Friday August 10th, 2012

Time to put the medals away and get back to our regularly scheduled programming. The men are being peppered with rain in Toronto, and the women are across the Canadian way in Montreal. Let's clear out the notebook:

Novak Djokovic set the bar high in 2011, so it's no surprise he's cooled off a bit this season. (Zumapress)

Back to earth: No one thought Novak Djokovic would be able to replicate his monstrous 2011, when he went 43-0 to start the year, won three Grand Slams tournaments and took over the No. 1 ranking for the first time in his career. Indeed, he hasn't come close to matching his performance this year, even though on paper he's still had a great season: an Australian Open title coming from a near six-hour grind against Rafael Nadal; a Miami title; semifinals or better at nine of his 10 tournaments. Should we really be concerned about the No. 2 player in the world who has won a major, made the final of another and the semis of the third? In short: yes.

The concerns rain down not because of the results themselves -- losses to Rafael Nadal on clay and Roger Federer on grass aren't just par for the course, they're generally expected -- but the fact that Djokovic hasn't been able to summon anything near his best when he's come up against them since Australia. He was fortunate to get the win over Federer in the French Open semifinals, a match in which Federer repeatedly gave up break leads. Otherwise, the Serb has lacked the intensity and confidence that was his hallmark last year. It's one thing if Djokovic was fighting and thrashing on his way to these losses. At least then we might be comfortable saying his best simply wasn't good enough. Yet the overwhelming sense I get is that he hasn't been able to tap into that passion and belief to play his inspired brand of tennis.

As if his lackluster play (by his standards) weren't enough of a concern, now comes word of off-court distractions that could form the key piece of the puzzle. His childhood coach, Jelena Gencic, recently hinted of personal problems that are distracting him, ones he refuses to talk about:

"Nole definitely has individual problems that he does not want to expose," she reportedly told Serbian press. "I hope his team can understand what are the causes that prevent him from expressing his best tennis on the court and what has affected his level of play. It's never easy to do the same thing each week, pack the suitcase and leave for a new place. A few days ago I read a newspaper the headline 'now I go to Toronto, after all '... What does ‘after all’ mean? I'm worried because he keeps saying he is tired. He must verify whether it is physical or mental fatigue."

Is this just the wear and tear of the never-ending tennis season down Djokovic? Or is it something more? When asked about his coach's comments, Djokovic didn't exactly call her crazy, which means the doubts continue.

Serbian slumber: It seems like eons ago that Serbia was the toast of the tennis town, and while a spiky-haired, wiry 20-year-old held down the fort for the men, the women were led by the yin-yang forces of Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic. The "Vics" -- one full of power and grace, the other the charismatic counterpuncher -- were constant forces in the late rounds of tournaments. Flash forward four years and Jankovic, who has played a tour-leading 23 events already this year, lost in her first match in Montreal to Alexandra Wozniak (that's JJ's 13th one-and-done of the year). Meanwhile, Ivanovic, who has done well since pairing with Nigel Sears after Wimbledon last year, had the worst performance of her career this week, losing 6-0, 6-0 to Roberta Vinci.

Given Ivanovic's progress over the last year, working her way back to become a solid fixture inside the top 20, her result in Montreal is more of a one-off than a call for the career obituaries I've seen. As for Jankovic, I know she would rather play tournaments than sit at home and practice, but she's frustrated, exhausted and losing three-set grinders that she has no business losing. She needs a break and it doesn't look like she's willing to give herself one anytime soon.

The Canada problem: I don't want to interrupt the Olympic afterglow (or hangover, depending on how you roll), but it's hard not to pay attention to the collateral damage in Canada, where the Rogers Cup, in Toronto specifically, is taking the brunt of it all. Withdrawals (Andy Murray) and early losses (Juan Martin Del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych) have been the story this week and with rain washing out a full day's play on Thursday (that's more Canada's fault than the Olympics'), the schedule for the remaining players is getting stacked with two matches a day. Not exactly what the guys want considering how many Olympians are still in the draw. That said, the weakening draw offers a great opportunity for the likes of Djokovic, Mardy Fish, John Isner or Milos Raonic to get a confidence-boosting title.

Kids Incorporated: Keep an eye on 18-year-old Genie Bouchard. The Wimbledon girls' champion acquitted herself well in Montreal, beating Shahar Peer and putting Li Na under pressure before losing 6-4, 6-4. There's a mechanical quality to her game but she takes the ball as early as anyone not named Marion Bartoli with great effectiveness. If you don't want to pay attention to her, you may not have a choice. Given the increased interest in tennis north of the border -- call it the Raonic effect -- Bouchard is a marketer's dream. Miscellany: Defending champion Maria Sharapova, who withdrew from Montreal with a stomach virus, has also pulled out of Cincinnati. Victoria Azarenka will sit that one out too. Unfortunately for the rest of the field, Serena Williams will still be there. ... Talk about an alpha male: Nadal withdraws from Cincy and a host of Spaniards follow suit, including Nicolas Almagro and Fernando Verdasco. ... Petra Kvitova won a match on North American hard courts! Miracles do happen. ... Olympic mixed doubles silver medalist Laura Robson reportedly has hired coach Zeljko Krajan. Given his recent history of less-than-amicable splits with Dinara Safina and Dominika Cibulkova, that's a surprising hire. Here's hoping he doesn't train all the joy out of her.

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