The previous time the Rogers Cup was disrupted by the Olympics – the summer of 2012, when the tournament began days after all the world's top players had competed in London – Novak Djokovic flat-out saved the day.
It was an event marred by constant withdrawals and poor weather. Maybe the lasting, lingering image of the Toronto tournament came not when Djokovic received the trophy for defeating Richard Gasquet in the final, but the much circulated photo of him – umbrella in hand – rallying with a ball boy during one of the interminable rain delays.
But Djokovic has always understood that there is more to the job of being a tennis professional than just a laser-accurate backhand or a fabulous return game.
There is also a sales element to the job, and last month, Djokovic was elected to the ATP Player Council by his peers, citing a desire to help the sport thrive and grow. This Sunday, he was doing just that, promoting the Rogers Cup at a celebrity ball-hockey game at the Aviva Centre in Toronto, which featured a number of rising NHL stars, including Connor McDavid.
Djokovic was clearly enjoying himself; he didn't ever seem to want to come off the floor. And you had to think tournament organizers were silently pleading with the tennis gods that he wouldn't get injured, in which case, the last remaining member of the Big Four of men's tennis would have been out of the Rogers Cup as well.
Injuries knocked out Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, and defending champion Andy Murray withdrew citing fatigue and the demands of a challenging summer schedule.
Every four years, the Olympics add one more critical date to an already crowded tennis calendar and last month, some players started following the lead of their golfing brethren, withdrawing from the Summer Games for a variety of reasons.
Mosquitoes were one factor, but priorities were another.
Among the cadre of stars who have dominated the men's tour for going on a decade now, Djokovic is the only one trying to play two majors, two Masters events and compete in the Olympics in a 10-week span. Ideally, Djokovic would like to add an Olympic gold medal to his already impressive résumé, which includes 12 Grand Slam championships, plus 29 Masters 1000 titles, the most of any player in history.
Djokovic took the court Wednesday for the first time in the 2016 Rogers Cup and squeezed out a 7-5, 7-6 (3) victory over Gilles Muller, the crafty veteran from Luxembourg. Generally, after a month-long layoff, Djokovic needs to play himself into a tournament, and though he wasn't as razor sharp as usual, put enough pressure on Muller at key moments to win in straight sets.
The Serbian world No. 1, a three-times winner of the Canadian Masters event, will next play Czech qualifier Radek Stepanek, a 7-6 (5) 6-4 winner over Canadian wild-card Peter Polansky.
Djokovic's match, played in the blazing hot afternoon sun, presented both players with some challenges.
The shot making wasn't always crisp, but when Djokovic emerged victorious, he bowed to all four corners of the stadium crowd, indicating he loved them in return. It elicited a predictable, positive response, something Djokovic says he cares deeply about in making the game as appealing to fans as it can possibly be.
"I'm obviously doing everything in my own power and my own field of influence to be a positive example on and off the court," he said. "I'm very obviously connected emotionally to this sport. I feel that bond, and I try to be honest and transfer that passion on the court and off it, as well."
Djokovic's face, along with Raonic's, is plastered on all the key tournament promotional material. His specific poster promises athleticism, precision and dominance, three adjectives that accurately describe his season.
The 29-year-old Serb won the Australian and French Open championships this year, along with Masters 1000 titles in Indian Wells, Miami and Madrid.
His loss to American Sam Querrey in the third round at Wimbledon ended his bid for a calendar Grand Slam, as well as a stunning 30-match winning streak in major championships.
But he is on another remarkable run, distancing himself from the rest of the pack in the ATP's season-long points race. In the Indian Wells final, in the spring, Djokovic crushed Raonic, the fourth seed here and someone looking for a rematch in the semi-finals, which would be played Saturday, if both players advance that far.
Djokovic said he gave some thought to following the lead of his peers and withdrawing from the Rogers Cup, but chose not to.
"The early exit in Wimbledon obviously allowed me to have more time [to rest]," Djokovic said. "I actually think Toronto is a great way for me to prepare for Olympic Games and what's coming up after that. But also, this is a tournament that I always love playing.
"I enjoy Canada, both cities, Toronto and Montreal, and the past results in history shows that I have a good time on Canadian soil, so I try to get the best out of it."
Year in and year out, as Djokovic gently edges into the territory of elder statesman, the feeling is increasingly mutual.
With a report from Reuters