French Open 2015 Day 3: Djokovic, Nadal and Serena get it going

May 26, 2015

by: Tom Cochrane

Day 2 of the 2015 French Open saw defending champion and second seed Maria Sharapova book her place in the second round, overcoming a tough opponent and a head cold to secure a straight sets win.

Day 2 Recap

Sharapova’s opening round opponent, Estonian Kaia Kanepi, is a two-time quarter-finalist in Paris, and was expected to push the two-time winner, but the Russian played the big points well en route to a 6-2 6-4 victory. Joining Sharapova in the winners’ circle on Day 2 was two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, former Roland Garros finalists Sam Stosur and Sara Errani, and fellow seeds Pliskova, Suarez Navarro and Kerber.

French seed Alize Cornet fought back from a set down to outlast Roberta Vinci in 3 sets, but Agnieszka Radwanska’s miserable 2015 season continued, upset by the unheralded Annika Beck. It was a similar tale for former world number one Venus Williams, who succumbed to the hard-hitting groundstrokes of compatriot Sloane Stephens.

In the men’s tournament, Andy Murray extended his perfect record on clay this season to 11 matches, the Scot cruising to a straight sets win over the Argentine Arguello. Local fans were buoyed by the wins of Simon and Monfils, whilst seeds Berdych and Fognini also advanced in style.

Among the younger generation, there were encouraging wins by the likes of Tomic, Kyrgios, Kokkinakis, Thiem and Coric, but the news was not so good for seeds Lopez and Mannarino, who exited the tournament courtesy of losses to Gabashvili and Melzer respectively.

Matches of the Day – Day 3

1. Novak Djokovic vs. Jarkko Nieminen

World number one Novak Djokovic begins his quest to complete a career Grand Slam today with a match-up against Finnish veteran Jarkko Nieminen. The left-handed Finn is currently ranked 86 in the world, but has been ranked as high as 13 (although that ranking high did come way back in 2006).

Nieminen is a solid competitor and won’t make things easy for Djokovic out on court today. But the top seed is in imperious form right now and, aside from his serve, I can’t see the Finn having any weapons to trouble Djokovic with. Look for Nieminen to perform strongly in one set but fall away in the others. Djokovic in 3.

2. Petra Kvitova vs. Marina Erakovic

Fourth seed Petra Kvitova performs better on fast surfaces than on slow surfaces such as clay, as her two Wimbledon crowns exemplify, but she did make the semi-finals in Paris in 2012 and captured a title on clay in Madrid a fortnight ago, beating world number one Serena Williams for the first time in the process.

Erakovic is a gutsy, back-of-the-court slugger, who will run down every ball and fight for every point. Unfortunately for the naturalised Kiwi, she doesn’t have Kvitova’s serving prowess, nor does she have the shot-making flair that that the Czech possesses. Kvitova is notoriously erratic, but I’ll back her to win this one convincingly. Kvitova in 2.

3. Serena Williams vs. Andrea Hlavackova

Top seed Serena Williams starts her 2015 campaign and quest for a third Roland Garros title against Czech Andrea Hlavackova. The Czech player is better known for her doubles prowess, having been ranked as high as 3 in the world in doubles and still being a top 20 player in the doubles format. Alas, a focus on doubles has resulted in a slip in Hlavackova’s singles ranking, which is down at a lowly 191 in the world.

Sore elbow or not, Serena shouldn’t have too many worries in this one. A quick match is exactly what the doctor is prescribing at this point in time, and I can’t see the American wasting any excess time on court in this clash. Williams in 2.

4. Kristina Mladenovic vs. Eugenie Bouchard

Former world junior Kristina Mladenovic delighted the French fans at Roland Garros last year, upsetting former French Open champion Li Na in a pulsating 3-setter. Can the world number 54 cause a similar surprise in the first round this year? Her opponent, sixth seed Eugenie Bouchard, has endured something of a sophomore slump after a spectacular 2014 season which saw the Canadian make the Wimbledon final and the semi-finals in Melbourne and Paris.

Bouchard has a woeful 7-9 win-loss record in 2015, a record which is even worse when you consider that the Canadian claimed 4 of those wins in progressing to the quarter-finals of the Australian Open in January. Mladenovic is an aggressive player who is not lacking in confidence, and I think this one will go down to the wire. I’ll back Bouchard to get there, but only by a whisker. Bouchard in 3.

5. Grigor Dimitrov vs. Jack Sock

Tenth seed Grigor Dimitrov hasn’t fared particularly well at Roland Garros in years gone by, with a round of 32 appearance in 2013 marking his best effort in four previous campaigns in Paris. Dimitrov has had a decent start to the year, but to date the Bulgarian hasn’t really built on his impressive 2014 season – it’s been more a case of maintaining a similar sort of level.

Sock is a rising star in terms of US tennis and has been enjoying success this year in both singles and doubles. Dimitrov has more experience, both on the red dirt and in terms of majors, but Sock could certainly spring a surprise if the elegant Bulgarian is off his game. Dimitrov in 4.

Put your house on: Rafael Nadal. It’s been far from his best season on clay, but there’s no doubt that Nadal will steamroll past young Frenchman Quentin Halys.

Upset alert: As noted above, Kiki Mladenovic could cause some trouble today in her match against sixth seed Eugenie Bouchard.

Likely to go the distance: I’m predicting a long slugfest between flamboyant Frenchman Jeremy Chardy and veteran German Michael Berrer, who beat Nadal earlier this year in Doha. I’ll take Chardy down the stretch.

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.

French Open 2015: Men’s and Women’s Draw Preview and Analysis

May 24, 2015

by: Tom Cochrane

It is springtime in Paris, which means it is time for the year’s second Grand Slam, the French Open. Commencing at Roland Garros today, the second major of 2015 is a chance for the clay-court specialists to showcase their talents and, in Novak Djokovic’s case, represents a golden opportunity for the Serb to claim the one major trophy missing from his mantelpiece. Read on for my tournament predictions and an overview of the first day’s play.

Tournament Predictions

Men’s Singles

Going into the tournament, all the talk centres around two men: world number one Novak Djokovic, who has been near-invincible in the last six months and who is desperately seeking a maiden French Open crown to complete a career Grand Slam, and Rafael Nadal, the nine-time French Open champion who has so often thwarted Djokovic’s bid for the career Grand Slam but who has been far from his dominant best on the red dirt this season.

Nadal’s underwhelming season to date and an unkind draw mean that he will face Djokovic in the quarter-finals, if both men advance that far. That’s likely to be a boost for Djokovic, as Nadal in his current state needs a number of good wins under his belt if he is to acquire the necessary confidence to beat Djokovic. The conditions in Paris suit Nadal to a tee, but on current form I think Djokovic will play well inside the baseline and attack the Nadal backhand mercilessly to finally notch a win in Paris over the Spaniard.

Andy Murray has been the surprise packet of the clay court season, winning a couple of titles on the red dirt and coming in to Paris with a 10-0 record on the surface. If he can get past the challenges posed by clay-court warriors such as David Ferrer, I fancy his chances of making it through to the final four. Unfortunately for Murray, that is where a hungry Djokovic will most likely be waiting.

In the bottom half of the draw, look for a rejuvenated Roger Federer, having won in Istanbul and made the final in Rome, to cruise through the first week and then take down compatriot Stan Wawrinka to book his place in the semi-finals. Tomas Berdych has been ultra-consistent this year, but I fear he will succumb to the clay-court nous of Kei Nishikori should the pair meet, as predicted, in the quarter-finals.

In many respects, this is probably Federer’s best chance to win the French Open since he claimed his one and only Roland Garros title in 2009. But Djokovic was far too good for the Swiss star in Rome and, with a career Grand Slam at stake, I can’t see Djokovic letting Federer get the better of him.

Champion: Novak Djokovic

Finalist: Roger Federer

Semi-finalists: Murray, Nishikori

*****

Women’s Singles

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: at her best, Serena Williams is undoubtedly the best player on the WTA Tour. At this point in time, the critical words in that sentence are “at her best”, with Williams struggling with an elbow injury which required her to withdraw from last week’s Italian Open. Not only does the injury cause pain, it also affects the American’s ability to serve, thus weakening one of the biggest weapons in the 19-time major winner’s arsenal.

Making matters worse, clay is Williams’ least-favoured surface and Roland Garros is not a particularly happy hunting ground – only a couple of the American’s 19 Grand Slam titles have come in Paris. Of course, being a two-time French Open champion is nothing to be sneezed at, but it’s all relative when one is referring to a modern day legend of the game.

I’ll back Williams to grind her way through her opening matches, which should give her ample opportunity to rest her elbow. A potential quarter-final match-up against close friend Caroline Wozniacki is one Williams should win, but a possible semi-final against Petra Kvitova is a lottery. Kvitova, the two-time Wimbledon champion, beat Williams en route to the title in Madrid earlier this month, but the Czech is inconsistent at the best of times and is no certainty to advance to the second week of the tournament. That said, Kvitova’s best is good enough to beat anyone.

In the bottom half of the draw, defending champion and 2015 Italian Open champion Maria Sharapova is the favourite to advance to the final, but she is scheduled to face a stern test in the quarter-finals in the shape of Carla Suarez Navarro. The diminutive Spaniard is in the best form of her life, and only narrowly lost to Sharapova in the final in Rome.  If the pair meets in Paris, I fancy the Spaniard to turn the tables and upset Sharapova. Simona Halep made last year’s final in Paris and, whilst her form to date in 2015 hasn’t been as good, I can see her making a deep run at Roland Garros once again this year.

I think Suarez Navarro can go all the way to the final, given her confidence levels at present and given just how hard it is to beat her on clay – like her compatriot Nadal, she can run all day and has a huge heart. However, if Serena can survive the first week, I’ll back her to lift her game in the second week and use her big-match experience to overwhelm Suarez Navarro in the final.

Champion: Serena Williams

Finalist: Carla Suarez Navarro

Semi-finalists: Kvitova, Halep

*****

Matches of the Day – Day 1

1. Alejandro Falla vs. Roger Federer

In 2010, unheralded Colombian Alejandro Falla gave Swiss superstar Roger Federer the fright of his life, taking the first two sets of their first round match at the All England Club. Federer eventually squeezed through to the second round, completing a 5 set comeback victory, but I’m sure he will remember that Wimbledon encounter when they pair meet again in Paris today.

Falla has a game which is particularly tricky on grass, with a sliding leftie serve and a compact double-handed backhand. But whilst Falla’s game is difficult for opponents on grass, it’s less damaging on clay, a surface on which the ball travels more slowly. Federer played well in Rome last week and I think he will handle Falla with relative ease today. Federer in 3.

2. Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Marsel Ilhan

It’s been an up and down year to date for 2014 Australian Open winner Stan Wawrinka. Making the semi-finals at Melbourne Park represented a creditable effort in attempting to defend his crown, and he did beat the king of clay, Rafael Nadal, en route to the semi-finals in Rome last week. On the other hand, there have been disappointing results in Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo.

Ilhan is Turkey’s leading men’s player and has a decent 6-6 record in 2015 heading into Roland Garros. Wawrinka lost in the opening round in Paris last year, a combination of higher expectations on his shoulders courtesy of his win in Melbourne and a tricky opponent in Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. Ilhan is playing in only his second French Open main draw and, whilst I don’t have high hopes for Wawrinka in the tournament overall, I think he will get through this one. Wawrinka in 4.

3. Kei Nishikori vs. Paul-Henri Mathieu

Nishikori had a breakout Grand Slam performance last year, making the US Open final after defeating world number one Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals. Having now seen Djokovic conquer almost all before him since that loss to Nishikori, it makes one realise just what a fine performance it was from the Japanese star.

Nishikori couldn’t finish it off in the final in New York, going down to a red-hot Marin Cilic, but I think Nishikori is among the top 4 or 5 contenders in Paris this year. He will need to be switched-on against the dangerous Mathieu, a veteran of the ATP Tour and a former top 12 player, who is sure to receive plenty of support from the Parisian crowd today. Nishikori moves well on clay and, with a former French Open winner in his camp, will have high hopes of emulating the feats of coach Michael Chang. Nishikori in 3.

4. Ana Ivanovic vs. Yaroslava Shvedova

This should be a particularly good contest, pitting the former French Open champion and world number one Ana Ivanovic against the plucky Kazakh, Yaroslava Shvedova. The Kazakh is a two-time quarter-finalist at Roland Garros, making the final eight in both 2010 and 2012, and a solid all-court player who has enjoyed a lot of success in doubles and mixed doubles.

Ivanovic is the better-known and more high-profile of the players but, as far as opening round contests go, this is a tough test for the Serbian star. I’ll back the seventh seed to ultimately prevail, but not without having to work extremely hard. Ivanovic in 3.

5. Garbine Muguruza vs. Petra Martic

It was at Roland Garros last year that Spain’s Garbine Muguruza really announced herself to the tennis world, not just beating defending champion Serena Williams, but thoroughly humbling the American superstar with a 6-2 6-2 beat-down. Williams gained a measure of revenge by beating Muguruza at this year’s Australian Open, but even that involved a 3 set struggle.

Croatia’s Petra Martic has had her own successes at the French Open in the past, making it through to the fourth round at Roland Garros in 2012. However, the Croat has largely struggled since that time, winning only two Grand Slam main draw matches since that run in Paris. Martic was forced to qualify just to make the main draw in Paris this year and, whilst the qualifying matches will have her playing well, I think Muguruza has far too much power in this one. Muguruza in 2.

Put your house on: Roger Federer. The second seed is in good form at present and will be too good for the Colombian Falla, as previewed above.

Upset alert: Ernests Gulbis made the semi-finals in Paris last year, knocking out Federer en route to the final four. This year is quickly shaping up as an annus horribilis for the Latvian, who has a miserable 2-12 win-loss record for the year to date. Igor Sijsling beat the talented Alexander Zverev in qualifying to make the main draw at Roland Garros, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Dutchman takes out the erratic Gulbis in their clash today.

Likely to go the distance: Big-serving Ivo Karlovic and former top tenner Marcos Baghdatis look set to keep the Parisian crowd enthralled with a marathon match today. I’ll take Karlovic down the stretch.

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: Why is nobody talking about Carla Suarez Navarro’s season?

May 18, 2015

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon recaps quite the season for an overlooked player.

Her WTA Tour webpage says that Carla Suarez Navarro stands five-foot-four and, for having interviewed her twice, she can’t possibly be much taller.

Yet, she is ranked at No. 8 this morning after losing in the 2015 BNL Internazionali d’Italia final against Maria Sharapova by the score of 4-6, 7-5 and 6-1. That ranking is already quite the progression from the No. 18 echelon she reached at end of the 2014 season and for that, she can thank her performances in 2015.

Indeed, the small one is having quite the large season on the WTA Tour. Suarez Navarro has remained busy in 2015, already competing in 11 tournaments, and she’s certainly made the most of it: after her loss in the Rome final, she now has qualified for the quarterfinals or better at 10 of the 11 events, amassing over $1,273,672 in the process. If the 26-year-old keeps winning at this pace, a spot in Singapore for the year-end WTA Finals seems all but assured.

She’s currently 12-7 against seeded players in 2015, another reason why her season has been amazing. What is amazing, too, is that as far as I can tell there isn’t much fanfare about the kind of tennis the Spaniard is playing. (Maybe there is in Spain, but I can’t speak Spanish and I wouldn’t know.)

Maybe it’s because despite all the excellence, Suarez Navarro isn’t winning the tournaments. She has progressed so far in the draw of so many tournaments, but still hasn’t won in 2015. Maybe that’s why, but that would overlook the fact that she has lost finals against Andrea Petkovic, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, who aren’t exactly novice players on the WTA Tour.

Suarez Navarro isn’t winning tournaments and, in that respect, she’s pretty much like the vast majority on players on tour: much is made about the dominance of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the past decade on the ATP World Tour, but only a rare few players actually win tournaments in the WTA too. That’s the nature of tennis anyway—you battle an opponent only for the right, if you win, to repeat it all again the next day and against a new opponent.

In tennis, you’re much more likely not to win the events you do compete in. That doesn’t mean you’re not good enough.

Or maybe it’s not that she isn’t winning tournaments, but the fact that she couldn’t win at the big one. Remember that one tournament where Suarez Navarro couldn’t qualify for the quarterfinals? It happened at the Australian Open early in January, where the Spaniard lost in the first round against a player named Carina Witthoeft; Suarez Navarro’s worst event in 2015 also happens to have been the year’s biggest, and maybe that’s been what has doomed her.

Whatever the reason, I hope this modest column can help shine a light on Suarez Navarro’s excellence. She’s small in stature, but plays an exciting brand of tennis with topspin-heavy groundstrokes, and many attacking shots and volleys. She is equally as compelling off the courts in interviews, when she used her broken English to delight reporters (…on her way to the quarterfinals!) in last summer’s Rogers Cup in Montreal.

Another big tournament starts at the end of this month, with the tennis world descending on the City of Paris. This year at the French Open, Suarez Navarro has quarterfinals points to defend from a year ago; she should be fine.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: 2015 Internazionali BNL d’Italia: Men’s and women’s draw preview and analysis

May 11, 2015

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon recaps the 2015 Internazionali BNL d’Italia.

This is it: the last big one before the big one.

The clay court season has just about concluded, as quickly as it has arrived and started. In only two weeks from now, the 2015 Roland Garros Grand Slam tournament will start, and 14 days later we will all move on to prepare for Wimbledon.

That’s tennis in 2015, folks; seldom is there ever any downtime. Andy Murray and Petra Kvitova won the 2015 Mutua Madrid Open titles for men and women just this previous week, and now we get to preview another joint ATP World Tour/WTA Tour venture.

Women’s draw

Serena Williams has finally lost in 2015, but will this matter?

Probably not. Serena Williams has lost, but she remains by far the best player on the WTA Tour and, though she has been dealt a relatively tough draw in Italy, the smart bet is always on the American. Meeting her in the quarterfinals? Fellow American Sloane Stephens.

The second portion of the main draw belongs to Maria Sharapova, who played again this past week in Madrid after taking some time off/losing matches she shouldn’t have. The Russian will be looking to complete her preparation for the French Open and I believe she can equal in Rome the semifinal she reached in Madrid: making it to the final four would pit her up against Serena Williams and, well, Sharapova hasn’t beaten the Williams sister in more than a decade.

Somehow, some way, through the controversy, the new coach and the many, many losses (i.e. six matches in a row now) Eugenie Bouchard is still seeded at No. 6 for a WTA Premier event. If the Canadian doesn’t start winning soon, this is likely to change, as she’ll be hard pressed to equal her French Open semifinal of 2014.

Simona Halep also needs a good showing in Italy, as she’ll hope to use the event as a springboard for a repeat of her 2014 French Open final; she lost her very first match in Madrid, never a good omen. The Romanian has a tricky draw in Rome, with two players in Lucie Safarova and Svetlana Kuznetsova who made the quarterfinals in Madrid.

Quaterfinals: Serena Williams over Sloane Stephens; Maria Sharapova over Angelique Kerber; Petra Kvitova over Carla Suarez Navarro; Simona Halep over Ekaterina Makarova

Semifinals: Serena Williams over Maria Sharapova; Petra Kvitova over Simona Halep

Final: Petra Kvitova over Serena Williams

*****

Men’s draw

Can Novak Djokovic keep it going this week? Would a loss hinder his confidence and his preparation for the French Open?

The Serb has played better than everyone in this 2015 season and the next big tournament he loses will be the first in about eight months. His draw is very manageable, but he was still dealt a difficult potential quarterfinal match against Kei Nishikori, a player who has the game to overtake him.

Andy Murray will arrive in Rome high on confidence; whether this is a result of him having won last week’s Mutua Madrid Open or the fact that he approves of Charlotte as the given name of the new Royal Princess, we may never know. Murray’s section of the main draw is littered with big names of players who haven’t played well recently and I wouldn’t be too concerned if I were the Brit. A place in the quarterfinals against David Ferrer should come rather easily for Murray.

We have come to this, yes: Rafael Nadal enters the last clay court tournament before the French Open as the …4th seed? Yep. The Spaniard has been better in recent weeks but in the same way that he can’t reliably count on his health, neither can the tennis world fully count on Nadal. What was once seemingly his given right, to win all clay court events in the world, is now more uncertain than ever. But why not one last vintage performance from Nadal this week?

The final section of the main draw will probably be the most contested of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia Masters 1000, with plenty of star power, tricky veterans and players in form. But because the previous three quarterfinals have been fairly conservative, I’ll pick a surprise contestant in Kevin Anderson.

Quarterfinals: Novak Djokovic over Kei Nishikori; Andy Murray over David Ferrer; Rafael Nadal over Stanislas Wawrinka; Tomas Berdych over Kevin Anderson

Semifinals: Novak Djokovic over Andy Murray; Rafael Nadal over Tomas Berdych

Final: Novak Djokovic over Rafael Nadal

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: 2015 Mutua Madrid Open: Men’s and women’s draw preview and analysis

May 4, 2015

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

The tennis clay court season continues this week, as the world of tennis descends upon the Spanish capital. The Mutua Madrid Open is among the biggest events in the world every year with a joint ATP World Tour/WTA Tour venture, and this year it’s no different. This year, there are a few big names missing on both sides, but by and large the draws are loaded.

Our series of tournament previews continues this week for the Mutua Madrid Open. We have no idea who might win, but that has never stopped us before.

Women’s draw

If Serena Williams intends to keep her strong 2015 season going, she will certainly have to earn it.

The best player on Tour enters as the favourite, but she gets a much tougher main draw than she might otherwise deserve—though, of course, deserving something means nothing. Though she is in Spain, Williams will likely feel right at home, with potentially three matches against fellow Americans just to reach the quarterfinals. Waiting, and getting defeated, will be Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro.

The second quarter is full of players who either 1) don’t quite excel on clay or 2) are slumping. The section is wide open, so let’s have a quarterfinal prediction that reflects this.

The same thing could be said about the third quarter, which includes two qualifiers and three wild-card entries, except that there are three pretty large tenors as well. Agnieszka Radwanska has already played in 8 tournaments in 2015, but her results have been extremely poor: only three times has she won at least two matches at a same tournament. Maybe her turnaround can start this week.

The big winner, on paper, is the second-seeded Simona Halep, who gets a draw with very few potential stumbling blocks. Joining her in the quarterfinals will be the other big winner from this final section, American Madison Keys, but only if she can navigate a tricky match against Angelique Kerber in the second round.

Quarterfinals: Serena Williams over Carla Suarez Navarro; Andrea Petkovic over Sara Errani; Maria Sharapova over Agnieszka Radwanska; Simona Halep over Madison Keys

Semifinals: Serena Williams over Andrea Petkovic; Simona Halep over Maria Sharapova

Final: Serena Williams over Simona Halep

*****

Men’s draw

With the absence of Novak Djokovic, the 2015 Mutua Madrid Open is suddenly wide open; we expect (relative) chaos and the unknown to prevail.

Roger Federer isn’t quite the beast on clay that he was once upon a time, but he is still among the best. He will compete in Madrid to avenge a difficult Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters and to perfect his preparation for the French Open. After a potential tricky match against Nick Kyrgios, it should be smooth sailing until the quarterfinals against Tomas Berdych for King Roger.

Rafael Nadal is back on the ATP World Tour, but will this be the week that he finally, you know, is back? The Spaniard hasn’t been up to his standards in 2015 and, though he deserves some kind of benefit of the doubt, we’re probably at the point where he shouldn’t be considered the de facto favourite for Roland Garros. A good showing in his home tournament would go a long way toward helping him regain his confidence.

The third section of the main draw is the hometown draw, with no fewer than five Spaniards. Among them? David Ferrer, of whom we like to say that he is the man who simply never loses before, or wins after, the quarterfinals of tournaments…And yet, we see Ferrer bowing down relatively early, a round earlier than usual, against Fernando Verdasco. But Kei Nishikori stands alone in this draw.

Andy Murray hasn’t played in about five weeks and we’ll be curious to see what the birth of a new royal baby will have on his game. We know that the Scot had been beaming with anticipation and that he had managed to master his emotions in 2015, with excellent results at the Australian Open, the BNP Paribas Open and the Miami Open. Alas, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge still haven’t announced the name of their new baby girl and we suspect this might hurt Murray’s chances in Madrid. In his place in the quarterfinals against the Canadian Milos Raonic, count on the Frenchman Gael Monfils.

Quarterfinals: Roger Federer over Tomas Berdych; Rafael Nadal over Fabio Fognini; Kei Nishikori over Fernando Verdasco; Milos Raonic over Gael Monfils

Semifinals: Rafael Nadal over Roger Federer; Kei Nishikori over Milos Raonic

Final: Kei Nishikori over Rafael Nadal

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Miami Open 2015: Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic highlight Friday and Saturday night session schedules

March 21, 2015

WORLD NO.1’S SERENA WILLIAMS AND NOVAK DJOKOVIC HIGHLIGHT FRIDAY AND SATURDAY NIGHT SESSION SCHEDULES

Williams set to play Friday, March 27 with Novak Djokovic scheduled for Saturday, Match 28

MIAMI – Miami Open’s defending champion Serena Williams will kick off an incredible two evenings of tennis featuring the world’s No. 1 ranked singles players. Williams, the top-ranked woman in the world, will start defense of her Miami Open title on Friday, March 27 at 8 pm. The world’s No. 1 ranked man, Novak Djokovic, will play his opening match on Saturday, March 28 also at 8 pm.

Tickets to the 2015 Miami Open are on sale now and can be purchased by phone (305-442-3367) or online at www.miamiopen.com. Individual session tickets for Friday evening start at $47 with Saturday evening starting at only $53. Daily Double tickets for either Friday or Saturday are also available allowing attendees can extend the experience, enjoying all the matches from the day and night sessions as well as all the incredible shopping, food and entertainment options on site.

Considered by many to be the best value in tennis, fans who want to secure tickets for both matches can purchase an Opening Weekend package starting at just $206 for four sessions or $269 for all of the weekend’s six sessions.

An electrifying two weeks of tennis caps off with the women’s final on Saturday, April 4 and the men’s final on Sunday, April 5.

Williams etched her name into history last year when she captured her seventh Miami Open title becoming the all-time winningest player, male or female, in the tournament’s history. 2014 saw Williams continue historic feats. The fierce competitor went on to claim her sixth U.S. Open title which at the time tied Williams with Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert for second most Grand Slam titles (18) in the open era. Williams surpassed them when she notched her sixth Australian Open victory in 2015, bringing her to within three of Steffi Graf’s 22 all-time Grand Slam singles titles in the Open Era.

Djokovic has finished on top of the year-end rankings in three of the last four years (2011, 2012, 2014). The Serbian has won at least one Grand Slam title in each of the last five years, including his record-breaking performance at this year’s Australian Open. Djokovic captured his fifth title down under in January, making him the men’s singles all-time leader at the Australian Open in the open era.

The defending Miami Open champion captured his first career Master’s Series event on the purple hard courts of Miami in 2007, without dropping a set. He has gone on to hoist the trophy three more times and will seek a fifth title at this year’s tournament.

The Miami Open has something for everyone – die-hard tennis fans can catch the best tennis in the world, foodies can enjoy celebrity chef creations along with local, awarding-winning options and shopaholics can peruse the luxurious retail options.

Come out and experience all the Miami Open has to offer!

Tennis Elbow: From darkest to brightest, for Serena Williams

March 16, 2015

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

Serena Williams had called it one of the “darkest moments” of her career, but maybe now that changes.

The 19-time Grand Slam champion won her first match at Indian Wells, 7-5 and 7-5 against Monica Niculescu, in her first visit since 2001, but it didn’t matter as much as simply the fact that she was back. Just two hours away from the Compton neighborhood where she grew up, Indian Wells is where Williams was met with hate and racism when she stepped on the court for a final against Kim Clijsters after beating her older sister when Venus withdrew with tendinitis.

She competes for the 2015 BNP Paribas Open title this week, and that’s progress. It’s progress and it’s not me saying so, it’s herself—that first match she played in 14 years in Indian Wells was one of her “biggest … and proudest moments.”

Surely, tennis fans know the scene by now and what happened for that first match but just in case some readers haven’t had the chance to watch it happen live, here it is.

Biggest and proudest moment, yes, and maybe also most touching. Because when Williams walked on the court, she was greeted with cheers and a standing ovation—a stark contrast with the way that the crowd reacted during that fateful final of 2001.

It’s an event that has stayed with her over the years, as evidenced by the fact that she both boycotted the BNP Paribas Open all those years and that she has written extensively about the experience and the decision to go back.

What was, or wasn’t, said or done to Williams and her family on that day in 2001 remains controversial, but what isn’t is the fact that Venus and Serena changed the world of tennis. Long before becoming part of the tennis firmament, and long before her sister Venus was lauded for her graciousness and her determination in the face of a difficult illness, Serena Williams was an outcast and an outsider.

The two sisters changed the sport of tennis, introducing dominant serves and powerful groundstrokes in a sport where finesse often dominated. That change occurred whether fans and the tennis powers that be were ready for it or not—and by and large, as this 2001 incident shows us, they were not.

But time fixes all, they say, and it appears so. This year at Indian Wells, we are forced to confront an ugly episode and our ugly side because that’s what Williams chose to do it when she decided to compete for the 2015 BNP Paribas Open title.

It’s not exact to say that a sport like tennis should remain strictly about the sport. Not when the ATP World Tour and the WTA Tour are well entrenched in countries such as Qatar. Not when the ATP Qatar tournament is the Exxonmobil Open. Not when Williams and Niculescu take a photo with a Sergeant Hollie West ([Note: if anyone knows the right name and spelling, please write it in the comments. I am going off of what I hear in that video]), who had just made the coin toss before that first match. And not when players represent their countries at the Fed Cup and the Davis Cup. In our world, sports and politics usually mix.

So do sports and sociology and social rights.

Right after the lede, I wrote that it didn’t really matter that Williams won that first match back but maybe that’s not totally right. Maybe it does matter—because tennis, at least professional tennis, exists only in so that a match has a victor and a loser.

Most times, Serena Williams emerges as the victor and that’s all there is to it.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: 2015 BNP Paribas Open: Men’s and women’s draw preview and analysis

March 11, 2015

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

The BNP Paribas Open isn’t a Grand Slam tournament, because no tournament other than the four actual Grand Slams possibly ever could.

BUT!

But if one tournament ever could, it’s probably this one. Backed by Larry Ellison and his 52 billion $ fortune, the event has grown to become the “world’s largest ATP World Tour and WTA combined professional tennis tournament.”

That’s just a fancy way of explaining that 1) just about every player from the men’s and the women’s sides competes in the event every year, 2) the tournament hands out over 10 million $ in prize money and 3) more people attend the event than the typical tennis tournament.

That’s where we are for the next two weeks, folks, so buckle up. Once more this year, I’ll have a few tournament previews in lieu of discussing a recent event in the Tennis Elbow column.

Women’s draw

Last year crowned the tournament’s oldest winner, Flavia Pennetta, in almost 20 years. I maybe do not envision the same happening, but I do foresee a few surprises.

The Cinderella version of this BNP Paribas Open would crown Serena Williams as the champion in her first visit to Indian Wells since her 2001 win was marred by racism. Long story short, I’ll say that this is what I hope happens.

Simona Halep, the Sportswoman of the Month for February, already has two titles in 2015; should she keep this up, she would finish with an even 12 for the year and probably be named the best player on the WTA Tour. This isn’t likely, but the Romanian does have a fairly favourable draw until the quarterfinals. I hesitated between Agnieszka Radwanska and Carla Suarez Navarro and, because I explained that I would rely on a few surprises, I’ll choose the latter.

I am a French Canadian from Montreal and thus, Eugenie Bouchard is my favourite player on the tour. The 21-year-old has had an eventful past few months and must now somehow focus and regroup to continue growing as a player after the dream season in 2014. A quarterfinal loss against Caroline Wozniacki would be good for her resolve.

The fourth quarter of the main draw is probably the best and the one that likely will be the most hotly contested. We have three former World No. 1 players in Ana Ivanovic, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, a former World No. 2 in Vera Zvonareva, two former World No. 4’s in Sam Stosur and Francesca Schiavone, a World No. 5 in Sara Errani, as well as Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci. Of course, not all of those players are playing at a good level or in the same stage of their respective careers, but the draw is still loaded. Of course, that probably means that someone like Azarenka will roll over everyone.

Quarterfinals: Serena Williams over Lucie Safarova; Simona Halep over Carla Suarez Navarro; Caroline Wozniacki over Eugenie Bouchard; Victoria Azarenka over Sabine Lisicki

Semifinals: Serena Williams over Simona Halep; Victoria Azarenka over Caroline Wozniacki

Final: Serena Williams over Victoria Azarenka

*****

Men’s draw

I’m delighted to see that Novak Djokovic is now fairly clearly the alpha male on the ATP World Tour—I can follow my hearts when I’m making these predictions.

I’ll go ahead and pencil in the Serb’s name in the quarterfinals, and beyond, of this year’s tournament. Also emerging from this quarter is Marin Cilic, if only because I would like to pretend like last season’s US Open wasn’t just some sort of fluke and that the Croatian is still intent on playing good tennis.

According to Andre Agassi, the best years of Andy Murray’s career are yet to come… but I don’t believe we’ll see his best in Indian Wells. After all, the Scot has only one final appearance at the BNP Paribas Open, in 2009. Instead, I foresee a nice three-set battle between Kei Nishikori and Feliciano Lopez.

For what it’s worth, and admittedly it’s not so much, Rafael Nadal answered a difficult quarterfinal loss against Tomas Berdych at the Australian Open in January by cleaning house in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. In the quarterfinals in Indian Wells, I think the Spaniard will toy a little bit with the emotions of Canadian Milos Raonic, who’s good but still not quite good enough.

The final section of the main draw is home to a bunch of heavy servers in Lukas Rosol, Ivo Karlovic, Sam Querrey and Jerzy Janowicz, but none of them should bother the two Swiss too much. Keep an eye on Berdych, though remember that he is capable of any- and everything. Beyond him, Stanislas Wawrinka and Roger Federer have a fairly favourable path to the quarterfinals.

Quarterfinals: Novak Djokovic over Marin Cilic; Kei Nishikori over Feliciano Lopez; Rafael Nadal over Milos Raonic; Stanislas Wawrinka over Roger Federer

Semifinals: Novak Djokovic over Kei Nishikori; Stanislas Wawrinka over Rafael Nadal

Final: Novak Djokovic over Stanislas Wawrinka

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: If not Serena Williams, then who?

February 2, 2015

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon recaps Serena Williams’s win at the 2015 Australian Open.

Very quickly, Serena Williams is turning what was once a semi-contentious debate into something approaching a definite.

Over the weekend, she beat Maria Sharapova by the final score of 6-3 and 7-6(5) to win her sixth Australian Open and, most importantly, her 19th career Grand Slam title.

But why is this 19th title so important? Aren’t they all just as important, as per that old cliché that professional athletes tend to use so often? Well, that 19th title is so important, because it moves Williams past Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova for the most career Grand Slam titles in history and into second place behind only Steffi Graf’s 22 titles.

That’s right.

We’ve wondered for some time now whether Serena Williams might be the greatest player in history. She’s been comfortably the best player of her generation—no one is even close, really—but the debate was whether she belonged on Mount Rushmore. She had proved that, at the latest, when she enjoyed a career renaissance of sorts in 2012 after taking time off for a hematoma and pulmonary embolism—by then, she had 13 Grand Slam titles.

That debate of whether she might be better than the aforementioned Graf, Evert and Navratilova had hinged in part on our ability to project and compare and contrast different eras and different playing styles. But now? Now, Williams is at 19 majors.

In other words, with those 19 Grand Slam titles, not only does she have a legitimate claim as the best player in history… but she might have the numbers to back the claim up too. She may lack the overall title haul (i.e. Williams has 65, Graf has 107, Evert is at 157 and Navratilova is at 167), but her Grand Slam resume is as good as anyone else’s. Williams has six Australian Open titles, two French Opens, five Wimbledon titles and six US Opens—that tally tells me she’s just about equally good on every surface.

Maybe she doesn’t have the 19 straight semifinals of Navratilova, or the 34 overall finals of Evert or the 13 straight finals of Graf, of which she won nine, including five in a row, but she does have the 19 major titles. And she does have the distinction of being the oldest No. 1 player in history.

(She also is ludicrously ahead on the career earnings list… though, of course, different eras had different prize money. As a reference, Victoria Azarenka is fifth on that list, so yeah.)

We shouldn’t or I shouldn’t I suppose since I’m the one writing this, write Williams’s eulogy just yet—this 2015 Australian Open proved as much. She may be at No. 19 right now, but the odds that she adds to her haul before she retires are quite high.

Now more than perhaps ever in her career, she appears to be peerless. Not even vomiting could stop her in Melbourne, so imagine how powerless Maria Sharapova, no slouch with her five Grand Slam titles, must have felt.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter at RealCBG

Serena defeats Sharapova for sixth Australian Open title

January 31, 2015

Australian Open—Melbourne, Australia

Top seed Serena Williams captured her 19th grand slam title in Melbourne, Australia on Saturday, defeating Maria Sharapova 6-3, 7-6(5). Needing one hour and 51 minutes to seal her victory, Williams hasn’t lost to the Russian since 2004. Serena now stands at three majors away from tying Steffi Graf’s grand slam total of 22.

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