It was not the smoothest of weeks at the Rogers Cup for world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. His play was patchy in his first three matches – particularly in a 7-6(3), 6-4 win over No. 5 seed Tomas Berdych in the quarter-finals.
He went into the match 24-2 with Berdych but looked like anything but himself in the first set, especially when he trailed 6-3 in the tiebreak with two serves and three sets points to come for the big Czech.
A double fault and an unforced error by Berdych and Djokovic was back in business in the tiebreak, and in the match, almost by default. Once the first set was over it was pretty well curtains for any genuine belief Berdych might muster after 11 losses in a row to the Serb dating back over more than three years.
But Djokovic was still not the master craftsman of the men’s game that he has been over the past few seasons, and there remained left-over doubts following his shock loss to Sam Querrey in the third round of Wimbledon.
Many in Toronto wondered if he would actually find peak form during the week.
The answer came soon enough and it was essentially the result one point in the fourth game of his semi-final with Gael Monfils. The players engaged in a big-time wrestle of a rally accompanied by gasps from enthralled spectators. It lasted 39 strokes and ended with Monfils missing a backhand on his way to losing his serve and trailing 3-1 – a deficit he would never even come close to making up.
Monfils’ faint hopes of winning the match after a run of 10 matches in 11 days (including a title in Washington) were effectively over. Supreme athlete that he is, running on fumes would not cut it against Djokovic.
The rigour of the 39-ball exchange had the opposite effect on Djokovic. The brutal intensity of it buoyed his confidence and seemed to get his rally strokes regulated. He coasted to a 6-3, 6-2 win.
Unfortunately for Kei Nishikori, that in-sync Djokovic carried over into Sunday’s final and when he broke to 4-2 in the opening set it looked bleak for the 26-year-old Japanese who was on an eight-match losing skid against the world No. 1.
When Djokovic led 6-3, 3-1 and the on-court timer was at 48 minutes, a decidedly anti-climactic final seemed to be on the cards. But Nishikori fired up and Djokovic lost a little bit of his edge and the score was quickly 4-3 in favour of the world No. 6.
But that was when Djokovic stepped up and responded with a weapon other than his ground strokes – his serve. It was impeccable. Trailing 4-3 and then 5-4 he won eight of nine service points, barely giving Nishikori a chance to get the ball back over the net.
From 5-all it was as if the match reverted to the early going as Djokovic tightened and Nishikori coughed up a few unforced errors, including a wild forehand that sailed out of court on the third match point. The final score was Djokovic 6-3, 7-5 in an hour and 22 minutes.
It was Djokovic’s fourth Rogers Cup title in the past 10 years and his 30th Masters 1000 victory overall, increasing his lead at the head of class among so-called Big Four players.
“It’s a process like any other that has happened many times in my career where I would start a tournament still feeling a little bit uncomfortable on the court and finding my rhythm, and then in the end of the tournament I find that proper comfort level with shots, with the way I feel, with mental the attitude,” Djokovic explained about how his game revved up and got into the passing lane by end of the 2016 Rogers Cup. “And the two best performances arrived in semi-finals and finals at the right moment for me.
“So that gives me a lot of confidence that I will try to carry into Rio. Everything in life happens for a reason, so the fact that I lost in the first week of Wimbledon allowed me to have a week more of the time with my family and just the quality time off tennis – thinking about other things, recharging my batteries, and then coming in here with plenty of motivation to do well.
“So I couldn’t ask for a better start of the hard court season, and hopefully I can keep going in the right direction.”
As for Nishikori, he was trying to win the first Masters 1000 title of his career after being runner-up to Rafael Nadal in Madrid in 2014 and to Djokovic earlier this year in Miami.
“I think he stepped it up, he raised his level in these couple of days,” Nishikori said about Djokovic. “He played really deep and didn’t give me any free points. He was especially serving really well so I didn’t have a chance for my return game.”
So the 2016 Rogers Cup ends with Djokovic becoming the most decorated champion at the event since Ivan Lendl won six times in the 1980s.
And an event that began with the disappointing withdrawals of Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal wound up with its champion being no less than the indisputably best player in tennis. And Nishikori, world No. 6 and third seed, was a deserving finalist after disposing of world No. 5 and second seed Stan Wawrinka in the semi-finals.
After a French Open and a Wimbledon plagued by bad weather, the 2016 Rogers Cup in Toronto sailed through fairly unscathed from start to finish. The start was livened up by the inspired Rogers Cup debut of 17-year-old Denis Shapovalov who joined five other Canadians in the second round.
After Shapovalov lost 6-4, 6-3 in the second round to Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic became the focus his hometown crowds and he may have been almost too good in cruising to victory over No. 70-ranked Yen-Hsun Lu and No. 147 Jared Donaldson in his first two rounds. Monfils in the quarter-finals was more battle-tested following that win in Washington and three victories over Joao Sousa, Vasek Pospisil and especially David Goffin that made him super match tough. Raonic, not having played since being runner-up at Wimbledon almost three weeks earlier, was not as comfortable in the competitive situation and Monfils capitalized to win 6-4, 6-4.
So, Raonic will have to wait another two years to win the tournament in his hometown. By then it would be a 60-year drought since Bob Bedard won in 1958 – unless he or one of his compatriot triumphs in Montreal next year.
In the meantime, the last image at the end of the 2016 Rogers Cup will be Djokovic, as part of deal with a friend should he succeed in winning the tournament, asking Aviva Centre spectators to hug the person sitting next to them.
He led the way but embracing nearby Rogers Cup announcer Ken Crosina but his request was not quite requited by most of the still basically reserved Toronto folks in the crowd.
Asked about the amount of actual hugging going on among spectators, Djokovic smiled and said, “I have seen a few. I was in a hug myself, so I couldn’t really look at the whole stadium, but I have seen many people did give a hug to the person next to them.
“I did feel that it was just the right moment for me to ask politely the crowd to do that, because in the end of the day, we are all here for the same thing. We are all here to connect through tennis, through passion for the sport. It’s nice that we got to sense and feel that kind of energy around the stadium.”
There was a lot of interest created by Denis Shapovalov’s break-through at the 2016 Rogers Cup – a victory over world No. 19 Nick Kyrgios in the first round and good performance in a loss to No. 40 Grigor Dimitrov in the second.
For those who want to continue to track the 17-year-old Shapovalov, whose ranking should rise from No. 370 to about No. 292 as a result of his Rogers Cup second round, he will be in action at the $100,000 (US) Challenger Banque Nationale in Granby, Que., this week.
There will be live streaming of some matches available at: http://www.atpworldtour.com/en/atp-challenger-tour .
Check out ‘live matches’ to see which are being shown from the various Challengers going on around the world.
Félix Auger-Aliassime (pictured above with Shapovalov as runners-up in the Wimbledon boys doubles earlier this month) is also in the field.
In the first round, Shapovalov, the reigning Wimbledon junior boys singles champion, will face Australian Luke Saville, 22 and the 2011 Wimbledon boys winner and runner-up to Canada’s Filip Peliwo at Wimbledon in 2012.
Saville, who also won the 2012 Aussie Open boys title beating Peliwo, is currently ranked No. 216. It promises to be an interesting cross-over meeting of two generations of Wimbledon boys champions.
Auger-Aliassime, currently ranked No. 780, will play his first round against No. 176-ranked Sekou Bangoura of the U.S. Bangoura is 24 years old while Auger-Aliassime turns 16 on August 8th.
Both Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime received wild cards to enter the Granby event as did Philip Bester and Brayden Schnur.
Bester, who was runner-up a year ago to Vincent Millot of France, will take on this year’s No. 2 seed, No. 136-ranked Quentin Halys of France, in the first round. Bester, 27, is currently ranked No. 388.
The only player in the field ranked in the top 100 is 36-year-old Stéphane Robert at No. 58. Last Tuesday at the Rogers Cup, Robert was beaten 7-6(3), 7-6(8) by No. 2 seed Stan Wawrinka. He’s the top seed in at the Challenger Banque Nationale.
The No. 763-ranked Schnur, a college player at the University of North Carolina, has just turned pro and lost 6-4, 7-6(6) to Radek Stepanek in the Rogers Cup qualifying last week. Schnur, 21, will face No. 194-ranked Mitchell Krueger of the U.S. The 22-year-old American is of the same generation of players such as Saville and Peliwo, who is playing the qualifying in Granby.
The only Canadian with direct entry is Peter Polansky, who was the last entry with a ranking of No. 260 at the deadline. The 28-year-old will start out against No. 231-ranked Tristan Lamasine of France. Polansky, now No. 247, is in good form having posted a 26-6 record at his last eight tournaments.
On offer at the Challenger Banque Nationale is $14,400 (US) for the winner along with 100 ATP ranking points. Points from second round on are 2R-8, Q-18, SF-35, F-60, W-100.
Many of the players in Granby, about 75 kilometers from Montreal, will be moving on the following week to Gatineau, Que., (across the river from Ottawa) for the $75,000 Challenger Banque Nationale.
Roger Federer may not have been at the 2016 Rogers Cup but his new Wilson RF 97 Autograph racquet was on display in the Sporting Life pavilion at the event. He was supposed to unveil the racquet during his stay in Toronto but withdrew from the tournament and the rest of the season with injury issues.
The 17-time Grand Slam champion was also front and centre at the Lindt chocolate display on the site where eager patrons lined up to have a free samples of the sweet Swiss delicacy.