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Montreal-Toronto Combo Review: A Weekend In Canada, A Change Of Scene

A weekend in Canada, a change of scene
Was the most I bargained for
And then I discovered you, and in your eyes
I found the love that I couldn’t ignore.

– Canadian Sunset, 1956 

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Norman Gimbel, the lyricist for a song that’s almost 60 years old, knew what a weekend in Canada could do for the human heart.

In Montreal and Toronto, Agnieszka Radwanska and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga walked away with championships that carry significance in and of themselves while also offering the possibility of an in-season turnaround. Two of the best players never to have won major singles titles, Radwanska and Tsonga can now enter the U.S. Open with renewed belief in their abilities… and the hope that the draws in New York will break their way. (More on these stories in a bit.)

Yet, while the champions captured the trophies at the two main Canadian stops on the professional tennis circuit, the two finalists were the players who captured hearts and stirred the imagination.

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Roger Federer made the finals of Wimbledon a month ago, so his run to the final in Toronto was no huge shock. Yet, it was impossible to ignore the fact that while Rafael Nadal rested; Andy Murray endured another puzzling loss before the semifinal stage of an important tournament; and Novak Djokovic — perhaps suffering a “honeymoon hangover” — bombed out in the round of 16, there was the 33-year-old Swiss, making his way through the bracket.

Federer did not play his best tennis, and precisely because of that, he logged extra sets and court time he could have used on Sunday in his loss to Tsonga. Nevertheless, Federer picked up 600 points and firmed up his place as the No. 3 player in the world. If Nadal doesn’t participate in the U.S. Open, Federer will be the second seed behind Djokovic. Not bad for a man who turned 33 on Friday, and who has made seven singles finals this year. The only other man to do that? Nadal.

Roger and (even in his absence) Rafa continue to inspire, even though Djokovic is the best player on the planet at the moment and Tsonga basks in the glow of a Canadian crown.

Yet, if Federer’s old-man run to the final moved a lot of spectators in Toronto, another “senior” in tennis years managed to top that Swiss story by a considerable margin.

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Venus. Ebony. Starr. Williams. The name is colorful, but the game — once as great as the world had ever seen on a grass court — lay dormant for quite some time.

Not since 2010 has Venus enjoyed what anyone could call a reasonably strong season by her lofty standards. Injuries and her battle with Sjogren’s Syndrome took their toll on one of Wimbledon’s (and the sport’s) greatest champions. The specific challenge of being able to play well the day after a grueling three-set match had proved to be quite difficult for Venus, a trailblazer on and off the court in women’s tennis. The picture of grace for a long time on tour, Venus lost the ability to consistently play her best over the course of a calendar year. The older Williams sister has not made the fourth round of a major since Wimbledon in 2011. She hasn’t made the quarterfinals or better since the 2010 U.S. Open.

As a measurement of all her results, both good and bad, Venus has been — for the most part — a round-of-16 player on the WTA Tour over the past four years. Deep runs in tournaments happen once in a while, but the mountain-climbing involved in stacking one excellent match on top of another has been elusive for her.

In Montreal, though, Venus found the fountain of youth.

It wasn’t just that Venus made her way to Sunday’s final before losing to Radwanska; it was that she won four three-set matches to pull off the feat. Venus knocked off Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in a messy, mind-bending yo-yo of a match in round one. She tidied up in round two and quickly dispatched Yulia Putintseva in straight sets, a result that — in retrospect — enabled Venus to fill up her fuel tank for the remainder of the week.

In the round of 16, Venus fended off one of the tour’s most dogged competitors, Angelique Kerber, in a full-distance duel. At 34, Venus faced a quick turnaround in the quarterfinals against Carla Suarez-Navarro, but she was up for the fight, winning a second three-setter in as many days.

Surely, though, a 25th meeting with Serena Williams in the semifinals on Saturday (“Sister Bowl XXV, as some called it) was not going to end well for Big Sister. Venus hadn’t defeated Serena since 2009, and if you look closely at the scores from their first 24 meetings, you’ll notice that the winner of a tiebreak set had never lost a Williams Sister match. Therefore, when Serena took the first set by grabbing a tiebreaker, 9-7, the entirely logical response was to think that Venus was done.

Another three-setter, a third in three days? Winning two straight sets after pushing the boulder up the hill and seeing it roll back down in set one? Getting the better of Serena for the first time in five years? It all seemed out of reach, or at least, you couldn’t have been blamed for thinking that way.

Fortunately for Venus, she didn’t succumb to all those voices — she didn’t allow them, or recent history, to have the last word.

Serena, mired in a year that has been defined by atypical losses of concentration (typical for this year, sure, but not over the longer arc of her post-2008 resurgence), allowed Venus to take control of the second set, which enabled the third set to be contested on fairly even terms. Yet, as the final stanza began, it seemed hard to think that Venus — more removed from her prime than Serena is from hers — could run the remainder of the race. One more time, she shot down logic, and as a result, she made a bit of scoreboard-based history, as noted by Victoria Chiesa.

Kimiko Date-Krumm defies time on a certain level. Martina Navratilova did so on a much higher plane. Yet, for the most part, you’re not supposed to beat the likes of Serena Williams at age 34 — especially not in a semifinal of an “almost-major-level” tournament, and particularly not after playing physically demanding three-set matches the previous two days.

This time, Venus Williams’s body did not falter. She summoned her best tennis — recalling her third-round loss to eventual Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova — and outlasted her younger sister, who wasn’t able to find the late-stage cannon shots that pushed her to the finish line against a revitalized Caroline Wozniacki in Friday’s quarterfinals.

Venus Williams didn’t make a victory speech in the most technical sense of the term after her loss to Radwanska, and she didn’t get a winner’s paycheck, but she truly did steal the show in Canada, enough to become the second-best American singles player in the WTA rankings, passing Sloane Stephens. What Venus achieved in Montreal will endure as one of the best moments in women’s tennis… not just this year, but when this calendar decade ends on Jan. 1, 2020.

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Back to Radwanska and Tsonga…

There was and is an umistakable symmetry to the Montreal and Toronto events. Key players in both tournaments were either injured or absent (Victoria Azarenka played, Li Na and Simona Halep didn’t for the women; Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro didn’t play in the men’s competition), creating openings in the bracket to begin with. Compounded by the fact that top players weren’t at their best (Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova for the women, Novak Djokovic and Tomas Berdych for the men), many players found opportunities on this weekend in Canada.

The change of scene in the Great North benefited semifinalists Ekaterina Makarova and Feliciano Lopez, two lefties with a lot of game. These tournaments helped Wozniacki gain more confidence, and brought Kevin Anderson within a single point of his first Masters 1000 semifinal before a gack attack prevented him from taking out a sluggish Grigor Dimitrov in the quarters. Yet, for all the players who made strides in the middle and latter rounds of the tournament, no two players did more than the champions.

Agnieszka Radwanska moves tothe center of the discussion whenever the oppressive question, "Who's the best active WTA player never to have won a major?", is asked. Will this triumph in Montreal give her the belief needed to win at the U.S. Open in a few weeks?

Agnieszka Radwanska moves to the center of the discussion whenever the oppressive question, “Who’s the best active WTA player never to have won a major?”, is asked. Will this triumph in Montreal give her the belief needed to win the U.S. Open in a few weeks?

Radwanska made use of a favorable draw, getting Azarenka in her quarter at a time when the multi-major champion was dragging her body around the court due to a right knee injury. Yes, Radwanska didn’t have to play a heavyweight in the semis, but the aforementioned Makarova drilled Radwanska right out of Wimbledon, 3 and 0. This was a defining test for the 25-year-old from Poland, and she passed it with flying colors. Yes, drawing a taxed and mentally fatigued Venus in the final was as good a draw as Radwanska could have hoped for, but as was the case with Federer’s first four matches leading up to Sunday’s final against Tsonga, Radwanka tookd advantage of the bracket fortune that came her way.

Given that Serena is undependable at the moment and Kvitova is highly unlikely to make a U.S. Open run (she’s only a good bet to do well at Wimbledon, among the four majors), Radwanska’s odds of winning the title in New York are becoming more favorable by the minute. It remains to be seen, though, just how good those odds will be in relationship to the rest of the field.

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Novak Djokovic played poorly against him in the round of 16 on Thursday, but no matter -- once Jo-Wilfried Tsonga bagged one top-10 scalp, he used that moment to transform his internal thought world. He overcame a 3-0 third-set deficit to Andy Murray in the quarterfinals. He defeated a player guided by his former coach, Roger Rasheed, in the semifinals (Grigor Dimitrov). He then ran his record over Roger Federer in Canada to 3-0 with a victory in Sunday's chanmpionship match.  A confident Tsonga is a dangerous player, "Tsomeone" to look out for in New York.

Novak Djokovic played poorly against him in the round of 16 on Thursday, but no matter — once Jo-Wilfried Tsonga bagged one top-10 scalp, he used that moment to transform his internal thought world. He overcame a 3-0 third-set deficit to Andy Murray in the quarterfinals. He defeated a player guided by his former coach, Roger Rasheed, in the semifinals (Grigor Dimitrov). He then ran his record over Roger Federer in Canada to 3-0 with a victory in Sunday’s chanmpionship match. A confident Tsonga is a dangerous player, “Tsomeone” to look out for in New York.

As for Tsonga, this change of scene in Canada abruptly jump-started the Frenchman’s game. This statistic puts his turnaround in context: Entering this tournament, Tsonga was 0-7 against top-10 players in 2014. He defeated four top-10 players in Toronto (Djokovic, Andy Murray in the quarters, Dimitrov in the semis, and Federer in the final). Tsonga, being hit-and-miss as a player in general, is particularly vulnerable to the very thing he’s chided female players for being susceptible to: mood swings (aka, events caused by hormones). Yet, now that Tsonga’s feeling great about his tennis, who’s to say he can’t make a deep run in New York?

*

We leave Canada, then, and move on to Cincinnati. No, this isn’t a tournament various U.S. Open hopefuls have to win in order to feel good about their chances at the USTA National Tennis Center. However, Cincinnati is a tournament in which the players who flamed out early in Canada face the important task of sticking around until at least the quarterfinals. It’s important for Canada’s early-round losers to get some match play under their belts. Otherwise, the pressure of winning seven matches in New York is likely to catch up with them sooner rather than later.

The other key in Cincinnati — in this and every tennis season — is for various players to pick up enough points so that they gain ideal seeding positions at the U.S. Open. For the women, Radwanska’s win in Canada means that Maria Sharapova would have to win Cincinnati and get help from one of Radwanska’s early-round opponents to have any shot at the No. 4 seed and a comparatively better draw in New York. Azarenka, Ana Ivanovic, and Jelena Jankovic are competing for the No. 8 seed and the right to avoid a player seeded fifth through eighth in the round of 16. (The 5-8 seeds play seeds 9-12 in the round of 16.)

For the men, the foremost key in terms of U.S. Open seeding is the question of whether Rafael Nadal is healthy enough (wrist injury) to enter the tournament. If he does enter the tournament, Stan Wawrinka will be the No. 4 seed. If Nadal doesn’t enter the event, Tomas Berdych’s stay in Cincinnati will be centered around the task of fending off David Ferrer and Milos Raonic for a No. 4 seed in New York, with Wawrinka being third and Federer second. The other main seeding showdown? Murray, Dimitrov and Tsonga for the No. 8 spot.

*

That’s it from Canada. We’ll see you next Monday for a Cincinnati wrap-up on both the WTA and ATP sides. Shortly thereafter, preview coverage of the U.S. Open begins at Attacking The Net.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments in 2014. He contributes to Crossover Chronicles and other Bloguin sites.

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