Notwithstanding the best efforts of Mother Nature, both Canadian tournaments have reached their later stages on time. While Toronto concludes on Sunday evening, Montreal features its penultimate round starting Sunday afternoon. More fortunate than those actually attending the events are those watching on television, who can watch an uninterrupted day of tennis that features three major champions and two former #1s.
Djokovic vs. Gasquet: Through four meetings in the last three years, the Serb has won all nine sets that he has played against Gasquet, losing two or fewer games in four of them. Earlier in their careers, the man born in the same month as Novak troubled him in three encounters during each of which he won at least one set. Rising to prominence sooner than Djokovic, Gasquet has played the hare to his contemporary’s tortoise, for he has traced a much more volatile trajectory of stunning victories and equally stunning disappointments. Now that he has settled into a comfortable second tier of creditable but not quite elite players, the Frenchman’s results have become more consistent as he has started to more regularly overcome his inferiors without significantly challenging his superiors. Nevertheless, his two-day, three-victory surge here has impressed by revealing a durability not normally associated with him. Perhaps the erratic schedule of the rainy Rogers Cup, where one often struggles to identify the current round being played, has allowed Gasquet to think less about the magnitude of the occasion and simply play one match at a time. Six years after he finished runner-up to Federer in Toronto, he reaches his first Masters 1000 final since then and seeks his first title at this level
Already the owner of eleven Masters 1000 shields, Djokovic regularly has dazzled on North American hard courts and has reached the final at eight of his last nine tournaments there. This week, his tennis has looked convincing to most observers but apparently not to him, for he continues to indulge in self-deprecating mannerisms after many of his unforced errors. Once he actually settles into matches and focuses his mind on the rallies, the top seed has displayed his familiarly suffocating form, scarring the baseline with precisely measured groundstrokes and moving more naturally than he did during a summer on other surfaces. Since consecutive late-night finishes may have disrupted Djokovic’s rhythm, he will feel especially grateful to play the first evening final in the event’s history (barring matches delayed by rain). Denied a medal at the Olympics, the Rogers Cup and its depleted draw may prove the ideal remedy for the Serb’s flagging confidence ahead of the US Open, as long as he capitalizes on this opportunity for his third title of 2012. Usually harmless when pinned behind the baseline, Gasquet should unleash a handful of sparkling winners from his famous backhand and create entertaining points, but he lacks the raw power to hit through the elastic Serb consistently—and likely the audacity to envision a shield next to his name.
Kvitova vs. Wozniacki: When 2012 began, these blondes of Eastern European origins held the top two positions in the ranking, although the end of 2011 had found them hurtling in opposite directions. Whereas Wozniacki had plummeted in stature during the second half of the year, winning only a single small title in New Haven, Kvitova had built upon her Wimbledon crown to capture the year-end championships in Istanbul with five victories over top-eight rivals. For most of this season, however, both have disappointed in different ways. Chronically complacent throughout her career, the Dane has seemed content with stagnation and lost much of her natural optimism, while the Czech has struggled to control her massive weapons and displayed less competitive steeliness than during her initial breakthrough. Remarkably, neither has won a title in 2012, and Kvitova has not reached a final at any tournament despite appearances at the quarterfinals or better of all three majors.
In an ironic twist, last year’s Wimbledon champion could douse that drought on the North American hard courts that have tormented her for reasons unclear. Crushing Bartoli in the third round, Kvitova did not jolt out of that groove in a quarterfinal against summer sensation Paszek. One never knows what to expect of her from one day to the next, but she will decide this match one way or the other, placing Wozniacki in an uncomfortably helpless situation. For the 2010 Rogers Cup champion to win her ninth straight match in Montreal, Kvitova must experience a dip in efficiency from a ruthlessness that one of her previous victims, the discerning Bartoli, described as virtually unplayable.
Safarova vs. Li: Formerly feckless in North America, last year’s Roland Garros champion broke free from that pattern by reaching quarterfinals at the marquee tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami this spring. She sagged through much of the summer after her title defense in Paris imploded spectacularly, exiting both Wimbledon and the Olympics uneventfully. Often most dangerous when most overlooked, Li signaled her renewed purpose by arranging a partnership with Carlos Rodriguez last month and has underscored that statement by cruising briskly through the Montreal draw. Not losing more than four games in a set here, she eased past Errani and crushed world #3 Radwanska in the same day. The 30-year-old Chinese star now must reinvigorate her battered body for a match in which she may spend many rallies on the defensive.
Dictating points behind her sharply angled lefty serve, Safarova played only one match on Friday as she swept aside the crafty Italian veteran Roberta Vinci. Often crumbling when faced with a challenge that demands such focus, the Czech lefty may have accumulated confidence from her airtight, two-tiebreak victory over Stosur a round earlier. Like Li, Safarova tends to alternate between inexplicably flat losses that betray an absence of confidence and unexpected ambushes over more formidable threats. But she has dropped five of their six previous meetings and eight of their nine sets on hard courts, unable to withstand her opponent’s counterpunching resilience and superior ability to transition between defense and offense.