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A Little Less Life and Death 08/20/2012 - 2:45 PM

RNEach August, news pundits in the U.S. remind us that, no matter how important their words and stories may be, no one is actually paying attention to them. According to most columnists and talking heads, the Great American Unwashed apparently spend too much time on the miniature golf course over the summer to be bothered with what’s going on around the world.

I wonder about that, though, because the opposite is true for me. Even when I’m at the beach or in the boonies, having time off means that I can finally read the paper from front to back, finally watch Jon Stewart and the Newshour regularly, finally catch those Nova and Nature shows on PBS that I miss each week (the one on hummingbirds is really good, btw). Isn’t this everyone’s idea of a relaxing vacation?

Amid that vast morass of news, much of it grim as always, one piece of tennis information stood out: Rafael Nadal won’t play the U.S. Open because of his continuing knee problems. This is sort of the sports equivalent of a hurricane or an earthquake, an especially frustrating event because there’s no way to be partisan about it, nothing to argue over, no behavior to judge, no other side to blame. All you can say is that it’s a bummer for Nadal, the Open, and followers of men’s tennis.

Of course, other things will be said, because...well...because there are sports pages and websites like this to fill. Mostly there has been speculation about whether this is the “beginning of the end” for Rafa, whether he’s finally at a point where he’ll need to alter his schedule or his playing style, or find a new treatment for his tendinitis, or even just hang up his racquet. As the Australian put it this weekend:

NADAL ON BRINK OF OBLIVION AS HIS GREATEST FEAR ARRIVES 

That headline is obviously over the top, as are the article’s comical assertions that, “Nadal has a fantastic fear of everything,” that "thunder and lightning terrify him," and that he “drives like an old woman lest he crash his car.” But the writer, Will Swanton, also makes the point that while Rafa’s labor-intensive style does his knees no favors, the problem didn’t originate with that on-court pounding, or even in his knees. It began in his foot, where a congenital disease has deformed its bridge. Since making that discovery in 2005, Nadal has worn orthotic shoes. 

“The cost” of those shoes, as Swanton writes, “would be significant: his knees and/or hips and/or back would eventually buckle under the additional shock-absorbing stresses.” 

Nadal says this round of pain began in February (not long after his six-hour Aussie Open final with Novak Djokovic), but he remains optimistic that he’ll return this season. He says he’s currently hoping to play Davis Cup for Spain on clay against the U.S. next month—it depends, as Rafa puts it, “on the captain and the knee.” If long-term history is any guide, Nadal will eventually return to full strength. His career has been one of ups and downs, of pain and relief, of suffering and overcoming. 

That he’s going to miss the Olympics, two Masters events, and a Grand Slam sounds borderline disastrous, but he’s been here before. In fact, you might say he’s right on schedule. Nadal missed the 2006 Australian Open with the aforementioned foot injury, then came back to win the French Open and reach his first Wimbledon final that summer. In 2009, he couldn’t defend his Wimbledon title because of creaky knees; the next year he won three majors. Last week his doctor diagnosed Rafa with Hoffa’s syndrome, in which “fat inflammation” in the knee causes pain. (It sounds better, anyway, than having your body buried under the end zone in Giants Stadium, Jimmy Hoffa-style.) But the doctor also said that it while this was annoying, it wasn’t career-threatening. Rafa’s always-optimistic uncle Toni once said that, “we hope to get two more years out of him.” That was in 2005.

Roger Federer’s comments on the situation in Cincinnati were a good summation of both views of Rafa’s situation, the concerned and the level-headed.

“Twelve days before the Open,” Federer said when he heard Nadal had pulled out, “you figure he might still have time to fix what he has to fix to get ready. If he pulls out that early before the Open, it must be something serious. That’s what is sort of scary.”

Two days later, Federer, asked about the future of his rivalry with Nadal, said that he fully expects to see Rafa across the net from him again. “I hadn’t thought about it, that I might play Rafa less," Federer said, "because I’m convinced he will come back strong sooner or later....I think this is not the end, just because he’s injured. One time one top guy misses a major, I think some people make a big deal of it. It’s true that it’s a big shock, but at the same time, it does happen from time to time." 

What are Rafa’s options? “I have my game,” he has said, and he’s not going to save his knees by turning himself into a serve-and-volleyer. We do know, however, that he can pick his spots, conserve his energy, and still win, because that’s how he said he got through the 2009 Aussie Open final against Federer, two days after his five-hour semifinal win over Fernando Verdasco. As far as his schedule, Nadal already plays few non-mandatory events. He may have to cut a few hard-court mandatories in the future if he wants to make sure he’s fit for the Slams. Inevitably, that would mean his ranking would suffer, but that’s a sacrifice he seems willing to make. After six years in the Top 2, Rafa said recently, being something like No. 6 doesn’t worry him. As far as treatments, there’s blood-spinning, stem cell therapy, and arthroscopic surgery, but for now rest seems to be the only sure, if temporary, way to go.  

By January, Nadal may be running rampant again in Melbourne, and his withdrawal from the U.S. Open will be long forgotten. But it’s not January yet, and we still have the Open to play without him. It was one thing for him to miss the Olympics; the novelty and spectacle of that event, as well as Andy Murray’s breakthrough win, were enough to cover the loss. But not having Rafa in New York is more noticeable, and more of a drag for several reasons.

—There’s history to consider. While few will recall Nadal’s absence from this event 10 years from now, you want the Slams to be won against full-strength fields.

—The nights won't be as fun. More than any other major, the Open emphasizes, and thrives on, star power. Rafa, with his loud clothes and flashy game, is made for the evening sessions in Ashe.

—Federer-Djokovic is great, but it’s not Federer-Nadal. As Federer said of his rivalry with Rafa last week, “We’ve had great matches, great fighting spirit, fair play, different type of matchup being a lefty, me being a righty. The way we play is completely different. I think it’s been the sort of set-up that has it all: me with one-handed backhand, him with double, you name it.” 

The Swiss and the Serb often produce excellent tennis, and they generally bring an edge to their matches, but they don’t capture the imagination in the same way. 

—Nadal’s fans are silenced. Roger, Rafa, and Novak have all brought new people to tennis, fans who follow them specifically. Even when they aren’t playing each other, their supporters are always jousting. For these two weeks, that entertaining (and sometimes irritating) dynamic will be eliminated, and some of the tournament's edge and excitement will go with it. Nadal fans I’ve talked to this summer seem surprised by how little they want to watch the sport when he’s not involved. Tennis is blessed with stars at the moment, something that becomes even more obvious when one of them is missing.

What will we miss about Rafa specifically? I’ll say it’s the way he makes running across a tennis court and chasing a ball down feel like a moment of high emotion, of life and death. It’s the same running style that wears his knees down a bit more with each chase, but who would want to watch a different Rafa? Without him, and without the fans he inspires, the Open will feel a little less like life and death in 2012.

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Playing Ball: Good Luck to a Partner 08/10/2012 - 6:11 PM

6a00d83451599e69e2016765cf462c970b-800wi-1I’m out next week, and will return August 20, in time for the run-up to the U.S. Open. Can it really be that time of year again already?

By then, we should have a new look around here at Tennis.com. Change, we think for the better, is coming soon on the site. Here's a personal post for the road.

*****

The word “tennis,” on one level, means the same thing to all of us. Racquets, balls, lines, forehands, backhands, singles, doubles: That’s tennis. But anyone who plays it with more than one opponent knows that the sport changes, sometimes subtly, sometimes significantly, along with the face on the other side of the net. The rules, the equipment, the court size stay the same, but the experience of the game is a dynamic one. Whether it’s the particular spin your opponent puts on the ball, or what he or she likes to talk about on the changeovers, you'll find a different side of the sport with every friend and rival. "My tennis partner" is the term we use to describe them, and that's what we all are, partners in creating the sport together.

The subject is on my mind at the moment because one of my regular opponents—much more friend than rival—is moving out of New York. Jimmy is his name, and he’s leaving Brooklyn to teach creative writing at Wellesley College near Boston. There are worse-sounding gigs in the world, and this one has been well-earned. After years of taking teaching gigs part-time and writing on the side, his novel, The Arriviste, was published in 2011 and was up for the Best First Fiction prize from the Los Angeles Times this spring. Besides a love of tennis, we share a love of books. I doubt I’ll find another partner who will have Suetonious in his racquet bag and talk about Sebald and Bolaño between games. 

When he told me about the award ceremony in L.A., Jimmy said he probably shouldn’t bother going because he wasn’t going to win. The comment was completely in character for the Jimmy I knew of him from the tennis court. Part absent-minded academic, part Woody Allen-esque master of self-deprecation, he was the least competitive of competitors. You might even say that he didn’t really like to win, because it violated his image of himself. 

I remember Jimmy walking to the net after our warm-up, head down, shoulders hunched, pushing his glasses up and grumbling under his breath about his bad backhand and ragged grip.  

I spun my racquet. “Up,” he said as it twirled. 

“It’s down.” 

“Right,” Jimmy said as he turned around to head back to the baseline. “Good!” He seemed to believe that he didn’t deserve to win the toss, that fortune was punishing him, rightly, for that bad backhand and beat-up grip of his. 

Contrary to his opinion, however, Jimmy was and is a good player. He played in college and hits with such extreme topspin on both sides that I had to take many of his shots from above my head—my shoulder would be sore the day after our matches. But he was less-than-impressed with himself. If one of his topspin shots got past me me, he would say, “My specialty, the shank winner,” or “Don’t worry, I won’t hit it that way again.” When he went up a break in a set, he would stop on the changeover and say, “You’re always in it with me.” Sometimes I was, but sometimes he kept going and won the set anyway. 

He was a character. On more than one occasion, Jimmy asked me where the third ball was on the court, only to discover, after a few seconds of searching, that it was in his own pocket. For some years, he had an old dog he would bring to the courts, without a leash, who would curl up under one of the sideline chairs while we played. When we finished, the dog, without a word from his master, would hoist himself up and walk in between us to the car. Jimmy was jokingly nicknamed “Wheels” by one of the other members, in part because he's fast, but also because he seemed like the least likely person to have a jocky nickname. 

A bad shot could inspire him to have an animated talk with himself: 

“What are you doing, you bozo!” he would yell, and then follow up with a lacerating response: “Shut up, just shut up.” 

Even his well-reviewed book was nothing to brag about. When another club member asked him what it was about, Jimmy tried briefly to describe it (“It’s about this guy, I don't know, he’s kind of going downhill...”) before finally assuring him, “You probably wouldn’t want to read it anyway.” 

The best thing about playing with Jimmy, besides the matches and the laughs, was the way he made the idea of serious competition seem faintly ridiculous, and far too solemn an activity. With Jimmy, unlike with other opponents of mine, playing poorly was fun, too. Screwing up could seem to be what tennis was all about.  

Since he left, I’ve begun to play with a new, younger member named Jason. He works in the district attorney’s office, and is a very good athlete. He's competitive, but not overly so. We played two solid, sweaty sets last week. At the end, we walked to the net, told each other something like, “That was great, man,” and shook hands in the up grip, which, at the rec level, indicates a match well played. I'm looking forward to many more with Jason like that one.

Tennis will move on for me, to new opponents and friends, and the new relationships and dynamics and versions of the sport that they help create. It will be fun, and it won't be quite the same.

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Playing Ball: Losing Them All 08/09/2012 - 7:28 PM

6a00d83451599e69e2016765cf462c970b-800wi“Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.” It might be the most famous quote in tennis history. And unlike most famous quotes, Vitas Gerulaitis actually said it, in 1980, when he finally got a win over Jimmy Connors after 16 straight defeats. The only problem for Vitas was that it wasn’t true. Going by the statistics as they were kept at the time, Gerulaitis had lost all 20 of his matches to Bjorn Borg. (Today Vitas’s head-to-head record against Borg, as listed by the ATP, is 0-16; maybe he wasn’t kidding when he made the above statement, after all).

Gerulaitis could joke about his record against Connors, but the losing streak to Borg was no laughing matter, even for the happy go lucky Brooklyn kid. In 1980, he lost to the Swede four times, one of which was a straight-set trouncing in the Roland Garros final. By the following year, Gerulaitis had grown bitter about it. Losing to his good friend over and over began to sap his love for the sport and affect his results against everyone else.

Two decades later, Vince Spadea lost an ATP-record 21 straight matches. The experience was traumatic enough that he went out and created a new, sideways-capped persona for himself, “Ain’t afraid a ya Spadea”—anything to shed the loser tag. This past weekend, we saw how little belief a player of Maria Sharapova’s stature could have against a woman who had beaten her seven straight times. Fernando Verdasco was so spooked by his countryman Rafael Nadal that he couldn’t find a way to beat him on one of his worst days, in Cincinnati last year. All he could do after his umpteenth loss in a row to Rafa was spit on the court.

Losing streaks happen, is what I'm trying to say, and they can leave scars. As anyone who follows the sport knows, tennis currently has another one on its hands. This week in Toronto a second sideways-capped American, Donald Young, lost his 16th straight match, to Jeremy Chardy. As he has on four other occasions during his streak, which dates back to the Memphis event in February, Young won the first set before falling in three. But this was a particularly painful defeat for DY, because he went all the way to a tiebreaker in the second set before double-faulting and going down 7-4. His disappointment showed in the third, which he lost, listlessly, at love.

Young has been justly criticized for leaving the USTA fold this year to be coached by his mother, Illona. With the USTA, he had the best season of his seven-year career in 2011, cracking the Top 40 for the first time; now he’s down to No. 84, with a plunge into triple digits looming. I seem to be particularly bad luck for him. Along with the Chardy match, I watched Young squander a first set lead to Benoit Paire in Casablanca, even though the Frenchman appeared at times to be tanking. I also saw Young lose a gut-wrencher to Steve Darcis at Indian Wells in a third-set tiebreaker. After saving multiple match points in the breaker to get to 5-6, he lost on a nervous error.

Young has never done himself any favors with his attitude, but whatever the reasons for his decline, you have to feel for this ex-prodigy. You can see doubt etched on his face from the first moments of his matches—he’s waiting for something to go wrong, and when you do that, you usually don’t have to wait long. DY played pretty well for two sets against Chardy, a guy who would beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga the following day. Unfortunately, there’s a difference between playing well and winning in tennis. They’re overlapping skills, but not the same thing.

DYI can’t relate to a lot of things that the pros go through, but I can relate to losing. When I was 13 and had just moved up from the 12-and-unders to the 14s, I spent a summer tasting non-stop defeat. Later I would hear a phrase from another player that described my situation well: He said that he “had to learn how to lose in every way possible before he could learn how to win.”

That's how it worked for me at 13. At one tournament, I had two match points; I tried to do what you’re supposed to do, be aggressive, but rushed both shots and hit them out. I lost. Another day I couldn’t get a serve in the court and lost. I lost because my backhand went south, I lost because I didn’t have enough power and was still using a wooden racquet. I lost because I wasn’t in good shape and got tired. I lost because I was too friendly with my opponent, I lost because I was afraid to lose.

It didn't feel that way at the time, but there was a point to my losses that year. I was discovering what I needed to improve. By the next summer, I was winning tournaments. It’s possible that this will happen to DY as well, but it seems unlikely. He’s probably just hoping he’s still on tour as of next year.

Worse was the losing streak I endured in my senior year in college. There was no learning there, only defeat, from the start of the season until the end. I had played No. 2 on our team for three years and had a respectable record for most of that time. No. 1 was different; every school seemed to have at least one decent player, or at least one player whose position on the team gave him a feeling of confidence. I thought it would be a matter of time before I would learn the ropes at that level and raise my game. Instead, the opposite happened; I lost the belief that even my decent play would lead to a win. Even if I hit the ball well early, or broke serve in the first set, it didn't make me feel like it would lead to anything. The finish line always remained miles away. After a while, I stopped playing with tactics and just hit the ball. To use strategy, you first have to believe that it will get you somewhere.

Watching DY start well against Chardy, I could imagine him feeling like the finish line was far, far in the distance. He quickly surrendered the momentum of his first-set win by going down a break in the second. But while his forehand was loopier than it has been in the past, he did appear to be trying to find ways to win. Whatever his form, I’m guessing he’ll need some help—i.e., a bad day from an opponent—to end the streak. My own skid finally ended when I played an opponent I had never lost to before. I may have had little confidence in my game, but he still had no experience of beating me. Unfortunately for Young, it will be hard to find that type of opponent, at least at Masters events. But he will win again. Perhaps like Spadea, who had something of a late-career renaissance, he'll do whatever it takes to make everyone forget this streak.

From the outside, it might seem ridiculous or improbable that a pro could lose 21, or 16, matches in a row. To me, it’s a reminder of what makes tennis unique psychologically, something I’ve mentioned here many times: Unlike in golf, it’s not enough to play well and go about your business; you have to make someone else lose. You might always be able to hit an ace or a topspin forehand into the corner, but the confidence needed to win can vanish without a trace. What Young is going through isn’t unthinkable. It's very thinkable, in fact. It’s what's in the back of our heads, our ultimate nightmare: What if I can lose them all? Here’s hoping Donald Young wakes up from his nightmare soon. Maybe the spirit of Vitas Gerulaitis can lend a hand and keep him from losing 17 in a row.

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Keeping Tabs: August 8 08/08/2012 - 2:04 PM

NDAfter all of the decades of frustration, all of the tears and the despair and the self-laceration, how do the British papers celebrate one of their own finally winning big in tennis? They note it, and then move along to a more interesting story. Here’s Monday's headline from the Independent:

GOLD MEDAL WINNER ANDY MURRAY HINTS AT MARRIAGE PROPOSAL TO LONG-TERM GIRLFRIEND KIM SEARS

Really, I hadn’t heard about that, what did he say, exactly?

“I have no plans to get married just now,” Murray told reporters. “I am still fairly young...but we’ll see.”

“We’ll see.” The words every woman longs to hear.

Here’s what else is in the tennis news.

*****

Walking the Walk
I admit that when I saw Serena Williams do her now famous dance after her gold-medal match on Centre Court, I thought it was just an improvised move done to make her sister laugh. I think I had seen the gang-related Crip Walk, or C-Walk, before, but I didn’t recognize Serena’s version. 

When she was asked to describe it later, Serena said, “Actually, there is a name, but I don’t know if it’s appropriate. It’s just a dance we do in California.”

Unfortunately, her moves became a bigger story than her win. Foxsports.com columnist Jason Whitlock wrote that Serena deserved to be criticized for doing the gang's signature dance, and that she might have planned it as a way to get back at the All England Club for exiling her to Court 2 for all of these years. As Whitlock put it, “I’ll bet in a private moment Friday night or Saturday morning, Serena told her sister Venus, “I’m going to Crip Walk all over this crusty-a** place.”

The L.A. Times Bill Plashke tweeted, “Serena C-walking at Wimbledon only shows how long she’s been away from home, separated from the violence and death associated with that dance." 

Clinton Yates of the Washington Post defended Serena by pointing out that she's unlikely to have forgotten about that violence, considering that her sister Yetunde Price was killed in a Crip-related shooting in 2003. Also, the C-Walk has been widely popular for years, so popular that some schools have banned it.

Serena’s dance seemed designed, as I originally thought, to get her sister to laugh, and to send a little message to her about where they were from, and where they were now.

Maybe, as the Huffington Post jokingly suggested, something positive can come from this. Maybe we can now change the name of the Crip Walk to “Serena Williams’ Olympic Victory Dance.”

*****

Less Is More?
Here’s Jon Wertheim reiterating his call to do away with best-of-five-set matches at the majors. He thinks the Olympics proved his point:

"Enough with best-of-five sets at the Slams, at least until the final. It's both impractical and tone deaf to the times. The sport has never been more grueling, more likely to cause injury (see: Nadal, Rafael). It's never been more important to accommodate television. (Snicker if you like, but it's naive to assert otherwise.) Why are we doing this to already-tired players? Why are we acting so inhospitable to television? These best-of-three matches were fantastic. Perfect amount of time. They captured fans, but still provided spellbinding drama. Even after the long matches, players could return the following day. Not once did I encounter a fan or player who said, "That was a great match but I feel shortchanged. I wish they had played an additional 90 minutes."

I’ve always believed that best-of-five should stay, but I admit that the Olympics didn’t come up short in the quality or drama departments because the matches were shorter. And I agree that it's hard to ask a spectator to sit down in one place for an entire best-of-five-set match. With best-of-three, the end is more clearly in sight, which makes each game feel more important from the beginning. So I can see Jon’s point. But I stand by best-of-five at the majors and Davis Cup—the extra sets aren’t needed anywhere else, in my opinion, except the final of the year-end championships—because of the special gravitas it lends to those events. There can be nothing flukey about beating someone over five sets. To change the format now would make those tournaments feel like Slam-lites, served up especially for TV advertisers.

*****

Getting Personal
What’s eating Novak Djokovic? That’s the question on the mind of his most famous former coach, Jelena Gencic. In an interview with Blic yesterday, she claims she wasn’t surprised that Novak didn’t win a medal at the Olympics.

“Although no one wanted to go public with it,” Gencic says, “there were reasons why his barren run could have been predicted...He definitely has problems, with both body and mind, but he managed to overcome similar problems before when it was hardest for him. Novak is short of his best self, and it is up to his team to pinpoint the reasons and sort it out. He is burdened with personal problems and now his tennis is suffering.”

Gencic says she doesn’t want to get into specifics, which makes this story a mystery. In the past, it has been said, Djokovic has been distracted by the needs of his support team and those surrounding him.

“I would be worried,” Gencic concludes, “because he keeps saying he is tired. They need to locate the reasons why this is happening—if it is down to his physicality or something away from tennis which is tiring his mind.” 

***** 

Reality Check
The Olympics have been emotional and moving, and it would be nice if that’s all they were. But there are always sobering undertones that come along with the Games, and the New York Times highlights the main one this week, in Williams Rhoden's “Savoring Olympic Games, Despite Their Long History of Doping.”

Rhoden talks to Charles Yesalis, an “expert on performance-enhancing drugs” at Penn State (it would be nice to have a few more credentials than that, but that's all Rhoden gives us). Yesalis admits that he enjoys watching the Olympics, but takes them with “several blocks of salt.” He thinks drug testing should be eliminated.

“It serves to make people think they’re watching cleaner sports,” Yesalis says of anti-doping programs, “but they’re really not. We’ve had testing since the 1960s; I’m sorry, I don’t think anything’s gotten better.”

That’s probably true, though there have been reports that progress has been made in cycling in recent years, and while there are still PEDs in baseball, no one is hitting 73 home runs in a season anymore.

Yesalis, who was obviously in an uplifting mood when this interview took place, maintains that it all makes sense, because while sports shows us human courage and resilience, they also show us something else that humans tend to do: cheat.

“I’ve concluded that it’s the nature of man," he says, "because we see it in business, we see it in politics. For years, people have said sports is a microcosm of our society, and I agree.”

What would happen if drugs were legalized? Fans seem to care about PEDs on a sport by sport basis. There’s suspicion, and at least temporary outrage, about it in baseball, but the subject is rarely if ever mentioned by NFL or NBA fans. Would we collectively stop watching if we knew that every athlete was legally taking performance-enhancing drugs? Would sponsors stay away? Or would the stigma slowly fade? There's also the health of the athletes to consider, though it will be a long time before we stop watching American football, despite what we know about its effects on the players.

The most vexing question of all: What would we do instead?

In related news, the ITF announced yesterday that it would honor the lifetime ban imposed by the USADA on Lance Armstrong’s doctor, Luis Garcia del Moral of Valencia, Spain. Moral has worked with, as the ITF puts it, “various tennis players.”  

***** 

Words to Live By
OK, we can’t go out on that note. So I call your attention to the Tennis Space’s list of best Olympic quotes. Here’s an inspirational one for your bulletin board at work: 

“I still can’t express enough how proud I am to see Andy Murray as the Olympic champion. He never gave up. Don’t you either. I won’t ever.”David Hasselhof

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Quick-Change Artists 08/07/2012 - 7:14 PM

VAOne day you’re playing for an Olympic medal on London grass. Two days later you’re across the ocean doing a pre-tournament press conference for a big hard-court event in Montreal. Such is the (lucky) life of a few of the top women players this week. But where the men’s draw in Toronto has been significantly depleted, virtually all of the women who signed up for their version of the Rogers Cup are present and accounted for, including singles silver medalist Maria Sharapova, mixed-doubles gold medalist Victoria Azarenka, doubles bronze medalist Nadia Petrova, and fourth-place mixed finisher Sabine Lisicki. The women are getting on with it. I guess, these days, if you know Serena Williams isn’t going to be in a tournament, you play it.

Here’s a look at the draw; some of the top players won’t get started until Thursday. As with the men, how the Olympian achievers will respond is anybody’s guess. The new order at the top of the WTA will be tested this week.

*****

First Quarter
Azarenka was asked today how she planned to adjust to the new courts and the new time zone so quickly. She said that, as of that moment, she had no idea. She had just walked off a plane and was still getting her head straight. Vika will have to straighten herself out right away, because she faces a loaded section. She opens with one of the tour’s hotter players in Tamira Paszek, who followed up her recent Wimbledon run with an easy win over Julia Goerges on Tuesday. After that, she might get Lisicki. And after that, Petra Kvitova, who has beaten Azarenka in their last four meetings. Not exactly a reward for two medals for Belarus, but maybe the good feelings from London will keep Vika going. And at Wimbledon and the Games, she lost only to Serena.

Also here: Bartoli

Question mark: Kvitova. She struggles with the air and humidity in North America, and it looked pretty humid in Montreal today. We'll see if she can finally make something happen over here.

Semifinalist: Azarenka

*****

Second Quarter
How will Maria Sharapova respond after the Olympics? She was poleaxed in the final by Serena, but she won’t have to see her nemesis across the net in Montreal. Maria likes hard courts, she likes the grind, and she likes this time of year, but she didn’t bounce back well after her most recent successful tournament run, at Roland Garros. Her first opponent might be Christina McHale. If Maria is on, she should win easily, but she can’t afford an off day or an adjustment day against the steady American. 

On the other side of this section is Caroline Wozniacki, who also suffered a beating at Serena’s hands in London. But she’s had a little more time off since then, she also likes hard courts, and she showed more aggression in her earlier rounds at the Games. But Caro could have a tough opener in Petrova.

Also here: Cilbulkova, who has played Wozniacki tough over the last two seasons; Jankovic; and Varvara Lepchenko, who opens against Pavlyuchenkova.

Semifinalist: Wozniacki

*****

Third Quarter
Sam Stosur is the top seed in this section, but it’s the second seed, Angelique Kerber, who has been by far the better player over the last six weeks. The German reached the semis at Wimbledon and the quarters at the Games, while Stosur went out in the first round of each. No one will be happier to leave the grass behind than Sam. She reached the final of this tournament, in Toronto, last year.

Kerber opens against Makarova and, if she wins that, will see either Ana Ivanovic or Roberta Vinci. Stosur, in theory, doesn’t have any major obstacles in her way. She starts with Simona Halep, and then would play the winner of Safarova and Karatantcheva, who double-bageled Sorana Cirstea on Tuesday.

Interesting qualifier who has already lost: Michelle Larcher de Brito

Semifinalist: Kerber

*****

Fourth Quarter
One player who should be rested and ready is Aga Radwanska. She went out early in all three events at the Olympics, including in the first round of the singles. Last year she made the semis at this tournament, and her draw this time should help get her back on track. Errani, Li Na, and Pennetta are the other three seeds in the quarter, though Aga could face a decent test in her first match, against Mona Barthel.

Question mark: Li Na. Has this first-round Olympics loser hit the second-half skids again?

Semifinalist: Radwanska

*****

Semifinals: Azarenka d. Wozniacki; Kerber d. Radwanska

Final: Azarenka d. Kerber

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