- Kamakshi Tandon
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The 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."
The 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.