Montreal Masters preview: Rafael Nadal targets 35th Masters as Djokovic and Federer delay return
Defending champion Nadal aims to be first multiple Masters titlist of 2019
The build-up to the final Major of the year gathers pace as the summer heads into the demanding double-headed Masters fortnight of August in North America.
It is a mere 20 days since world No1 Novak Djokovic and No3 Roger Federer played one of the most emotionally and physically demanding Wimbledon finals, five hours and five sets, so it is perhaps little wonder that neither man is ready to catapult themselves into the cauldron of the Rogers Cup in Montreal.
Yet in those scant three weeks, the men’s tour has offered up nine tournaments across three different surfaces, and many of the best have been battling it this weekend in Washington, Los Cabos and, rather bizarrely, the European alpine foothills of Kitzbuhel—on clay.
Yet Montreal—the venue for the Canadian Masters in alternate years with Toronto—boasts a stunning line-up despite the absence of Djokovic, Federer and the still-recuperating Juan Martin del Potro.
And how appropriate for one of the oldest tennis tournaments in the world, established in 1881: Only Wimbledon and the US Open have longer histories.
Nadal and Thiem top seeds
It will, then, be No2 Rafael Nadal who tops the seeds, with the man who was runner-up to the Spaniard in the last two French Open finals, Dominic Theim, as the second seed. Remarkably, though, Thiem won that tournament in homeland Kitzbuhel this weekend, and so will have to hot-foot it across the Atlantic to take up his place at the bottom of the 56-man draw.
And the contrast between the two men, despite their lofty rankings, could not be greater when it comes to the Canadian hard courts. Nadal is the four-time and defending champion, with two wins in each of Montreal and Toronto, and a 34-8 record, and victory again would extend the lead over his rivals with a 35th Masters.
Meanwhile, Thiem has played the Rogers Cup for five consecutive years and has yet to win a match—though in fairness to the Austrian, he has drawn some tough openers along the way, men who were unseeded but on their way to the top 12: Kevin Anderson, Diego Schwartzman, and last year, Stefanos Tsitsipas, who started 2018 ranked 91, and would beat four top-10 players on the way to the Toronto final and a ranking of 15.
Both Nadal and Thiem can anticipate tough openers again, with Atlanta champion Alex de Minaur likely to advance past a qualifier to face the top seed, and Denis Shapovalov or Pierre-Hugues Herbert competing to face Thiem.
Thiem did win his first Masters in Indian Wells in March, but he will have to adjust very quickly if he is to come through a tough half that includes former champion Alexander Zverev, the in-form Daniil Medvedev and Nikoloz Basilashvili, plus unseeded dangers such as Stan Wawrinka, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Nick Kyrgios and Kyle Edmund.
But should either Nadal or Thiem win the title in a week’s time, he will break the run of a different champion at each Masters tournament this year. As well as Thiem’s Indian Wells victory, Nadal won in Rome. Only Fabio Fognini can also double up after winning the Monte-Carlo Masters.
Tsitsipas, Zverev, and young guns
While the top rankings continue to be dominated by the over-30s—Djokovic is 32, Nadal 33, Federer 38 bar a few days—there is change afoot. Yes, Nadal still spearheads the draw in Montreal, but half the top-eight seeds are 23 and under, with more youthful faces chasing the pack.
Leading the young charge is 20-year-old Tsitsipas, who is at a career-high No6, and will break into the top five with his semi-final run in Washington this week. Following his first big final in Barcelona last April, ranked 63, the charismatic Greek went on to make his first Masters final in Toronto, then his first Major semi in Australia, won in Marseille and Estoril, and reached the finals in Dubai and the Madrid Masters.
Tsitsipas is in a section of strong young contenders that include a late replacement for Anderson, 22-year-old Hubert Hurkacz, who plays 21-year-old Taylor Fritz, who will make at least a career-high No23 with this week’s Los Cabos final run.
Another young player marking a career-high rank ahead of Montreal is 23-year-old Karen Khachanov, up to No8, though he could be overtaken by fellow Russian 23-year-old, Daniil Medvedev, who is into the top 10 for the first time at No9, and can rise to No8 if he wins the Washington title.
But both Russians find themselves in tough sections. Khachanov will play either Stan Wawrinka or Grigor Dimitrov in his first match. Come the third round it could be 18-year-old Canadian star, Felix Auger-Aliassime, a semi-finalist at the Miami Masters and with three final runs to his name this year, vying with No17 seed Milos Raonic.
Medvedev faces one of two 24-year-olds ranked just outside the seedings, Kyle Edmund or Nick Kyrgios, then either John Isner or possibly the fast-rising 23-year-old Chilean, Cristian Garin.
And then there is 2017 champion Zverev, still just 22 but a feature of the top ranks for two years—he has not been outside the top five since September 2017—and with 11 titles, three at Masters level, to his name.
His results this season have seesawed, as personal and management issues distracted him, and he arrives in Montreal having parted ways with coach Ivan Lendl. Perhaps to build some confidence, he opted to play his home Hamburg tournament on clay instead of defending his back-to-back Washington titles. He made the semis, but will slip from that top-five spot by the time he plays his tough opener against Cameron Norrie or Marton Fucsovics.
With the in-form Basilashvili, who beat him en route to the Hamburg title last week, or wild card Tsonga as possible third-round opponents, and the survivor from that deadly Khachanov section in the quarters, this could bring a big boost to the tall German star if he comes through.
This home tournament has often enjoyed break-out runs by its band of Canadian players. A then-22-year-old Raonic lost in the final to Nadal in 2013; Vasek Pospisil, who had back surgery at the start of this year, was a semi-finalist that same year, age 23; Shapovalov made the semis in 2017, age 18, beating Nadal in the process.
Do not be surprised, then, if Auger-Aliassime, who almost made the third round in his debut last year, taking Medvedev to a 7-6(7) third set, goes very deep with the backing of his home crowd and a top-notch brand of aggressive tennis.
Britons in draw
Both Edmund and Norrie face tough routes: the former opens against Kyrgios, with Medvedev in Round 2 and Isner in Round 3; the latter has Fucsovics, then Zverev and Basilashvili. Incidentally, Dan Evans was the last man to miss the main-draw cut, and will hope to come through qualifying.
The facts and figures
Champions since Wimbledon
Isner (Newport grass)
Dusan Lajovic (Umag clay)
Nicolas Jarry (Bastad clay)
Basilashvili (Hamburg 500 clay)
Albert Ramos-Vinolas (Gstaad clay)
Thiem (Kitzbuhel clay)
De Minaur (Atlanta hard); NB Runner-up Fritz
Kyrgios vs Medvedev (Final Washington 500 hard)
Diego Schwartzman (Los Cabos hard)
Former champions in draw
Nadal (four, defending), Zverev (one), Tsonga (one)
Djokovic, Federer, del Potro, Anderson, Fernando Verdasco, Frances Tiafoe, Sam Querrey, Pablo Cuevas
The draw: comprises 56, including seven qualifiers; 16 seeds; top eight have byes to second round
Top Nadal half
R2 de Minaur or qualifier
R3 First seed Goffin
QF Seeds are No11 Borna Coric, No7 Fognini
SF No4 Tsitsipas and No5 Kei Nishikori are top seeds; Gael Monfils, Roberto Bautista Agut, Schwartzman and Fritz also here.
Bottom Thiem half
R2 Shapovalov or Herbert
R3 First seed Marin Cilic
QF Seeds are No8 Medvedev, No12 Isner; Kyrgios and Edmund also here.
SF No6 Khachanov and No3 Zverev are top seeds; Basilashvili, Raonic, Tsonga, Wawrinka, Dimitrov, Auger-Aliassime also here.