On the court and off it there were two outstanding features of the 2021 National Bank Open presented by Rogers in Toronto.
The most obvious was the new title sponsor as well as what was the first Canadian Open in 131 editions to be staged during a pandemic.
Strict precautions were taken for players, tournament personnel, and spectators and the event came to a successful conclusion on Sunday with top-seed Daniil Medvedev hoisting the new and unique National Bank Open trophy.
On the court the times they were a-changin’ with the main manifestation of that being the absence of the long-time ruling troika of men’s tennis – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Between them, they have won 11 of the 20 titles this century in Canada – Federer (2), Nadal (5) and Djokovic (4).
All three superstars not being at the event is nothing new for North American Masters 1000 events in 2021 – the three missed the Miami Open in March, Toronto this month and will not be in Cincinnati starting on Monday. The only remaining opportunity for a presence at one of this year’s four top-tier hard-court events in North America will be at the Indian Wells tournament now re-scheduled for October 4-17 in the California desert.
The odds are that Novak Djokovic could (or could not) be the only one there. Federer’s announcement Sunday that he will have a third surgery on his right knee means he will be off the tour for at least the rest of 2021. Rafael Nadal’s left foot, which forced him to withdraw as the National Bank Open’s second seed, involves the navicular bone and is a long-standing issue that has been a threat to his career dating back as far as 2004. It’s a slow-healer – two months off since this year’s French Open have still not fixed it – and he seems fated to have to miss the US Open. That puts into question other tournaments for the rest of the year.
Even Djokovic could be questionable for Indian Wells. If he successfully achieves the monumental feat of completing the calendar-year Grand Slam at the US Open (or if he doesn’t), and with his increasing tendency to reduce his schedule, just three weeks between Flushing Meadows and Indian Wells might not be enough time to re-energize – or to make him eager for trans-continental travel away from his family and homes in Serbia/Monte Carlo.
In the absence of Federer, 40, Nadal, 35, and Djokovic, 34, the transition from their generation to a new one is becoming more of a reality every day, and at every tournament.
The National Bank Open semi-finals featured recent Grand Slam finalists – Daniil Medvedev, 25, from the 2019 US Open as well as the 2021 Australian Open, and Stefanos Tsitsipas, 23, from the French Open in June.
Medvedev became the new champion on Sunday with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over runner-up Reilly Opelka. But the 7-foot American’s game has evolved from just a humongous serve into complete, all-court tennis. He has the movement and ball-striking agility of a man a foot shorter, and should now be a force to be reckoned with.
Among those in the rising generation along with the 23-year-old (24 in two weeks) Opelka are fellow-Americans Sebastian Korda (21), Taylor Fritz (23) and Jenson Brooksby (20), Italians Jannik Sinner (20 Monday) and Lorenzo Musetti (19), Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz (18), Dane Holger Rune (18), Frenchman Ugo Humbert (23) along with an emerging group with names such as Hurkacz, Rublev, Ruud and Davidovich Fokina.
Squarely in the picture with those players are Canadians Denis Shapovalov, 22, and Félix Auger-Aliassime, 21.
The 2021 National Bank Open was a disappointment for them, both beaten in their first match – No. 10-ranked Shapovalov 6-1, 6-4 by No. 52-ranked Frances Tiafoe, and No. 16 Auger-Aliassime, 7-5, 6-4 by No. 44 Dusan Lajovic.
There’s always extra pressure on both playing at home. But maybe more relevant in this instance was that their opponents had already played matches in the tournament – Tiafoe two in qualifying and one in the main draw and Lajovic one in the main draw – making them more accustomed to the courts and conditions at the Aviva Centre. And, in Auger-Aliassime’s case, he had traveled back from the Tokyo Olympics, played in Washington and come to Toronto, all in less than two weeks.
It will be intriguing to see how they fare this week in Cincinnati – the sixth-seeded Shapovalov having a bye before starting against No. 50-ranked Benoit Paire and 12th-seeded Auger-Aliassime facing No. 37 Marton Fucsovics in the first round.
“Nothing changes, we go to Cincinnati,” Shapovalov said confidently after his loss Wednesday. “We’re ready, we’re prepared – and we have a little bit of extra time to get ready for those conditions. Then it’s the big one – New York. I’m still excited and I feel my level’s there. So I feel ready.”
On the broadcast side of the 2021 National Bank Open, Sportsnet’s Jimmy Arias did his usual standout job at an event with fewer spectators, making tennis fans even more dependant on television. Arias is as good as it gets – bringing humour, insight and a truth-telling that makes viewers feel like they’re in a bar having a drink with him. It remains one of the mysteries of American tennis broadcasting that he has not had a higher profile.
And finally, a fit Rafael Nadal and more wins from Shapovalov, Auger-Aliassime and Vasek Pospisil would have unquestionably been a boost for the tournament. But crowds were good, as were several rousing night matches and the weather co-operated – not a single match had to be completed on a second day.
Tournament director Karl Hale summed up the general feeling, especially after COVID-19 forced cancellation of the 2020 event. “We’re just happy to have the event back in Toronto,” he said. “We’re back on the tennis map.”
Wednesday’s Quiz: Roger Federer played the National Bank Open (a.k.a. Canadian Open) 12 times and had a 35-10 record. In those 12 appearances, how many times did he lose to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga?
c) Three times
d) Four times
Answer: ‘c’ – three times, in 2009 and 2011 in Montreal and 2014 in Toronto.
A familiar scene in Montreal is fans trying for autographs from their favourite players – here it’s Rafael Nadal in 2013.