Just over a month after Roger Federer won Wimbledon to eclipse Pete Sampras's record of 14 Grand Slam titles, the big guns return to the court in Montreal this week, with much at stake in the last four months of the season.
Although a handful of leading players have resumed competition already – Juan Martin del Potro (world No 6) beat Andy Roddick (No 5) in the final in Washington on Sunday – Montreal marks the return for the top four. The tournament began yesterday, but the top seeds have first-round byes.
Federer, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have not played since Wimbledon, while Rafael Nadal, recovering from tendinitis in both knees, last appeared more than two months ago, when he lost to Robin Soderling at the French Open.
Montreal is the first of back-to-back Masters Series tournaments, with the circus moving on to Cincinnati next week. The American hard-court circuit reaches a climax with the US Open, which begins in New York in 20 days' time.
After the US Open there are two more Masters tournaments, in Shanghai and Paris, before the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena in London, featuring the top eight players based on the world rankings.
Federer and Nadal have already qualified, Murray and Djokovic look certainties to make the field, while Roddick and Del Potro are also well placed.
Roger Federer: Playing without pressure
After his remarkable summer – in the last four months Roger Federer has married, become the father of twin girls, won two Grand Slam titles and reclaimed his world No 1 ranking – it would have been no surprise if the Swiss had skipped the first of the summer's two Masters Series tournaments. On Friday, however, he confirmed that he would be playing in Montreal this week, declaring himself "fit and full of energy".
When Federer beat Pete Sampras's record the thinking was that his future career might take one of two directions. The pessimists suggested that, given his family commitments and the fact that his place in history was now secured, he would lack motivation. The optimists countered by saying he would be better than ever without the burden of chasing records. The fact that Federer is keen to return less than three weeks after his wife, Mirka, gave birth to Charlene Riva and Myla Rose – the family have all flown to Canada and will stay together through to the end of the US Open – would certainly suggest the latter theory is the more plausible.
Federer insists he is looking forward to playing without pressure. "I want to enjoy the game," he said. "I don't want to feel the burden or stress of living up to expectations because the media is crazy about numbers and records."
Federer admitted he would have to put himself "in the right frame of mind for the rest of the season" but added: "I want to finish the season as No 1 and stay there. I can't just be at home for the next six months. Mirka has no problem travelling with me so we will see how possible that will be."
Rafael Nadal could reclaim the No 1 ranking before the end of the year, but given the Spaniard's fitness and their respective US Open records, that is unlikely. Federer is unbeaten in his last 34 matches at Flushing Meadows and will be attempting to become the first man since Richard D Sears, who won the first seven US Opens from 1881 to 1887, to claim the title six years in a row.
Andy Murray: Living the American dream
This year's clay and grass-court seasons gave Andy Murray the chance to make significant progress in the world rankings after his moderate performances on those surfaces in 2008. The 22-year-old Scot took full advantage, reaching his first French Open quarter-final and first Wimbledon semi-final, replacing Novak Djokovic as world No 3 and even going close to becoming world No 1.
The second half of the season, however, poses a different set of challenges. This was the period when Murray made his big breakthrough last year, winning his first Masters Series titles in Cincinnati and Madrid and reaching his first Grand Slam final in New York, where he beat Rafael Nadal for the first time but then lost to Roger Federer. He has to defend nearly half his 8,260 ranking points between now and the end of November.
Finishing the year at No 3 would be an achievement in itself, though Murray will also be aware that Nadal's position at No 2 could be at stake given the state of the Spaniard's knees. Nadal is just over 1,000 points ahead in the rankings. The winners of Masters tournaments receive 1,000 points, while a Grand Slam title is worth 2,000.
Hard courts are Murray's favourite surface. He beat Federer for the first time in Cincinnati in 2006, claimed his first Masters crown there last year and has won 10 of his 12 titles on hard courts.
A former US Open junior champion, he has always believed that New York and Wimbledon offer his best opportunities of winning a Grand Slam title. He feels at home in America and is popular with the crowds.
Before flying to Montreal, Murray spent a week training in the intense heat and humidity of Miami, where Alex Corretja, the former French Open finalist, joined his coaching team. In the past the Spaniard had helped only during the clay-court season.
Murray, who is playing doubles in Montreal with his friend Ross Hutchins, went to Canada as world No 9 last year.
He beat Djokovic, then the world No 3, in the quarter-finals, his first victory over the Serb after four successive defeats, before losing to Nadal next time out.
Rafael Nadal: On his knees?
The next three months could be a defining period in Rafael Nadal's career. The 23-year-old Spaniard's knees have long been acknowledged as his greatest problem, but it was only when he suffered an early exit at the French Open and pulled out of Wimbledon this summer that the extent of his difficulties became clear.
Nadal resumed on-court training last month but says he has no great expectations in the coming weeks. He said it would be "almost impossible" to win in Montreal, where he is the defending champion, and that he was thinking only about "being fit and recovering from my injury 100 per cent". He said it was too early to assess his chances at the US Open, the only Grand Slam tournament he has never won.
"I know it's going to be tough in the beginning because after two months out of competition it's always tough to come back after an injury, but I am going to be ready to work very hard as soon as possible," Nadal said. "Once I know my knees will respond well, I can train well, I can compete with greater calm and that's what will give me, little by little, the confidence to train at the maximum level."
While hard courts do not offer Nadal his best chance of success, nine of his 36 titles have been won on his least favourite surface. In the last year he has lifted the Australian Open and Olympic title on hard courts, while he has won five Masters titles on the surface, including two in Canada.
Nadal succeeded Federer as world No 1 last summer and subsequently moved well clear at the top of the rankings. However, he has lost significant ground in the last two months and could soon find Andy Murray, the world No 3, breathing down his neck.
Toni Nadal, Rafael's uncle and coach, has not travelled to Montreal, where the world No 2 will work instead with the 41-year-old Spaniard Francisco Roig, who is also partnering him in doubles. Roig last played on the main tour eight years ago. Toni Nadal will rejoin his nephew in time for the US Open.Reuse content