For a start, the only two former champions in the tournament, three-time winner Roger Federer and six-time winner Novak Djokovic, both lost their opening matches.
With the absence of Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray due to injury, that meant the tournament had no member of the ‘big four’ in the third round since Federer made his first quarter-final in Miami in 2001. It also meant that, for the first time since 2010, neither of March’s “Sunshine” tournaments—the name given to the biggest pair of Masters tournaments, Miami with Indian Wells—would be won by one of that same quartet.
The tournament saw defending champion Federer lose his opener in a Masters for the first time in four years—the last time he lost back-to-back matches. He also lost the No1 ranking to a Nadal who had not played a match since retiring in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open.
And so many men did not even make it to the starting line—along with Nadal and Murray were the likes of Dominic Thiem, Lucas Pouille, Stan Wawrinka, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—that the No32 seed was actually ranked 41: Karen Khachanov.
But the big Russian 21-year-old flagged up another side to this memorable Miami. A trend that began at Indian Wells last week, where Round 4 welcomed three young rising stars into the mix, went up a notch in embracing the new generation of players.
Two of them, Borna Coric and Hyeon Chung, both advanced to the quarter-finals in Indian Wells and were proving their quality by heading in the same direction in Miami.
The two 21-year-olds, seeded 29 and 19 respectively, were joined in the last 16 in the Florida Keys by No4 seed Sascha Zverev, still only 20 years old but with two Masters titles to his name, and by No17 seed Nick Kyrgios, now 22, owner of four titles from seven finals, and hoping to put a couple of injury-blighted years behind him.
That Zverev and Kyrgios had established one of the brightest and best rivalries among the new generation in the space of the last 12 months made their collision for a quarter-final place all the more compelling. Indeed, the second of their four matches last year was in the quarters right here, a tense and tough three-setter to Kyrgios. Zverev went on to beat the Australian twice: Would the German star bounce back from two straight three-set battles to level the head-to-head? Not until the last ball of the night would Miami have the answer.
But the first to young gun to try his luck on this Tuesday was Chung, who held sway amid a range of bigger, older men, but his form was improving all the time. Four quarter-finals, including Indian Wells last week, plus a breakout semi finish at the Australian Open, launched him up to No23 in the ranks, and in Miami, this athletic man was proving just as impressive.
Even in the strong winds, in the heat of the day, he despatched Joao Sousa with relative ease in just 68 minutes to make his second straight Masters quarter-final. It took Federer to beat him in California: Will the fire-power of John Isner stop him short of the semis this time?
The tall American took out the No2 seed, Marin Cilic, 7-6, 6-3, without facing a break point, but will find Chung a very different proposition, as he knows from experience in Auckland this year—a three-set win to the Korean.
Also in the mix in Round 4 was the unseeded 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov, owner of one of the most exuberant games in the #NextGen ranks, an attacking, all-court style and a left-handed single hander to boot.
The young Canadian had been building a fan-base since winning the junior Wimbledon title, and it exploded six months ago when he made the semis of his first Masters—on home soil. He followed that with a fourth-round run at the US Open, threw himself with gusto into the Laver Cup, and made the semis in Delray Beach to hit Miami at a career-high No44.
As luck would have it, he had to play Coric for a quarter-final place, having played their first match last month in Davis Cup. Coric won, but then the young Croat had done a lot of winning lately. He made the quarters in Doha and Dubai, and then made a first semi run in Indian Wells with victories over a clutch of top-20 seeds. He had Federer on the ropes, too, but could not quite finish the job.
However, in Miami he looked in the mood to go just as far, picked off the No8 seed Jack Sock, and for a man who had played so much tennis, and two tough three-setters in Miami, he looked as fit as a flea. All the more impressive considering he had knee surgery just 18 months ago, and had clearly worked hard on his composure. too. This was a calmer, more confident player than a year ago.
Coric looked the more assured player as the tight first set unfolded, though neither offered up a break point in a fast-paced, high-quality half hour. The contrasting styles made for lively rallies, too, but once they headed into the tie-break, it was all Coric after Shapovalov made a handful of edgy errors. The Croat took the set, 7-6(2), in a pacey 43 minutes.
He seemed to have all the momentum at the start of the second, too, with three immediate break points. But he blew one with an easy forehand straight to Shapovalov, the Canadian held, and that seemed to free the teenager to play his high-octane game. A terrific cross-court backhand and he broke, then held to love for 4-2.
Coric dug in, and defended furiously—at one stage hurtling into the player’s chair—and broke back to level 4-4. Yet the Coric serve had tightened up, was down to 58 percent from 91 in the first set, and Shapovalov broke again, serving out the set strongly, 6-4.
The Canadian had hit 13 winners to just two from his opponent in that set alone—it is the nature of the teenager’s game, though brings with it more errors, too—and those extremes came to the fore in the final set.
He fought off break point in his first game, and battled through a 32-stroke rally to hold. But he conceded the break in the sixth game, alternating double fault with two blistering forehand winners, and finally a netted forehand. The same attacking mind-set brought an immediate break back, as he thrilled the crowd with two backhand winners—one of them a high smash.
It looked as though Coric would wilt, he too double faulted to face 15-30, but survived a remarkable 33-shot rally to hold, and appealed to the crowd for his own share of their support, rightly so.
He had stood firm, and he got his reward: Shapovalov double faulted three times, got to deuce, but a wild volley brought up another match point for the Croat. He fired a winner onto the line, 6-4, to end two and a quarter hours of gripping, often thrilling tennis.
In the end, experience and maturity—despite being still only 21—claimed the win, but tennis can look forward to much more from these two, and Shapovalov will only get better as he makes his way to 20 and beyond.
Youth certainly had its day among the last 16, then, but the strongest man among them remains the Indian Wells champion, Juan Martin del Potro. After a slow start against No22 seed Filip Krajinovic, he came back from 1-4 down to win, 6-4, 6-2—his 14th straight match-win: He won in Acapulco before Indian Wells, and now has more wins, 20-3, than anyone else this year.
He next plays No20 seed Milos Raonic.
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