Big names choose tune-ups wisely

A lot can happen in 10 days on the professional tennis tour.

In little more than a week, a slight cloud has fallen over Andy Murray’s shiny gold medal, which he won in front of his adoring fans at the London Olympics. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic, who could not even prevent Juan Martin del Potro from winning the bronze, grabbed the opportunity for a quick recovery in Toronto, where he won the ATP Masters Series title.

There had been some inquiries about the Serb’s state of mind in London, but he seemed like his old self again in Toronto, where he dominated the experienced Frenchman Richard Gasquet in the final to win in straight sets.

By then, Roger Federer, beaten with such shocking severity by Murray in the gold medal match at Wimbledon, had opted out of the Canadian tournament. So, too, had Rafael Nadal, whose knee problems, which forced him to miss the Olympics, now look to be threatening his participation at the US Open.

Hard courts are recognized as being the worst for all ligaments, tendons and lower backs, and Nadal’s medical advisers are telling him to play on the surface as little as possible. He suffers from a chronic condition, and, if he doesn’t pace himself and choose his tournaments carefully, the length of his career inevitably will be shortened.

Murray has a knee that locks on occasion. But that is the right knee, and it was the left one that started giving him problems after he lunged for a wide forehand in his first match against Italy’s Flavio Cipolla, three days after the euphoria of winning gold. Due to play the local favorite Milos Raonic in the next round, Murray hopped on his bike – not to go anywhere but simply to test the knee in the gym.

"After that, I made the decision to pull out," said the Scot. "Hard courts are always the toughest for my body to adjust to, and I want to give it time to do so normally in the next few days."

Disappointing for the tournament, but at least Murray had made the effort to get there and play – with some regret. Posting his thoughts about the closing ceremony at the Olympics on his website, Murray said, "Sorry I couldn’t be there. Team GB were amazing, and I loved being part of it."

With so much attention being paid to Britain’s gold medal winners on the track, such as Mo Farah, plus Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, Murray did not get much of a mention in the UK media once he won the gold medal. So it came as something of a surprise to learn from official Twitter counts that Murray’s victory over Federer had created the third-most tweets, behind Bolt’s two individual triumphs, of anything that had happened at the London Games.

The problem for the Canadian Open, to give the long-standing tournament its traditional title, is that its date will inevitably leave it vulnerable to whatever transpires at the Olympics every four years. On this year’s evidence, that is not a happy prospect.

At least Cincinnati is faring better, with Federer showing up to join Djokovic, Murray and most of the supporting cast.

"I usually play really well here or really, really bad," Federer said with a smile on arrival.

It was the sort of remark that makes tournament directors nervous. But a quick look at his results in Ohio back up Federer’s observation. In 11 appearances, he has lost in the first round three times; the second round twice and the third round and quarterfinal once each. Four times, he has reached the final and won them all. Obviously, no halfway house for Roger in Cincy.

In the meantime, Americans have gotten off to a mixed start. It was disappointing for Ryan Harrison to lose 6-4, 7-6 (5) to Bernard Tomic, the young Australian who will surely become a big rival over the years. But two older hands had encouraging wins.

James Blake, considered a candidate for retirement by many observers, has been notching up a few early round wins recently, and his 7-5, 6-4 win over the big-serving South African Kevin Anderson came as a welcome surprise for his supporters. And then Nashville’s Brian Baker, who has struggled since returning from his hugely encouraging European tour, justified his wild-card spot by upsetting the in-form German Philipp Kohlschreiber 7-6 (7), 7-6 (3).

Form at Cincinnati is not necessarily a reliable guide for the US Open. Murray, the defending Cincinnati champion who also won the title in 2008, did well at Flushing Meadows in both those years, reaching the final in ’08 and the semifinals last year. Federer has won the US Open title coming off first- and second-round losses, as well as victories at this ATP Masters 1000 event, so that is hopelessly inconclusive.

As for Djokovic, three runner-up spots in Ohio have failed to produce a title so far for the Serb but he is the form horse this week and will start in New York as many people’s favorites to retain his crown.

Time for everything to settle down again after all the excitement of a double whammy on Wimbledon grass. Despite their harshness on the body, North American hard courts offer a very level playing field in that most players can produce their best tennis on it if they are in form.

Let’s hope that Nadal can join the party.