Ranking the Top 10 Players to Watch at the 2014 Rogers Cup

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistAugust 6, 2014

Ranking the Top 10 Players to Watch at the 2014 Rogers Cup

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    The 2014 U.S. Open Series starts its first of three big stops with the Rogers Cup in Canada. This year the ATP will play in Toronto and the WTA will perform at Montreal. Best of all, many top stars will be gunning to peak for the U.S. Open, the last Grand Slam event of the year.

    We are going to rank the 10 most interesting players to watch during this week. The top stars are the biggest draw, and there are differences in their quests to win titles. There is especial interest in some of the younger players trying to move up in men's and women's tennis.

    Unfortunately, our list will not include absentees Rafael Nadal, Li Na and Simona Halep. We also left off Serena Williams, who is always a favorite but was able to win a title last week and assuage some concerns about defending her U.S. Open title.

10. Victoria Azarenka

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    Will Victoria Azarenka be ready to make a run at the U.S. Open?

    The former No. 1, hampered by injury for most of 2014, has slipped out of the Top 10. Recent matches have shown rust and a need for more matches. The problem is that she could be out Tuesday night in a tough test against Alize Cornet.

    But if Azarenka can pick up momentum in future matches against the likes of Dominika Cibulkova or Agnieszka Radwanska, it would speak volumes about her chances to get ready for the U.S. Open.

    Warning to spectators: Bring a good set of earplugs if she wins a few matches. The better she plays, the louder she gets. Or is it the other way around?

9. Milos Raonic

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    Have you ever thought that Milos Raonic somewhat resembles former baseball legend Babe Ruth? His large, round face and hulking body fits his slugging style of serving, but he has a long way to go to put up Ruthian statistics in tennis.

    In truth, we are not going to sell you on his playing style, which often means huge aces and a lot of quick points. Raonic is also fairly methodical on the baseline, and though he has improved on his footwork, still has work to do to become a consistent Grand Slam contender.

    But Raonic is winning, and the press will follow. He is a Wimbledon semifinalist and last year's runner-up for the Rogers Cup. Can he continue to move his ranking deeper into the Top Five?

    He is certainly Canada's big hope and draw, and is already leading the greatest period in the tennis history of his country.

8. Stanislas Wawrinka

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    Which Stanislas Wawrinka will show up? Will it be Australian and Monte Carlo champion with the world-beater backhand, or will he spray unforced errors into the bleachers? Either way, he will not be cheated with his intentions to hit hard and slug harder.

    Iceman Stan should be looking forward to several weeks on the concrete jungle of North America. He is a great attacking player who has harnessed the champion's most important ingredient of mental toughness. He's not afraid to play anyone, and if he gets off to a strong start, he could very well win the Rogers Cup.

    But he has a tough road ahead. There's dangerous Benoit Paire and Kevin Anderson or Fabio Fognini just to get to Grigor Dimitrov, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. He will need to be at his best.

    And if he does go out early, he will still be an interesting draw teaming up with Djokovic to play doubles.

7. Ernests Gulbis

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    Who wouldn't pay to go see Ernests Gulbis play? He has incredible talent, big strokes and the capability to beat anyone on tour. He recently peaked as a French Open semifinalist, including a memorable win against Roger Federer.

    And if all else fails, he is entertaining. Forget about the racket throwing or occasional meltdowns. Gulbis has a genuine sense of charisma, even if it can be too much. Case in point: last year's Rogers Cup run to the quarterfinals. Gulbis' loss to Milos Raonic had him red-eared and ready to vent against the fans, as posted in the Toronto Sun:

    They’re used to hockey here. It’s OK. But, honestly, I don’t understand why you need to clap for a double fault. Simply, I don’t understand it. You know, there can be emotions, but I think it’s stupid.

    I can’t call a thousand people stupid. Don’t put it as a quote.

    Fair enough, Gulbis, but you might need a hockey stick and mask if you hope to advance far this week.

6. Novak Djokovic

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    Novak Djokovic is the No. 1-player in the world with the most complete backcourt and return game in tennis. He's the closest thing to consistent perfection that you are going to find on the tour. You can argue that he should be at the top of this list, and certainly Djokovic's fans will put him there.

    But he also does not have a lot to prove at Toronto. He has won this tournament three times, and how he does here will probably not affect his chances one iota for how he does at the U.S. Open. With Djokovic, we know what we are getting, and if that's boring to some people, it's also comforting to know that he is reliable and ready to contend each and every time.

    As the week moves on and some of the "more interesting stories" fall by the wayside, you will eventually find yourself tuning into watch the Serbian's latest round of great tennis.

    Like the Roman Empire, all titles lead to Djokovic.

5. Eugenie Bouchard

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    With all apologies to Milos Raonic, Canada's biggest star is undoubtedly Eugenie Bouchard. She even upstaged his Wimbledon semifinals appearance by going to the finals.

    Bouchard is already a legitimate threat to win the U.S. Open. Her ability to take the ball early, combined with the energy and growth she has shown in 2014, is remarkable. Additionally, her magnetic appeal for sports fans could bring more interest to tennis in general and to a youth movement on the WTA that is rapidly gaining momentum.

    What we would love to see is a quarterfinals match against Serena Williams. Serena has long been the standard of women's tennis and she would test the courage of Bouchard's game and potential.

4. Nick Kyrgios

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    At least young Australian Bernard Tomic will not have to carry all the hopes of Australia's tennis future. Instead, 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios recently introduced himself to many sports fans at Wimbledon. Kyrgios' big win was knocking off then-No. 1 player, Rafael Nadal.

    So there is a lot of interest in seeing how Kyrgios will perform at the U.S. Open Series. We know about his booming serve, which will look terrific on hard courts, but how about his groundstrokes and consistency? More specifically, can he knock off Top 20 players and show that he is a superstar in the making?

    His first match has already been completed, a 7-6(3), 7-5 win over Santiago Giraldo. What this means is that Kyrgios will be tossing it up with Andy Murray.

    It could be the most intriguing match of the tournament, showing us just how raw or polished Kyrgios is. Can he blast winning serves against arguably the best returner in tennis? Can his forehand blow Murray off the court, and more importantly pin Murray back and put him under pressure?

    Tennis fans have to anticipate this showdown.

3. Andy Murray

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    Nick Kyrgios is an interesting story, which could suit Andy Murray just fine. But the Scotsman is probably the contender that most needs a strong run at Toronto or Cincinnati to feel ready to win the U.S. Open.

    Murray must prime his game to elevate to another level on North American hard courts. The surface provides more offensive pace for his game, and it will require his quickness and defensive acumen. But how aggressive is he willing to play?

    If Murray does advance to the quarterfinals, as expected, he will likely face familiar nemesis Novak Djokovic, and there's no question that the match and pressure will be on Murray to win. This week would be a perfect time to hold up the Rogers Cup as a definitive way of saying, "I'm back."

2. Grigor Dimitrov

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    Grigor Dimitrov is easing into his celebrity role as the wins and titles have started to accumulate. He carries a sense of entitlement, in a good way, of believing that he can and should be the top player in the world. He's also learning a lot about hard work, fitness and big matches.

    Dimitrov is a Top 10 player with a bigger ceiling. He should have his sights set on contending for every tournament title that he plays, and the Rogers Cup would be his first Masters 1000 title. It would also put him in serious discussions as a U.S. Open contender.

    His game is pleasing and his talent is appealing. Can he complete his journey to truly becoming the next big thing in tennis? For now, his flash is held together by a blue-collar approach that will require even greater toughness and mental strength.

1. Roger Federer

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    Only in Canada would they honor a tennis legend by having him show off his hockey skills. He's not exactly the next Wayne Gretzky, but Roger Federer is at least tennis's version of hockey's most immortal star.

    Tennis fans everywhere understand that Federer is winding down his career and they still have the opportunity to see him play as one of the top-ranked players in the world. He could indeed win the Rogers Cup and put himself in position to win a sixth U.S. Open title.

    Federer personifies the grace of championship past, and he has earned the right to be the sentimental favorite wherever he goes. Each time he plays is a chance for at least someone to savor the flavor of watching him play in person. That alone is worth a week of expenses in Canada.