The Roger Federer-Stan Wawrinka beef

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
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File this one under the heading, “Extreme Irony.” Is it possible that Roger Federer’s attempt to add a Davis Cup championship to a résumé that demands appended pages on an almost weekly basis will be wrecked by his teammate and friend, Stan Wawrinka?

That’s the last-minute twist to the upcoming Davis Cup final -- a tie that had no shortage of storylines even before the events of the past few days. Those happenings left folks wondering if Mirka Federer won’t emerge from this tie looking like the Yoko Ono of tennis -- - Ono being the woman who was blamed for breaking up the Beatles.

All right, it’s probably easier to picture the bearish Wawrinka as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer than as either John Lennon or Paul McCartney. But the tiff he had with his megastar teammate over Madame Federer’s repeated heckling of Wawrinka in the semifinal match between the two men the ATP World Tour Finals last week has cast a chill over the most important Davis Cup tie in Swiss history.

[+] Enlarge Roger Federer
AP Photo/Christophe EnaRoger Federer says there are no hard feeling whatsoever between him and Stan Wawrinka.
It has also forced both Swiss players into issuing those forced, semi-humiliating and not entirely convincing statements about how they really, truly are good friends despite that unpleasant business in London.

“There’s no hard feelings whatsoever,” Federer informed the media the other day in Lille, where France is hosting the final on indoor red clay in an arena that will accommodate upward of 27,000 fans. “We're having a good time here. We are friends, not enemies.” “We had no problem together,” Wawrinka added, diplomatically refraining from adding that in the first place, his beef was with Mirka, not Roger, Federer.

That now infamous semifinal in London produced another obstacle that the Swiss will have to overcome in a tie that increasingly looks destined to break Federer’s heart -- or provide us with the spectacle of Federer breaking his racket over Wawrinka’s head. Wawrinka forced Federer to play nearly three hours in London, and to overcome four match points, before he won. Federer’s back was unable to take the strain, and he had to issue a walkover to Novak Djokovic in the following day’s final.

What’s going on here, a reprisal of “Amadeus,” with Wawrinka playing a bitter and jealous Antonio Salieri to Federer’s Mozart?

As if having to convince the media and fans that Stan and Roger are still super-tight bros isn’t distracting enough, Swiss captain Severin Luthi has multiple other problems to worry about. The biggest of them is that while Luthi is in command of a two-man team, the French have a deep and versatile squad led by world No. 12 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Alongside him: No. 19 Gael Monfils, No. 25 Julien Benneteau and No. 26 Richard Gasquet.

Let’s assume that Federer will be in shape to play Friday. (He is scheduled to practice Thursday for the first time since last Saturday). The Swiss will be very lucky to win both Friday singles on red clay before nearly 30,000 French zealots, which means that the “swing match” doubles could be pivotal.

Benneteau won a Grand Slam doubles title this year at the French Open (with Edouard Roger-Vasselin), and he wouldn’t be giving up much -- if anything -- were he to pair with Gasquet or Tsonga. Thus the question becomes: Does Luthi dare play one or both of his two journeymen subs (Marco Chiudinelli, doubles rank No. 206, and/or Michael Lammer, doubles rank No. 528)?

Perhaps the better way to put this question is, can Luthi ask Federer and/or Wawrinka to play a best-of-five doubles sandwiched between best-of-five singles matches on consecutive days on red clay? The obvious answer is “no,” but he might have to do just that -- unless the Swiss are up 2-0 at the end of Friday.

Of course, the wild card here is the mood of the French team -- something that can’t always be accurately predicted. The French dodged a bullet of humiliation in the World Group quarterfinals, when they were almost beaten by what amounted to Germany’s C team -- and on French soil, no less. But les Bleus rebounded from an 0-2 deficit to win the final three matches.

Stung, the French stepped up in their next tie, sweeping the defending champion Czechs behind overpowering singles performances by Gasquet and Tsonga. The French men surrendered a mere 15 games in the first two singles matches. Gasquet and Tsonga applied the finishing touches in the doubles.

The French have developed a reputation as underachievers in recent years; in 2014, they’ve taken on the look of a team of destiny. They surely welcomed the news that the Swiss had been bickering. Mirka Federer is sure to be vocal in her support for Wawrinka as well as her husband come Friday, and between points she might even be caught humming the tune to “Give Peace a Chance.”
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As befitting a major final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, a number of records were broken by Sunday’s championship match of the ATP World Tour Finals. Unfortunately, all of them were of the wrong or undesirable kind.

Roger Federer withdrew (with a bad back) from the widely anticipated final just 30 minutes before he was to commence torturing Novak Djokovic one last time this year. It was the first walkover in a championship match in the 45-year history of the event, and just the third time that Federer -- who has never retired during a match -- declined to play one.

If you set aside the keen disappointment felt by some 17,000-odd fans who were pumped to see this final, the desires of an international television audience and the hope most of the ball kids entertained that either Roger or Nole would grace them with a few kind words, it was almost a fitting end to this event.

Djokovic had yanked the drama plug unceremoniously on Friday by clinching the year-end world No. 1 ranking with his third successive, superb round-robin victory (thus ending Federer’s parallel quest for the honor). So the issue seemed settled. But was there really an issue?

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty ImagesAfter his semifinal battle, Roger Federer didn't look like a player capable of beating Novak Djokovic, even if the Swiss were healthy.
Djokovic won six titles to Federer’s five this year, including a Grand Slam event, Wimbledon. Not only did Federer fail to win a major, it was Djokovic who denied him his best chance on that July afternoon in London. Federer won more matches (.860 on 68-11) going into these championships, but Djokovic had an infinitesimally better winning percentage with his 57-8 (.876) mark. Federer was 5-5 against the four Grand Slam champions of 2014, Djokovic was 5-2 against his three fellow slammers, 7-5 if you add his 2-3 mark against Federer. Even there, that one-match edge for Federer comes down to a win the least consequential of the five events (Dubai).

Beyond that, the walkover ended an event in which the matches right up to the semifinals had been so one-sided that you would have thought the players were paying hourly for their own parking at the 02 Arena. And the way Federer’s turncoat wingman Stan "The Occasional Man" Wawrinka had exercised Federer in their 2-hour, 48-minute barnburner of a semifinal, did anyone really believe Federer could drag his 33-year-old bones out there on less than 24 hours rest and ward off the pile-driving groundstrokes of Serbia’s grim reaper?

Federer undoubtedly would have played the match if he were able. Consider him lucky to have been incapacitated.

The abandoned final was the last unpleasant surprise of one of the more muted and unsatisfying year-end championships, but not all the takeaways are negative. Let’s review some of the more encouraging ones:

• A new wave of players including Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov (who narrowly missed qualifying) is threatening to displace the Grade B players who have regularly camped in the 02 (and elsewhere) without the ability to win it -- or any other major title. There’s a shakeup brewing in the ATP, which could use the infusion of fresh blood.

• Djokovic set a new standard for hard-court excellence, losing a mere nine games in his three round-robin matches. He lost just one set -- to Nishikori in the semis -- but rebounded by winning the third set in that one, 6-0.

• Twenty-four-year-old Nishikori played like a young man who’s among the elite to stay. His secret? He takes time away from opponents by taking the ball early, from on or inside the baseline. It’s one of the few ways to frustrate a great defender like Djokovic. Nishikori had Djokovic muttering to himself and casting panicked glances at his coaching team during the second set of their semi. Nishikori ran out of gas in the third. With another year of seasoning, he may not shoot his wad so easily next time.

• Bob and Mike Bryan won the year-end doubles championship for the first time since 2009 -- an unusually long drought for a team of their caliber. They won their 103rd title with a 6-7(5), 6-2, 10-7 squeaker over Ivan Dodig and Marelo Melo. This was also their 10th title of the year, the fourth year they’ve won that many.

• Federer’s transition to a more aggressive, attack-ready game has taken a quantum leap forward in recent months. All of those “should I stay or should I go (to the net)?” discussions that began way back when Paul Annacone was still Federer’s coach have now matured -- with the help of Stefan Edberg -- into a mesmerizing monologue. While the sore back sets off warning bells (Federer struggled with back pain for a good portion of 2013) for next year, there’s no point speculating until Federer takes a good, long, well-deserved rest. A competitive Federer is good for the game.

• The cream still rises to the top despite the inherent problems in the round-robin based format. Loads of fans probably were pulling out their hair on Friday morning trying to figure out what a Wawrinka or Nishikori or Berdych might have to do in order to make the cut for the semis. When it comes to qualification for the WTF semis, tennis actually is a lot like rocket science. But that’s a small price to play for advantages of round robin -- like being able to guarantee that all eight players will be on display for at least three consecutive days.

Moreover, in the end it all does seem to work out. The most legitimate bone of contention might be the complaint that the event is always held on indoor hard courts, and that certainly favors players with a certain skill set. But that’s a pretty broad skill set -- even that quintessential clay-courter Rafael Nadal has made two finals and two semis in six tries. Usually, the player with the best overall record wins this event. The asterisk that will be attached to this final has nothing to do with that, for once again the best player won.

Novak Djokovic's job only half done

November, 14, 2014
Nov 14
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Playing the role of the man in black in the sport famous for its fixation on “tennis whites” suits … Novak Djokovic. Wearing black above and below the waist, the top-seed at the ATP World Tour Finals has gone about his business with a chilling efficiency and patience, and that hint of dire inevitability we generally associate with the Grim Reaper. The outstanding difference is that Djokovic bears not a sickle but a tennis racket.

Djokovic backed up the image Friday by clinching the coveted year-end No. 1 ranking for the third time in four years by virtue of a persuasive beating of Tomas Berdych on the final day of round-robin play in London.

The score was 6-2, 6-2, but Berdych could console himself with the fact that he forced the issue for over an hour (1:09), most of it spent on life support. It’s been that kind of week for Djokovic, who has lost just nine games in three round-robin matches, breaking serve 15 times in 22 attempts.

There’s not much point in parsing the details of this one. It was evident from the start that Djokovic was feeling no pressure to beat Berdych in order to avoid potentially having to play Roger Federer for the year-end No. 1 ranking come Sunday. It was equally obvious that Tomas Berdych was unprepared to insert himself into the midst of the conversation that has been driving our interest in tennis for the past few months: Could Federer, the No. 2 seed in London, catch and surpass Djokovic in the rankings?

That storyline is stone-cold dead now, thanks to the efficiency with which Djokovic shut down Berdych, kicking things off with a service break. Djokovic won the first set in 31 minutes, largely because he won 78 percent of his second-serve points, while Berdych converted an anemic 38 percent of his own. Given his 2-16 record against Djokovic, and the way Berdych’s meat-and-potatoes power game plays right into Djokovic’s strength (superb groundstrokes and defense), the No. 6 seed’s only real chance was to shoot out the lights. But it was Djokovic who ventured the greatest risk and reaped the greater rewards.

Djokovic smacked 18 winners to just eight for Berdych, he out-aced his rival 4-2 and attacked more frequently and productively, claiming eight points on 12 trips to the net, while Berdych won just five of eight.

So the man in black moves on, preparing to win these year-end championships for a fourth time. Should he play No. 2 seed Federer, a six-time winner of this event, the underdog will certainly compete with the taste of bile in his mouth. Djokovic keeps closing the gap on some of the more vital statistical fronts (next: the attempt to surpass Rafael Nadal in total weeks spent ranked No. 1. Nadal held that ranking for 141 weeks; Djokovic is at week No. 121), but that doesn’t mean that his persona as the outlier, the man in black, is any less accurate.

Djokovic, with help from Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, crashed the rankings in 2006, putting the nation of Serbia on the tennis map. Djokovic quickly became the third wheel in the cozy relationship between two wildly popular stars, Federer and Nadal. That Djokovic was confident, brash and either struggling with ailments and injuries or exhibiting a streak of hypochondria added more polarizing elements to the awkward narrative.

Over the ensuing years, Djokovic evolved from a callow youth into an engaged, sophisticated adult -- an appropriate ambassador for the game. But the pattern was set by then, and neither Federer nor Nadal was particularly keen on turning a split kingdom into a tripartite one. The third wheel has become a permanent fixture, and as Federer pushes 34 years of age and Nadal has had to start paying the principal on his punishing, ultra-physical game, their 27-year old Serbian tormentor seems ready to make another push, cutting deeper into the legacies of his rivals.

Should Djokovic meet Federer on Sunday and win, it will also go some way to undoing the theme that Federer, with his artful and increasingly aggressive game, has become Djokovic’s nemesis. (Federer has won three of their past five matches.) Djokovic completed Part A of a two-part operation when he clinched the year-end No. 1 ranking. We’ll have to wait to see how well he handles Part B over the weekend.

For the time being, Djokovic doesn’t even seem to need to worry about Andy Murray playing Nadal to his own Federer. Djokovic and Murray are no longer a bargain-basement version of the Swiss and Spanish icons. Murray is out of the picture for the moment, and unless Federer can convince us otherwise Sunday, the man in charge going into 2015 clearly will be the man in black. His track record at the Australian Open is formidable (43-6 with four titles).

Of course, by next January, Djokovic’s clothing sponsor surely will have him wearing different, more colorful clothing. But it hardly matters. No matter what color he’s wearing, in spirit Novak Djokovic will probably always be the man in black.
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The gap between the sublime and the ridiculous is usually enormous, but Roger Federer leaped across it Thursday with ease at the ATP World Tour Finals in London. He destroyed resurgent Andy Murray’s hopes of capping his recent revival with a win in the year-end championship -- while keeping alive his own improbable dream of finishing 2014 as the oldest player ever to earn the prestigious year-end No. 1 ranking.

Making a mockery of his age as well as the vaunted defense and coy game of his opponent, No. 2 seed Federer advanced to the semifinal stage of the year-enders with an astonishing performance, bamboozling Murray in barely 56 minutes 6-0, 6-1. It wasn’t as close as the score indicates, and when it was over Federer met Murray at the net, gently patted the Scot’s damp chest, and offered some inaudible words of consolation.

Murray’s reply, however, was stoic and easily heard: “Don’t worry about it.”

Even the most partisan of Federer fans could not have claimed to see this coming. For one thing, Federer had been assured of qualifying before the match began; he had no particular reason to destroy Murray. For another, Murray was a desperate man who could still make the semifinals -- should he upset Federer in two sets. As well, Murray has been on a tear this fall, playing six weeks running to pick up enough points to qualify for the elite eight who comprise the singles field. The only top player who enjoyed anything like comparable success -- and also played a robust schedule -- was Federer himself.

As if all that wasn’t enough, this tournament had been a carnival of blowouts thus far -- the only three-set match took place earlier Thursday, and it didn’t even feature one of the top eight qualifiers. Alternate David Ferrer was called upon to step in for Milos Raonic, who had withdrawn with a muscle tear. Ferrer promptly went where none of the elite had gone this week, forcing Kei Nishikori to three sets. (Nishikori thus joined Federer as a Group B qualifier for the semis.)

Surely, Federer and Murray -- tied in their career rivalry with 11 wins apiece -- would deliver a match worthy of the fifth most prestigious event in men’s tennis?

Early in the match, it appeared that salvation might be at hand. Federer served the first game, and opened the ball with a wild volley error. Murray won the next point, as well. But at 15-30, Murray missed a makeable down-the-line backhand pass. Federer managed the hold and then converted his second break point to bolt to a 2-love lead. The slaughter commenced thereafter, and just 19 minutes into the match, Federer had a 5-love lead.

It was clear by then that Murray was off his game and Federer was in the zone, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be taken from Murray’s nightmare. For one thing, Federer demonstrated that with sufficient aggression Murray’s familiar “gotcha” style, rooted in his curious habit of hanging back and waiting for the game to come to him, can be exploited.

Murray is at his best when his temptation to react (rather than take charge) is at ebb, and that wasn’t the case Thursday evening. He allowed his opponent to bring the game to him, and the pace, power and accuracy with which Federer delivered stunned Murray.

Granted, Murray had an all-around miserable day. His second serve was ineffective, his forehand was atrocious and his storied defense was broken down time and again. But that only shed a harsh, clear light on the degree to which an all-court aggressive game can still bear fruit in this age of defensive, baseline play. Federer was so light on his feet that he appeared to be skating, rather than running, and he attacked freely and frequently. A less aggressive player might have given Murray a little more breathing room to rally his game and find some sort of rhythm.

Federer accomplished all that despite logging a lower first-serve conversion rate lower than Murray’s (38 percent to 45 percent). When Federer did put his first serve into play, he was perfect: 14-for-14.

Murray had never absorbed a love-and-love beating in his 631 previous pro matches. The closest anyone came to laying that much wood on him was Novak Djokovic, who beat him in the Miami Masters of 2007, love and one. As this beating went on, straining credulity game after game, the big question was whether Federer would go for the 6-0, 6-0 score line.

In the sixth game of the second set, with Murray down 5-0, Federer jumped out front with a pretty drop-shot winner. Murray then hit a double fault. Suddenly, almost imperceptibly, Federer took his foot off the gas. He missed a forehand volley. Murray hit an ace. Federer donated a backhand error and then swatted at yet another second serve as if the ball were merely a pesky fly. Murray, having won the face-saving game, was appreciative enough to give Federer little trouble in the final game, which Federer closed out when Murray made a backhand rally error.

“I think I just picked apart his game,” the winner said, speaking as if this were not a demolition but a delicate, surgical procedure. In truth, it was a little bit of both, as is so often the case with the improbable Mr. Federer.

Asked afterward if he had thrown Murray a bone in that sixth game, Federer said he tried to win it, but added, “I was actually happy it didn’t happen.”

On a day when the sublime morphed into the ridiculous, it seemed a fitting confession.

Federer reminds us why we need Rafa

November, 11, 2014
Nov 11
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The O2 Arena is rapidly becoming “Oh no!” stadium as the ATP World Tour Finals teeter on the brink of becoming a carnival of blowouts. With five matches logged by late afternoon Tuesday in London, the most pertinent prematch question has become, “Is this one going to break the one-hour mark?”

The latest player to log a triumphant yawner was Roger Federer, who disposed of Kei Nishikori 6-3, 6-2 in under an hour and 10 minutes today. It ran the string of straight-sets wins to five and shattered the dreams of those who had been hoping to at least get to watch a tiebreaker. Not that it would have mattered much. In the only tiebreak played over those five matches, Federer pitched a 7-0 shutout against Milos Raonic.

Tuesday’s clash between No. 2-seeded Federer and No. 4 Nishikori looked promising. Nishikori had beaten Federer in two of their three meetings since the spring of 2013. He was a recent US Open finalist and is the first Japanese player to qualify for the WTF. On opening day, Nishikori licked resurgent Andy Murray with ease. We were hoping to witness a spectacular battle matching Federer’s aerialist maneuvers with Nishikori’s surface-to-air passing shots. Instead, Nishikori complained about a bad wrist and littered the court with 30 unforced errors, many of them when he could least afford the misfire.

So it already looks like it might take an act of God to keep Federer out of the semifinals before the second day was even completed. Factor the stats regarding indoor hard courts into this equation and it all adds up to a perfect storm that could see Novak Djokovic win his third successive year-end championship with scores that might remind us of the bad old days of the WTA.

It’s times like this when it’s easy to miss Rafael Nadal. The 14-time Grand Slam champion is finished for the year after undergoing surgery to rid him of his appendix (great, his rivals must think, now he’ll be that much lighter -- and faster!). He will also be getting an infusion of stem cells in his spine to cure an aching back -- as if this guy didn’t have enough backbone already.

In truth, Nadal has never loved the WTF, and he survived the preliminaries to play a final just twice -- losing on both occasions. Nadal may not always have found his A-game in the grand finale, but he always brought his A-effort. A few of this year’s players might take a cue from that as the rest of this event plays out.

This was a strange year indeed for Nadal. At the outset, he was positioned to mount a challenge to the Grand Slam singles title record (17) held by his pal and original rival Federer. Nadal seemed on his way when he reached the final of the first Grand Slam of the year, with only first-time major finalist Stan Wawrinka to beat for the Australian Open title. Wawrinka played well and deserved the win, but Nadal’s back was all locked up and undeniably played a role in the outcome.

Nobody really wants to be known as the guy who is great at bouncing back, mainly because nobody wants to fall far enough to require a rebound. But this year, Nadal once again was obliged to carom off the rail of misfortune and, perhaps alarmingly for his future, more than once. He regained his fitness after the Australian Open in time to win the French Open, but after he was blasted out of Wimbledon by Nick Kyrgios, a bad wrist prohibited him from defending his US Open title.

Nadal picked himself back up and returned during the Asian swing, only to come down with appendicitis. If you’re keeping tabs at home, that’s three setbacks and two resets in about 10 months -- more than some players have had to undertake in entire careers.

Nadal always struggled at the WTF. He is just 13-11, and even in a good year on that indoor court in London he has had a tendency to lose plot. Last year, he won four straight matches only to lose in muted fashion to the grim reaper of the O2, Djokovic. The scores were 6-3, 6-4.

Before that, Nadal had battered -- or been battered -- in numerous matches, giving as good as he got. In 2011 (he missed the 2012 playoffs), he survived a hairy third-set tiebreaker with Mardy Fish in his first round-robin match but got knocked out in his third group match by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in another tense three-setter. Nine of Nadal’s 24 matches at the year-end championships have been three-setters.

I could use one of those close ones right about now.

Roger Federer's doomed mission

November, 10, 2014
Nov 10
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A person could be forgiven for wondering why Roger Federer looked so angry when he set forth Sunday at the ATP World Tour Finals to complete what has become his Mission Improbable -- to snatch the prestigious year-end No. 1 ranking out of top-ranked Novak Djokovic’s hands before the end of this week. Doing so would make Federer the oldest year-end No. 1 since the rankings were instituted.

In just the second game of his first match, the all-time Grand Slam singles titlist drilled a ball right at the navel of his opponent, Milos Raonic. When he broke Raonic’s serve a few points later, he grunted out an exclamation. It wasn’t that familiar, sotto voce “Come on,” either. It was some sort of exotic expletive, coughed out like a bark.

Sheesh. You would have thought it was Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe out there. Why so angry, Roger? You have 17 major titles. You have a lovely wife and you got four kids for the price of two with that pair of twins. You’ve won 82 singles titles and more moolah (over $86 million) than a winner of the Powerball lottery. Does finishing No. 1 -- something you’ve already done on five previous occasions (the last in 2009) -- really mean that much to you?

Oh … silly of me to ask.

Actually, Federer had fairly valid, less-than-cosmic reasons to go into his first match at the year-end championships with his nose out of joint. It was Raonic, an otherwise likable Canadian giant, who put Federer into the bind he faces this week. Raonic knocked Federer out of the Paris Masters 1000 a little over a week ago. That helped Djokovic cruise to the title. It also turned what was shaping up as a noble effort on the part of the Swiss icon into what looks like an almost certainly doomed one.

The upset by Raonic meant that top-seeded Djokovic entered the WTF needing to win only his three round-robin matches to hang on to the prestigious year-end top ranking.

Federer, seeded No. 2 in the WTF, didn’t allow himself to get all bummed out by the altered landscape. He just took his frustrations out on Raonic, pummeling the pride of Thornhill, Ontario, 6-1, 7-6 (0). Federer almost certainly went to sleep hoping that Marin Cilic might find the form he showed at the US Open and batter Djokovic off the court in the WTF opener for both men Monday. But that didn’t happen. Djokovic hammered the No. 8 seed 6-1, 6-1 in an ugly match that lasted barely 55 minutes.

So much for the idea that fatherhood -- a state Djokovic has experienced for exactly 21 days now -- has mellowed or perhaps even distracted the Serbian champ. Djokovic is 57-8 on the year, but he’s undefeated as a papa. Against Cilic, Djokovic played as if his kid, Stefan, would never have shoes if he lost.

Cilic, a raw-boned Croatian who stands 6-foot-6, won just half of the points when he put that big first serve into play, and a dismal 24 percent of the second-serve points he offered up. Cilic’s mentor is the all-time ATP leading ace-maker, Goran Ivanisevic. Cilic is so besotted with his coach that he’s redesigned his service action into an almost exact copy of Ivanisevic’s. Given that, the successful service-points-won numbers are dismal -- but don’t neglect to factor Djokovic’s service return into your analysis. The ability to read an opponent’s serve and whale on it is one of Djokovic’s most striking assets, even if sits there as something like an inconvenient truth for nonbelievers.

I’m not sure just how Djokovic devolved into the guy so few people really trust anymore, at least not when it comes to big moments. I suppose going 2-5 in recent Grand Slam finals (after going 5-2 in his first seven major finals) might have something to do with it. So does Rafael Nadal, who keeps meeting Djokovic’s push to win a French Open final with the athletic equivalent of disdain. Roger Federer also has contributed his share to the saga; he’s fought Djokovic to a 5-5 standstill in their past 10 meetings (since Wimbledon of 2012).

Djokovic himself has contributed to this narrative. After declaring himself the new marshal in town in 2011, he’s regressed to the Nole of yore, the player who was always a little, well, complicated. He’s mercurial, brilliant and saddled with an instinct for self-sabotage. He’s got a yen for drama, which isn’t always a virtue when it comes to production because it isn’t very dramatic to win -- or lose -- all the time.

Nevertheless, the way Djokovic played Monday demonstrated that he’s fully aware of what Federer is up to -- and not having any of it. We’ll see what Tuesday brings, with Kei Nishikori poised to challenge Federer in the early singles match. Perhaps if he’s feeling sufficiently sadistic, Djokovic might feel moved to watch as the walls close in on his rival.

Why Andy Murray went rogue

November, 6, 2014
Nov 6
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If you were looking for a hero during the ATP’s post-US Open fall swing, you had a surprising number of choices: There was Kei Nishikori, backing up his exceptional US Open by qualifying for the ATP World Tour Finals. How about Roger Federer, piecing together a challenge for the year-end No. 1 ranking -- at age 33? Or Milos Raonic, stepping up in a must-win situation to complete the “elite eight” field for the year-enders.

Valid choices, all of them. But my hero this fall is Andy Murray. At the conclusion of the US Open, the struggling British player was demoted from membership in the Big Four to a place in the Big 11. But instead of falling back on the sense of entitlement that accrues with winning a major or two, Murray clenched his jaw, lowered his head, and charged forward -- resolved to qualify for the World Tour Finals.

[+] EnlargeAndy Murray
ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty ImagesAndy Murray may no longer be considered one of tennis' Big Four, but he played his heart out down the stretch of this season.
It was a welcome decision. London would be a little less intriguing and a little less fun without the presence of the scowling, self-berating Scot who in 2013 became the first British man to win Wimbledon in 6,769 years. OK, it was just 77 years. But didn’t it seem a lot longer?

This year was difficult for Murray. The afterglow of his epic win at Wimbledon in '13 had to be disorienting -- how could it not be? After he won Wimbledon in July 2013, Murray never made another semifinal until he pulled the plug on his year in mid-September in order to undergo minor back surgery. The procedure kept him sidelined until the start of this year.

Murray did not pronounce himself fully fit and match-tough until after he played three grueling hard-court matches in Acapulco in late March. But then he bombed in Indian Wells, losing to No. 11 Milos Raonic. And Murray mustered only cursory resistance in a loss to top-seeded Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals in Miami. In the wake of that monthlong misadventure, Murray’s ranking fell to No. 8. The drumbeat began: “What’s wrong with Murray?”

In the ensuing weeks, Murray showed flashes of brilliance -- and that was the problem. Guys like Ernests Gulbis or Gael Monfils are the ones who show “flashes of brilliance.” A man who had been embraced as a legitimate peer by his fellow members in the Big Four is supposed to show steady, incandescent genius.

Things got worse. Grigor Dimitrov hammered Murray out in the quarters at Wimbledon. Murray’s form continued to fluctuate like water in an irrigation ditch. Following a weak US Open, at which he lost a quarterfinal to the top-seeded Djokovic, the Scot was wallowing at No. 11.

Murray might have chosen to coast to the finish and write off a disappointing 2014 to a combination of his back troubles and an understandable, lingering loss of motivation following his great Wimbledon moment. He could claim things just sort of got away from him. Instead, Murray did the most difficult thing, which was probably the right thing, and certainly the most humble thing -- in other words, the kind of thing you see less and less among the elite players: Andy Murray went rogue.

Murray decided to throw his schedule out the window and make an all-out effort to qualify for the World Tour Finals in London. As befitting his diminished station in tennis, he was doing the Nishikori or Raonic thing, not the Djokovic or Federer thing. Murray was adding tournaments, taking on risk. He became a man on a mission. After the US Open, Murray went 20-3 with three titles -- his only three of 2014.

Despite those dazzling numbers, Murray still did not qualify for London until he won his third-round match in the final tournament of the year, the Paris Masters 1000. Wasn’t it just a few years ago that the grouchy stars of tennis had to be dragged kicking and screaming -- and pleading physical cruelty -- to London? This year, Andy Murray played six weeks in a row after his loss at the US Open, in outposts ranging from Shenzhen, China, to Vienna, Austria.

Hey, when did this guy turn into David Ferrer?

Murray’s autumn has truly been the “hero’s journey” that Hollywood so loves. By definition, that trip has also been a learning experience. Perhaps Murray has learned -- or remembered -- that he still belongs among that Big Four.

And when his journey was completed, the sigh of relief that rose in London was so heartfelt that it probably fogged all the windows in Battersea.

Asia re-energizing tennis globally

September, 22, 2014
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Pity poor Kei Nishikori. With Li Na gone, the burden of carrying the tennis message to Asia -- or is it the Asian message to tennis? -- now falls squarely on his decidedly sloped shoulders.

The other day, the recent US Open finalist helped the ATP kick off the “Asian swing” in Hong Kong. He was obliged to plough across the city’s harbor in a traditional Chinese “junk” boat, after which he was peppered with questions from a group of international and local media during a working lunch of dim sum.

Under other circumstances, those culturally correct activities might have seemed grievously insulting, given that Nishikori isn’t Chinese but Japanese. Asia is where everything is hot and happening. Asia is less a place than an idea these days. A deliciously enormous entity that could be the agent that re-energizes tennis.

That process is well underway, having really picked up steam with the success of the first Chinese Grand Slam champion, Li. Nishikori’s nation of Japan, however, is a different story. Tennis has been popular in Japan since the heydays of Bjorn Borg, Vitas Gerulaitis, and just about any tennis pro who knew one end of a racket from another. Now Japan is called a “mature market,” and while it went into recession when Shuzo Matsuoka and Kimiko Date retired in the mid-1990s, Nishikori has brought it roaring back. (Date married and returned a decade later as Kimiko Date-Krumm, and she’s still adding to her remarkable legacy by keeping a place in the top 100 -- at age 43.)

Asia is feeling good about its tennis these days, and for good reason. Nishikori is already No. 8 in the world, and he’s still just 24. Tatsuma Ito (ATP No. 103) is also making a name for himself along with Japanese WTA pros Kurumi Nara (No. 36) and Misaki Doi (No. 88).

Li was ranked No. 2 in the world just weeks ago, and although she’s retired, China now has two women in the top 35 (No. 21 Peng Shuai, No. 33 Zhang Shuai) and three more in direct acceptance territory (No. 68 Jie Zheng, No. 102 Saisai Zheng and No. 106 Wang Qiang). The latest Chinese woman to generate headlines on the court was Peng, who advanced to the US Open semifinals with notable wins over No. 4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 14 Lucie Safarova. Oddly, the Chinese are having trouble producing male stars -- but that’s a subject best left for another time.

These and other players from the region are flourishing partly because of all the tournament action in Asia. The ATP is proud that China now hosts events across all three ATP categories (250, 500, 1000 events); it’s the first nation outside the U.S. to do so. The growth on the WTA side is even more impressive. China had but one WTA event in 2007; this year it has eight, including two prestigious Premier category tournaments and three International level ones.

As far as the Asian invasion goes, the future is already here. Asia has taken over from Europe as the hotbed of fall tournament tennis for both men and women. And with Li gone now, Nishikori is Asia’s most famous face. He begins his drive to nail down a place in the elite eight who will contest the ATP World Tour Championships at the end of the year in Kuala Lumpur this week. I don’t know whether he sailed there in a junk boat or not.

Li Na's titles bigger than tennis

September, 19, 2014
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video “Can you tell the Chinese [fans]: Don’t teach me how to play tennis?”

-- Li Na, to chair umpire Alison Lange, as the Australian Open final of 2011 was slipping out of her grasp.


Li Na has retired from tennis with chronic knee injuries. There is no evidence that the injuries were in any way related to the fact that, for so many years, Li carried the weight of the entire Chinese nation on her shoulders.

China is a big nation. Li was just 5-foot-7, but her shoulders were surprisingly strong.

Li’s career almost perfectly parallels the history of her homeland over the past decade-plus; they emerged and sought success and credibility at the same time on similar global stages. It was quite a reversal for Li, given that early in her career she had been tempted to quit the game in disgust over the suffocating hold the Chinese sports establishment had on her.

Li even withdrew from the tour for an extended period, just as she was becoming a player of note, in order to earn a bachelor’s degree in journalism at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology. (That accounts for the fact that her career as a Grand Slam competitor spans just nine years -- far fewer than that of most other elite players.)

That costly hiatus has been interpreted as part of a long-running poker game Li played with the Chinese “national team” administrators as she sought to wrest her autonomy. No autonomy, no potential Grand Slam champion for China, she appeared to be telling them. It was a high-stakes game, and Li won.

As a result of Li’s pushback, all Chinese players following in her footsteps benefited -- and will continue to benefit. It was a victory that might not have been possible had she not been a player so gifted that despite all the hardships she faced -- from the language barrier to those troublesome knees to her husband Jiang Shan’s snoring -- she would become a two-time Grand Slam champion.

Li’s victory at the 2011 French Open was undeniably her single greatest performance. Gliding across the clay at Roland Garros, firing those crisp down-the-line backhands and maintaining her concentration (not always an easy task for Li), she played aggressive, confident tennis to beat a succession of four top-10 players, all of whom had won -- or would win -- major titles.

That win represented exoneration after her failure just months earlier at the Australian Open. In Melbourne, she’d won the first set from “Aussie Kim” Clijsters. But she lost her composure as the second set slipped away, and a large group of Chinese, desperate to see her win, began showering her with advice. (Hence her request to Lang.) If they worried that Li would never have a comparable chance, they were mistaken. All she needed was a little breathing room. A little trust.

It’s fitting that the Australian Open, which likes to bill itself as the Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific, was the major where Li produced her greatest success to offset some discouraging failures. After that first final in 2011, she made it back to the championship match in 2013. On that occasion, she lost to defending champ Victoria Azarenka in a bizarre match during which she rolled her ankle twice, bumped her head on the court following a serious spill (it required a medical timeout) and had to take a nine-minute respite to watch the Australia Day fireworks display -- plenty of time to wonder why, once again, the final was getting away from her.

But Li was undeterred. This February, she finally won the tournament that is closest thing she has to a home major. It was a career-capping win, and perhaps the second time in her career when she was entitled to feel truly free.


Federer motivated to get Davis Cup win

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
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Roger FedererAP Photo/Alastair GrantRoger Federer would like to add the missing Davis Cup piece to his career ledger.
Give credit to US Open men’s singles finalist Kei Nishikori and champion Marin Cilic, but you just know top-seeded Novak Djokovic and No. 2 seed Roger Federer were bummed out about the lost opportunity to win a major without having to go through Rafael Nadal, who missed the final Grand Slam of the year with a wrist injury.

Djokovic, who seemed disgusted with himself following his semifinal loss in New York to Nishikori, decided to skip Serbia’s Davis Cup World Group Playoffs tie against India this weekend, citing fatigue. But most observers also think Djokovic mainly wants to spend time with his recent bride Jelena, who is expected to give birth to their first child at the end of the year.

Federer, who has children in multiples of two (he has infant twin boys and twin toddler girls), isn’t too tired to answer the Davis Cup call for Switzerland this weekend as the squad strives to secure the championships for the first time.

The fact Djokovic has already led Serbia to a Davis Cup triumph (2010) certainly played into the world No. 1’s decision to sit this one out. He can do no wrong in the eyes of his countrymen, so Djokovic needn’t worry too much -- unless he really is all-in when it comes to playing for his country. A loss by Serbia on grass in Bangalore will be a humiliation, and it would relegate the nation to zonal play next year. And that means Djokovic will be under a lot of pressure to bring his nation back into the elite World Group in 2015.

Federer’s situation is far less complex. He -- along with reigning Australian Open champ and Davis Cup teammate Stan Wawrinka -- is on the cusp of a historic achievement for Switzerland, as well as on an unstated mission to fill the last hole on his résumé. And they’re in an excellent position to make that happen.

People who don’t buy into the Davis Cup narrative might just shrug and ask of Federer’s quest, “Who cares?” But Federer, a great traditionalist and a champion with real reverence for the history of the game, knows that Davis Cup matters. He knows that all of his most cherished peers, past and present, have led their respective nations to victory in the Davis Cup -- sometimes in ways that have become part of their respective legacies (for instance, Pete Sampras in 1995 winning both singles matches and a doubles match with Todd Martin to lead an unexpected U.S. sweep in Moscow, on clay no less).

Federer may not be required to perform such heroics. He’s ranked No. 2, Wawrinka is No. 4. The Swiss are at home on a fast surface against an Italian squad led by a head case in No. 17 Fabio Fognini. The scenario becomes less certain -- and more fun -- should the heavily favored Swiss advance to the final. They will be on the road against the winner of the Czech Republic versus France tie.

Thus, Federer has plenty of motivation to see him through the rest of this year. The same cannot be said for Djokovic, who seems to have been struggling with motivation since he won Wimbledon. If Serbia loses to India, Djokovic probably will take at least a little heat at home. And if Federer leads the Swiss to their second Davis Cup final (they lost at the U.S. in the 1992 final), he will be one step closer to filling that final remaining hole.

Perhaps Federer is lucky that after the US Open disappointment he still has something to look forward to career-wise this year. Djokovic has to be content with stewing in his own juices, and anticipating the joy of changing diapers.
As the summer hard-court events got underway, the odds that the players going into the US Open with the greatest head of steam would be Roger Federer and Serena Williams didn’t seem very good. Now, with the last of the big hard-court tuneups concluded, guess who stands atop the heap of US Open contenders?

Roger and Serena. Federer recently turned 33; Williams is hot on his tail in a race she won’t ever win, about to hit the same age at the end of September. Or, if you’re a Williams fan, about the time the champagne high from having won the US Open begins to wear off.

Roger and Serena. A grand total of 34 Grand Slam singles titles, evenly split. The race is on for the bragging rights up on tennis Olympus, because even these two can’t go on forever.

Roger and Serena. The reliables. It’s got the makings of a good action movie. That was amply demonstrated in the two finals at the Western & Southern Open on Sunday. You would almost think that Federer watched Serena’s systematic, 6-4, 6-1 demolition of No. 6 seed Ana Ivanovic and took inspiration from it. He is surely not the kind of dude who would have been under the headphones listening to Macklemore or Black Sabbath.

Ivanovic, sweet soul that she is, smiled during the trophy presentation and began her runner-up acceptance speech by saying, “I think today I just got a lesson in how to serve.” The match lasted barely an hour and two minutes, yet Williams found the time to club a dozen aces. She also won 80 percent of the points when she put her first serve into the correct box. As ESPN’s Chris Evert so succinctly put it, Williams is unbeatable when she makes more winners than unforced errors. Sunday she was 23-11.

If he took notes, Federer made good use of them as he made No. 6 seed David Ferrer his patsy for the 16th consecutive time, beating him 6-3, 1-6, 6-2 in the final. His serve was extremely effective, even in that throwaway second set. He made 65 percent of his first serves and won almost as high a percentage of those points (77 percent) as Serena did.

Ferrer’s entire career as a player aspiring to the highest of all levels was neatly -- and sadly -- summed up in the end of the first set. Serving to stay in it at 4-5, Ferrer played a game that he launched with an unforced inside-out forehand error, after which he smacked two double-faults -- the second at break point.

Federer fell behind 0-40 when he served for the set in the next game. But after a Federer winner, Ferrer made a sloppy backhand error on the second of the three break points and Federer took care of the last one with another winner. Ferrer would have another break point, but Federer saved that one, too -- with his best second serve of the afternoon. He went on to hold on a crosscourt backhand passing shot error.

OK, Federer’s concentration lapsed and Ferrer snatched away the second set. But Ferrer is always tough when playing catch-up, partly because staying ahead demands a lot more poise and confidence than trying to catch up.

Beyond that, Federer kept the match from becoming a track meet. That was partly because he’s found a new use for that backhand that everyone pounds away at nowadays. Instead of risking the unforced error with a big, one-handed, topspin cut, or allowing his opponent to take control of a point by playing a safe slice, Federer more and more uses the slice to get into the net to end the point there -- one way or another.

Federer is playing in a manner that people for years have been saying cannot be done anymore. We’ll see how right they are in a few weeks’ time at the US Open, for Federer has built up a lot of momentum starting at Wimbledon (four consecutive finals, with two wins).

Can it be that the American major will be all about Roger and Serena once again?
In 1992, Stefan Edberg played Michael Chang in the semifinals of the US Open, in what would become the longest match at the tournament since such records have been kept. Edberg won in an excruciating five hours and 26 minutes, after attacking the net 254 times against one of the great grinders of all time.

People rarely bring up that performance when they talk about the greatest matches of all time, but it surely deserves a place among them. But then Edberg was a genius in a number of ways, not least of which was his ability to duck the limelight. He won six Grand Slam singles titles, including back-to-back triumphs at the US Open -- the tournament many critics felt he would never win because he was “too laid-back” or just not temperamentally suited for success in the boisterous, hurly-burly atmosphere in New York.

Edberg is back among us now, and no less self-effacing than ever. He’s no longer torquing out those ridiculous high-kicking, American-twist serves or slicing backhand volleys that appear to be hit with a carving knife instead of a racket. He’s sitting in the player-guest box of Roger Federer, quietly contributing to the late-career success of the Grand Slam singles career champion. Although low-key to the point of being all but invisible, Edberg has played an enormous role in keeping Federer in the hunt.

It might not be the sexiest line item on Federer’s résumé, but at age 33 he still hasn’t been out of the top 10 since late in September 2002. Federer was ranked as low as No. 8 as recently as March -- just two months after he hired Edberg. Now he’s firmly entrenched at No. 3, and he’s been in the championship match at seven tournaments this year (with wins at Dubai and Halle). Don’t let anyone tell you Edberg’s coaching has nothing to do with this, even if he isn’t signing up to sell car insurance on television or huddling with reporters after every match.

The reality is that Edberg, whom Federer has described as a “childhood idol” of his, has had a profound effect on Federer’s vision of the game. It was never more apparent than in Federer’s win over Gael Monfils in the third round of the Cincinnati Masters on Thursday night.

Federer won that match, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, and he did it with swift assurance, winning in 1 hour, 48 minutes. That’s double time for a match as competitive as this one, and it underscores the extent to which both men stepped up, stuck out their chins and took their best shots.

The statistic that jumps out off an otherwise nicely balanced stat sheet (in the unforced error department, Monfils had 35 to Federer’s 33) is the one tracking points won at the net. Federer took the forecourt 44 times, winning 26 of those attacks.

OK, 44 is a far cry from 254. And a success rate of 59 percent might not sound so devastating. But in reality, the willingness to attack can have a shaping influence on a match, and in this one, it certainly helped Monfils decide that playing from 12 feet behind the baseline was not really an option. For the holdouts who still believe that too few players embrace the attacking game these days, this match was like cool water for parched throats.

We know Federer to be a stubborn cuss; it comes with the territory for a champion. Yet, over the course of this year, he seems to have made a decision to play bolder, more aggressive, risky tennis. He has decided that he needs to end points more quickly than in the past. He has accepted the dangerous mandate to change, to adapt.

The serve-and-volley strategy or even attacking at every hint of opportunity might not get the job done against a Novak Djokovic or a Rafael Nadal -- not unless the courts are made quicker. But, as we saw Thursday, the willingness to press forward to the net certainly can bear fruit against a lot of the other talented players on the ATP Tour -- against the players you have to beat to get a crack at a Djokovic, Nadal or Andy Murray.

Federer is a different, better player than he was at the start of this year, and a lot of the credit for that goes to that iconic exponent of the serve-and-volley game, Edberg. And it’s OK with him that few seem to have noticed. Edberg likes it that way; he’s more than accustomed to working at his craft with few distractions.

How much does Cincinnati matter?

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
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The promoters of the Cincinnati Masters are going to be hard put to top the show the ATP and WTA put on in Toronto and Montreal, respectively, last week during the Canadian Open. Each tournament was like a jack-in-the-box; you just never knew when a high-quality match or stunning upset would pop up. Yet both tournaments were won by blue-chip players, each in his and her own way needing a big win.

No. 13 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won the men’s event; No. 3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska won the women’s. OK, fate was rough on the Homecoming King and Queen, Milos Raonic. He was stunned by unseeded Feliciano Lopez, but at least Raonic survived to the fourth round. Eugenie Bouchard met her very own Carrie in the first round in the form of Shelby Rogers.

Eight of the final 14 WTA matches in Toronto were three-setters, the casualties including seeds No. 14, No. 11, No. 8 and, of particular note, No. 1 -- that was Serena Williams. The men put on some barn burners, too, not all of them thanks to No. 7 seed Grigor Dimitrov.

The one tower of consistency still standing when the smoke cleared was Tsonga’s victim, No. 2 seed Roger Federer. If the 33-year-old, all-time Grand Slam singles title champ isn’t careful, people are going to give him a nickname along the lines of “Old Reliable” or “Old Faithful.”

So once again, seers are suggesting that we’re coming to an end times in the ATP (how else would you describe the fracturing of the Big Four?) and witnessing an equally disruptive transition on the WTA Tour. The latter is much easier to imagine because -- let’s be frank about this -- that turnover will occur if and only if and when and only when Serena Williams is deposed.

The men are ruled by a committee; the WTA, however, is a simple and pure dictatorship. It’s a Big One -- not a Big Four.

But let’s not get carried away. We’ve had similar signs of transition in the recent past, including Stan Wawrinka’s win at the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal’s unexpected failures on the Euroclay circuit and the emergence of the hard-charging Bouchard and Simona Halep. But look at how all that worked out this summer: Nadal and Maria Sharapova won the French Open while Petra Kvitova and Novak Djokovic each won another Wimbledon title.

Some skeptics suggest that the real reason the Canadian Open proved such a shootout is that nobody wants to go all out in back-to-back Masters/WTA Premier events -- not just a few weeks before the long, hot summer hits the high point of the US Open. The tradition of playing “tuneup” tournaments (even one, never mind a slew of them) may be vanishing. Top-ranked Djokovic in particular seems comfortable tuning up for the majors on the practice court.

It may be counterintuitive, but having a number of options going into the US Open may even work against players looking to round into shape for a major. All players would rather win than lose; it’s a fact. But you can play plenty of tennis in the weeks leading to the US Open, take a few losses and feel like you have plenty left in the tank come the Open in New York. And the better you are, the less urgent it is for you to win one of the run-up events. At the top of the game, it’s not really about the rankings points anymore.

Given that, it will be interesting to see how Cincinnati will play out. All the top 10 women with the exception of out-of-commission Li Na are entered in the Western & Southern Open. All the elite men are playing there, too, with the exception of No. 2 Nadal, who’s out with a bad wrist. They all are there for a number of reasons, but getting ready for the US Open isn’t the towering one. The events are mandatory for most of the men and a staple for the top women, and while rankings points aren’t the end-all, be-all for top 10 players, it’s pretty hard for the ATP stars to ignore the value of 1,000 rankings points.

Any player who feels a great sense of urgency about making a statement before the US Open is down to his or her last big opportunity -- even if the only player who really seems to be in a must-win situation of her own making is Serena Williams.
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If the early doings in Toronto and Montreal this week are any indication, the final Grand Slam of the year is going to be a spectacular shootout in which no champion is safe.

None, that is, with the exception of those two reliables, Serena Williams and Roger Federer.

Williams seems to be rounding into shape. On Tuesday, the top seed destroyed former US Open winner Samantha Stosur in Montreal. Then on Thursday, Williams battered Lucie Safarova. Federer, seeded No. 2 in Toronto, squandered six match points in his protracted third-round win over No. 15 seed Marin Cilic. Some feared it was the onset of dementia, for Federer is the 33-year-old grandpa of the ATP. But it’s more likely that the old man, still ranked No. 3 but without a Grand Slam title since the summer of 2012, just wanted to walk on the wild side once more.

Meanwhile, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic was thumped in the third round Thursday by tennis' version of a dancing bear, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He’s a big, powerful and thickly built, and he does things that make spectators go “oooh” and “aaaah.” But he’s too tame to take down the top players but for once in a blue moon. The Wimbledon champ and newly married Djokovic looked somewhat flat and slow, like a guy trying to do one thing while wanting to do something else. You just get the sense that recent events have left him sated rather than stimulated.

Unseeded Kevin Anderson bopped No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka in straight sets, Feliciano Lopez knocked off No. 4 Tomas Berdych and No. 8 seed Andy Murray might have ducked the bloodbath of champions only because No. 12 Richard Gasquet pulled a stomach muscle and threw in the towel.

Back to Montreal: Did you see little Carla Suarez Navarro outthink and outrun No. 4 seed Maria Sharapova in a three-set festival of service breaks? There were 42 break points in that one. Whoever said in tennis it’s assumed the server will hold needs to rethink that premise.

The Montreal tournament got off on the wrong foot thanks to a massive power outage, followed by the demolition of Montreal’s homecoming queen, No. 5 seed and recent Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard. In addition to Suarez Navarro’s big win Thursday, Venus Williams put out No. 6 seed Angelique Kerber. Ekaterina Makarova eliminated No. 2 seed and Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, and U.S. hope Coco Vandeweghe outdueled No. 7 Jelena Jankovic.

And then there’s this: Rafael Nadal, the defending champ in Flushing Meadows, isn’t playing either of the two Masters 1000 events leading up to the final major. His right wrist, injured during practice at home on the island of Mallorca a few days before the start of the Toronto ATP event, is in a splint and bandage. You can see it on YouTube if you’re a Nadal fan, or some kind of splint freak.

Nadal is still planning to defend his US title. It looks as though he’ll have to do it without the benefit of a single match since he became the fourth-round victim of 19-year-old wunderkind Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon -- not exactly the most confidence-inspiring memory to take into the cauldron of Arthur Ashe Stadium. He’s been out so long that he may have to ask the chair umpire which side he serves from at 15-all.

One theory to explain all this, which regrettably has a measure of credibility, is that most of the top players don’t really want to play two or three warm-up events before a major anymore. So their hearts aren’t really in it when it comes to something like the U.S. Open Series. The European clay court, which gets great support from the elites, is a little different. The year is just picking up steam, and cabin fever motivates everyone to get outside to start working on his or her tan.

There’s probably some truth in that. Thankfully, we have Serena and Roger.
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Tennis will stage its own "Game of Thrones" this week in Montreal and Toronto, the equal-opportunity cities where the WTA and ATP alternate staging their simultaneous versions of the Rogers Cup -- or the Canadian Open. In recent months, Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard have established themselves as, respectively, the king and queen of Canada, and this will be their homecoming.

But certain sinister forces, including but by no means restricted to Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, have ambitions that would spoil the week for Canadians. Williams won the Stanford WTA event Sunday; she'll be in Bouchard's hometown of Montreal, top-seeded and hoping to usurp the throne. And Djokovic, the Wimbledon champ, leads the parade of ATP seeds in Toronto, where the U.S. hard-court circuit begins to truly matter, building critical mass until the big bang in New York. He knows that if Raonic isn't brought down a peg or two, who knows what damage he might wreak in the coming weeks?

Bouchard is the No. 5 seed in Montreal, partly because WTA No. 2 Li Na and No. 3 Simona Halep are both sidelined with injury. Ordinarily, that elevation in seeding would be a good thing. As luck would have it, though, Bouchard still fell short of the seeding (No. 4) that would keep her from meeting one of the top three seeds before the semifinals. And the upshot is a potential quarterfinal with Williams.

Bouchard can console herself with the fact that Williams looked somewhat ragged this week in her win at Stanford, or she can freak out because Williams looked ragged -- and still won the tournament with a straight-sets triumph over Angelique Kerber. Given that Bouchard is so combative and ambitious, I imagine she’ll focus on the glass that’s half full rather than the one that’s half empty.

The only woman to make at least the semifinals at the first three Grand Slam events this year, Bouchard also may be scheming to extract her pound of flesh from Petra Kvitova. The beating Kvitova gave Bouchard in the Wimbledon final must still be fresh in the Canadian’s mind, and she certainly has had plenty of time to brood about it -- having played no competitive matches in the interim.

Kvitova is seeded No. 2 and entrenched in the opposite, lower half of the draw, where her sternest test may come from either rusty Victoria Azarenka, flighty Jelena Jankovic or out-of-sync Agnieszka Radwanska.

If the draw gods weren't particularly kind to Bouchard, they certainly smiled upon the ATP No. 6 seed, Raonic. The 23-year-old world No. 7 couldn’t be rolling into Toronto in better form. He won in Washington, D.C., on Sunday over his fellow countryman Vasek Pospisil. That latter name may not have the same ring as Rafael Nadal, who ended Raonic's terrific run in the Montreal finals last year, but it was a difficult situation for the favorite and he handled it with aplomb.

Raonic is in the bottom half, his main potential antagonists hardly the most antagonizing guys on the tour: No. 4 Tomas Berdych, who always finds a way to lose a big match; No. 5 David Ferrer, who no longer grinds as enthusiastically and consistently as in the past; and No. 2 Roger Federer, who is … Roger Federer, but still subject to veteran's blues and more easily overpowered than the three big guns in the top half.

That trio would be Djokovic, No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka and No. 8 Andy Murray. And don't forget the one player who seems capable of spoiling the Canadian party before it even begins: feckless, raw-boned and powerful No. 11 Ernests Gulbis, who could be waiting for Raonic in the third round.

Murray's seeding position is laughable, and Djokovic may be in a position to affirm that as the two could meet in the quarterfinals. But don't count out Wawrinka, who likes the hard courts. And No. 7 seed Grigor Dimitrov is a big win waiting to happen.

I don't know what the oddsmakers say about a Raonic-Bouchard double, but these two are making history for Canada (long a hapless giant in tennis) on a daily basis. They've demonstrated that they're unlikely to go to pieces under the press of expectations, but the big serves of a Serena Williams or the sledgehammer forehands of Novak Djokovic are a different thing altogether.

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