Djokovic finding form at the right time
State of men's tennis more in flux than usual heading into the Sony Open
Indian Wells is the first Masters event of the season -- and perhaps the most unpredictable.
Maybe it's the earliness of the season, the sometimes difficult sight lines or the way the ball flies through the thin desert air. Whatever the reason, chaos usually ensues. A week ago, No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal was bounced in his second match, by risk-reward wizard Alexandr Dolgopolov, and reigning Australian Open and Wimbledon champions Stanislas Wawrinka and Andy Murray, respectively, were gone before the quarterfinals.
And now, we bring you the second consecutive (and final) exalted event with a 96-player draw: Sony Open Tennis, which is already underway at the Tennis Center at Crandon Park.
"Let's get Roger and Novak in a third set and see it go to a tiebreaker," Adam Barrett, the Miami tournament director, said on Sunday night. "If I was writing the script, that's what it would be. I love that part, when we get the end of the first part of the story. I get the call from Indian Wells and they say, 'We're sending the players to you.'"
Even at this late juncture, there are some questions concerning which players will come to the line amid the swaying palm trees. Juan Martin del Potro, the No. 7-ranked player, has been on the grounds for practice sessions, according to Barrett. No word if his strained left wrist will allow him to play. No. 4 David Ferrer (leg) and John Isner (knee) are also questionable.
"I'm looking forward to the tennis, and the people coming out," Barrett said. "The crowds, the diversity and the excitement and energy. There's so many good storylines and you don't know how it's going to unfold."
With that in mind, here are our trending up-or-down assessments of the top-ranked players heading into Miami:
Rafael Nadal: Just when we were encouraged by Rafa's return from back issues at the Australian Open with a title in Rio, there are questions after going out in the third round at Indian Wells. Perhaps more than any player in the professional game, the No. 1-ranked Nadal is a creature of habit. His first match in the desert, against Radek Stepanek, was a three-set adventure. Dolgopolov, too, is an unpredictable player and never allowed Nadal to find any kind of rhythm. Rafa, a three-time champion at Indian Wells, has never won in Miami.
Novak Djokovic: The No. 2-ranked Serb has been visited recently by an odd companion: nerves. It happened in the Australian Open quarterfinals against Wawrinka and again in Dubai, when Federer won his first title in eight months. And in the Indian Wells semifinal he struggled at times to close out John Isner. But then, after dropping the first set of the final to Federer, Djokovic rallied, showed some resolve and won that third-set tiebreaker. Federer now leads the series by a tenuous 17-16. Djokovic, who will be full of confidence, has won three times in Miami, including two of the past three titles.
David Ferrer: No one likes to play more than the feisty Spaniard, but his sixth tournament was a deal-breaker. During his quarterfinal match against Kevin Anderson, he suffered an inner left thigh strain and was forced to retire. More importantly, he skipped Indian Wells, hoping he would be ready for Miami, where he was the runner-up a year ago. No word yet on whether the world No. 4 will lace them up.
Andy Murray: He's still not quite right. The fourth-round loss to Milos Raonic 6-4, 7-5, 6-3, at Indian Wells confirmed it. Murray was rushing at critical times and the sour disposition that enveloped him before the Olympic and Grand Slam successes seems to have returned. After missing the end of the 2013 season following back surgery, the No. 6-ranked Murray needs to get some matches under his belt. He's got a condo in Miami (and, suddenly, had plenty of time to train there), so look for the defending champion to come back strong.
Tomas Berdych: The Czech Republic star was off to a fantastic 16-3 start, reaching the semifinals in Melbourne, then getting to back-to-back finals in Rotterdam (winning) and Dubai (losing to Roger Federer). And then the No. 4 seed threw in a subpar effort in his first match at Indian Wells, falling to unseeded Roberto Bautista Agut. Berdych has played 19 combined times at Indian Wells and Miami and has only one final to show for it. His ranking has fallen to No. 7, and he's probably already looking forward to the Euro clay circuit.
Roger Federer: Not bad for an old guy, eh? Federer, at 32, has that spring in his step again and says his back is, well, back. Suddenly, a lot of the other guys -- Nadal, Murray, Del Potro, Ferrer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga -- are looking a little old around the edges. Federer had won 11 matches in a row when he ran into that third set against Djokovic. At the urging of new coach Stefan Edberg, he's coming to net more often and changing some of his predictable patterns. Federer, whose ranking is back up to No. 5, won the Miami title in 2005-06, but hasn't been to the final in seven years.
Stanislas Wawrinka: Yes, his undefeated run ended in the fourth round at Indian Wells (thanks to Kevin Anderson), but Stan is still The Man with a 13-1 record. Plus, he and Swiss Davis Cup partner Federer got to the semifinals of the doubles. Wawrinka, at No. 3, is playing with some unprecedented confidence, but his Miami history is dodgy; he's won zero matches there the past three years, having skipped the event in 2012 and 2013.
John Isner: He's back in the ATP World Tour's top 10 for the first time since late 2012. Clearly, the tall one feels comfortable at Indian Wells, where he's been to the final four in two of the past three years. Isner played Djokovic tough in the semifinals, displaying the new, aggressive attitude he talked about before the season. But the toll of being the biggest man (238 pounds) on the ATP World Tour was again costly. Isner seemed to be bothered by a reoccurring injury above his left knee, which could be problematic going forward.
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