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Can Felix Auger-Aliassime Notch a Top 3 Win in 2019?

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon works on a hypothetical for Felix Auger-Aliassime.

You’ll excuse us for feeling a little patriotic these days, but as your Canadian friend will tell you after the Raptors win in the NBA Finals: yeah, we’re feeling ourselves.

It starts, as these things tend to do these days, with a tweet—from our esteemed editor-in-chief no less. Look here it is.

Obviously, this is just a hypothetical and you probably think to yourself that we could have just wrote about this topic any given week, that today maybe we should have just wrote about either of the Roland-Garros finals instead. And yet? And yet, we’re writing this the Monday after Felix Auger-Aliassime made another final in his young career, so this is fairly timely and relevant.

The subtext in wondering whether the young man can notch a win against the three best players of his era at either of the remaining Grand Slam events, is that we want to know just how good can FAA get and how quickly.

Auger-Aliassime’s surge in 2019 has been quick and rapid and maybe the reason why we’re wondering about the youngster’s chances on the biggest stages of the sport is that it feels like a foregone conclusion that FAA will make it to the NextGen ATP Finals.

Still only 18 years old, the Canadian has reached No. 21 in the world (at time of writing this) and figures to keep climbing through the ranks. Though he’s turned pro all the way back in 2017, he’s only really been in our collective consciousness since the launch of this season. This, in turn, means that every day, week and month he has been living his best life: the hard work and the points to defend should come in 2020 but for now? Enjoy it, kid, it’s all gucci.

That said, the tweet above speaks of Auger-Aliassime possibly shocking the tennis world at either of the two remaining Grand Slams of the season. It’s still a hypothetical: so far the biggest win of his young career remains either a quarterfinal win over Borna Coric in Miami or a second-round win against Stefanos Tsitsipas in Indian Wells—but can he add another name to his kill list? We gotta say that we can kind of see it happen maybe?

Novak Djokovic

We start with the current best player in the world and, well, good luck here. At Roland-Garros, Novak Djokovic came to within a hair of good fortune of having the privilege to compete for a fourth Grand Slam title in a row, or more likely to get pummelled in the final by the next man on the list.

Why it will not happen against Djokovic: Sure, the Djoker’s play has suffered from bouts of inconsistency recently, but those haven’t happened at the majors. Should FAA ever beat Djokovic, it’s likely that it’ll happen in a best-of-three setting and at an event that Djokovic, like, doesn’t care much about.

Why it will happen against Djokovic: If Auger-Aliassime is to beat Djokovic, it will be because he catches the Serb on a day where things don’t work out well for him. The Canadian is a precocious and well-rounded player, but Djokovic is perhaps the single most well-rounded player we’ve ever seen; a win for the former would be more telling of the latter than vice-versa.

Rafael Nadal

No matter what happens the rest of the way, Rafael Nadal can rest easy knowing he’s done his part in the tennis season during the clay court season. The Spaniard is still great in 2019, but the hill you face in a match against him does not feel as insurmountable as it once did.

Why it will not happen against Nadal: FAA better hope the draw pits him against Nadal early on at Wimbledon, because the Spaniard seemingly gets better the more he plays. A quick overview of his career Grand Slam performance timeline seems to say that when Nadal loses at a Grand Slam, he tends to do so early on and spectacularly.

Why it will happen against Nadal: Auger-Aliassime could very well overcome Rafa because the matches at Grand Slams will occur on grass and hard courts, two surfaces perfectly suited to his play and working against Nadal’s style. Not only that, but before a semifinal berth a year ago, Nadal’s results at Wimbledon since his win in 2010 had been extremely pedestrian. If FAA beats him, it’s likely coming at Wimbledon.

Roger Federer

The Swiss is the final and third member of the Big Three referenced in the tweet above.

Why it will not happen against Federer: What stands out most in Roger Federer’s career, perhaps even more than the 20 Grand Slam titles, is his consistency ever since he first captured a major at the 2003 Wimbledon: since then, he’s made the quarterfinals or better at 53 of the 61 Grand Slams he competed in. What we’re saying is that Federer will not lose against Auger-Aliassime at a major this season.

Why it will happen against Federer: Yeah no, sorry we have nothing.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

French Open 2019: Men’s and Women’s Draw Preview and Analysis

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 2019 Roland-Garros tournament.

Welcome to Paris for the second big prize, Roland-Garros, on the 12-month rainbow ride that is this 2019 tennis season.

By the time you read this, you’ll have seen a few matches under way already—the Roland-Garros schedule says that Angelique Kerber will battle Anastasia Potapova on Court Philippe-Chatrier to kick things off, so good luck to the German as you’ll see from our predictions below.

We’ve learned a thing or two from the previous run through a short and sweet clay court season and now that the draws have been released, we’ll try to put things in perspective.

From what we can tell, both draws are ultimately pretty satisfying. They tend to be when it’s a Grand Slam, sure, but we feel like they’re especially juicy this year. (Then again, maybe we say that every year too. Oh well.) In keeping up with our tradition of previewing the main draws of every event that’s “kind of a big deal” in importance, or even more, let’s see if we can pick the Paris quarterfinalists correctly for both men and women.

Women’s draw

The WTA draw is pretty wide-open, with a few of the favourites either injured or not playing all that well and giving way to a number of other players to try their hand at it.

The first section is nominally Naomi Osaka’s to lose but, though she righted the ship a little bit after a rough post-Australian Open stretch, all eyes will be on Serena Williams. We shouldn’t expect much, if anything, from the great champion, so let’s hedge our bets here and say she makes the final eight, but not more than that.

Meanwhile, Simona Halep arrives in Paris in form and as the defending champion. She’s got the best odds to win the French Open Women’s Singles. The pressure is on her, and she hasn’t always responded well in the past when this was the case, but for what it’s worth we believe in her here. We’re eager to see what young American Amanda Anisimova can do: if she’s supposedly the real deal, she’ll manage to grab a handful of wins in Paris in what’s a tricky, but fair, main draw.

Which Sloane Stephens will show up? We’re choosing to believe in the American who made a run to the 2018 Roland-Garros semifinal rather than the one who hadn’t made it past the fourth round before then, but we’re not entirely confident. As for her quarterfinalist opponent, let’s go with another player who’s accustomed us to high highs and low lows in Belinda Bencic.

Has anyone played as well in 2019 as Karolina Pliskova, the French Open second-seed and favourite to emerge from a fairly okay bottom section and with already two titles to her name this season against only seven defeats? Dear reader, the answer is no.

Quarterfinals: Naomi Osaka over Serena Williams; Simona Halep over Anett Kontaveit; Belinda Bencic over Sloane Stephens; Karolina Pliskova over Angelique Kerber

Semifinals: Simona Halep over Naomi Osaka; Karolina Pliskova over Belinda Bencic

Final: Simona Halep over Karolina Pliskova

Men’s draw

On the men’s side of things, there’s a large boogeyman overseeing everything but how well he does perform remains to be seen. And in any case, we’re likely to see another case of “same old, same old.”

In the top section, Novak Djokovic was dealt what’s ultimately a fairly easy draw. Sure, there are tricky opponents here and there, notably a likely fourth rounder against mirror image Borna Coric, but the Serb should emerge unscathed here.

The second section of the men’s draw has everyone’s favourite non-Big 3 contender in Dominic Thiem, and we wish nothing but to him as well as to see him battle Juan Martin del Potro in the quarterfinals if their match resembles their epic 2017 US Open battle.

Moving to the lower half, everyone will understandably be looking at Roger Federer, who will compete in his first French Open since 2015. But we’re seeing tiny Diego Schwartzman shocking the world before the Swiss has a chance to impress. As for the fourth section, there is Rafael Nadal looming, ready to jump on any poor fool standing in his way as his march to another French Open title continues.

Quarterfinals: Novak Djokovic over Fabio Fognini; Dominic Thiem over Juan Martin del Potro; Diego Schwartzman over Stan Wawrinka; Rafael Nadal over Daniil Medvedev

Semifinals: Novak Djokovic over Dominic Thiem; Rafael Nadal over Diego Schwartzman

Final: Rafael Nadal over Novak Djokovic

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

Will the real WTA champion please stand up?

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon wonders what’s behind the extreme parity of the first quarter of this women’s tennis season.

It’s the age-old, the “chicken or egg” question if you will but transposed to women’s tennis.

So far in 2019, the WTA has held 15 different tournaments that have been won by… 15 different players.

Wait, really? Yes, really.

Every single week that we’ve had an event, a new champion has emerged and we’ve yet to crown a repeat winner. Some will say that this is really pretty on-brand for women’s tennis if we look at the previous 15 years or so, that it’s just that a sport that’s always been characterized by parity has been moreso than usual recently. That the sport has always been the place for parity and scarcely has there been a central force, beyond Serena Williams, who overwhelmed the entire competition over the past decade.

Part of it has been that we draw this conclusion when we compare women’s tennis to its men counterpart, which has been blessed with a golden generation where perhaps the three best players in history all managed to compete in the same period together at once.

What we mean to say is that this isn’t totally fair to the WTA, but we’ll get back to this idea.

For now let’s focus on our central idea, our chicken and our egg if you will. Such parity in women’s tennis has led us to wonder an underlying cause: is this seemingly lack of dominant players a symptom of great depth, or is it the other way around? (We’re well aware that it’s not exactly a chicken and egg situation. Whatever.)

Knowing what we know in 2019, it does appear like this run has coincided with the ascent of a good number of promising players, ones like Bianca Andreescu who has managed to take the entire world by storm in her first real foray into professional tennis. The parity we see also comes as a result of a number of other players, still relatively young and promising like Belinda Bencic or Ashleigh Barty, finally enjoying a sustained run of excellence.

Perhaps the actual surprising thing about this sudden parity that’s not so sudden is that it comes right when we thought we were entering the Naomi Osaka era. The Japanese is the current best player in the world and holder of the most recent two Grand Slam titles, and she’s looked like the type of player who had the poise and mental might to conquer all and to stay at the top.

She’s also still just 21 years old, so perhaps it’s entirely expected to see her struggle a little bit as she steps into the limelight and tries to emerge from the considerable shadow of Serena Williams’s on women’s tennis. It’s one thing to get to the top but it’s quite another to stay at the top—and yet, Osaka remains at the top, even as she’s struggled so far in 2019.

Now, remember when we said this isn’t totally fair to the WTA? Well it just so happens that men’s tennis has had a similarly parity-rich start to the 2019 season, with no fewer than 19 different champions for 19 tournaments before—who else?—Roger Federer grabbed a second crown in Miami. Plus, while men’s tennis has been basking in the afterglow of a golden generation, this wasn’t always the case. Glance over the 1998 ATP season Wikipedia page, or even the 1999 one, and you’ll see that it’s pretty slim pickings.

Just like it did for the ATP, this will not last and we’ll see a repeat winner before long. Probably. And yet, we’re writing this as Madison Keys and Caroline Wozniacki battle for the Charleston Open, with the former emerging victorious in two sets to none.

You guessed it, it’s her first title of 2019.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

The Highs and Lows as a Top Tier Tennis Player

Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon recaps the first week of the 2019 BNP Paribas Open.

Will the real Sloane Stephens please stand up?

Oh we know, this opener is as cliché as it gets but there’s some truth behind it and we believe that it speaks to a greater, and broader, conclusion: that life on tour is really damn hard.

You know Stephens, right? Long ago announced as a possible force after her run to No. 5 in the juniors, Stephens turned pro already a decade ago in 2009 and is the current World No. 4 player with a career-high ranking of No. 3. She’s also the 2017 US Open winner, has six career WTA titles, and she also made the 2018 French Open final.

It is here that we’ll mention that if it feels like we’re just stating biographical details about Stephens, it’s a little bit by design. You see, we’re using this to show you how much success Stephens has enjoyed over the past two years, and how accomplished she’s become, and yet that she still lost in the first round this past week in Indian Wells, 6-3 and 6-0 against No. 109 Stefanie Voegele. She’s among the very best in the world, and on one of the biggest stages of the world, she can’t even win one match?

Yeah, can the real Sloane Stephens please stand up?

Mind you, diehard fans of the player have become accustomed of such highs and lows in the unfolding of her career. After a stunning run to the 2013 Australian Open semifinal, where she upset Serena Williams in the process, Stephens, well, didn’t really do much afterward. She won her first career title two full years later in Washington, DC, then mostly progressed until the 2016 Rio Olympics before shutting things down with a foot fracture.

Until then, things are fairly fine but they would get much, much worse before they got better. The American couldn’t come back to the WTA before Wimbledon in 2017 after an 11-month layoff; by August, she was ranked No. 957, which seems unspeakably low for anyone let alone someone of Stephens’s reputation and accomplishment.

From there, a mere weeks later, Stephens snagged a US Open title. Surely, this would be the break and result she needed, right? Wrong, as the newly crowned champion proceeded to lose her next eight matches immediately following her win at Flushing Meadows, a streak that lasted through the 2018 Australian Open. If you’re saying “what the fuck?” under your breath, you’re not alone.

We say all this to say that perhaps more than anyone else currently playing, Stephens is a good emblem for how ridiculously difficult life is as a tennis pro: one day you’re on top, but the next one you could find yourself down in the ditch—or, in the case of Stephens, in the Tennis Channel announcer’s booth.

We’re not revealing you any secrets by stating that tennis is a freaking ruthless and unforgiving sport and that perhaps we’ve lost our perspective on this recently.

In tennis, you stand alone on a court and hit a yellow ball over and over and over and over again over a net and into an opposing court, and if you do it well enough you win a point. And if you do it well enough for long enough, then you might win a game, a set and even a match. Once you’ve done that, you get to move on to another match against a new opponent and with the same yellow ball. Rinse repeat, until one day you’ve won a tournament because you’ve nagged six or seven match wins in a row at the same event. That’s when tennis tells you, “Congrats, you’re a champ now; now do it all again next week.”

We’ve grown accustomed to the fact that top players should perform exceedingly well every single time they step on the courts when that’s simply impossible.

It’s not either that this is restricted to women’s tennis either. There was a time when we ridiculed Tomas Berdych for never managing to get over the hump when, in fact, we should have been cheering him on for even making 11 of 19 Grand Slam quarterfinals from 2012 through the end of 2016. Just ask players like Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Milos Raonic or Nick Kyrgios how easy this all is.

It’s all so difficult, and yet Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams manage to (almost) always do it. We’re tipping our virtual hats off to them, but this shouldn’t be an indictment on the highs and lows of a player as accomplished as Sloane Stephens, who, we’re repeating it here just so it’s clear, is the current fourth best player in the world.

She’s the fourth best player in the world, and she can lose in the first round to no real surprise.

If this can happen to her, what chance do other players have?

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG

BNP Paribas WTA Finals 2018: Draw Preview and Analysis

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 2018 BNP Paribas WTA Finals.

In women’s tennis, the year-end event isn’t quite… the year-end event.

You see, the 2018 BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global got underway over the weekend, and it lasts right until and through next Sunday, Oct. 28…but then you glance over the calendar page on the WTA Tennis website and see another five extra events after this one.

Well then.

In any case, welcome to Singapore for the big pot of gold on the WTA rainbow, the main event with the eight best players in the world. With the benefit of writing this after a few of the matches have already been completed over the weekend, let’s see if we’re able to assess who are the favourites and who’s just happy to have booked their tickets.

The World No. 1 player: Simona Halep

Don’t look now, but Simona Halep has basically been atop the WTA rankings for over a year. She’s the best player in the world and, though she’s maybe not playing the best tennis of anyone right now, she even has a Grand Slam title to her name.

***[Editor’s note] Hmm, it’s just that Halep has withdrawn.***

Oh, thank you esteemed editor.

The would-be favourite: Angelique Kerber

A little bit by default, the German is slated as the top seed and in a year of reintroduction, Angelique Kerber shouldn’t be taken for granted. She’ll have her hands full with Sloane Stephens, but she does have a winning record against the other two opponents in the Red Group.

The favourite: Naomi Osaka

The Cinderella story would call for a Noami Osaka win in Singapore to conclude this 2018 season in women’s tennis. While the youngster has seen her star rise brighter than ever since winning the US Open, this doesn’t mean she’s immune to bad results: her 40-17 record on the year does include a 3-6 record against members of the Top 10. If the 21-year-old doesn’t win this year, she may very well do so next year.

The other favourite: Sloane Stephens

Remember when Sloane Stephens captured the 2017 US Open and then, like, simply couldn’t stop losing tennis matches? Yeah, us neither. With a 6-1 combined record against others in her group, the American has to feel good about her chances of advancing to the semifinals, if not well above and beyond.

The dark horse: Petra Kvitova

Oh sure, this 2018 season hasn’t been the greatest and best of Petra Kvitova’s great career but when you look things up, you can’t change the fact that she’s won over $3 million in prize, five tournaments and 47 of her 61 matches. She’s also been great against the best, sporting a 7-1 record versus top 10 players—and if that still doesn’t convince you, Kvitova sports a stellar 18-6 record against those in the White Group.

Only, she suffered a pretty straightforward defeat in her first match, so who knows what’s going to happen.

The Happy-to-be-here: Kiki Bertens, Elina Svitolina

It’s easy to forget but Elina Svitolina is still relatively young at 24 years old. While this season might not have been up to par with her previous 12 months, she has time on her side, enough that she should manage to add plenty of elements to her game. And yet you look up and she made it to the WTA Finals again, so something must have gone right for her, right?

Meanwhile, in a different world Kiki Bertens would have been drafted to the White Group and might have rode what’s been a career year all the way to the biggest title of her life. Instead, she’s stuck competing against three players against whom she is just 1-4 in her career. Tough luck.

Caroline Wozniacki & Karolina Pliskova: Caroline Wozniacki, Karolina Pliskova

We’re slotting the pair together even if, upon first glance, they don’t seem to be on the same level after Karolina Pliskova dismantled Caroline Wozniacki by the score of 6-2 and 6-4 on Sunday. Still, let’s give Wozniacki, a well-versed and experienced player, the benefit of the doubt the rest of the way. She’s the defending champion for a reason, after all.

Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG