From Serena to Djokovic, some big questions need answering

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The hard court season kicks into high gear right along with the thermometer in the beginning of August, starting with the dual-site Canadian Open -- aka Rogers Cup. The women are in Montreal this year, the men in Toronto. The top 24 in each branch of the game are entered, but there's one glaring exception: Roger Federer.

The Swiss champion, increasingly mindful of the toll taken by competition at age 36, is sitting out Toronto. His fellow stars have mostly kicked back to regroup following Wimbledon. Here are some of the burning questions that will welcome them back in North America:

Can Novak Djokovic consolidate his Wimbledon success?

Djokovic is back. Now the question is this: will he have the desire and determination to become the dominant player he was in those glory days between 2013 and 2016.

"Well, I understand that people are questioning whether I can consistently play on this level," he said after winning Wimbledon. "Trust me, I am, too."

The timing couldn't be better for the Serbian star. His first-half struggles leave him relatively fresh for the rest of the year. The winner of 13 Grand Slam titles, Djokovic has won in Canada four previous times. Rafael Nadal, Djokovic's nemesis and the top seed in Toronto, has bagged three titles. Currently ranked No. 10, Djokovic will almost certainly bump up against some formidable opposition -- Juan Martin del Potro, Milos Raonic, Kevin Anderson, anyone? -- before even the quarterfinals.

Is Serena Williams' comeback in trouble?

That's the question on some lips in the wake of Williams' shocking loss this week to Johanna Konta. The more relevant question might be this: What was Williams doing playing San Jose in the first place? Surely she doesn't need the appearance fee, and she was coming off a final at Wimbledon.

Williams took the San Jose loss -- the most lopsided of her career -- in stride. She told reporters, ""I know I can play a zillion times better so that kind of helps out, too. .. I wasn't just like giving it away and I was moving a lot better. So I'm just trying to take the positives out of it."

Angelique Kerber played well in the Wimbledon final, but Williams must have been upset at her failure to lift her game high enough to turn that one around. It would be unwise to dismiss this subsequent loss to Konta out of hand because it stung enough for Williams, a three-time winner in Canada, to enter via a last-minute wild card. Older champions are prey to the distractions of daily life as well as bad days, dangers Williams is beginning to encounter.

Is Andy Murray back?

Murray got off to a halting start following an 11-month hiatus (due to a hip injury) that dropped his ranking down to his present No. 832. In June, he won just one of three matches at Wimbledon tune-ups, then quietly withdrew from Wimbledon. He returned this week in Washington at the Citi Open, where he's playing like the gritty, combative, emotional warrior of yore.

The 31-year old Scotsman broke down in tears following his third-round, third-set tiebreaker win over Marius Copil. The match ended at 3:01 a.m., whereupon Murray collapsed onto his courtside bench and, face buried in a towel, wept. Murray later told an ATP media representative, "It was just the emotions coming at the end of an extremely long day and a long match."

Earlier in the week Murray had reported that his movement was "getting better all the time." His concerns about how his body would respond to the first hard-court matches he's played since Indian Wells in 2016 are being answered: Murray has struggled but outlasted younger players in a trio of long, three-set matches in D.C. He's competitive, and eager he is to get back into contention. It seems just a matter of time before he's at or near the top again.

Does Sloane Stephens need to be worried?

The short answer is "no," despite that first-round loss at Wimbledon followed by her exit in the second-round of Washington -- where she was No. 2 seed and a former champ. Stephens relies first and foremost on inspiration. Ignore how far Stephens went at the French Open (she was runner-up) and Miami Open (she won it), and Stephens actually has a losing record (10-11) this year.

But while wildly unpredictable results have become the norm for Stephens, there's an overarching reason for her to do well in Montreal and the coming weeks. She has never faced the kind of pressure that will greet her as defending champion at the US Open. A few solid wins going in would act as a confidence builder and buffer against that pressure. Always cool and nonchalant, Stephens said after losing in Washington, "Hopefully, some things connect in the next couple of weeks."

Will we see any new blood emerging in the ATP?

Things have been kind of slow this year for the 21-and-under set with the exception of Canadian Open defending champ, ATP No. 3 Alexander Zverev. Most of the others in the ATP-branded #Nextgen have been spinning their wheels, some left behind in the rankings by peers.

Keep an eye on lanky Aussie Alex de Minaur and Greek teenager Stefanos Tsitsipas, both just 19 years old. De Minaur, just 5-foot-11, crashed in the quarters in Washington with a win over more highly regarded - and ranked - #Nextgen staple Hyeon Chung. Ranked outside the top 200 at the start of the year, De Minaur is heading for the Top 50.

Tsitsipas, who had just four tour-level wins in 2017, has reached six ATP World Tour quarterfinals thus far this year. He hits a heavy ball yet he moves really well and has an impressive, all-around game. His ranking has jumped from No. 91 into at least the Top 30 by Monday.

Is Kerber's resurgence credible?

It's hard to feel certain of anything when it comes to the WTA performers, so it's tempting to downplay the significance of Kerber's win at Wimbledon. The wheel of fortune just happened to land on her name, right? Not really.

Sure, Kerber took it on the chin in 2017, undone by the pressure created by her spectacular, late-career success in 2016. But the 30-year old German has rebounded nicely, aided by regarded coach Wim Fissette. Counter-punching genius Kerber is 39-12 on the year. She's had just a few bad losses but loads of good wins: Kerber was a semifinalist at the Australian Open and a quarterfinalist at the French Open (both losses to top-seeded Simona Halep). And, of course, she beat Serena Williams for the title at Wimbledon.

Credible? Kerber is right up there with Halep in the department where so many other WTA stars come up woefully short: consistency.