Hardcourt SZN, is Djokovic the Favorite?

by Charles Friesen (Contributor)

After the soft, chewable slam surfaces of Paris and London, the tour shifts to hard courts. After dominating the last year and a half, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were served notice at Wimbledon by Novak Djokovic that tales of his demise were greatly exaggerated: Novak is back and the party is over. Starting in 2011, Nadal and Federer were slowly pushed from the top by Djokovic and eventually Andy Murray. When both interlopers ran into injury in early 2017, the clock rolled back to the salad days of Nadal-Federer’s rivalry in 2006-2010.

So what can we expect in the next 6 weeks? Will Fedal be able to hold back the re-encroachment of Djokovic and possibly Murray? And what about those other hard-court slam winners: Wawrinka, Del Potro, and Cilic? Throw into the mix the late-career ascendancies of Anderson and Isner, not to mention the rising stars of Sasha Zverev and Dominic Thiem, and it’s harder to predict than Trump’s twitter account.

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The North American hard court swing kicks off in earnest this week with the 500 event in Washington. It is followed by 1000’s in Toronto, then Cincinnati, and there are also some tasty 250 morsels in Los Cabos and Winston-Salem. All leading to the US Open.

 

Washington

Washington features Zverev, Anderson, Isner, and David Goffin as its top seeds. Wawrinka and Murray have been granted wildcards and also here are Nishikori and Kyrgios. Zverev is the defending champion, while Nishikori won in 2016. They are the likely favorites, along with Isner who has been in the final twice. Del Potro has won the title three times but is playing in Los Cabos instead. He will be heavily favored to win there.

It should be a telling gauge of their levels for Wawrinka and Murray. Both showed flashes of good play in late spring, but the jury on their comebacks is out. They will likely have to put in some hard yards before threatening the top again, and Washington could help them regain lost ground.

 

Toronto

The Canadian Open cycles to Toronto in even-numbered years, and boasts a full field minus Federer. Roger withdrew citing schedule optimization for his longevity. That may be wise as he appeared to overplay last summer and then came up lame in his quarter-final against Del Potro at the US Open.

Nadal is the top seed at a tournament he’s won three times before and may be the smart money. The Canadian Open is the most evenly shared 1000 among the ‘Big Four’, distributing two titles to Federer, three to Nadal and Murray, and four to Djokovic. Last year it was won by Zverev over Federer.

It will be interesting to see if Denis Shapovalov can make another run at the Canadian. He burst onto the tennis scene here two years ago with a victory over Kyrgios. And he only added to his legend last year by taking out Del Potro and Nadal in a trip to the semis. But the real question will be about Djokovic. After regaining the highest echelon, can he stay there? The 1000’s in Toronto and Cincinnati should provide interesting metrics. But expect him to pace himself to peak for the US Open.

 

Cincinnati

Cincinnati is the only 1000 Djokovic hasn’t won: surprising since he’s made the final five times. Three of those times he’s lost to Federer. Roger has claimed seven Cincinnati crowns and should be the bookies’ favorite for an eighth.

Murray also seems to like the surface, having claimed two titles and his first victory over Federer there. Isner lost the final to Nadal in 2013, so they should both be considered dangerous. Last year produced a surprising final in which Dimitrov claimed the crown over Kyrgios. I won’t bet on a repeat.

 

The Crown Jewel – The US Open

The jewel of the summer swing is undoubtedly the US Open. We should have a much better idea of the favorites once the preceding tournaments are played. Early picks of the bookies are Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, and Murray, in that order. The Big Four are followed by Zverev, Del Potro, Kyrgios, Cilic, and Wawrinka, with Thiem rounding out the top ten.

For myself, I’ll be keeping a close eye on Del Potro, Isner, and Anderson. Above these is Federer. But I think the real battle will come down to Djokovic and Nadal. It might be surprising that Nadal has more US Open titles than Djokovic (3 to 2) despite seven trips to the final for Djokovic. Regardless, I like Djokovic on the surface and pick him to rise again, like the Phoenix.

Let the games begin!!

 

Charles brings The Slice from Vancouver, Canada.

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