Montreal Masters 2017: Nadal and Federer top seedings; young guns Thiem and Zverev follow
Marianne Bevis looks ahead to the 2017 Montreal Masters, where Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are both in action
The headlines that foreshadowed this year’s Rogers Cup in Montreal had, unfortunately for the only Masters tournament in Canada, a rather familiar ring.
Last year, the tournament went from a full complement of top players to a slashing of the big names: Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, former Toronto champions all.
Then just as the draw was about to be made, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—champion in 2014—and Feliciano Lopez—semi-finalist in 2014—pulled out, along with Richard Gasquet, Roberto Bautista Agut, and Pablo Cuevas.
This time, two of the tournament’s most prolific champions, No1 Murray and defending champion Novak Djokovic, withdrew injured: Murray to rehab a hip injury he picked up ahead of the grass season, but Djokovic to heal a chronic elbow problem that will make him absent for the rest of the year.
Then the defending US Open champion and world No4 Stan Wawrinka reached a similarly dramatic decision: He too would play no part in 2017 to heal a knee injury. And the tournament had already lost former US Open champion and Wimbledon finalist, No6 Marin Cilic, to injury.
So four out of the top six men were out, plus a swathe of men who deferred their transition to hard courts in favour of Europe’s clay: Fabio Fognini, Gilles Simon and Philipp Kohlschreiber among them.
“When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions”… and yet there has been a counter-story to the gloom, one that has captured the imagination of tennis fans around the world: the resurgence of two of the sport’s most enduring men, Nadal and Federer.
Nadal and Federer—the hot story of 2017
For the two old rivals have returned from long injury absences and rankings of No9 and No17 respectively, to win all three Majors and four of the five Masters so far this year.
Already they have qualified for the World Tour Finals and now, for the first time since 2009, they top the seedings for the Rogers Cup—indeed they top the seedings in any Masters for the first time since 2011. It seemed an unlikely scenario when both men pulled out of Toronto last year, Federer for the rest of the year, Nadal for all but 10 more match-wins.
But that is not the only buzz surrounding their appearance in Montreal, for Nadal has two big milestones on the line. The Spaniard could regain the No1 ranking with a semi-final run, and could regain the lead in Masters titles if he claims his 31st in a week’s time.
Federer cannot reach No1 this week, but he too could regain it by the time the US Open comes around, and battle for the year-end top spot with Nadal.
This also marks Federer’s first visit to Montreal since 2011, and while he has won his eponymous title twice in Toronto, he has never won it in Montreal: His closest was the final back in 2007. Also, in 37 meetings, he has never met Nadal in Canada, and while he continues to trail his rival 23-14, he has won their last four meetings, three of them this year.
However even with so many big names out of contention, Federer and Nadal have to negotiate impressive draws if they are to set their first Rogers Cup showdown.
An alternative storyline to the ‘old rivalry of Federer and Nadal is the ‘new rivalry’ of Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem.
Zverev heads into Nadal territory
Just over a year ago, when Zverev and Thiem met for the first time in what has already reached five matches, Zverev was becoming the stand-out teenager of his generation, had two finals to his name, and broke into the top 30 with a semi run in Washington. He would go on to win his first title in St Petersburg, and soon after his 20th birthday this year, made a huge splash with his first Masters title in Rome—his third title of the year.
Such has been the speed of Zverev’s improvement that, after just one appearance at the Rogers Cup—a first-round loss last year—he is now the fourth seed, with the scalps of Djokovic, Wawrinka, Tsonga, Cilic, Tomas Berdych and Milos Raonic to his name.
He is back in the semis in Washington this week, where he takes on world No9 Kei Nishikori, so will arrive in Montreal with a lot of tennis in his legs. But if there is one thing Zverev has proved he not afraid of, it is hard work, though he has a formidable challenge if he is to meet friend and rival Thiem in the final.
His first seed is another super-talented player, No16 seed Nick Kyrgios, who beat Zverev in two Masters encounters this year—though Kyrgios retired with a shoulder problem in his first match in Washington.
Zverev’s biggest seed in the quarter is former champion Tsonga, but this is a dangerous section packed with in-form non-seeds: Gasquet, Paolo Lorenzi, Karen Khachanov, Sam Querrey, Gilles Muller, and Washington semi-finalist Kevin Anderson.
The survivor here heads into Nadal’s half, where home favourite Raonic, returning David Goffin and ever-tough but unseeded Juan Martin del Potro sit.
Thiem will anticipate Federer
And what about Thiem, now 23 years old and consolidated in the top 10 for well over a year? He has accumulated eight titles from 13 finals, and this year alone has beaten Djokovic, Nadal and Murray, and reached the semis at Roland Garros for the second time. He, too, is famously hard-working but may have learned a lesson this season by cutting down his arduous schedule.
He arrives in Montreal with just two matches under his belt since Wimbledon, and as the No3 seed will hope to score his first win in Canada after three opening losses. There are certainly some early trip-wires: the likes of in-form Diego Schwartzman and Benoit Paire along with first seed Lucas Pouille come ahead of Berdych or Grigor Dimitrov.
And then he is into Federer territory, but the Swiss will have tests of his own first: Jack Sock just beat Raonic in Washington; Nishikori beat del Potro to reach the Washington semis, too, and pressed Federer to the limit in Australia this year; and Gael Monfils, who has won four of his last eight matches against Federer.
Federer’s first opponent will bring home support squarely to the table as wild cards Peter Polansky and Vasek Pospisil vie for the second round ‘big one’.
The 29-year-old Polansky has certainly made inroads in the Challenger run-ups to Montreal, with three straight final runs in Winnipeg, Gatineau and Granby, winning one and losing one to fast-improving teenager Denis Shapovalov—who is up to 134 from 250 at the start of the year.
Shapovalov was ranked 370 when he made his debut in Toronto last year and he lapped up the limelight with a thrilling three-set win over Kyrgios. If he is to make the second round this year, he will have to beat a qualifier and then either Isner or del Potro. His reward? More than likely a stab at Nadal, but his leftie one-handed game may just ruffle a few feathers.
Pospisil has played the main draw of the Rogers Cup every year since making the second round in 2011. Two years later, then only 23 years old and ranked 71, he made the semis in Montreal, losing a memorable three-setter to compatriot Raonic in a final tiebreak. He looked set, it seemed, for great things, reached No25 five months later, and his only final to date in Washington in 2014.
He stood out, too, in doubles, and his pairing with Sock earned the Wimbledon title, also in 2014, and Indian Wells the next year—six titles from 13 doubles finals. But his singles career remained inconsistent, not helped by recurrent back problems. After almost a year outside the top 100, though, he has edged back to 72 and claimed victory over Murray at Indian Wells.
His opener against Polansky will be their first meeting since 2011, and he will hope for that Montreal magic once again—if only to set another contest with Federer. He has, after all, taken the Swiss to close three-setters in their last two matches.
Raonic, currently ranked 10 following his own injury troubles, has a rivalry of his own to advance if he reaches the third round. There he could meet Goffin, a man born in the same month, December 1990, who is just back from an ankle injury sustained in an accident at Roland Garros.
He and Raonic have shared the spoils from their four matches played in very contrasting styles, but they have tricky non-seeds in their segment: Lopez, Hyeon Chung and Daniil Medvedev among them.
Previous champions in draw: Nadal (3), Federer (2), Tsonga (1)
Potential seeds  out of main draw: No1 Murray, No4 Wawrinka, No5, Djokovic, No6 Cilic. Also out: Fognini, Cuevas, Karlovic, Simon, Verdasco, Kohlschreiber, Vesely, Bedene
Hard-court champions since Wimbledon
Atlanta 250: Isner beat Harrison
Washington 500: Anderson, Sock, A Zverev and Nishikori contest SFs
Mexico 250: Querrey/Kokkinakis contest title
Britons in action: Kyle Edmund
[NB top 8 seeds have bye in Round 1, so first match is Round 2]
No1 seed Nadal quarter
R2, Borna Coric or qualifier
R3, first seed, Isner [or del Potro]
QF, seeds are Goffin and Raonic,
SF, A Zverev and Tsonga are top seeds
No4 seed A Zverev quarter
R2, Gasquet or WC Brayden Schnur
R3, first seed, Kyrgios
QF, seeds are Tsonga and Carreno Busta
SF, Nadal and Raonic are top seeds
No3 seed Thiem quarter
R2, Schwartzman or qualifier
R3, first seed, Pouille
QF, seeds are Berdych and Dimitrov
SF, Federer and Nishikori are top seeds
No2 seed Federer quarter
R2, Pospisil or Polansky
R3, first seed, Sock
QF, seeds are Nishikori and Bautista Agut
SF, Dimitrov and Thiem are top seeds