Tennis Elbow: Serena Williams is still here, but for how long?

June 30, 2014

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

Is this the bookend to Serena Williams’ career? We could only be one Grand Slam tournament away.

In 1998, the first year she truly established herself on the WTA Tour and participated in the four major tournaments, the then-17-year-old compiled an 8-4 record. She made the second round once (i.e. in Melbourne), the fourth round once (i.e. in Paris) and the second round twice (i.e. Wimbledon and the U.S. Open).

If it sounds familiar, it’s because it should be—we’re a loss in the third round in Flushing Meadows away from seeing her repeat that 1998 season. Really. In 2014, she has made the fourth round in Australia, then the second round in France and now the third round in England. That’s for a player who very well could be the greatest in the history of the sport.

Sometimes in life, or in our case in tennis, you wake up one day and realize that you’ve come so far that you’re actually right back where you started.

Am I saying that this is the end for the great American? No. For one thing, I kept writing a year ago (e.g. here and here), as Roger Federer followed every shocking loss with a similarly bad loss, that there was no rush in proclaiming the end of his career—so why did it feel like everyone wanted to be the first saying that this was it for the Swiss?

So similarly, it’s not the end for Williams, but the end may be near. At the very least, it’s the end of her late-career renaissance, which saw her win four Grand Slams (and an Olympic gold medal) out of six between 2012 and 2013. She should have had all the momentum entering the 2014 season…except that that’s not what happened.

Instead, she looks, at almost 33, like a shell of her 31-year-old self. She’s losing matches that she had only rarely lost and against opponents that really shouldn’t beat her, as Alizé Cornet had been 0-13 prior to this match against top-20 opponents in Grand Slam tournaments.

(Well now Cornet is 1-13, and it’s a record she’ll bring into her fourth round match against Eugenie Bouchard. The young Canadian, though she’d never say so officially, has to be thrilled to see that the tennis Gods did her a solid—Cornet might have beat Williams, but she’s not quite as dangerous. And just like that, Bouchard’s bid for another semifinal has opened up…although Maria Sharapova could wait in the quarterfinals. But just as she would, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

For Williams, if a dip in form is one thing, what’s more perplexing is her reaction to this most recent loss. “I don’t really know what I did wrong,” she said after the match. “Usually I do. Usually I know I did this, and that.”

Quite the departure from her typical opinionated self! Whether Williams is actually out of sorts is something we’ll know for sure when the U.S. Open arrives in August. It’s a tournament she’s already won five times.

Winning her home Slam for the sixth time—the only one she would have captured this many times—would salvage her entire season. It would certainly show that after 16 seasons, she’s still here.

And that she’s not quite the young teenager she once was.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Chalkdust Chronicles: Serena Stunned by Cornet, as rain scuppers the schedule

June 28, 2014

by: TennisConnected Staff

Wimbledon—London, England

The big news of the day was not the rain, or the fact that Rafael Nadal dropped yet another first set on is way to the fourth round, or even that Roger Federer steamed through under the roof without dropping a set.

In fact given that the women’s World No. 1 had played just two games before the rain delay brought them off meant that when she came out, she was very much down to business, walloping Cornet off the court in less than half an hour.

Business as usual, you say? Well perhaps not. Cornet, as mentally fragile and magnificently emotional as she can be, can scrap with the best of them. Sure enough the Frenchwoman mounted a come-back where she was able to find her range and trim down the errors that cost her dear in the first set, building up a 5-0 led, before Williams pegged her back until she closed out the set 6-3.

Cornet took the initiative in the third set, edging out t a 5-2 lead and again was pulled down to 5-4 before serving out the match for a famous 1-6 6-3 6-4 win – her second over Williams this year.

The key was cutting down the errors – something that Williams gave her credit for after the match.

“She kept her unforced errors really low. I don’t know. I think I made a few errors too many,” Williams said after the match. “You know, she was going for her shots. She just played really well today.

A predictably giddy Cornet could not take in what she had done, saying:

“I’m just calming down now because I was very excited for an hour. I couldn’t believe it. I still cannot believe it, actually,” Cornet said. “If somebody would have told me a couple years ago that I would be in the second week here at Wimbledon, and beating Serena, I wouldn’t have believed it.
“It feels great. Of course, what a victory. It’s the best way to get to the second week.”

For most of the day prior to that it was a completely miserable affair for anyone in the grounds but play started on Centre Court and then was something new to be anxious about. For the third time Rafael Nadal dropped the first set, this time to Mikhail Kukushkin, who had previously never won more than three games in a set against the Spaniard. Here he was now edging him in the first set tiebreak.

But of course, while the rain continued to confound the schedules, normal service was resumed as Nadal proceeded to dismantle the man from Kazakhstan in the next three sets to round out a 6-7(4) 6-1 6-1 6-1 win.

In his post match interview he said: “I’ve finished all the matches [this week] playing better than when I started; that’s very positive. I’m very happy to be in the second week again after two years of losing in the first and second round. I had good tactics today; I was fighting for every ball and looking for solutions.”

There was no such issue for seven-time champion Roger Federer who coasted easily through his match with Colombia’s Santiago Giraldo who had no answer for Federer today as the roof stayed firmly on.

Federer took just 81 minutes to make the Colombian look pedestrian, winning 6-3 6-1 6-3 and well and truly shaking off the disappointment of last year’s exit.

“It’s great,” Federer told BBC television. “I’m very pleased. It’s always good to keep moving on. Last year I lost in the second round (against Sergiy Stakhovsky), so I’m aware of tough draws. I’m always worried about the first week, getting to the second one; then the grass plays quite differently. “

With a handful of matches to complete the third round, the All England Club will not quite have their fourth round Monday, and questions had to be asked why at least one more match was not played on Centre – of course there are valid reasons such as rotation of lines-staff who may have been released after the last match.

Either way, next week the weather should improve enough to whip through the remaining matches… then again, the Met Office can be wrong.

Wimbledon 2014 Day 6 Preview: Serena and Kyrgios look for a place in week two

June 27, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

Second seed Li Na crashed out of the tournament on Day 5, the Chinese superstar slumping to a straight sets defeat at the hands of Czech Barbora Zahlavova Strycova.

Day 5 Recap

In a closely fought match, two-time major champion Li Na wasn’t able to capitalise on her chances, going down in a pair of tiebreakers to Zahlavova Strycova. There was better news for most of the other seeds, with Radwanska, Halep and Wozniacki all recording victories.

Petra Kvitova edged past Venus Williams in a battle of the former Wimbledon champions, whilst Lucie Safarova upset Dominika Cibulkova. Other notable winners on the women’s side on Day 5 included rising star Belinda Bencic and Russian seed Ekaterina Makarova.

In the men’s tournament, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray strolled to straight sets wins over Gilles Simon and Roberto Bautista Agut respectively, but it was a tough day at the office for most of their fellow seeds. Jerzy Janowicz survived a 5-setter against Lleyton Hewitt, Grigor Dimitrov was also forced to go the distance to beat Alexandr Dolgopolov, and Kevin Anderson overcame Fabio Fognini in another 5-setter.

Colombian Santiago Giraldo upset the Spaniard Granollers in yet another 5 set encounter, but there were easier wins for Feliciano Lopez and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, each of whom recorded a straight sets win.

Matches of the Day – Day 6

1. Nick Kyrgios vs. Jiri Vesely

This will be a fascinating contest between the two youngest players in the draw and one with major ramifications. Both players are tipped as stars of the future, and the winner of this match will, in all likelihood, face Nadal in the round of 16 (assuming the Spaniard takes care of Kukushkin in their third round match).

Both players scored upset wins in round 2, with Vesely riding his big leftie serve to a 5 set win over Gael Monfils, and Kyrgios saving an amazing 9 match points to oust Richard Gasquet. Vesely has more experience at ATP Tour level, but Kyrgios has shown an impressive ability to absorb pressure in his short career to date. I think this one will be close, but I’ll back Kyrgios on the basis of his affinity with grass-courts. Kyrgios in 4.

2. Feliciano Lopez vs. John Isner

Feliciano Lopez is on something of a grass-court tear, the Spaniard having won 11 of his last 12 matches on the surface. Lopez is a 3-time Wimbledon quarter-finalist and his tricky left-handed serve can cause a lot of problems for his opponents at the All England Club.

For someone with such an enormous serve, John Isner’s record to date at Wimbledon is decidedly poor, with this year marking the first time the American has progressed beyond the second round. The ninth seed should be at his best on grass-courts, but it seems that he is yet to have worked out all of the subtleties of playing on the surface. I think this one will be close, but I’ll back Lopez on the back of his grass-court nous. Lopez in 5.

3. Serena Williams vs. Alize Cornet

The top-seeded Williams has been rather irritable in her press conferences at the All England Club to date, but the American’s form on court has been very encouraging.

The 17-time Grand Slam champion faces her first real test of the tournament in the shape of Alize Cornet, with the twenty-fifth seeded Frenchwoman enjoying a consistent year on the WTA Tour to date. Cornet has produced some impressive performances against some of the big names on the women’s circuit, but on grass Williams’ big serve and powerful groundstrokes are likely to prove too much for her opponent. Williams in 2.

4. Andrea Petkovic vs. Eugenie Bouchard

This should be an absorbing duel between the losing semi-finalists from this year’s French Open. Bouchard is the only player on the WTA Tour to have made the semi-finals at both Melbourne Park and Roland Garros, while Petkovic underlined her credentials as a top-flight player after various injury issues with her run to the final 4 in Paris.

On any other surface, I’d say this one was a line-ball contest, but Petkovic isn’t a huge fan of grass-courts, whilst Bouchard is a former junior champion at the All England Club. I think the Canadian is more comfortable than her opponent on the surface and that this will ultimately propel Bouchard to a narrow victory. Bouchard in 3.

5. Simona Halep vs. Belinda Bencic

French Open finalist Simona Halep looked decidedly shaky in closing out a 3 set win over the unheralded Lesia Tsurenko in round 2. However, the Romanian is through the round of 32 at Wimbledon for the first time in her career and will be eager to build on her solid start by progressing further in the tournament.

The third seed faces young Swiss up-and-comer Belinda Bencic for a place in the fourth round, with Bencic being heralded by many as one of the players of the future. Bencic has similar style of game to Halep, relying on placement and angles more than pace, and I think that will play into Halep’s hands, as the Romanian is more experienced and astute at this point in time. Halep in 2.

Put your house on: Maria Sharapova to defeat Alison Riske. The American is a handy player, but the Russian is in tremendous form at present and won’t be denied a spot in the round of 16.

Upset alert: Last year’s finalist Sabine Lisicki loves the grass-courts in London and I think she can upset her higher-ranked opponent Ana Ivanovic in their third round clash.

Likely to go the distance: Last year’s semi-finalist Kirsten Flipkens and German ninth seed Angelique Kerber look set for a gripping 3-set battle in the third round. I’ll take the leftie Kerber to grind out a hard-fought victory.

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: The North Americans at the Cathedral of tennis

June 23, 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 previews North American players competing at Roland Garros.

Every tennis season is the same way—you blink once, and you suddenly realize it’s already the start of the Wimbledon Championships.

I’ve badgered the Wimbledon folks more than once for I think that it is a ridiculously excessively pompous event. Wimbledon is the place where organizers think the uniforms of umpires and ballboys and ballgirls should be good for a runway show. It’s the place where players must adhere to a strict all-white clothing policy, as though this were high school. It’s the place where the event stops on the middle Sunday just so we can enjoy tea and cake. It’s the place where you’re not allowed to dance after you win it all, because, well, why exactly? Wimbledon is the cathedral of tennis, and that’s the thing with religion—you don’t need a reason, only faith.

But you know what? It’s also the best.

This week, we continue our series of tournament previews with a look at the North American players that are poised to do well on the holy grounds of the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. (For a look at the entire draw, please read my colleague Tom Cochrane.)

Gentlemen’s Singles draw

Milos Raonic

Many signs point to the fact that Milos Raonic has officially arrived. He’s a member of the top 10, still has fewer than 10 losses for the year and, most importantly, has reached at least the quarterfinals at six of the nine tournaments he’s played in 2014. He arrives at Wimbledon with only one match on grass under his belt, but I’m confident this will be the year he finally fulfills his potential on the surface.

The future is now for Raonic—at least until his quarterfinal against Nadal. At which point, the future will be 2015.

Frank Dancevic

Remember what I just wrote about Wimbledon being the best? Maybe it’s not quite true. “I have to say that I’m extremely disappointed at the player services at Wimbledon Qualifying this year,” Frank Dancevic wrote on his Facebook page. “Given that it is the biggest tournament in the world you would think that the players would feel welcome and comfortable on site.”

First, I recommend you to read the blog post in its entirety, because it’s quite enlightening. Now of course, one man’s experience does not make a trend, yada yada. But no one player should have to participate in as prestigious a tournament as this one under these conditions. Second, the more you have power in this world, the more you’ll be treated with respect—and tennis is no exception. And third, well yeah, this was just a way to discuss these things. At the absolute most, Dancevic will promptly fall to Rafael Nadal in the third round.

Sam Querrey

I mean, the cup is at least half empty. I don’t necessarily have a right reason, but I think that Sam Querrey could do well in London. For a while, he was the top ranked American on the ATP World Tour and unlike the other American giant John Isner, he’s at least shown a history of performing on the holy hollow grounds—he did make the fourth round and then the third round in 2010 and 2011. Querrey has solid ground strokes and a dependable service game—and it should be dependable enough for him to ride all the way to the fourth round.

Who else but Querrey on the American side? I mean, Jack Sock? Sure, he can lose in three sets by Raonic in the second round.

Ladies’ Singles draw

Serena Williams

Was the early Roland Garros loss just a blip on the radar? Since the middle of the 2012 season, also known as the era of the New Serena (I mean, winning four Grand Slam titles and counting will do that), it seemed like Serena Williams had managed to purge herself of the shockingly early losses that have marred her throughout her career. But so far in 2014, she is just 4-2 at Grand Slam tournaments.

Well, Wimbledon is a tournament she’s won five times in her career (exactly as many times as every other non-French Open Grand Slam event). She’s my pick this year to win in London.

Eugenie Bouchard

Just because you’re not supposed to be there, not yet, not so soon, doesn’t mean that you don’t belong. Somehow, against all odds (or at least the odds of this columnist, as I picked against her both times), the Montrealer has made two Grand Slam semifinals in two tries this year. Could she make it three for three? Well, Bouchard’s draw is quite manageable…until a battle against Serena Williams in the fourth round. Her game is great for grass, as a Junior Wimbledon title would attest just two years ago, but this is likely too much.

Sloane Stephens

Where Sloane Stephens had the lead in the race for the title of “future of women’s tennis” once upon a time, she was beat to the finish line by Bouchard. The young Canadian made up about a year in a few months in 2014, and now it’s up to Stephens to answer. She’s made it to the fourth round in Melbourne and Paris this year, only to fall to a bigger and better foe. Here in Wimbledon, she’s slated to play ex-champion Petra Kvitova. It’s a tough ask, but these are the matches she must win from time to time.

Though I don’t think she will this year.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Wimbledon 2014: Men’s and Women’s Draw Preview and Analysis

June 22, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

Greetings and welcome to the 2014 Wimbledon championships and the beginning of 2 weeks of coverage of the year’s most prestigious tennis tournament, courtesy of The Satellite Serve.

Coming to you daily during this year’s tournament, The Satellite Serve is back with predictions, opinions and analysis in relation to all of the action from the All England Club. As usual, the first issue showcases my overall tournament predictions as well as taking a look at the day’s feature matches.

Tournament predictions – Men’s Singles

This year’s men’s tournament feels more wide open than previous years, with a host of players entering any conversation regarding the 2014 men’s champion. Andy Murray is the defending champion and will play under far less pressure than in previous years, however the Scot has struggled in 2014 to recover from back surgery that he underwent late last year.

Rafael Nadal is the world number one and enters the tournament having just claimed a record ninth French Open, yet the Spaniard hasn’t won back-to-back matches at the All England Club since 2011. With his knees still causing him concern, I’m not convinced about Nadal’s chances, especially in the first week of the tournament when the courts are spongy and low-bouncing, forcing the Spaniard to consistently bend down low and test his knees.

Roger Federer enjoyed a fairytale run to the title in 2012, but was ousted early in the first week of last year’s tournament. 2014 has already been a far better year for Federer than 2013 was, and I think the Swiss superstar will go deep in the tournament this year.

2011 Wimbledon winner Novak Djokovic is my pick for the men’s singles, the Serb eager to make amends for his loss to Nadal at the French Open and to open his Grand Slam account for 2014. Djokovic’s agility, returning prowess and all-court game make him the favourite, and I think Murray will still be lacking enough match practice to take down the Serb should the pair meet in the semi-finals as scheduled.

Federer has the best draw of the Big Four, and I would expect him to get through to the second week without a lot of fuss. Nadal, by contrast, has a very difficult quarter and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him exit the tournament early and allow someone such as Richard Gasquet to make a run through to the semi-finals.

Winner: Novak Djokovic

Finalist: Roger Federer

Semi-finalists: Murray, Gasquet

*****

Tournament predictions – Women’s Singles

After suffering a shock second round exit in Paris, Serena Williams vowed that she would train harder so that she wouldn’t lose so easily or early on next time around. The American top seed has had plenty of time to get accustomed to the grass-courts and I think Williams will come out all guns blazing in this tournament.

Maria Sharapova, a recent winner in Paris, is a former Wimbledon champion, but the All England Club hasn’t been such a happy hunting ground for the Russian after her well-documented shoulder problems. The conditions in London are often damp, making for heavy balls and plenty of issues for the troublesome Sharapova shoulder.

I think Williams will make it through to the semi-finals without much of a challenge, but could face her Melbourne Park conqueror, Ana Ivanovic, in the semi-finals. Ivanovic is having a superb 2014 and I think she can make it through a quarter lacking in grass-court experts.

In the bottom half of the draw, former champion Petra Kvitova and former finalist Agnieszka Radwanska stand out as players with the games to shine at the All England Club this year. Kvitova’s swinging leftie serve is very difficult to get a handle on, and the Czech star has plenty of confidence on the courts in London. Radwanska’s crafty retriever game works well on grass, where she can frustrate opponents with her wide array of spins and slices. I think Kvitova and Radwanska will meet in the semi-finals, with Kvitova’s power game seeing her through to a final against Williams.

Winner: Serena Williams

Finalist: Petra Kvitova

Semi-finalists: Ivanovic, Radwanska

*****

Matches of the Day – Day 1

1. Novak Djokovic vs. Andrey Golubev

The top-seeded Serb kicks off his campaign against Kazakh Andrey Golubev, who is an underrated player on the ATP Tour. Golubev has had some good results, including a fighting win over Stan Wawrinka in the Davis Cup earlier this year.

Djokovic will still be disappointed after losing the final in Paris to Nadal, but as a consummate professional the world number 2 should bounce back in style at the All England Club. The seedings committee has given Djokovic the top seeding for this tournament, and rightfully so in my opinion, as I expect him to come out on top at the end of the fortnight. Djokovic in 3.

2. Andy Murray vs. David Goffin

As is the tradition at the All England Club, the defending champion will commence play at this year’s Wimbledon championships. For Andy Murray, it will be a huge honour after his drought-breaking win last year, and no doubt the Scot will be desperate to mount a strong defence of his title.

Belgian David Goffin burst onto the scene in 2012, making the Roland Garros round of 16 as a lucky loser and then making the round of 32 at Wimbledon that same year. However, Goffin hasn’t won a Grand Slam main draw match since 2012, and I can’t see that drought ending in London this year. Murray in 3.

3. Grigor Dimitrov vs. Ryan Harrison

Having been bundled out of the French Open in the first round by big Ivo Karlovic, Grigor Dimitrov responded in the best possible way, capturing his first grass-court title at the Queen’s Club event. Dimitrov has had a fantastic year to date and it was encouraging to see him shrug off his Roland Garros disappointment quickly and effectively.

Harrison has long been touted as one of the rising stars of American tennis but, to be frank, the American still has a long way to go if he is to deliver on his undoubted potential. Look for Harrison to compete strongly but for Dimitrov to ride his current bout of confidence to victory. Dimitrov in 4.

4. Jurgen Melzer vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

It’s been a poor season to date for the popular Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, but he’s back at the site of one of his favourite tournaments and will be looking to turn around his fortunes in 2014 with a strong showing at Wimbledon.

The leftie Melzer is a tough opponent on grass, equipped with a strong serve that he can slice well and also flatten out with plenty of pace. Tsonga has struggled to recover from last season’s knee problems, but I’ll back the Frenchman to prevail over his Austrian opponent. Tsonga in 4.

5. Tomas Berdych vs. Victor Hanescu

Former finalist Tomas Berdych plays very well on the grass-courts of the All England Club, especially given his lanky frame. The Czech player will be a dangerous opponent in the second week of the tournament, when the courts dry out and are more akin to hard-courts.

Of course, Berdych needs to get through his opening few matches in order to make the second week, and Hanescu won’t be a pushover. The Romanian veteran, a former top 30 player, is nearing the end of his career and possesses a classic all-court game. That said, Berdych should have too much power in this one. Berdych in 3.

Put your house on: Agnieszka Radwanska should be on and off the court in less than an hour. The former finalist should be far too good for Romania’s Andreea Mitu.

Upset alert: Aussie qualifier Sam Groth has a huge serve and could trouble Alexandr Dolgopolov, whilst Yanina Wickmayer might upset Sam Stosur, for whom Wimbledon has never been a happy hunting ground. I also think Maria Kirilenko is a dangerous floater and could get the better of Sloane Stephens.

Likely to go the distance: The clash between Dustin Brown, who upset Nadal in Halle, and former semi-finalist Marcos Baghdatis should be a long and enjoyable feast of shotmaking and all-court tennis.

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 2014 Day 5 Preview: Rafa vs. Thiem & Murray vs. Matosevic

May 28, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

The upsets kept on coming on Day 4 in Paris, with both Williams sisters being sensationally knocked out of the tournament.

Day 4 Recap

As was the case in 2008, Venus and Serena Williams exited the French Open within hours of each other. Elder sister Venus failed to capitalise on an early lead against Anna Schmiedlova, losing in 3 sets, whilst top seed Serena had a horror day, being thoroughly outplayed by rising star Garbine Muguruza.

The Williams sisters’ losses open up the draw for Dominika Cibulkova and Sam Stosur, who both won their second round matches and will face off for a spot in the round of 16. Other winners in the women’s tournament on Day 4 included Angelique Kerber, Carla Suarez Navarro and Daniela Hantuchova, whilst sixteenth seed Sabine Lisicki was forced to retire in her match against compatriot Mona Barthel.

On the men’s side, there was no trouble for the big names, with Federer and Djokovic recording straightforward straight sets victories. Local heroes Gilles Simon and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga recorded similarly impressive wins, as fifteenth seed Mikhail Youzhny departed the tournament at the hands of Radek Stepanek.

Among the other seeds, there were wins for Ernests Gulbis, Jerzy Janowicz and Tomas Berdych, while Roberto Bautista Agut silenced the crowd with a win over Frenchman Benoit Paire.

Matches of the Day – Day 5

1. Rafael Nadal vs. Dominic Thiem

Forget the naysayers – Rafael Nadal was in scintillating form in the opening round, making American veteran and former US Open semi-finalist Robby Ginepri look like an amateur. They won’t say a lot publicly, but no doubt the members of the Nadal camp will be very happy with his performance in the opening round.

Dominic Thiem is an up-and-comer on the ATP Tour, and has a game that is rated highly by a number of astute tennis observers. I agree he has a bright future ahead of him, but I think he will feel overwhelmed on Centre Court against the one-man machine that is Rafael Nadal. Nadal in 3.

2. Richard Gasquet vs. Carlos Berlocq

Richard Gasquet and Carlos Berlocq each earned a place in the second round by beating an Aussie: Gasquet downed the youngster Bernard Tomic, and Berlocq overcame former world number one Lleyton Hewitt. Berlocq is on his preferred surface in Paris, whilst Gasquet is a proven performer on all surfaces.

Gasquet will still be motivated by his narrow loss to Stan Wawrinka in Paris last year in what was a gripping 5-setter. The twelfth seed produces his best tennis on the big stage and loves performing in front of his home crowd, and I think his shot-making flair will propel him to victory over Berlocq. Gasquet in 4.

3. Marinko Matosevic vs. Andy Murray

Going into his opening round match against Dustin Brown, Aussie Marinko Matosevic was 0-12 in career Grand Slam singles matches. Little wonder then that the Aussie celebrated wildly after finally breaking his duck and winning a main draw match at a major. Check out his celebratory roll on YouTube when you have a moment.

As Andy Murray noted in his press conference yesterday, Matosevic is a popular, if unusual, guy on the ATP Tour and his tennis is worthy of respect. Murray was steady in his opening round win and will look to ease into the tournament. Matosevic is unpredictable, but Murray should be too consistent in this one. Murray in 4.

4. Camila Giorgi vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova

2009 French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova will be one of the players in the women’s draw most buoyed by the upsets of Serena Williams and Li Na in the early part of this week. Kuznetsova is a formidable clay-court player and her heavily spun shots are hard to tackle on the red dirt.

The Russian faces a dangerous opponent on Day 5 in the form of Italian Camila Giorgi, who beat Caroline Wozniacki en route to a fourth round appearance at the US Open last year. The Italian has nothing to lose, but Kuznetsova should prevail courtesy of her far greater experience at Roland Garros.

5. Elina Svitolina vs. Ana Ivanovic

Returning to the scene of her only Grand Slam triumph, Ana Ivanovic will be another of the players inspired by the upsets of Li Na and Serena Williams. Ivanovic showed when she upset Williams in Melbourne earlier this year that she is back to her best tennis, and she will be hoping to be one of the title contenders in Paris.

Ivanovic faces a stern test on Day 5 against the Ukrainian Svitolina, who is a former junior French Open champion and who reached the round of 32 in Melbourne this year. Svitolina is up to a career high 33 in the world rankings and it won’t be long before she enters the top 30. That said, I think Ivanovic will be too good in this clash, particularly if the Serbian can get her serve firing. Ivanovic in 3.

Put your house on: Mr. Consistency, the ever-reliable David Ferrer. The upsets continue to come with astonishing frequency, but I’ll back the fifth seed to dispose of Simone Bollelli in their second round showdown.

Upset alert: Former top 10 player Juan Monaco is at his best on clay-courts and I think he might spring a surprise against Italian seed Andreas Seppi.

Likely to go the distance: Plucky Kiwi Marina Erakovic might not get the win against Petra Kvitova, but I think Erakovic will definitely make the Czech seed earn her victory.

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 2014 Day 4 Preview: Djokovic, Federer & Serena aim for third-round spots

May 27, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

With a host of upsets and injuries, there was plenty of drama on Day 3 of the French Open in Paris on Tuesday.

Day 3 Recap

A day after the reigning Australian Open men’s champion was bundled out of the tournament in the opening round, reigning Australian Open women’s champion Li Na followed Stan Wawrinka’s lead, the Chinese superstar spectacularly dumped from the tournament by local lass Kristina Mladenovic in 3 sets.

Joining Li Na on the sidelines on Day 3 was former world number one Caroline Wozniacki, who went down in 3 sets to Yanina Wickmayer. There was better news for fourth seed Simona Halep, who thrashed Alisa Kleybanova, with fellow seeds Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic also in the winners’ circle on Day 3.

In the men’s tournament, rising star Grigor Dimitrov crumbled under a barrage of big serves from Ivo Karlovic, going down in straight sets to the giant Croat. Also departing Paris was Tommy Haas, forced to retire due to a right shoulder problem, and Nicolas Almagro, who also retired from his match. The Spaniard suffered from a left foot injury, allowing young American Jack Sock to sneak through to the second round.

Among the fit and healthy seeds, David Ferrer and Richard Gasquet notched straight sets victories, with Andy Murray and Gael Monfils earning their spots in the round of 64 courtesy of 4 set victories over Andrey Golubev and Victor Hanescu respectively.

Matches of the Day – Day 4

1. Jeremy Chardy vs. Novak Djokovic

Simply consider the names of some of Jeremy Chardy’s scalps on the ATP Tour over the past couple of years – such names include Del Potro, Federer and Murray – and you quickly understand that the Frenchman has a game that can cause serious trouble for the world’s best players.

Chardy relies heavily on his trusty serve and forehand combination, a pairing that suits him better on fast hard-courts than it does on clay-courts. The crowd will urge Chardy on in this battle, but Djokovic has his eyes firmly focused on the winner’s trophy in Paris and won’t have his bid derailed in the first week. Djokovic in 3.

2. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Jurgen Melzer

Austrian veteran Jurgen Melzer was a surprise semi-finalist in Paris several years ago, and the left-hander with the tricky serve possesses the tools to again wreak havoc at Roland Garros, even if he is a touch slower than he was at his prime.

Tsonga took a while to ease into his match against compatriot Roger-Vasselin in the opening round, which perhaps symbolises his sluggish start to 2014, but the former Australian Open finalist will want to make a much better start to this clash with Melzer if he wants to remain alive in the tournament. Tsonga in 4.

3. Tsvetana Pironkova vs. Maria Sharapova

A fearsome striker of the ball, Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova has enjoyed her greatest Grand Slam successes at Wimbledon, where she is a former quarter-finalist and also made the round of 16 on another occasion. Pironkova started 2014 in a blaze of glory by winning the title in Sydney, but hasn’t enjoyed a lot of success in Paris in the past, failing to ever get past the second round.

Sharapova looked untroubled in her opening round win and has been in good form on clay this season, picking up a couple of titles on the surface. On grass or even hard-courts I’d give Pironkova an outside chance of pulling off the upset; on clay, her chances are far lower. Sharapova in 2.

4. Serena Williams vs. Garbine Muguruza

After cruising to victory in her opening round match against France’s Alize Lim, defending champion Serena Williams faces a sterner test against rising star Garbine Muguruza. The Spanish 20 year old is a player to watch out for, having already won a title this season (in Hobart) and having ousted Caroline Wozniacki from the Australian Open this year en route to a fourth round appearance.

Still haunted by her shock loss to Razzano in the first round in Paris in 2012, Williams will not be taking Muguruza lightly, but the American should have too much firepower on serve and from the back of the court for the Spaniard. Still, give it a couple of years and the result could well be different. Williams in 2.

5. Mikhail Youzhny vs. Radek Stepanek

After crashing out in the opening round in Paris last year, Czech Davis Cup hero Radek Stepanek will be keen to make amends this year. The wily veteran will fancy his chances in this one after the fifteenth seeded Youzhny was forced to come back from two sets to love down to beat Pablo Carreno Busta in the opening round.

Youzhny is a Russian ironman, however, and is a two-time US Open semi-finalist for good reason. I think this match will go the distance with Youzhny getting the win, despite his fatigue, as a result of having the superior better baseline game. Youzhny in 5.

Put your house on: Roger Federer to deliver a tennis lesson to his Argentine opponent Diego Sebastian Schwartzmann in their second round clash on Day 4.

Upset alert: American Varvara Lepchenko made the fourth round in Paris in 2012 and could cause an upset against eighth seeded German Angelique Kerber.

Likely to go the distance: Unpredictable Frenchman Benoit Paire is sure to have his ups and downs against Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut in their match. I’ll take Bautista Agut to claim the win 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.

French Open 2014 Issue 1: Federer and Raonic Step Up First

May 24, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

The 2014 French Open, the only one of the major championships to start on a Sunday, gets underway tomorrow at Roland Garros, with defending champion and world number one Serena Williams, 2009 champion Roger Federer, and the great French hope, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, all featuring on the opening day of play.

Matches of the Day – Day 1

1. Milos Raonic vs. Nick Kyrgios

Raonic is one of the pack of up-and-coming players seeking to disrupt the near-monopoly that the Big Four has had on major titles in the majority of the past decade. Wawrinka showed it was possible in Melbourne this year, and Raonic has been in good form this season, making it to the semi-finals in Rome and pushing Djokovic all the way before losing a tight 3-setter.

Raonic will need to be on his guard against young gun Kyrgios, who upset Radek Stepanek in the first round in Paris last year. The Aussie, who has a big serve and plays his best on the big stage, recently strung together a couple of Challenger titles in the US, and will come out with nothing to lose in this one. Raonic’s greater experience and superior fitness should see him prevail, but this should be a fascinating contest between two of the most exciting players on the ATP Tour. Raonic in 4.

2. Belinda Bencic vs. Venus Williams

Swiss teenager Bencic is a player on the rise, collecting the junior singles titles at the French Open and Wimbledon last year before announcing her arrival on the WTA Tour with a run to the semi-finals in Charleston, having made it through qualifying into the main draw.

Williams is at the other end of her career, still capable of producing top-flight tennis but able to do it less consistently than she could at the beginning of this decade. Bencic is a clever player and will look to move Williams around the court and out of position, but the elder Williams sister should be able to ride her enormous serve through to the second round. Williams in 3.

3. Roger Federer vs. Lukas Lacko

Poor Lukas Lacko. The earnest Slovakian hasn’t had much luck in terms of Grand Slam draws, forced to play Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in the early stages of the Australian Open in 2014 and 2012 respectively, and now forced to play 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer in the opening round of this year’s French Open. Lacko is a consistent player from the back of the court but he lacks the firepower to hurt Federer.

Federer looked a little rusty in his loss against Jeremy Chardy in Rome, although the conditions for that match were awful and thus not a lot can be read into the result. I think the Swiss star will ease himself into the tournament, working his way past Lacko with a minimum of fuss as he seeks to improve his clay-court match fitness before the second week of the tournament. Federer in 3.

4. Tomas Berdych vs. Peter Polansky

Former French Open semi-finalist Tomas Berdych will be relatively satisfied with his draw for this year’s tournament, with the Czech star drawn to face John Isner or Tommy Robredo in the quarter-finals and a potential semi-final against Federer (whom Berdych has beaten in Grand Slams before) on the horizon.

Berdych faces Canadian Peter Polansky in the opening round after the Canadian worked his way through qualifying, overcoming an awful recent record in Grand Slam qualifying tournaments to earn his spot in the main draw. Polansky, with three matches under his belt already at Roland Garros this year, will be raring to go, but the sixth seeded Berdych has enjoyed a consistent start to 2014 and should have too many weapons for the Canadian. Berdych in 4.

5. Pablo Carreno Busta vs. Mikhail Youzhny

Winner of the ATP Tour’s most improved player award in 2013, young Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta burst into the world’s top 100 last season, a 39-match winning streak on the secondary tours spearheading his rise from a world ranking north of 600 to a place inside the world’s top 70.

As with most Spaniards, Carreno Busta is most at ease on clay and he will certainly make life difficult in his match-up against Russian veteran Mikhail Youzhny in their opening round clash. Youzhny is a tough opponent on any surface, and pushed Nadal to 3 sets in Rome, but Carreno Busta has nothing to lose and has the fitness to go the distance. I’ll take Youzhny by a whisker. Youzhny in 5.

Put your house on: Serena Williams to cruise past local hope Alize Lim. The crowd will be doing their best to encourage Lim, but Serena should barely raise a sweat in this one.

Upset alert: As detailed above, rising star Pablo Carreno Busta could cause some problems for Russian fifteenth seed Mikhail Youzhny.

Likely to go the distance: It’s never easy playing a compatriot and Edouard Roger-Vasselin has had some good results this season. Accordingly, I think Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will need to work hard to get past his fellow Frenchman in this one.

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

French Open 2014: Draw Preview and Analysis

May 24, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane Analysis

Greetings and welcome to two weeks of coverage of the year’s premier clay-court tournament, the French Open, from Roland Garros, Paris. With the tournament commencing tomorrow, today’s first issue sets out my predictions for the men’s and women’s singles.

Men’s Singles

A troublesome wrist notwithstanding, Novak Djokovic has to like his chances of claiming his first ever French Open title this year and completing what would be a career Grand Slam. Wrist problems affected the Serb’s play in Monte Carlo and resulted in an interrupted lead-up to Paris for the world number 2, but his win in Rome underlined his match fitness as well as his recent dominance over long-time rival Rafael Nadal (the win in Rome marked the fourth successive win for Djokovic over the Spaniard).

Djokovic has also been visibly affected by the catastrophic recent floods in the Balkans region, donating his Rome winnings to the relief effort, and he would love nothing more than to lift the spirit of his embattled countrymen (among others in the region) by raising the trophy in Paris.

Nadal has to battle not only a poor recent record against Djokovic in Paris, but also the 8-time champion’s worst lead-up to Roland Garros in a decade. The top seed has lost 3 times on clay this season, and even in winning has raised eyebrows, looking shaky in the Madrid final against Nishikori before the Japanese star retired injured, and then being forced to battle his way through to the final in Rome. I expect Nadal to lift his game in Paris, and still be there on the final Sunday of the tournament, but unlike last year, when Nadal was able to escape from a losing position in the semi-finals against Djokovic, I think it will be the Serbian getting the win and capturing the title this time around.

Stan Wawrinka, champion in Melbourne and Monte Carlo this year, will look to make a strong run into the second week of the tournament, but I suspect the crafty Italian Fabio Fognini, a very effective clay-courter, could wreck the Swiss star’s plans and make a run through to the semi-finals and a match-up against Nadal.

The draw provides opportunities for the likes of Berdych, Robredo, Dimitrov, Raonic and Nishikori to make runs through to the quarter-finals, but I think Roger Federer, despite his interrupted clay-court season, will work his way through to a semi-final showdown with Novak Djokovic. The Swiss star will give his best against Djokovic if they square off, but on clay I think the Serb’s exceptional movement and laser-like backhand will prove the difference.

Winner: Novak Djokovic

Finalist: Rafael Nadal

Semi-finalists: Roger Federer, Fabio Fognini

*****

Women’s Singles

My standing theory when it comes to women’s singles at the Grand Slams in the current decade is as follows. Serena Williams, at her best, is far and away the best player on the WTA Tour and the only things that can stop her winning any Grand Slam that she enters are: (a) injury; (b) herself; and (c) an opponent playing at the peak of her powers. For the last few years, this theory has for the most part held true, with Serena notching up a handful of majors and tripping up at the other tournaments due to one or a combination of the reasons listed above. A red-hot Lisicki bested Williams at Wimbledon last year, as did an inspired Ana Ivanovic in Melbourne this year, while Sloane Stephens’ upset win at the Australian Open last year was a combination of (a), (b) and (c).

Williams has been a dominant player on clay in the last few years, and I think there are only a handful of players who match up well against her on the surface. Aussie Sam Stosur beat Williams in Paris in 2010 and could play her in the semi-finals, although I think Maria Sharapova is a safer bet to assume that quarter-final slot. Sharapova’s weak serve leaves her vulnerable against Williams on clay, while the American’s toughest hard-court opponent, Victoria Azarenka, is out of the tournament due to injury.

Russian veteran Kuznetsova is another player who pairs up well with Williams on the red dirt, but the 2009 champion would need to make the final to earn a crack at the American. I think Spanish fourteenth seed Carla Suarez Navarro, an accomplished clay-courter, can come through her bracket and make a maiden Grand Slam semi-final, but she will meet her match against Serena.

In the bottom half of the draw, I like the chances of Li Na, the 2011 champion and this year’s Australian Open winner. Rising star Simona Halep, seeded in the top 4 for the first time at a major, has the weapons and the enthusiasm to go deep into the second week, but I’m predicting a veterans’ final featuring Li Na and Williams on the final Saturday of the tournament. Li Na has enough power off both wings to cause problems for Williams, but I think the American will be too strong at the critical moments if the pair do play each other on the final Saturday of the tournament.

Winner: Serena Williams

Finalist: Li Na

Semi-finalists: Carla Suarez Navarro, Simona Halep

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

Tennis Elbow: 2014 Mutua Madrid Open: Men’s and women’s draw preview and analysis

May 5, 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 previews this year’s Mutua Madrid Open.

Our series of tournament previews and analyses continues this week with a look at perhaps the wonkiest tournament of the tennis season, the 2014 Mutua Madrid Open. (Really, we’re saying the event itself is wonky. Not that this tournament will necessarily be the wonkiest of this year—though it could be!)

Exhibit A: once upon a time, the Madrid Open was played on blue clay. Only once, still, but it was only once because we’re told too many hearts were broken. Exhibit B: Rafael Nadal, King of Clay, has been slayed more often than not. Somehow, he only has three career titles in the biggest tournament of his native land, which may as well be none considering his usual prowess on clay courts. As the tale goes, one does not simply walk into Madrid and conquer the Mutua. Exhibit C: already, the Open has one victim, as the Serb Novak Djokovic has withdrawn due to an injured wrist. Meh.

While Roland Garros is coming (seriously, get on Game of Thrones, folks!), for now the Mutua Madrid Open awaits.

Women’s draw

First, let’s take a moment to give our sincere condolences to Elena Baltacha. The former British No. 1 passed away at age 30 from liver cancer just two months after retiring from professional tennis and only a few weeks after getting married. Sometimes, life is devastating. This is one of those times.

On the women’s side, we get to cheat a little bit as we write this after just about the entire first round has been played. I could be a good boy scout and tell you that I had written my preview and made my choices before the tournament started, but—well actually let’s do it, I promise that my choices were already locked in before Sunday. Scout’s honour.

No. 1-ranked Serena Williams hasn’t lost in Madrid since 2010, and I fully expect that streak to continue until…well, you just might have to read on to know where. But Williams will defeat Petra Kvitova in quarterfinals.

It’s in the Mutua Madrid Open tournament preview that I can finally declare myself a believer in Simona Halep. The young Romanian has been on an absolute tear since the beginning of the 2013 season, and my skepticism has been replaced by belief. In a world where everyone has as much of a chance as anyone else to meet Serena Williams in the final, why not Halep? Because Halep will meet Williams in the semifinals after defeating Ana Ivanovic.

The second half of the main draw has already been decimated with German Angelique Kerber’s loss to qualifier Caroline Garcia. Nobody really inspires me in this third section, which is probably a way of saying that Sara Errani will come through against Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinals—but the real quarterfinal will be the match between Eugenie Bouchard and Agnieszka Radwanksa. In the first round. Meh.

The final quarter is as good as it gets. I can see myself making a case for no fewer than five players—Maria Sharapova, Sam Stosur, Dominika Cibulkova, Sloane Stephens and Na Li. (And really, you could talk me into Christina McHale.) But then I realize that only one of Sharapova, McHale, Stosur and Cibulkova can make it, so I’ll settle on the best of the lot, Sharapova. And in the other half, I see Stephens taking down the Chinese Li, before losing to the Russian.

I’m expecting big things from Sharapova this week, and that’s probably why I’ll be wrong.

Quarterfinals: Serena Williams over Petra Kvitova; Simona Halep over Ana Ivanovic; Sara Errani over Caroline Wozniacki; Maria Sharapova over Sloane Stephens

Semifinals: Serena Williams over Simona Halep; Maria Sharapova over Sara Errani

Final: Maria Sharapova over Serena Williams

*****

Men’s draw

In the tournament preview edition of the ever-excellent podcast of my colleagues’ Parsa Samii and Nima Naderi, the two discussed the King of Clay and Samii made an interesting point—could Rafael Nadal have been so focused in the past two seasons on overcoming Novak Djokovic that he made changes that have left him vulnerable to others on the ATP World Tour? Well his previous two events, where he lost before the quarterfinals, would suggest that he might have. But you know what? It’s a Spaniard who beat him in those tournaments. And Nadal will not find any Spaniard on his draw before the quarterfinals—and not even there, as Grigor Dimitrov will greet him.

The second quarter belongs to Roger Federer and, though the King isn’t so royal on clay, this tournament isn’t your typical clay court event. The Swiss, awaiting the birth of a third child, is firmly back with the elite in 2014 and he’ll show it by beating Spaniard Nicolas Almagro in the quarterfinals. And in the semifinal, he’ll lose to Nadal. Because some things don’t change.

The third section will probably be the most hotly contested. Milos Raonic will hope to make it four quarterfinal berths in four Masters 1000 events, but those plans will be spoiled by Kei Nishikori in what can only be billed the “Battle for the title of the future of tennis.” (Yeah, I’m still working on that one.) Though his ranking says No. 3 next to his name, there’s nobody who’s enjoying a better season than Stanislas Wawrinka. “Crazy Stan” will make it far in Madrid.

The plans for a grandiose Open were spoiled the moment that Novak Djokovic’s wrist flared up. This isn’t to say that the event will not be memorable, but the Djoker had a chance to retake the World No. 1 ranking from Nadal with a win. (Djokovic is also my favourite player, so take this for what it is.) Instead, there’s a section with David Ferrer and a slew of names you have heard of once or twice, once upon a time. In such a wonky part of the draw, let’s give the dependable Ferrer a spot in the final 8—and let’s say he beats the unsteadiest of players, Ernests Gulbis. Really, that potential match against Alexandr Dolgopolov makes me want to jump in the dog pound.

Quarterfinals: Rafael Nadal over Grigor Dimitrov; Roger Federer over Nicolas Almagro; Stanislas Wawrinka over Kei Nishikori; David Ferrer over Ernests Gulbis

Semifinals: Rafael Nadal over Roger Federer; Stanislas Wawrinka over David Ferrer

Final: Stanislas Wawrinka over Rafael Nadal

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

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