State of the world's top two players
TORONTO -- Last week saw the return of the big four as Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray all made the semifinals of a tournament for the first time in almost a year. They probed and pushed each other through the final two rounds at the Toronto Masters, revealing just where each man stands after the summer's first big hard-court test. On Monday, we look at the world's top two players after the Rogers Cup, and Tuesday we break down Djokovic and Murray.
Nadal was quite upbeat after a loss to Murray in the semifinals, snacking on some postmatch chips and later showing up to catch some of the evening match between Federer and Djokovic (the crowd cheered when Nadal was suddenly flashed on the big screen, putting Djokovic off his service motion).
Nadal was a little rusty after six weeks off -- he had begun training just a couple of weeks ago and was still practicing madly the weekend before. But he still survived a couple of tough tiebreakers and showed patches of good tennis, an encouraging summer hard-court debut weeks ahead of the only Grand Slam event he has yet to win. And unlike last year, when he strained an abdominal muscle, Nadal finished the tournament without picking up an injury.
"I am a little bit more slow than usual, but I think is normal the first week after a stop, and I am a little bit more tighter than usual too when I play long points," he said. "But I'm not worried about this."
During the week, the oft-reticent Spaniard was open and detailed about how his game was feeling, musing on why he tends to make an easier transition on grass than hard courts.
"Grass is a little bit different because I know what I have to do exactly," he said. "The court says that I have to serve well and play aggressive all the time."
On hard courts, the balance between going for the ball and playing steady is tougher to strike: "Here is mixed, no? Is easier for me to return [from] inside [the baseline] on grass than hard, because the bounce stays a little bit lower, and on grass, you know you can have mistakes because it's part of the game [on that surface]."
The shot he was the unhappiest with was the serve -- during the first set against Murray, he got in only 45 percent of his first serves. "I didn't have the big chance to practice with the serve, because I have [to] go slowly," he said. "Last year I started in Montreal after [a long] stop, similar what I had this year, and I started hard with the serve and I broke my abdominal, no?
"And I am in perfect condition physically, so I'm going to have now Monday and Tuesday to keep practicing hard with the serve and a little bit more with the backhand.
"I didn't play bad with the backhand [against Murray]. But I had to think too much in every shot when I was playing the backhand. So I need to practice a little bit more to play the shot without think[ing]."
The forehand passed inspection even early in the week. "My forehand is my best shot. So if I not happy with my forehand, I have a big problem," he said with a grin.
Two things to watch about Federer emerged from last week: the continuing tendency to blow leads, and the state of his body from day to day.
Federer started strongly in his respective quarterfinal and semifinal matches against Tomas Berdych and Djokovic, but the Swiss became more error-prone when they upped their games in the second set and he had to battle hard in the third to close things out. Being down a set and a break against Federer, or a break down in the third, clearly isn't quite the hopeless situation it once was. On the plus side for the Swiss, he played well under pressure and did ultimately close them out -- "the kind of matches I was losing earlier this year" -- but the back-to-back 2½-hour matches left him looking just a bit stiff and sore for the final against Murray.
He played well when behind but struggled to dig out the ball and was trying to shorten points with drop shots and the occasional net approach as the match wore on.
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Federer, who turned 29 just over a week ago, had been worried about being a bit "banged up" for the final, and later said, "I do have muscle pain all over my arm and my shoulder and my chest.
"That started actually at the beginning of the week. Small hindrance maybe it didn't play anything on my mind."
Though he took plenty of flak for his unprompted disclosure of injuries after losing his Wimbledon quarterfinal against Berdych, it also seems likely that Federer is starting to feel a few more aches and pains the day after matches. With his finely tuned game and little margin for error, being a little off can have quite a large impact. During Grand Slams, when players get a day off, it's less of a problem. But at ATP events, the daily turnaround is tricky.
But after a good period of rest and practice, last week also showed that Federer's game is still there. "I don't think he's got worse," said Murray. "I think the game's got better -- the depth, I mean, has got better."
Both Federer and Paul Annacone are staying low key about how the trial coaching partnership is going. In response to enquiries about the state of the "relationship," Federer joked, "It's very romantic."
"Look, it's going OK," he added. "I mean, we don't go to candlelight dinner every night. I have a wife, you know.
"We take it week by week, and he's been able to help me, tell me good stuff, like I expected."
Annacone will not be in Cincinnati this week, possibly because of LTA commitments. Swiss Davis Cup captain Severin Luthi will continue his pick-up coaching role with Federer instead.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.