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Posted: Tuesday August 11, 2009 2:25PM; Updated: Friday August 14, 2009 10:02AM
Bryan Armen Graham Bryan Armen Graham >
INSIDE TENNIS

Passing shots: Rogers Cup a sweet prelude to the U.S. Open

Story Highlights

This week's Rogers Cup, featuring a strong field, is full of intriguing storylines

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal return this week; Andy Murray can move to No. 2

Kim Clijsters was impressive in her first match in more than two years

rafael-nadal.jpg
Rafael Nadal is playing singles and doubles this week in Montreal.
AP

This week's Rogers Cup in Montreal is one of those rare non-Grand Slam events with enough juice to interest even the most casual tennis fan. Here are five reasons why.

The field is stacked

The draw features 18 of the top 20 players in this week's rankings, including the entire top 10. Only No. 12 Robin Soderling (a late injury scratch) and No. 14 David Nalbandian (hip surgery) aren't in the mix.

The Rogers Cup is one of those combined events in which the men's and women's tournaments are held during separate weeks. But unlike tournaments with similar structures like Rome or Dubai, Canada employs a split-site format: Montreal hosts the men and Toronto hosts the women in odd-numbered years, with the venues flip-flopping each season.

This week's men's tournament is the fourth stop on the U.S. Open Series, the six-week string of hard-court events leading up to the season's final Grand Slam. Sam Querrey tops the standings thanks to back-to-back finals appearances in Indianapolis (where he lost) and L.A. (where he won), but a third-round loss at last week's Washington, D.C., event and a first-round loss to 45th-ranked Philipp Petzschner on Monday have opened the door for players like Juan Martin del Potro, Tommy Haas and Andy Roddick. (The player with the highest cumulative point total at the end of the Series can double his prize money at the U.S. Open, with the runner-up earning a 50 percent bonus and third place netting an extra 25 percent.)

One highly anticipated comeback ...

The last time Rafael Nadal stepped on the court for a match, on May 31 against Soderling in the fourth round of the French Open, the 23-year-old Spaniard was ranked No. 1 by a comfortable margin.

But after his stunning loss -- perhaps the upset of the decade on the men's tour given Nadal's outrageous 31-0 career record in Paris and Soderling's checkered history against high-profile opponents -- Nadal sat out 10 weeks to address the nagging tendinitis in his knees. Meanwhile, Roger Federer won the French Open and Wimbledon and supplanted Nadal at No. 1.

Nadal, so dominant in the spring, has steadfastly professed patience to his fans, tempering expectations since arriving in Montreal.

"My only goal is to train hard and play well here," Nadal said. "I know it will be almost impossible [to win]."

Nadal begins singles play Wednesday against the winner of Tuesday's first-round match between Viktor Troicki and David Ferrer. He's also playing doubles with Francisco Roig, his assistant coach, hoping the activity can help shake the rust from his layoff. Nadal and Roig defeated Novak Djokovic and Dusan Vernic on Monday.

"It is great to be back and I had a lot of fun playing with Francis," Nadal said at a post-match news conference. "A win is a win and doubles is fun and important so I am happy about the way it went today. The atmosphere was great with so many people watching."

... deserves another.

Federer is also rejoining the tour after lengthy spell away, but for a completely different reason: paternity leave. His wife, Mirka, gave birth to twin girls, Myla Rose and Charlene Riva, on July 23. Federer has been inactive since winning his record-breaking 15th Grand Slam title with a memorable five-set victory against Roddick at Wimbledon.

Federer, who celebrated his 28th birthday Saturday, traveled to Montreal with Mirka and the two girls.

"Mirka was completely cool about coming over here. We did checks to make sure that the babies were going to be fine with the trip and so was Mirka," said Federer, who opens Tuesday with a second-round match against Montreal native Frederic Niemeyer, told reporters Sunday. "I'm excited to see how I'm going to handle the new family situation."

Two all-time greats jockey for a Masters in history

The standard metric for greatness is, of course, the Slams. But the nine Masters Series tournaments are the next most prestigious events on the circuit.

Andre Agassi holds the all-time record with 17 career Masters titles. But Federer and Nadal are nipping on his heels with 15 apiece, a tie forged when Federer beat Nadal on clay in Madrid the week before the French Open.

It's almost certain that Federer and Nadal will retire one-and-two on the all-time Masters leaderboard. The only question at this point is which order.

A great Scot can shake things up

Unusually long periods of stasis had become common atop the rankings. First, Federer held down the No. 1 spot for four-and-a-half years. Later, the top four of Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Andy Murray held for 32 consecutive weeks, from Sept. 8, 2008, through May 4, 2009.

But since then, Murray has moved up to No. 3 (on May 11) and Federer has reclaimed the top ranking (July 7). And one of the more notable sea changes could happen this week: If Murray advances to the semifinals and Nadal loses before the quarters, or if Murray wins the tournament and Nadal loses in the semis, the 22-year-old Scot would pass Nadal and become the first British man to hold the No. 2 ranking. It would mark Nadal's first spell outside the top two since 2005.

Kim possible

Kim Clijsters has yet to commit to a full-time return to the WTA Tour for the 2010 season, opting instead to nibble at the idea with two tournaments in August and a wild-card appearance in the U.S. Open.

But if Monday's return performance is any indicator, what's she waiting for?

Playing her first tour match in 27 months, Clijsters defeated 13th-ranked Marion Bartoli 6-4, 6-3 in the first round of the Cincinnati Open -- the same Bartoli who just defeated Venus Williams for the Stanford Classic title on Aug. 2.

Drawing sweeping conclusions from a single match at a non-major tournament is always a tricky proposition. But Clijsters -- who reached No. 1 in August 2003, won the U.S. Open in September 2005, retired abruptly to start a family in May 2007 and gave birth to a daughter in February 2008 -- seemed battle-ready from the start, subduing Bartoli with a formidable, reliable serve and forceful ground game.

Furthermore, the conditions in the upper stratosphere of the women's tour are optimal for a comeback. The closest thing to a dominant force doesn't play frequently enough to be ranked No. 1. Yes, Serena Williams holds three of the major trophies -- and was just three sets in Paris away from a non-calendar Grand Slam -- but she remains an infrequent and uneven presence in non-majors, where she's a mortal 16-7 this year.

Dinara Safina is No. 1 but without a mandate. Venus and Elena Dementieva are approaching the twilight of their careers. It seems deposed No. 1s Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic aren't who we thought they were. Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka are greenhorns.

To presage another Grand Slam victory for Clijsters wouldn't be fair. But she's only 26. It's certainly not beyond the realm of possibility to envision Clijsters in the top five -- and in the hunt for another major -- as soon as 2010.

Tweets of the Week

"I have never been stabbed in my knee with a machette, but I am pretty sure it would feel like it does right know after my injection."
--Amer Delic, minutes after getting some treatment on his knee, Aug. 7, 11:33 a.m.

"Bought a book called "In Fed We Trust". Thought it was a new Jon Wertheim best seller on how Federer-Roddick was new best match ever."
--Jim Courier, on why you can't judge a book by its cover (when you're hunting for Strokes of Genius), Aug. 10, 10:16 a.m.

"apparently @justingimelstob checked into his hotel room and everything was fine, but i guess someone left a floater behind... beyond gross"
--Andy Roddick, oversharing in a story about Tennis Channel commentator Justin Gimelstob, Aug. 10, 7:51 p.m.

 
Must-See Video
Kim Clijsters and Elena Dementieva helped promote this week's Cincinnati Open with an unusual exhibition at the nearby Kings Island theme park.
 
Go Figure


487 ... Ranking of Frederic Niemeyer, who knocked off Igor Kunitsyn on Monday in the first round of the Rogers Cup to secure a second-round date with Roger Federer.

11 ... Years since Federer and Niemeyer last met on the court. Niemeyer was a novice on the pro tour after playing for Middle Tennessee State University; Federer was a teenager.

$49,000,000 ... Estimated career earnings of Federer.

$530,000 ... Estimated career earnings of Niemeyer, who reached his career-high ranking of No. 134 in March 2004.

8 ... WTA titles won by Flavia Pennetta in her 10-year career.

2 ... Titles won by Pannetta in the past 30 days after her victory against Samantha Stosur in the L.A. Tennis Open. The 27-year-old Italian also won last month's Palermo Open.

 
Must-See Photo
 
Juan Martin del Potro (left) lifts his arms in victory as Andy Roddick reacts to the news that he lost his challenge of match point in Sunday's final of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, D.C. (AP)
 
They Said It


"I mean, I plan on playing a long time, so if that means I have to pop one out and keep going, I guess so."
--Serena Williams, when asked if she could see herself playing competitively as a mother

 

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