Murray exit opens draw for Djokovic at Miami Masters
The draw for the final hard-court tennis Masters of spring has burst wide open, writes Marianne Bevis
The Sony Ericsson Open, the second of the two giant North American Masters, is a conclusive full stop between tennis’s first hard court season and the arrival of two unbroken months of clay.
And while the opening week of April may see a handful of players make their transition to the red stuff in Casablanca or Houston -the only ATP event in the US on clay -the spotlight turns unwaveringly on Europe for the duration.
As if to celebrate this last hard-court jamboree until the US Open Series gets underway in mid-July, the 300,000-plus Florida visitors throw themselves into what is surely the brightest and breeziest tournament of the year.
The players, too, love this event and soak up diversions from diving with dolphins to strutting their stuff on the fashion runway.
The temperature might swelter from a night-time in the 60s to a daytime approaching the 90s, and with a humidity that can drench the forehead like a wet sponge, but Miami has been voted the players’ favourite Masters tournament six times.
And to prove its popularity, all the best men are here. Every one of the top 10, 18 of the top 20 -Gael Monfils and David Nalbandian are both injured -and 46 of the top 50 players fill the 96-man draw, including the last five champions.
Andy Roddick, defending champion, won the title in 2004 as well. Roger Federer is also a double winner, in 2005 and 2006. Andy Murray won in 2009 and his friend, Novak Djokovic, is aiming to win his second Miami title -the first was in 2007. He is also bidding to become the only active player apart from Federer to win Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back.
Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal has just as big an incentive. He has twice been runner-up in Miami, in 2005 and 2008. Can he make it third time lucky?
No1 Seed’s Quarter: Nadal
Nadal had a good draw in Indian Wells, playing three qualifiers in a row and the lowly-seeded Ivo Karlovic in the quarters. He beat a tired Juan Martin Del Potro in the semis before losing in a superb final against a near unbeatable Djokovic.
But Nadal has a couple of tricky hurdles to overcome in the early stages in Miami. First is the young Japanese star, Kei Nishikori, who has risen from outside the top 100 to 62 in the last four months.
More dangerous is the flamboyant talent of Alexandr Dolgopolov, who has the form to overcome Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and set up a fourth-round confrontation with Nadal. The lightweight Ukrainian, though, struggled against the power of Del Potro in Indian Wells and will probably do so against Nadal, as well.
The biggest challenges in the bottom half of Nadal’s section are Tomas Berdych, who has not beaten Nadal in their last eight matches, and Nicolas Almagro. The fellow Spaniard will have to overcome the man who beat him last week in Indian Wells, Albert Montanes. Almagro is the form player of the two, bringing two titles and a final place finish to North America. He does, though, have a 0-7 record against Nadal.
One other small alarm bell may be rung by a lurking Karlovic who took Nadal to a final set tiebreaker in Indian Wells. But he has to get through Almagro and Berdych first, and that does not seem likely for the veteran Croat, no matter how big he is serving.
Quarter 1: Nadal
No3 Seed’s Quarter: Federer
Federer has been defending himself against all-comers since he lost out to Djokovic in the Indian Wells semi-final last week. It is a strange turn of events for a man on a blistering run since last summer: five titles, including a Masters and the WTFs; two more Masters finals and a 500 final; and the semis of two Slams and two more Masters.
His problem, certainly this season, has been Djokovic, who has beaten him in three consecutive meetings and taken the No2 ranking.
In Miami, Federer may not have to worry about Djokovic until the final but could instead face that other thorn in his side, Nadal, in the semis. He also has a couple of early trip-wires. Marcos Baghdatis scored a famous victory over Federer in Indian Wells last year. The Swiss should have no problems with the alternative fourth-round opponent, Mikhail Youzhny -he hasn’t done in their previous 10 meetings.
However, it is in the bottom of this quarter that some danger lies in a couple of players with lower seedings than their ability justifies: Marin Cilic and Gilles Simon. The latter has a reputation for getting the better of Federer in both of their previous three-set meetings and for taking him to five sets in this year’s Australian Open.
Simon has to get past Roddick, however, and the American loves this place. He loves playing Federer rather less, even though one of only two victories in 22 meetings was in Miami in 2008. It seems destined to be the Swiss again.
Quarter 2: Federer
No4 Seed’s Quarter: Robin Soderling
With a tough win over his first opponent in Miami, Ivan Dodig, Soderling has reached an impressive 20-2 winning record this season, and has three titles to his name. Yet his loss to Philipp Kohlschreiber in Indian Wells, rather like his loss to Dolgopolov in Australia, showed up a weakness in the Swede’s big game.
He seems to lack quick answers when faced with a different kind of all-court, varied game, and this may give him problems early in Miami. For he has the prospect of Kohlschreiber again in the third round and, beyond him, another flair player enjoying some success of late, Richard Gasquet.
But in the way of such progress is a formidable Del Potro returning to some of his old form.
There are rumours that Soderling is carrying a foot problem, too, and this could open the way for Del Potro to advance just as he did in Indian Wells.
If he extends beyond his eighth, the Argentine faces the chance of a good run to the semis. His most likely quarterfinal opponent, the strongly performing Stan Wawrinka, took an unexpected beating in his opening match, while the dangerous youngster, newly-seeded Milos Raonic, went out in two tough sets to the burgeoning Somdev Devvarman. The Indian put up a sterling fight against Nadal in Indian Wells last week, but should still find a confident Del Potro too hard to handle.
Quarter 3: Del Potro
No2 Seed’s Quarter: Djokovic
The man from Serbia cannot stop winning. In taking his 21st title and sixth Masters in Indian Wells, he notched up his first ever win against Nadal in a title match and became only the third man on the tour to beat Nadal and Federer twice in a single tournament. He therefore comes into Miami unbeaten this year and with three consecutive titles to his name.
So can anyone stop Djokovic’s unbroken run? Looking at his section of the quarter, the highest seed he faces for the second tournament in a row is fellow Serb, Viktor Troicki, who took just one game from Djokovic in Indian Wells.
Looking to the upper section of his quarter, it is hard to see any challenger at all. The unseeded Nikolay Davydenko continued his slide with a fall in the first round, but there have been far greater shocks. This eighth of the draw has lost its three biggest seeds, including No5 Murray -his second first-match loss in succession.
This is a big blow to the Scot in what is as close to a home tournament as he plays on the tour, and it suggests a similar loss of confidence to the one he suffered after losing the Australian final last year.
Murray has come under growing pressure to look at his coaching set-up -and Martina Navratilova joined the chorus this week -but his latest announcement that old friend and hitting partner Dani Vallverdu will be his travelling partner seems unlikely to quell the storm.
Joining Murray to the exit door was No9 Fernando Verdasco, who now has a 4-1 losing record in his last four ATP events, and No24 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. Which all means that Djokovic should be laughing all the way to the semi-finals.
Quarter 4: Djokovic
Semis: Djokovic to beat Del Potro; Federer to beat Nadal
Final: They are three wins apiece in the most recent six of their 22 matches, but his straightforward run through the draw could make all the difference: Djokovic.