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Men's Look Forward: Canadian Open/Montreal

And so the great face-off begins: Agassi vs. Ferrero, with the #1 ranking on the line.

Oh, it's not at all likely that the #1 ranking will change hands this week. But if Ferrero is to take it at all, it will probably have to be in the next five weeks. And it will have to be at the summer required events. After that, the balance of advantage is all with Agassi, and with Roger Federer -- at least until Madrid.

And Agassi has some pretty big advantages in the short term, too. And not just that he's the greatest active hardcourt player. He's been playing on hardcourts, so he's ready for the surface. Ferrero has been playing on clay, and will just have flown in from Sopot. (Bearing, for all we know, the Sopot Flu with him.) And they're both tired -- Agassi from Washington, but Ferrero has played and lost for two weeks straight. He's not looking his best right now, even on clay. (He always seems to slump post-Roland Garros.)

Draw-wise, it's close to, well, a draw. Ferrero starts against a qualifier, Agassi against a wildcard. In the second round, Ferrero would play Mardy Fish or Younes El Aynaoui, which is pretty tough, but Agassi doesn't get much of a break since he'll be facing Nikolay Davydenko. Agassi, if anything, has it worse in the Round of Sixteen, when he faces Gustavo Kuerten; Ferrero is supposed to face still-injured Martin Verkerk. (It would be no surprise if he faces Jan-Michael Gambill instead.) From then on, though, we'd five Agassi the clear advantage: He is supposed to face Rainer Schuettler in the quarterfinal; Ferrero is supposed to face (and, we suspect, very likely will face) Andy Roddick. Agassi's potential semifinal opponent is Carlos Moya, just in from clay, or Guillermo Coria, an even more recent import; Ferrero would have to deal with Roger Federer or Lleyton Hewitt.

As we said, Ferrero isn't likely to overtake Agassi this week. Particularly given what he has to defend. But maybe he can get in a blow somewhere. If Agassi is going to lose at a hardcourt Masters, this is the one: It isn't in the United States, and he'll be just in from Washington.

Even if the Agassi/Ferrero contest doesn't push your buttons, there are of course a lot of fine matches here. The cutoff for direct entry, after all, was Mario Ancic, #68. All the seeds face difficult paths. #3 Federer is lucky in his first round; he faces clay expert Gaston Gaudio. But after that, he'll either face Greg Rusedski (though Rusedski hasn't had much luck in Canada since moving to Britain; for years, he didn't even play the Canadian Open) or suddenly-successful Nicolas Lapentti. The next seed up for him is Tommy Robredo, though Wayne Ferreira seems ready to threaten again. And then he faces Hewitt -- whose hardcourt results have been fine this year even if he's struggled elsewhere.

#4 seed Carlos Moya, who isn't defending champion but who might as well be since he has Cincinnati title points to defend, is relatively fortunate. He opens against Arnaud Clement, who likes hardcourts quite well but never quite seems to get his game all the way together. After that, he'll face Vincent Spadea or Raemon Sluiter, who really aren't in his league. Then comes #14 Fernando Gonzalez, who prefers clay. And then, if the seeds were to hold, Guillermo Coria, who will be just in from Sopot, meaning he'll have had no hardcourt practice at all. Sjeng Schalken seems the obvious alternative.

#5 seed Lleyton Hewitt opens against a qualifier, but will have to get his returning shoes on quickly, because he'll face either Mark Philippoussis or Max Mirnyi in the second round. (Interestingly, the two are perhaps his two most significant doubles partners). If he wins that, he'll likely face struggling #11 seed Paradorn Srichaphan. Then -- Federer. That particular quarterfinal may be the match of the tournament.

#6 seed Andy Roddick is going to face a lot of the sort of guys he doesn't much like to face: Good returners. On the other hand, he's been cranking up his game for this sort of thing lately. This will be his first hardcourt Masters since signing up with Brad Gilbert. It really does look like he could make a move here (after all, he made the final in the tournament's "other half" in Toronto last year). He starts against Xavier Malisse, then Agustin Calleri or Juan Ignacio Chela. The third round is potentially very interesting, since potential opponent Sebastien Grosjean is in many ways like Guillermo Canas, who beat him here last year. Then comes Ferrero.

#7 seed Guillermo Coria has been nothing short of spectacular on clay lately. But he'll come in having played fifteen matches in the last three weeks, and he won't have had any time at all to adjust to hardcourts. And he'll open against big-serving Feliciano Lopez, who has been climbing fast lately. Then comes Paul-Henri Mathieu, who seems finally to be breaking out of his funk (although he still has a lot of work to do to get back to his best form of last fall). Then he'll face a real test from hardcourt-loving Sjeng Schalken. His odds of reaching the quarterfinal and a match with Moya seem slight.

#8 seed Rainer Schuettler likes hardcourts better than Coria, and he's had time to get ready. But his draw stinks. He opens against Mikhail Youzhny, then Yevgeny Kafelnikov. If the seeds held, he would face Jiri Novak next, though James Blake is at least as good a bet. And then he'll have to face Andre Agassi, who almost toyed with him in the Australian Open. We definitely don't envy him.

If we just look for great matches, here are our picks from the early rounds:

First Round:

Santoro vs. Acasuso. The Magician has been having a horrible year, but Acasuso hasn't much experience to deal with those Santoro impossibilities.

Youzhny vs. (8) Schuettler. Youzhny has more tools. Schuettler gets everything back. A tough contest.

(4) Moya vs. Clement. How quickly will Moya adjust to hardcourts? If he's a little slow to do so, this could spell trouble.

Henman vs. (14) Gonzalez. Hard to believe it's a first round match. The surface is pretty neutral: Henman likes things faster, Gonzalez slower. Both have raised their games recently. And they just faced off in the Washington final.

(12) Schalken vs. Zabaleta. The surface favors Schalken, but Zabaleta has been having a fine year.

F. Lopez vs. (7) Coria. How much energy will Coria have left to deal with that big Lopez serve?

Philippoussis vs. Mirnyi. Your classic artillery duel.

Lapentti vs. Rusedski. Can Rusedski finally break his Canadian jinx?

(6) Roddick vs. Malisse. Given Malisse's recent play, this probably won't be close. But maybe Malisse will snap out of it one of these days.

Calleri vs. Chela. Calleri had a great clay season. Can he bring it to hardcourts?

(15) Verkerk vs. Sargian. Is Verkerk healthy? If not, this could be trouble.

Fish vs. El Aynaoui. El Aynaoui plays a lot of great matches, and loses. Can he win one? He's ranked higher, but the surface favors Fish.

Second Round:

(10) Novak vs. Blake. Real upset potential there, given that Novak's favorite surface is clay.

Kafelnikov vs. (8) Schuettler. The outcome of this depends on whether Kafelnikov comes anywhere near his best. We know Schuettler always plays at about the same level, which is better than Kafelnikov's recent average but well below the Russian's best.

(5) Hewitt vs. Philippoussis or Mirnyi. This match will feature about as much stylistic contrast as you ever see in this era.

Ginepri vs. (11) Srichaphan. Solid young players, but Srichaphan will be feeling the pressure, and he hasn't played well lately.

(16) Robredo vs. W. Ferreira. Ferreira seems to be healthy, and he knows hardcourts. Robredo is solid, but his game is best on clay.

Lapentti or Rusedski vs. (3) Federer. After his magic summer, Federer gets to try hardcourts again.

Ljubicic vs. (9) Grosjean. A big serve versus speed. Edge to Grosjean, but it won't be easy.

(15) Verkerk vs. Gambill. Both serve big. Neither is particularly fast, though Verkerk is probably a little better off. Can Verkerk survive Gambill's passing shots?

El Aynaoui or Fish vs. (2) Ferrero. The first real test of Ferrero's determination to become #1.

The rankings this week are extra specially tricky because of the uncertainty about last week's rankings (uncertainty caused by the one week delay of this week's summer Masters). Juan Carlos Ferrero actually has more to defend this week than either Andre Agassi or Roger Federer. That means that Federer actually leads Ferrero in safe points, and could well grab the #2 spot. Taking #1 is a lot harder; he really has to win the thing and hope Agassi falls early. As for Ferrero -- well, it won't happen.

The other big question is where Carlos Moya and Lleyton Hewitt will end up, since their Cincinnati points are due off. The answer could well be, A lot lower. In safe points, they're hanging around in the vicinity of Andy Roddick and Guillermo Coria. We could see those four end up in almost any order.

Below that, it's just too early to tell. We'll naturally have regular updates in Daily Tennis.
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