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: Li Na retires from tennis

September 29, 2014

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon bids adieu to a great champion.

In the end, Li Na retired the same way she arrived on the scene—after a long layoff.

She’s been a professional since 1999, but it’s only in 2004 that Li firmly established herself on the WTA Tour. And by that time, she hadn’t played in a little over two years because, depending on whom you ask, she wanted to focus on her university studies, of health reasons or a conflict with the Chinese Tennis Federation.

Well on Sept. 19, 2014, Li confirmed what had been a rumour for some time and retired. She hadn’t played since a loss in the third round of Wimbledon this July—it’s not 25 months, but three months is already plenty long. Li left little doubt as to the cause this time, with a heartfelt open letter. “It took me several agonizing months to finally come to the decision that my chronic injuries will never again let me be the tennis player that I can be,” she writes. “Walking away from the sport, effective immediately, is the right decision for me and my family.”

This quote is just a small part of the broader message that Li has for the entire tennis community. I recommend everyone to read it in its entirety because it underlines what a great ambassador she has been for the sport—even outside of her actual abilities.

If it seems like Li was rewriting history every step of the way over her career, it’s because she basically was. She was the first Chinese player to win a WTA title (in Guangzhou in 2004) and also to be ranked in the Top 10 (on Feb. 1, 2010). And, well, this may be where you jump in and say it’s not that impressive because it’s not like China has a very rich tennis history. Sure, but she helped introduce many millions of Chinese people to a sport they otherwise maybe would never have loved. She has created the Li Na Tennis Academy, “which will provide scholarships for the future generation of Chinese tennis stars.” Her native country only had two WTA events in 2008, but that number has grown to 10 in 2014 in part because of Li’s successes.

And before you dismiss these, consider that she was the first Asian Grand Slam champion ever (in 2011 at Roland Garros) and also is the highest ranked player in history at No. 2. That came after her second major title, this year in Melbourne.

Her two Grand Slam titles leave her tied for 19th of all time, which is certainly admirable. Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova are exceptions, as most players will only manage a few tournament wins. If they’re lucky, as the typical player usually is every once in a while, maybe those happen at Grand Slam tournaments.

Li is also the typical player in another matter, and that’s in dealing with injuries. After the Wimbledon loss this year, she underwent a fourth knee surgery, this time on her left one after three on the right. Fourth time wasn’t the charm, it turned out. “My body kept telling me that, at 32, I will not be able to compete at the top level ever again,” she writes.

So she retired. She’ll get to spend more time with her family now, or at least more time with her family in a non-tennis setting, because remember that for a long time her husband was her coach.

Li will be missed for her talent, her success and her charisma. “Be the bird that sticks out,” she writes in that letter. Tennis says goodbye to a great one today.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Where will Serena Williams stop?

September 9, 2014

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon recaps Serena Williams’s win at the 2014 US Open.

There’s nothing routine about winning a Grand Slam title, but Serena Williams sure made it seem that way on Sunday.

In the final against Caroline Wozniacki, she won in convincing fashion in two sets of 6-3—and it probably wasn’t that close. The match lasted all of 75 minutes, with the World No. 1 dominating on aces (i.e. 7 against 3), breaks (i.e. 5 against 2), winners (i.e. 29 against 4) and total points won (i.e. 65 against 49). About the only place where Wozniacki had an advantage was in unforced errors (i.e. 23 against 29), but that statistic also tells the entire tale. She could only react and most of the time could only put the ball back in play to live to see another day.

This win salvages Williams’s difficult 2014 season and gives her a three-peat at Flushing Meadows, a sixth US Open title and an 18th Grand Slam title, tying her with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for second most in history. She’s almost 33 years old now and in her 19th season on the WTA Tour and, because we’ve already asked everything else, there’s really just one thing left to settle.

Is she the greatest of all time?

It’s not exactly fair, but that’s the heights she’s reached. In part, it’s due to the fact that she is so clearly the very best player of her era, having won those 18 titles against just four other defeats in the finals. (And two of those defeats came against her sister Venus.)

It’s not entirely fair, and neither is it new of course. This is a question we’ve even asked here in this column, not once but at least twice. And it’s one for which the answer might depend on how long Williams plans to keep playing.

If this latest US Open title is any indication, she probably has a few more years—Williams never lost more than three games in the 14 sets that she played in New York. And if she does plan on playing a few more seasons, the odds are high that she breaks the tie for second place. And right now, she needs four more major titles to get to Steffi Graf’s tally of 22.

Is that possible? Likely? She’s enjoyed a fine trio of seasons since 2012 with five Grand Slam titles, but these have come at age 31, 32 and 33. At some point, Williams will stop. And yet, it’s set up perfectly for her. The other top players on the WTA Tour are either young (e.g. Simona Halep and Eugenie Bouchard), what we think they are (e.g. Caroline Wozniacki), clay-court specialists (e.g. Maria Sharapova) or injured (e.g. Victoria Azarenka, Li Na). Williams is old, but she’s still the best of the group.

Of course, a Wozniacki win at Flushing Meadows would have made for a great story as well. This is the same woman who was chastised as an unworthy No. 1-ranked player in 2010 and 2011 because, of all things, she hadn’t won major tournaments. This despite the fact that she was quite clearly a worthy No. 1 since she lorded over the WTA rankings for a full 67 weeks.

If it takes so long to mention Williams’s opponent in this final, it’s because it seemed like this match was far beyond Wozniacki’s reach. It wasn’t, of course. She should have played better. And if she had, then the match might have been closer. It might have even reached a third set, as it did in their previous two meetings over the summer—but it didn’t because she didn’t.

It’s telling that Wozniacki’s best shot is her backhand. Traditionally, this is the weaker shot, the one that’s used on the defensive, the one which players run around of in order to attack from their stronger, forehand side. There are iconic backhand shots, Novak Djokovic’s shot down the line being the shot that propelled him to the top in 2011.

There are also notable exceptions, Wozniacki’s the prime example. We’ve seen the 24-year-old run around her forehand in order to attack with the backhand. Hers is a shot that’s reliable, strong and, at least if you listen to my tweets, it “belongs in a museum… because it’s everything that is right in this world.” (I tend to exaggerate, but ever so slightly.)

Of course, the symbolism isn’t lost on most readers. Against Williams in the US Open final, she was on the defensive and never dictated play. Wozniacki lost, but she’s fine—just look at her Instagram feed. “Out and about NYC with @serenawilliams !! #selfie

That’s the lesson here. If you lose a tennis match, take a selfie. And if you win too, do it. In fact, just take a selfie. It’s just tennis.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

US Open 2014 Day 15 Preview: Marin’s momentum vs. Kei’s courage

September 8, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

For the third year in a row, and for the sixth time in her career, Serena Williams in the US Open women’s singles champion, the American capturing her first Grand Slam of 2014 and the eighteenth major of her illustrious career with a straight sets win over Caroline Wozniacki.

Tonight, the tournament concludes with the men’s singles final, in which Croatia’s Marin Cilic will take on Japan’s Kei Nishikori, with each man looking to collect his first Grand Slam title.

Day 14 Recap

Coming into the tournament in strong form, which saw her collect tournament victories in Stanford and Cincinnati, Williams had breezed her way into the final without the loss of a set, and the American veteran started the final in ominous form, racing out to a 2-0 lead. From there, Wozniacki managed to settle herself but was unable to regularly hold her serve, trading breaks with Williams as both players struggled with their first serves in the windy conditions inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. At one stage, there were 5 successive breaks of serve, but Williams was able to hold her serve when she needed to, producing 15 winners for the opening set to take it, 6-3.

Going into the second set, Wozniacki had produced just one winner and was finding it difficult to push Williams around the court. The American underlined her brilliant front-running abilities, which have seen her only lose once at Flushing Meadows after winning the first set, improving her first serve percentage and establishing a 5-3 lead in the second set. Serving to stay in the championship, Wozniacki was powerless to stop the Williams juggernaut, and an errant backhand handed the top seed the championship after 75 minutes, 6-3 6-3. Fifteen years after claiming her first major in New York as a teenager, Williams was again reunited with the championship trophy.

Fittingly, legendary rivals Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, each of whom won 18 singles majors during her career, were on hand to congratulate Williams on joining the 18 majors club. One wonders, however, just how long Williams will remain in that club. Judging by her performance over the past fortnight, which saw her annihilate the field, it won’t be long before she is knocking on the door of Grand Slam number 19.

Match of the Day – Day 14

Marin Cilic vs. Kei Nishikori

For the first time since the 2005 Australian Open final, men’s tennis will see a Grand Slam singles final that is not contested by Federer, Nadal or Djokovic. There have been various players during the past decade who have been able to put together a hot streak and make it to a Grand Slam final (including David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga) but, apart from Andy Murray, no player has been able to regularly compete with Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Wawrinka and Del Potro are the only players outside of the Big Four who have claimed majors during the past decade, but each of them has made just the one Grand Slam final.

All of which brings me to today’s intriguing showdown. So often a player surges from the pack to make a Grand Slam final, only to find a member of the Big Four waiting for him there. This time, however, it is different – both Federer and Djokovic suffered shock losses in the semi-finals and so we have Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic both into a Grand Slam final for the first time. So much of this match will depend on how the players handle their emotions throughout the course of the match. On one hand, it is completely new territory for each player; on the other hand, each player knows that he will most likely never get a better opportunity to be crowned US Open champion.

Cilic has been a revelation since returning from his 2013 suspension for taking a banned substance, the lanky Croat improving his serve enormously under the guidance of compatriot Goran Ivanisevic and drawing confidence and inspiration from the former Wimbledon champion. Cilic was ruthlessly efficient against Tomas Berdych and then played the match of his life to whip Roger Federer in straight sets in the semi-finals. Cilic’s serve will be crucial in this match, for Nishikori is a fabulous returner and will be favoured from the baseline in the longer points. My biggest concern for Cilic is his ability to back up mentally and emotionally from his win against Federer. It was a near-perfect match, but the reality is that he will find it hard to replicate such quality of execution in the final. Often athletes will suffer a let-down after such a sublime performance, and I suspect that this will be the case for Cilic.

Nishikori, on the other hand, has been performing at an extremely high level for multiple matches without ever playing the perfect match. The Japanese star was forced to endure gruelling 5-setters against Raonic and Wawrinka, but didn’t seem fatigued against Djokovic in the semi-finals, where he collected a 4 set win. Perhaps the inclusion of the freakishly fit former French Open champion Michael Chang in Nishikori’s coaching team has helped the tenth seed with his stamina and his belief in long matches.

The Japanese star holds a 5-2 advantage over Cilic in head-to-head meetings, although both of Cilic’s wins have come on hard-courts, including at the 2012 US Open. Both meetings this year have been won by Nishikori, and I think that the tenth seed has a very good chance of winning the championship if he can simply get a decent number of Cilic’s first serves back into play. Cilic has been virtually unplayable on his first service points in his last couple of matches, but Nishikori’s lightning quick reflexes and compact swings should give him a chance of getting more returns into play than Federer and Berdych did in their contests with Cilic.

It’s not the final that anyone expected, but I think that this will be a fascinating and close match all the same. I suspect Cilic will tighten up a little and not serve as well as he did in the quarter-finals and semi-finals. If so, I expect Nishikori to take full advantage and be too solid from the back of the court for the Croatian. Nishikori in 4.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the tennis and I’ll be back with another serve tomorrow to recap the men’s final. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

US Open 2014 Day 14 Preview: Serena vs. Caro (Bring it)

September 7, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

Monday will see Flushing Meadows play host to a men’s final that nobody expected, a match-up whose odds of eventuating were 5000-1 at the beginning of the tournament. Day 13 saw Kei Nishikori shock top seed Novak Djokovic and Marin Cilic outclass second seed Roger Federer to set up a surprising and historic men’s singles final. Meanwhile, Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki go head to head today in a battle for the ladies’ singles championship.

Day 13 Recap

After back-to-back 5-setters against Raonic and Wawrinka, Nishikori was given little chance of upsetting the world number one Djokovic in the opening men’s semi-final. The Japanese star had spent 3 and a half hours more on court than Djokovic in the lead-up to the semi-final, but Nishikori showed no signs of wilting in the hot and humid conditions, the weather clearly suiting the 24 year old, who has been based in muggy Florida for the majority of the past decade.

After the tenth seed edged Djokovic in the opening set, 6-4, the Serb immediately fired back, racing through the second set for the loss of just one game. The third set proved decisive, with Nishikori forced to save multiple break points before squandering a chance to serve out the set at 5-3. The set went to a tiebreaker and for once it was Djokovic who was unable to deliver under pressure, dropping the opening 4 points of the tiebreaker and eventually losing it 7 points to 4. An immediate break in the opening game of the fourth set by Nishikori, and a crucial hold in the next game, which saw him save 3 break points, put the Japanese star in sight of the finishing line and 7 games later he became the first Asian male to make a Grand Slam singles final, claiming a famous 6-4 1-6 7-6(4) 6-3 win.

Having seen Djokovic’s surprise exit, Roger Federer must have been pumped up for his semi-final against Marin Cilic, with the Swiss great no doubt sensing that the title was his for the taking. Cilic, however, had other ideas, delivering another sublime serving performance to completely outplay the 17-time major winner. The first set saw Cilic drop just 5 points on serve, with a solitary break enough to give him the lead after 28 minutes. A similar scenario unfolded in the second set, with  a sloppy service game from Federer handing Cilic the requisite break as the fourteenth seed claimed the set, 6-4, to the delight of coach Goran Ivanisevic. After a little more than an hour, Cilic was just one set away from competing in his first ever Grand Slam final.

At 2 sets to love down, the crowd willed Federer on, perhaps sensing that they were in for another fabulous fight-back along the lines of the recovery the second seed made against Gael Monfils in the quarter-finals. An early break to the 5-time US Open winner had the crowd roaring, as Federer went up 2-0. But this time the Federer recovery was short-lived, with Cilic claiming an immediate break back and then blasting another winner, one of 43 for the match, to claim the critical break in the seventh game of the set. Any threat of Cilic seizing up when serving for the match quickly evaporated, as the Croat sent down a trio of aces before securing the win with a sublime backhand winner.

Match of the Day – Day 14

Serena Williams vs. Caroline Wozniacki

Close friends Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki will contest the women’s singles final today, and you can be sure that both players will be putting their friendship to one side in this encounter. Both players have held the world number one ranking, with Williams currently at the top of the summit, but that’s about where the similarities between the players end. Williams is a 17-time major champion who is looking to capture her third consecutive US Open crown and sixth overall, whilst Wozniacki is into just her second major final and is still looking for a maiden Grand Slam title after being denied the title in New York in 2009 by Kim Clijsters.

The players are also very different in terms of their approach on court, with Williams a master of first strike tennis and Wozniacki far more of a retriever and counterpuncher. The American will seek to dominate on her service games, hoping to score plenty of cheap points on her first serve. Look for Williams to step inside the baseline on the Wozniacki second serve and attack up the line on the return of serve, hoping to get a short ball and to finish the points quickly thereafter. By contrast, Wozniacki will be looking to implement plenty of variety from the baseline, mixing up the pace and spin of her shots as she seeks to keep Williams off-balance and out of position. The Dane’s chances of winning a point increase significantly the longer it goes, so withstanding the initial onslaught from Williams at the beginning of each point is critical to Wozniacki’s chances.

Williams holds a commanding  8-1 advantage in career meetings with Wozniacki, although the tenth seed pushed the American to 3 sets in both of their recent meetings on hard-courts. I think Wozniacki will give a good account of herself and is in the sort of form to take advantage of any weakness from Williams. However, I can’t see Wozniacki having the ability to dictate much of this match. Win or lose, I think this match will be played on Williams’ terms, with the American going for her shots and her success being dependent on her ability to execute. Given her recent success during the North American hard-court swing, it’s hard to imagine Williams not being able to execute successfully. Williams in 3.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the tennis and I’ll be back with another serve tomorrow to recap the women’s final and preview the men’s decider. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

US Open 2014 Day 12 Preview: Serena & Caro inch closer to the finals

September 5, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

Roger Federer is back in the US Open semi-finals for the first time since 2011, the 5-time champion saving 2 match points to defeat Gael Monfils in an electrifying night session on Day 11. Meanwhile, Day 12 is ladies’ semi-finals day at Flushing Meadows, with Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki looking to book their spots in Sunday’s final.

Day 11 Recap

The day session saw Croat Marin Cilic hoping to advance to his second career Grand Slam semi-final. Standing in his way was sixth seed and former Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych. Cilic raced out to an early lead against the Czech Davis Cup star, breaking Berdych in the opening game of the match and never surrendering his advantage.

Berdych, who had held 60 of his 64 service games heading in to the quarter-final, was all at sea on serve in the blustery conditions, dropping serve 4 times in the first set and a half alone. In contrast, Cilic was ruthlessly efficient on serve, dropping just one point on his first service points in the second set. A brief fightback by Berdych at the beginning of the third set, which saw the sixth seed go up a break, was halted when a double-bounce ruling by the umpire shattered the Czech’s focus. The set went to a tiebreaker, with Cilic proving too solid and claiming a straight sets win in a touch over 2 hours.

In order to advance to his first ever Grand Slam final, Cilic will need to overcome 17-time major winner Roger Federer, who was forced to pull out all the stops to halt the charge of Gael Monfils. The Frenchman dominated the early stages of the encounter, claiming the opening 2 sets of the match to put Federer on the verge of a surprise exit.

Monfils then had a pair of match points on Federer’s deep in the third set but the Swiss star showed his experience, saving both and going on to claim the set. From there, the match had a sense of inevitability about it, with Federer growing in confidence and Monfils starting to falter. By the time the match entered a deciding set, the 33 year old Federer was in full flight, racing to a 5-1 lead before closing out a memorable win in 200 minutes.

Matches of the Day – Day 12

1. Shuai Peng vs. Caroline Wozniacki

Shuai Peng has looked switched on from the very start of the tournament, which saw her upset fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the second round. Peng has added other seeds to her list of scalps, including Roberta Vinci and Lucie Safarova, and the Chinese player will not hold back against Wozniacki today. Double-handed off both sides, Peng is a very effective returner and is more powerful than Wozniacki from the baseline.

Wozniacki has enjoyed a resurgence in the last few months, winning the title in Istanbul and performing very solidly in the North American swing coming into New York. Training for the New York marathon seems to have improved Wozniacki’s stamina, as evidenced against Sharapova, and her confidence, which must have taken a beating after her drop down in the rankings and her split from Rory McIlroy. Wozniacki is in fine form and has more experience at this stage of big tournaments, and I sense she will be more composed on the big points. Wozniacki in 3.

2. Serena Williams vs. Ekaterina Makarova

Ekaterina Makarova has been very consistent in the majors in the last few years and has had a superb tournament to date, highlighted by a win over former world number one Victoria Azarenka in the quarter-finals. Makarova is into her first Grand Slam semi-final, but as a former French Open doubles winner the Russian should not be overawed by the big stage. Makarova has also beaten Serena Williams in a Grand Slam before, upsetting the American at Melbourne Park in 2012.

Williams has beaten Makarova in their other 3 clashes, and the top seed has been simply unstoppable at Flushing Meadows so far this year, dropping just 22 games across 5 matches. The two-time defending champion will look to obtain plenty of cheap points on serve and to keep the points short against Makarova. Look for Williams to step inside the baseline on the Makarova serve and to employ her preferred brand of first strike tennis. I think the Russian will battle valiantly, but I can’t see Williams losing this one. Williams in 2.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the tennis and I’ll be back with another serve tomorrow. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

US Open 2014 Day 10 Preview: Serious tennis between Djokovic and Murray ahead

September 3, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

China’s Shuai Peng is into the first Grand Slam semi-final of her career, becoming just the third Chinese player to reach the final 4 of a major by defeating teenage prodigy Belinda Bencic in straight sets on Day 9.

Day 9 Recap

The unseeded Peng, competing in the thirty-seventh Grand Slam of her career, was forced to save a pair of break point points in her opening service game, but from there the Chinese player was largely untroubled, dictating the rallies and not allowing Bencic to get into the match. Peng, who has yet to drop a set in New York this year, eventually wrapped up the match 6-2 6-1 in just over an hour.

Peng will play former finalist Caroline Wozniacki for a place in the final after the Dane thrashed Sara Errani under lights in Tuesday’s night session. Errani is a former French Open finalist and has beaten the likes of Venus Williams at Flushing Meadows this year, but the Italian was completely out of sorts against a switched-on Wozniacki, who allowed Errani just one game for the entire match.

In the men’s tournament, the quarter-finals line-up was completed on Day 9, with Tomas Berdych and Marin Cilic setting up a rematch of their Wimbledon clash in contrasting fashion. Berdych was completely dominant against 20 year old Dominic Thiem, registering an emphatic straight sets win. Cilic, on the other hand, was forced to 5 sets to see off the challenge of Frenchman Gilles Simon.

Gael Monfils’ remarkable run in New York continued on Day 9, with the Frenchman still yet to drop a set for the tournament. Monfils upset seventh seed Grigor Dimitrov in a tight 3-setter, with the Frenchman converting 3 of his 4 break points for the match compared to Dimitrov claiming just one of his 7 break point opportunities.

Monfils will now play 5-time champion Roger Federer for a place in the semi-finals, after the Swiss superstar cruised past Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut in straight sets. The win gave Federer an ATP Tour leading fifty-third victory of the season, and allowed the second seed to move into his tenth US Open quarter-final in 11 years.

Matches of the Day – Day 10

1. Victoria Azarenka vs. Ekaterina Makarova

The match-up sees the sixteenth seed play the seventeenth seed, but Azarenka is by far the more high-profile player, being a former world number one player and a two-time Grand Slam winner. That said, Makarova is an underrated player, having made the quarter-finals of multiple Grand Slams and having ousted Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard in the round of 16 in New York.

Makarova has won 2 of the 5 clashes between the pair, but Azarenka has won both of their meetings on hard-courts, the Belarusian’s preferred surface, and I think she has a clear advantage in raw power and shotmaking ability. That said, Azarenka is still getting back to full fitness after an injury-induced lay-off and may fade if this match goes deep into a deciding set. I’ll back Azarenka to get on top early as she seeks to get this match completed in straight sets. Azarenka in 2.

2. Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Kei Nishikori

Any doubts over Kei Nishikori’s fitness were dispelled by his fantastic 5-set win over Milos Raonic in the fourth round. But that match, which finished at 2:26am local time, must have taken a lot out of the Japanese star. Wawrinka had a tough match against Robredo in round 4, but the third seed played only 4 sets and has had slightly more time to recover for this clash than his opponent.

The Swiss star has won both previous matches against Nishikori, and I think the key to today’s match is Wawrinka’s ability to execute when in an attacking position, compared with Nishikori’s ability to defend and, in particular, push Wawrinka deep and wide in the court. Wawrinka struck 75 winners against Robredo and a similar tally is likely to see him win this one. But if his unforced error count is high then Nishikori could well be the one going through to the semi-finals. Wawrinka in 5.

3. Serena Williams vs. Flavia Pennetta

The match represents a clash of the oldest women left in the women’s draw and, no matter what she says in her press conferences, it’s clear that Serena Williams desperately wants to win this title and salvage something from a season that, in terms of majors at least, has been very disappointing.

Pennetta is a quality player who obviously enjoys playing in New York, having made the semi-finals at Flushing Meadows last year and having now returned to the second week of the tournament this year. I expect the Italian to come out swinging and give this match her all, but Williams’ advantage on serve is likely to be the key factor in this match. Williams in 2.

4. Novak Djokovic vs. Andy Murray

Top seed Djokovic has won 12 of 20 career meetings with Murray, but it was the Scot who triumphed here in the 2012 final, downing the Serb in 5 sets to claim his maiden Grand Slam title. However, Murray has found it difficult to compete with the very top players this season after returning from back surgery, with his win over Tsonga on Monday representing his first win over a top 10 player since Wimbledon last year.

Djokovic beat Murray in straight sets in Miami earlier this season – the only time this year that the pair has played one another – and I think the world number one, who has made the last 4 US Open finals, will be too strong in this contest. Look for Djokovic to pace himself through the match, knowing he has the superior fitness at this point in time. Djokovic in 4.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the tennis and I’ll be back with another serve tomorrow. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

US Open 2014 Day 9 Preview: Dimitrov and Monfils will certainly steal the show

September 2, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

It was another humid and windy day in New York, but the muggy conditions didn’t bother Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray, who set up a quarter-final clash with straight sets victories on Day 8.

Day 8 Recap

Since losing to Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round of the 2009 French Open, Novak Djokovic had made 21 consecutive Grand Slam quarter-finals, and on Day 8 the Serb made it 22 major quarter-finals in a row, saving a set point in the second set en route to a 3 set victory over the German.

Andy Murray booked his place in the last 8 by recording his first win over a top 10 player since winning Wimbledon last year, the Scot overcoming Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a tight 3-setter. Australian Open winner Stan Wawrinka blasted 75 winners on his way to a 4 set win over Tommy Robredo, overcoming a tumble into spectators in the third set, some cramps and some generally anxious moments against the veteran Spaniard to advance to the quarter-finals.

In the women’s tournament, Italian eleventh seed Flavia Pennetta overcame Casey Dellacqua, claiming a tight first set before pulling away in the second set. Top seed Serena Williams stopped the run of giant-killer Kaia Kanepi to set up a meeting with Pennetta, which will see the 2 oldest players in the women’s draw go head to head.

Two-time US Open finalist Victoria Azarenka was forced to fight all the way to see off the challenge of Serbian qualifier Aleksandra Krunic, the former world number one forced to come from a set down to register a victory over the world number 145.

Azarenka will play Russian Ekaterina Makarova for a place in the semi-finals after Makarova ended Eugenie Bouchard’s 2014 streak of making the semi-finals or better at each Grand Slam. Bouchard was visibly distressed in the humid conditions, having her blood pressure checked and putting ice on her neck and shoulders in an attempt to cool down. It was to no avail however, as the seventeenth seeded Makarova recorded a 7-6(2) 6-4 win.

Matches of the Day – Day 9

1. Belinda Bencic vs. Shuai Peng

17 year old Belinda Bencic is undoubtedly a player of the future, but I’ve been amazed at how well the Swiss player has been able to transition to the WTA Tour this season. Bencic has shown maturity and composure beyond her years and has been tactically very sharp to boot.

The powerful Peng, who hits double-handed forehands and backhands, has had a brilliant tournament to date, upsetting the likes of Radwanska and Vinci en route to the quarter-finals. Peng has greater experience, but if Bencic can move Peng around the court and expose her lack of reach out wide, then I think the teenager can continue her fairytale run. Bencic in 3.

2. Grigor Dimitrov vs. Gael Monfils

If you are a fan of tennis, then it’s hard not to be excited about this match-up. Dimitrov has a textbook game, with a classical one-handed backhand and compact swings which have drawn comparisons with Roger Federer. Monfils, on the other hand, is flamboyant and electrifying, capable of utilising his incredible athleticism to hit a range of shots that are most definitely not from the textbook.

Monfils is usually very erratic, but the Frenchman has been impressively consistent to date in New York this year, not dropping a set so far and dismissing compatriot Richard Gasquet in style in round 3. Monfils beat Dimitrov at the 2011 US Open, but was forced to retire in Bucharest earlier this year when trailing the Bulgarian. Dimitrov has had the more consistent season, and I’ll back him for this reason, but you simply never know what Monfils will bring to the court. Dimitrov in 4.

3. Roberto Bautista Agut vs. Roger Federer

When you think of Spanish tennis players, names such as Nadal and Ferrer instantly come to mind, along with veterans such as Robredo and Lopez. However, Roberto Bautista Agut is an emerging player on the ATP Tour and another Spaniard who may continue the country’s proud tennis traditions in the years to come.

The lanky Spaniard has a powerful game and showed by knocking Del Potro out of the Australian Open in January that he can mix it with the best. This will be his first match against Roger Federer and I think he will put up a good fight against the 17-time major winner. That said, Federer looks in top shape right now and I can’t see him dropping this one. Federer in 4.

4. Caroline Wozniacki vs. Sara Errani

Since Wimbledon, Caroline Wozniacki has given various indications that she is getting back to somewhere near her best, which of course saw her sit atop the world rankings for 67 weeks. The Dane scored one of her best wins in the last few years by beating Maria Sharapova in the previous round and her training for the New York Marathon appears to have provided her with plenty of stamina.

Errani is a similar player to Wozniacki, covering the court well and counterpunching effectively, but I think the Italian’s weak serve is where Wozniacki will really attack today. Look for the Dane to jump all over the Errani second serve and race to a relatively comfortable straight sets victory. Wozniacki in 2.

5. Tomas Berdych vs. Dominic Thiem

Tomas Berdych has had success in New York before, having made it through to the semi-finals of the 2012 US Open, defeating Roger Federer before losing to eventual champion Andy Murray on a very windy day at Flushing Meadows. Berdych has fallen away a bit after a strong start to the 2014 season, but I think the courts in New York suit his game to a tee.

Thiem is a rising star on the ATP Tour and showed great composure and stamina to upset good friend Ernests Gulbis in round 2. However, at this stage I don’t think the young Austrian has the raw power to match Berdych in this clash. I’ll take the Czech in a close one. Berdych in 5.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the tennis and I’ll be back with another serve tomorrow. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

US Open 2014 Day 2 Preview: 26 The return of Darth Federer

August 26, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

Men’s stars Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka all progressed to the second round on a warm and sunny opening day of play in New York, with women’s seeds Sharapova, Radwanska and Kerber also making it through to round 2.

Day 1 Recap

Whilst Djokovic was clinical in recording a straight sets win over Diego Schwartzman, and Wawrinka impressed in a 3 set victory over Jiri Vesely, Murray was made to fight all the way in his win over Robin Haase. The Scot battled cramps, and was lucky to see Haase squander a chance to take the match to a deciding set, with Murray eventually scoring a scrappy 4 set win.

Among the other men’s seeds in action on Day 1, there were wins for Raonic, Robredo and Tsonga, whilst Julien Benneteau was upset by his countryman Benoit Paire. Meanwhile, Wimbledon star Nick Kyrgios claimed another scalp, beating two-time US Open semi-finalist Mikhail Youzhny in a tight and heated 4-setter which saw the young Aussie on the brink of being disqualified.

In the women’s tournament, Simona Halep and Venus Williams each battled back from a set down to book a place in the second round, as Angelique Kerber, Andrea Petkovic and Caroline Wozniacki were also stretched to 3 sets before progressing. Agnieszka Radwanksa underlined her title credentials, losing just one game in her opening round match, whilst Maria Sharapova was impressive in defeating Maria Kirilenko in straight sets.

Matches of the Day – Day 2

1. Serena Williams vs. Taylor Townsend

Young American Taylor Townsend, along with other rising stars Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens, is being groomed as one of the successors to Serena Williams in terms of the next generation of American women’s tennis, but Townsend’s game is very different to the one employed by the current world number one.

Whereas Williams’ game is all about power, with very little subtlety about it, Townsend is a crafty player who has enjoyed plenty of success at junior level by employing a diverse game incorporating deft touch and sublime angles. Townsend made it through to the third round of this year’s French Open, but it’s fair to say that she still has plenty of work to do before she establishes herself on the WTA Tour. This should be a great learning experience for Townsend, but I fear that Williams will show little mercy on her younger opponent. Williams in 2.

2. Petra Kvitova vs. Kristina Mladenovic

New York has never been a particularly happy hunting ground for Petra Kvitova. Whilst the two-time Wimbledon champion has reached the semi-finals or better of each other major, at the US Open the Czech star has never made it past the round of 16. However, Kvitova showed by dominating the field in New Haven last week that her Wimbledon hangover has well and truly evaporated.

Former world junior champion Mladenovic is a talented player, who knocked Li Na out of this year’s French Open en route to the round of 32. That said, I don’t think the Frenchwoman has the stroke-making artistry or the raw power of her opponent today, and if Kvitova is on song then the third seed should run out a comfortable winner. Kvitova in 2.

3. Roger Federer vs. Marinko Matosevic

Marinko Matosevic is becoming better known for his unusual antics (check out his victory roll after winning his first ever Grand Slam main draw match in Paris earlier this year, or his tirade of abuse at an umpire in Cincinnati a couple of weeks ago), rather than for his tennis, but the Aussie is a former top 40 player and a natural born competitor.

But whilst Matosevic will literally throw everything at Federer, the unflappable Swiss star should have few worries in overcoming his opponent today. The 17-time major winner is in a rich vein of form, and Matosevic doesn’t have the kind of raw power that can hurt Federer. Matosevic is usually very solid on serve and from the back of the court, but that’s not enough against a player of Federer’s calibre. Federer in 3.

4. Madison Keys vs. Jarmila Gajdosova

To my mind, this is one of the most intriguing matches of the day, pitting up-and-coming American Madison Keys against the erratic but talented Jarmila Gajdosova. Keys has forced her way into the world’s top 30 as a result of a string of strong performances, including a third round appearance at the All England Club last month. In front of her home crowd, Keys will be desperate to do well at a venue where she has collected only one main draw win previously.

Gajdosova has had some injury troubles and various other off-court issues over the past couple of years, but the Aussie is a former top 30 player and has made the round of 16 at both the French Open and Wimbledon in the past. A brilliant ball-striker, Gajdosova has nothing to lose in this encounter and will go out all guns blazing. This should be a close one, but Keys’ recent good form should propel her to victory. Keys in 3.

5. Flavia Pennetta vs. Julia Goerges

The past 12 months or so have seen veteran Pennetta make a stunning return to tennis following a lengthy injury-induced lay-off. A semi-final appearance at New York last year, along with a trip to the quarter-finals of this year’s Australian Open, has Pennetta on the cusp of the world’s top 10 again, and the Italian will be eager to replicate her 2013 efforts at Flushing Meadows this year.

Goerges is a talented and hard-hitting player who has been ranked as high as 15 in the world. However, the past couple of years have not been kind to the German, who has won just a pair of Grand Slam matches since her run to the fourth round of the 2013 Australian Open and seen her ranking slide outside the world’s top 50 as a result. With Goerges down on form and confidence, I’ll back Pennetta to come through this one without too much trouble. Pennetta in 2.

Put your house on: David Ferrer. The fourth seed should be too steady for Damir Dzumhur. The Bosnian made history by reaching the round of 32 at Melbourne Park earlier this year, but I can’t see him getting past the tenacious Spaniard.

Upset alert: Denis Istomin could cause twelfth seed Richard Gasquet some anxious moments in their opening round match, whilst young Aussie Ashleigh Barty could surprise Czech seed Barbora Zahlavova Strycova.

Likely to go the distance: The clash between Germany’s Dustin Brown and Aussie Bernard Tomic should not only be highly entertaining to watch, but should also be mightily close. I’ll back the Aussie to prevail in the decider.

That’s it for today. Enjoy the tennis and I’ll be back with another serve tomorrow. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.

Tennis Elbow: 2014 US Open: This is America, man

August 25, 2014

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon looks at a few of the more compelling North American players competing at Flushing Meadows.

Everything is better, or at least bigger, in North America—and that includes the tennis.

The US Open is the final Grand Slam of the season, and every year it also seems as if it’s ending the season. (But that’s probably more due to the fact that I live in Canada and because as soon as the tournament has crowned a champion, most of Canada starts anticipating the NHL season.)

As depressing as the conclusion of the US Open feels every year, in 2014 it’s double the trouble. Already, Rafael Nadal has pulled out the tournament, leaving the men’s draw with one fewer worthy foe. It’s too bad too, because the Spaniard is the one who pushes the ATP World Tour to its maximum.

That all said, let’s take a look at a few of the Canadians and Americans who seem poised for a great showing in New York—or whose play of late make for a great narrative. Because it’s really the latter that I’m looking for.

Men’s singles championship

Milos Raonic

Milos Raonic must be relieved. He’s seeded No. 5, and the draw put him at the 64th position, in the top half of Novak Djokovic rather than that of Roger Federer. The young Canadian has lost in this matchup against the Swiss all six times that they’ve played it—and if that unfortunate streak reaches the lucky 7, then at least it will mean that Raonic has reached the first Grand Slam final of his career.

By any measure, the 23-year-old has been a revelation this season, as he’s reached a career-high of No. 6 on the ATP World Tour. And yet, his problem now is to figure out how to keep progressing. It’s great to make the quarterfinals here, the quarterfinals there, but that’s not how you reach the top. You have to win major tournaments, otherwise you’re stuck being Tomas Berdych. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Raonic would disappoint all Canadians if he’s content with being Berdych.

Vasek Pospisil/Jack Sock

Can the tag team duo do it again? There wouldn’t be the mythical story this time, or the text messages. There would just be Canadian Vasek Pospisil and American Jack Sock taking New York by storm. (There’s your elevator pitch for the movie.) Flushing Meadows is sure to fall under the spell of the PopSock mania, at least to the extent that a doubles match ever does do it anymore in today’s tennis.

Can’t you see it already, the rowdy New York crowd at night on Arthur Ashe Stadium? Let’s hope they last until the second weekend, and beyond.

John Isner

This is it for John Isner. After seven years on Tour, this US Open is one of the remaining legitimate chances he has to make a splash. Though truth be told, at 29 years of age, it’s probably too late. Isner will forever be the tall American who couldn’t quite reach the height on the courts that his stature hinted at.

Yet, we tend to undervalue him a little bit. Since 2007, he has amassed a little under $7 million in prize money as well as nine titles. His career-best of No. 9 would also be the envy of many other players… but despite that, Isner’s legacy will forever be his five-set win at Wimbledon in 2010 against Nicolas Mahut. Now that I think about it, I mean, it could be worse.

Women’s singles championship

Serena Williams

Serena Williams took the week off, because what else might she have accomplished by playing tennis so close to the start of the US Open? In winning the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, Williams showed that she was as ready as she could be for the US Open. She played five matches against players ranked No. 22 (i.e. Samantha Stosur) or better, and she only lost one set. Why play at another event when she could rest instead and gun for a sixth title in Flushing Meadows, and a third in a row?

Just write her name down on one side of the draw and wait to see who meets her in the ultimate match.

Eugenie Bouchard

Well, the good news is that Eugenie Bouchard has finally won a match again. After suffering three losses in a row dating back to her disappointing Wimbledon performance in the final against Petra Kvitova, the Canadian hadn’t won a match. This week in New Haven for the Connecticut Open, Bouchard won a match. (The bad news, of course, is that she lost the very next match she played, 6-2 and 6-2 against Stosur.)

I’ve tackled her very real struggles just last week in this column, and I have only one more question. Can Bouchard make her fourth Grand Slam semifinal (or better) in 2014? That would give her probably a better haul than anyone else on this season—and yet, unless she wins in New York, you’d almost have to look at her season as a disappointment. So close, yet so far—though since July, she’s mostly been so far.

Coco Vandeweghe

It’s not so much that I believe Coco Vandeweghe can reach the semifinals in New York, or anything like that, because I don’t. If she even manages to make it through Carla Suarez Navarro in the second round, Vandeweghe would likely play Stosur, and then Serena Williams. What’s much more likely is that she wins one or two matches, but that’s all.

See this, rather, as overdue praise for the American’s great showing in Montreal, where she beat both Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic on her way to the quarterfinals. Vandeweghe has been playing well of late, and has a career-high ranking of No. 38 to show for it. In a sport where we tend to celebrate only the superhuman, it’s good to remember that most are just like us—happy to be playing and trying their damn hardest to win a match or two.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

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