TEBBUTT: SUN SHINES ON ROGERS CUPS
The 2014 Rogers Cup events in Montreal and Toronto were blessed with good weather and inspired performances by 34-year-old Venus Williams and 33-year-old Roger Federer.
Tennis fans in both cities got to see two living legends play a full complement of matches – with each of them falling one win short of carrying off the tournament trophy.
Agnieszka Radwanska in Montreal and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Toronto were the 2014 champions – Radwanska prevailing 6-4, 6-2 over Williams and Tsonga 7-5, 7-6(3) against Federer.
Most fans were hoping for the storybook finish to the tournaments with Williams and Federer as the winners.
The Williams saga in Montreal was quite remarkable. She had never played the Rogers Cup in Montreal – beginning in 1995 she had missed all nine occasions to be part of the WTA Premier 5 event in the Quebec metropolis. “There were times I didn’t enter,” Williams explained, “there were many times I had to withdraw with injury. It wasn’t planned. It was just something that happened.”
Most people know the story of Williams being diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome in 2011 and struggling to get a handle on the condition over the past three years. Her year-end rankings were 2011 (No. 103), 2012 (No. 24) and 2013 (No. 49).
There was really no sign that she was anywhere near returning to a level that had seen her win seven Grand Slam titles, but none in six years since Wimbledon in 2008.
She had only won a single title (Luxembourg 2012) in four years when she triumphed this past February in Dubai. But she was getting better, aided by a vegan/raw food diet that helped her Sjogren’s Syndrome, whose symptoms can be swollen joints and debilitating fatigue.
There had been encouraging signs of late. At Wimbledon, Williams took part in the best match of the fortnight – a 5-7, 7-6(2), 7-5 loss to eventual champion Petra Kvitova and the week before Montreal she played well in losing 6-1, 3-6, 7-5 to Andrea Petkovic in the Stanford quarter-finals.
Still Montreal was a minor miracle – she won four of the five matches that got her to the final in three sets – over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkov, No. 6 seed Angelique Kerber, No. 14 Carla Suarez Navarro and most memorably, 6-7(2), 6-2, 6-3 over sister and top seed Serena Williams in the semi-finals. That was a well-played match with Venus beating her kid sister for the first time in more than five years. Maybe most notably, after the sibling malaise of so many of their early encounters, Serena was able to say afterward that it had been “a normal match.” That’s what it looked like from the outside and it was good to have that corroborated by one of the actual participants.
The final turned out to be a bridge to far for Williams, with the Montreal crowd primed for one more flash of brilliance from the rangy 6-foot-1 American. Radwanska turned out to be too tough an opponent, too solid and consistent on the day. Still, Williams improved from No. 26 to No. 20 in the rankings.
“I just think I was tired because I played so many matches, a couple thousand hours on the court this week,” a hyperbolic Williams said after the anticlimactic final.
“That’s great for me. Instead of unreasonable fatigue that’s unconquerable…just the opposite really – a fatigue from too much success. That’s the positive. I ran out of energy because I was winning too many matches. I haven’t had that problem in a long time.”
While Williams stole the show with her inspired performances, Radwanska was a deserving champion in her sixth appearance – after twice losing in the semi-finals in Toronto, to Samantha Stosur in 2011 and Serena Williams in 2013.
She claimed not to have any of the difficultly that Federer had in Toronto making the change from playing at night in the semi-finals and then to day for the final.
The No. 5-ranked Pole, 25, has been in the WTA top-five for 124 weeks, that’s the longest of any current member of the elite quintet.
While she is certainly not one of the game’s biggest hitters, Radwanska is undeniably one of its most creative ball strikers. Her bending both knees till they’re scraping the ground to scrap balls back is a signature move among WTA players.
“(The) return is coming so quickly, especially from Venus, that I don’t really have time to do anything to get it back,” Radwanska explained last Sunday. “So the one thing is just to bend my knees and try to return the shot (using) her power.”
As with Williams in Montreal, Federer was the sentimental favourite in Toronto, although the personable, charismatic Tsonga is a big crowd pleaser himself.
Tsonga (below) had been through some tough times over the past year, so his straight sets victory over Federer in the final was redemption.
He struggled mightily with a knee injury and came into the Rogers Cup with low expectations. Ranked an uncustomary No. 15, he saved two set points in the opening set of his second-round match against compatriot Jeremy Chardy and then went on a run that saw him beat four top-10 players – No. 1 Novak Djokovic, No. 10 Andy Murray, No. 8 Grigor Dimitrov and No. 3 Roger Federer – to record the second Masters 1000 title of his career. Though he had won eight smaller tournaments in the meantime, it had been almost six years since he took the title at home at the Paris-Bercy Masters 1000 event in 2008.
There’s no question that the adjustment from three nights in a row to Sunday’s afternoon final was probably the cause of Federer’s uneven performance – ground strokes regularly misfiring – and he referred to that afterward. “It was tough for me,” he said. “Jo did come with all day sessions into the final. I didn’t.”
He added, “it was like a new tournament for me today.”
No doubt it’s not easy to change from night to day but the last two Rogers Cup champions – Rafael Nadal in 2013 and Djokovic in 2012 – managed to overcome whatever obstacle that may have been.
So Federer and Williams did not provide the fairytale ending many had hoped for in 2014 – but both are near the end of their careers and Canadian tennis enthusiasts had to appreciate the chance to watch two of the best and classiest champions in the sport.
TRIVIA QUESTION: Roger Federer now has the record for most Grand Slams events played in a row at 59. Before that consecutive streak began, he had played two other Grand Slams. So, he now has 61.
Here’s the question: Who has played more Grand Slams – Roger Federer or Venus Williams? (Answer at bottom)
Based on recent performances, there were huge hopes for Eugenie Bouchard and Milos Raonic at the Rogers Cup events this year.
The expectations were justified by their rankings – Bouchard No. 8 and Raonic No. 6 – entering the tournament.
Who knows exactly what happened to Bouchard, upset in her opening round 6-2, 0-6, 6-2 by unheralded No. 113-ranked Shelby Rogers, a 21-year-old qualifier? But the fact remains that she is only 20 and that the build-up in Montreal had reached outlandish proportions following her runner-up finish at Wimbledon.
Hopefully for her, it will be like Andy Murray when he lost the 2012 Wimbledon final to Roger Federer. His coach at the time, Ivan Lendl, told a disappointed Murray that he would never again play under as much pressure as he had that day on Wimbledon’s Centre Court. Sure enough a few weeks later Murray won the gold medal at the London Olympics and, a year later, became the first Brit to win at the All England Club in 77 years.
Maybe that can also eventually be the case for Raonic in Toronto. Unlike Bouchard, he did not totally lose the plot in his 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-3 loss to Feliciano Lopez in the quarter-finals. Entering Toronto after his first ATP 500 level tournament triumph in Washington, he still had not looked sharp in close wins – 4-6, 7-6(2), 7-6(4) over Jack Sock and 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 over Julien Benneteau – in his first two matches at the Rexall Centre.
The amazing nine break points he failed to convert at 2-all in the final set may have been the story of his tournament. Convert just one and Lopez, not the staunchest of competitors, would probably have caved and Raonic would reached his highly-anticipated appointment in the semi-finals with Federer on Saturday night.
Next year, Raonic and Bouchard will play in each other’s cities before returning – older and with who knows what accomplishments – two years from now to familiar surroundings and another chance to show the home folk what they can do.
Speaking with French reporters after his win on Sunday, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga revealed more about just where he had come from to pull off his unlikely victory at the 2014 Rogers Cup. He talked about his road back, including about his two coaches – former French players Thierry Ascione and Nicolas Escudé.
“There’s a lot of emotion because with all my team, we’ve been aiming for this win,” Tsonga said on Sunday. “We’ve really knocked ourselves out for this victory. There were moments last winter I was at Thierry’s and I said ‘I don’t know what to do. I’m a little bit lost and need some help.’ I had to get down to business and get back to my highest level. With Nico (Escudé) they were there and they said ‘we like a challenge. We’ll go there with you. We’ll do everything to make sure that you get back to the top level.’ And so these are happy times because, thinking about it now, it’s a great story. And all the work that I did the last few months to strengthen my knee to again become the player that I should be…it’s incredible. Even my family got involved. My brother was like a hare in the training sessions, and my parents were involved in helping make sure I ate the right foods. And my fitness trainer took the time to explain everything so that I could think about it all and know the whys and wherefores about my body. It’s been super.
“When I say I want to become a new player – I mean that I simply want to be stronger. I’ve had some good results in the past and I’m proud of that, but I believe I still have more to give. And this week is proof of that so I’ll continue in that path – working humbly, knowing that nothing is taken for granted. This win is super but I want to continue – being very committed in my training, and in following the advice of the people around me. They were what I needed.
“I don’t want to say too much about that because they’re my secrets for winning, It’s their work and we don’t want to reveal everything. But it’s been a great experience.”
Tsonga also got into some of the specifics of what he faced with the knee injury.
“My knee was really not in good shape and there wasn’t anything I could do,” he said. “It prevented me from working out, and I couldn’t work out the way I wanted to. I couldn’t play and I couldn’t really do anything.”
The light at the end of the tunnel appeared just a few months ago.
“My worries finally went away during the month of March,” he said. “It started to go better. But after that, there had to be some time to re-adapt to tennis because when you’re hurt and you play in pain like that, you’ve got instincts that aren’t good – you don’t bend your legs properly, you don’t chase balls that are far away and you don’t really go full out as you would if you weren’t hurt. So you pick up some bad habits.
“I think I’m a better player because physically I’m at a very high level again. And all the experience accumulated over the previous years has positive effect on my level.
“Technically I’m stronger but it’s very tough to change your technique at a certain age. Physically I’ve reached a super level and, as well, I’ve got maturity that helps me.
“It’s great but I have to continue to be ambitious – and I’ve always said that at the end of my career, I’ll congratulate myself – but now isn’t the time.
“So I’ll keep going on the path I’ve established and we’ll see where it leads.”
VASEK vs. ROGER IN CINCY
Will it be third time lucky for Vasek Pospisil when he plays Roger Federer in the first round in Cincinnati on Wednesday?
Pospisil won his first round match on Tuesday – 5-7, 6-1, 7-6(4) over Radek Stepanek.
Here are the two previous Federer – Pospisil meetings:
Federer bt. Pospisil: Basel 2013, semi-final, 6-3, 6-7(3), 7-5.
Federer bt. Pospisil: Montreal 2011, 2nd round, 7-5, 6-3.
Federer is still very much Pospisil’s idol but the 24-year-old from B.C. didn’t seem to let that effect in Basel last fall.
With his win over Stepanek, Pospisil covered his first round win over Gilles Simon in Cincinnati a year ago. He now has no points to defend until post US Open.
After the Rogers Cup, he fell to No. 46 from No. 26 in Monday’s new ATP rankings but it could have been a lot worse if he hadn’t made the final (300 points) in Washington against Milos Raonic two weeks ago.
Jimmy Arias twisted his ankle playing an exhibition match against Aaron Krickstein prior to the Rogers Cup in Toronto. Although on crutches, he soldiered on and did a first-rate commentary job over seven days for Sportsnet and the CBC.
Arias is an under-appreciated tennis analyst – he’s intelligent, funny and insightful.
He had one of the best lines during the Rogers Cup when Andy Murray, with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the net, drilled a shot at the Frenchman’s groin area which he managed to reflex volley – although the shot went wide.
Quipped Arias about Tsonga’s reflexes, “it’s amazing how quick your hands are to get to that area.”
TRIVIA ANSWER: Venus Williams – 63.