It is time. The summer hard-court season officially gets underway on Monday in Montreal.
The champion of the Rogers Cup for the past two years, Andy Murray, has arrived and begun practicing, ready to defend his title against all comers.
The men’s top four have not played on the ATP tour since Wimbledon, recouping, rejuvenating and retooling their games for the American hard-court season––which, in essence, lasts from the first week in August through the first week in September.
It culminates in New York City at the 2011 US Open.
Winning the US Open could salvage the year and the career of Andy Murray, now ranked No. 4.
Winning in New York could reestablish Rafael Nadal as a force at the top of the men’s game rather than as a man who failed to defend two of his last three major titles.
It could give Federer his sixth US Open title and his 17th Grand Slam title.
Finally, it could cement Novak Djokovic in the top spot, giving credence to the 48-1 record he brings into the American hard-court season.
This year, the Rogers Cup will be a combined event, even though it will continue to be hosted in two different locations with the men’s event in Montreal this year and the WTA event to be played in Toronto.
The schedules are supposed to complement each other with the idea being that fans will be able to enjoy both tournaments simultaneously.
An interesting experiment, to say the least.
Nothing much of interest has happened in the men’s game since Wimbledon.
What are the odds coming into Montreal that (1) Murray will repeat as champion or (2) that Djokovic will continue his 48-1 winning streak or (3) that it will be Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal who adds a third Roger’s Cup to his very crowded Masters mantle?
At age 20, in 2007, Novak Djokovic made quite a name for himself by toppling the No. 3 seed, Andy Roddick, the No. 2 seed, Rafael Nadal and finally the No. 1 seed Roger Federer, winning his first and only Rogers Cup title.
Rafael Nadal said of the Serb’s run that Djokovic was the future No. 1 player in the world.
Little did Nadal realize the Serb would scale those heights some four years later, but at the Majorcan's expense when Djokovic took the No. 1 ranking away Nadal during the Wimbledon fortnight.
So far, Djokovic has lost one match in 2011, to Roger Federer during the French Open semifinals.
The Serb has won every other tournament he has entered, including both the Australian Open and Wimbledon. In the process, Djokovic has defeated Nadal in their last five finals.
Last year at the Rogers Cup, Djokovic lost to Roger Federer in the semifinals, and in 2009, the Serb went out in the quarterfinals to Andy Roddick.
But Djokovic is not the same player he was a year ago. With his newfound confidence and willingness to go for it all, you cannot count the Serb out in winning his second Rogers Cup title.
Rafael Nadal won the Rogers Cup in 2005 and then again in 2008, defeating first Andre Agassi and then Nicholas Kiefer during those two respective finals.
Last year, Nadal lost in the semifinals of the Roger’s Cup to the eventual champion, Andy Murray.
In 2009, the Majorcan lost in the quarterfinals to Juan Martin del Potro in Montreal.
This is the first tournament since Nadal rose to the No. 1 ranking in 2010 that he will not be the No. 1 seed. This year, that honor will go to Novak Djokovic.
Nadal lost his No. 1 ranking at Wimbledon when Djokovic overtook him just prior to the finals.
In fact, Nadal has lost the last five finals he has played against Djokovic.
What Nadal hopes in the next few weeks is to make himself match tough for the upcoming US Open. Of course, the world No. 2 would like to win the Rogers Cup again, and Nadal will do his utmost to capture the title.
Ultimately, however, it will be more important for the Majorcan to get a feel for the hard courts and reestablish the rhythm of his game. Playing hard and playing well will be enough for the time being.
Nadal needs to win the tournament in New York City at the end of the month in order to hang onto his confidence that he can win on surfaces other than clay going forward.
There is no doubt that Djokovic is the new power in men’s tennis with Nadal as perhaps his only rival.
Roger Federer has also won this tournament twice––once in 2004, defeating Andy Roddick and again in 2006 when he won over Frenchman Richard Gasquet.
Both of Federer’s victories have come in Toronto.
Last year, Federer advanced to the finals but lost to Andy Murray 5-7, 5-7.
In 2009, the Swiss lost a very strange quarterfinal match to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Federer had captured the second set from the Frenchman after losing the opening set tiebreak. Then in the third set, after being up 5-1, Federer collapsed, sending the third set into a tiebreak which the Swiss ultimately lost.
It was one of those post-2008 matches when Federer just seemed to go away for a time, not able to find his game.
Roger Federer has one win on hard courts in 2011, in Doha in January. The synthetic surfaces have traditionally been one of the Swiss’ favored surfaces, although the titles have become much more difficult to acquire of late.
Like Nadal, Federer will be looking to do well by improving his game and gaining match play experience going into the US Open.
Flushing Meadows will be Federer’s last change to win a major in 2011. Should he fail to win the US Open, it will mark the first calendar year since 2002 when the Swiss has not captured at least one slam title.
Federer would very much like to keep that streak alive, and at the same time, win his sixth US Open title and his 17th Grand Slam title.
As Greg Sharko pointed out in a recent article––by winning the Rogers Cup in 2011, Andy Murray will become the first man to win the Masters title three consecutive times since Ivan Lendl accomplished it in 1987-1989.
Murray has won the title in both Montreal and Toronto back to back in 2009 and 2010. He will be hoping to win another title in 2011 to complete the triple crown.
In the past year, Murray has seen his tennis fortunes shrink as the distance between his ranking points and the other top three expands.
Murray has to pin his hopes on the current American hard-court season and especially the US Open. A victory, on what many regard as the Scot’s best surface, would surely give new life to Murray’s game and new sting in his reputation.
Murray has not played since Wimbledon, so like the other top seeds, Murray will be looking to improve his game and gain some match strength, but Murray will also be trying to win this tournament in order to extend his winning streak at this Canadian event.
Robin Soderling did not do particularly well on clay or on the grass in 2011.
The Swede will be looking to improve his ranking by doing well on the American hard courts coming into the US Open at the end of this month.
Soderling, however, has never gotten beyond the third round at the Rogers Cup or at the Masters tournament in Cincinnati.
The past two years, Soderling has advanced to the quarterfinals of the US Open. The Swede, unfortunately, has never advanced any further than that.
Even though it seems Soderling’s game should be suited to the hard courts, it has not worked out this way so far.
Mardy Fish is ranked higher than he has ever been, and his game appears in better shape than ever before. Even so, the American is not on anybody’s list to do much damage this summer.
A win at a significant tournament this summer would be the crowning achievement in the American’s career resurrection.
Fish has played in Canada twice in 2003 and 2008, losing both times in the opening round.
The American has fared much better in Cincinnati where Fish advanced to the finals last summer, losing to Roger Federer.
His only other final appearance in Cincinnati came in 2003 when Fish lost to Andy Roddick. Other than these two highs, Fish generally has lost in the first round in this prestigious tournament.
Recently, after losing in the finals in Los Angeles to Ernests Gulbis, Fish withdrew from the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington DC, citing injury in the form of a bruised right heel.
The world No. 8 will be hoping to win a title this summer either at the Rogers Cup or in Cincinnati.
After that, Fish will try to advance further than the third round of the US Open.
Fish, who will turn 30 before 2011 ends, understands that the opportunities to make his mark will slowly close. It is now that the chances exist, and the American will do his best to capitalize.
Andy Roddick last played at the Rogers Cup in 2009 where he advanced to the semifinals, losing to the Argentine Juan Martin del Potro.
The American Roddick won the event in 2003, defeating David Nalbandian for the title.
Roddick has also won the Master’s title in Cincinnati twice––in 2003, defeating Mardy Fish and again in 2006, defeating Juan Carlos Ferrero.
Roddick also won the US Open in 2003 where he defeated the same Juan Carlos Ferrero.
The point being––Roddick does well on the American hard courts and has experience winning these events.
As such, he is a dangerous competitor and he has a real shot to win any of these hard-court events again. His year to date has not been very impressive.
Winning during the American hard-court season would go a long way to salvaging Roddick's year.
It has taken the Argentine some time to recover from his wrist surgery and the subsequent extended layoff during 2010.
But Juan Martin del Potro should begin to show the form that allowed him to capture the US Open in 2009.
Although del Potro lost in quarterfinals during the Farmers Classic in Los Angeles to Ernests Gulbis, expect the Argentine to ratchet up his game during the swing through Montreal and Cincinnati prior to the US Open.
The Argentine was sidelined during the 2010 American hard-court season, but in 2009, del Potro made the finals of the Rogers Cup, losing to Andy Murray.
During his first trip to the Canadian event in 2007, del Potro lost in the first round to Frank Dancevic.
Del Potro has played the Masters tournament in Cincinnati only once in 2007 when he lost in the third round to Carlos Moya.
Regardless of where the Argentine is placed in the draw, he will be a dangerous opponent for any of the top four.
Expect the Argentine to be at his best going forward from the Rogers Cup.
Gael Monfils (7)
So far, Gael Monfils has not stepped foot on the American hard courts. To date, he has played at the Rogers Cup in Canada the past three years, advancing only as far as the third round.
Monfils has played Cincinnati five times since 2005, and his best result was when he reached the third round in 2005. Otherwise, the Frenchman has not really broken a sweat in Ohio.
At last year’s US Open, Monfils advanced to the quarterfinals, which marked his very best result since the Frenchman’s initial appearance in Flushing Meadows in 2005.
Monfils, with seemingly unending athletic talent who should be doing well on the hard courts, has been a big flop so far during the American hard-court season.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (16)
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has played the Rogers Cup only once, advancing to the semifinals in 2009 where he lost to Andy Murray. He has also only played once in Cincinnati, losing in the second round in 2009. The Frenchman has never advanced beyond the third round of the US Open.
So the American hard-court season has never been a favored time of the year for Tsonga, whose game seems a perfect fit for the synthetic surface.
After his surprising stellar play at Wimbledon earlier this summer, perhaps the time to rise and shine in New York City has arrived.
Fernando Verdasco (19)
The handsome Spaniard has had such a lousy year that it would be poetic justice for him to break his run of defeats and score a big win during the American hard-court season.
Unfortunately, the Spaniard has been busy playing on clay and has not yet ventured onto the synthetic surface. It will be an abrupt change of pace.
In six appearances at the Rogers Cup, Verdasco has not advanced beyond the third round. The same is true for the Masters tournament in Cincinnati except that Verdasco has played there seven times, never advancing beyond the third round.
In eight appearances at the US Open, Verdasco has advanced to the quarterfinals the past two years. Maybe this will be the year Verdasco finally breaks through in New York City or at one of the Masters series hard-court events leading up to the Open.
Frenchman Gilles Simon (11)
Even though Gilles Simon has been playing on clay instead of hard courts, the Frenchman, who battled injury for the better part of last year, appears to be the man from France who has the best chance to do well on the American hard courts.
Simon advanced to the semifinals of the Rogers Cup in 2008 and the quarterfinals at Cincinnati in 2009. A big win would cement his return to form in 2011.
Canadian Milos Raonic (29)
Watch for the big-serving, big-hitting Canadian to make his mark during the American hard-court season. Caution: Raonic is recovering from hip surgery.
Australian Bernard Tomic (71)
Bernard Tomic had his first breakout performance at Wimbledon earlier this summer. But the Australian’s game should translate well onto the hard courts.
It would not be a huge leap to imagine Tomic doing well during the American hard-court season, ending at the US Open in New York City.
American Ryan Harrison (82)
Harrison, who made the semifinals in both Los Angeles and Atlanta, losing both times to fellow American Mardy Fish, appears ready to make his move and have a breakout performance.