The National Bank Open, formerly Rogers Cup

Cox: A ton of mystery at Rogers Cup

August 5, 2019

Nothing like a little mystery to get a tennis tournament going.

And this Rogers Cup in Toronto has lots of mystery.

Indeed, the headliners on the first three nights of competition – Maria Sharapova, Bianca Andreesu, Eugenie Bouchard and Serena Williams – are all to varying degrees wrapped in mystery and uncertainty as the event gets underway today.

Will Sharapova ever reach the heights in her comeback from a performance enhancing drug suspension that she reached before that suspension?

How will Andreescu’s right shoulder hold up in her first match since Roland Garros?

Could Bouchard use the Rogers Cup as a springboard to find her game in the final part of the 2019 tennis season?

And can Serena win again?

Not bad, huh? If the weather co-operates, we’re going to get some answers today, tomorrow and Wednesday. Heck, if you’re looking for mysteries, you could even start earlier today when Canada’s 16-year-old Leyla Annie Fernandez plays her first Rogers Cup match ever against Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic. Bouzkova, 21, has moved into the top 100 on the WTA tour and won two matches in the qualifying tournament on the weekend to earn the right to face Canada’s newest tennis noteworthy.

We saw what 15-year-old Coco Gauff did at Wimbledon. We’ll be waiting closely to see how Fernandez, who will also be playing doubles with Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, does amidst the expectations and pressures of her national championship.

But back to the headliners.

Sharapova is a fascinating study, given how she remains such a big name in the women’s game despite falling to No. 81 because of a combination of poor results and injuries. She is now the seventh highest ranked Russian female, which takes a bit of getting used to.

At 32, she’s played only 11 matches this season, winning seven, and none since losing to Pauline Parmentier in the first round at the All-England Club. Sharapova did get to the Round of 16 at the Australian Open in January before losing to Ashleigh Barty.

She’s got Anett Kontaveit of Estonia tonight on Centre Court at the Sobeys Stadium, a tough draw for the Russian. Kontaveit is 23 and ranked No. 19 in the world, obviously far less well known that Sharapova but a clear favourite in this matchup. They’ve only played once before, back in 2017 with Sharapova winning, so there’s not much history to go on.

The Andreescu-Bouchard collision, meanwhile, is a contest between two Fed Cup teammates who obviously know each other really well but were going in opposite directions earlier this year until Andreescu hurt her shoulder. She says she doesn’t feel rusty, but even Bouchard noted practice is nothing like real competition.

It will be interesting to see which woman has the audience behind her more Tuesday night. Andreescu is playing at home, but Bouchard is still a very popular figure in Canadian tennis, and players like Fernandez have praised her for inspiring the next generation of players.

Will either Andreescu or Bouchard, playing under the watchful eye of a new coach, be particularly sharp? We shall see.

Which brings us to the 37-year-old Williams, certainly part of the conversation for the greatest female player ever. She’s got a nice 15-4 record this season but no tournament wins, and Halep thrashed her in the Wimbledon final with a glittering performance.

Much has changed in Serena’s world, obviously, since the birth of her first child.

“I have different priorities now,” she says. “It’s a whole different part of my life.”

More important, much has changed on the women’s tour. With Halep, Barty and Naomi Osaka at the top, there’s a group of top players who no longer seemed intimidated by the Serena mystique before a single shot is hit.

So how does Williams counteract that? Getting sharper and more game ready would be one answer, but she hasn’t played since that Wimbledon loss. She does have a 30-4 record at the Rogers Cup to lean on as she prepares for her first match, likely against Belgium’s Elise Mertens, ranked No. 20 in the world.

Mertens faces Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus in her first match, with the winner to face Williams.

Serena, meanwhile, running out of time to win a 24th Grand Slam title, which would tie Margaret Court for the most all-time. This Rogers Cup will show her form heading towards the U.S. Open. If she can’t win in New York, she’ll have to wait for Australia in January, by which time she’ll have celebrated her 38th birthday.

What’s Williams got left? Just one of the mysteries at this year’s Rogers Cup as we get rolling today.