Cox : It’s hard court season!

Friday, Aug 2

Australia seems like a lifetime ago. Indian Wells, and Bianca Andreescu’s startling triumph there, is a March memory.

We’ve seen the clay court season come and go, and doubts about whether Rafael Nadal could be as dominant on the dirt as ever come, and then evaporate. The grass court season, so fleeting with so few events, culminated at the All-England Club with that spectacular and historic men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Now we hit the 2019 hard court season. The heat and the hard courts, featuring the Rogers Cup in Canada leading into the U.S. Open in New York. Toronto and Montreal will set the stage, and the Big Apple will give us the year’s final Grand Slam winners.

So far, the Big Three continue to dominate the men’s tour, almost to the embarrassment of all the super-talented younger players who just can’t find a way to make Nadal, Djokovic and Federer blink on a consistent basis. On the women’s tour, it’s been a year of hot potato with the No. 1 ranking, creating a read debate over who is the best in the world right now and who are the young guns on the rise.

Those will be dominant storylines for the Rogers Cup, along with the possibility that a Canadian could emerge as a winner this year. The men will have four strong entrants in Milos Raonic, Denis Shapovalov, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Vasek Pospisil on the comeback trail. It’s been six years since Raonic and Pospisil clashed in a memorable Montreal semi, with Raonic advancing only to lose to Nadal in the final.

Raonic, to most on our tennis panel, still figures to have the best chance to make history this year.

“If he gets hot with that serve, his matches only come down to a couple of points,” says Sportsnet analyst Jimmy Arias. “He can beat anybody.

Tennis Canada reporter and analyst Tom Tebbutt agrees with Arias. “Obviously Milos has to remain fit,” he says. “But he has the most experience and that should be a factor.”

Sportsnet’s Caroline Cameron, however, see Auger-Aliassime as a more formidable threat than any of the Canadians.

“Of all the Canadian players Felix has had the most consistent year,” she says.

Arash Madani of Sportsnet wonders if the brights lights of Montreal will make it tough of Auger-Aliassime.

“I have to wonder if the pressure might get to him playing in a main draw in his own backyard for the first time,” says Madani.

Few observers seem to foresee great success for Shapovalov this year, which might be exactly what he needs after a year in which he is still looking for some noteworthy triumphs. Being off the radar a little bit can often help a young player learning his way around the tour and navigating the nasty world of expectations.

On the women’s side, there will be expectations for both Andreescu and Eugenie Bouchard, but of a very different kind. Andreescu, the hottest player in women’s tennis earlier this year, will get the lion’s share of the attention. As with Shapovalov, that could be a blessing for Bouchard as she seeks to find some degree of traction in the 2019 season.

But if Andreescu can be healthy, most of our panel sees her having more success in Toronto this year.

“Genie just hasn’t had the results this year to suggest she can do better than Bianca,” says Tebbutt.

“Bianca will go further if she plays,” says Arias. “Even when Genie was viewed as a tough competitor she had a tough time competing in Canada.”

Right now, just like 15-year-old American youngster Coco Gauff at Wimbledon, 16-year-old Leylah Annie Fernandez is making the most noice of any Canadian female player, particularly after her recent performance in Granby. Meanwhile, with Andreescu fighting her way back from shoulder issues and Bouchard seeking to get back into the top 50 before she can dream Grand Slam dreams again, neither will be in the hunt to be No. 1 in the world at season’s end.

That will come down to a fight between four players – Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka, French Open winner Ashleigh Barty, Wimbledon champ Simona Halep and Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, who has been delivering consistent results all season despite not winning one of the majors.

“I can see Barty racking up a lot of points in this U.S. Open series swing,” says Cameron. “That, and Osaka has a lot of points to defend from last year.”

“My heart says Barty because I love her game,” says Arias. “I love to watch her. Haven’t seen a playing on the women’s tour who comes in as well as she does. “But my brain is leaning towards Halep. Mentally, she’s the strongest.”

Madani’s with Arias on this one, largely because of that stirring Wimbledon victory over Serena Williams.

“That showed what (Halep) is capable of,” he says. “Watch out.”

On the men’s side, the biggest question of the hard court season is if anybody can knock off Nadal, Djokovic or Federer at the U.S. Open. Few seem to think that’s going to happen, but there are some possibilities.

“Dominic Thiem can do it,” says Tebbutt. “His match last year against Rafa and the year before against Juan Martin del Potro shows he can threaten the big boys.”

Arias says fellow American John Isner is, like Raonic at the Rogers Cup, a player who can use he overpowering serve to go deep in New York.

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“Homer pick for me. Because of his serve his margins are a little smaller if he gets hot at the right time,” says Arias.

Madani, on the other hand, sees something in Kei Nishikori that makes him believe the Japanese star could get back to the U.S. Open final for the first time in five years.

“He is as under-the-radar now as he’s ever been,” says Madani. “He has the mental wherewithal to withstand two hot weeks in New York.”

From Atlanta to Washington, then Toronto/Montreal to Cincinnati, then on to New York, this hard court campaign is going to put some of the final touches on what has been a compelling 2019 tennis season.

Expect it to be a hot grind. Expect some surprises.