On the WTA tour, just three women have endured: Steffi Graf (twice), Kim Clijsters, and Victoria Azarenka.
Only the last has been in action this year, in her first appearance since a brief return after the birth of her son last summer. And even with her formidable fitness and determination, it was too big an ask for her to repeat the feat—though her tennis in reaching the third round, unseeded, in Miami, must be ringing alarm bells for everyone else in the draw.
And it has proved too big a task for the Indian Wells champion, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, who began to show the physical strain of playing 15 matches since reaching the fourth round of the Australian Open. Having put out her idol Serena Williams in the first round, Osaka’s 16th match in six weeks proved a step too far against the athletic No4 seed Elina Svitolina. The Ukrainian woman advanced, 6-4 6-2, and Osaka’s stunning surge, that has taken her from 72 in January to a current No22, came to halt. That “Sunshine Double” remained as elusive as ever.
So what of the men’s pursuit of that golden prize?
Well the Miami Open boasted two men who had done the near impossible seven times between them. World No1 Roger Federer had three ‘doubles’ to his name, but when he failed to convert three championship points in Indian Wells a few days ago, he slammed the door shut on his fourth.
Novak Djokovic, seeded No9, is still working his way back from a persistent elbow injury that required surgical intervention after the Australian Open. And his lack of match-play showed in a gruelling three-set loss last week to No109 Taro Daniel.
Of course few expected the returning Serb to put together a fifth “Sunshine Double” run at this stage of the season. Yet in Miami, Djokovic carries a potent reputation, and put himself in the frame for a strong run once he admitted to the media that he was, at last, playing pain free.
And if his reputation through the North American double has been formidable, his particular record in Miami is almost without equal. Indeed the only other man to have won six titles in the Florida Keys is his coach Andre Agassi.
That the Serb won his first ever Masters title in Miami, back in 2007, explains much about his love-affair with the tournament, and he was due to open this year against Benoit Paire holding a 16-match winning streak: He won the titles in 2014, 2015 and 2016 before missing last year with that elbow injury.
The initial signs were good, too, a long opening rally of classic Djokovic angling the ball to this corner and then that. He held to love: So far, so good.
But Paire is a tricky player who can bring all kinds of play to bear—swinging serves, delicate and well-disguised drop shots, and unpredictability. He gives little rhythm, and he began to moves the Serb around the court to test his stamina and movement. It proved to be a winning tactic, and by the sixth game, Djokovic already showed signs of fatigue.
The Frenchman broke for a 4-3 lead, and after a near-perfect service hold, he broke again to take the set in 30 minutes. Djokovic bowed his head: this was not the energised, crisp, near-flawless tennis of a six-time champion, as three straight unforced errors to close the set proved.
Paire made Djokovic look almost flat-footed at the start of the second set, holding with ease before working to 0-40, but the wayward Frenchman thumped a couple of wild errors to let Djokovic off the hook.
That seemed to galvanise the Serb a little, though he continued to grimace and frown, clearly uncomfortable in the heat of the sweeping Stadium Court. His comfort was not improved by more deft drop shots, and Paire got the break for a 4-2 lead.
Djokovic found a glimpse of his old self, breaking with a forehand winner, and held for 4-4, but he looked weary, and he could not sustain his accuracy with any consistency. Paire broke the former champion to end Djokovic’s extraordinary run of wins in Miami, 6-4, after just 67 minutes.
It was a downcast Djokovic who faced the media soon after:
“I’m trying but it’s not working, and that’s all. Obviously not feeling great when I’m playing this way, and I want to be able to play as well as I can. But it’s impossible at the moment, but that’s all.”
Paire moves into the third round in Miami for the third straight year, where he will face No22 seed, Filip Krajinovic, who put out Briton Liam Broady, 6-3, 6-2.
Elsewhere in a packed schedule around Crandon Park, other seeds did hold their form. No2 seed Marin Cilic, runner-up at the Australian Open, beat Pierre-Hugues Herbert, 7-5, 6-3, and a significant win given that the Croat had lost four of his past five matches in Miami.
He next plays the unseeded Vasek Pospisil, whose impressive win over Ivo Karlovic was backed up by victory over No27 seed, Andrey Rublev, 7-6, 6-4.
No20 seed Milos Raonic, continued to build on his return from injury with a win over wild card Mikael Ymer, 6-3, 6-3, but will be tested more thoroughly by No13 seed and Rio champion, Diego Schwartzman, who beat Nicolas Jarry, 6-3, 6-1.
It was a difficult day for No7 seed David Goffin, however. This was his first match since the accident in Rotterdam, where a ball in the eye ended his run. He was forced to pull out of Indian Wells because the eye was not yet ready, and in truth, it looked as though that was still the case here, in the midday sun of Miami.
He was, unusually, wearing a cap, and was clearly struggling with timing and confidence, wiping his eyes, and making uncharacteristic errors—and there would be 26 of them. He managed to win just one game, 6-0, 6-1, in an hour, and the admirably relentless Joao Sousa advanced to a third-round meeting with Jared Donaldson, who beat No25 seed, Feliciano Lopez.
In this same segment, two exciting young players set up a third-round tussle: The No19 seed Hyeon Chung beat Matthew Ebden to set a match against qualifier Michael Mmoh, who scored one of the biggest upsets of the day in taking out the resilient Spaniard, No12 seed, Roberto Bautista Agut, 7-6, 2-6, 6-4.
But the question remained. If the only two previous winners of the “Sunshine Double” could not repeat their success in 2018, there was another man who could join their number.
Juan Martin del Potro was a player finding some of his best ever form, and back to his highest ranking in years after back-to-back titles in Acapulco and Indian Wells—his first Masters, almost a decade after winning his first Grand Slam at the US Open.
It was not just the victories that stood out, but also the opposition: Three top-10 players in Mexico, and Federer in California.
He would now take on Robin Haase, who he had beaten in all four previous matches, including last year in Miami. And while he had reached the semis only once, and that before he underwent those four infamous wrist surgeries, it would be a brave pundit who bet against him having, at the very least, a shot at that double delight.
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BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge
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