Passing shots: Crowded at the top
The top of the men's game is a lot more than just Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal
The tour's impressive depth was on full display at the Rogers Cup in Montreal
Kim Clijsters already has racked up a handful of quality victories in her return
History was made last Friday at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, when the world's top eight players took part in the quarterfinals of the same tournament for the first time since the ATP Tour starting the rankings in August 1973.
The order of play was something out of a tennis fantasy camp for the ticket holders in Montreal: Andy Murray-Nikolay Davydenko and Roger Federer-Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the afternoon session and Andy Roddick-Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal-Juan Martin del Potro in the evening.
The Great Eight could have been just a fun factoid, a historic footnote to tuck away for the next barroom trivia session. Instead, the star-studded quarters proved a vivid demonstration of the depth atop men's tennis -- a state Peter Bodo of Tennis magazine has described as a "tableau of predictable unpredictability."
Whatever drama was absent from Friday's opener (Murray eliminated Davydenko in straight sets) was supplied in bulk when Tsonga staged a miraculous recovery from down 5-1 in the third set to stun the top-ranked Federer, who had won his previous 22 matches.
Under the lights, Roddick defeated Djokovic for the third time in three meetings on hard courts this season, effectively surpassing the Serb among popular opinion if not yet the computer rankings. In the nightcap, del Potro rallied from a 5-2 deficit against Nadal for a 7-5 victory in a 78-minute first set. He cruised 6-1 in the second set.
In Saturday's semifinals, Murray ousted Tsonga in straight sets while del Potro edged Roddick in a three-set thriller for the second time in seven days. On Sunday Murray dispatched del Potro for his fifth title of the season and 13th of his career.
Eight players from eight different nations played seven hard-fought matches in three days -- and it was the third and sixth seeds who made it through to the finals. It was a symbolic statement of the parity in the tour's top tier, amplified by Murray's ascent to No. 2 in Monday's rankings. The 22-year-old Scot became the first player not named Federer or Nadal to rank among the top two since Lleyton Hewitt in July 2005.
No one could accuse Kim Clijsters of benefiting from a cupcake-laden draw at last week's Cincinnati Open, where the 26-year-old made her return following a two-year retirement.
Clijsters, who married and gave birth to a daughter since leaving the WTA Tour in 2007, dominated the headlines with an impressive string of victories against top 20 opponents. She knocked off No. 13 Marion Bartoli (who'd just beaten Venus Williams for the Stanford title) and No. 20 Patty Schnyder in straight sets before winning a three-setter against sixth-ranked Svetlana Kuznetsova, the French Open champion.
She also spared the women's game a heap of embarrassment by losing to No. 1-ranked Dinara Safina in the quarterfinals Friday. Safina, who has never won a major, has spent as much time defending her No. 1 ranking off the court as she has on it. Can you imagine what critics would've said if a 26-year-old mother who hadn't played a tournament in 27 months could step right up and topple No. 1?
But Safina acquitted herself nicely, and now Clijsters has turned her attention to the next step of her comeback, this week's Rogers Cup in Toronto, followed by the U.S. Open. Meanwhile, the Belgian is upping the ante in the social media realm, not only Tweeting (@Clijsterskim) but also documenting her comeback on an official YouTube channel.
Free tennis, anyone?
Quick suggestion for next week: The qualifying tournament for the U.S. Open starts Aug. 25 and runs through Aug. 28, with matches beginning at 11 a.m. at the USTA National Tennis Center in New York.
Whether you're a casual fan or a hardcore junkie, it's a terrific way to get an up-close look at some of the best players in the world as they compete for one of the precious vacancies in the main draw. With free admission, it's also one of the best bargains in New York City.
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