Tennis Elbow: Familiar Kings for the 2014 Sony Open

March 31, 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 2014 Sony Open.

Forget the collegiate basketball edition, the real March Madness, the one that I watch year after year, happens on the hard courts of Indian Wells and Key Biscayne.

Every year as the calendar turns to March, and as the world of sport turns to an organization that denies basic rights to “student”-athletes in order to accrue over $60 million in surplus, and $627 for net assets, well, I turn to tennis in California and Florida. And I have no busted brackets to worry about.

Before I move on to bigger and better things in the next few weeks, such as the death of the perfect love of all between Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl, the Twitter beef between Judy Murray and Oko Ono, and the basketball career of Joakim Noah, son of tennis legend Yannick Noah, I look back at this year’s edition of the Sony Open.

The tournament this year has familiar kings in Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, who have won the event seven and four times respectively. This could be all we say, but it won’t be.

On the women’s side, Serena Williams reminded everyone who had bet the house on her that she’s a great champion. In taking home the title a seventh time, Williams lost all one of set, against little known Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia in the third round.

She started slow against Na Li in the final and even had to fight off a first-set set point, which she did because she’s Serena Williams. Everything tends to start and end with her on the WTA Tour, and this final was another reminder. She made only 44 per cent of her first serves and converted just five of 17 break points, yet still beat the No. 2-ranked player for the 10th time in a row and in straight sets.

This was also her 15th win in a row against fellow members of the top 10. Against the group of Li, No. 3-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska, No. 4-ranked Victoria Azarenka and No. 7-ranked Maria Sharapova, she is an unreal 49-6 in her career. The women’s tour is Williams’s world and everyone else’s just living in it.

On the men’s side, the Djoker probably wondered whether the joke was on him. In capturing the title, he played all of four matches—in a draw of 96 (128-32 byes for the seeds = 96), the Serb beat Jeremy Chardy, then “beat” Florian Mayer in a walkover, then Tommy Robredo and Murray before booking his ticket in the final by “beating” Kei Nishikori in a walkover.

Yet with hindsight, can we say an extra two matches would have made much of a difference? Djokovic had clearly brought his talents to South Beach and anyway, it’s not like Nadal needed five hours to beat Tomas Berdych in his previous match either. That, too, was a walkover.

Rather, this was a beatdown from the player who’s currently playing the best tennis on Tour, a result that stands out like a sore blister in this rivalry. And Nadal was just there for the ride, which lasted all of 84 minutes.

Is it too late to talk about the Big Two yet? Nadal and Djokovic are currently No. 1 and No. 2 on the ATP World Tour rankings, have won 12 of the previous 17 Grand Slam tournaments and are the current defending champions of all nine Masters 1000 events. There’s no one better and, most importantly, there’s not even anyone quite in their class—oh, for a few weeks, or a few tournaments, sure, but no one is currently as reliable as this pair is. And the rivalry continues to surprise, even as it’s become by far the most frequent in tennis history (i.e. 40 matches and counting).

Though Djokovic lost his Melbourne crown this year, he has now won the next two best things. Not a bad consolation prize. Though he’s won three in a row against Nadal, the calendar now slowly turns to the clay court season.

Can we just fast-forward to the Roland Garros final?

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

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

March 18, 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 the 2014 Sony Open Tennis.

Because time, and the tennis calendar, waits for one, here we are in Miami this week—well not physically, though I’m told the good folks at Grand Slam Tennis Tours are a good destination for all your tennis traveling needs.

Really, as a 1-2 punch, this could be worse. Year after year, the BNP Paribas Open is among the biggest prizes and it’s followed by this Sony Open Tennis Masters 1000 just a mere three days after it ends. Right after the fifth wheel is the sixth. We’re spoiled and we’d be silly to complain.

As I did for the former, I will write a tournament preview for the latter. While I can’t guarantee the exactitude of my analysis, I can guarantee that I’ll explain it.

Women’s draw

Unlike for Indian Wells, I could choose to just say “Serena Williams” and keep it moving—because the World No. 1 player hasn’t yet pulled out and is set to compete in Miami.

Williams doesn’t need any help, and yet her section of the draw is very kind. Sure, there’s a potential fourth-round match against Sam Stosur, and I suppose that the Aussie could give the American some difficulty. But she’s just as likely to lose in the third round like in California. So yes, expect a few routine wins for Serena until the quarterfinals, where she will meet Sorana Cirstea. If Stosur’s showing at the BNP Paribas Open was disappointing, then what do you call Cirstea’s loss to qualifier Camila Giorgi? It’s a trick question—the answer is that Miami is different than Indian Wells. (I’m grasping at straws, I know.)

The second section is full of intriguing players who could probably break through in a big way, one who has broken through in a big way in Flavia Pennetta, and a wildcard in Maria Sharapova. Though she’s the No. 4 seed, I call the Russian a wildcard—you’ll pick her over and over and over, and feel great about it, until the point that she loses in the third round. The following tournament? You’ll still pick her to reach the quarterfinals, where she will bow down to the power of Petra Kvitova.

I don’t have anything against Simona Halep, I swear. But I must recognize that she has surprised me in reaching the semifinals in California and as odd as it may seem, the Romanian may currently be the most reliable player on the WTA Tour. You want to bet on someone to make the final four of a random tournament? You could do worse than choosing Halep. And yet…I’m picking Agnieszka Radwanska and Dominika Cibulkova. (I’m a fan of Eugenie Bouchard as much as the next Canadian, but no way is she beating Radwanska.)

The final section is fairly routine although it’s deeply unfortunate that Sloane Stephens and Caroline Wozniacki would compete as early as the third round. We all know that this is a match-up worthy of much more, but the tennis Gods like to play games with our hearts. If the young American ever hopes to break through in a meaningful way, these are the matches she must win. She will, and she’ll win another big one in the quarterfinals.

Quarterfinals: Serena Williams over Sorana Cirstea; Petra Kvitova over Maria Sharapova; Agnieszka Radwanska over Dominika Cibulkova; Sloane Stephens over Na Li

Semifinals: Serena Williams over Petra Kvitova; Agnieszka Radwanska over Sloane Stephens

Final: Serena Williams over Agnieszka Radwanska

***See the main draw here.

Men’s draw

In the preview for the 2014 BNP Paribas Open, I asked whether it seemed like this season could be as wide open as any that we’ve had in the past decade, and the unfolding of the tournament sure seemed to prove us right. That is, right until the final between two of the usual suspects in Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. So go figure.

Rafael Nadal was unsuccessful in the first leg of his Great Golden Odyssey, but the tennis Gods have been kind this time—the earliest he could find himself in the dog pound would be the semifinal. The Spaniard will make the quarterfinals and figuring out his opponent is where the fun begins. Let’s hope for a Rogers Cup remix, where an all-Canadian match between Vasek Pospisil (who would have beaten Juan Martin Del Potro) and Milos Raonic gets the spot next to Nadal.

The second section might as well be nicknamed the nickname section, because it’s remarkable. Really, truly poetic. On the tennis side of things, it’s ripe for the taking for whomever wants it, and I think that’s precisely what the Mercurial One, Tomas Berdych, could take advantage of. Expect to see him reach the quarterfinals and lose to “Crazy” Stanislas Wawrinka after a disappointing tournament last week. Meanwhile, all I’ll be watching is the third-round match between the dog, Alexandr Dolgopolov, and the Ageless Wonder, Tommy Haas.

We all feel foolish watching Roger Federer play tennis. Oh, this is nothing new, I know, but it’s especially egregious to watch him come oh so close of winning yet another big tournament last week. We all thought he was done but it turns out that he was only done with this prototype racket from last summer last season. If ever someone tells you that the player makes a difference, not the racket, just point to King Roger. (Why he chose to use that racket in the first place, well, we don’t know. The King has reasons that the mere humans simply can’t understand.)

As for this tournament, expect to see Federer beat “Baby Fed” in the quarterfinals—though as Grigor Dimitrov continues to progress, maybe we should find him a new nickname.

Not that we really care all that much, but someone might want to page Andy Murray and tell the man that the 2014 season has indeed started. Let’s hope he shows up, as this section offers little but a quarterfinal between him and Novak Djokovic—though if Indian Wells was any indication, the Serb could already be in midseason form. Watch out!

Quarterfinals: Rafael Nadal over Milos Raonic; Stanislas Wawrinka over Tomas Berdych; Roger Federer over Grigor Dimitrov; Novak Djokovic over Andy Murray

Semifinals: Rafael Nadal over Stanislas Wawrinka; Novak Djokovic over Roger Federer

Final: Novak Djokovic over Rafael Nadal

***See the main draw here.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

World No. 1 Serena Williams begins title defense at Sony Open on Thursday, March 20

March 4, 2014

MIAMI, Fla. (www.sonyopentennis.com) – 17-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams will begin defending her Sony Open singles title during the day session (Session 5) on Thursday, March 20. The opponent for the six-time Sony Open champion will be revealed on Sunday, March 16 when the rest of the women’s draw is announced. The most glamorous tournament on the Tours’ schedule runs March 17-30 at the Crandon Park Tennis Center.

Williams opening match will kick-off an exciting weekend of tennis which will include ATP World No. 2 Novak Djokovic taking the court on Friday, March 21 (Session 7) and World No. 1 Rafael Nadal making his return to Miami on Saturday, March 22 (Session 10). Tickets are available and can be purchased online at www.SonyOpenTennis.com or by phone at 305-442-3367.

In 2013, Williams claimed her sixth title in Miami, surpassing Steffi Graff for the most by any woman in Sony Open history and tying Andre Agassi for the most by any player all-time. To become the winningest player in Sony Open history Williams will have to navigate an impressive player field including Australian Open winner Li Na, four-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova, two-time Sony Open champion Victoria Azarenka and many more.

Not to be outdone, the men’s player field is even more impressive with 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer, defending Sony Open champion Andy Murray, Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka and former US Open champion Juan Martin del Porto all entered to play.

But the Sony Open is not just a tennis tournament, it is a lifestyle event. The Sony Open offers a range of activities for the entire family. From the die-hard tennis fan to the casual consumer, the Sony Open features food by world-class chefs, luxurious shopping options, live music, beautiful weather and a host of other activities.

Come out and see why the Sony Open is considered the place to be in March!

Tennis Elbow: Venus Williams is underappreciated

February 24, 2014

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon looks at the older of the two Williams sisters.

There wasn’t much that happened this past week in tennis, neither on the men’s side nor the women’s. I looked everywhere and, yeah, not a whole lot to talk about.

On the men’s side, there was Rafael Nadal winning the Rio Open, Marin Cilic winning the Delray Beach Open and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga taking the Open 13 crown in France. There was my guy too, Novak Djokovic, somehow going fake-skydiving in anticipation of the defense of his Dubai Duty Free championship title—so yeah, not much.

But even if there’s nothing necessarily relevant to discuss, it doesn’t mean that I won’t have anything to write about. As fun as last year’s Waiting for Godot column was, and it really, really was, it’s a cop-out to write a column about nothing just because I have nothing. (But I don’t totally cross out the possibility of revisiting that column about nothing later in the year. It was just that good.)

So I looked at the WTA Tour. I looked, first, at Kurumi Nara’s win at the Rio Open—and, well, as much as I appreciate what it takes to win a tournament in this sport, and that there are no minor titles—yeah, this doesn’t quite cut it. So I looked at the Dubai Duty Free Championship and saw that Venus Williams had won the title, and thought that this was—hey why not?

Williams’s third title in Dubai was her first on the tour in about 16 months, which seems like a mighty long time for a player of her stature.

That was my first reaction, but then I realized that it might be wrong. The older of the two Williams sisters is among the tour’s biggest stars, but she’s currently ranked No. 29. In 2014, and at age 33, she resides on tour much more as dean would than as class president.

When the Williams sisters broke through in 1994 (i.e. Venus) and 1995 (i.e. Serena), tennis didn’t know what to do with them. It was obvious early on that they would take over the sport, and that the sport had never seen anyone like them—it wasn’t exactly a malaise, but there was uneasiness. The two African-American teenagers were taking over the tour and destroying the Caucasian teenager that was Martina Hingis.

They were expected to take over the world together, and for a while they did. They were more powerful than anyone else, especially at their young age, and would only improve from there. They won tournaments and often played, or forfeited, finals against one another. So many finals had the two of them, because they were the two best players on Tour.

Venus became the first African-American player ever to be the top ranked WTA player almost 12 years ago to the day today, and sister Serena was right there as 1a. That same year, in 2002, it’s Serena, not Venus, who captured three Grand Slam titles. Right when Serena took off farther to another stratosphere, Venus crashed. Serena might have won a Grand Slam before her sister, but it’s Venus who had won four in a row afterward. She was still the big sister, but then she crashed.

Well alright, I realized that that’s not exactly right. Venus’s No. 1-ranking was followed by a French Open title that same year, and an Australian Open the following year. It’s only afterward that she couldn’t keep up with the rhythm of Serena.

I thought further and realized that Venus’s following years were marred by injuries and that we’d come very, very close to never see her ever again on a tennis court.

I continued thinking and found it telling that her other Grand Slam titles all came at Wimbledon (in 2005, 2007 and 2008). Because that shows the type of player that she is. The Williams sisters were grouped together when they first came on, but the latter part of their respective careers has proven that it wasn’t totally accurate to do so. While Serena was always going to be a great, great champion, Venus wasn’t that.

There are differences. Venus has been a great champion, but not to the extent of her sister. Venus was always just a girl along with the other ones. She had, still does actually, a great serve and a great forehand, and it made sense that the grass was and is where she was, and has been, most successful. She could beat a Lindsay Davenport, or a Jennifer Capriati, just as well as she could lose to either of them. That’s basically what she was, and it’s fine—one of the top girls.

She wasn’t marred by controversy either the same way that Serena was, and continues to be. There hasn’t been an outrage like this one, or that one, and Venus has never crip-walked all over the hollow grounds of the All-England Club (let me stress this: as ridiculous as this criticism was) the way that Serena did.

Likewise, a common reaction to the ascent of the Williams sisters was a malaise with the way they played, all physical and power, when the sport was always so graceful. But that was always more about Serena than Venus, who stands six-foot-one. Venus is a tall and graceful woman who isn’t built like her younger sister. She’s pretty too, but that has nothing to do with her tennis skills.

She currently has 45 career titles and an 80.3 career winning percentage. Is she underrated? Probably not, she’s among the biggest stars of the sport, in that second tier of players after the rarified air that her sister breathes along with Steffi Graf and the likes—and that’s precisely how Venus is viewed, I think.

But she’s definitely underappreciated. Given her health issues, it’s a wonder just to see her playing, let alone winning matches and tournaments.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Tennis Elbow: Ana Ivanovic beats Serena Williams, and I rewrite

January 20, 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 rewrites his column after a stunning upset.

I have a confession—this column is the second one that I write this week. I had some time on Saturday and decided that I would write my column ahead of time.

I had a good idea for it, too. I was going to write about how the first week of the Australian Open had been relatively devoid of surprises both for the men and the women, and about how everything that was supposed to happen really did happen. And that this included the incredible heat wave, which lived up to the doomsday scenario that had all of us talking. (Speaking of, Courtney Walsh, an acquaintance and a colleague from Australia, foreshadowed it on Twitter a few days prior.)

I was done. I had mentioned the stunning upset of Juan Martin Del Potro, by Roberto Bautista Agut, but I was saying that the season’s first Grand Slam had been otherwise devoid of drama up to this point. I was insisting that no foe had proved greater than the weather in this first week. I had written it all, and it was an easy and good column.

And I will write that column about what to do in the face of extreme weather, and I will publish it at some point—but not this week when Ana Ivanovic has beaten Serena Williams in the fourth round.

Talk about throwing a wrench into everything—the tournament, blowing up one half of the women’s draw and, most importantly, my wonky prediction that Williams would complete the yearly slam this season. All of it, gone before it even started.

In all seriousness, my plight at having been proven wrong pales in comparison to the joy that I feel for Ivanovic. There was a time, not too long ago but still kind of a while back, when it seemed like Ivanovic was set to rule the WTA Tour the same way that she was ruling my heart and that of every other young, 20-year-old man. (Don’t front.)

The Serb first broke through in my hometown, in 2006 at the Rogers Cup for the first major title of her life. Then she was a runner-up at the 2008 Australian Open before winning the French Open a few months later, and was the no. 1 player on tour. It lasted all of 12 weeks and it’s been an uphill battle ever since, a battle to live up to that ranking and that potential. That 2008 French Open title remains her lone major title and there have been ups and downs, with a low of 65 (!!!) in the world.

Well in 2014, Ivanovic is now ranked No. 14 and has just beaten the best player in the world. Yes, maybe Williams was injured but a win is a win is a win. And after the match, the American didn’t want to take anything away from Ivanovic’s performance. “Again, I don’t want to blame anything. I feel like Ana deserves all the credit,” Williams said. “I feel she played unbelievable today. I think she went for her shots. It’s not like I gave her the match.”

Could this be a career renaissance of sorts for Ivanovic? Maybe, who knows. But she has all the shots to be dominant, always has. It’s always been mentally that she’s had problems—well that, and an unquestionably weak serve. Maybe that’s all behind her now, as she faced only three break points against Williams. Mentally? Well let’s see, she just beat a player against whom she had never won a set, let alone a match, and she did it after losing the first set. “I had to remind myself all the time just to stay in the moment, because there were moments in the match where it could have gone either way,” Ivanovic said. “But I really just believed in my game and stepped up when I needed to.”

And now she is in the quarterfinal of the Australian Open for the first time since 2008. She’s playing Eugenie Bouchard, a precocious talent who is playing with confidence and who has taken advantage of a very kind draw.

This may be Ivanovic’s time to shine. Again.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Australian Open 2014 Day 7 Preview: Djokovic and Serena look for quarterfinal berths

January 18, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

The big guns produced big performances on Day 6 of the Open, with Messrs. Federer, Murray, Nadal and Tsonga all progressing to the round of 16 with straight sets victories.

Day 6 Recap

Whilst Federer was always a certainty to breeze past the Russian Gabashvili, Murray and Tsonga will be pleased to have defeated Lopez and Simon in straight sets respectively. Similarly, top seed Rafael Nadal looked delighted to have swept past the dangerous Gael Monfils in the night session.

For the first time in his career, Grigor Dimitrov is through to the second week of a Grand Slam, the Bulgarian ousting Milos Raonic in 4 sets after holding his nerve in a 22 point fourth set tiebreaker. Joining him in the fourth round will be Kei Nishikori, who thrashed Donald Young, and Frenchman Stephane Robert, who become the first lucky loser to ever make it through to the round of 16.

Defending champion Victoria Azarenka was at her ruthless best on Day 6, the Belarusian conceding just one game against the hapless Yvonne Meusberger. Maria Sharapova overcame some second set wobbles to defeat Alize Cornet in straight sets, whilst there were also wins for Sloane Stephens, Jelena Jankovic and Dominika Cibulkova.

Former world number one Caroline Wozniacki crashed out of the tournament, the Dane overpowered by the in-form Spaniard Garbine Muguruza. Agnieszka Radwanska also seemed as though she was heading to the airport, but the Pole dug deep to beat the Russian Pavlyuchenkova in a tough 3-setter.

Matches of the Day – Day 7

1. Ana Ivanovic vs. Serena Williams

In recent years former world number one Ana Ivanovic has struggled to reach the heights of 2008, where she made the Australian Open final and won the French Open. The Serb looked at her dynamic best against Sam Stosur on Friday however, serving with precision and being ultra-aggressive with her forehand from the back of the court.

Ivanovic will need to continue to be aggressive in this match, otherwise the top seeded Williams will make her pay dearly. The 5-time Australian Open champion hasn’t been overextended in her matches in the tournament to date, but could have a battle on her hands if Ivanovic can maintain the form she exhibited against Stosur. That, however, is a big if. Williams in 2.

2. Casey Dellacqua vs. Eugenie Bouchard

West Aussie Casey Dellacqua became the darling of the Melbourne crowd in 2008 when she made a surprise run to the fourth round. Since then, the leftie has battled a series of injuries and seriously doubted whether she’d ever get back to the second week of a Grand Slam. But Dellacqua has built on her fine doubles form in the last 12 months (she made 3 Grand Slam finals in 2013) and has taken out a string of quality players to make it back to the round of 16 at Melbourne Park.

Eugenie Bouchard is a star in the making, the Canadian bursting on to the WTA Tour in the last 12 months or so, and showing that she has all the attributes to make her a future top 10 player. Bouchard is already hovering on the cusp of the world’s top 30, and will be eager to extend what is already her longest stay at a Grand Slam tournament. Bouchard in 3.

3. Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Tommy Robredo

Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka had a standout season on the ATP Tour in 2013, and it all started for him in Melbourne, where he pushed eventual champion Novak Djokovic to the absolute brink in their pulsating fourth round clash, finally succumbing 16-14 in the final set.

Although he lost to Djokovic, the match seemed to give Wawrinka a healthy dose of self-belief and by season’s end the Swiss star was in the top 10 and a US Open semi-finalist. Veteran Robredo had a good win over ninth seed Richard Gasquet in the round of 32, but I think Wawrinka will be too fit and too strong in this one. Wawrinka in 4.

4. Novak Djokovic vs. Fabio Fognini

These two players know each other’s games very well, having grown up together in the junior ranks and both progressing to the ATP Tour from there. Djokovic has of course had the far more successful career to date, but Fognini has been something of a late bloomer and his career has started to blossom over the last couple of years.

Although more renowned as a clay-court expert, Fognini has made the top 20 as a result of good performances on all surfaces and took down the dangerous Sam Querrey in straight sets in the round of 32. Djokovic has yet to be tested in the tournament and, while the Italian could give him a couple of anxious moments, I think it should be smooth sailing for the most part. Djokovic in 3.

5. Li Na vs. Ekaterina Makarova

Two-time finalist Li Na was mere centimetres away from being bundled out of the tournament in the third round, down match point to Czech Lucie Safarova. Fortunately for the Chinese superstar, Safarova’s shot on match point was long and the fourth seed ultimately escaped with a 3 set victory.

Li should be more focused today following that scare, and she will need to be, as her opponent today is a very tricky player. Makarova knocked Serena Williams out of the 2012 Australian Open and took down Serena’s sister Venus in the opening round of this year’s tournament. Li should have too much firepower for her Russian opponent, but don’t count Makarova out. Li Na in 3.

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.

Australian Open 2014: Day 5 Preview

January 16, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

Day 4 of the tournament saw men’s fifth seed Juan Martin Del Potro crash out of the tournament, and Maria Sharapova, the women’s third seed, was very close to following him, forced to the brink to overcome Karin Knapp in the second round.

Day 4 Recap

The Italian Knapp pushed Sharapova all the way in a pulsating clash played in sizzling heat. After the world number 44 evened the match at at a set apiece, Sharapova was forced to endure a third set lasting almost 2 hours before triumphing 10-8 in the decider of a match that spanned 3 hours and 28 minutes.

Having an easier time of it was defending champion Victoria Azarenka and former world number one Jelena Jankovic, both of whom progressed in straight sets. Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep both went to 3 sets but ultimately progressed, whilst France’s Alize Cornet scored a 3 set win over the Italian Camila Giorgi to set up a showdown with Sharapova.

Amongst the men, Del Potro was unable to capitalise on a 2 sets to one advantage against Roberto Bautista Agut, the Spaniard claiming one of the biggest wins of his career under lights at Melbourne Park. There was no such trouble for Nadal, Federer or Murray, all of whom recorded serviceable straight sets victories and limited their time in the heat.

Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga were straight sets winners, and were joined in the round of 32 by compatriot Benoit Paire, who broke the heart of young Aussie Nick Kyrgios, coming back from 2 sets down to triumph. Another Frenchman winning in 5 sets was Gilles Simon who, against all odds, won another 5-setter, this time over Marin Cilic. Over seeds to progress included Dimitrov, Nishikori and Raonic, whilst there was bad news for Seppi and Verdasco, both of whom were bundled out of the tournament.

Matches of the Day – Day 5

1. Serena Williams vs. Daniela Hantuchova

In the lead up to the Australian Open Serena Williams was complaining about the Melbourne weather, lamenting how cold it was. The American must surely be regretting that comment, as the furnace-like environment makes the going tough for players, fans, ball kinds, umpires and linesmen alike.

Accordingly, Williams will want to get through this encounter as quickly as possible. Hantuchova is a former Australian Open semi-finalist and, although she remains a fine ball-striker, the Slovak is no longer at top 10 level. Look for Williams to take an early lead and never let her opponent into the match. Williams in 2.

2. David Ferrer vs. Jeremy Chardy

Ferrer is about as consistent a player as you will find, and the tenacious Spaniard had a good win over Rafael Nadal in Abu Dhabi as part of his preparations for Melbourne. I was also impressed with Chardy’s form in the lead-up tournament in Brisbane, where he made the semi-finals and narrowly lost to Roger Federer.

If Chardy can get his serve and forehand combination firing, he’s a hard man to stop, particularly on fast hard-courts. The Frenchman has claimed some big scalps in the past, including Murray and Del Potro, and I think he has an outside chance of claiming another today. But if it goes the distance, the super-fit Ferrer will be very hard to beat. Ferrer in 5.

3. Samantha Stosur vs. Ana Ivanovic

Out to exorcise her Australian Open demons of recent years, Sam Stosur has made a good start to her quest, downing a pair of talented and in-form players in Zakopalova and Pironkova, although the Bulgarian was clearly struggling physically in their second round match.

Ivanovic is a former finalist at Melbourne Park and goes into this match as the higher seed, however I think that this will be a good match-up for Stosur, who likes to play against the big hitters on tour. I’ll back Stosur to ride the home crowd to victory. Stosur in 3.

4. Li Na vs. Lucie Safarova

Chinese superstar Li Na holds one Grand Slam title, the 2011 French Open, but the fourth seed has produced her best Grand Slam results overall at the Australian Open, where she is a two-time runner-up.

With the courts at Melbourne Park getting ever quicker, Li Na will fancy her chances of making another run deep into the second week of the tournament. Safarova is a talented shot-maker, and the Czech leftie will have some chances in this match, but Li Na will be a warm favourite to progress. Li Na in 2.

5. Florian Mayer vs. Jerzy Janowicz

Crafty German Florian Mayer caused headlines a few weeks ago when he beat Andy Murray in Doha, and Mayer has continued his good run in Melbourne, disposing of Russian seed Mikhail Youzhny in the second round. This should be an engrossing battle against the cagey Mayer and the erratic but talented Janowicz.

After pulling out of the Hopman Cup due to injury and then looking like he was lacking fitness in Sydney, Janowicz has done well in Melbourne to date, fighting his way through his opening two matches. I suspect this match will go one of two ways – either Janowicz blows Mayer off the court, or the match is close and long, in which case I’d back Mayer. Mayer in 5.

Put your house on: Novak Djokovic to be all business as he attempts to minimize his time on-court against Uzbekh Denis Istomin.

Upset alert: Jeremy Chardy could trouble David Ferrer, as noted above, whilst American Alison Riske has to be given a chance against ninth seeded German Angelique Kerber. And as predicted above, Florian Mayer could well upset Jerzy Janowicz.

Likely to go the distance: Tommy Robredo and Richard Gasquet both seem to have a habit of featuring in epic 5-setters at the Grand Slams, so it will be no surprise to see the pair head to a deciding set in their clash today.

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: Separating the wolves from the pack

January 13, 2014

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon looks at the top contenders of the Australian Open and what they need to do.

The good thing with the beginning of a tournament is that technically, all 128 players have a fair chance at taking home the trophy. Everything is possible, except that it really isn’t—not all 128 spots of a main draw are created equally. That’s why there are 32 seeds for example.

With that in mind, I have selected four main contenders and here are the keys for each of them if they wish to be crowned champion in two weeks. I’m a man of the people so I’ve prepared a little dossier on both ATP and WTA players—with a little nickname for each.

Why? Because.

Men’s singles

Crazy Stan

Let’s make one thing clear—Stanislas Wawrinka is not actually crazy. But the shoe seems to fit, at least in my mind, hence “Crazy Stan.” The 28-year-old is playing the best tennis of his life, and the key for him to finally break through in a meaningful way might be to avoid Novak Djokovic. Twice last year, including once in Melbourne, Wawrinka did just about everything but win against the Serb. Stan is poised to overtake Roger Federer as the resident “the Swiss guy” (i.e. a prestigious title, if there ever was one) on tour. He has a strong serve and a stronger forehand to dictate points with.

The missile DelPo

If Crazy Stan has a crazy good forehand, Juan Martin Del Potro has a missile for one. It’s strong, it’s fast but most of all, it’s just so damn heavy. DelPo remains the only man other than Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Federer and Andy Murray to win a Grand Slam tournament, at the 2009 U.S. Open, since 2005. If all goes well, the missile will be Nadal’s problem in the quarterfinals. And all of us will watch.

Rafa

Some players don’t need nicknames—who am I to say that the great Rafael Nadal should go as the Spanish stallion, or as Torrero? The encore to Nadal’s best season yet starts this week in Melbourne, and we’ll see pretty quickly whether he is ready to set the ATP World Tour on fire as his quarter of the draw is littered with tough opponents. He’ll be fine. Nadal leaves it all on the tennis court and no one has a shot as effective as his lefty and topspin-heavy forehand to the opponent’s backhand—except maybe this next guy.

The Djoker

Novak Djokovic is seeded No. 2, but he’s the favourite in Melbourne. The Djoker has won the previous three Australian Open titles and is gunning for a fifth title there, which would be a first in the Open era. This tournament often goes to the man who is better conditioned, an irony for someone who earlier in his career was said to be precisely the opposite. According to his Instagram account, Djokovic appears to treat the off-season as the time to travel and generally enjoy life, and maybe that’s the recipe. His game has few weaknesses, especially on hard courts—and this year he’s been gifted a preeeetty preeeeetty good draw, one with a possible quarterfinal against Crazy Stan. His backhand down the line is the signature shot of the past three seasons, so it’s better to attack him on the forehand.

Bonus: Andy Murray

Believe it or not, Andy Murray is the nickname I give to Andy Murray. The mercurial one has won two Grand Slam titles, including Wimbledon on his home soil this past season, and that was supposed to be enough for him to take over the universe afterward. Someone must have flipped the script, because it’s more of the same.  He’s only getting back into playing form, too, so don’t expect much from him in Melbourne.

*****

Women’s singles

Queen Serena

A week ago, I wrote that Serena Williams would capture the Grand Slam this season—Melbourne is the first step on that journey. Her quarter is very much within her grasp and she should have little problems navigating through possible matches against Daniela Hantuchova, Sam Stosur or Eugenie Bouchard. How do you beat the World No. 1? You hope she has a bad day—she’s got all the moves, otherwise.

A to Z

Victoria Azarenka looms in the last quarter and, while she’s not quite in the same stratosphere as Queen Serena, she’s a notch above most of the other players on the WTA tour. She uses a shriek, one unlike anything in this galaxy, to complicate every shot of her opponents—alright, alright, a bad joke, I know. A to Z has a solid serve, a solid forehand and a solid backhand. She’s not so great at the net, but no one really is on tour.

Aga

It’s not recommended to rally with Agniezska Radwanska as doing so is akin to hitting against with a wall—and a wall never misses. Radwanska can be overpowered, but she’s a clean player and will never beat herself. And despite a perceived lack of power, she came pretty close of beating Williams at the 2012 Wimbledon final. She’ll play A to Z in the quarterfinal, and it should be a doozy. Aga has reached that stage in the past three seasons in Australia, but the fourth time is always the charm.

Boom-boom Kvitova

You’d be ill advised to try to rally with Petra Kvitova too. The 23-year-old goes by Boom-Boom around these parts, because that’s the sound you keep on making as you’re running down her winners. Kvitova is perhaps the player with the heaviest groundstrokes on the women’s side, and it’s too bad there’s no mercy rule in tennis. She’ll beat you by beating you down, by crushing you.

Much like Murray on the men’s side, Maria Sharapova is only rounding into playing form. Most don’t expect much from her at this tournament, so maybe she’ll win.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Australian Open 2014: Day 1 Preview

January 12, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

The 2014 Australian Open gets underway at Melbourne Park on Monday, with defending men’s singles champion Novak Djokovic and world number one Serena Williams, holders of 9 Australian Open titles between them, both featuring on the opening day of play.

Matches of the Day – Day 1

1. Serena Williams vs. Ashleigh Barty

Top seeded Williams faces an interesting opponent in the opening round in the form of local girl and rising star Ashleigh Barty. The diminutive Aussie is a former Wimbledon junior champion and, although she is yet to make a major impact on the WTA Tour in terms of singles performances, relying on a wildcard to enter the main draw of this tournament, Barty has already impressed on the doubles circuit. The Aussie, teaming up with compatriot Casey Dellacqua, made the final of 3 Grand Slams in 2013, thanks in no small part to her fabulous volleying ability.

I suspect that the enormity of the occasion might overwhelm the teenager, who is up against a superstar and ultra-competitor in Serena Williams, but it will be fascinating to see how Barty fares and an invaluable experience in terms of career development. Williams in 2.

2. Laura Robson vs. Kirsten Flipkens

This match pits a pair of Wimbledon 2013 darlings against one another. Young gun Robson made a storming run to the round of 16 at the All England Club last year, to the delight of the local fans and press, and showcased a shot-making ability that has convinced many astute observers that she is destined for greatness. Flipkens fared even better at Wimbledon, making the semi-finals as the crafty Belgian finally got a chance to shine after a horror run with injuries.

Robson has had concerns of late over a left wrist injury, which forced her to pull out of a warm-up event in Auckland last week. Flipkens, who knows all too well about such issues, is the higher ranked player and my favourite to progress. Robson has an abundance of talent, but at this point simply lacks sufficient match practice to trouble the Belgian. Flipkens in 3.

3. Tommy Haas vs. Guillermo Garcia-Lopez

Evergreen German Tommy Haas enters the 2014 season off the back of a fabulous 2013 season, which saw him make the quarter-finals at Roland Garros and re-establish himself inside the world’s top 20. The veteran has a good draw in Melbourne and I think the twelfth seed can make a good run into the second week of the tournament if things go his way.

Garcia-Lopez is a handy player, having been ranked as high as 23 in the world and having twice made it through to the round of 32 at Melbourne Park. However, the Spaniard doesn’t have any huge weapons to speak of, and I think Haas will progress to the second round rather comfortably. Haas in 3.

4. Samantha Stosur vs. Klara Zakopalova

Former US Open champion Sam Stosur always seems to succumb to the pressure of playing in front of a home crowd in Australia, with the seventeenth seed’s recent playing record Down Under very poor for a player of her calibre. After losing all of her singles matches at the Hopman Cup in Perth, Stosur seemed to be turning her form around with a run to the semi-finals in Hobart, only to be thoroughly outplayed at that stage of the tournament by Zakopalova.

A former top 20 player, Zakopalova is an underrated competitor on the WTA Tour and will head into the match full of confidence after her commanding win over Stosur in Hobart. But each match is a different contest, and I’ll take Stosur to gain revenge over the Czech, although I’m still not confident of the Aussie making a deep run in the tournament. Stosur in 3.

5. Ernests Gulbis vs. Juan Monaco

A year or two ago, this match would have seen Monaco as the seeded player and Gulbis as the unseeded one. But a poor 2013 season for the Argentine, which saw him lose in the first round of 3 of the 4 Grand Slams and resulted in his ranking plummeting outside the top 40, means he is the unlucky player to draw the twenty-third seeded Gulbis in the first round.

Although Monaco is a clay-court specialist, the former top 10 player is very competent on hard-courts as well, and will seize his opportunity if Gulbis is off his game. The enigmatic Latvian is capable of literally anything on a tennis court, both good and bad, but appears to have matured in recent months. Unsurprisingly, that has coincided with a rise up the rankings. Gulbis in 4.

Put your house on: Novak Djokovic to cruise past Slovakia’s Lukas Lacko without dropping a set. The second seed has had a low-key preparation and will look to ease into the tournament with a minimum of fuss.

Upset alert: Veteran Venus Williams should cause twenty-second seed Ekaterina Makarova plenty of problems, whilst Heather Watson will fancy her chances of upsetting Daniela Hantuchova.

Likely to go the distance: Big-hitting German Julia Goerges faces a very different type of player in seventh seed Sara Errani, who relies of adept court coverage and consistency from the back of the court. This should be an entertaining, and lengthy, encounter.

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.

Australian Open 2014: Men’s and women’s draw preview and analysis

January 11, 2014

by: Tom Cochrane

Greetings and welcome to two weeks of coverage of the first Grand Slam of the new year. As always, plenty of storylines are emerging as we head into the tournament. Will Victoria Azarenka be able to claim a hat-trick of titles at Melbourne Park? Are Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray sufficiently prepared after their offseason treatments to challenge Novak Djokovic, the King of Down Under for the last 3 seasons? Does Roger Federer still have what it takes to win major titles? All these questions, plus plenty of others, are sure to keep tennis fans captivated over the coming fortnight.

Men’s Singles

The happiest man in Melbourne after the men’s singles draw was completed would have to have been world number two Novak Djokovic. The 3-time defending champion, who is looking to claim a fifth career Australian Open title, has been presented with a highly favourable draw. Whilst Djokovic is scheduled to clash with eighth seed Stan Wawrinka in the quarter-finals, in what would be a rematch of their epic 5-setter in Melbourne last year, the second seed should have no trouble progressing to the final 8. Names such as Tursunov and Fognini won’t strike fear in the heart of the Serb, although the unpredictable but talented Ernests Gulbis is lurking in Djokovic’s quarter.

Top seed Rafael Nadal, in contrast to Djokovic, has been assigned a particularly difficult route to the final. The Spaniard faces a blockbuster clash against local young gun Bernard Tomic in the opening round, and could face players of the calibre of Monfils, Hewitt and/or Nishikori before even making it through to the quarter-finals. If Juan Martin Del Potro can navigate his way through a section of the draw featuring big-serving Milos Raonic and the rising star Grigor Dimitrov, the Argentine should square off against Nadal in what would be a mouth-watering quarterfinal.

The other two quarters of the draw look pretty open, to my mind. Andy Murray, by his own admission, is still working his way back to full fitness and lacks match practice, especially in terms of long matches. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Federer or Tsonga make a run to the semi-finals from Murray’s quarter, whilst long John Isner, a recent tournament winner in Auckland, has to be considered a dark horse to make a deep run in the tournament.

Similarly, third seed David Ferrer faces a tough task to emerge from his quarter of the draw, with the diminutive Spaniard likely to face challenges from players including Chardy and Dolgopolov (both of whom have played well in Melbourne in the past) and twentieth seed Jerzy Janowicz. The scheduled fourth round clash between Tommy Haas and Tomas Berdych, if it eventuates, should be a beauty and the victor would fancy his chances of making it through to the semi-finals.

With the courts at Melbourne Park supposedly faster than in previous years, Djokovic, a recent exhibition event winner in Abu Dhabi, will be full of confidence heading into the tournament supported by his new head coach, Boris Becker. The Serb finished the 2013 season in scintillating form and, with Nadal opting to have treatment on his troublesome knee in the offseason and subsequently being in a race against time to get fully fit for Melbourne, Djokovic will be confident of beating his great rival if the pair meet in the final.

Nadal is the ultimate competitor and I think he will fight and scrap his way through to the final. In my opinion, such efforts will, however, take their toll on the Spanish warrior, leaving Djokovic to once again hold up the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup on the final Sunday of the tournament.

Winner: Novak Djokovic

Finalist: Rafael Nadal

Semi-finalists: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych

*****

Women’s Singles

To my mind, out of the 128 players in the main draw in the women’s singles, only 5 have a realistic chance of winning the title: top seed Serena Williams, two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka, two-time runner-up Li Na, former champion Maria Sharapova and fifth seed Agnieszka Radwanska.

Of those 5 players, world number one Serena Williams looks to have the easiest path through to the semi-finals. There are some talented players in Williams’ bracket, but each is unlikely to challenge the American in this tournament. Sam Stosur always seems to struggle at home in Australia, Laura Robson has had recent injury concerns, rising star Eugenie Bouchard needs more big-match experience, and seventh seed Sara Errani is usually overwhelmed by the power game of the 17-time Grand Slam champion.

Fourth seed Li Na has a tougher quarter, with high-quality players such as Kerber, Kvitova, Venus Williams and Lisicki lurking in the same quarter. But the Chinese superstar loves playing in Australia and finished the 2013 season strongly. The former French Open champion knows her window for winning Grand Slams is running out and she seems desperate to give the quest everything she has in the next couple of seasons, working hard on improving her fitness and agility with coach Carlos Rodriguez. I’ll back her to return to the semi-finals at Melbourne Park.

Similar to Andy Murray, Maria Sharapova enters the first Grand Slam of the year with a question mark against her name, with the Russian having only recently returned to the WTA Tour following time off to deal with shoulder problems. Sharapova’s performance in the Brisbane International, where she made it through to the final, was encouraging but I still think the third seed lacks enough recent match practice to be a true contender at Melbourne Park this year. Eleventh seed Simona Halep was a revelation on the WTA Tour last year, capturing an astonishing 6 titles and rocketing up the rankings. Halep is at her best on hard-courts and I think she could make a surprise run to the semi-finals in Melbourne.

Another player who loves playing on fast hard-courts and in Australia is defending champion Victoria Azarenka. To my mind, Williams and Azarenka (and perhaps Sharapova, when fully fit and firing) are a class above the rest of the other players on the WTA Tour and I think the Belarusian will make it through to another final Down Under. Radwanska, Wozniacki and last year’s surprise performer in Australia, Sloane Stephens, are all in Azarenka’s quarter of the draw, but I can’t see any of them besting the second seed.

Whilst Williams holds a commanding 14-3 head-to-head career advantage over Azarenka, the Belarusian has fared much better against the world number one in recent times, winning 2 of the last 5 matches between the pair. If the duo renews their rivalry in the final, I think it will be another very tight match. Williams seems better prepared for the tournament and seems to have a slight mental edge over Azarenka in the biggest matches, having defeated her younger opponent in the last couple of US Open finals by the narrowest of margins. Having not lifted the trophy at Melbourne Park since 2010, the ultra-competitive Williams will be desperate to regain the title. For these reasons, I’ll back Serena to capture her sixth Australian Open crown.

Winner: Serena Williams

Finalist: Victoria Azarenka

Semi-finalists: Li Na, Simona Halep

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

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