It’s hard to pinpoint the exact genesis of the tennis racket. Some reports suggest they go back as far as the 14th century. Crazy enough, though, from the late 1800s, when tennis truly began its descent on a mainstream sport, rackets didn’t change much.

But then it was on. Steel rackets, including the legendary T2000 made famous by Jimmy Connors, found their way on to the tour in the 1960s. The next iteration of frames were primarily made of aluminum, and racket heads began to increase in size. And finally manufacturers discovered graphite, a far lighter and stiffer substance that is the dominant element in today’s rackets.

Of course, it’s far more detailed than this, but through it all, a few select frames have penetrated the racket market as technology has advanced. The Prince Original Graphite and Jack Kramer Pro Staff from the late 1970s to the Dunlop Max 200G in the 1980s to the Head Prestige in the 1990s.

There are many more, of course, but nothing like the onslaught of frames today. Name a big-time tennis manufacture and it has a celebrated model with ubiquitous appeal, whether on the pro circuit, the junior ranks or even at the club level.

One of these stylish, sought-after rackets comes via Babolat, which soon after creating its world famous Pure Drive, came up with a more aerodynamic version, the AeroPro Drive -- the racket made famous by Rafael Nadal.

Admittedly, I was late to the game when it came to giving this stick a whirl. I had always gravitated toward thinner-beam frames, mainly to help with maneuverability. In retrospect, I was a little parochial in my search for a racket that would best suit my game. My mistake.

Just north of its throat, the AeroPro Drive’s beam is 26mm, which by comparison is six to eight millimeters wider than a typical thin-beamed frame. But I can tell you this: This racket cuts through the ball like a knife. And it’s rock solid, to boot.

The current iteration of this frame also uses cortex technology, which alleviates a lot of the harsh response the older models were criticized for. I play-tested this racket for over 90 minutes recently, and I wanted to keep going. Overall, the racket weighs 11.3 ounces (plus an overgrip and dampener), but it feel like you’re swinging a much lighter frame with the stability of a 12-ounce racket. A winning combo, for sure.

Because the racket moves so quickly, serves felt far more natural than I thought they would, and I could deliver solid pop with minimal effort. If there’s one manipulation I’d make, and this is just a personal preference, I’d jack up the length by a half inch. Good news is that this racket comes in a “plus” size, too (27.5 inches), which I will explore.

But I can safely say I get the universal demand for the AeroPro. It does everything really well. Exceptionally well, that is.

Babolat Pure Control Tour

Finally, a true classic frame that can measure up to today’s tweener frames without losing any stability. The bottom line is that this racket is a perfect hybrid of mass and touch. With a low flex rating, this Pure Control is eminently comfortable off the ground.

Make no mistake, you have to do the work. At 11.8 ouches, and with a tight string pattern, it might feel unwieldy at first, but there is uncanny comfort as long as you stay out in front of the ball. And with that, some serious power.

Personally, once I got into a rhythm, I didn’t want to put this frame down. It exuded confidence from all areas of the court. Only a select few rackets I have tested this season have had consistent stability off the string bed. The benefits were most evident in hitting short balls and playing attack-first tennis. Offensively, this racket is a machine. With a lower flex rating of 63, there is a lot of comfort -- and more so, a sweet pocket upon impact.

The precision was spot on with volleys. Because of the heft and stability, sticking balls deep in the court came naturally and with ease. One recommendation, though: The frame seemed to perform better (or more comfortably) with a blend of gut and polyester string, or, at a minimum, a softer poly rather than a full bed of a harsher poly.

This racket really surprised me, though. Despite a denser string pattern, spin was easy to generate. But it was the overall confidence-inspiring feedback that made this one a real winner.

Babolat Pure Strike 16x19

If the Pure Control seems like too much frame, might we recommend the Pure Strike 16x19? Weighing in at 11.3 ounces (the same at the AeroPro Drive), this frame performs well from all areas of the court.

The bite off the ball is stout. Actually, it’s right up there with the best spin-oriented rackets I have play-tested in a while. With an open string pattern and a stiffer flex, the combination of power and control was ideal.

Even though structurally and aesthetically (and by the way, this racket is pretty handsome), it’s quite different from the AeroPro Drive, I felt the same bite off the ball -- but in a much sleeker frame.

If there’s one knock, I felt like there was occasional instability, mainly returning serves. While the Pure Control Tour easily blocked back big serves, the Pure Strike tended to wobble if I missed the sweetspot.

On the flipside, this frame was superior on the defense or when scrambling to turn defense into offense. It truly felt like an extension of my arm.

This racket has garnered universal appeal, and for good reason. The frame also comes in three other models. A heavier 12-ounce, 18x20 version, a lighter (11.4) 18x20 frame as well as a lighter (10.8) 16x19 version.

Babolat has raised its level of rackets for well over a decade now as you might infer by the number of pro-level players who use them. Each of these frames has its own unique attribute. So which one is for you?

Roger Federer's Davis Cup challenge

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
Roger Federer is learning that you may be the all-time Grand Slam champion, a distinguished 33-year-old ambassador for the game, a friend of Michael Jordan and Anna Wintour, and a guy with some hefty hotel bills, considering his two sets of twins, but it still doesn’t get you a free pass to anything a player of your stature might really covet.

This applies with added emphasis to the Davis Cup, where the curious mix of five matches (or “rubbers”) in three days, the choice-of-ground rule (teams alternate hosting ties, no matter how much time transpires between meetings), the importance of the “swing match” doubles and the volatile nature of playing for your country instead of yourself can wreck the form chart in the blink of an eye.

Federer wants to add a Davis Cup championship to his CV; it’s the only piece of his career puzzle that’s still missing. Various factors -- lack of a solid Swiss No. 2 singles player, the siren call of Grand Slam titles, a reluctance to X-out four weeks on the calendar when he made his schedule -- kept the all-time men’s Grand Slam singles champion from pursuing that goal when he was most dominant on the tour.

But over the past year, Stan Wawrinka finally embraced his talent, won the Australian Open and established himself as a top-five player. It did not go unnoticed by Federer, who is still highly competitive at majors but struggling to actually win them. He saw his chance to win a Davis Cup and leaped on it. Some conceded the championship to Federer and Wawrinka the moment Spain (without Rafael Nadal) and Serbia (without Novak Djokovic) flamed out in the first round of the competition, the latter beaten by, yup, Federer & Co.

It sure looked like that coveted free pass for Federer -- or at least it did until this weekend, when the French popped up to complicate things.

Federer and Wawrinka will travel to France at the end of November to meet Les Bleus. Both teams advanced Sunday, with Federer sewing up a fairly smooth win over Italy in Geneva with a fourth-rubber win over the visitor’s top player, Fabio Fognini.

But the French were already sitting with their feet up, sipping champagne by the time Federer finished cleaning Fabulous Fabio’s clock. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga & Co. swept the Czech Republic (who, led by No. 6 Tomas Berdych, were hoping to three-peat) on a gorgeous, sunny weekend at Stade Roland Garros. Now the French look suspiciously like that proverbial “team of destiny.”

Les Bleus have won nine Davis Cup titles, going back to the 1920s and those famous “Four Musketeers.” But they are 0-2 in finals since 2002 and have been accused of playing under potential. That certainly seemed the case when they were one match from elimination for 2014 after just one day of Davis Cup play in April. They lost the first two singles matches of the quarterfinals to a pair of German journeymen. (The average ranking of the French singles players in the tie was 15; that of the Germans sounded more like the call numbers for a light FM radio station: 101.5.)

Badly stung, France snapped to life and averted disaster with a 3-2 win. They then clobbered the Czechs. France’s three singles stars, Tsonga, Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils, have been playing some terrific tennis. They have an excellent doubles player in Michael Llodra and a good sub in Julien Benneteau.

It’s hard to imagine the tie will be played outdoors in France so late in the year (Nov. 21-23). That ought to help Federer, whose game really shines under ideal ambient conditions. But that won’t be a major factor. It’s just a small break for a great champion who isn’t getting away with anything in his Davis Cup quest.
videoFor Marin Cilic and Kei Nishikori, breaking through in a Grand Slam wasn't a question of game, ability or effort. It wasn't about being able to do it. It was about actually doing it.

For that, Cilic and Nishikori needed help from others who had done it. In Goran Ivanisevic and Michael Chang, they found their ideal coaching counterparts -- former Grand Slam champions who had similar backgrounds but also possessed attributes that they were searching for.

For Cilic, Ivanisevic was a fellow Croatian and sporting inspiration who had previously helped Cilic's career from arm's length but was now going to be hands-on in steering his game.

The 25-year-old had been coached by Ivanisevic's former coach Bob Brett and began working with Ivanisevic a year ago, when he returned to the tour from an anti-doping suspension that was attributed to a mistakenly purchased product and reduced in length. In addition to the renewed motivation Cilic got from the unsettling experience of testing positive, the new coaching arrangement has re-energized his career.

Ivanisevic's most obvious contribution has been helping Cilic with his serve, as the former Wimbledon champion had one of the most formidable deliveries in history. As Cilic struck service winner after service winner in his three-set win against Roger Federer in the US Open semifinals, including three aces while wrapping up the match, Ivanisevic said, "It's like watching myself."

But he has also had a wider effect on his younger compatriot, with his famous humor and personality helping bring some balance to the serious, hard-working Cilic.

That might be the biggest thing Ivanisevic has brought to his team, notes Cilic, the new US Open champion. He had reached the top 10 in 2010 but admits he started enjoying the game less and saw his ranking slip into the teens and 20s.

But there was more to the new mindset than that. For a tall, rangy player, Cilic had a conservative game, one Ivanisevic encouraged him to exchange for a more daring one.

"At the beginning when we started to work, we sat together and Goran told me that my game and my tennis has to be aggressive tennis," said Cilic. "I can't play too much tactically because most of the times before I was dealing too much with the tactics against players and not focusing on my game.

"It wasn't easy to change my perspective and to change completely my mindset. It took ... five, six months of the tournaments to be able to sink that into me and that I know on the court that's the right way for me to play. That was the most difficult part."

Ivanisevic agrees that the message took a while to deliver.

"[Cilic] was not very offensive before," he said. "You have to risk. If you don't risk, you don't know what can happen. So I tried to push him. He responded well. He was not easy, but this is the result."

The new coach also points to Cilic's fitness.

"He's covering the court well, and all the credit to the physical trainer; he really push him," Ivanisevic said. "But this year he push him even more and he really responded well."

[+] EnlargeKei Nishikori
Alex Goodlett/Getty ImagesKei Nishikori's work with former French Open champ Michael Chang has sparked a renaissance in the 24-year-old's game.
At about the same time Ivanisevic and Cilic were beginning their collaboration, Chang was in the hallways at the US Open talking to Nishikori's team about coming on board. The two began working together during the offseason, with Nishikori also keeping his regular full-time coach.

Like the Croatian pair, Chang and Nishikori had a lot in common: an Asian background, a tennis childhood in the United States, small stature and striking speed. What Chang had, and Nishikori sometimes seemed to be lacking, was unquenchable competitiveness during matches and a willingness to push his limits.

As Ivanisevic did with Cilic, Chang told Nishikori to play a bigger game for bigger impact. Nishikori has said this approach is behind his rise this year, with Chang telling him to be "a little more aggressive than before and stepping more in."

"I think there are similarities there," Chang told reporters during the US Open. "There are style similarities. Obviously being Chinese, he's Japanese, there's cultural differences, but there's cultural similarities as well.

"I think mentality generally, being a little bit more on the quieter side, is something I understand a little more. So those similarities obviously make it a little bit easier to work with him and to communicate."

Despite his good five-set record, Nishikori has been frequently injured, including withdrawing from the Miami semifinals and retiring during the Madrid final this year. The 24-year-old almost didn't play the US Open either, having had a cyst removed from his right foot and not playing for three weeks. But Chang pushed the case for playing, saying, "Get through the first two matches and anything can happen."

"I gave him examples that I have known for myself and for Pete Sampras, where [we] were not quite sure if we were going to play and ended up having a great result," said Chang. "I actually ended up getting to the finals of the French in 1995 [after] almost pulling out of the tournament."

So Nishikori kept training, arrived at the US Open almost a week before for extra preparation and coasted to the second week. But Chang wasn't letting up.

"I just keep telling him, 'We're not done yet,'" Chang said. "I'm always trying to encourage him. I don't want him to be satisfied with round of 16.

"It's easy to be able to be satisfied with that, because his best result was a round of 16. Gets to the quarters, I think easy to be satisfied with that. You have the opportunity to win a Grand Slam, you have the opportunity to win your first major, you take advantage of it, and you come as best as possibly prepared as you can."

A pair of four-hour matches followed and then a four-set defeat of top-seed Novak Djokovic in the semifinals.

Despite reaching his first Grand Slam final, Nishikori didn't seem satisfied with a three-set defeat at the hands of Cilic, talking about building on his performance and having more chances.

The champion's mentality of the two champion coaches certainly had a noticeable impact on both Cilic and Nishikori at the beginning of their partnerships. A year later, it all came together at the US Open.

Along with everything else, don't discount the effect of having a former idol join a player's team. Several current players have benefited from working with well-known names this season.

The coaches get something from it too, with Ivanisevic saying that watching Cilic win was not unlike his famous Wimbledon victory and Chang citing an opportunity to do something for Asian tennis, just as his older brother Carl did for him.

"There has been only one other Asian man that has broken into the top 10, and that was Paradorn [Srichaphan]," Chang said. "Being in that 15-16 range, there was actually a fair amount of similarities because I was stuck in that range in 1990, 1991, until Carl came and coached me.

"So I felt I have an opportunity to be able to help a young, very talented Asian player be able to take his game to the next level."

The two US Open finalists knew how to play. Now, their coaches are showing them how to win.
NEW YORK -- Wednesday evening with the low-hanging sun on its final legs, fans flocked to the practice court in waves.

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic was warming up on the court closest to the walkway, prepping for his encounter with Andy Murray. So close was Djokovic, that if I dared, I could have reached through the fence and grabbed his leg -- though that would have been weird, and probably a felony. The winner of that match would advance to the semifinals and be the overwhelming favorite to come out of his half of the draw.

During practice, Djokovic was cracking groundstrokes with hitting partner Ryan Harrison, the 184th-ranked American, while the Serb’s coach, Boris Becker, stood by. The two players traded crosscourt forehands, then backhands. After a brief water break, Djokovic began hitting serves. Rather he was pounding them.

Understandably, the fans were in awe. But what I noticed was the sound coming from the racket he endorses, the Head Graphene Speed Pro. The noise reverberated through the court and onto the bleachers with a clear and concise thud.

[+] EnlargeDjokovic
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsNovak Djokovic, with his Head Graphene Speed Pro in hand, won Wimbledon and once again took over the top ranking on the ATP Tour.
To this point, I had already used two of Head’s Graphene frames, the Radical Pro (the racket Murray endorses) and the uber-popular Prestige Pro. The overarching sentiment is that both these frames have serious pop and stability. And when I tested them, that certainly rang true.

But a week before the US Open, I gave the Graphene Speed Pro a whirl. The feedback I had heard was positive, but it wasn’t until I tested it that I truly appreciate this frame -- far more than I thought I would. Simply, you might not become the same caliber tennis player as Djokovic, but you just might see a helluva improvement in your game. Seriously.

First and foremost, the first thing about this racket is how much confidence it instills. Between its sleek frame, massive sweet spot and heavy-but-not-over-the-top weight, you’ll feel like you can swing for days without overhitting.

And the pop. Oh, the pop. Graphene, a material that researchers have called stronger than diamonds, engenders a different sound than any other racket out there. But because of the maneuverability of the Speed, I was able to really crack ball after ball. The beauty of this frame is that it produces pinpoint control, and even at 11.8 ounces, it swung much lighter. I spent a good 90 points play-testing this racket and couldn’t get enough.

Serving was perhaps the most potent shot. The ball comes off the racket like a cannon, but again, because of the ability to easily wield this frame, I found it seamless to hit down the T or slice one out wide.

Everything about this racket was solid. Perhaps it’s slightly underpowered for some, but if you’re a 4.0 or higher and want to develop good swings, this is a must try. After all, if it’s good enough for the world’s top dog, you might want to give it a whirl.

Head Graphene Instinct MP

In today’s racket business, fancy names and branding are often a ploy to make you plunge and take a chance on a frame. Take a gander through some of the comment sections and you’ll see irascible consumers who didn’t get what they wanted. So when I heard first about Head’s latest series, the Graphene, I had doubts.

But I soon learned that after hitting with the latest Radical and Prestige, there was something to it. And when I took the Speed for a spin, I became a true believer in how a racket can have serious backbone without sacrificing control.

So needless to say, the I had high hopes for the Instinct -- the sticl Maria Sharapova endorses. This frame packs a much lighter feel than the other two, but the net results felt similar to the other three in terms of power and control.

At first I struggled with the 11.0 oz weight, but after adding some lead tape, I felt more comfortable. Compared to the Speed, I didn’t need to take a full rip to garner power with the Instinct. It’s a racket tailor-made to not just rocket tennis balls but produce serious spin.

Without question, my serve improved more than any other shot with the Instinct. Between the racket’s head speed and rock-solid frame (70 flex), I was hitting with easy raw power.

Tennis players are notoriously zany creatures. We have weirdly specific rituals, and our choice in gear rarely waffles.

Truth is, I wasn’t sold on this frame when it first arrived. It wasn’t as sleek as the Speed or even the Prestige, and it felt light. But after a couple of hitting sessions, I began to appreciate how easy the game felt (in relative terms).

Unlike the Graphene Speed, the Instinct is truly a racket for all levels. And a good one at that.

Head Sprint Pro Shoe

If you haven’t heard by now, footwork is paramount in this oft-frustrating game. Not only do you need mental preparation, but you have to be on your physical game, too. Given the unrelenting short sprints and the start-again, stop-again grind, the biggest mistake a player can make, especially a competitive one, is wearing the wrong shoes.

I’ve personally tried a lot. Durable, flexible, flat, high arches. I’m not a podiatrist, not do I play one on TV, but after years of playing, I have a pretty good sense of what works and what doesn’t.

So when I first wore the Head Sprint Pro, my first instinct was … I feel fast -- ergo the name “Sprint.” They were low to the ground, light and stable. Kind of the perfect combination, no?

The short answer is, well, yeah. I’ve been using a pair for a few months now, and I can honestly say, they feel like an extension of my feet. I don’t know what the exact weight is, but the Sprint Pro shoes felt on the lighter side. But mostly they just felt fast and stable. Call me a fool, but that’s a pretty sweet combo.

Predominantly, I’ve used these shoes on hard courts, which notoriously wear down souls quicker than other surfaces, but so far I’ve seen little wreckage. On clay, on which I’ve played about six or seven times with these shoes, I felt like I could stop and slide without any interference from the shoes.

The bottom line is that shoes should not be an impediment to any degree. And as someone who’s fussy and fastidious to a fault, I’ve been digging these shoes. I’m going to guess you might as well.

Still no timetable to resolve grunting issue

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
To many tennis enthusiasts, the sound is about as enjoyable as a car alarm or a smartphone flood warning. And two years ago, the WTA acknowledged loud grunts and shrieks had provoked a stream of complaints from fans.

So in 2012, the WTA announced that along with other governing bodies of the sport, it was launching an initiative -- with no timetable -- to begin educating budding players in breathing techniques to lower the volume and to “eventually” adopt a rule against noises deemed “too loud.” As for doing something about current players, tour CEO Stacey Allaster told “Outside the Lines” at the time, “I wish I could.”

In response Monday to a recent ESPN request for an interview with Allaster about developments on the issue, the WTA provided a memorandum saying, “In an ongoing effort to inform the tennis-wide community regarding forthcoming changes to regulation regarding excessive grunting, [it has] outreached to over 1,875 players, coaches, parents and administration to date.”

The memo stated that the WTA had conducted roundtable conversations with an additional 120 players two years ago about the tour’s shared concerns with fans and its commitment to “address the issue,” and cited a list of 25 international tournaments, coaching conferences, training centers and academies it has reached so far on “how to avoid excessive grunting.”

“Grunting is part of the game, but clearly excessive grunting can be a distraction,” according to a WTA statement Monday.

Two years ago, Allaster had said the loud noise was “having no impact on competition.” But others, like Martina Navratilova, have long maintained that noise loud enough to obscure the sound of a racket hitting a ball compromises an opponent’s reaction time. (This week ESPN’s Sport Science explores the issue.)

Allaster said two years ago she expected the tour to eventually provide chair umpires with “noise meters” to assess penalties for “excessive grunting.” In Monday’s statement, the WTA said it has “begun scientific research on sound levels” in different environments and that the “development and implementation of an objective rule change is in discussion as we gather additional information.”

But there was no mention of a timetable or specific plan.

Perhaps the only thing that’s certain at this point is that the noise from the likes of Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and some of their colleagues has not lessened.

“It’s as loud as ever,” veteran tennis coach Nick Bollettieri said this weekend when asked about grunting at the pro level. Bollettieri tutored a young Sharapova and other famed grunters such as Monica Seles, the first player to achieve notoriety for the noise.

But as reported by “Outside the Lines” two years ago, Bollettieri had consulted with the WTA on how to quiet things down, and his IMG Bollettieri Academy had begun teaching young players that excessive grunting is poor sportsmanship and a poor breathing technique.

Perhaps fittingly, Bollettieri’s International Tennis Hall of Fame induction speech this summer drew noise interference -- from a car alarm.

And Sunday at the US Open, a reporter’s mobile phone blared a flood warning, in the middle of Sharapova’s press conference following her loss to Caroline Wozniacki.

Neither Bollettieri nor Sharapova, two of the names most often linked to loud noise in tennis, was deterred from continuing.

Reason for Roger Federer's rebound

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
NEW YORK -- Roger Federer couldn’t help but be himself a year ago. Which was unfortunate.

For more than 2½ painful hours, Tommy Robredo outhit, outmaneuvered and pretty much out-tennised Federer in every aspect until the former five-time US Open champ couldn’t take it anymore. The truth is that it was hard to watch but not completely unexpected considering the year Federer was having. When the match here in New York mercifully ended, he could barely muster the strength to wave to packed house that failed miserably to lift his spirits.

And worse, Federer’s performance was far from the rock-bottom result he had experienced just weeks earlier at Wimbledon.

But true to his form, Federer spoke with an air of optimism afterward. “I want to play better. I know I can.”

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
Don Emmert/AFP/Getty ImagesPretty sweet start for Roger Federer, who is playing his first Grand Slam as a 33-year-old.
Turns out, all Federer needed was a new piece of hardware to get him on track. And no, we’re not talking about trophies, though that’s certainly a sweet little byproduct of his newfound success this season. Back in January, Federer permanently began using a blacked-out prototype racket, one with a markedly larger head size that would not only increase his own power but also help him stay competitive with the collective muscle in today’s game.

A few weeks ago in Toronto, the finishing touches were unveiled in Federer’s newest frame, which has been officially named the Pro Staff RF97 Autograph. According to Wilson Tennis, the racket “features a 26-percent wider beam” and a “10 percent larger sweet spot.”

Federer found that sweet spot frequently Tuesday night with a straight-sets win against Marinko Matosevic in the first round of the US Open. Federer was broken just once and now has won 10 of 11 matches since losing the Wimbledon final.

Afterward, though, Federer wasn't talking about Federer or his racket. How could he when His Airness was in the building?

"He was one of the smoothest movers out there," Federer said of Michael Jordan. "There are so many things that he did well and represented the game really nicely, I thought."

For the record, Federer has represented his game nicely, too, though six years have passed since Federer last won the title here. It wasn’t until an unsettling fallow period in 2013 that things devolved into a dire, desperate existence. And that’s when he finally made the decision to swap his dated relic for something with a little more punch.

ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, who coached Andre Agassi to the No. 1 player in the world, sees a tangible difference in Federer’s game.

“He’s been using this racket for eight months, so he’s used to it,” Cahill said. “It's more now an extension of his arm. I don't think it's throwing him any curves. I think his game has picked up. I think it's definitely helped him on his serve, especially the first serve where he's getting a lot of easy power, and that means he doesn't have to press on his serve, so he's hitting his targets much better. That all means he's getting a lot of free points on his serve.”

Tennis players are notoriously creatures of habit. They like what they like. Since his maiden Slam title, at Wimbledon in 2003, Federer had essentially used the same racket, albeit with a slight manipulation in its mold and, of course, with cosmetic overhauls. But by and large, Federer was unwilling to make any drastic changes.

With 17 Grand Slam titles, an all-time record 302 weeks atop the rankings, 22 Masters 1000 wins and his own area code in tennis’ grand pantheon, who’s to blame him?

Still, the low-hanging dark clouds couldn’t be ignored. Federer’s ranking fell to No. 8 -- his lowest since 2002 -- and coming into this season, there was a new, less ambitious reality. Slam titles and ranking points gave way to mere respectability. But Federer was far from acknowledging his tennis mortality.

“He made three adjustments,” Cahill said. “The racket has been crucial to him, especially playing against the power players where it's given him a bigger sweet spot and is allowing him to get a lot more of those shots, especially the hard, fast shots down the middle of the court. He can now block those back and that's where the racket is also helping him. I think he's healthy, which is a huge part of it. And, obviously, making a coaching change also reinvigorated him.”

So, Rog, why the wait to change frames?

“Basically, it was a year ago where I started the racket-testing after Wimbledon,” Federer said. “Anyway, it's a long process. But actually, it all went pretty quickly because I did not use it again here actually for this tournament. Right before I switched my mind, I switched and I said, 'OK, I'll play the year normally.'

“After all the back issues I had, I needed to first figure out what's going on with my game and my back. So I really lost a few months there.”

Anyway, that was so then. As it stands right now, Federer has 50 match wins this season, more than any other player navigating the tour. And this includes his championship run at the Cincinnati Masters a couple of weeks ago. Make that three titles and eight finals in 2014, also the best on circuit.

“After about two months, the fear wasn’t whether he'd decide to go back to an old racket,” ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said. “Now, if he went back to his old stick, he'd be worse. He's totally used to this racket, and it's made him a much better player. I think that now the racket is second nature for him.”

And second nature just might lead him to first place in two weeks’ time.

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Andy Roddick and James Blake are back on the court this week for an exhibition match in the middle of a women’s tournament.

This might seem strange, but when you call the main number for the Connecticut Open, a WTA tournament in New Haven, Connecticut, this week, Blake even answers the phone -- his recorded voice to direct your call.

Blake, who retired from professional tennis, is synonymous with tennis in the area, and played this tournament in the years it was a co-ed event. For each of his matches, he brought an expanded fan base called the J-Block.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Blake will play exhibition matches with Andy Roddick and Jim Courier and try to recapture some of that crowd.

“We’re going to have a good time, but we’re going to really take it to each other,” Blake said. “And it’s fun for us because we don’t get the opportunity to compete with each other. It used to be week in week out.”

The Connecticut Open, formerly the Pilot Pen, has been in flux, turning from a sponsor-owned to a non-profit tournament in the past few months. In the meantime, when tournament director Anne Worcester polled local tennis fans about what they wanted to see.

And local tennis fans wanted men’s matches in addition to the professional women.

“Ever since the New Haven Pen Open became women’s only we’ve been wanting to bring back the men because that’s what we hear loud and clear from our fans, ‘When are the men coming back?’” Worcester said. “And when James retired, it gave us the opportunity to have the most popular male player in the whole world for Connecticut fans to come back and play here on stadium court.”

While Blake is taking on his former rivals, players such as Simone Halep, Caroline Wozniacki, Petra Kvitova and Eugenie Bouchard are competing in the $700,000 women’s tournament.

The Connecticut Open plays in the Yale Bowl, and the tournament sanction was purchased from the WTA by the state of Connecticut rather than seeing it move elsewhere this year.

Have you ever seen anyone play with the same kind of ruthless tenacity as Rafael Nadal? It’s a rhetorical question, of course. No one has, and while the stats don’t track such a thing, we all know it.

But it’s that same inexorable drive that has also led to injury after injury for the 14-time major champion. Nadal aggravated his right wrist in late July and hasn’t played since. On Monday, we received word the Spaniard has pulled out of the US Open, a serious blow not only for him but for the fans.

The world's No. 2 is only three Slams behind Roger Federer on the all-time list, and you have to wonder how much more damage Nadal's body can take. Considering the nature of his game, Nadal's mileage far exceeds his 28 years of age.

So what does it mean? Here goes nothing:

The 43rd chapter in today’s greatest rivalry must wait: What matchup can we possibly get geeked up for more than Rafa-Novak Djokovic? They’ve played 42 times -- more than any duo in the history of the men’s game -- and their battles are nothing short of impossible shot-making and down-to-the-wire epics. Hyperbolic, you say? Perhaps, but even the mundane encounters are more hair-raising than some of the best barn-burning matchups between any other players. During last year’s finale at the Open, they played an excruciating 54-stroke point. It was a ridiculous back-and-forth with elastic defense and violent groundstrokes that ended when Nadal hit a backhand into the net. Safe to say, we won’t get a point like that this year.

Roger Federer reality: No one has played better tennis than Federer has this summer. Make that four straight finals, including a Masters 1000 triumph in Cincinnati this past weekend, where the 17-time Slam champ quashed a star-studded lineup, including Andy Murray, Milos Raonic and David Ferrer. But there was a conspicuous absence in the field: Nadal, who owns a lopsided 23-10 record against Federer. And let’s be real here: Even though Nadal has been AWOL since Wimbledon, what were the odds Federer could get by him in New York (which, by the way, is the one Slam venue where they have never met)? Yes, Federer’s form is better than it has been in a few years, but it’s hard to imagine anyone waging any serious coin on Federer if he were to play Nadal, without some serious hedging.

Possible future concern: If there is one common denominator in the litany of Nadal’s injuries, it is -- with the exception of an abdominal ailment in 2009 against Juan Martin del Potro -- the fact they were all in the lower body. Oh, that blasted knee, which first impaired him a decade ago at the French Open and then again at the 2010 Aussie Open. A knee injury also kept Nadal out of action for 7½ months in 2012. And if you’re keeping track, he has also suffered hamstring and foot setbacks throughout his career.

Speaking of del Potro, who also is out of the US Open as he heals from wrist surgery, you have to wonder if there will be any long-term repercussions for the towering Argentine, who has not played a tour match since February because of recurring wrist setbacks. Worse, del Potro’s career has been severely disrupted by his ongoing wrist issues, and he has never come close to returning to top form since winning the 2009 US Open.

Defending champ disappearing act: The previous time a defending champ failed to play the US Open? It was del Potro, sadly, who withdrew because of his aforementioned wrist injury in 2010. And seven years earlier, Pete Sampras failed to show up in New York. But Sampras had a pretty good reason: He had retired. Now there's Nadal, who not only will miss an arduous two weeks in New York, but who also missed the entire summer hard-court circuit. No one knows exactly when Nadal will return, but assuming he is healthy in the fall, perhaps we’ll see the Spaniard play some indoor ball where he has (in)famously never fared very well.

Points ramifications: Almost equally as devastating as Nadal’s omission are the points he's losing. Last season, he swept the summer hard-court season, winning Montreal, Cincinnati and the US Open. No one had pulled off this trifecta since Andy Roddick 10 years earlier. But now Nadal leaves 4,000 points on the table -- 1,000 each from the Masters 1000 events and 2,000 at the US Open. What does this mean? If Federer wins the title, he will officially usurp Nadal as the No. 2 player in the world.

videoThe hardcourt season kicks into high gear this week in Toronto, but it's already very different from what we saw a year ago.

Then, Rafael Nadal was on a rampage, winning the Masters events in Montreal and Cincinnati, and taking the U.S. Open to go undefeated on North American hardcourts.

This year, Nadal is back in Mallorca with an injured right wrist, practicing with a splint to try to get ready for the U.S. Open. Not being able to defend his Masters titles will cost him 2,000 ranking points, with another 2,000 at stake at Flushing Meadows. Even if the Spaniard does play there he will be going into the Grand Slam tournament where he's had the least success, which will make defending his title a huge challenge.

Nadal and Novak Djokovic are so far in front of the field that Nadal will keep his world No. 2 ranking either way, but his absence creates a big hole in the draw. He dominated this stretch of the season in 2013, and at least two of those titles will be won by someone else. But who?

Djokovic is the obvious candidate to fill the vacancy, having just won Wimbledon and already swept Indian Wells and Miami on American hardcourts this year. This is his best surface, allowing him to move securely and outmanuever opponents.

Djokovic is also playing his first event as a married man, brimming with elation from a month with "the Wimbledon title, a wedding and of course a baby coming up."

"I'm going back to the business, back to my office, but of course filled with positive energy, with joy, all the beautiful emotions that a person can experience," he said before Toronto, insisting that it would not be difficult to return his attention back to the court.

"But it's been many years already that I have been on the professional tour and with the same team of people around me."

Djokovic might be primed to replicate Nadal's 2013 dominance, but there's another thing that has changed from a year ago: Roger Federer is in form and eyeing big titles again. Back problems and a U.S. Open defeat to Tommy Robredo have been left behind, with Federer climbing back to No. 3 armed with a bigger racket, a new coach in Stefan Edberg and, oh, two more kids in tow.

With his racket offering more serving power and Edberg on hand for tips on volleys, the 17-time Grand Slam champion has been going to net more often, looking for a new way to win points against the relentless baseline games of Djokovic and Nadal. He serve-and-volleyed frequently on grass, but there is now the question of how often he will move forward when playing on hardcourts.

Like Djokovic, Federer has had plenty happening off the court as well. He and wife Mirka welcomed a second set of twins during the clay season, and Federer finally got to spend some extended time with the newborn boys following Wimbledon. Following his 2013 frustrations, Federer seems to be able to relax more these days.

"I don't have to defend like 12 tournaments a year. I only won one last year, so from that standpoint I feel like you make points every week. I feel like I don't really have to prove anything to anybody even though people are always going to disagree with that," he said.

"For me it's about how do I feel in practice, how is my motivation, how am I actually really playing, how do I feel it rather than how is everybody else thinking they see and know it. I can analyze it much more clearer today than I ever have."

Andy Murray is also in a very different position from a year ago, going from being Wimbledon champion to No. 10 in the rankings following back surgery and a high-profile coaching change from Ivan Lendl to Amelie Mauresmo. But Murray has often done well at this time of year, and could be ready to start moving back up.

"I feel good. I train hard. After Wimbledon I didn't take too much time off. I feel like I'm ready to play some good tennis," Murray said of having trained in Miami before the hardcourt season.

While Djokovic, Federer and Murray lifting big trophies is a familiar sight, what's new is the ranks of younger players crowding the top 10. Though established players like Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych are still contenders, it is the likes of 23-year-olds Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov who have been making waves more recently.

With Nadal sidelined, will any one of them step into the gap? They are aware of the opportunity, as Raonic suggested at Washington when Nadal announced his withdrawal.

"It's unfortunate to see him go but there are too many that are hungry and are licking their chops," said Raonic.

Now comes two weeks of competing for position going into the US Open, where a Nadal comeback would add even more intrigue.

At least one of the competitors is looking forward to seeing what develops.

"I think it's a very interesting time in the game right now," said Federer, "and I think the second half of the season is going to be super interesting."
Raonic/BouchardGetty ImagesMilos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard made noise at Wimbledon and are the faces of Canadian tennis.
Following their recent success, Canadian players find themselves under the spotlight at their national events this week, with interesting results.

It's not just tennis that is supposed to be announcing its arrival at Canada this week, but also Canada announcing its arrival in the tennis world. With the ATP and WTA tours making their annual alternating stops at Toronto and Montreal, the tournaments were meant to showcase the recent surge of Canadian players who are turning the nation into the biggest thing going in tennis.

At Wimbledon, Canadians seemed to be everywhere: Eugenie Bouchard playing in the women's final, Milos Raonic in the men's semifinal and Vasek Pospisil teaming with American Jack Sock for victory in men's doubles.

There is Canadian presence in the top 10 of both the ATP and WTA rankings, with Raonic at No. 6 and Bouchard at No. 8.

And in the week leading up to this event, Raonic and Pospisil played the first all-Canadian final in ATP history, the 23-year-old Raonic defeating 24-year-old Pospisil to win the title in Washington. A year ago, they already had provided a taste of things to come by both reaching the semifinals at Montreal.

Pospisil, a little-known player from British Columbia at that time, became one of the stories of the tournament starting with a defeat of Tomas Berdych in the second round, while Raonic overcame his compatriot to reach his first Masters series final and play Rafael Nadal. That got the pair prominently featured in the weekend headlines, but this year they've been there from the beginning of the week.

Raonic, who grew up in Toronto, is the center of attention as he returns this week, while Montreal's Bouchard was stirring up the crowds at the women's event following a breakthrough season in which she has also reached two other Grand Slam semifinals. Both were expected to have a good showing this week, further showcasing their hometown tournaments.

Having Canadians in title contention has broadened the sport's appeal in a country where tennis does not have a huge presence.

"It's the first time I've seen tennis penetrate the social fabric of our city and country," said Karl Hale, Toronto's tournament director. "The non-tennis fan is interested in coming to the Rogers Cup now. The non-tennis fan is talking tennis."

Demand is high to see Raonic, who plays his first match on Wednesday.

"Our ticket sales are tremendous in both Toronto and Montreal," Hale said. "The ticketing department is talking about all the requests Milos has for his match."

If the crowds are looking forward to seeing him, Raonic is looking forward to playing.

"It was the only tournament I went to as a spectator," Raonic said of the Toronto event, which he attended as a child. "It’s the tournament I would say I look forward to probably the most as far as atmosphere goes and probably one of the most important tournaments to me and my schedule."

But if their recent success has been a new experience for Canadian players, so are the expectations that follow. A period of adjustment may be required, as illustrated by Bouchard on Tuesday evening.

The 20-year-old took the court in front of a packed stadium, only to lose her opening match to an American qualifier, Shelby Rogers. The fluctuating scoreline of 6-0, 2-6, 6-0 indicated how much the local favorite had been affected by the occasion, as did her stunned expression during most of the match.

"I hadn’t played a match in a while and I think the pressure got me a bit," said Bouchard, who withdrew from Stanford with a knee injury.

"It's good position to be in," she added. "But I'll just have to deal with it better."

Pospisil, who was coming in off a tiring week in Washington, also fell in his opening match. He was affected by a leg injury while playing Richard Gasquet, who Pospisil went three tough sets with in the semifinals in Washington.

Other Canadians, like Frank Dancevic, Peter Polansky and Aleksandra Wozniak were also gone by the second round, though Polansky did win a match as a wildcard before falling to Roger Federer.

That leaves Raonic to carry the weight of national expectation on his own shoulders, though at least he is the most experienced of the emerging group at doing so.

This could be a learning experience in what is anticipated as a long run from the youthful trio of Bouchard, Raonic and Pospisil, and there was at least one more match this week that suggests there could be even more to come.

Even before Bouchard went out, locals had already found another player to cheer as Montreal local , 17-year-old Francoise Abanda, took Dominika Cibulkova to three sets on the opening night.

They might not be sticking around for too long this week, but it looks like Canadians on tour are here to stay.
videoThe back-to-back ATP Masters events in Toronto and Cincinnati begin this week, with the players competing on the court for about $7 million in total prize money. Behind the scenes, they're competing with the tournaments for an even larger amount.

The ATP Player Council is pushing for significant increases in prize money from the Masters 1000s, whose agreements are up for renewal this year. Three years ago, they agreed to an increase of 9 percent a year, but the players are seeking bigger payouts.

"We are looking for more, yes," said Eric Butorac, vice president of the council, in an interview with

That's because the tournaments grew at more than twice the rate they were expected to, explained Butorac, who is ranked No. 27 in doubles. "Even with their 9 percent increase," he said, "as a total unit, they grew at a 7 percent rate per year."

Players have previously emphasized their aim of getting a larger share of the amount tournaments make.

The growth of the Masters 1000 events is in contrast to some of the smaller 500- and especially 250-level tournaments, where attendance and sponsorship problems are frequent. Such events often have difficulty attracting top players and must pay a large amount for the big names -- often six figures for a player like Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer or Andy Murray.

But players are required to show up at the eight Masters events (plus one optional), which take place at Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo (optional), Madrid, Rome, Toronto or Montreal, Cincinnati, Shanghai and Paris. That has allowed the tournaments to benefit from increased interest in the top men's players, especially the huge popularity of the Big Four, given their dominance of the men's game in recent years.

The players argue that they should receive some of the extra money, which they say is generated by their growing following. They have also stated their general aim of getting a larger share of the amount tournaments make.

"So I think just with the way the top players are playing, and the ability to have a tournament that contains players like Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Murray, it's just so valuable," said Butorac. "Those tournaments have really thrived. So we hope we can be compensated adequately."

According to Sports Business Journal, the council is looking for prize money at the Masters events to double within the next four years, but the tournaments want the figure to be much lower. The two sides are currently in talks.

The push follows the significant increases that have been secured from the Grand Slams, which have been upping their purses by large amounts. The U.S. Open, for example, will pay $38.3 million this year and has committed to giving $50 million in three years' time, double the amount it gave two years ago.

But the Grand Slams are independent of the ATP, while the Masters tournaments are tour events. That means things will operate a little differently this time around. With the ATP board made up of both tournament and player representatives, the organization is, in a sense, attempting to reach a deal with itself.

That can create some ambiguity, said Butorac. "Most sports, they have a union," he said. "But with us having a bipartisan board, it is a different battle."

The board consists of the CEO, three tournament representatives and three player representatives. The ATP Player Council is made up of current players who are elected by their fellow professionals. Things have changed there as well, noted one observer.

During the discussions with the Grand Slams, then-Player Council president Roger Federer was instrumental in getting the majors on board, personally attending meetings and putting forward the players' case. But now a father of four and no longer the dominating player he once was, Federer decided not to run for re-election this year.

That means it is unclear who will lead the player effort, though it certainly will not be anyone with the stature of 17-time Slam champion Federer. New members of the council include John Isner and Stanislas Wawrinka, and the new president will be elected at the US Open. Wawrinka, Federer's friend and compatriot as well as the highest-ranked player on the council, has expressed an interest in becoming the president.

But there will be no let-up in the council's demands for more prize money, because more militant members like Sergiy Stakhovsky and Gilles Simon have stayed on. With most of the same players involved, the council has been able to have a consistent message.

"About six years now, to have a similar group of guys over a long period of time is really helpful," said Butorac.

The goal, he said, is for players and tournaments to reach a "mutually agreeable place and nothing drastic happens."

The tournaments want something similar.

"They're pretty much on the same page; we're aware of their desires," said Karl Hale, tournament director of the Rogers Cup in Toronto. "The parties involved are working together to reach a conclusion, and I'm sure they will."

Any increase would apply to all the nine Masters events, though their individual finances and resources differ -- something that is likely an issue in the discussions. Some, like Toronto, are run by national associations that use the proceeds to fund grass-roots development, while others like Indian Wells are privately owned. But Hale said the Canadian stop, which has the advantage of being two weeks before the US Open, generally has an attractive field and is prepared.

"Toronto's one of the top stops on the tour for the players," he said. "We've talked about this in years leading up to this, so I think we're in a very, very good position for that."

While the two sides are not in agreement about how to share the proceeds of their recent growth, it's a good problem to have.

"But all in all, the tour's good," Butorac said. "Players need to hear that little bit, tournaments need to be aware of that. We've been as successful as we've ever been. The tour's making more money.

"So tennis worldwide is in a really good place."

And for the players, should they succeed, it's about to get even better.
For years, I’ve admittedly been a little stubborn when it comes to tennis gear. I like what I like. And that’s just how it goes. With tennis rackets in particular, I gravitated toward thin-beamed, knife-like frames because, well, they looked like they were made for competitive players. Rarely did a so-called tweener stick appeal to me. They were clunky, and honestly most looked like something I would be using after double knee surgery or when my legs no longer move.

But like life itself, it’s never a bad thing to take step back once in a while and re-evaluate tennis equipment. It’s ever-changing, and things often aren’t what they appear to be. And this is where the Head Graphene Extreme Pro comes in.

My first reaction was how much of a control-oriented this racket was. I was taking full, confident swings and the ball was staying well within the baseline. Despite the frame’s hefty 11.8 ounces, it was easy to maneuver, whether defending high deep balls or returning flat, powerful serves. More than anything, I really enjoyed how the ball stuck to the string bed for just a fraction of a second -- only adding to the racket’s already surprising comfort.

That said, like most of the rackets I have play-tested, I strung the Extreme Pro with Gamma io18 poly strings, which I find ratchet up spin and produce a lively response. I hit for 90 minutes or so, and my initial fear was that even after a surprisingly good feel in the beginning, the overall weight and bulk would eventually wear me down. But that wasn’t the case. I was able to wield this frame with the same speed and agility as a typical 18- to 21-inch beam.

More so, the overall stability was perhaps the best of any new frame I have used this season, especially on off-center hits. Earlier this season, I tested the Prince Warrior 100 Pro (which is in the same tweener category as the Extreme Pro), and while I was a big fan of the feel, the racket lost a lot of its vitality if you made contact outside the sweetspot. This wasn’t the case at all with the Extreme Pro. Some might even call it … rock solid.

It goes without saying that hitting serving bombs came with relative ease. As a matter of fact, the overall mass of the racket pretty much did all the work. But here’s where I will contradict myself, just a little. Although the width of the frame did not bother me at groundstrokes at all, I did have a hard time coming over the ball to hit kickers. Or at least it wasn’t natural. But once I figured out how to let the racket do most of the work, the spin and kick took off.

Loved sticking volleys. With a stiffness just south of 70, I found it almost seamless to hit touch volleys as well as put away higher floaters.

Overall, I would chalk this racket up to one of the biggest surprises of 2014. I was and still am a big, big fan of the Head Graphene Radical Pro, which has specs right in my wheelhouse. But I actually preferred the feel off the Extreme Pro, and generating spin was significantly more effortless.

So, tennis gear heads, don’t judge this racket too harshly until you give it a whirl -- unless, of course, you’re not interested in building a more potent yet controlled game.

videoIt's quite a way to warm up for a wedding.

Novak Djokovic gave himself a Wimbledon title as a present before marrying longtime girlfriend Jelena Ristic this week at a luxury resort in Montenegro. The two are also expecting their first child, so Djokovic has plenty happening both on the court and off it.

Walking in fresh from holding up the trophy at the All England Club, the Serb had laughed at being asked whether he was going to resume training right away.

"Straight to practice," he grinned, joking about finding some hard courts around Wimbledon.

No, he is instead taking a bit of a break from the game.

"I think I can close the chapter of my tennis career just for little bit now," he said. "I think I deserve that for a few weeks to rest, to enjoy, be with my fiancée -- my wife-to-be -- and my family."

But Djokovic will be something of a different player once he returns to the game. Not only will he be a married man, but he will also be No. 1 in the world again, having returned to the top following his seventh Grand Slam victory. The biggest change, however, might be a mental one.

Coming into Wimbledon, Djokovic talked about the effect of not winning a Grand Slam tournament since the 2013 Australian Open, saying three defeats in Slam finals since then had affected his confidence in big moments. He brought on Boris Becker as a coach specifically to help him play better at those times, but he fell to Stanislas Wawrinka at the Australian Open this year and looked mentally and physically drained against Rafael Nadal at the French Open.

Even during the Wimbledon final against Roger Federer, Djokovic had the match well in hand during the fourth set but was broken three times after going up a break. But this time, he was able to gather himself. Like Andy Murray at the US Open two years ago, Djokovic left the court for a break after the fourth set and gave himself a lecture.

[+] EnlargeDjokovic
Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic has kissed the Wimbledon trophy and his new bride, and is resting up ahead of hard court action.
"I needed some time to refocus and forget about what happened in the fourth set," said Djokovic. "I had these positive words of encouragement to say to myself.

"I managed to have my convictions stronger than my doubts in this moment and managed to push myself the very last step to win the trophy."

That mental victory, combined with Djokovic's statement that it was the "highest quality" Grand Slam match he has played, led him to describe the contest as the "most special Grand Slam final I've played. At the time of my career for this Grand Slam trophy to arrive is crucial, especially, as I said, after losing several Grand Slam finals in a row."

The coaching relationship with Becker is also on better footing. Following the Australian Open, Djokovic's victories at Indian Wells and Miami were both with his long-term coach Marian Vadja, who was expected to be at tournaments only occasionally. Djokovic also asked Vadja to accompany Becker to the clay-court event at Rome, which is where the Serb says he and Becker finally began to communicate effectively.

"We won the tournament, the three of us, and it was actually the time when I started feeling much closer to Boris and when I actually understood what message he is trying to convey to me," said Djokovic.

Both coaches were at the French Open, as scheduled, and Becker was the only one with Djokovic at Wimbledon. Going on to win the tournament will have given the Serb more confidence in the setup, allowing him to be more settled at other tournaments.

He also expects the win to give him a lift for the rest of the season. "I'm going to try to use it in the best possible way and for my confidence to grow," he said.

All that means the new No. 1 will be the player to beat heading into the hard-court season. Djokovic now has the best winning percentage on the tour on hard courts, his favorite surface, having won 82.6 percent of his matches.

There could be other challenges, though. He has also had physical problems this season, injuring his wrist just before his first clay-court tournament and knocking his shoulder during a fall at Wimbledon, along with the usual aches and niggles. Most of the time it has not stopped him from competing, but the wear and tear could start to show as the season goes along.

For the moment, however, Djokovic has reasserted himself, setting up an interesting hard-court season. There is expected to be a resumption of his rivalry with Nadal, who was in dominant hard-court form a year ago but has produced some up-and-down performances this season.

Other Slam champs like Federer, Wawrinka and Murray will also be in the hunt, as will a group of younger players -- like Wimbledon semifinalists Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic -- who are emerging as contenders for bigger titles this season. It is a bigger cast than in recent years, leading to a more competitive field.

But all that will take shape in a few weeks. For now, Djokovic's attention is elsewhere. Specifically, at a resort in Montenegro.

"I’m very excited and joyful about the period that is coming up," he said.
videoVasek Pospisil has a lot of explaining to do these days. Things like, "what's happening with Canadian tennis?"

"I've already answered this question so many times," said Pospisil, 24, who's already developed a standard version of his answer which begins with, "To summarize, it's a combination of a few things."

That will come in handy, because it's a question he'll probably be getting plenty more of.

Milos Raonic, the country's top-ranked player, has already noticed the increase in interest since he broke through at the 2011 Australian Open and reached the fourth round.

"Yeah, I think there's a lot more talk about it," Raonic said. "When you do media and press questions, it comes up quite a bit more just from people in general, you see a more consistent pouring out of Canadians coming out. Sometimes you'll see a person that's not a Canadian come out to a match with a Canadian flag."

For over a year now, there has been quiet but consistent rise in players with the maple leaf beside their names. But it was at Wimbledon that the country loudly announced its arrival on the tennis scene.

Eugenie Bouchard became the first Canadian in a Grand Slam singles final, Raonic the first Canadian to reach a men's Grand Slam semifinal, and Pospisil joined the USA's Jack Sock in carrying off the men's doubles title.

Previously limited to doubles players and the odd player in the men's or women's top 100, Canada's presence in the tennis ranks has swelled significantly. In addition to established standbys such as former doubles No. 1 Daniel Nestor, the 23-year-old Raonic and 20-year-old Bouchard now are both in the top 10 and the highest-ever ranked Canadians, and both are considered emerging Grand Slam contenders.

Pospisil reached No. 33 in 2013 before experiencing a back injury this season, and is starting to regain his game. And there are more promising prospects coming up, such as the solid 2013 US Open and Wimbledon junior champion Filip Peliwo, and junior girls talent Francoise Abanda.

[+] EnlargeEugenie Bouchard
Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty ImagesEugenie Bouchard leads a Canadian contingent that is steadily rising up the rankings.
Coincidence or conditions? Pospisil sees it as a bit of both.

"Obviously as much as people would like to say it's not a coincidence, it also is," he said. "Tennis Canada, what they've done is incredible ... Without them, this wouldn't have happened.

"But it wouldn't happen without the talent and the individuals themselves. A lot of things have to happen for someone to do well at this sport. So it's not as simple as changing a few things at the federation."

Tennis Canada, the federation that runs the country's ATP and WTA events and is responsible for the game's development in the country, overhauled its training program in 2007, putting in an extra $1 million per year and establishing a national center in Montreal.

Raonic was full-time at the center as a junior player and both Pospisil and Bouchard have spent periods training there. But the three also have taken separate routes in separate parts of the country.

The Montenegro-born Raonic grew up in Toronto, where he practiced his famous serve early in the mornings before joining the Tennis Canada program. Bouchard is from a well-to-do family in Montreal and went to Nick Saviano's academy in Florida at 12 years old to be able to train year-round. Pospisil, from Vancouver, went to his parents' native Czech Republic between the ages of 15 and 18, and at 20 came to the Montreal center.

Bouchard doesn't see a big connection.

"A few of us have done well around the same time. I think that's a happy coincidence. For example, me or Milos and Vasek, we've succeeded in completely different ways," she said.

"I wouldn't pinpoint a specific common fact. But I think it's a good thing. It's good timing. I think because of that the popularity has grown in Canada."

This year's Wimbledon set television records in Canada, with both finals the most-watched ever in the country. Bouchard's final against Petra Kvitova was seen by an average 2.4 million people, and Raonic's semifinal showing drew 776,000 people. Overall, 10 million -- almost a third of the country -- watched some portion of the tournament, according to sports broadcaster TSN, which shows it in the country.

But circumstances also have been cited as contributing to the recent influx of Canadians on the pro tour. The Lawn Tennis Association recently lured former Tennis Canada CEO Michael Downey as its new head, suggesting it sees a connection.

Raonic speaks well of his experience in the national program and says that his subsequent success will inspire confidence and results from others.

"There is a good program in place, but I believe a big part of it is one person breaks through," he said. "[If] you got to go train, you got to go run, you got to do weights, you got to play on court, you see that somebody is already succeeding through that system."

The most significant aspect, however, might be the country's increased success in taking players from the juniors or lower ranks and getting them to the upper levels. Increased funding and resources from the federation has helped some players take that next step.

Pospisil says that access to coaches though federation funding has had a huge impact and points to Louis Borfiga, a Frenchman who is the head of high performance development at Tennis Canada, as a central influence.

"Especially, I think, when Louis Borfiga came on the scene, when Michael Downey hired him, that kind of set the platform and allowed all this to happen," Pospisil said.

Pospisil has credited his coach Frederic Fontang, with whom he began working in 2012, as an important reason for his recent surge. Raonic went from outside the top 300 into the top 20 with Galo Blanco before starting with Ivan Ljubicic a year ago.

"The coaching decisions, the coaches they brought in, they made a huge difference," Pospisil said. "That's where Borfiga had a big role. He's a very wise man. He really knows tennis, he doesn't seem like it when you don't know him, but he knows what he's doing."

"Borfiga knew that [Fontang] was available, and knew that he was a good coach, and said, 'Oh, that would be a good coach to have.' And so I made a trial with him, and obviously it was great. So that's how I have the coach I have right now, who is very good. The same goes for Milos, they found a great coach for him in Galo Blanco.

"So I think they helped us use our potential and grow."

Now, their own success has the potential to do the same for tennis in the country as a whole.
videoFour double faults.

That was how the most effective delivery in the history of women's tennis went out at Wimbledon. And not just regular double faults, either, but balls that barely got to the net or sailed across the box, sometimes even hitting the same side of the court.

Serena Williams' strange exit from the doubles competition at Wimbledon became one of the biggest stories of the tournament, with the top seed (alongside sister Venus) complaining of illness and retiring from a second-round match after just three games. Serena has not spoken to media since, and a statement released by the tournament said the official reason for her withdrawal was "viral illness".

Whatever was affecting her that day, the unusual display was clearly due to exceptional circumstances. Yet that wasn't Williams' only mysterious serving performance of the tournament. Though it wasn't quite as spectacular as her doubles troubles, a 6-1, 3-6, 4-6 loss to Alize Cornet in the third round of the singles draw also featured deliveries that were lacking their usual punch.

The five-time Wimbledon champion got in 66 percent of her first serves during the match with Cornet, comparable with her previous two rounds, but won only 68 percent of those points, which is 10-15 percent lower than in the first two rounds. And she won just 30 percent of the points on her second serves, less than half her rate in the first two rounds.

[+] EnlargeSerena Williams
Yunus Kaymaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty ImagesService issues and the strategy of some opponents have confounded Serena Williams recently.
Some of that was due to Cornet's quality of play, as well as Williams' more error-prone performance. But a drop in the top seed's serving seemed to allow the lower-ranked Frenchwoman get back in the match.

Williams dominated the encounter until serving two double faults and being broken to 2-0 to start the second set, and then seemed to pull back. She started out getting in 75 percent of her first serves during the set, but began sending the ball up the center of the box to Cornet's body. That's where she went on four of the next five points she served, getting broken to 4-0.

In the third set, Williams went back to aiming for the sides of the box, but became predictable in her serving, sending most of her first serves to Cornet's forehand -- the side from which the Frenchwoman can do more damage -- and second serves to the backhand.

Perhaps most significantly, Williams' second serves were measured at an average of 83 MPH, 10 less than against Chanelle Scheepers in the second round. She had little explanation for her serving decline during the match.

"I thought my first two matches I served well," said Williams following her defeat. "Today, I don't know the percentages of my serve, but I do know I didn't hit as many aces. I think my first serve was down a little bit."

Williams hit three aces in the match, but also seven double faults.

"I worked really hard on my serve, so I don't know why it didn't happen today," she said.

Something similar happened during her 6-2, 6-2 second-round defeat to Spain's Garbine Muguruza at the French Open. Williams again seemed to pull back on her serving during the second set, getting in 74 percent of first serves but winning only 47 percent of the points, compared to 64 percent during the first set. Her second serve dropped from an average of 90 MPH to 83, and she won only 17 percent of points on her second serves.

Despite a bad back, Williams' serving performance against Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round of the Australian Open was the best during her three Grand Slam defeats this year. But the Serb was still able to step in and attack Williams' deliveries, hitting 16 return winners.

The biggest weapon in women's tennis has now been neutralized at three consecutive majors, which also affects Williams' game as a whole. Each time she has been sent out at a major this season, the other player has come in with a specific game plan and been able to impose it during the match. Muguruza jammed Williams, hitting the ball hard and up the center of the court. Cornet looked to her defeat of Williams in Dubai this season, aiming to hit the ball deep to the center, be creative and stay aggressive.

Tracy Austin, a two-time Grand Slam champion, told the BBC she saw similarities between the way Cornet and Ivanovic had played Williams.

"She wasn't able to get into a rhythm," said Austin of Williams. "Ana Ivanovic did the same thing at the Australian Open.

"Not letting her get into a rhythm ... taking the ball on the rise, going for big shots and not having rallies."

Williams usually uses big first serves and heavy second serves to prevent players from taking the initiative, but was unable to do so against Cornet, Muguruza and Ivanovic, getting broken 14 times in those three matches.

Compare that to Wimbledon two years ago, which was perhaps the best serving performance of her career -- she slammed 102 aces, won 91 percent of her service games, and topped out at 120 mph. Her biggest serve at the tournament this year was 117 mph.

To return to her dominant form of a year ago, Williams will have to start serving as she did before. Since others tend to go for their shots against her, any player having a good day can be a challenge.

"If I'm not playing, you know, a great, great match, these girls when they play me, they play as if they're on the ATP Tour, and then they play other girls completely different," Williams said. "So I just have to always, every time I step on the court, be a hundred times better."

Williams' unsightly double faults ended up receiving most of the attention at Wimbledon, but her performance in the singles also served notice that things have changed for her.