Miami Masters 2018 preview: Who can upset the Federer and Djokovic show?
Marianne Bevis looks ahead to the 2018 Miami Masters, where Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic are among the big names in action
Thirty-one times, Key Biscayne has been home one of the biggest, and arguably the brightest, tennis tournaments in the calendar, but No32 will be the last time that the tropical-style setting of Crandon Park will welcome the best players and some of the most enthusiastic fans through its rainbow arches.
For this popular tournament can only grow with a new home, and that will be the Hard Rock Stadium next year. Still Miami, perhaps, but not as Floridian fans have known it.
But if a little shine has been knocked off the glitz and glamour in the Keys, the tournament itself will surely be burnished by the storylines that unfold through the course of its 96-man, 10-day Masters jamboree.
Evergreen Federer in the everglades
If anyone doubted that the Swiss superstar, Roger Federer, could match the results he put together on his comeback from knee surgery last January, they were soon disabused. Not only did he defend the Australian Open, he hot-footed it to Rotterdam to win his 97th career title and, with it, became the oldest No1 in ATP records.
And while he was clearly disappointed to pass up three championship points against Juan Martin del Potro in Indian Wells, he notched up his best opening streak to a season, 17—21 if the non-ATP Hopman Cup is added—and retained the No1 ranking. He also extended his stats since returning to the tour 15 months ago to 69-6, and if he wins three more in Miami, he will stay at No1.
No2 Rafael Nadal has bypassed both Indian Wells and Miami to rehab his ongoing hip problem, but then Nadal has multiple title defences and their associated points through the clay swing. Federer defends nothing, so if he wins Miami, he will be top of the pile for a good few weeks more.
But what are the chances? The draw suggests they are reasonable: He could face the talented Thanasi Kokkinakis in his opener, and the in-form power left-hander Fernando Verdasco in the next. That done, the fourth-round is manageable—which would take him to his target.
Beyond that, and shooting for the title, is of course a bigger ask: In the quarters, big men such as Kevin Anderson, Karen Khachanov, Tomas Berdych and Briton Kyle Edmund; in the semis, the likes of Alexander Zverev, Nick Kyrgios and perhaps Borna Coric, who tested Federer so thoroughly in Indian Wells.
The bigger question is Federer’s energy levels: He has played more matches than at this stage last year, is a year older, and squeezed in a sleep-sapping round-trip to Chicago on his way to Miami.
He is making is 17th visit to Miami, but only his third since 2012. Perhaps this will not only be Crandon Park’s last year but also Federer’s—which may sharpen his resolve. So who is the biggest danger?
Novak Djokovic: Master of Miami
Indian Wells may not have gone quite as well as the long-injured Djokovic had hoped: He was pushed to the limit by the conditions and Taro Daniel in just his fifth match this year. But if there is anywhere that will have Djokovic feeling confident, it is Miami, where he holds the joint record with his coaching associate Andre Agassi of six titles.
He got to Florida early, and had great news for the media—and his fans:
“The last few days have been the first in a long, long time that I could actually focus on the game rather than… worried whether I’m going to have pain or not… Right now, I’m not playing with the pain.”
Beware the rest, then, for not only does he have a record seventh Miami title in his sights but a record 31st Masters: He is currently tied with Nadal. He is 42-5 at Crandon Park and on a 16-match winning streak there, with three straight titles until 2016—he missed last year with that persistent elbow injury.
If there is a fly in the ointment of his ambition, though, it could be the draw. He is in the same eighth as Indian Wells champion del Potro—or the returning Kei Nishikori—and the same quarter as Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov. The latter pair have had their troubles this season, and while Raonic made a deep run in Indian Wells, he still looked less than of match-fit.
The rise and rise of del Potro
Del Potro’s victory over Federer, in a gutsy, intense three-setter in Indian Wells, ticked off one long-awaited first for the former US Open champion: his first Masters title. It took him to No6 in the ranks and into the danger-zone for almost every other player in Miami.
The big Argentine, playing his best tennis in a long time, is on an 11-match winning streak and a career-best 17-3 start to the season, having already beaten three top-10 men to win Acapulco. His progress this week may depend on the fitness of his first seed, Nishikori, who pulled out of Indian Wells with illness and has only made his return after five months away with a wrist injury via Challenger wins and a semi finish at the New York 250.
Add into the del Potro equation that his best result in humid Miami was a semi-final in 2009, and other threats such as Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka are absent with injury, and the draw may open a little for Djokovic.
Other men to watch: Anderson, Cilic, Zverev
Big man Kevin Anderson has also enjoyed a resurgent season after contending with assorted injuries and surgery through 2016 and 2017. Following a slip to No80, he has now made it to a career-high No8 at the age of 31—including a run to his first Major final at the US Open. This year, he has made the finals in Pune and Acapulco, and won in New York. He also made a determined quarter run in Indian Wells before coming up against a brilliant Borna Coric. His is not an easy quarter—Khachanov, Berdych, Federer—but he will test every opponent.
Marin Cilic is similarly dangerous, though he was bamboozled by the variety and craft of Philipp Kohlschreiber in Indian Wells. But he has confidence following two Major finals from his last three, and is the second seed in an interesting quarter. Young star Andrey Rublev, veteran John Isner, the flair of David Goffin—making his first appearance since his freak accident in Rotterdam—and the athletic Hyeon Chung are all here. And of course, should he negotiate that draw, he could face Djokovic or del Potro in the semis and Federer in the final.
Then there is the still-youthful Zverev, ranked No5 and with two Masters to his name already. But aside from the semis in Acapulco, it has been a lean season so far for the 20-year-old.
He is still unpredictable, but is evolving in strength and experience all the time, and is not afraid of the big stage: He has taken the scalps of Federer, Djokovic, Cilic and Anderson in the last 12 months. However the challenges come quick and early in Miami. One of his former #NextGen rivals, Stefanos Tsitsipas or Daniil Medvedev, for his opener, and David Ferrer, Nick Kyrgios and Fabio Fognini populate this eighth.
Worth noting too is that none of these three has ever made it past Miami’s quarters.
Time for #NextGen to push open the door?
Putting the precocious Zverev to one side, the under-22s have flexed their muscles in the last year.
Rublev was seeded for the first time in Indian Wells, he won in Umag last year, was runner up in Doha in January, reached his first Major quarter-final at the US Open, and has the confidence to take on all-comers. He will need that confidence in early rounds: possibly Ivo Karlovic or Pierre-Hugues Herbert.
Few will forget the performance of Milan champion Chung against his idol Djokovic to reach the semis in Australia, and he has made the quarters of four other tournaments this year, including a decent showing against Federer in Indian Wells. He could do the same in Miami, depending on the form of Goffin.
But as promising as any of them is Coric, who had knee surgery 18 months ago but has since picked off some decent scalps. Indian Wells threw his ability into sharp relief, as he picked off three top-20 seeds, including Anderson, and took the first set against Federer in the semis. It was enough to earn him a seeding in Miami, and in a section where the 21-year-old can take on some youthful rivals: Jack Sock, Denis Shapovalov, perhaps even Kyrgios or Zverev in the quarters.
Kyrgios is a danger wherever he falls, and last year in Miami proved that in the extreme: wins over Goffin and Zverev were followed by one of the matches of the year against Federer in the semis—three gripping tie-breakers to the Swiss. The Aussie pulled out of Indian Wells with elbow injury, but if he is fit, take note.
Some things to watch for in Miami
· The sunshine double: Djokovic (four times) and Federer (three times) are the only active players to have done the Indian Wells/Miami double. Neither can do so this year.
· No1 ranking: Federer needs to reach the quarters to hold on to No1, or the absent Nadal will usurp him.
· Federer is the oldest Miami champion, 35, and Djokovic the youngest, 19.
· Along with Djokovic and Federer, there is now a clutch of other Masters champions in the draw: Zverev (2), Cilic, Sock, Dimitrov, del Potro.
· A strong doubles line-up includes Djokovic with Viktor Troicki, Chung with Shapovalov, Khachanov with Rublev, Edmund with Nenad Zimonjic
Previous champions in draw: Djokovic (six), Federer (three)
Youngest: Nicola Kuhn, 18
Oldest: Karlovic, 39
Wild cards: Marcos Baghdatis, Christopher Eubanks, Miomir Kecmanovic, Kuhn, Mikael Ymer
Missing potential seeds: Nadal, Dominic Thiem, Lucas Pouille, Wawrinka, Albert Ramos Vinolas, Murray, Kohlschreiber, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Pablo Cuevas
NB last man to made seedings: Khachanov, ranked 41
Title winners so far in 2018: Gael Monfils, Gilles Simon, Medvedev, Roberto Bautista Agut (x2), Federer (x2), Mirza Basic, Roberto Carballes Baena (c), Pouille, Anderson, Thiem (c), Schwartzman (c), Khachanov, Frances Tiafoe, del Potro (x2), Fabio Fognini (c) [c = clay]
Potential quarter-finals top half:
Federer v Anderson
Other seeds: Verdasco, Adrian Mannarino, Pablo Carreno Busta, Berdych, Edmund, Khachanov
Zverev v Sock
Other seeds: Ferrer, Kyrgios, Fognini, Sam Querrey, Dami Dzumhur, Coric
Potential quarter-finals bottom half:
Del Potro v Dimitrov
Other seeds: Nishikori, Filip Krajinovic, Djokovic, Diego Schwartzman, Raonic, Richard Gasquet,
Cilic v Goffin
Other seeds: Feliciano Lopez, Chung, Bautsita Agut, Isner, Gilles Muller, Rublev