Little spotlight left for rest of men's field
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have grabbed all the headlines in recent months
MONTREAL -- Knees and babies. Those are the only topics that have mattered as the men's summer hard-court swing kicks into full gear at the Rogers Cup in Montreal this week.
"I was born in the wrong era," joked Novak Djokovic, who tends to thrive in the limelight. "I have to [do] something myself. I'm still unmarried, and I'm still having no babies."
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Djokovic is one of the players hoping to grab some attention soon in the best way possible -- by scoring a win over the world's top two. That's exactly what the Serb managed to do two years ago in Montreal, defeating Nadal and Federer back-to-back on his way to the title.
"Having them as rivals, you make yourself always improve," said Djokovic, who has alternated between periods of success and periods of struggle since that first big breakthrough.
The Serb is planning to start working with a consultant coach in addition to his full-time coach Marian Vajda and fitness trainer Gebhard Phil-Gritsch. The mystery person's identity will be revealed in the next couple of weeks, Djokovic says.
It's part of his effort to snap out of the defensive mindset he's had since losing a classic semifinal against Nadal at the Mutua Madrilena Masters in Madrid in May.
"I was quite disappointed because I think that is the closest I could get to Rafa on his favorite surface [clay]," said Djokovic. "And unfortunately, I didn't get my things mentally together. I was quite defensive at Wimbledon and French Open and probably it was just mental state of mind at that point."
Still, he hasn't lost belief in his ability to challenge the top two on his favored hard-court surface. "I know I have a good quality, I've won against these guys in the past on hard courts," he said. "It's on me to try to play my best and hope I can get in the right shape."
But Andy Murray is the one positioned to make the most tangible dent in the Federer-Nadal duopoly in the next couple of weeks. If he outperforms Nadal by a sufficient margin, Murray could shortly sandwich himself between the Swiss and the Spaniard at No. 2 in the world rankings.
It would be something of a landmark. Despite occasional threats from Djokovic and Murray, Federer and Nadal have held the top two spots between themselves ever since Nadal ascended to No. 2 in July 2005.
Murray is trying not to think too much about the opportunity: "That's when you start to lose matches and you're just hoping the other guys will lose." But he has been training hard in Miami to give himself the best possible chance.
"The serve's something I've got a lot better, and a lot of that is because of the fitness stuff that I've done," said Murray, talking about his on-court improvements this year. "I worked a lot on my second serves the last five, six weeks and [am] hitting that a lot better as well.
Though Federer and Nadal have continued to dominate the big events this season, Murray notes that several other players -- like Andy Roddick at Wimbledon, Robin Soderling at the French Open and Fernando Verdasco at the Australian Open -- have made serious, though one-off, challenges.
"I think the way tournaments have gone this year, that would suggest that other guys can win the bigger tournaments even when Rafa and Roger are playing well," said the Scot.
Roddick's gutsy five-set performance against Federer at Wimbledon not only won a lot of hearts but achieved his goal of getting "back in the conversation" about Grand Slam contenders.
The American had to take a longer break from competition than planned because of a hip injury sustained during the Wimbledon final. Still, he continued his strong form (and also his losing run in thrilling finals) at Washington last week, dropping a 3-1 lead in the final set to lose the title to Juan Martin del Potro.
Both Roddick and del Potro play their first matches at Montreal on Wednesday. The Argentine can also count himself on the list of contenders, having defeated Nadal in Miami and taken Federer to five sets in the French Open semifinals.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, always dangerous when healthy, also makes his Montreal debut on Wednesday.
Soderling, who pulled the upset of the season by defeating Nadal at the French Open, will not be a threat until at least next week in the Western and Southern Financial Masters in Cincinnati -- he pulled out of Montreal with an elbow injury. But note: Since April, the Swede has lost only one match to a player not named Nadal or Federer.
Verdasco once again trained with Gil Reyes and Darren Cahill in the Las Vegas desert during the summer interlude and started his hard-court campaign with a win against good friend Feliciano Lopez in Montreal on Tuesday.
The Spaniard, who pushed Nadal to five sets over five hours in the Australian Open semifinals, would like to think that the same training regiment will produce similar results.
"I hope so," Verdasco said. "I was working really hard in Vegas for that. We have our routine there. I always start with doing a lot of fitness and then changing and doing more tennis at the end.
"I'm ready to play good and I hope I will play as good as I play in January."
Memories of that run also mean he isn't overawed by the stacked fields that await in the Masters events and the U.S. Open.
"My mind doesn't change," said Verdasco. "In Australia, everybody was in the tournament also. The important thing was that I was feeling so strong and I was very confident in my game. And that makes you see only what you need to do. You don't think about the other player."
With the big guns a little rusty, those right behind are hoping the time is ripe to unsettle the established order.
"There might be quite a few surprises because a lot of the guys, especially the high-ranked ones, have taken quite a long break," said Murray.
It will take nothing less than pulling off the big upset to emerge from the long shadow being cast by Federer and Nadal over the rest of the draw this week.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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