August 13, 2012

Canada Not-So-Dry

Rain sure tried to wreak havoc on the Rogers Cup all week -- with so many matches suspended and delayed, players were forced to cram in multiple rounds in one day, and the ladies, in fact, won't decide their champion until later today. The weather wasn't to blame for all the surprises we saw over the last few days, of course -- the grueling summer schedule cast a shadow in the form of several pull-outs and retirements in Canada and Cincinnati -- and with both the literal and figurative clouds cleared, we're left with some results we might not have expected.

A lot of the big upsets in Toronto came in the early rounds, but players like Mardy Fish pulled off a solid comeback against Juan Monaco and top American John Isner stayed tough against fellow big-server Milos Raonic to make the semis. Both, however, were stopped by France's Richard Gasquet, who's seemed to make a habit of dismissing the best U.S. athletes this year.

In the other half of the draw, defending champion Novak Djokovic was trying to "turn around" the year that's only brought him two titles and seen him fall before the semifinals one time*. He didn't have to face a seeded player in his first three rounds, but with matches against back-on-the-rise Sam Querrey and Tommy Haas, he was certainly dealt no easy draw. His biggest on-paper challenge came late Saturday night when he faced off against countryman Janko Tipsarevic in a stop-and-go semi. But even that he handled easily, winning all but three points on his first serve and getting back to the final after less than two hours of actual play.

The championship match itself wasn't much to speak of. Gasquet hadn't beaten the recent #1 since 2007, and couldn't seem to get a foothold in this, his third Masters 1000 final. Novak broke early and often, served better than he had even on Saturday and before you even knew what happened, had earned his twelfth Masters trophy and moved himself within a few hundred points of reclaiming the #1 ranking. If he's able to keep up his play in Cincinnati -- not out of the question considering he's one of the few players who doesn't seem to be nursing major ailments -- he could make himself the favorite again at the fast-approaching U.S. Open.

The drama in the ladies draw was arguably more palpable. After the withdrawals and the upsets, there were a couple unseeded players who survived as far as the quarters and ultimately no one in the top five was left standing by the semis.

In the first match contested Sunday, world #23 Lucie Safarova, who'd already dismissed Sam Stosur and and an always-tough Roberta Vinci in Montreal, faced off against 2011 French Open champion Na Li, a woman who'd only won one match since the fourth round of this year's Roland Garros. She looked on point in Canada though, first ousting fellow clay-courter Sara Errani in the third round and then ending Aggie Radwanska's bid to become the top ranked player in the world with a two-and-one drubbing of the Wimbledon runner-up. The veteran Chinese got in trouble early against Safarova, ceding the only break of the first set, and found herself in a 1-5 hole in the decider. But the pressure finally seemed to get to the Czech, as she failed to serve out the match twice and finally succumbed in the nearly two-hour match.

The second semi was no less exciting. Former #1 Caroline Wozniacki and the player of 2011 Petra Kvitova were both hoping to claim their first title of the season. The Dane was arguably running on fumes, needing nearly four-and-a-half hours on court Saturday to survive both Varvara Lepchenko and hometown girl Aleksandra Wozniak. She started off strong too against last year's Wimbledon champ by taking the first set, but Kvitova was able to force a decider just before the skies opened up again. When play resumed later that evening, this Czech hit her way to a two-break lead and eventually finished off her opponent to make her first final of the season.

The finalists don't have a lot of history -- their three meetings have all happened in the last fifteen months -- but Li won their only meeting on a hardcourt this past January, and Kvitova hasn't traditionally fared well during this North American swing. But she's been more than solid in her last few matches, and with the motivation to prove last year was no fluke might just be in a position to run to a title here.

It has certainly been a brutal couple weeks for all the players on Tour, but those who've survived the rains at the first big event of this U.S. Open Series might just have a leg up on their competition. It promises to be an exhausting couple weeks before the next Major, but these guys have proven they might have the stamina to last a bit longer than others. And if they pace themselves during this home stretch, they might just come out shining brighter on the other end.

* Novak's earliest loss this year was in the Madrid quarterfinals, to world #8 Tipsarevic.

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