Yes, some of the big stars had made earlier-than-expected exits—Roger Federer before playing a game, Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka in their first matches, and David Ferrer, Marin Cilic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in their second matches.
But it all made for a combination of fresh and familiar faces in the fourth-round.
First there was the 112-ranked Horacio Zeballos, 30 years old, and with a one-handed backhand like that of the man whose place he took, Federer. Zeballos beat Juan Martin del Potro and Fernando Verdasco in gritty style to earn a shot at the in-form David Goffin.
Young talent, No88 Lucas Pouille, beat two seeds, including Ferrer, to set an all-French encounter with Gilles Simon, and the defeaters of Nadal and Wawrinka, Damir Dzumhur and Andrey Kuznetsov respectively, had both fought back from a set down in the third round to form half of a very intriguing quarter of the draw.
For this same quarter featured two of the young players—No12 seed Milos Raonic and No24 seed Nick Kyrgios—tipped to make it right to the top. After all Raonic already had semi runs at Wimbledon and the Australian Open behind him, and Kyrgios the quarters at the same two tournaments.
There was also flair in spare: Gael Monfils, one of four Frenchman left in the draw, took on the charismatic single-hander Grigor Dimitrov, who had already beaten two-time former champion Andy Murray from a set down; and another Frenchman, another stylish one-hander, Richard Gasquet, faced No7 seed Tomas Berdych.
Theirs would be one of the contests of the day, a 14th meeting in a decade-old rivalry of contrasting games, and poised 7-6 in Gasquet’s favour. This time, it would be the big Czech who proved the more resilient in the drenching humidity, reaching his fourth consecutive quarter-final, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, after two hours 28 minutes.
Then there were two more young stars who had promised much in the last couple of years and seemed, during the early months of 2016, to be coming good.
No15 seed, the nimble and fleet-footed Belgian David Goffin, arrived from his first Masters semi-final run in Indian Wells, compiling wins over Marin Cilic and Wawrinka, and had sailed into the fourth round here with the loss of just two games to Viktor Troicki. It took him less than an hour and half to make the quarters again, over Zeballos, 7-5, 6-3.
The other young player, still just 22 years old, was Austrian Dominic Thiem, yet another wielder of a single-handed backhand but more in the style of another Swiss, Wawrinka, than Federer. His quality was always clear: a first final at the age of 20, three titles last year at 21, and this year a first ATP500 title among his haul of two plus a semi run at another 500 in Rio—and wins over Ferrer, Nadal, Cilic and Dimitrov in the bag.
He now topped the list of match-wins this season, 24 of them, alongside the world No1 and defending champion Novak Djokovic. As luck would have it, Thiem would play that very man in his quest for the Miami quarter-finals.
They had met once before, almost two years ago, and not surprisingly Djokovic won, 6-3, 6-4. But things had moved on for both men since then.
The mighty Serb was targeting a 27th win from his last 28 matches in Miami, and he was already 24-1 for the season, winning Doha, the Australian Open and Indian Wells. Now he was targeting his fourth back-to-back Indian Wells-Miami double, one of the biggest challenges in men’s tennis—and few doubted he would pull it off. After all, since the start of last year, Djokovic had put together a 106-7 record via 20 tournaments, with 14 titles from 18 finals.
But the last time they met, Thiem was ranked No40 and yet to win a title. Now he was leaner, more powerful, and an increasingly confident five-time titlist—ranked 14 and with a clutch of top-10 scalps to his name. Last year, he pushed Murray to three sets right here in the quarters: Djokovic would not be underestimating the young challenger.
And rightly so. Djokovic had to work through two deuces in the very first game, but he survived and then broke. It would take him almost 10 minutes to hold the third game as Thiem’s aggressive, heavy ball-striking forced the best of Djokovic’s defensive tennis. The Austrian had three break points, five deuces, and the rallies grew longer and more intense, but still Djokovic rose to the challenge.
Now Thiem’s serving made life a little easier for himself, and two love holds showcased a variety of backhand winners. Meanwhile, in almost every game Djokovic was taken to deuce, faced a fourth break point before holding for 5-2, and then came through another marathon battle in the final game of the set. It lasted nine and a half minutes, saw four more break points come and go—though one landed just a fraction long of the baseline to be cheered to the rafters by the crowd—until Hawkeye put them right.
So Djokovic had the lead, 6-3, but the scoreline belied just how close it had been: three points difference in 81 played.
The second set was, if anything, even more intense. Thiem fought off an immediate break point, but Djokovic broke in the third as some vicious returns of serve drew errors from the adrenalin-fuelled Austrian racket.
Even so, Djokovic was under pressure straight away, as each painted the lines with some remarkable angles, and eventually Thiem converted his 11th chance to level things at 3-3. Once again, though, it seemed as though the Austrian’s adrenalin was too much to handle, and he fired three forehands and then a backhand long to concede a break straight back.
All Djokovic had to do was serve it out, but that proved easier to say than do. Five more break chances loomed, Djokovic double faulted on match point, but Thiem, just as in the first set, fired a backhand a fraction wide to bring up another set point and Djokovic finally sealed a 12 and a half minute game, to conclude an hour and 49 minute match, 6-4.
This most resilient of champions was asked his view on which of the young rising stars on the tour may be the first to break the glass ceiling of the top five: “Dominic is definitely one of the players to look out for. He’s someone who’s been established in the top 20, and I’m sure he’s one of the leaders of the next generation.”
Had Thiem converted just one more of his 15 break points, this particular story may have been even longer and tougher. As it is, Djokovic moves on to meet Berdych for the 25th time—and he has won 22 of their previous 24.
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