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Steve Flink: The "Big Four" Are Back

8/7/2011 2:00:00 PM

Across the last couple of weeks on the Olympus U.S. Open Series, a cluster of players have flourished on the American hard courts. Mardy Fish was victorious in Atlanta and made it to the final in Los Angeles, playing first rate tennis in both places. The enterprising and industrious Ryan Harrison got to the semifinals of both Atlanta and Los Angeles. A resurgent Ernests Gulbis—victorious in L.A.—reminded us what a dazzling player he can be when his disposition is calm and his game is in full working order. Meanwhile, the towering John Isner has regained his winning ways, losing a heartbreaking Atlanta final against Fish after having two match points, competing honorably in Washington last week, when he had a match point before losing another agonizing encounter with the charismatic Gael Monfils in the semifinals. Donald Young reached his first ever semifinal at an ATP World Tour event in Washington as well.

But this coming week, the Olympus U.S. Open Series will soar to another level altogether, and all learned observers will be paying close attention to the Rogers Cup in Montreal. For the first time since Wimbledon, the “Big Four” players will be back in circulation. Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray have all taken a much needed break from the ATP World Tour, but now they have come to Canada in search of some crucial preparation for the U.S. Open. This week, they will be fighting earnestly to secure an important Masters 1000 crown in Montreal, and then they will move on immediately to Cincinnati to for another significant test the following week.

Looking at it all from the standpoint of the “Big Four”—who have so much at stake between now and the end of the U.S. Open—this stretch may be particularly critical for the 16 time Grand Slam tournament victor Federer. Federer won his opening tournament of 2011, but has not taken a title in his last nine tournament appearance since that triumph in Doha. Moreover, Federer has not won a major since the 2010 Australian Open, losing to five different players in his last six Grand Slam championships, reaching only one final in that span. He is surely dissatisfied with those results. The Swiss realizes that the U.S. Open will be his last chance to win a major this year, and thus break a tie for the record he shares with Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras as the only players to capture at least one men’s major for eight consecutive years.

And yet, if Federer is going to be victorious at Flushing Meadows, he could definitely use a big boost in either Montreal or Cincinnati to recover the inner conviction he has irrefutably lost as of late. Interestingly but understandably, Federer has not fared well in Canada the last five years. He won the event in 2004 and 2006 in Toronto, but he has never triumphed in Montreal. Nonetheless, he did make it to the final a year ago in Toronto, and he was a finalist in 2007 at Montreal as well. Yet the stakes were not quite as large then as they are now for Federer at this stage of the season.

In 2010, there were some similarities. Federer was struggling with his game and his psyche as he headed into the summer. He did not win a tournament all the way from the Australian Open until Cincinnati. But his current slump is perhaps more jarring for the Swiss, who captured three of his last five tournaments in 2010, including the prestigious season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. The feeling grows at the moment that Federer needs to win either this week in Montreal or next week in Cincinnati, where he has been the champion for three of the past four years. But the fact remains that it will be difficult for the 30-year-old to win one of these tournaments. Of his nine losses in 2011, six have come at the hands of Djokovic and Nadal. He is 0-3 against the Spaniard and 1-3 versus the Serbian, although he startled the tennis world in many ways by upending Djokovic at Roland Garros, handing the world No. 1 his only defeat of 2011.

History tells us that winning Montreal or Cincinnati is not necessarily a necessity for Federer, who had a miserable summer campaign in 2008 yet still secured a fifth U.S. Open in a row. But my feeling is that Federer clearly has to make a serious move over the next two weeks if he wants to win the upcoming U.S. Open; a year ago he triumphed in Cincinnati after reaching the Toronto final, and anything less than that this year would only add to his inner doubts. This week in Montreal, he could face Jo Wilfried Tsonga in the round of 16 in their first meeting since the Frenchman rallied rose gallantly from two sets to love down to oust the Swiss in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, handing Federer his first loss in 179 career contests at the majors after going ahead by two sets. Federer might meet Richard Gasquet—his Italian Open conqueror—in the quarters of Montreal, and then would conceivably take on Djokovic in the penultimate round. If he manages to navigate his way through that rugged territory, Federer would probably have to topple either Nadal or Murray in the final. That is a tall order. Very tall.

Djokovic will need to be sharp and concentrated in his return to the circuit at Montreal. He might have to confront 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro in the round of 16. But he dealt impressively with Del Potro in the third round of the French Open, coming through that contest in four sets. Djokovic has won eight of his first nine tournaments in 2011, and he doesn’t have as much to prove these next two weeks as the other leading players.

Curiously, Djokovic—despite an excellent record at the U.S. Open of reaching two semifinals and two finals over the past four years—has not won a Masters 1000 singles crown at this time of the year since he upended both Nadal and Federer to capture Montreal in 2007 despite his unmistakable prowess on hard courts. But he was vulnerable in the heat during years gone by and prone to talking himself into losses; this time around, he should be physically a lot more durable, and his stability as a competitor is markedly improved. He is in the best position of any “Big Four” member to simply make the most of these next two weeks and not be unduly concerned with anything more than winning his share of matches.

Nadal is plainly at his best on clay, and quite happy on grass courts. Hard courts are usually his sternest challenge. But the Spaniard has had his share of success in Canada, winning this Rogers Cup twice, capturing the tournament in 2005 in Montreal and again in Toronto three years ago. Nadal has been immensely consistent this season; in eleven tournaments thus far in 2011, he has won three events, and has reached five additional finals. All five of those defeats were at the hands of Djokovic. Nadal has accounted regularly for everyone else.

The psychological weight of those disappointments has been substantial for Nadal, in his heart and in his mind, forcing the Spaniard to reflect on his predicament in a way that was never necessary before. When we last saw the Spaniard, he was conducting a press conference at Wimbledon that was self revelatory in the best possible sense; his anguish over his string of defeats against Djokovic—particularly the one on the lawns of the All England Club—was strikingly apparent. Even when Nadal was victorious at Roland Garros, his growing self doubts were painfully evident to his closest followers. In Montreal and Cincinnati, Nadal needs to place the same premium emphasis on a higher velocity first serve that he did in winning the U.S. Open a year ago. He must attempt to cut down his opponents as ruthlessly and unhesitatingly as he once did, and build up his confidence match by match, step by step.

Nadal’s draw in Montreal should give him the chance to do just that. If all goes according to plan, he may meet countryman Fernando Verdasco in the round of 16, could take on either Tomas Berdych or Gilles Simon in the quarters, and might have the chance to play Murray in the semifinals. Nadal was a semifinalist a year ago in Toronto, losing to Murray, and then he went out in the quarters of Cincinnati. Those mediocre results didn’t matter much at the time since Nadal had captured both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. This time around, he needs to do better than that to create the strong impression in his own mind that he can defend his U.S. Open crown.

As for Murray, this is essentially his time of the year, the time he almost always picks up his game decidedly. Look at the last three years. In 2008, he was the champion in Cincinnati after losing to Nadal in the semifinals of Canada. In 2009 and 2010, he won the Rogers Cup, overcoming Del Potro in an arduous final two years ago, eclipsing Nadal and Federer a year ago in defense of his title. On top of that, Murray was a finalist at the U.S. Open in 2008, the first time he had gone that far at a major. Now a consummate all surface player who can adapt to any kind of court and impose his game accordingly, Murray remains at his very best on hard courts.

The view here is that Murray needs a tournament win in either Montreal or Cincinnati, and he may well get it. His draw is relatively tough in Montreal. He could have a round of 16 clash with Stanislas Wawrinka, the same capable Swiss who knocked him out of the third round in the U.S. Open last year. In the quarters, the seedings indicate Murray should play No. 6 seed Mardy Fish, the well balanced American who upset him three times in 2010. But Fish will have to fight hard to get through his early rounds. He has a bye, but then plays either Feliciano Lopez or Radek Stepanek, and then could confront Gulbis, just to earn the right to meet Murray.

If Murray gets through that section of the draw, Nadal will likely be his semifinal opponent. Should he overcome the Spaniard, he would almost surely play either Djokovic or Nadal in the final, although Del Potro has the propensity to power his way into the final as well.

So here we are, right where we want to be, ready to find out what happens with this prodigious “Big Four” who control the climate of the men’s game these days. They have two crucial tournament weeks to get ready for the last Grand Slam fortnight of the year. The way I see it, Djokovic is relaxed and virtually worry free as he heads into Montreal, knowing that he has thoroughly earned his place at the top of his profession, realizing that he is the man to beat. Murray should be confident because he seems to automatically start playing his finest tennis in August on the hard courts. Nadal is trying to reestablish his authority, and he loves to step forth and take on every challenge forthrightly. But, in many ways, Federer will be the central figure, win or lose. He has something significant to prove, not only to himself but to his many backers.

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