The much anticipated Rogers Cup, the first of back-to-back Masters events, has finally begun. After a much storied summer, the first major tournament in the US Open series is sure to bring more drama leading into the final Slam of the year. With 18 of the top 20 players in the draw, the competition will be intense. However, it is safe to bet that one of the top six players will claim the title in the end.
1. Roger Federer. The Rogers Cup will mark the beginning of a new Federer era. From the "Career Slam Man" to the "History Man", Federer has fittingly returned to where he belongs, the top of the tennis world.
After a five-week break, during which he became a proud father of twin-girls and turned 28, the Rogers Cup is a true new start in many ways. While he is way too familar with the No. 1 spot and not at all worried about the age and motivation, it will be interesting to see how he handles the new role of being a father. It is expected that he will play more freely with all the history and records behind him, but what about his concentration?
I think it was a smart move by Roger to release the picture of his twins right before the Rogers Cup kicks off, which I think will prevent unnecessary paparazzi during the back-to-back Masters events. While I am not sure how Federer will perform at the two Masters events, I truly believe that he will win his sixth straight US Open in September.
History: Federer won the Rogers Cup twice, in 2004 and 2006, both times in Toronto. Can he conquer Montreal this year?
2. Rafael Nadal. The tennis world has been missing Nadal badly after he bowed out of Roland Garros and subsequently missed Wimbledon due to knee injuries. His sabbatical was unfortunate, but served to remind all of us tennis fans how truly blessed we are to be able to witness the greatest rivalry in tennis history.
Please, no "Rafa-haters" or "Roger-haters"!! Why being a fan of one of them has to be the hater of the other? Though I am a die-hard Federer fan, I can honestly say that "I love Rafa!". Welcome back, Rafa!!
Nadal won the Olympic Gold in Beijing this week last year, and fittingly rose to No. 1 the following week, capping a dramatic and historic summer. Even to say that this summer is the polar opposite of the last one would be an understatement. The Rogers Cup is also a true new start for Nadal in many ways. While he is also way too familar with the No. 2 spot, we can only hope that his knees will hold up and won't affect him too much mentally. Without his mental game, Nadal won't be the Nadal we knew.
I think he should use the two Masters events as warm-up to the US Open, where he has a chance to complete the Career Grand Slam. Due to his lack of match play, I will be surprised if he wins any of the two Masters titles. But if his knees do not cause any problems, I expect him to make a deep run in New York.
History: Nadal won the Rogers Cup twice, in 2005 and 2008. No one has been able to win back-to-back Rogers Cup since Agassi last did it in 1994-1995. A tall task, huh, Rafa?
3. Andy Murray. With the unbelievable achievement of Federer dominating this summer's headlines, the buzz about Murray seemed to be history already. Indeed, his performance in the two Slams this summer was only fair considering all the hype, though he did end Britain's 20 year grasscourt title drought.
Murray has stated many times that he likes the hardcourts the best and his favorite Slam is the US Open, where he advanced to his first and only Slam final last year. Without any Slam title to his credit, I am sure Murray is eager to prove himself this year in Flushing Meadows. But before that, a title or two in the following two weeks will be a huge confidence boost.
I am even ready to say that without this boost, he can forget about any hope of success in New York.
Ranking watch: with the points from last year's Olympics taken off next Monday, Murray is only trailing Nadal by 235 points in the ATP ranking. So he has a real chance to end the Federer/Nadal duopoly this week at the Rogers Cup.
History: Murray's best results in the Rogers Cup are semi-finals in 2006 and 2008. You can do better than that, right, Andy?
4. Novak Djokovic. Ah, the "forgotten man!" Seriously, with everyone talking about the other members of the Big Four and about other top 10 players like Roddick and Del Potro, the Djoker has been largely forgotten over the past few months. Well, the blame is partly on Nole himself due to his lackluster performance in the last two Slams.
But still, this guy is tremendously talented, was ranked No. 3 as recently as in May, and was featured in the Deuce magazine in January ("The 'Djoker' Comes Of Age").
Don't you forget he is a Grand Slam champion, something the Murray is not.
I believe that Murray's sub-par performance in the summer was at least partly due to his devastating loss to Nadal in Madrid. In the best semifinals match in Masters history, Djokovic did everything he could and played above his level (his own words) but still lost to a less than 100 percent Nadal.
That's got to hurt, and hurt it did! Gone was the ever entertaining "man in blue shoes", all we saw in the summer was the shell of Djokovic without his tennis soul.
After a five week break, we can only hope that the wound sustained in Madrid and subsequent tournaments has mostly healed. Since hardcourt is his favorite surface, the Rogers Cup is an ideal tournament for him to regroup. If he goes deep this week, a title next week in Cincinnati is quite a possibility.
History: Djokovic won the Rogers Cup in 2007, his breakout year. In fact, he rose again to No. 3 after that year's Rogers Cup and held that spot till this May. A good omen?
5. Andy Roddick. Much has been said about Roddick's heroic effort in this year's historic Wimbledon final against the almighty Federer. But a loss is a loss, no matter how hard you tried or how close you were to winning.
Be it fate, or luck, or belief, Roddick was unable to come out of that titanic battle as the winner. Again, last weekend in the Washington final, in front of a huge pro-Andy crowd, he lost to the soon-to-be-mentioned Del Potro. Maybe he just lacks that extra, ah "oomph", to get over the hump.
Really, whenever I hear about Roddick, I always feel sorry for him. His career almost overlapped with Federer's completely. He was able to win the US Open in 2003 before Federer's reign at No. 1 began, but since then has lost to the Swiss maestro eight times in Slams, four times in Masters and three times in the Masters Cup.
With the hiring of a new coach, Roddick has been bigger and stronger this year. But somehow, I just feel that is not enough. I fear that he will forever be a One Slam Wonder. Just like Murray, I think he needs to win at least one title in the next two weeks to have any hope of a deep run in New York.
History: Roddick won the Rogers Cup in 2003, the year in which he was the year-end No. 1. What has happened in the following six years?!!
6. Juan Martin Del Potro. The youngest top 10 player in the world. Having just won the Washington title last Sunday, Del Potro may be the most in-form player among the top six here.
In Roland Garros, he gave Federer a true scare, leading two sets to one in their semi-final encounter, before losing in five sets. However, in Wimbledon, he exited very early, which put an end to his impressive rising in the rankings. But like many other top players, his favorite surface is hard-court. So he will be a major threat to the Big Four in the coming tournaments, especially in the US Open.
If he and Nadal both make into the quarter-finals in Rogers Cup, I will pick Del Potro to win that match. In fact, I believe he has what it takes to win this week. I am really glad that Argentina has produced another talented player in Del Potro.
While Nalbandian never lived up to his true potential (and with his recent hip surgery, dare I say he won't be able to find his top form again), I truly hope Del Potro will do much better. Winning a Slam is all it takes!:)
History: Del Potro made his Rogers Cup debut in 2007, losing in the first round, and his tournament record so far is 0-1. But following a break-out 2008 season, any match record before then is quite meaningless. By now, we should be quite familiar with the phrase: "What difference a year makes!".
Semis: Federer vs. Murray; Djokovic vs. Del Potro;
Final: Murray vs. Del Potro;
Winner: Juan Martin Del Potro