Pressure From the Top
August 10, 2010 -- Rogers Cup is a giant's step away from Washington DC and the Legg Mason Tennis Classic. It has nothing to do with geography.
Rogers Cup, in Toronto, and next week's Men's Western & Southern Financial Group tournament in Cincinnati are Masters 1000 events, and sit one step below a major. They are mandatory appearance dates for the players. They also lead up to the U. S. Open -- the last major of the year.
The ones who do consistently well at Masters' tournaments are the ones who stay top ten. For the few steadier ones, they stay top five.
All players, though, will focus so hard on their games their brains will hurt, from now until they step foot on the Billy Jean King National Tennis Center. Skills will be honed. Bodies will attempt to steady themselves in the heat and humidity of the summer hard court season. Every step they take, every move they make will have something to do with New York City and all it's hoop-de-do emphasized ad nausea by the USTA.
Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer are no different than the other sixty-one players here this week in Toronto. The top three seeds have to be here, and they need match practice. They know the depth of the men's game, at least until someone approaches the top echelon.
Roger Federer is seeded #3 at Rogers Cup, which is the first time since the 2003 Masters Cup in Houston.
"Being ranked No. 3 in the world is something I haven't been in a very long time," Federer began. "It also gives me motivations and a drive to come forward again."
But later, Federer contradicted that statement; "I didn't even know I dropped to 3 until I looked at the rankings. So it doesn't change my life."
Maybe the discrepancy has to do with turning 29 on Saturday or his decision to bring Paul Annacone, Pete Sampras's former coach, to work with him on a trial basis.
"This is our first test tournament," Federer said. "We're taking it slow. We'll see how it goes. We will make a decision maybe after the U. S. Open and what I'll do."
Severin Luthi, Roger's coach and Switzerland's Davis Cup coach, will meet with Federer and Annacone in Cincinnati.
Federer hasn't played any tournaments for six weeks. He met briefly with Annacone in Switzerland, and went on vacation. Although he doesn't let on, with any conviction, that he's rattled about his slip in the rankings, his actions speak for them. The contradiction with whether he's affected by #3 ranking also leaves fans wondering.
One thing is certain, Federer has no plans to leave the game any time soon.
"I've always questioned myself in the best of times and in the worst of times, even though there were not many worst moments the last seven years," he said. "But I always look at new ways I can improve on. Paul, with his experience can bring something to our team. That's what we're exploring right now."
Rafael Nadal won't play until Wednesday at Rogers Cup. It will be the first time since his Wimbledon win -- his eighth major title. He traveled to South Africa to watch Spain capture the World Cup, after having two injections -- one in each knee.
Nadal and #2 seed Novak Djokovic threw a promotion bone to Tennis Canada, after deciding to play doubles here in Toronto. One could guess that practice is practice and maybe Nadal has something up his sleeve. He has one formidable backhand stab volley and seems quite comfortable at the net. His knees aren't the best and the U. S. Open is the one major not on his resume.
All of this is speculation. However, the one-two combination lost last night to two young Canadians: Vasek Pospisil and Milos Raonic. They, in turn, lost today to Jurgen Melzer and Philipp Petzschner, the Wimbledon doubles champions.
Novak Djokovic did take off a bit of time, too, after helping advance Serbia in the quarterfinals against Croatia in the Davis Cup World Group. The Serbian has had a good year, but not one with any bells and whistles. He won one title in Dubai. He lost in the semifinals of Wimbledon to the future runner up, Tomas Berdych, Novak's best major this year.
Several years ago, Djokovic made plenty of noise about becoming number one. Federer was sick with mono and looked miserable on court, and turned out miserable results. The Serbian saw his opening or else his phantom public relations group saw it. However, the player Djokovic couldn't find his way through.
Since that time, his parents have taken a backseat to his coaching, and have stayed home away from the courts, Djokovic has calmed down and settled into his own, at least as far as fans can tell. His comedic antics, which many liked, have disappeared. His deprecating comments have vanished, too. He acts more professional and, even at times, humble.
Defending Rogers Cup champion Andy Murray remains the player that the majority of pundits say will smash the glass-sealing triumvirate of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer. He reached a career high of #2 for three weeks last August, after winning the title here.
He has not found a new coach since parting ways with Miles Maclagan in late July. The announcement was made in Los Angeles at the Farmers Classic. Murray made the finals, but lost to defending champion Sam Querrey. Murray worked with Maclagan for two-and-a-half years.
Many speculate that Murray's decision was based on his inability to consistently play offensively when necessary. His predicable defensive style has helped him when it comes to consistent results. However, he doesn't seem to be able to produce the type of tennis needed to win at the highest levels. He is a stellar athlete with a strong serve and forehand, but relies heavily on forcing errors off opponents' racquets.
Darren Cahill had been in the mix, but declined. His schedule with the Adidas coaching staff and ESPN forbids a full-time coaching position, which comes down to a 24/7 commitment.
Today, David Kent of the British online newspaper Mail wrote that Murray's chief requirement is "'a clam voice of reason.'" Yesterday, Kent reported that Murray wouldn't hire anyone until after the U. S. Open. Since Murray works with a team of coaches, he wants them to be happy with his choice, too. Alex Corretja will remain with Murray.
Projecting a bit, Murray said, "'I'm going to try to overtake him [Federer], but I wouldn't say he's vulnerable,'" as reported by Kent of Mail online.
His statement also assumes he'll get past Rafael Nadal. The Brit is on his side of the draw.
If the week continues to wash away seeds, as it did today, neither Murray nor Federer has hope. David Nalbandian upset #10 seed David Ferrer. Nalbandian is coming off his 11th career title won in Washington last week.
"Today I get a very tough first round," the Argentine said. "If you have to choice of players, Ferrer is not going to be one to meet. But I had to keep believing in my game."
Marin Cilic (#11 seed) continued to stumble. Viktor Troicki defeated him.
Jurgen Melzer, the #13 seed, was upset last night by young Canadian Peter Polansky, who has played well over the last few weeks.
"I came out here today really believing I could beat this guy, and that's what I did," Polansky said, almost in disbelief. "I stayed focused the whole match. I think that was the most important."
Again the wheel of tennis comes around to the mental game.
Special Note -- Andy Roddick withdrew today from Rogers Cup. He told the ATP that he does not feel well enough to play. Fernando Gonzalez also withdrew with an injured left calf.