Tim Clement explains why he is backing Andy Murray to boost his world number one hopes at the Rogers Cup.
The ATP World Tour's top names return to action in the Rogers Cup as the race for the world No 1 spot heats up.
Murray will be looking to close the gap on current leader Novak Djokovic by denying him a third successive title, while Rafael Nadal will hope to prove doubters wrong by bringing his clay rather than grass form to the North American hardcourts.
The trio each make a case to claim to be at the top of the game, with Nadal collecting the most ranking points in 2013, the Scot holding two Grand Slam titles and Djokovic leading the rolling 12-month rankings.
However, Roger Federer will miss the chance to gain ground on his rivals after withdrawing as he struggles with a back problem, having endured back-to-back shock defeats to players outside the top 50 on the clay in Hamburg and Gstaad.
Third seed David Ferrer warrants a mention and will probably make the semi-finals, although going any further is likely to depend on whether the other top seeds are still standing.
Juan Martin del Potro is considered a more likely contender after winning in Washington, but has never won a Masters 1000 event and faces a tough draw.
The Uniprix Stadium hardcourts are DecoTurf, which is graded as medium pace by the ITF and are the same as used at the US Open, offering a fine form guide for the season's final Grand Slam.
Rain has already caused problems during qualifying and is forecast to bring further delays throughout the week, while temperatures should head towards the high 20s when the sun makes an appearance.
With Federer and Nadal absent and Murray crashing out in the third round to home hope Milos Raonic, Djokovic dropped just a single set en route to retaining the title. A three-set semi-final struggle with compatriot Janko Tipsarevic was followed by a far more straight-forward 6-4 6-1 win over Richard Gasquet, which saw the Frenchman's record in Masters finals worsen to 0-3.
Leading contenders (and Sky Bet odds)
The Serb is going for his hat-trick of titles here and fourth in total, having also triumphed in 2007. While his dominance of the game may have been compromised somewhat by results on clay and grass, Djokovic is still the man to beat on hardcourts having won four of the last five majors on the surface. However, failing to make the finals in the Indian Wells and Miami Masters events earlier this year offers reason to oppose the Serb, while the draw could be seen one of two ways. Nadal's presence in his half is obviously a concern for backers if the Spaniard is in the sort of form apparent prior to Wimbledon, while last year's finalist Gasquet could await in the quarter-final. The form guide suggests he will beat both however, having won the last four hardcourt meetings with Nadal and five successive clashes with Gasquet without dropping a set.
With the weight of a first Grand Slam title and the historic burden of Wimbledon both lifted, some might be interested to see what sort of Andy Murray will turn up in Montreal. However, those expecting jokes and impressions rather than the usual steely, driven character are sure to be disappointed as the Scot harbours a new burning desire - becoming world No 1. The Rogers Cup is the perfect place to mark intent as a Djokovic stronghold. Titles at the event in 2009 and 2010 further indicate reason for supporting the Scot, while the draw is balanced out by Nadal being in the other half but Del Potro potentially awaiting in the quarters.
While any professional will tell you they treat every match with equal levels of respect, Nadal and his backers might be particularly anxious ahead of his first few matches in Montreal. With fears seemingly allayed by an imperious clay campaign, questions over his ability to maintain form away from the red dirt quickly resurfaced as he suffered another early exit at Wimbledon. His win on the hardcourts at Indian Wells defies suggestions that his physical problems make him a one-surface wonder, but his price of 7/1 certainly suggests doubters outweigh backers. Those odds will probably plummet if he comes through the first few rounds convincingly and he would be half that price comes the semis, even if all the other top seeds remain.
The 'Tower of Tandil' should be filled with the right blend of confidence and determination after bouncing back from his painful semi-final loss to Djokovic at Wimbledon by claiming the Citi Open title. Fatigue is a slight concern for a player renowned for neither his fitness nor consistency but the real off-putter lies in the stats sheet. Despite breaking the stranglehold of the 'Big Four' to claim the 2009 US Open title, he has never won a Masters event. The prospect of having to beat Murray, Ferrer and either Djokovic or Nadal warrants a bigger price for me, so if you are tempted by the Argentinian I would advise some each-way cover.
As the third seed and a phenomenal physical specimen, Ferrer warrants respect from all but only backing from those who can see the favourites falling. The Spaniard's solitary Masters win came without beating any of the established four, so expect him to be waiting in line if Djokovic, Nadal and Murray all fail to find their form.
The fifth seed naturally sits next the betting but his chronic inability to turn talent into titles is as apparent as ever. The powerful Czech has lost both finals contested in 2013, while his solitary Masters title came back in 2005. Trailing Ferrer 3-6 in the head-to-head, he must be considered second favourite to win his quarter, while more pressing dangers await, with big servers Kevin Anderson and John Isner potential second and third-round opponents.
Those impressed by Jerzy Janoviwicz (40/1) will have their eyes on a potential third-round meeting with Nadal, but his fitness must be proved first. The powerful Pole was forced to retire in Hamburg due to a bicep injury so backers must accept that risk along with the tough draw. Isner (50/1) boasts form having landed the title in Atlanta before losing in the Washington final to Del Potro, but fatigue could well play its part for the marathon man in a third successive week of action. Stanislas Wawrinka is a bigger price than both at 80/1 despite being the eighth seed and is in line to benefit if his quarter's top seed Nadal flops, while Tommy Haas, Ernests Gulbis and Milos Raonic are also sub triple-figure odds.Conclusion
Recent history dictates that this event, like the majority of those in the Masters series, will be won by one of the game's dominant forces with the 'Big Four' boasting a decade-long stranglehold. Djokovic has a point to prove of still being the top dog of hardcourt tennis following disappointing defeats at the French Open and Wimbledon but motivation will be just as strong for Nadal and Murray. The prior will be intent on proving doubters wrong again and far more prepared for the change of surface than he was for Wimbledon. The 'King of Clay' certainly looks a tempting price at 7/1 but, Indian Wells aside, his record in hardcourt events has been modest. Del Potro looks less tempting at the same price despite his recent win in Washington, having merely beaten those who he is expected to. If the seeds stand then he will have to take out the world's top three, a task which is worth 7/1 for any of the top players, let alone one who has so often fails to deliver. Murray is the man for me at 5/2. Confidence will never have been higher while he can really start working towards his personal goal of becoming world number one with pressure relieved.
Murray to beat Djokovic in the final - 9/2
Rafael Nadal each way - 13/2