Is the Rogers Cup, ruled by a Big 4, reverting to its wide-open past?

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Alexander Zverev's championship speech at the 2018 Citi Open in Washington, D.C.:

The 1990s and early 2000s saw a number of unheralded players unexpectedly laying claim to final-round berths in what is currently known as the Rogers Cup, the ATP's sixth Masters tournament of the year, in Canada.

That came to an end with the rise of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the tour's "Big Four," who won every Toronto and Montreal title from 2004 to 2013 between them. Federer has raised the winner's trophy twice, Nadal and Murray three times apiece, and Djokovic has done it four times.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga ended their stranglehold in 2014, and Alexander Zverev nipped another revival in the bud last year with his straight-sets win over Federer in the final. Can another player make a breakthrough this year?

The Rogers Cup, one of the oldest events in men’s professional tennis, went through a spell where the unpredictable appeared to be the norm.

Unseeded champions Mikael Pernfors and Chris Woodruff prevailed in 1993 and ’97, respectively. In 2010, Marat Safin, the eighth seed, beat the qualifier Harel Levy for the title. The following year, Andrei Pavel captured the biggest title of his career, as the unseeded Romanian defeated 1998 champion Patrick Rafter in the final. And in 2002, 19th-ranked Guillermo Canas beat five members of the top 10 on the way to the championship, including Federer, Safin and Andy Roddick.

After Roddick’s win in 2003, which included a win over Federer (the two would meet in the following year's final, with a different result), the notion of an outsider breaking through was dispelled for a decade, until Tsonga's suprise run. He beat Djokovic, Murray and Federer—something akin to a tennis exorcism—en route to his second career Masters title. He also became the second player that year to triumph at a Masters tournament outside of the Big Four, after Stan Wawrinka in Monte Carlo.

The subsequent two years saw the Rogers Cup back in familiar hands, as Murray and Djokovic added to their hauls. Last year, in his resurgent campaign, Federer fell in straight sets in the final to the 20-year-old Zverev, who won his second Masters 1000 event of 2017.

This year, Federer, in an effort to manage his schedule and focus on preservation with the US Open on the horizon, isn’t playing the Rogers Cup. Murray, still on the comeback trail from injury, won’t be in Toronto, either. Nadal and Djokovic, the No. 1 and No. 9 seeds, respectively, will be competing in their first tournaments since Wimbledon.

Perhaps leading the way among the favorites is Zverev, who just won his third title of the year in Washington, D.C. But if the Citi Open was any indication, he and the rest of the top tier will face a challenge from the younger set, which has shown that it’s ready to battle for the game’s biggest titles. Of the four semifinalists, Zverev was the oldest of the bunch at 21. He defeated Alex De Minaur, 19, for the title; their semifinal opponents were Stefanos Tsitsipas, 19, and Andrey Rublev, 20.

Last year, Denis Shapovalov, a fellow member of the youth brigade, announced himself on the world stage with a run to the semifinals in Montreal, topping world No. 1 Nadal along the way.

Veterans of the tour should also be able to make their presence felt in Canada, with Kevin Anderson, Juan Martin del Potro, Marin Cilic and John Isner all at their best on hard courts.

And this year’s event is stocked with talented unseeded players that are capable of taking home the title, including Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic and Lucas Pouille.

If one of them were to prevail, it might not be as surprising as Woodruff’s run 25 years ago, but it would highlight the notion that the Canada Masters event has made a return to its unpredictable past. 

ATP Toronto
Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Alexander Zverev headline the Rogers Cup in Toronto. Watch live coverage from four courts on Tennis Channel Plus beginning Monday, August 6th at 11:00 A.M.

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