Montreal Masters: Novak Djokovic Faces First Test as No. 1
Djokovic was about to become the first new No. 1 since Nadal and Roger Federer began their dominance in February 2004 and the first man in nine years other than those two to win Wimbledon.
The Rogers Cup in Montreal is the first tournament since that seismic shift in which the key protagonists play, and to mark the event, the organisers are holding a ceremony on its opening day to honor Djokovic’s achievement.
With eight titles—two of them Grand Slams—and 48 match wins to his name, the Serb has so transformed the tennis scene that it is hard to see anyone knocking him from his lofty pedestal this side of 2012. The main contenders—Nadal and Federer along with Andy Murray—are not only big points adrift in the rankings but also have a lot to defend in the forthcoming “big three” events of the U.S. Open Series.
All four made the semis in the Toronto Masters: Murray won. All four made the quarters of Cincinnati: Federer won. All but Murray made the semis of the U.S. Open. Nadal beat Djokovic in the final.
In the Canadian Open in particular, the top quartet has been especially dominant. All have won this title before: Murray, Federer and Nadal twice each, Djokovic once in 2007—beating Federer, who was also the beaten finalist last year.
So there is much at stake—titles, points and rankings—should things go drastically wrong.
The Role of Injuries
There is a fifth significant “player” in Montreal: injury.
No. 5 Robin Soderling has a wrist injury and No. 6 David Ferrer has a hairline fracture in his left hand sustained during training. Their mini-battle for the No. 5 ranking—it could have switched hands here—will have to wait.
Also missing, and sacrificing the chance to climb from No. 12 back into the top 10, is Andy Roddick.
No. 18 Jurgen Melzer has a pulled quad, No. 29 Milos Raonic—a strong contender for real progress on the hard courts—is still recovering from hip surgery and, in the 30s, Spaniards Tommy Robredo and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez are also injured. A final blow was the withdrawal of Ivan Ljubicic and Xavier Malisse for personal reasons.
Some players, though, have benefited from the Ferrer/Soderling misfortune. World Nos. 9 and 10—Tomas Berdych and Nicolas Almagro—have been promoted to positions where they avoid the “big four” until the quarterfinals.
Radek Stepanek—following his good run to the Legg Mason final—has won a Special Entry to set up an interesting opening-round match against fellow serve-and-volley exponent, Feliciano Lopez. The Spaniard’s revived form in recent months took him to the quarters at Wimbledon.
Another Wimbledon quarterfinalist, Bernard Tomic, has won a Wild Card entry. The huge-hitting 18-year-old Aussie beat both Nikolay Davydenko and Soderling in London and also took a set from Djokovic.
All of which may give Federer pause for reflection: Tomic is in his eighth of the draw. But if Federer’s line-up is designed to test his newly 30-year-old body, Djokovic’s has been carefully constructed to test his new standing at the top of tennis.
Quarter One: Novak Djokovic
The Djokovic 2011 run, all glorious six months of it, is almost as familiar to Joe Public as it is to the ardent tennis fan.
What’s also remarkable is that, in achieving No. 1, he has played fewer tournaments than anyone in the top 100 apart from Tomic. They both have 18 events to their names, but while this time last year, Tomic was still on the Challenger and Futures circuit, Djokovic was putting together a 26-8 win-loss record during the second half of 2010 before winning the Davis Cup and everything over the 2011 horizon.
Even within this glowing C.V., Djokovic’s hard-court record stands out: 18 of his 26 titles.
He won in Canada in 2007, was runner-up in Cincinnati in 2008 and 2009 and runner-up in the U.S. Open to Federer in 2008 and to Nadal last year. He may have to beat both to win Montreal this year and he will have to hit the ground running if he is to reach a semi-final contest with the only man to beat him in 2011, Federer.
He opens, probably, against Davydenko whose three Masters all came on hard courts (two outdoor). However, the Russian is enduring a shocking loss of form since he won the Munich title in April: two wins in seven tournaments, the most recent in Legg Mason this week.
So he may give Djokovic exactly the warm-up he needs: a crisp hard-court game with little chance of an upset. A much bigger threat looms in Round Three.
Juan Martin Del Potro’s pedigree in the U.S. is well proven: He broke Federer’s New York run to win the Open in 2009. He has now worked his way back to fitness from extended injury problems and, assuming he gets past the improving Marin Cilic—also with a good hard-court record—in Round Two, it could be the match of this segment.
Djokovic’s quarterfinal opponent should be Gael Monfils, who has put in a good run in Legg Mason this week, though he will have to overcome John Isner who is also enjoying a great streak on his best surface.
Matches to watch out for: Djokovic v Del Potro, Round Three; Isner v Troicki, Round Two.
Quarter Two: Roger Federer
Federer, along with Ivan Lendl, has the best hard court win-loss record of the Open era: 45 of his 67 titles have come on this surface. At the U.S. Open alone, he was unbeaten from 2004 until meeting Del Potro in the 2009 final, and he had points to beat Djokovic last year for a seventh straight final.
Federer has big points to defend in one of his most successful segments of the year. He is title-holder in Cincinnati—he has won there four times—and has played four finals in Canada, winning twice.
He needs a strong start to his campaign to keep in touch with the top two men but also to answer the recurring questions about his age: He turns 30 on the first day of the Montreal event.
He could find himself in a repeat of last year’s final against Murray—and he will certainly fancy his chances against Djokovic if they meet in the semis. He beat the Serb in the semis here last year and also remains the only man to beat Djokovic this year.
But looming in Federer’s third round is a fascinating encounter: a rematch with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the man who knocked him out of Wimbledon.
Federer, at two sets up, had that match in his grasp, but played a loose service game and was broken. That turned the match as Tsonga produced his best tennis since his Australian Open run of 2008.
Federer hit only seven unforced errors in the remaining three sets but had not a single break point chance. Even against the Teflon-coated Djokovic in the semis, Tsonga forced two tie-breaks, winning one of them.
So Federer heads into dangerous waters. With so many points at stake, he cannot afford a “Tsonga lapse” against anyone, and a noteworthy alternative to Tsonga might be the giant-killing Tomic.
The bottom of this quarter has huge appeal. The first round pits Richard Gasquet against Florian Mayer—who just missed out on a seeding—and Sergiy Stakhovsky against Philipp Kohlschreiber, Nos. 43 and 44 in the rankings. Andrey Golubev against Thomaz Bellucci also promises plenty of pace and flair.
2011 has seen a renaissance in Richard Gasquet. He scored a stunning victory over Federer in Rome from a set down and then beat Berdych, too.
If Gasquet is prepared to keep up the attacking style that has been so central to his comeback, he should beat Almagro for a quarterfinal test against Federer. On hard courts rather than clay, however, Federer should avenge Rome.
Matches to watch out for: Gasquet v Mayer, Round One; Tsonga v Tomic, Round Two; Tsonga v Federer, Round Three.
Quarter Three: Andy Murray
Murray is bidding to become the first man since the 80s to win three consecutive Canadian titles. And make no mistake, he loves this swing.
He won in Cincinnati in 2008, has reached three more semis in these two Masters, and was a finalist at the U.S. Open in 2008. His training base is in the hot and humid Miami and the hard, blue courts are his favorite surface.
If all goes well, he should face Nadal in the semis who he beat there at the same stage last year. Indeed all four of Murray’s wins over Nadal have come on hard courts.
His opener will be against either Pablo Andujar, who has played the clay swing with some success since Wimbledon but has little form on hard courts, or Kevin Anderson. The South African played the Atlanta and Legg Mason events so his big-serving game is nicely warmed up. He would be a tricky opener.
The next round could be particularly interesting. David Nalbandian and Stan Wawrinka can both produce top-class tennis on hard courts, and the Swiss’s new-found aggression has produced some strong performances, not least in beating first Murray and then Sam Querrey in New York last year.
Nalbandian has had a light year, dogged again by injuries, and neither played Davis Cup nor defended his Washington title. He lost to James Blake in his opener in the Legg Mason, too, so Wawrinka should dominate, but Nalbandian can magic wins from thin air on a given day, and either man would be a challenge in Round Three.
The other half of Murray’s quarter is full of intrigue. Mardy Fish, continuing the rise that began this time last year, is enjoying his highest ever ranking, has just won Atlanta and reached the final of Los Angeles.
However, he also played a gruelling Davis Cup, losing two long matches, and this week pulled out of the Legg Mason with a sore heel. That may prove significant against the strong serve-and-volley games of Stepanek or Lopez, the second of whom beat him in that Davis Cup tie.
If Fish advances, he may face the man who beat him in Los Angeles, Ernests Gulbis who, when on song, has the ability to beat almost anyone put before him. That may be Mikhail Youzhny, who is also no slouch when it comes to hard-court battles, though he has spent the summer on clay.
Matches to watch out for: Wawrinka v Nalbandian, Round One; Lopez v Stepanek, Round One; Gulbis v Youzhny, Round Two; Murray v Wawrinka, Round Three.
Quarter Four: Rafael Nadal
Nadal opted out of Spain’s Davis Cup tie in the States to rest, regroup and try to work out the puzzle that is Djokovic. Even putting aside his losses on the hard courts and the grass, Nadal has never been dominated by anyone on clay until this year by Djokovic.
One thing’s for sure: He will have spent his off-season working harder than ever for he needs to hit the ground running to make an early statement of intent ahead of the defence of his U.S. title.
The draw for Montreal should help his campaign, posing few threats in the early rounds. His first seeded opponent ought to be Fernando Verdasco, who Nadal has beaten in all their 11 matches—including last year’s U.S. Open. Based on Verdasco’s recent form, however, it may be Janko Tipsarevic who advances to the third round.
Nadal’s quarterfinal opponent should be Berdych, who he beat in Miami this year. The Czech reached the quarters in Canada last year but the rest of his U.S. form was unimpressive and he has struggled to live up to his ranking for most of 2011.
It is possible, indeed, that recent Umag winner, Alexandr Dolgopolov, could shake up this segment. He made a big impression at the Australian Open in beating Tsonga and Soderling, and pushed Murray to four sets.
He also met Berdych in this event last year in a close three-setter and Dolgopolov is a stronger player now. He may be the dark horse for a quarterfinal against Nadal.
Matches to watch out for: Berdych v Dolgopolov, Round Two; Tipsarevic v Verdasco, Round Two.
Finalists: Federer v Murray