Good Morning Canada: Monday

Monday, August 05, 2013 /by
Despite deep runs at the majors, Sloane Stephens continues to struggle in lower-level tournaments. (AP Photo)
Despite deep runs at the majors, Sloane Stephens continues to struggle in lower-level tournaments. (AP Photo)

Each day this week, Peter Bodo will review action from the Rogers Cup tournaments in Canada and preview upcoming matches. These "Good Morning Canada" posts will be published around 10 am EST, and we encourage you to discuss the day's play—along with Pete's thoughts—in the comment section below.


YESTERDAY: July is officially “National Anti-Boredom Month,” and I’d say tennis has done more than its share to help banish ennui to more familiar precincts. 

Since the end of a decidedly un-boring Wimbledon, the ATP has barreled through 10 tournaments, while the WTA has staged eight. While most of these would undoubtedly qualify as minor events, they certainly were in no danger of boring anyone and also served a useful purpose. They seed ground that’s well plowed over by the end of the clay and grass seasons with fresh, new story lines—see Fabio Fognini, winner of the German double in Hamburg and Stuttgart. They allow veterans to re-group—see Sam Stosur, who won her first title since the 2011 U.S. Open. They introduce or revive (relatively) obscure names—see Carlos Berlocq, among others.

Most of all, July sustains the essential continuity of the tour and its ever-changing face. That’s true even though the elites of the game are scarcely seen immediately following Wimbledon (Roger Federer and Serena Williams excepted, at least this year). This has proved a godsend to the ATP and to a lesser extent the WTA. Nobody would mistake Gstaad or the Baku Cup for Roland Garros or the Australian Open, but these tournaments are regionally significant and pump fresh blood into a game that has been dominated by marquee names for a solid month.

Here’s the remarkable thing about the 18 events that have passed since Wimbledon: The top seed won in just three of them. John Isner took Atlanta as a No. 1, and he also lost to top-seeded Juan Martin del Potro in the Washington, D.C. final. In the WTA, top-ranked Serena won Bastad. At the same time, Federer and Victoria Azarenka, both very recent No. 1s and multiple Grand Slam champions, each played at least one event and failed to justify their top seedings.

The winners, you ask? They included one wild card—Nicolas Mahut, who won both singles and doubles in Newport—and three other unseeded players: Berlocq in Bastad, Ivo Karlovic in Bogota, and Yvonne Meusurger in Bad Gastein. They also included a No. 12 seed—Fabio Fognini in Hamburg—and a No. 8, Marcel Granollers, in Kitzbuhel. If you calculate the average seeding for the winners who had a seed to begin with in July, the number you come up with is between five or six on both tours. That means players who were projected to fall before the semifinals usually ruled the day.

All these names and numbers confirm how competitive the game is when the truly dominant champs sit idle. It isn’t like the ATP’s ruling quartet or top WTA trio was replaced by Roger and Serena wannabes capable of lording it over their peers in like fashion. And thanks for that, because that would be a bore. It’s more like the indifference of the dominant pros unleashes a kind of splendid chaos, which makes these tournaments something we don’t always associate with the more prestigious events: Fun. You may even come away from this splendid little month thinking that the sturm und drang that distinguishes the majors isn’t the be-all and end-all of the game. In some ways, it may even be overrated.

Novak Djokovic vs. Andy Murray is arena rock; you fork out a month’s pay and end up standing there hours later holding a Bic lighter up in the air—just like you’re supposed to. Fognini vs. Federico Delbonis is a garage band in a dump where you may or may not get in, beers are a buck, and you can’t stop casting glances at that girl or guy who’s supremely cool-looking but maybe not entirely out of your league.

Well, that’s all over now. The big cats are back this week, in Toronto (WTA) and Montreal (ATP). Serious business. But one vestigial point of interest remains: How will the top performers of the past month fare now that the stakes have been raised considerably higher? We’ll see as the week unfolds.

***

TODAY: In Montreal, where Federer is conspicuously absent, the top eight seeds have byes that guarantee them a stress-free Monday. The sixth Masters 1000 of the year begins with a headcase double-header featuring Bernard Tomic and Ernests Gulbis in back-to-back matches (respectively) on the stadium court. I couldn’t imagine a more volatile way to light the fuse on this event.

Both these men are on the upswing. Tomic, still just 20, is up to No. 40, while Gulbis has loped an astonishing 100 places off his ranking since the beginning of 2013, and now sits perched just two spots below the Australian hothead at No. 38.

Neither of these gifted ball strikers has had a very busy summer so far; Gulbis hasn’t won two matches in a row since the Rome Masters. Tomic, embroiled in a nasty controversy starring his own coach and father, John, had a good Wimbledon, reaching the fourth round, but then didn’t play at all until just last week in Washington, where he lost in the third round to del Potro.

Tomic will meet No. 47 Florian Mayer of Germany, a crafty 29-year-old who holds a 3-1 advantage in their head-to-head meetings. That doesn’t mean very much, though, because of Tomic’s youth—and, Bernie won their only meeting of this year. Mayer is an inventive player who relies on touch, but the same is true of his opponent. Tomic has more tools and a better constitution as a competitor, but on any given day he’s prone to running out of inspiration.

Gulbis, who’s 24, has a 3-1 lead on his first-round opponent, wily, 31-year-old left-handed veteran, Feliciano Lopez. While Lopez is the theoretical favorite (he’s ranked No. 30), he’s beaten Gulbis just once in four meetings—and not since 2009. Gulbis hasn’t lost a set Lopez the last three times they’ve met. The power Gulbis generates off the ground appears to be just too much for the slice-and-dice game of the Spanish throwback, Lopez.

In Lopez and Mayer, both of the mercurial, somewhat notorious ATP bad boys are facing players whom they need to handle with undue drama in order to keep building on their momentum. A loss might be especially dispiriting for Gulbis, who seems to have lost his way since his outstanding spring and is in danger of backsliding—again.

Further west, the WTA is staging its premier event in Toronto. For those of you who don’t know, the men and women alternate sites between Montreal and Toronto for what is essentially the Canadian Open split between two venues on the basis of gender. It works out pretty well; it’s certainly an incentive to attend if you know that missing the tournament in any given year in either city means you may go a while between chances to see your player of choice.

As in Montreal, the top eight women are excused on Monday in Toronto. But there’s at least one match-up that just jumps off the page for me, and that’s the clash of No. 14 seed Sloane Stephens and 38th-ranked Kristina Mladenovic.

A six-foot tall right-hander from France, Mlandenovic is a potential generational rival of fellow 20-year-old Stephens. The big difference in their resumes at this point is that Stephens has been to the fourth round or better at every Grand Slam this year, and that includes a semifinal in Melbourne and a quarterfinal at Wimbledon. By contrast, Mladenovic has won just two matches in Grand Slam play this entire season.

In fact, the only time these two have met was in the second round of January’s Australian Open, where Stephens tagged Mladenovic with little trouble, 6-4, 6-3. Still, Mladenovic is a promising and rapidly developing player who has a lot of available power. And Stephens apparently continues to have trouble focusing and playing her best in regular tour events. Seeded No. 2 in Washington last week, the American lost in the first round to Olga Puchkova. Let’s see if she can reverse that trend by at least lasting a round in Toronto. It’s bad policy to present gifts to those who qualify as rivals.

Get ready to hold those lighters high in the air in Montreal and Toronto. Don’t burn your fingers.

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