Monday, August 6, 2012
Wide-open field at Toronto Masters
By Kamakshi Tandon Special to ESPN.com
TORONTO -- It's not just players who get bad draws in tennis. Tournaments do too, and this year's Olympic-affected schedule gave the Rogers Cup events in Toronto and Montreal the tough assignment of being held right after the Games. It seemed likely that at least some of those who went deep at the Olympics might pull out, too spent to play the following week.
With Rafael Nadal already having withdrawn with injury and six of the top 10 involved in the medal rounds in London, there was a tense period of wait-and-see in Toronto over the weekend. Sure enough, Roger Federer sent his regrets shortly after completing a marathon semifinal that ran 4 hours, 26 minutes, prompting jokes on the grounds about the now "Rogerless Rogers."
Can Juan Martin del Potro parlay his Olympic bronze into a title in Toronto?
David Ferrer was another late pullout, but all in all, seven of the top 10 are still entered in the Masters field -- including gold medalist Andy Murray as well as Novak Djokovic.
What shape they'll be in -- physically and emotionally -- is another matter. Murray will arrive after what he described as "the best week of my tennis career by a mile," defeating Federer to win gold four weeks after his tearful loss in the Wimbledon final. After that emotional victory, Murray returned later in the day to play the mixed-doubles final, in which he and Laura Robson came away with a silver. Then came press commitments on Monday and his scheduled arrival in Toronto on Tuesday. It won't be easy to turn around and start playing again the next day.
Djokovic, meanwhile, will be coming off a double disappointment, losing in the semifinals to Murray, then losing the bronze match to Juan Martin del Potro. He might also bring along the subpar form that contributed to those disappointments.
On the other hand, with Federer and Nadal missing and Murray and Djokovic less than primed, this week is an excellent chance for someone else to break through and win a Masters at last. The big four have had a virtual stranglehold on the top events for almost 20 months now, splitting the past 14 Masters events as well as the seven Slam tournaments in between. And now Murray's Olympic gold can be added to that.
The last time another player managed to take a big title was Robin Soderling at the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris in 2010, preceded by Andy Roddick and Ivan Ljubicic earlier that year. None of those three renegade winners are in Toronto this week (Roddick pulled out with a shoulder problem).
Who could come through if Murray and Djokovic falter? Two likely candidates, del Potro and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, will be dealing with Olympic hangovers themselves. Del Potro was on the losing end of that marathon semifinal against Federer. But after that low came the high of defeating Djokovic for the bronze, after which he declared himself "the happiest man in the world."
Tsonga took the silver in doubles, which at the Olympics is almost on a level with the singles. Tsonga described the thrill of standing on the medals podium with fellow Frenchman Michael Llodra as one of the "biggest moments of my career."
The top eight seeds at a Masters usually have byes in the first round, but this week so do the 9-16 seeds. The unusual adjustment was meant to help shield the tournament from Olympic pullouts, though it turned out hardly any of the lower seeds played deep into the Games.
One player who should be well-rested is Tomas Berdych, who lost in the first round of both Wimbledon and the Olympics. Maybe there will an opening for one of the Americans who have recently shown brief flashes -- John Isner, Mardy Fish and Sam Querrey. Perhaps a young gun like Bernard Tomic or an old one like the resurgent Tommy Haas, who takes on David Nalbandian in the pick of the first-round matches. Plenty of others will be sniffing a chance as well.
But the tournament is pinning its hopes on local boy Milos Raonic, the tour's hottest young prospect. He could be set for a blockbuster third round against Murray, and it has already been announced that his opening match is scheduled for Tuesday evening. "When we advertised that last week, we had a huge spike in ticket sales," said tournament director Karl Hale. "So we think he'll have a huge influence on the tournament in ticket sales and TV, and we hope he'll go deep into the tournament."
The post-Olympic week may be a tough spot for Toronto, but for the players taking part, there's an opportunity waiting be seized.