All eyes on the return of the big four

Right about now, the typical ATP journeyman is taking a deep breath and trying to swallow as he contemplates the fact that the party is over. After a month during which the ATP presented 10 tournaments without anyone mentioning Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray or Roger Federer in anything like an ominous tone, the sixth Masters 1000 event of the year is upon us.

And that quartet has salted away the title at 50 of the past 59 Masters events. Fabio Fognini, it’s time to cowboy up.

Compare the consistency of the top players in big events with that of their less gifted brethren -- even at those times, such as the past month, when the main antagonists have called a truce and retired their tents to rest and plot. The ATP has held 10 events since the end of Wimbledon and the results can only be called kaleidoscopic. The top seed won at those events a grand total of twice (John Isner in Atlanta and Juan Martin del Potro in Washington, D.C.).

Two winners this month weren’t even seeded, and one of them was a wild card, to boot. Unseeded Carlos Berlocq kicked off the ATP’s Wheel of Fortune month with a win in Bastad, Sweden, while charity case Nicolas Mahut won at Newport -- and celebrated by bagging the doubles title as well (with Edouard Roger-Vasselin).

Things will be a little different this week, even if beleaguered Federer is taking a pass on Montreal, presumably to hunt down and strangle whoever suggested he change to a racket with a larger head than the frame with which he won all 17 of his Grand Slam titles. It tells you something when Fognini, handsome devil though he may be, has a better month than the all-time Grand Slam champion.

But the big story to my mind in Montreal is Rafael Nadal. He has called a moratorium on discussing his aching knees, but that doesn’t mean we can’t keep droning on and on about it. It may seem surprising to some, but right now Nadal still leads the field in the race for the year-end No. 1 ranking. That’s mainly because he’s so utterly dominant on European clay.

And though Djokovic and Murray have laid claim to the hard-court kingdom in recent years, Nadal is no slouch on the surface. He has won two Grand Slams on outdoor hard (the Australian and U.S. Open) and six hard-court Masters titles, including four in North America and two in Canada. Montreal could be a telling indicator for the US Open, which begins less than a month from now.

Nadal’s camp has insisted that nothing is wrong with his knees. (He took a seven-month break beginning in July last year in order to rest and rehab his tendinitis-plagued knees without undergoing surgery.) But excellent sources told me that his personal physician forbade him to play in the weeks between his triumph at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and we saw how that worked out.

Nadal was upset in the first round by Belgian journeyman Steve Darcis, and reporters by the dozen were treated for eye strain after they spent all that time peering at Nadal, searching for a grimace here, a wince or hobbled step there.

The additional, precious two weeks of rest and treatment following Nadal’s early exit at Wimbledon should help improve his disposition, and Nadal also has the incentive to improve upon that laughable No. 4 ranking. (He is one tick behind David Ferrer, who has won just four times in two dozen meetings with Nadal.)

But in order to win Montreal, Nadal would (likely) have to topple top-ranked and top-seeded Novak Djokovic in a semifinal, and No. 2 seed Andy Murray in the final. And Djokovic, whose mastery of Nadal on hard courts is well established (he has won four straight meetings with Nadal on the surface going back to 2011), is bidding to become the first man since Ivan lendl to win the Canadian Open three times running.

It could be worse for Nadal. He could be in the shoes of his old pal Federer, holding a racket with a 98-square-inch head but scratching his own noggin while he pores over the user’s manual.