Northern Reflections: Thoughts on a Hard-Fought Week in Canada

By Anusha Rasalingam

Attending the Rogers Cup in person for the first time, it was interesting to see tennis on its relative front lines. As a transplanted New Yorker, I am fortunate enough to be a subway ride away from the U.S. Open, whose rhythms and geography are now second nature. (Tips: have Chinese food in Flushing rather than eating at the grounds, buy your souvenirs as early as possible – the good stuff sells out.)

As with many things in New York, the U.S. Open is attended by many New Yorkers so accustomed to witnessing the extraordinary and expecting it to occur in their city that it’s not uncommon to see them texting while sitting in their thousand-dollar court-side seats rather than watching the goings-on below, a scene is repeated at many ultra-elite sporting events, including the Slams, whose court-side attendees include, well, the ultra-elite, whether or not they are tennis fans, per se.

The Rogers Cup had a less than auspicious start – losing its biggest star, Eugenie Bouchard, and electricity right off the bat. But the week of tennis that followed brought thrilling matches, and a quartet of finalists who all could be described as resurgent. Indeed, the Rogers Cup itself, often a victim of late withdrawals and complete depletion of its field by the Summer Olympics every four years, made a nice comeback of its own over the past week, fielding a nearly-full field and record attendance numbers.

By contrast, in Toronto, both the tournament organizers and the attendees expressed their gratitude for keeping tennis in Canada, knowing that there are few opportunities for a city to host an elite tournament. And, having Canadian contenders gave the tournament a slightly more homespun feel – with “Go Canada Go” signs being distributed at the entrances when Raonic was scheduled to play, and boisterous fans shouting support of errors in a way usually heard at Toronto Maple Leafs games. 

Make no mistake – the Rogers Cup, like its host cities, Toronto and Montreal, is world class, but perhaps less stratospherically so than the Grand Slams. Thus, while the Rogers Cup had sponsors whose products include toilet paper and pizza, one cannot imagine that Wimbledon would even acknowledge that its audience needed either of those items, much less allow advertisements for them at the All England Club. 

Indeed, even the grounds that host the Rogers Cup are more modest than the Slams, with the Toronto tournament set in the midst of a public university and the Montreal tournament taking place in a venue built on the ruins of the stadium that once hosted the departed Montreal Expos. But it is by bringing tennis to (admittedly still largely elite) audiences outside of the sport’s four proverbial Super Bowls that the tours manage to grow audiences on a grassroots level.

The free Lindt chocolates at the Toronto tournament (thanks, Roger!) didn’t hurt either.

The Montreal tournament stood in grave danger of having its literal and figurative electricity snatched away at the start, with a city-wide power outage and the loss of 2013 Wimbledon finalist and Canadian tennis juggernaut Genie Bouchard in the first round, rebounded nicely. While Agnieszka Radwanska emerged with the winner’s trophy at the end of the week, finalist Venus Williams was certainly the story of the Genie-less tournament. Radwanska’s win displayed her ability to overcome power with variety, and nicely ended her own skid over the past year.

Venus, however, backed up her remarkable Wimbledon match against Petra Kvitova with her first win against Serena since 2009, ending her five match losing streak to her kid sister. For once, in the wake of a Serena loss, the story was not about what was wrong with Serena, but what Venus had done right to come back from years of unsatisfactory results and battling the effects of Sjögren’s syndrome. While it is too early to call Venus a top contender at the US Open, it’s clear that when the cylinders are firing, she has plenty of game left to cause a lot of trouble for those in her path.  

Similarly, Caroline Wozniacki played newsworthy tennis in a hard fought battle that she eventually lost to her good friend Serena Williams, fanning the hopes that the recent past may have boosted her competitive fires and not just headlines. 

Less satisfying was watching Victoria Azarenka’s continued efforts to come back from a foot injury. While she managed to get past Serena-slayer Alize Cornet and British hope Heather Watson, Vika was bothered by a knee injury sustained in the match against Cornet, and lost in straight sets to Radwanska. The injury could pose another hurdle for her in an already frustrating year.

The men’s tournament witnessed the giant-killing spree of the immensely talented, but equally immensely frustrating Jo-Wilifried Tsonga. With his trademark hard hitting and athleticism, Tsonga plowed through a hard draw, felling Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Grigor Dimitrov, and Roger Federer on his way to the title, his second Masters 1000 title, and his first since his breakout 2008 season. Tsonga’s win was gratifying not only for himself, but for countless tennis fans who have long waited for him to connect the dots between his talent and results since his run to the Australian Open final in 2008.  

Federer had an easier draw, but had to fight to three sets in his quarterfinal and semifinal matches against Marin Cilic and David Ferrer. While his form was at times shaky, and he’s likely to be practicing backhands down the line over the next couple of weeks, Federer’s tournament was his late-stage career writ small – with his path to the final paved with grit as much as grace, with birthday cake and mid-match fan serenades to boot.

The week was also a good one for Marin Cilic, whose fight against Federer in the quarters nicely backed up his strong showing in pushing Djokovic to five sets at Wimbledon, and Feliciano Lopez, who overcame the fierce crowd support for his opponent and outsted Canadian Milos Raonic in the quarterfinals.

Djokovic, Murray and Dimitrov showed a bit more rust in their hard court games, but Tsonga’s hot streak also contributed to their difficulties. Beyond the results, the Toronto tournament managed to produce compelling, competitive matches, with over half of the matches from the quarterfinals onwards going to three sets, much to the satisfaction of the vocal spectators on the grounds.

As a part of the US Open series, the Rogers Cup is one of the appetizers leading up to the last Slam of the year, and it certainly gave us some tantalizing storylines to consider: as the Big Four hegemony starts to fray at the edges, will Jo-Willy or maybe even Tomas Berdych be able to snatch a bigger prize, as Stan Wawrinka did in Australia, or will Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic or another member of Generation Next sneak ahead? Will Venus continue to build momentum towards a storybook finish? When will we see Vika back at 100%? Will the Big Four, including Nadal, absent from Toronto due to injury, be able to dominate in New York, or was this week a further step towards greater parity on the ATP Tour?

Not bad for a week’s work, eh?