Masters 1000

The Magnificent Seven: Memorable Men’s Matches from the First Half of 2013

Just past its halfway point, the year 2013 has featured twists and turns, tastes of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and plenty of memorable matches to recall.  This first of two articles counts down the seven most memorable men’s matches of the first half.  Not necessarily the longest, the closest, or those that featured the best tennis, each of them connected to narratives broader than their specific outcomes.

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7) Grigor Dimitrov d. Novak Djokovic, Madrid 2R, 7-6(6) 6-7(8) 6-3

During the first few months of 2013, Dimitrov progressed slowly but surely in his ability to challenge the ATP elite.  First, he served for the first set against Djokovic and Murray in Indian Wells and Miami, respectively.   Then, he won a set from Nadal on clay in Monte Carlo.  Dimitrov’s true breakthrough came at the next Masters 1000 tournament in Madrid, where he withstood an extremely tense encounter against the world No. 1.  When Djokovic escaped the marathon second-set tiebreak, the underdog could have crumbled.  Instead, Dimitrov rallied to claim an early third-set lead that he never relinquished.  Having won the Monte Carlo title from Nadal in his previous match, Djokovic showed unexpected emotional frailty here that undercut his contender’s credentials in Paris.  (He did, however, avenge this loss to Dimitrov when they met at Roland Garros.)

Stakhovsky

6) Sergiy Stakhovsky d. Roger Federer, Wimbledon 2R, 6-7(5) 7-6(5) 7-5 7-6(5)

Ten years before, almost to the day, a youthful Roger Federer had burst onto the tennis scene by upsetting seven-time champion Pete Sampras at the All England Club.  An aura of invincibility had cloaked Federer at majors for much of the ensuing decade, contributing to a record-breaking streak of 36 major quarterfinals.  That streak forms a key cornerstone of his legacy, but it ended at the hands of a man outside the top 100 who never had defeated anyone in the top 10.  Federer did not play poorly for much of this match, a symbol of the astonishing upsets that rippled across Wimbledon on the first Wednesday.  Rare is the occasion when he does not play big points well, and even rarer is the occasion when an unheralded opponent of his plays them better.  Stakhovsky needed the fourth-set tiebreak almost as much as Federer did, and he struck just the right balance of boldness and patience to prevail.

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5) Andy Murray d. Roger Federer, Australian Open SF, 6-4 6-7(5) 6-3 6-7(2) 6-2

Murray ended the first half of 2013 by thrusting not a monkey but a King Kong-sized gorilla off its back.  He rid himself of another onerous burden when the year began, nearly as meaningful if less publicized.  Never had Murray defeated Federer at a major before, losing all three of their major finals while winning one total set.  A comfortable win seemed within his grasp when he served for the match at 6-5 in the fourth set, only to see a vintage spurt of inspiration from the Swiss star force a fifth.  All the pressure rested on Murray in the deciding set after that opportunity slipped away, and yet he composed himself to smother Federer efficiently.  Murray’s third consecutive appearance in a major final illustrated his improving consistency, a theme of 2013.  Meanwhile, his opponent’s sagging energy in the fifth set revealed another theme of a season in which Federer has showed his age more than ever before.

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4) Rafael Nadal d. Ernests Gulbis, Indian Wells 4R, 4-6 6-4 7-5

Although South American clay had hinted at the successes ahead, neither Nadal nor his fans knew what to expect when he played his first marquee tournament since Wimbledon 2012.  Even the most ambitious among them could not have foreseen the Spaniard winning his first hard-court tournament since 2010 and first hard-court Masters 1000 tournament in four years.  Nadal would finish his title run by defeating three straight top-eight opponents, but the decisive turning point of his tournament came earlier.After falling behind the dangerous Ernests Gulbis, he dug into the trenches with his familiar appetite for competition.  To his credit, Gulbis departed from his usual insouciance and stood toe to toe with Nadal until the end, even hovering within two points of the upset.  But Nadal’s explosive athleticism allowed him to halt the Latvian’s 13-match winning streak in a series of pulsating exchanges.  He ended the match with his confidence far higher than when it began.

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3) Novak Djokovic d. Juan Martin Del Potro, Wimbledon SF, 7-5 4-6 7-6(2) 6-7(6) 6-3

Here is a match that does belong on this list simply because of its extraordinary length, tension, and quality, even if it ultimately lacks broader implications.  Neither man had lost a set en route to this semifinal, and its 283 blistering, sprawling minutes showed why.  Refusing to give an inch from the baseline, Djokovic and Del Potro blasted ferocious serves and groundstrokes while tracking down far more balls than one would have thought possible on grass. The drama raced to its climax late in the fourth set, when the Argentine saved two match points with bravery that recalled his Indian Wells victories over Murray and Djokovic.  Triumphant at last a set later, the Serb emitted a series of howls that exuded relief as much as exultation.  We will not know for the next several weeks what, if anything, will come from this match for Del Potro, but it marked by far his best effort against the Big Four at a major since he won the US Open.

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2) Novak Djokovic d. Stanislas Wawrinka, Australian Open 4R, 1-6 7-5 6-4 6-7(5) 12-10

Just halfway into the first major of 2013, everyone concurred that we already had found a strong candidate for the match of the year.  The second-ranked Swiss man lit up the Melbourne night for a set and a half as Djokovic slipped, scowled, and stared in disbelief at his unexpectedly feisty opponent.  Once Wawrinka faltered in his attempt to serve for a two-set lead, though, an irreversible comeback began.  Or so we thought.  A dazzling sequence of shot-making from Djokovic defined proceedings until midway through the fourth set, when Wawrinka reignited at an ideal moment.  Two of the ATP’s most glorious backhands then dueled through a 22-game final set, which also pitted Wawrinka’s formidable serve against Djokovic’s pinpoint return.  The underdog held serve six times to stay in the match, forcing the favorite to deploy every defensive and offensive weapon in his arsenal to convert the seventh attempt.  Fittingly, both of these worthy adversaries marched onward to impressive accomplishments.  Djokovic would secure a record three-peat in Melbourne, and Wawrinka would launch the best season of his career with victories over half of the top eight and a top-10 ranking.

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1) Rafael Nadal d. Novak Djokovic, Roland Garros SF, 6-4 3-6 6-1 6-7(3) 9-7

The stakes on each side loomed a little less large than in the 2012 final, perhaps, with neither a Nole Slam nor Nadal’s record-breaking seventh Roland Garros title on the line.  One would not have known it from watching a sequel much more compelling than the original, and one of the finest matches that this rivalry has produced.  Somewhat a mirror image of their final last year at the Australian Open, it featured a comeback by one man from the brink of defeat in the fourth set and a comeback by the other from the brink of defeat in the fifth.  Nadal led by a set and a break and later served for the match before Djokovic marched within six points of victory, but one last desperate display of will edged the Spaniard across the finish line.  Few champions throughout the sport’s history can match the resilience of these two champions, so the winner of their matches can exult in a hard-earned triumph.  While Djokovic proved how far he had progressed in one year as a Roland Garros contender, Nadal validated his comeback with his most fearless effort yet against the mature version of the Serb.  Only time will tell whether it marks the start of a new chapter in their rivalry, or a glittering coda that illustrates what might have been.

***

Check back in a day or two for a companion article on the seven most memorable women’s matches.

The Glory That Is Rome: ATP Rome Draw Preview

No sooner does the dust settle in Madrid than the action kicks off at the last clay Masters 1000 tournament on the Road to Roland Garros.  In fact, the action in Rome’s Foro Italico starts on the day of the Madrid final, offering some extra entertainment for those unsatisfied with the prospect of just one ATP match in their Sunday.

First quarter:  A bit of an enigma this clay season, Novak Djokovic has accomplished the most when the least was expected (Monte Carlo) and accomplished the least when the most was expected (Madrid).  The world No. 1 has won two titles in Rome, one against potential third-round opponent Stanislas Wawrinka in 2008.  Most fans will remember the five-set thriller that they contested at the Australian Open, and Wawrinka will bring considerable momentum to Rome after reaching the final in Madrid with upsets over two top-eight men.  A third such victory does not lie beyond his reach, for he also has defeated Murray and Ferrer on clay this year.  But Wawrinka has not defeated Djokovic since 2006, dropping 11 straight meetings, and he may have accumulated fatigue from not just Madrid but his Portugal title the week before.

The lower part of the quarter features Tomas Berdych and three towers of power.  While Kevin Anderson collected a runner-up trophy in Casablanca, he has suffered a string of setbacks to Berdych in 2012-13 and has shown little sign of reversing that trend.  Fellow giants Marin Cilic and John Isner exited early in Madrid, as they usually do on a surface that exposes their indifferent footwork and mobility.  Berdych has thrived against opponents of a style similar to his, so his chances of meeting Djokovic or Wawrinka in the quarterfinals look strong.  Never has he defeated either man on clay, however, and Djokovic has dominated him relentlessly, including two victories this year.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  Much to the relief of his fans, Rafael Nadal will control his own destiny regarding a top-four seed at Roland Garros.  The defending champion landed in the same quarter as compatriot David Ferrer for the second straight week, which means that he will pass him in the rankings if he wins the title.  One feels a bit sorry for home hope Andreas Seppi, a quarterfinalist in Rome last year who seems likely to lose all or most of those points.  Even if survives an opener against fellow Italian Fabio Fognini, which he could not in Monte Carlo, Seppi will become Nadal’s first victim in the next round.  Finally gone from the top 10, a dormant Janko Tipsarevic meets an equally dormant compatriot in Viktor Troicki to start the tournament.   Nadal demolished Tipsarevic in their previous clay meetings, while Troicki has threatened him only on the fast hard court of Tokyo.  Neither Serb might even reach the Spaniard, though, if Monte Carlo quarterfinalist Jarkko Nieminen hopes to continue his unexpected clay success.

Blow after blow has fallen upon Ferrer on his favorite surface over the last few months, from two routs in clay finals to an opening-round loss in Barcelona to the painful collapse against Nadal last week.  That Madrid match surely will linger in his mind if they meet in the same round here, although Fernando Verdasco might prevent it.  This fading Spaniard looked suddenly improved in Madrid and has a handful of clay victories over Ferrer, but he has lost their last few meetings.  A semifinalist in Barcelona, Milos Raonic should struggle to find the consistency necessary to outlast Ferrer here.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Third quarter:  This section contains more intrigue than the  others because the two bold-faced names who anchor it have struggled this clay season.  Lucky to scrape through Madrid as long as he did, the third-seeded Andy Murray finds himself fortunate to find no clay specialists in his immediate area.  The man who knocked Federer out of Madrid, Kei Nishikori, will look to follow up that breakthrough by defeating Murray for the first time.  After he came within five points of upsetting Nadal in 2011, Paolo Lorenzi earned a wildcard into the main draw to become Nishikori’s opening test.  Veterans like Nikolay Davydenko and Feliciano Lopez have sunk too deeply into decline to mount sustained runs.

Absent from Madrid and tepid in Monte Carlo, Juan Martin Del Potro hopes to recapture the form that saw him notch two top-five upsets (and nearly a third) at Indian Wells.  He has earned successes on clay before, including twice taking Federer to five sets at Roland Garros and reaching a semifinal there in 2009.  Del Potro must beware of Nicolas Almagro in the third round despite the latter’s struggles at Masters 1000 tournaments this year.  Remarkably, the two men have not met at the ATP level, so it would be fascinating to see what their explosive shot-making can produce in unison.  Either possesses stronger clay-court expertise than Murray, as does Almagro’s potential second-round opponent Juan Monaco.  Regrouping from an early-season slump, Monaco has won a set from Djokovic and defeated Tipsarevic over the last month.  He also stopped the Scot in Rome before and won his only clay meeting with Del Potro, albeit seven years ago.

Semifinalist:  Del Potro

Fourth quarter:  The Foro Italico has witnessed some of Roger Federer’s most ignominious setbacks at events of this level, including losses to Filippo Volandri, Radek Stepanek, and Ernests Gulbis.  Slowest of the nine Masters 1000 tournaments, the surface left him more vulnerable than the others to the lapses in consistency that have increased as he has aged.  Former nemesis Stepanek could meet him again in the second round, although Federer defeated him comfortably in the same round of Madrid.  Also lurking in this section, with a wildcard, is Volandri.  That particular ghost of Romes past probably will not have the chance to haunt Federer, for Tommy Haas should continue his current string of solid results to reach him in the third round.  While Haas won their most recent meeting on the grass of Halle, he has lost all of their other matches since 2007, one of them after winning the first two sets at Roland Garros.  Another man who has troubled Federer late in his career, Gilles Simon, might test the German’s consistency in the second round.

Perhaps the most compelling figure of those vying to meet Federer in the quarterfinals is neither of the two seeds but Grigor Dimitrov.  Until now, though, Dimitrov has shown a tendency to alternate breakthroughs with breakdowns, so his upset of Djokovic in Madrid could precede a pedestrian effort in Rome.  Both of Richard Gasquet’s clay victories over Federer have come at clay Masters 1000 tournaments, heightening the significance of what otherwise would seem an easy test for the Swiss to conquer.  A shootout could unfold in the second round between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and powerful young server Jerzy Janowicz, but neither man should last long on a surface antithetical to their strengths.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Nadal vs. Del Potro

Champion:  Rafael Nadal

 

What a Difference a Year Makes: Madrid in Blue vs. Madrid in Red

After the outcry caused by the audacious rhapsody in blue last year, the ATP essentially twisted the arm of the Madrid tournament into returning to its red roots.  But did the traditional surface really make a difference in the results of either the men’s or the women’s draw?  An analysis could use multiple angles, of which this article chooses just two.  First, it looks at the upsets of seeds by unseeded players in the first two rounds of Madrid over the last two years, the first on blue clay and the second on red clay.  Second, it looks at who ultimately reached the semifinals in both draws over those years.  This comparison between 2012 and 2013 aims to explore whether the change in surface correlates to significant differences in result patterns.

Of course, any single year can produce a skewed sample, so one could argue that singling out the current edition of Madrid does not fairly represent the overall trends of the event’s history on red clay.  That history remains quite young, however, for this year marks only its fourth on the surface.  And the blue-clay experiment lasted only a single year, so it seems appropriate to compare equal sample sizes highlighted by a comparable group of elite players.

 

Let’s start with the upsets angle, and with the WTA.  (Numbers refer to seeds.)

2012:

Lucie Hradecka d. 3 Petra Kvitova

Sorana Cirstea d. 7 Marion Bartoli

Petra Cetkovska d. 10 Vera Zvonareva

Varvara Lepchenko d. 11 Francesca Schiavone

Roberta Vinci d. 14 Dominika Cibulkova

Carla Suarez Navarro d. 15 Jelena Jankovic

Ekaterina Makarova d. 16 Maria Kirilenko

Almost half of the seeds (seven of sixteen) lost in the first or second round, a high number for an event of this quality.  On the other hand, five of the seven came from the 9-16 bracket, and Cirstea knocking off Bartoli on clay does not come as a huge surprise.  The latter has struggled regularly on the surface outside that single Roland Garros semifinal run in 2011, while the former earned her best result of any major with a quarterfinal there in 2009.  Another result that jumps out from this group, the Hradecka-Kvitova match, seems less startling in retrospect with the wild oscillations in Kvitova’s form over the last two years.  Kvitova also has made a habit of faltering against lower-ranked countrywomen, but this match still should raise an eyebrow because she was the defending champion in Madrid and fell to a heavy server, not a clay specialist.

Of the 9-16 upsets, Lepchenko defeating Schiavone surprises the most, and in fact the American ultimately reached the quarterfinals at this event.  That said, Madrid has witnessed other such unexpected results on red clay before, for which one need look no further than Aravane Rezai’s title in 2010.  Lepchenko also went back to work on the Italian battalions here this year, as you’ll see below.  Like Schiavone, Jankovic floundered through much of last season, so one should not read too much into her loss to rising clay talent Suarez Navarro.  Russians Zvonareva and Kirilenko usually have not enjoyed their clay seasons, and Vinci’s victory over Cibulkova looks merely like one clay specialist ousting another.  On the other hand, hindsight may dilute the magnitude of this upset, now that the Italian has risen above the Slovak in the rankings a year later. 

2013:

Ekaterina Makarova d. 3 Victoria Azarenka

Laura Robson d. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska

Madison Keys d. 5 Li Na

Daniela Hantuchova d. 8 Petra Kvitova

Carla Suarez Navarro d. 9 Sam Stosur

Yaroslava Shvedova d. 10 Caroline Wozniacki

Svetlana Kuznetsova d. 11 Nadia Petrova

Varvara Lepchenko d. 12 Roberta Vinci

Sabine Lisicki d. 15 Dominika Cibulkova

What comes around goes around for Vinci, it seems, an upset-maker in 2012 and the victim of an upset in 2012.  Kvitova also has found the Magic Box a house of horrors since winning the title here two years ago, her first career loss to Hantuchova this year adding some context to the Hradecka debacle last year.  And there’s just no curbing Lepchenko’s appetite for Italian cuisine in Madrid, while Cibulkova doesn’t seem to enjoy her time here in any color.  The heavy-hitting Lisicki’s upset of her in two tiebreaks suggests the impact of the Madrid altitude on amplifying serves, relevant no matter the surface.

Taking stock of the larger view, the carnage this week was staggering and becomes even more staggering considering the relative consistency that has developed at the top of the WTA over the last eighteen months or so.  Granted, Azarenka just returned from an injury absence and never plays her best on clay, nor does Radwanska.  But one would have expected the latter to win more than four games from a raw Laura Robson, even amid her recent slump, and Makarova did not topple Azarenka based on her superior clay-court expertise.  Madison Keys shares Robson’s and Makarova’s preference for faster surfaces, so her first-round rout of Li Na may have registered the greatest shock of all.  Just two years removed from her Roland Garros title, Li has continued to shine on clay with marquee finals in Rome last year and Stuttgart this year.  Any of those three upsets, though, came as a greater surprise than any of those in 2012.

The remaining upsets of top-10 players, those over Stosur and Wozniacki, spoke more to the recent struggles of both women and came at the hands of two players accomplished on clay.  They don’t add much to the overall picture.

The VerdictBoth years featured plenty of upsets, nearly half of the seeds falling in 2012 and over half of the seeds falling in 2013.  Three of the top ten fell last year and a ghastly six of the top ten this year in an even larger implosion.  Since most of the top women prefer somewhat faster surfaces to red clay anyway, that difference might actually demonstrate a point that the blue clay’s detractors cited:  the blue played more like other blue courts (e.g., hard courts) than like other clay courts.  Even so, seeing the best in the game play their best may matter more than any other goal, and last year offered more in that regard than this year did.

Let’s next see how the men fared in the upset category.

2012:

Marin Cilic d. 8 John Isner

Jurgen Melzer d. 13 Feliciano Lopez

Not much to see here, just two upsets before the final sixteen and both of men whom one would expect to exit early on clay.  In fact, these results counter perceptions of the blue clay as a much faster surface than the red, which the tournament’s later rounds would encourage.  Losses by Isner and Lopez, players built around explosive serves and short points, surprised much less than the upsets in the WTA draw in the same year.  I found the dearth of upsets by non-seeds in the ATP draw quite surprising, in retrospect, for it seemed amid the general tumult at the time that many more fell in the early rounds.

 2013:

Grigor Dimitrov d. 1 Novak Djokovic

Daniel Gimeno-Traver d. 8 Richard Gasquet

Juan Monaco d. 9 Janko Tipsarevic

Pablo Andujar d. 10 Marin Cilic

Mikhail Youzhny d. 11 Nicolas Almagro

Fernando Verdasco d. 12 Milos Raonic

In contrast to the previous year, the 2013 draw harvested a plentiful crop of upsets, including three members of the top ten.  The name looming above the list, of course, belongs to one of the two superstars who criticized the blue clay so vociferously.  We never will know how much a lingering ankle injury or the consequent lack of practice contributed to Djokovic’s opening-round loss.  Note, however, that he brought the injury and minimal practice to Monte Carlo two weeks before—and, surviving two early three-setters, ultimately won the title from Nadal.  While his slips, stumbles, and mishits on blue clay showed his discomfort with that surface, Djokovic slipped, stumbled, and mishit plenty of balls across three ragged hours of tennis.  Those parallels supported what some have observed over the last few years:  Madrid’s problems come not from the surface’s color but from its hasty, uneven preparation.

The second-most surprising result in my view came from Youzhny’s victory over Almagro, in which a seeded clay specialist near the top 10 fell to a rapidly fading fast-court specialist twenty slots below him.  That’s exactly the type of result that one might have expected on the blue clay, so its occurrence on the red reminds us that these counterintuitive results can happen there too.  Gasquet’s early loss also stands out (to a lesser extent) because of his past successes on clay and overall consistency in 2012-13.  All the same, Gimeno-Traver became the seventh player outside the top 30 to defeat the Frenchman since the US Open, showing that Gasquet remains more vulnerable to upsets than most of the top ten.

The upsets of Tipsarevic, Cilic, and Raonic registered little surprise because all three fell to players with much greater aptitude on clay.  By conquering the latter two, Andujar and Verdasco showed that the altitude perhaps does not offer massive servers as much of an advantage as some had thought.  Despite his top-ten ranking, Tipsarevic has lost to virtually every opponent imaginable this year as his dismal form has dogged him across all surfaces.

The Verdict:  In both quantity and quality, the Madrid men’s draw produced more notable upsets early in the week this year than last year, as did the women’s draw.  However you choose to interpret that difference, it certainly does not suggest that the traditional surface caused a return to normalcy—but quite the opposite.  Nevertheless, some more subtle thinkers might argue that rankings, and thus seedings, reflect a player’s performance on faster surfaces disproportionately compared with performance on clay.  Since the ATP still has plenty of clay specialists who make their living on the surface, the lack of upsets in 2012 ironically may suggest that the blue clay played more like a hard court, as many complained, since the seedings based predominantly on hard-court results dictated outcomes.  Food for thought…

Now let’s switch to the other angle of comparison and compare who reached the semifinals of Madrid in 2012 and 2013, ladies first.

2012:

1 Victoria Azarenka (d. 8 Li Na)

4 Agnieszka Radwanska (d. Varvara Lepchenko)

Lucie Hradecka (d. 5 Samantha Stosur)

9 Serena Williams (d. 2 Maria Sharapova)

To state the obvious, the top half played exactly according to form.  In fact, the only top-eight seed who did not reach the quarterfinals in that half was the aforementioned Bartoli, usually expected to underperform on any sort of clay.  Despite her ninth seed, Serena should be favored over Sharapova on any surface and merely extended her dominance in that rivalry.  Few would have been surprised to see her eliminate the higher-ranked Caroline Wozniacki in a three-setter a round before.  Having lost to Wozniacki in Miami earlier that spring, Serena was not going to let the Dane down her twice.

The only odd name in this lineup does pop the eyeballs a bit, even after we became acquainted with her in the upsets section.  Hradecka delivered the biggest shock there, and she built upon that run with another upset of the then-healthy and somewhat dangerous Stosur in two tense tiebreaks.  The serve-a-thon semifinal in which she battled Serena certainly departed from expectations for a clay match.  On the other hand, a single unseeded semifinalist has burst through the bracket into an otherwise studded lineup at many WTA tournaments over the past few years.  It’s unexpected but no more astonishing than Rezai two years before.

2013:

1 Serena Williams (d. Anabel Medina Garrigues)

8 Sara Errani (d. Ekaterina Makarova)

16 Ana Ivanovic (d. 6 Angelique Kerber)

2 Maria Sharapova (d. Kaia Kanepi)

This lineup makes considerably more sense for a clay tournament than what we saw at the same stage in 2012.  All four of these WTA semifinalists have reached Roland Garros finals, three of them winning the title, so their talents on the surface rise beyond doubt.  The only constant between the two years, Serena, has not shone in Paris for several years but still has accomplished far more there than fellow 2012 semifinalists Azarenka, Radwanska, and Hradecka.  And the narrowness of her victory over Medina Garrigues captured the ability of an unheralded clay specialist to challenge someone of far greater talent here.  The only quarterfinal upset, Ivanovic over Kerber, plays into the theme of surface expertise with a woman whose greatest exploits have come on clay toppling a higher-ranked woman who has built her career on hard courts.

The Verdict:  While the 2012 semifinalists comprised arguably a more accomplished group overall, the 2013 semifinalists more accurately align with expectations for clay.  The transition back to the red thus coincided with arguably more desirable results later in the week after the implosions earlier in the week.  What was lost at the beginning may have been gained at the end.

And now for the ATP comparison. 

2012:

7 Janko Tipsarevic (d. 1 Novak Djokovic)

3 Roger Federer (d. 5 David Ferrer)

10 Juan Martin Del Potro (d. 16 Alexander Dolgopolov)

6 Tomas Berdych (d. 15 Fernando Verdasco)

Let’s just go ahead and acknowledge the massive Mallorcan elephant in the room.  Barring injury or its aftereffects, Rafael Nadal never will fail to reach the quarterfinals of a Masters 1000 tournament on clay during his prime without raising questions about the tournament.  It felt especially awkward because Madrid is the most important Spanish tournament, the place where Nadal should have the opportunity to bask in the adulation of his compatriots.  A petulant side less attractive than his usual sportsmanlike self emerged there last year, but one could understand his frustration at the opportunity denied him.

One could make an almost equally compelling argument that Djokovic should reach the semifinals at every clay Masters 1000 event that he enters, again subject to injury and related matters (see this year’s case above).  Or, at least, he should not lose in that situation to Janko Tipsarevic, nobody’s idea of a clay specialist and someone characteristically content to play second fiddle to Nole.  While I hesitate to ever question someone who won a six-hour major final for lack of effort, I felt strongly that Djokovic held back his best in that quarterfinal.  As with Nadal, that attitude did not reflect especially well on him.  As with Nadal, it tarnished the tournament nonetheless.

 

Federer’s eventual victory offered Madrid the best possible resolution under the circumstances, and its top brass must have felt fortunate that he dodged the opening-round bullet of Milos Raonic in a third-set tiebreak.  Without Federer, the weekend designed as the tournament’s climax would have descended into chaos.  Quality players with plenty of accomplishments, Del Potro and Berdych illustrated all too clearly how much faster the blue clay appeared to play than its red cousin.  Their semifinal cost the tournament more of whatever credibility still clung to it, decided as it was by a style of tennis more common on hard courts than clay.  So was the final between Federer and Berdych, despite its entertaining twists and turns.

2013:

15 Stanislas Wawrinka (d. 7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga)

6 Tomas Berdych (d. 3 Andy Murray)

5 Rafael Nadal (d. 4 David Ferrer)

Pablo Andujar (d. 14 Kei Nishikori)

Just looking at the seedings of the survivors, the end of the tournament appears as chaotic as the beginning.  The lower-ranked man won every quarterfinal, and none of the top four seeds reached the semifinals, unusual for a Masters 1000 tournament.  But a closer inspection reveals that each of these results fits with our expectations of how the distinctiveness of red clay affects results.  In all four quarterfinals, the man with superior expertise on the surface prevailed, just as in the 2013 women’s draw.  Granted, Rafa came within two points of defeat against a compatriot whom he long has throttled on this surface, recalling the stunning ambush by Verdasco last year.  Fellow Spaniard Pablo Andujar also had struggled to win any matches at all over the last several months, so his sudden semifinal appearance with upsets over two seeded opponents astonishes.

The two non-Spanish semifinalists possess strong credentials on this surface with Wawrinka once coming within a set of the Rome title and Berdych within a set of the Roland Garros final.  Berdych is the only man who reached the Madrid semifinals in both of these years, an intriguing comment on how well his game adapts to various surfaces—or perhaps a comment on how much the altitude assists it.  A slow-court player, Wawrinka showed how the more physical, grinding attributes of a clay specialist’s game can prevail over a mercurial shot-maker like Tsonga.  Last year, that result may well be reversed.

The Verdict:  As with the women’s draw, the men’s draw crystallized late in the week this year into a more characteristic set of semifinalists than what we saw on the blue clay.  Nadal’s appearance in the semifinals backed up his arguments last year about that surface’s flaws, and Wawrinka makes a more credible surprise semifinalist on a slow court than Tipsarevic did.  While the route to this stage earlier in the week was less than ideal, and certainly more volatile than in 2012, the marquee rounds have unfolded along more familiar lines.

***

Two patterns thus emerge from comparisons between the Madrid men’s and women’s draws of the last two years.  The red clay produced more upsets in the first two rounds, and in general upsets of greater significance.  By the semifinals, though, the rubble had settled into a form more recognizable for this season than what the blue clay produced.

As the years unfold, we will observe whether those trends continue, or whether the altitude at this tournament continues to create chaos.  Another possible contributing factor, unrelated to the surface color, will improve in 2014 when the clay becomes permanent in Madrid rather than laid down shortly before the tournament each year.  The slipperiness that has troubled an array of stars during its brief history as a spring event should dwindle after that change, pleasing players and fans alike.

 

 

 

 

Out of the Blue: ATP Madrid Draw Preview

After the controversy over the blue clay undermined Madrid last year, this Masters 1000 tournament hopes for a week filled with more familiar forms of excitement.  All of the top ten men except Juan Martin Del Potro have returned to the Magic Box, creating plenty of storylines to explore.

First quarter:  Among the men who most resented last year’s surface, Novak Djokovic needs to prove that a more traditional court will inspire a stronger effort than his desultory quarterfinal loss last year.  Like Azarenka in the women’s draw, the world No. 1 must hit the red dirt running with a possible opener against Grigor Dimitrov.  Sharapova’s boyfriend would have won a set from Djokovic at Indian Wells had he not double-faulted a game away, and his three-set tussle with Nadal in Monte Carlo edged him closer to his first headline-seizing upset.  But Djokovic shone as brightly as he ever has on clay in winning that earlier Masters 1000 tournament for the first time.  That form would carry him past not only Dimitrov but Stanislas Wawrinka in the following round, a rematch of their Australian Open epic.  Wawrinka prefers clay among all surfaces and has displayed some his best tennis ever early this year, so one can expect a stirring encounter that may whet Djokovic’s appetite for battle moving forward.

More curious than compelling are the matches surrounding the seventh-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  An opener against Alexander Dolgopolov could develop into an acrobatic thriller reminiscent of a Wimbledon five-setter between them, or it could fall very flat depending on the moods of both men.  Last year’s quarterfinalist Fernando Verdasco may miss the blue clay more than anyone, for he looks unlikely to reawaken the memories of his upset over Nadal on it.  This lesser Spanish lefty could face the winner of a contrast in heights and styles between Milos Raonic and Nikolay Davydenko should he reach the second round.  If Tsonga does survive the streaky but dangerous challengers around him, he will not want to relive his Roland Garros quarterfinal against Djokovic last year, when he squandered four match points.  A matchup once on even terms, their rivalry has tilted overwhelmingly in the Serb’s direction since 2011.

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Second quarter:  Neither of the two men bookending this section has impressed on clay this year, and world No. 3 Andy Murray has enjoyed only one outstanding season on his least comfortable surface (2011).  The improvements that he made two years ago seemed to slip away last year and this year, when Wawrinka demolished him in Monte Carlo.  Murray seeks his 400th career victory in his first match here and may feel thankful to find few clay specialists in his vicinity.  Those who are, like Thomaz Bellucci and Horacio Zeballos, have struggled with both form and health over the last few months.  Gilles Simon always has struggled against Murray, and his recent mediocrity suggests little hope for change on the surface where he plays his worst tennis as well.

Nor do clay specialists proliferate in the area surrounding the sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych, a finalist on Tiriac’s blue clay last year.  Like Murray, Berdych slumped to an early exit at Monte Carlo, and his struggles continued a week later in Barcelona.  An extended slump looms if he cannot escape this recent malaise, although the prospect of facing Sam Querrey may lift his spirits.  Annihilating the American giant in Miami, Berdych also knocked off another giant in potential third-round opponent Kevin Anderson at Indian Wells.  Perhaps a greater test will arrive in clay specialist Juan Monaco, who set his horrific start to 2013 behind him by winning two matches in each of his last three tournaments.  This Argentine should fancy his chances of upsetting the weary, battered Janko Tipsarevic in the first round despite the latter’s semifinal appearance here last year.  Between Berdych and Murray, it’s hard to choose.  Give the Czech a slight edge based on his 2-0 lead in their clay head-to-head.

Semifinalist:  Berdych

Third quarter:  Quelling any fears of a tournament climaxing too early, the draw cast Rafael Nadal into the ideal section for him.  Even with his fifth seed, the reigning Roland Garros champion cannot face anyone more imposing than Ferrer until the semifinals.  Nadal struggled for most of a set in Barcelona against Benoit Paire, against whom he might open here, and more Barcelona déjà vu could arrive in a third-round clash with Nicolas Almagro.  This recently star-crossed Spaniard won a set from him here in a 2010 semifinal, just before Rafa claimed his only clay title in Madrid.  In their Barcelona final, moreover, Almagro raced to an early lead before his more accomplished compatriot wore him down.  Almost as plausible an opponent at that stage as Almagro is Fabio Fognini, a Monte Carlo semifinalist with smooth, effortless strokes.

The Spanish flavor of this quarter would extends below to the fourth-seeded David Ferrer, who stumbled at the outset of the clay season for the second straight year.  Felled in his Barcelona opener after missing Monte Carlo with an injury, Ferrer regained some of his confidence with a more convincing week in Portugal.  He may arrive a bit tired for his early Madrid matches, though, which could include a rematch with an equally tired Tommy Haas.  The 35-year-old German, who nearly upset Ferrer in Miami, plowed deep into the Munich draw for the second straight year and might well exit in his opener to clay specialist Andreas Seppi.  A thoroughly deserving wildcard, Tommy Robredo hopes to build on his Barcelona upset of Berdych but may need to reverse his Portugal loss to Seppi to do so.  If Ferrer does advance to meet Nadal, there are no prizes for predicting the outcome of that quarterfinal.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Fourth quarter:  One-handed backhands bookend this section, anchored by defending champion Roger Federer and that surprisingly persistent resident of the top ten, Richard Gasquet.  The GOAT could open against wannabe GOAT Bernard Tomic, whose exploits in Australia have inflated his reputation elsewhere.  This troubled prodigy still must prove that he can compete with credit throughout an entire season, recent improvements notwithstanding.  Otherwise, Federer and the fourteenth-seeded Kei Nishikori must salivate over the handful of slumping veterans around them.  While an experienced clay player like Jurgen Melzer might ambush the clay-averse Nishikori, the latter’s steadiness should propel him into a third-round meeting with the Swiss.

Likely to survive that obstacle with ease, Federer may find Gasquet a more compelling test.  The Frenchman has defeated the Swiss at the other two Masters 1000 tournaments on clay while leaving no impact on their rivalry elsewhere.  His route to their quarterfinal looks almost equally smooth, for the height of John Isner and Marin Cilic often works to their disadvantage on clay.  The altitude of Madrid can cause serves to fly through the court more effectively than at other clay tournaments, though, so those two giants and faded lefty Feliciano Lopez might win a larger quantity of free points.  Even though Federer labored with a back injury at Indian Wells, his most recent tournament, the long hiatus that he has enjoyed since then should have allowed his injury to heal and his focus to sharpen.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Djokovic vs. Nadal

Champion:  A coin-flip, really.  Djokovic won one of his Madrid meetings with Rafa and held match points in the other, plus he has the momentum in their rivalry, whereas Nadal actually has a losing record in clay finals here, so let’s go with Novak Djokovic.

Rafa’s Redoubt: ATP Monte Carlo Draw Preview

No man ever has won nine straight titles at an ATP tournament, but no man ever has come close to defeating Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo during the last decade.  Nadal has lost only two sets in his last six appearances in this principality perched on the Mediterranean, attaining a level of sustained brilliance that most mere mortals must struggle to imagine.

First quarter:  As he grapples with an ankle injury sustained in Davis Cup, Novak Djokovic also faces a section filled with potential challenges.  While his opener does not intimidate, he could meet a resurgent Ernests Gulbis in the third round.  Gulbis reeled off the longest winning streak of his career from February to March and can threaten even on clay when at his best, as an upset of Federer in Rome proved.  Winless outside Davis Cup until last week in Houston, Juan Monaco led the world No. 1 by a set in Rome last year.  To arrange a rematch, he would need either to solve Gulbis or reverse the result of his semifinal loss to John Isner on Saturday.   Although Isner notably extended Nadal to a fifth set at Roland Garros, becoming the only player ever to do so, neither he nor fellow towering server Milos Raonic looms as large on outdoor clay as during the rest of the season.  Djokovic’s greatest challenge probably will come from fifth-seeded wildcard Juan Martin Del Potro.  The Serb won both of their previous clay meetings, and Del Potro never has won a main-draw match in Monte Carlo.   Yet the Indian Wells runner-up holds the momentum edge against his fellow US Open champion, having ousted him in the desert, so Djokovic will need full health to withstand a rival playing his best tennis since 2009.

Semifinalist:  Del Potro

Second quarter:  Intersecting in Indian Wells and again in Miami, Tomas Berdych and Richard Gasquet could collide for a third straight Masters 1000 tournament.  Few barriers block that rubber match between the Czech who won at the former event and the Frenchman who won at the latter.  This quarter does contain a handful of clay specialists, such as Marcel Granollers and the suddenly notorious Nadal-killer Horacio Zeballos.  Of greater significance are two Italians destined to meet in the first round, both skilled on this surface but a sharp contrast in personalities.  The unseeded Fabio Fognini seeks to find his mercurial form when it matters most against Andreas Seppi, whose seeded position hinges on his ability to defend points over the next several weeks.  While those Italians lie in Berdych’s section, several powerful servers surround Gasquet.  Among them is Jerzy Janowicz, still learning how to cope with his elevated status, and the highly clay-averse Marin Cilic.  A finalist in Casablanca this week, Kevin Anderson will aim to build on that unexpected clay success in a third-round meeting with Gasquet, whom he defeated on French soil last fall.

Semifinalist:  Berdych

Third quarter:  A rematch of the 2010 final here, the possible second-round meeting between Nadal and compatriot Fernando Verdasco likely would prove little more competitive than that earlier demolition.  Despite his victory over his long-time nemesis on the blue clay last spring, Verdasco has struggled with injuries and a concomitant dip in confidence since the Australian Open.  Among the quarterfinalists there was Jeremy Chardy, a possible third-round opponent for Rafa.  Since the eight-time Monte Carlo champion dismissed early in his South American comeback, he should feel even more comfortable against him now.  Nadal also drew the least formidable of all possible quarterfinal opponents in Janko Tipsarevic, never a factor on clay and the recipient of three crushing defeats at the Spaniard’s hands.  Like Verdasco, the second-ranked Serb has accomplished virtually nothing since the Australian Open as injuries have crippled his weapons.  The flashy but raw Grigor Dimitrov and the experienced but underpowered Gilles Simon both conceal too many flaws to trouble Rafa for long.  Of course, one could say the same about all but a few players in this field.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Fourth quarter:  The highest-ranked Frenchman in the draw, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, shares a section with another man with little fondness for clay.  Although he reached the semifinals here before and even won a set from Nadal there, Andy Murray generally has produced modest results during this stage of the season except for a brilliant 2011 campaign.  He may suffer a lull after winning Miami, his first significant title since that US Open breakthrough, and occasional practice partner Stanislas Wawrinka could capitalize on a surface better suited to his strengths.  Scoring his only career victory over Federer here, Wawrinka has won both of his previous clay meetings with Murray in straight sets.  Former Roland Garros semifinalist Gael Monfils also lurks in the Scot’s vicinity, while Tsonga might encounter some resistance from two other former Roland Garros semifinalists in Nikolay Davydenko and Jurgen Melzer.  But the most dangerous opponent for the top seeds in this section probably is Nicolas Almagro, unless his run to the Houston final depletes his energies for a tournament thousands of miles away.

Semifinalist:  Almagro

Final:  Del Potro vs. Nadal

Champion:  Rafael Nadal

Can David Be Goliath? Sony Open Men’s Final Preview

A clear line of demarcation separates the encounters between David Ferrer and Andy Murray by surface.  While the world No. 5 has reigned supreme over their rivalry on clay, the world No. 3 has dictated the terms of their matches on outdoor hard courts.  Most notable of those was the straight-sets final that Murray won from the Spaniard at the Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai.  There as in their other meetings on this surface, Ferrer could find no way to outlast this equally durable, consistent opponent from the baseline, while Murray’s superior power allowed him to finish points more easily.  Most of these matches have featured one grinding rally after another, but the Scot’s superior first serve has allowed him to win more free points and earn easier holds.

On the other hand, Ferrer has won two of their last three meetings overall and battled Murray to the brink of a fifth set in the third, so the recent momentum stands balanced between them.  Both men claimed the most notable triumphs of their respective careers in 2012, Murray winning his first major at the US Open and Ferrer earning his first Masters 1000 shield at the Paris Indoors.  Both men started the year brightly with deep runs in Melbourne and have won small titles.  Indifferent in form at Indian Wells, they have sharpened their weapons here while capitalizing on the absence of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.  More impressive in general are Murray’s performances, for he has dropped only one set to a superior sequence of opponents than those who have faced Ferrer.  The Spanish veteran dropped the first set in each of his last two matches and needed all of his feistiness to claw back from those deficits as well as a final-set deficit in his semifinal against Tommy Haas.  He must aim to start more positively against Murray, who for his part must try to finish more sturdily than he did in his semifinal.

Dropping the first set of that match to Gasquet, the world No. 3 failed to serve out that set and later struggled to consolidate leads in the final set.  The 2009 champion here, he has not won a Masters 1000 tournament since that Shanghai meeting with Ferrer and surely would relish reaching No. 2 by ending that drought.  For Murray, who plays his least convincing tennis on clay, Sunday marks an opportunity to end the hard-court season with a statement that would wrest back some of the spotlight from the rest of the Big Four.  For Ferrer, Sunday marks an opportunity to build crucial momentum for a strong run on the red dirt in which he revels.  Never has a Spanish man claimed the title in Miami, a startling fact in view of the relatively slow courts and the outstanding crop of stars that his nation has produced this century.  Great Britain, by contrast, has produced just one, and the maturity with which Murray has responded to the pressure of those circumstances has helped him accumulate the poise and patience with which he can persevere against the indefatigable Ferrer.  A steady second to Nadal in Spanish tennis, their recent rankings notwithstanding, David should finish second to another Goliath on Sunday.

Backhanded Complements: Sony Open Men’s Semifinals Preview

In the men’s semifinals at the Sony Open, two underdogs with elegant one-handed backhands face two top-five men with more functional two-handers.  While both of the underdogs have continued to sizzle through the draw after catching fire earlier this week, they face opponents designed to cool off such torrid streaks.

Tommy Haas vs. David Ferrer:  Many a less experienced man would have contented themselves with the spectacular upset over world No. 1 Novak Djokovic that Haas delivered in the fourth round.  Too hardened a veteran to succumb to that sort of hangover, the German followed that victory with another commanding effort against Gilles Simon.  Not since 2001 has he won a Masters 1000 shield, his only triumph at that level, but some already have drawn comparisons to Ivan Ljubicic’s autumnal surge at Indian Wells three years ago.  Turning 35 next week, Haas has faced David Ferrer only twice in his long career.  While he has lost both previous matches, the most recent dates from 2008 and thus bears little relevance to a meeting between a gritty baseliner and a stylish all-court artist.

Plenty of contrasts separate them beyond their backhands:  the imposing serve of Haas against the efficient return of Ferrer, the shot-making flair of Haas against the high-percentage grinding of Ferrer, and the forecourt deftness of Haas against the timely passing shots of Ferrer.  Dropping the first set to Melzer in the quarterfinals, the third seed showed glimpses of vulnerability to an attacking fast-court specialist, even on a slow hard court.  Armed with more momentum than Melzer, and drained by fewer long matches, Haas presents a sterner challenge if the Spaniard’s patient retrieving does not chip away at his focus.

Richard Gasquet vs. Andy Murray:   In contrast to Haas and Ferrer, these two men have met repeatedly on occasions of note, highlighted by epic duels at Wimbledon and Roland Garros that Murray wrested away from his rival after losing the first two sets.  A year older than the US Open champion, Gasquet won their only match on outdoor hard courts—seven years ago—and gained a measure of revenge for those embarrassments at majors by rallying from losing the first set against him at Monte Carlo last year.  The Frenchman has resurrected his career by quietly building the consistency that eluded him when others viewed him as the sport’s next great star, and he already has won two small titles in 2013 to accompany a third title and a Masters 1000 final from 2012.

Much less consistent at smaller tournaments since winning his first major, Murray rebounded from a desultory effort at Indian Wells with a series of straight-sets wins here.  No opponent has tested him throughout an entire match, the challenge at which Gasquet has failed so spectacularly before.  The mercurial shot-maker found his range for longer periods than usual in a high-quality battle against Nicolas Almagro and a startlingly routine victory over Berdych, but he now faces someone more physically and emotionally durable than either of those previous victims.

Eyes on the Prize: Sharapova, Serena, Murray, and Berdych on Thursday in Miami

As the Sony Open nears its conclusion, Thursday will determine the leading ladies in Saturday’s women’s final, while the men still have some quarterfinal business to settle.

Maria Sharapova vs. Jelena Jankovic:  Even on an afternoon when her serve chronically deserted, Sharapova found the will and the focus to fire past world No. 7 Sara Errani in two tortuous sets.  If fourteen double faults cannot blunt her confidence, not many opponents can either.  Jankovic has managed to chip away at Sharapova’s steeliness on a few previous occasions despite emerging triumphant only once in seven attempts.  In their only completed meeting since 2008, when both women occupied the top five, a temporarily resurgent Serb came within a tiebreak of upsetting the Russian in the Cincinnati final two years ago.  Not a single shot can Jankovic hit more impressively than Sharapova, so she relies on her superior movement and durability.  Years of overstuffed schedules have undermined those strengths, and the 22nd seed enters the semifinal as a heavy underdog in view both of ranking and of recent form, which fluctuated wildly throughout her three-set victory over Vinci.  Needing to recover from that rollercoaster within fifteen hours, Jankovic must hope for another erratic afternoon from Sharapova while refining her own consistency.

Marin Cilic vs. Andy Murray:  Recalling the Sharapova-Jankovic rivalry, Cilic has won only one of nine meetings with his higher-ranked opponent.  That lone victory came on a momentous stage, the 2009 US Open, but a wrist injury may have contributed to that upset.  On the other hand, Cilic came close to repeating the feat at the same tournament last year when he nearly built a two-set lead, only to see Murray snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and ultimately run away with the match.  Astonishingly, they never have met at an outdoor Masters 1000 tournament while colliding at each of the four majors.  Cilic’s dominant serve and first-strike combinations often play into the hands of Murray’s crisp returning, alert instincts, and cleverly threaded passing shots.  The Croat impressed in extending his tiebreak record this year to 8-1 when he ambushed Tsonga, but the highest-ranked man remaining has not lost a set here and has become the heavy favorite to claim the title.

Richard Gasquet vs. Tomas Berdych:  What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, or so it seems in the case of Berdych.  Thrust to the brink in each of his first two matches, he enjoyed a greatly needed respite in the third with a swift victory over Querrey in which he regained his rhythm.  Quite the opposite was the last outing of the Frenchman ranked four places below him, an epic that ended in a third-set tiebreak that showcased his enhanced resilience under pressure.  When this pair met at Indian Wells, Berdych earned a deceptively straightforward victory as his opponent converted just one of fourteen break points amid some dismal serving from both men.  Unlike the histories among the other three pairs, however, their history stands deadlocked at 4-4 with Gasquet holding a slight edge on outdoor hard courts.  If he can find Berdych’s backhand and extend the rallies, his more balanced groundstrokes and more flowing movement could compensate for his disadvantage in raw power on this slow Miami court.

Serena Williams vs. Agnieszka Radwanska:  A leg injury and a flurry of double faults raised question marks over the world No. 1’s health during an edgy, uneven victory over Li Na.  Good enough to (narrowly) avoid a second straight three-setters, Serena now sets her sights on the defending champion in Miami, who has survived a string of long matches herself.  Radwanska has played final sets in five of her last six matches, including consecutive comebacks from losing the first set here.  Clearly below her 2012 form for most of 2013, she must hope to start more auspiciously against Serena, an excellent front-runner.  But a disastrous start in the Wimbledon final did not stop Radwanska from clawing a path back into that encounter with the heavily favored American, the only occasion in their four meetings when she has won a set from her.  In each of the other three, she has won four or fewer games, so this matchup may prove less compelling than their top-four rankings would suggest.  Serena has not won a title since Brisbane in the first week of the season, and the hunger for something more prestigious surely gnaws at her, as does a determination to atone for last year’s embarrassing result here.  If her body does not betray her, nor does her focus, she should rout Radwanska again.  If either falters, the consistency and unpredictable all-court artistry of the Pole could keep her off balance and the outcome in doubt.

Quarters for Our Thoughts: Sharapova, Ferrer, and More on Wednesday in Miami

After a handful of upsets in the men’s draw on Tuesday, Wednesday offers the start of the quarterfinals and the end of that round in the women’s draw.

Maria Sharapova vs. Sara Errani:  While nearly all of the other Indian Wells headliners have vanished, the women’s champion there keeps chugging through a streak of eighteen consecutive sets won, most in dominant fashion.  But Sharapova looked less crisp in focus, accuracy, and movement during her last two matches than during the climax of her desert run.  And her sternest test at Indian Wells awaits her for a second straight quarterfinal, continuing to show the hard-court consistency that has elevated her into the top eight.  Few people can have welcomed Errani’s ascent more enthusiastically than Sharapova, who crushed her in the Roland Garros final to claim a career Grand Slam.  While she repeated the same scoreline at the year-end championships, their meeting two weeks ago started with an 80-minute set that showcased the contrast between the flat baseline lasers of one and the artful net play of the other.  Sharapova saved set point before wearing down Errani, who feathered drop shot after drop shot to perfection but could not build a victory on that foundation alone.  The Italian already weathered the first strikes of Ana Ivanovic, though, and will probe her opponent diligently for cracks in her armor.

David Ferrer vs. Jurgen Melzer:  Of their eight previous meetings, not one has come on the Tour’s dominant surface of outdoor hard courts.  This anomaly complicates efforts to predict the outcome based on history, although Ferrer holds a meaningful 6-2 lead.  One of their most significant matches ended decisively in Melzer’s ledger at Roland Garros three years ago, where he achieved the best result of his career in upsetting Novak Djokovic to reach the semifinals.  Both over 30, the two men have traveled in opposite directions since then with the Austrian fading at most tournaments of note and the Spaniard claiming an ATP-leading nine titles since the start of 2012.  Into his second straight Miami quarterfinal, Ferrer has impressed with comprehensive victories over two seeded opponents, one of whom (Kei Nishikori) had troubled him before.  For his part, Melzer has defeated no challenger more prominent than Marcel Granollers, and he has needed final sets to secure three of his four victories.  The man who exploited Del Potro’s exit should crumble, physically and mentally, under the pressure of Ferrer’s resilient baseline defense.

Jelena Jankovic vs. Roberta Vinci:  To judge from their history, one can expect a highly competitive encounter.  Three times in five encounters, these two slow-court specialists have reached a final-set tiebreak to decide matches highlighted by their contrasting backhands.  Whereas Jankovic redirects the ball with her two-hander down the line, Vinci disrupts the rhythm of opponents with the versatility of the only one-hander in the WTA top 20.  Especially effective is her backhand slice, which floats deep into the court to keep aggressive baseliners at bay.  Somewhat the superior server, Jankovic still does not win many free points from her delivery and will need to outmaneuver the Italian in extended rallies.  The 2008 runner-up has not dropped a set in three matches, so she reaches the quarterfinal with more energy in reserve than a fellow veteran who has played three sets in all of hers.  Losing the first set in all of them, Vinci will hope to start more auspiciously against Jankovic, although she rallied from the same situation to edge past her in Sydney two months ago.

Tommy Haas vs. Gilles Simon:  Not the match that anyone anticipated for Wednesday’s night session, the battle of Serb slayers pits the opportunistic aggression of Haas against the impenetrable counterpunching of Simon.  While the Frenchman prefers to construct a fortress behind the baseline and rally in neutral mode until his opponent blinks, the 34-year-old German must force the issue by opening the court and cutting off angles.  Simon’s upset over Tipsarevic felt relatively minor because of the second-ranked Serb’s recent woes, but he still must feel satisfied to have restored his level from Indian Wells mediocrity to the solid results that he submitted in February.  For his part, Haas cannot afford to let his focus slide in the aftermath of a stunning triumph over the world No. 1.  Djokovic did not reach his normal heights in that match, but his opponent still displayed a level of shot-making precision that can carry him past Simon if he maintains it.  Having won two of his three hard-court meetings with Simon, he will hope to build upon his pair of victories last year on contrasting surfaces in Hamburg and Toronto.  The Frenchman’s only success in their history comes from an Indianapolis three-setter in 2008, when the heat and the slow court enabled him to outlast the older man.  With a rare window open to reach a Masters 1000 semifinal, each man hopes to capture key rankings territory.

A Night To Remember: Haas Stuns Djokovic at the Sony Open

More than thirteen long years had passed since the last time that Tommy Haas had defeated a reigning #1, so long that he couldn’t even remember who it was or where it was.  A string of players had passed through the top spot since his 1999 victory over Andre Agassi in a tournament that no longer exists, while the spectacularly talented German struggled with injury after injury and never rose higher than No. 2 or reached a major final.  Late in a career filled with frustrations, Haas has found stability and contentment more than ever before, as his game reflects.  At the age of 34, he upset Roger Federer, Tomas Berdych, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga last year during his ascent from outside the top 200 to inside the top 20.

All the same, one hardly fancied his chances on Tuesday night against three-time Sony Open champion and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who had steamrolled his first two opponents and seemed better adapted to the slow hard courts in Miami.  Haas felt confident at the outset, though, for he recalled the “last couple of times I played Novak” and especially a Toronto three-setter last year when “we had a really good battle, which I was really happy about the way I played.”  As it turned out, he felt, the conditions “favored me a little bit” because of the wind that has swept through many night sessions.

From 1-2 in the first set to 2-0 in the second, Haas reeled off seven straight games with penetrating groundstrokes and outstanding serving.  To that stage, he lost only three points on his serve and consistently kept Djokovic—one of the ATP’s best movers—scrambling and lunging for shots out of his reach.  Not since his title run in Halle, in his view, had he “maintained a really high level” against an elite oppponent and produced “something really special” that he will remember for a long time.

Failing to convert chances for an insurance break in both of the Serb’s next two service games might have unglued the temperamental Haas of his peak years.  And they loomed large when he dropped serve at love for 3-3 in the second set and lost 11 straight points in his only lull of the match.  “I just wasn’t happy with the way I gave those points away, really,” said Haas.  As he sat during the changeover, suddenly trailing 3-4 with a crucial service game to come, he forced himself to remain calm.  “Try to hold here to keep it tight….If you have a chance, play a little bit different than before.”

He would not lose another game, rediscovering the right mixture of patience and aggression in finding the Serb’s errant forehand wing often and finishing points at the net when he found the opportunity.  Haas did not lose a point in the forecourt despite Djokovic’s reputation for sparkling passing shots, and he served out the match more comfortably than most underdogs would have against a world No. 1.  “I had the mentality tonight going out there believing it,” said Haas, and nobody would argue with that statement after watching him finish an eye-opening display.

The man who turns 35 next week will rejoin the top 15 after this tournament if he can defeat French counterpuncher Gilles Simon in a quarterfinal tomorrow night, a grinding match that Haas cannot underestimate amid his euphoria.  But, even in the immediate aftermath of his upset, he sounded ready to take the next step forward from his victory.  “Right now I feel pretty good, as good as I have in a long time and, you know, just never give up.”   While fully aware of Simon’s relentless defense, he said calmly that the match “really depends on what kind of night I have, I think.”

If it resembles this night at all, it will be another night to remember for the veteran who never gives up.