? The end result is that day 3 in Paris promises to be one hell of a ride.

That’s right, day 3 will feature the opening statements from Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal and, who knows, maybe Andy Murray will manage to stick around beyond the first Tuesday as he and Radek Stepanek complete their first match.

There is probably the most notable of six first-round matches that haven’t been completed on the first day of action; Lucas Pouille and Julien Benneteau, notably, appear locked in a back burner of a match, one that could take still quite a long time to complete. We’ll also keep our eyes on Ekaterina Makarova and Sam Stosur, both of whom need to finish their match and both of whom hope to advance.

And don’t forget that through it all, “Roger Federer” will be tweeting; there’s no better way to spend your Tuesday.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: So who should be the Roland Garros favourites?

May 16, 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 clay court season.

At long last, here we are.

At long last, all that separates us from the 2016 Roland Garros is one mere week of rest. After more or less two full months of clay court tournaments of relative importance, we’ve reached the big one.

And you know what’s the fun part?

On both the men’s and women’s sides, results from April and May have made this edition of the French Open, often the most fascinating event of the year, as unsettled as it’s been in recent memory.

This year when we ask, “Who should be the favourites?” we can make a legitimate case for plenty of players.

Men

The would-be favourite: Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal going back to his winning ways in Paris for the tournament he has traditionally owned would make one hell of a storyline. Unfortunately, the Spaniard has become hopeless against Novak Djokovic, losing seven matches and 15 sets in a row. If he wants to win, he’ll likely have to avoid the Djoker—because even when he’s great, he’s not good enough.

The people’s choice: Roger Federer

Everyone loves Roger Federer and, at Roland Garros just like everywhere else, everyone wants to see him win. But while he’s an excellent clay court player, Federer has also been hampered by a myriad of little injuries since the Australian Open; if his body hasn’t completely broken down, it’s close. We forget that he’s turning 35 and that this shouldn’t be surprising.

The hot streak: Andy Murray

Andy Murray celebrated his 29th birthday with a first title in 2016, defeating Novak Djokovic a week after the Serb had overcome him to win the Madrid Open title. He’s concluded the pre-Roland Garros portion of the clay court with a 12-2 record and is as playing as good tennis as anyone else.

The boom or bust: Stanislas Wawrinka

One who isn’t playing especially well is Stanislas Wawrinka. Since winning in Dubai in February, the 31-year-old has won only five of his 10 matches. That simply won’t be good enough for the French Open, though maybe not all is lost? Before he lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires in 2015, Wawrinka arrived in Paris on an 8-7 run. The Swiss can catch fire at any time.

The young blood: Dominic Thiem or David Goffin

The 25-year-old David Goffin and 22-year-old Dominic Thiem have been playing especially great tennis in 2016 and both possess the kind of games that translates well to clay courts. They’re now firmly entrenched in the Top 15 and will be as dangerous as anyone else in Paris.

The favourite: Novak Djokovic

He’ll be fine. Novak Djokovic suffered his third defeat of 2016 against Andy Murray, losing 6-3 and 6-3 in the Rome final. Some may see signs for worry but other than an inexplicable early defeat in Monte-Carlo, and an early retirement at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, Djokovic hasn’t done worse than a final in 2016.

He’ll be fine, and anyway the weather probably played a role in his loss against Murray. (Alright alright, no excuses.)

Women

The would-be favourite: Victoria Azarenka

Victoria Azarenka was always going to come back down to earth. After the blistering start to the 2016 season she had, after winning 26 of 27 matches and three tournaments, she was always going to run into some trouble—that these unfolded at Madrid and Rome, two clay court events that don’t play to her strengths, shouldn’t be surprising. On a different surface, we would have been inclined to pick the Belarus but alas.

The absentee: Maria Sharapova

We have already discussed the Maria Sharapova (non)-doping case ad nauseam already. It’s really too bad for her that her suspension had to carry through the month of May, because the clay court season has typically been perhaps the best time of the year for the Russian. But there’s always next year! (Unless she’s suspended, of course.)

The boom or bust: Simona Halep

Up until she took advantage of a (very) favourable main draw in Madrid for her first title of the 2016 season, Simona Halep had been in the midst of a relatively okay season: not bad, but not particularly good either. She’ll hope to avoid the same fate as she suffered in Paris in 2015, as she lost in the second round just a year after making the finals.

The young blood: Garbine Muguruza

Lest we forget, and you’d be forgotten for overlooking her this season as she’s been only average, but Garbine Muguruza has reached the quarterfinals of the past two French Opens. We envision the Spaniard once again among the last eight standing, if not even better.

The favourite: Serena Williams

It’s silly to think so, but Serena Williams’s 2016 season had been disappointing up to this point. Sure, she had amassed $1.8 million in prize money while losing only three times in 16 matches, but she was on the verge of entering Roland Garros still without a title to her name. Mostly, that’s why this Internazionali BNL d’Italia was important for the American.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: 2016 Internazionali BNL d’Italia men’s and women’s draw preview and analysis

May 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 Internazionali BNL d’Italia.

They have it pretty hard, tennis pros do. Right?

One week they’re in Madrid in Spain, and the next Monday, well, they’re in Rome and Italy. Oh sure, maybe they’re there to work, to compete, to practice and earn a living. They’re not traveling to two of the world’s most gorgeous cities to just wine and dine, we know; they’re going to work.

They’re going to work just like anyone would, except they’re doing so in Madrid and Rome—unlike anyone else.

All of this to say: here’s a new tournament preview.

Men’s draw

Pros

-The quarter from hell of Novak Djokovic. Really, you would be hard pressed to find a tougher draw for a tournament favourite than the one Novak Djokovic will need to navigate in Rome. Not only does he get to battle in-form players like Gael Monfils and Milos Raonic, he also gets a possibly rejuvenated Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals. And his prize for this win would be a likely date with Roger Federer in the next round—though is that really a problem?

-The return of Roger Federer. After withdrawing from the Mutua Madrid Open, Roger Federer still has only played 13 matches, and competed in three tournaments, in 2016. At first he took a break after hurting his knee (while preparing a bath for his twin daughters!), then he did so after hurting his back. You’ll say that it’s fine, that Federer is actually playing great when he plays; we’ll say that this is the problem. Federer rarely plays; he’s is just old now.

Cons

-A weak third quarter. Because this draw is so top-heavy, there is bound to be an underwhelming section; for us, the third section, with two struggling favourites in Stanislas Wawrinka and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a couple of qualifiers and just a general group of uninspired players, is that one. There’s Bernard Tomic too.

-Grigor Dimitrov. Since we’re on the topic of stupid reactions, let’s also highlight Grigor Dimitrov’s recent turn for the worse in Istanbul when he willingly took a penalty on match point for equipment abuse.

Quarterfinals: Rafael Nadal over Novak Djokovic; Roger Federer over Kei Nishikori; Stan Wawrinka over Fabio Fognini; Andy Murray over David Goffin

Semifinals: Rafael Nadal over Roger Federer; Andy Murray over Stan Wawrinka

Final: Rafael Nadal over Andy Murray

*****

Women’s draw

Pros

-The return of Serena Williams. On any other year, we think that the world No. 1 might not try too hard this week in Rome, but we figure that this year it may be different; while she sports a typically excellent 13-3 record in 2016, Serena Williams still hasn’t captured a title in 2016 and, most importantly, hasn’t played anywhere in over a month. If she hopes for a good Roland Garros, she’ll show up in Rome.

-Victoria Azarenka, supernova. Will the resurgent Victoria Azarenka play in Italy? She withdrew in Madrid last week and, so far, seems in line to compete in Rome. Injuries would ruin what has been the best story so far in 2016 on the WTA Tour.

Cons

-How is Angelique Kerber still seeded No. 2? This is nothing personal against the German Angelique Kerber. She does have two titles to her name in 2016, including a pretty important one at the Australian Open—but she also has three first-round losses and, if you recall, she very nearly lost in the first round of the Australian Open she won.

-Is anybody else out there? We suppose that this is related to what’s above because Kerber certainly remains the third-ranked player on the WTA Tour; can anyone overtake her? Last week, Dominika Cibulkova became the lowest ranked player ever to make the final of a WTA Premier event; she’s nowhere to be found this week in Rome.

Quarterfinals: Serena Williams over Sabine Lisicki; Victoria Azarenka over Lucie Safarova; Kristina Mladenovic over Carla Suarez Navarro; Sara Errani over Petra Kvitova

Semifinals: Victoria Azarenka over Serena Williams; Sara Errani over Kristina Mladenovic

Final: Victoria Azarenka over Sara Errani

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

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

May 2, 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 Mutua Madrid Open.

Remember the blue clay?

Let’s start there, sure: the blue clay. In 2012, Ion Tiriac, a former ATP pro from Romania, and the owner of the Mutua Madrid Open, decided to rebrand the event by having players play on blue clay.

Really. It was not unlike the folks at hard court events deciding to move from the green court to a two-toned, green-and-purple court. That is, not unlike except for the fact that in this case, Tiriac walked back the switch by going back to the typical clay court only one year after moving to blue clay.

But if only for a year, this was fun.

Men’s draw

Pros

-Rafael Nadal, superhero. King Rafa has won all 10 of his previous matches, turning back the clock and acting dominant during clay court season once again in 2016. For some, it’s been a sign of things to come, a sign that the Rafael Nadal of old is back and ready to spoil dreams once more. We’re not so confident, at least not yet.

-What now, Novak? Can Novak Djokovic do it? The Serb and best player in the world may only get a few more occasions to complete the career Grand Slam before he retires, and this year is as good as any other season to add a Coupe Des Mousquetaires to his trophy case. If he hopes to do this, he’ll have to start winning some matches on clay.

Cons

-Rafael Nadal beating down Roger Federer. Unlike what many may claim, we’ll be ready to say that Nadal is indeed back if and only when he dominates Roger Federer in what’s become such a one-sided rivalry.

-What now, Novak? You’ll say that I’m cheating and that I’m entirely non-objective, given that I love the Serb and that I would love to see him do well. There are those who believed that Djokovic’s finals streak was boring and meant nothing, but we Nole fans disagree; that’s why it’ll really be sad if Djokovic actually is affected and can’t complete the career Grand Slam once we arrive at the French Open. Let’s get a few wins under your belt, Nole.

Quarterfinals: Novak Djokovic over Milos Raonic; Kei Nishikori over Gael Monfils; Rafael Nadal over Roger Federer; Gilles Simon over Andy Murray

Semifinals: Novak Djokovic over Kei Nishikori; Rafael Nadal over Gilles Simon

Final: Rafael Nadal over Novak Djokovic

Women’s draw

Pros

-Anything is possible. By which we mean that any number of players can realistically hope for the best in Madrid; it’s the type of main draws that feels ripe for just about anyone. Let’s see who steps up.

-Victoria Azarenka, supernova. Don’t look now, but Victoria Azarenka, formerly the world’s best player for some time in 2012, is now up to No. 5 after a fuego start to this 2016 season that includes three titles, including the Miami/Indian Wells double. Should Maria Sharapova a miss significant amount of time, this return to prominence of Azarenka would be great.

Cons

-Agnieszka Radwanska, No. 1 seed. This certainly isn’t a knock against the Polish player, quite the accomplished star in her own right—but Agnieszka Radwanska is not in Serena Williams’s league (because nobody is, we know). But with Williams missing the event with the flu, and Sharapova’s ongoing meldonium saga, it feels like there’s a little lack of star power in Madrid for a WTA Tour Premier event.

-The fall of Dominika Cibulkova. While we admit that this makes for a pretty great first round match against the aforementioned Radwanska, Dominika Cibulkova deserves better than a opening match against the top-ranked player; and this matchup seems better suited for later in the tournament. Oh well.

Quarterfinals: Svetlana Kuznetsova over Agnieszka Radwanska; Victoria Azarenka over Petra Kvitova; Garbine Muguruza over Simona Halep; Carla Suarez Navarro over Angelique Kerber

Semifinals: Victoria Azarenka over Svetlana Kuznetsova; Carla Suarez Navarro over Garbine Muguruza

Final: Victoria Azarenka over Carla Suarez Navarro

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

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

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