layoff

AROUND THE CORNER: MIAMI MASTERS

Fresh off from a very intriguing tournament in India Wells, the ATP Tour now heads east to Miami for the next Masters 1000 event – the Sony Ericsson Open. Anyone willing to put money on another Roddick/Ljubicic final? Didn’t think so.

Well for starters the two are paired in the same half of the draw, so a meeting in the finals in Miami is a physical impossibility. I somehow doubt anyone would have guessed the 31 year old Ljubicic would have had such an amazing run in a big event like Indian Wells, and yet he captured his fist Masters Series event by defeating top-level talent like Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and then Andy Roddick. A nice feather in his cap as retirement draws nearer, but not something that will be repeated.

Instead look for a big name like Murray (the defending champ) or Djokovic (winner in 2007) to capture the title in Miami.

In the top half of the draw we have world number one Roger Federer who still is shaking off the rust from a month and a half layoff after winning the Australian Open. Federer lost a match against Marcos Baghdatis in the third round at Indian Wells that he led 4-1 in the third set and had several match points as well. That can only be chalked-up to inactivity. Federer might need a bit more time to get back to his usual self out there, so don’t expect a big run in Miami – but don’t count him out either! Federer has a first round bye and then a pretty easy go until a potential fourth round meeting with Tomas Berdych.

Fernando Verdasco and Marin Cilic are two players who could cause Federer some trouble in his quarter of the draw and both will be looking to post a good result for the first time since the Aussie Open. Verdasco is 3-3 since winning in San Jose in February while Cilic has cooled considerably since starting the year with two titles and his first Slam semi-final.

Andy Murray heads up the other quarter in the top section of the draw and it is definitely time that he stepped up his game. After losing his second Slam final to Federer in Australia, Murray tanked in Dubai and was then beaten in straight sets last week against Robin Soderling. I’m not sure why Murray has played such a light schedule in 2010, perhaps he really does spend too much time playing video games. Either way, he is due for a title and what better place to grab one than in the exact spot he did a year ago. Murray’s draw should allow him to advance to the quarters before being tested, perhaps again, by Soderling.

In the bottom half of the draw look for quarter final matches between Tsonga/Nadal and Djokovic/Roddick. Tournament organizers will certainly be hoping for those outcomes. Tsonga has been quiet since the Aussie Open but has a nice section of the draw where his toughest competition will come from Philipp Kohlschreiber and John Isner. Nadal looked fit at Indian Wells and should be able to at least make it through to the quarters here in Miami. A returning David Nalbandian is in his section but the Argentine has a long way to go in his return from injury before being considered a threat. Let’s hope Rafa can stay healthy because the tour is much more interesting when he is in the mix.

Djokovic should advance in his section as should Roddick – although I wonder if the American is due for a slip-up after starting the year so strongly. A guy like Igor Andreev could trouble him in the early-goings.

Enjoy this last hard-court tournament before the clay-court season gets started next week at three European locations. The lead-up to the French Open is just around the corner.

Nadal returns, beats Gasquet, at US Open

Everyone’s been curious about the condition of Rafael Nadal’s knees, so it made sense that his first Grand Slam opponent in three months would wonder as well.

Which might explain why Richard Gasquet tried a drop shot deep in the third set of his U.S. Open match against Nadal on Wednesday. Nadal made the long run necessary to get to the ball, and flipped it back over the net, winning the point.

A moment later, as if conspiring with Nadal to show everyone how fit the six-time major champion truly is these days, Gasquet offered up another drop shot.

Nadal got to that one, too.

Starting a bid to win the only Grand Slam title missing from his resume, Nadal encountered no apparent trouble from his much-scrutinized legs in a 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 victory over Gasquet at Flushing Meadows.

Gasquet, for one, was impressed.

“He can win the tournament,” said Gasquet, a 2007 Wimbledon semifinalist and former top-10 player. “Day after day, he will improve his level. For sure, he can win.”

Nadal’s matter-of-fact assessment: “I played well, no?”

Nadal didn’t wear any tape near his knees Wednesday, something he’s done in the past, much less the sort of bulky bandages Venus Williams showed up with near her left knee for a second-round match she won easily.

One could certainly make the case Nadal wasn’t facing the toughest competition. Gasquet has been away from the tour, too, recently. He served a 2 1/2 -month ban after testing positive for cocaine; Gasquet successfully appealed what would have been a far more severe punishment, saying the drug entered his system inadvertently when he kissed a woman at a nightclub.

Nadal’s absence was far more run-of-the-mill. He hadn’t played at a major tournament since May 31, when his 31-match French Open winning streak ended in the fourth round at Roland Garros. The Spaniard cited knee tendinitis in deciding not to defend his Wimbledon title, and the layoff was a big reason Nadal has dropped from No. 1 in the rankings to No. 3.

He ceded the top spot to Roger Federer, whose bid for a sixth consecutive U.S. Open championship—and third Grand Slam title in a row this year— progressed with a 6-3, 7-5, 7-5 victory over Simon Greul of Germany in front of a night-session record crowd of 24,206.

Next for Federer is a matchup against two-time major winner Lleyton Hewitt, who defeated Juan Ignacio Chela 6-3, 6-3, 6-4. Federer has won 13 matches in a row against Hewitt, including in the 2004 U.S. Open final.

Williams, the 2000-01 champion in New York, had wide patches of white tape above and below her left knee, which began bothering her when she struggled through a first-round win Monday. Like Nadal, Williams looked hale Wednesday, and she easily dispatched Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the United States 6-4, 6-2.

“She was moving like a cat,” Mattek-Sands said.

Nadal never mentioned his knee issues publicly until after the French Open, but he said Wednesday the pain dated to April, when he won the Monte Carlo Masters. He also won the next week, and the week after that, but he now attributes that success to “being on a roll.”

The recent time off means he has played a lot less than he’s accustomed to by this time in the season, which is a benefit at the last Grand Slam event of the year. He’s never been past the semifinals in New York.

“I am more fresh, yeah. Fresher than ever in this tournament. I don’t know if this kind of fresh is good,” he said. “No excuses about being very tired.”

Still, Nadal finds it amusing that there has been so much discussion about his knees and his time away from the tour.

“Seems like I was two years outside of competition,” he said. “It was two months.”

Kim Clijsters was away for two years, having ended her retirement in August, and she continues to play as if she never left. Unseeded and unranked and playing at the U.S. Open for the first time since winning the 2005 title, the 26-year-old Belgian reached the third round by knocking off No. 14-seeded Marion Bartoli 5-7, 6-1, 6-2.

Other seeded women sent home included No. 15 Samantha Stosur, a French Open semifinalist, who was beaten by Vania King of Long Beach, Calif., 7-5, 6-4; two-time major champion Amelie Mauresmo, who lost to Aleksandra Wozniak of Canada; No. 12 Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 20 Anabel Medina Garrigues.

Two fixtures on the men’s tour said goodbye to Grand Slam tennis with first-round exits: Marat Safin of Russia and Fabrice Santoro of France, who are retiring at the end of the season.

The 29-year-old Safin, the 2000 U.S. Open champion, lost to Jurgen Melzer of Austria 1-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4; the 36-year-old Santoro, appearing in his record 69th major tournament, was beaten by No. 24 Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.

Safin won two Grand Slam titles and briefly was ranked No. 1. There are those—including Melzer, after Wednesday’s match—who wonder aloud whether Safin’s talent could have taken him to a half-dozen major championships or more.

One person who doesn’t worry about that? Safin.

“I don’t regret anything at all. Things that happened to me throughout the life, whatever I said, whatever I did—it took me to where I am right now,” Safin said. “So I think it was pretty nice ride.”