TORONTO — Canadian tennis players at the Rogers Cup might not be household names, but one of the tournament’s directors says the benefit of playing on home soil could be a great equalizer.
Qualifying wrapped up Sunday for the event that will have the draws played simultaneously for the first time, with the women competing in Toronto and the men in Montreal.
Four Canadian women and two men are sprinkled throughout the lineup, but the country’s biggest tennis star won’t be in action as Milos Raonic continues to recover from hip surgery.
Despite Raonic’s absence, Toronto tournament director Karl Hale says tennis enthusiasts can expect a good showing from the homegrown talent.
“The Canadian players are right up there with the stars when they’re playing (at the Rogers Cup) because they have all the fan support behind them,” Hale said Sunday.
Canada’s best hope might lie with Rebecca Marino. The 20-year-old from Vancouver is ranked 41st in the world and takes on Ekaterina Makarova in the first round. A win there would set up a match with the eighth-seeded Francesca Schiavone.
“We think (Marino) has a really strong upside so we hope she can get through that match and go a long way in the tournament,” Hale said.
Defending champion and No. 1 seed Caroline Wozniaki headlines a wide open women’s field along with Kim Clijsters, Vera Zvonareva, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, Li Na and Serena Williams. In all, the top 20 players on the WTA tour will be in Toronto.
Venus Williams withdrew from the tournament Sunday night because of a viral illness.
Stephanie Dubois of Laval, Que., takes on Germany’s Kathrin Woerle in the first round, and Aleksandra Wozniak of Blainville, Que., meets Shahar Peer. Meanwhile, Eugenie Bouchard of Westmount, Que., will take on No. 11 seed Andrea Petkovic.
Hopes for a fifth Canadian joining the women’s draw were dashed Sunday when Toronto’s Sharon Fichman fell 6-3, 6-1 to Simona Halep of Romania in rain-delayed qualifying.
Fichman, who is ranked 187th in the world, started strong and led 2-0 in the first set before Halep broke her serve three times after a short weather delay.
A visibly frustrated Fichman then fell behind 2-0 in the second set on her way to losing in straight sets to the 55th-ranked Halep on a humid centre court.
“Unfortunately I didn’t even really fell like it was me out there playing at some points in the match,” Fichman said. “I felt like I started off pretty well. Who knows what could have happened if the match had just carried on without that delay. (The conditions) were the same for both of us, (Halep) had to stop and so did I.”
Fichman benefited from the home crowd on Saturday when she beat Britain’s Anne Keothavong. Hale noted there is a different buzz in the air at both Rexall Centre in Toronto and Uniprix Stadium in Montreal when a Canadian is on the court.
“You can see with the success of (Raonic), how important it is to Canadians to have a hero we can watch,” Hale said.
The men’s draw will feature sixteen of the top 20 players in the world, including No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic. The Serbian superstar has already had a banner year, winning the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon. He will be joined by Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Gael Monfils and Mardy Fish.
With Raonic sidelined, the Canadian contingent includes Vasek Pospisil of Vernon, B.C., and Erik Chvojka of Kirkland Lake, Ont.
Pospisil takes on Juan Ignacio Chela in the first round, with the winner meeting Federer in round two. Chvojka will face Alexandr Dolgopolov, with No. 7 seed Tomas Berdych awaiting the victor.
Hale said the men’s and women’s draws at the Rogers Cup are being held at the same time to boost interest in the tournament that many players see as a tuneup for the U.S. Open.
But holding an event at two venues hundreds of kilometres apart does present challenges. Technical difficulties prevented organizers from unveiling the men’s and women’s draw through a webcast as originally planned Friday.
“It’s uncharted territory for everybody. It’s a trial and error that everybody is going to work their way through and learn,” Hale said. “There are a lot of technical things that have to be worked on and every day we’re finding out new things going along.”
Dozens of television screens have been set up at both stadiums so fans can follow the matches at the other venue.
In Toronto, the Rogers Legends Cup has been added to the event and will feature former greats Andre Agassi, John McEnroe, Michael Chang and Jim Courier competing in a mini-tournament following the semifinals and final next weekend.
“Agassi tested really well strongly with our fans. They wanted to see him,” Hale said. “We tested it a few years ago when we had McEnroe and Courier so we thought we would bring four legends to the tournament to add value to the tournament.”