First Ball In, 8/4: The Game Goes North
Finally, tennis returns to its Mecca: Canada. The home of Top Tenners Eugenie Bouchard and Milos Raonic, as well as Wimbledon doubles champ and D.C. finalist Vasek Pospisil, the nation up north will play host this week to the dual-gender, dual-city Rogers Cup, the biggest of the U.S. Open tune-ups so far. The women are in Montreal, the men are in Toronto this year. While both tournaments feature solidly packed 56-player draws, both are also, unfortunately, depleted by injury at the top. Each is missing its No. 2, Rafael Nadal on the ATP side, Simona Halep on the WTA side. The women are also without their No. 3, Li Na, while the ATP is missing one of its breakthrough players of the season, Kei Nishikori.
That leaves more room for surprises on both sides. Let’s see who might be ready to spring one this week.
See the draw here.
Newly married, newly No. 1, Wimbledon champ: Novak Djokovic would seem to be due for a letdown, or at least a week of rust. But Canada and its hard courts have always suited him. Djokovic is a three-time champion at this event, and the man who beat him in a classic semifinal in Montreal last year, Rafael Nadal, isn’t around.
All of that makes Djokovic the prohibitive favorite for title No. 4, but it almost surely won’t be a smooth ride—is it ever with Nole? He’ll start with a showman’s special, against either Radek Stepanek or Gael Monfils, and might take part in another in the next round against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, whose seeding has dropped all the way to No. 13. If things go as scheduled, Djokovic will play Andy Murray in the quarters.
What about Murray? His coaching situation is shored up, with Amelie Mauresmo on board for the foreseeable future, but you still get the feeling there’s work to be done for the world No. 10. He hasn’t been past the quarterfinals in Canada the last three seasons, though the year before that, in Toronto in 2010, he won the whole thing.
First-round matches to watch, again:
Vasek Pospisil vs. Richard Gasquet: They just played a long three-setter in the D.C. semifinals.
Bernard Tomic vs. Ivo Karlovic: They just played a long three-setter in the Bogota final.
Possible second-round match to watch:
Andy Murray vs. Nick Kyrgios
Stan Wawrinka is the No. 3 seed, but he has never been out of the quarterfinals in Canada. Even worse, he could face the man who beat him in the first round here last year, his buddy Benoit Paire, in his opener. Otherwise, Wawrinka would seem to be set up for a deep run. The second seed in this quarter is Grigor Dimitrov—is the Wimbledon semifinalist and new Top Tenner ready to make himself a weekly threat?—and the third seed is Fabio Fognini. Stan would be favored to beat either of them.
Donald Young: The D.C. semifinalist opens against Frank Dancevic.
Dominic Thiem: He reached a final this weekend in Kitzbuhel, and starts against an unseeded Gilles Simon.
Thanasi Kokkinakis: Another Aussie teen arrives, this one as a qualifier.
Milos Raonic reached the quarters in Paris, the semis at Wimbledon, won his sixth title, in D.C., this weekend, and is seeded No. 6 at this Masters event. It’s safe to say that, at 23, he has joined the ranks of the ATP’s reliable, which is a lot harder than it sounds. Still, he has finalist’s points to defend in Toronto; he’ll start defending them against either Jack Sock or Jurgen Melzer. Raonic is already 7-0 in sets against Sock in 2014.
Is the man on the other side of this half, Tomas Berdych, about to join the ranks of the un-reliable? He looked bad in losses in Paris, Wimbledon, and to Pospisil in D.C. The Birdman will try to boost his confidence, and avoid the beginnings of a free fall, against either Rendy Lu or Marcel Granollers in the second round.
Ernests Gulbis and Roberto Bautista Agut: Sadly, they don’t play each other.
Roger Federer will make his first appearance in Canada since 2011. He should feel good: About his ranking, which is back up to No. 3; about his performance at Wimbledon, which, despite the painful nature of his defeat, was his best at a major in two years; and, perhaps most of all, about Nadal not being around.
Rafa’s absence is a benefit to Rog in two ways: Not only does Federer avoid playing him, but he moves up to No. 2 in the seedings and avoids Djokovic until the final. Federer could, however, have a tough start. He’ll play either Peter Polansky or Jerzy Janowicz; the latter is not someone anyone wants to face in their first match in a month, on a new surface.
David Ferrer: This, we can safely say, is not his tournament. Ferru is 5-8 lifetime in Canada, and has never been past the third round in eight tries.
John Isner: His early loss in D.C. could be a blessing in the long run. He’s in Ferrer’s section of the draw, which is not a bad thing, either.
Semifinals: Djokovic d. Wawrinka; Raonic d. Federer
Final: Djokovic d. Raonic
See the draw here.
Each week is a clean slate on tour, and what a difference one of them can make. Just ask Serena Williams. After her title in Stanford, her name looks a lot more solid and imposing at the top of the draw in Montreal. She wasn’t always at her best in California, but she was close enough to make us believe that her best isn’t far away. Which is a good thing, because she may need it right away in Canada, where she could play Sam Stosur in her opener.
Stosur is wildly up and down, of course, and she just lost to a 16-year-old, but she also owns three wins over Serena. The last time they played, two years ago in Charleston, it was all Serena—she beat Sam 1 and 1. Serena won this tournament last year, but she wasn’t coming off a week of play the way she is this time. We’ll see whether her time in Stanford builds her confidence, or tires her out.
Eugenie Bouchard: The Montreal native faces two questions: (1) How much rust has she accumulated after nearly a month away? (2) Will the hometown crowd buoy her, or make her nervous? She could face a tough opener against Ajla Tomljanovic. As far as her possible quarterfinal opponent, Serena, goes, Bouchard lost their only meeting, in Cincy last year, in three sets.
First-round matches to watch:
Caroline Wozniacki vs. Daniela Hantuchova: How high can a more-focused Caro climb?
Lucie Safarova vs. Sorana Cirstea: The Wimbledon semifinalist faces last year’s Rogers Cup runner-up.
Potential second-round matches to watch:
Serena Williams vs. Sam Stosur
Eugenie Bouchard vs. Ajla Tomljanovic
Semifinalist: S. Williams
Maria Sharapova also makes her first appearance since Wimbledon. Traditionally, Canada hasn’t been kind to her—she’s never won this event—and that tradition appears to have continued in 2014. Sharapova could open against Garbine Muguruza, the strong young Spanish player who nearly beat her at the French Open. After that, Maria might find herself in a rematch with Angelique Kerber, who did beat her at Wimbledon.
Venus Williams: Somehow, after 17 years on tour, Venus is making her first appearance in Montreal. She starts against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Kurumi Nara, finalist in D.C.
First-round match to watch:
Carla Suarez Navarro vs. Bojana Jovanovski: For those who like their backhands with some background noise.
I’d say Aga Radwanska is due to make a little noise of her own, except that even when she’s winning, she’s pretty quiet. Radwanska hasn’t reached a semifinal since Madrid in May; does she have a prayer of doing it here and fulfilling her No. 3 seeding? There are a lot of players near her in the draw who would seem to be highly capable of beating her—Zahlavova Strycova, Vinci, Kuznetsova, Keys, Lisicki, and Errani are all in her half of this section.
In the other half is a woman who has made a point of beating Radwanska as badly as possible over the years, Victoria Azarenka. Despite losing to Venus last week, Vika, who has played just five matches since the Australian Open, looked ready to shake the rust off. Oddly, while hard courts are her favorite surface, she has never reached a final in Canada. The two name players in her half are Dominika Cibulkova and Alizé Cornet.
First-round match to watch:
Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Madison Keys: The D.C. champ takes on the Eastbourne champ in a battle of the deeply streaky.
You might wonder whether Petra Kvitova can win anywhere outside of Centre Court. But Montreal is one of the other places where she has lifted a champion’s trophy, in 2012. Before that, Kvitova had complained about the humidity in North America, and the last time she won Wimbledon, in 2011, she followed it up with a dismal U.S. Open Series. She’ll try to avoid a repeat of that in her opener, against either Kirsten Flipkens or Casey Dellacqua.
Jelena Jankovic: We’re due for some JJ, I’d say.
Sloane Stephens: Joining the ranks of the unseeded, she starts against Aleksandra Wozniak.
Ana Ivanovic: She could play Jankovic in the third round.
Andrea Petkovic: The Stanford semifinalist starts against Camila Giorgi and could play Kvitova after that.
Semifinals: S. Williams d. Kerber; Azarenka d. Kvitova