Rogers Cup ushers in fresh challenges for Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray

The countdown to the 2015 US Open is under way, with world No1 Novak Djokovic looking to build on his Wimbledon triumph

And there, in the blink of an eye—with gaze turned firmly to family affairs—the tennis scene moved on, moved into full Montreal swing, and moved into its US Open countdown.

The third North American Masters of the year marks the first big hurdle on the road to the last Grand Slam of the year in New York, the first of a gruelling double-header with Cincinnati, and with it the jostling for reputation and rankings—and consequent seedings—come the Open. And already fresh storylines are being fleshed out.

Return of Rafa

There’s Rafael Nadal, winning his second title in as many months on Hamburg’s clay before heading to the city where he has won two of his three Rogers Cups. The mighty Spaniard is, remarkably, now into his 30th year, his 14th on the pro tour, the 10th anniversary of his first title in Montreal. He won on his last visit to Canada in 2013, too, so perhaps, after injury and illness kept him away from competition for so long after Wimbledon last year, the stage is set for his return to the top table.

Dominance of Djokovic

There’s world No1 Novak Djokovic, also a three-time winner in Canada, making his first appearance since winning his third Wimbledon—and already the winner of every other Masters he has played this year. Indeed he has lost only three matches in 51 played. Now with 24 Masters titles to his name, he is top seed in the city where he won his second Masters crown at his first Montreal main-draw appearance, and has fallen short of the quarters only once since, in the third-round last year at the hands of eventual champion Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. So at almost 4,700 points clear in the rankings, and as relaxed and confident as they come, Djokovic is the man to beat in Canada and through the rest of the US Open swing.

Ranking of Roger

As often as not, World No2 Roger Federer has celebrated his birthday during the aptly named Rogers Cup. This year, a shift in the tennis calendar by one week saw the two-time Canadian champion, who last year was swamped by gifts, cakes and renditions of “Happy Birthday” in Toronto, mark his 34th birthday before Montreal—though he decided in any case to bypass the tournament to focus on training back in Switzerland.

And Montreal has not been the happiest hunting ground for the Swiss: Both his titles came in Toronto, as did two of his three other finals. Reason, perhaps, for not playing in Montreal since his third-round loss in 2011. But as finalist last year, he sacrifices 600 points, and cannot gain more next week when he defends the Cincinnati title. So with a couple of good runs by Andy Murray—who trails Federer by just 1,225 points—the Briton is poised to equal a career-best No2 ranking in time for the US Open.

Making of Murray

The man from Dunblane has rarely looked so happy in his skin as he has this summer, and little wonder. He has won as many matches as Djokovic, currently a 48-8 win-loss record, and stands second to the Serb in the race to London. He led Great Britain to the Davis Cup semis with three back-to-back wins at Queen’s Club, and followed his wedding to Kim Sears with news last week of impending fatherhood. Add in the blossoming coaching partnership with Amelie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman, runs to the semis of all three Majors this year—and the final in Australia—and Murray’s return to the North American hard courts, scene of his first Grand Slam title, is pregnant with promise.

He lost his opener in Washington last week, but that outing served to tune up the Murray training for a region that has yielded much success in the past: Six of his 10 Masters titles have come on the North American hard courts. He is also pounding Montreal’s doubles courts—as he did to reach his first doubles Masters final in 2013—for extra sharpness. And with the No2 ranking so tantalisingly close, he has every reason to excel in the coming weeks.

Time for Thiem and fellow gauntlet throwers

After the hard graft of the closely-packed French Open and Wimbledon swing, there comes a communal breathing-out: sun, sea and relaxation replace sweat, toil and glory. It is a familiar pattern in this high-summer hiatus, particularly for those who have gone deep in the Majors.

But here too is the rare spectacle of grass, clay and hard-court action in a single month, and the opportunity for the chasing pack to make headlines. It is not, then, only Nadal who has made the most of a brief clay swing.

The 21-year-old Dominic Thiem won back-to-back titles in Umag and Gstaad before ending his 10-match winning streak with a semi loss in Kitzbühel. It took him to a career-high No18, while the champion in Kitzbühel, Philipp Kohlschreiber, also jumped 11 places in the rankings.

Benoit Paire won his first title on Bastad’s clay and Rajeev Ram won on Newport’s grass, six years after winning his only other title there.

Early hard-court wins point to players who may come to the fore in the coming weeks, notably last year’s US Open finalist Kei Nishikori. He won the ATP 500 in Washington last weekend to match his career-high No4 ranking. He beat John Isner in that final, but the American also won the Atlanta 250 to edge back into the top dozen.

And it could be time for home hero Milos Raonic to make fresh moves at the scene of his big breakthrough two years ago, when he lost in his first Masters final to Nadal. Raonic has slipped in the rankings after heel surgery in May, and has a giant task in his Montreal opener against Ivo Karlovic, but should he reach the third round, he will celebrate his 200th match-win.

Teenager Borna Coric may relish the return to hard courts after his eye-catching run to the semis in Dubai in February, and 22-year-old Bernard Tomic, winner in Bogota, is hovering close to a career best ranking of 26.

First of all, Montreal

Only Federer, and the injured David Ferrer and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, are missing from the top 30 in Montreal.

Three of the former champions—Murray, Nadal and defending champion Tsonga—are in the bottom half, along with Nishikori and the in-form Gilles Simon, David Goffin and Gael Monfils. Dangerous floaters are Coric, Tomic and US Open champion Marin Cilic, all in No2 seed Murray’s quarter.

The Briton opens against Tommy Robredo, whose last three matches have been marathon three-set efforts, though all to Murray. Monfils is seeded to face him in the third round, with Cilic and Tsonga his quarter-final seeded opponents.

Murray should meet Nadal in the semis, but the Spaniard first has Sergiy Stakhovsky, with Simon and then Nishikori lined up.

In the top half, though, hot favourite Djokovic has a challenging draw. After Thomaz Bellucci, he is seeded to meet Grigor Dimitrov or the dangerous Alexandr Dolgopolov or Jack Sock. Then come the big hitters in the quarters: Kevin Anderson or Tomas Berdych, though Thiem is also here with Ernests Gulbis and Lukas Rosol.

At least Djokovic knows he will avoid two of the three big guns in the other quarter. The man who pounded him off the court in the French Open final, Stan Wawrinka, or Isner are seeded to meet Raonic for the privilege of reaching a Djokovic semi, with Wimbledon semi-finalist Richard Gasquet the other seed. Also of interest here is the first meeting between 31-year Fernando Verdasco and 20-year-old Nick Kyrgios. The former is looking for his 100th Masters match-win, the latter looking to regain his bounce.

But it all sets up the prospect of a fifth meeting between Djokovic and Murray this year, and while Murray has lost all of their eight matches since the 2013 Wimbledon final, their last in Paris was oh-so-close between the two best players of 2015.

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