miami tennis

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.

Photo Renderings: Sony Open Plans for a $50 Million Three-Year Renovation

March 30, 2013 — Sony Open organizers unveiled plans Wednesday for a $50 million project to improve the tournament site at Crandon Park, with work expected to take three phases and be completed by the start of the 2017 tournament. The tournament’s vision includes an improved stadium court, three additional permanent show courts, increased landscaped green space, and the addition of new park facilities that will be open to the public when the Sony Open is not in session.

The Sony Open’s owner, IMG, is prepared to begin construction on April 1, 2014, immediately following next year’s tournament and the project is to be completed in three phases taking ten months each.

Miami-Dade county voters agreed last November to allow the $50 million makeover which will be financed solely by IMG and private Sony Open funds that include tournament revenues, such as ticket surcharges and parking fees. However, tournament organizers still need full approval from the county in order to begin renovations on the county-owned park.

Adam Barrett, senior vice president of IMG and the Sony Open tournament director, stated that the initial phase will focus on renovating Grandstand Stadium which is located in the northwest corner of the site. Barrett also confirmed that the Sony Open will very much stay a hard court tournament despite recent opinions that the tournament should consider becoming a clay court tournament to better compete with the BNP Paribas Open which directly precedes it.

The announcement comes as the Sony Open grows in stature, drawing visitors from across the globe, and generating an economic impact totaling $386 million each year for the city, or the equivalent of a “Super Bowl in your backyard every year,” stated Barrett.

Planned upgrades to improve the patron and player experience include three new permanent show courts with fixed seating, locker rooms and training facilities for players, and improved broadcast facilities for global media partners.

New green spaces will be landscaped with plants and trees native to Key Biscayne, including a central water feature. An outdoor viewing mound featuring a video screen will enable tournament attendees to view matches in a park-like setting.

“What began as a regional event has grown to become one of the premier stops on the professional tour, and we believe the Sony Open deserves first-rate facilities,” Barrett stated. “Our investments in the Crandon Park Tennis Center will ensure international tennis remains in Miami for the long-term.”

(Parts taken from official press release; BEA Architects renderings provided by Schwartz Media Strategies)

Her Best Against The Best: Miami Women’s Final Preview

As her records in key rivalries and her stunning semifinal rout of Agnieszka Radwanska illustrated, Serena Williams plays her best against the best.  Never does that trait become more apparent than in her matches against Maria Sharapova, long envisioned by the media as Serena’s most plausible rival.  Since she escaped three match points against the world No. 2 at the 2005 Australian Open, the world No. 1 has dominated her meetings with a rival who defeated her in two key 2004 finals at Wimbledon and the year-end championships.  Most of those matches have featured little or no drama, including routs in an Australian Open, an Olympics gold-medal match, and a 2007 fourth-round encounter here.  From any of those episodes in their history, viewers can discern that the two women play essentially the same fearlessly aggressive game.  Serena simply executes that game more effectively, relying on the best serve in WTA history, superior athleticism, and greater ability to transition between offense and defense as necessary.

While the American’s brilliance has set the tone, Sharapova certainly has done little to help her own cause on these occasions.  A competitor who emanates such fierce confidence against virtually all other opponents tends to retreat into a muted shell of herself at the outset of or a short distance into these encounters, listlessly resigning herself to the inevitable.  Sharapova commits routine errors much more frequently than she does in the average match, and she generally struggles with her serve to a greater extent than one would attribute to the pressure of Serena’s stinging returns.  In short, fans have grown accustomed to seeing a diluted version of her in these matches when only the most intense version would suffice.  On an 11-match winning streak that has carried her within one victory of the rare Indian Wells-Miami double, Sharapova may have accumulated more confidence than usual to insulate her from the memories of previous meetings with Serena.

The Russian must assert herself early in the match to keep her spirits high, however, and the nearly flawless manner in which Serena burst out of the gate against Radwanska would have left anyone in the dust.  Firing an ace of the first point of her semifinal, the legendary champion delivered a much more forceful statement of intent than she had in earlier rounds.  Much ink has been spilled on Serena’s vaunted ability to elevate her form at the climax of tournaments, to which the motivation of facing an elite opponent probably contributes.  Sharapova likewise elevated her form near the end of Indian Wells to soar past the competition, so this final could produce breathtaking quality if both women can soar simultaneously to produce the tennis of which each is capable at her finest.

Recent Miami finals have seen little such tennis but instead have featured a sequence of routs as the energy in the stadium sags.  Realistically speaking, nothing in the recent history between the top two women in the world leads an observer to predict a match more than routine or modestly respectable.  Four times a finalist at the Sony Open, Sharapova likely will find herself holding the smaller trophy for a fifth time.  Her moment in the Miami sun will come, no doubt, for she plows through the draw here each year with a relentless regularity.  For now, Saturday remains Serena’s time to shine and the Sony Open the tournament where she will hold more titles than at any other.

 

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.

Tuesday in Total: Every Sony Open Match Previewed!

One day after the women arranged their quarterfinal lineup, the men do the same in a day that features all of the fourth-round ATP matches in Miami as well as the first two women’s quarterfinals.

David Ferrer vs. Kei Nishikori:  While their most recent meeting swung decisively in the veteran’s favor, the Japanese star won two of the previous three.  Among them was Nishikori’s breakthrough victory at the 2008 US Open, a pulsating five-setter in which the similarities between the two men became apparent, such as their fitness and their high-percentage shot selection.  Both can struggle to finish points at times, and both possess underrated weapons in crisp, streamlined two-handed backhands.  Neither bombs huge serves, despite improvements in that area, so their solid returning could produce plenty of service breaks on this slow surface.  The often-injured Nishikori recently won his third career championship in Memphis, while Ferrer already has claimed two titles this year.

Serena Williams vs. Li Na:  Muddling through her previous match, the top seed will need to raise her level significantly—or at least sooner—when the level of competition soars.  Li has stayed torrid for longer than she usually does, following her Australian rampage with three straight-sets victories here that revealed minimal rust after her injury.  Although she has won only one of their seven meetings, the six tiebreaks and three three-setters prove that she can trouble Serena with her pinpoint groundstrokes and penetrating first serve.  The Chinese star has moved much more alertly and sustained a more even level in matches than her quarterfinal opponent, who has traced the opposite of her usual progression through tournaments.  Instead of growing more intent with each round, Serena has looked increasingly disinterested, never a fault of which one could accuse Li.

Andreas Seppi vs. Andy Murray:  Having defeated two rising stars in Grigor Dimitrov and Bernard Tomic, Murray now faces someone on the opposite end of his career.  Lacking real weapons to hurt the Scot, Seppi can neither outhit him nor outlast him from the baseline, and his tepid second serve should allow his opponent to showcase his stinging return.  Murray lost his first meeting with Seppi on his home soil in Nottingham, but he has won all eight of their sets since then with one match on each of the four main surfaces (outdoor hard, indoor hard, clay, grass).  In one caveat, he has not faced the Italian since the latter’s surge that started a year ago and propelled him into the top 20.  This year has proved less successful for Seppi, who has not in fact defeated anyone in the top eight during his renaissance.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Marin Cilic:  A stark contrast to the preceding match, this clash of two heavy servers marks just the second hard-court meeting between them at an ATP tournament.  Tsonga moved past Cilic routinely at Cincinnati two years ago, but that much faster court played to his strengths more than the slow court does here.  Whereas he looks for chances to step inside the court and approach the net, Cilic remains tethered to the baseline and uses his steadier, symmetrical groundstrokes to stretch his opponents laterally.  He has won all seven of his tiebreaks at ATP events this year, a testament to this calm, lanky Croat’s poise when sets hang in the balance.  Also stellar in that area recently, the more flammable Tsonga won a small title in February two weeks after Cilic did the same.  Just three ranking spots separate them despite the Frenchman’s clearly more impressive career resume.

Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Kirsten Flipkens:  The Miami tournament has produced plenty of surprises, few more notable than the quarterfinal appearance of this Belgian.  Her mentor, Kim Clijsters, won this title twice with a more athletic, balanced game than what Flipkens needed to deploy in upsetting Petra Kvitova and backing up that statement with a victory over the raw Ajla Tomljanovic.  This match would not seem unduly concerning for the defending champion, although she faces an opponent who can take time away from her, shorten points, and cut off angles at the net.  Only once have they met, in Fed Cup three years ago, so both players may need time to adapt their distinctive styles to each other.  Each woman has played a series of three-setters lately, suggesting ebbs and flows in their form.  Having found the belief to win a set from Azarenka at Indian Wells, Flipkens needs to find it and keep it against the resilient Pole.

Novak Djokovic vs. Tommy Haas:  The German has troubled the Djoker occasionally, defeating him at Wimbledon in 2009 and extending him to a final set at the Rogers Cup just last year.  In three previous meetings at Masters 1000 hard-court tournaments, though, the world #1 has prevailed every time.  He looks far more focused and purposeful this week than he did at Indian Wells, mirroring the trajectory that he traced at the twin events in 2012.  That said, neither of his first two opponents approached the talents of the 18th-ranked Haas, who has drawn additional motivation this week from the presence of his daughter, Valentina.  Djokovic relishes the spectacle of playing under the lights, so an upset looks less probable than he might have if Miami had scheduled the match before Valentina’s bedtime.  The Serb’s consistency should undo the mercurial Haas on these slow courts as he extends the veteran into too many long, physically grinding rallies.

Albert Ramos vs. Jurgen Melzer:  Not the fourth-round match that anyone anticipated in this section, it unfolds amid the wreckage left behind by Juan Martin Del Potro’s early exit.  As one might expect, it marks the first career meeting between these two lefties, for either of whom a Masters 1000 quarterfinal would mark a substantial accomplishment.  After winning the Dallas challenger last week, Melzer carried his confidence through two comebacks from losing the first set here.  Ramos also weathered peaks and valleys in his form through consecutive three-setters against Juan Monaco, the second-highest seed in the section outside Del Potro, and home hope James Blake. Melzer owns the more imposing weapons, so the Spaniard should find himself in a counterpunching role.  But that role may be the easier to play on these courts with so much at stake.

Richard Gasquet vs. Nicolas Almagro:  For the second straight match, Gasquet faces a fellow practitioner of the one-handed backhand art.  The florid sweep of Almagro’s swing should contrast elegantly with the elongated but more explosive swat that Gasquet produces.  Like Tsonga and Cilic, these Europeans stand almost adjacent in the rankings, but the similarity in their backhands is echoed by other parallels in their playing styles.  Both can forget to put substance before style with their fondness for spectacular shot-making displays, and both have proven themselves vulnerable when the time arrives to finish matches.  Whereas Almagro spent last month on South American clay, Gasquet remained on hard courts in Europe.  That preparation might prove more meaningful in Miami, although he lost their only meeting on hard courts in 2011.

Sam Querrey vs. Tomas Berdych:  Flirting with disaster in each of his first two matches, Berdych lost the first set in both, rallied to win the second set in a tiebreak, and then established control early in the final set.  He even saved two match points against Alejandro Falla yesterday, one with an audacious second-serve ace, and displayed some uncharacteristic patience in constructing the rallies that turned the momentum.  Receiving a walkover from Milos Raonic, Querrey may have needed the respite after he too rallied from losing the first set to win the only match that he has played here.  He defeated Berdych at the 2008 US Open, but the Czech has sezied command since then with three straight victories in the second half of last year.  Once infamous for losses to anonymous opponents, the fourth seed has improved his consistency dramatically and rarely has lost to anyone outside the top eight over the last several months.  The last American man standing will enjoy the support of the home crowd as he attempts to outslug Berdych in a match of staccato serve-forehand combinations.

Gilles Simon vs. Janko Tipsarevic:  The world No. 9 trails the overall head-to-head 6-2 in a rivalry that has developed only recently.  Five of the matches have reached a final set, where Simon’s superior fitness has reaped rewards, and the surface speed appears to have played a role.  Tipsarevic’s two victories came on two of the fastest courts where they have met, the blue clay of Madrid and the fall Tokyo tournament, while Simon won here two years ago.  Almost comically dismal at Indian Wells, the Frenchman has sharpened his game considerably through the first two matches—but so has the Serb, who surprised some by defeating the recently more dangerous Kevin Anderson.  This match should feature plenty of long rallies, but Tipsarevic will try to redirect his groundstrokes down both lines to keep Simon on his heels.

Monday Mayhem: Miami WTA Fourth-Round, ATP Third-Round Matches Previewed

On a busy Monday in Miami, all of the women’s fourth-round matches unfold.  You can find a preview of all eight here in addition to a few of the remaining men’s third-round encounters.

Garbine Muguruza vs. Li Na:  Into the fourth round for the second straight Premier Mandatory tournament, the Spanish rising star continues to consolidate her position as a player to watch this year.  Indian Wells finalist Caroline Wozniacki became the latest player to learn about Muguruza’s ascendancy the hard way, thoroughly dismantled on Sunday.  A day later, the youngster trains her weapons on Li Na, who has produced consistently outstanding tennis in the few tournaments that she has played this year.  The Australian Open runner-up has lost only to Agnieszka Radwanska and Victoria Azarenka in 2013, although a knee injury sidelined her for several weeks after Melbourne.  When she returned this week, her ball-striking looked as clean if not as audacious as it had in January.  Never at her best in Miami, Li could turn a page now.

Serena Williams vs. Dominika Cibulkova:  Awaiting the winner of the previous match in the quarterfinals is the world No. 1, assuming that she can survive the test posed by the shortest woman in the top 30.  Cibulkova vanished from relevance after reaching the Sydney final, where Radwanska double-bageled her, but she pushed Serena’s predecessor in the spot to the brink in the same round here a year ago.  That match against Azarenka, for which she served twice, revealed how much her explosive forehand can threaten taller opponents with more effortless power.  Against a server like Serena, who struck 20 aces against her at Wimbledon in 2010, Cibulkova’s short wingspan may prevent her from creating pressure in return games and exploiting the erratic baseline play that Williams showed in the last round.

Grigor Dimitrov vs. Andy Murray:   The memory of what unfolded when he faced Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells may reverberate through Dimitrov’s mind if he takes a lead against Murray.  Serving for the first set that time, he conceded four double faults in a painful display of nerves.  Dimitrov also took Murray to a first-set tiebreak wen they met in the Brisbane final this year, only to lose the tiebreak decisively and fade thereafter.  Much more impressive than he looked at Indian Wells, Murray showed minimal mercy to another rising phenom in Bernard Tomic. His two-handed backhand should break down Dimitrov’s one-hander unless the Bulgarian enjoys an excellent serving day that allows him to dictate points with his forehand.

John Isner vs. Marin Cilic:  Among the stranger statistics of the ATP is Cilic’s undefeated record against Americans, which includes victories over playesr like Roddick and Querrey.  That perfection might continue against a giant exhausted from his epic victory over Ivan Dodig in the sweltering Miami heat.  Mired in a slump for the last several months, Isner will have gained confidence from winning the type of close match that he so often plays, but he generally does not recover well after winning them and does not have an impressive history in Miami.  The slow surface will blunt the serves of both men, a greater concern for Isner than the more balanced Cilic.

Maria Sharapova vs. Klara Zakopalova:  The only woman in the lower half of the women’s draw who has defeated Sharapova on a hard court, Zakopalova halted the other Russian Maria in the wake of the latter’s strong fortnight at Indian Wells.  That sole victory came a decade agao at the Australian Open, however, and the Czech subsided uneventfully when they met in Doha this February.  Sharapova struggled on serve when Zakopalova took her to a third set at Roland Garros last year, and she struggled on serve again on the windy afternoon of her previous match.  But she should break Zakopalova’s serve frequently with her rapier-like returns, keeping this counterpuncher on her heels from the outset.

Richard Gasquet vs. Mikhail Youzhny:  These two men have developed a reputation for suffering ignominious meltdowns, including an occasion here when Youzhny drew blood from his head by smashing his racket against it.  Another of those occasions featured the Frenchman surrendering a two-set lead to his fellow headcase at the Australian Open.  Well past his prime, the Russian still can uncork one-handed backhands scarcely less lovely than Gasquet’s signature shot.  Moreover, Youzhny has won four of their seven career meetings, surprising considering his opponent’s superior weapons.

Agnieszka Radwanska vs. Sloane Stephens:  The defending champion has suffered a lull in form since winning consecutive titles to start 2013, dominated by Li and Petra Kvitova before Kirilenko upset her at Indian Wells.  Radwanska dropped a set in the third round to Magdalena Rybarikova, a talented player but still a journeywoman, so she must raise her level against an Australian Open semifinalist.  That said, Stephens ate a bagel from Olga Govortsova in her first set of the tournament, and she had lost four of her previous five matches before that victory.  At Cincinnati last summer, she extended Radwanska to a third set despite lacking the firepower that normally troubles the Pole.  Something similar could happen here in a match filled with long rallies.

Milos Raonic vs. Sam Querrey:  Meeting for the fourth time since the start of 2012, these two giants play essentially the same styles in a matchup determined by execution on the day.  In that regard, one must give the edge to Raonic, who defeated Querrey comfortably at San Jose last month in avenging two losses to the American last year.  The slow outdoor courts of Miami favor the Canadian’s massive weapons and preference for short points much less than does the indoor arena in San Jose.  In rallying past former nemesis Lukasz Kubot, Querrey continued to look vulnerable in a year when few victories have come easily.  (Or, the more pessimistic might say, at all.)  This match should come down to first-serve percentage and focus, critical in a match that hinges upon a tiny handful of points and in which any mistake can prove fatal.

Ajla Tomljanovic vs. Kirsten Flipkens:  Recovered from a serious issue with blood clots last year, Flipkens reached the second week of the Australian Open and upset Kvitova yesterday in an oddly oscillating three-setter.  Some of her better results have come on grass, which showcases her biting slice and her fine hands at net.  Aligned opposite her is a Croat who clawed past Petkovic in a third-set tiebreak after upsetting Julia Goerges in the previous round.  Like Flipkens, Tomljanovic has struggled with sporadic injuries, and she has played only a handful of WTA tournaments in the last several months.  Transitioning overnight from the underdog to the favorite, the Belgian should fancy her chances to reach the most significant quarterfinal of her career.

Roberta Vinci vs. Alize Cornet:   In a section that imploded, either of these women plausibly could reach a semifinal and collect the valuable ranking points that come with it.  The main question regarding this match concerns whether Cornet can recover in time from a three-set victory that forced her to leave the court in a wheelchair.  On the other hand, Vinci needed plenty of energy to grind through a three-setter of her own against Suarez Navarro, testing the veteran’s stamina.  Her backhand slices could prove vital in testing the patience of an ever-edgy Cornet.

Sara Errani vs. Ana Ivanovic:  After the Serb had won their two previous meetings, the Italian turned the tables at Roland Garros last year in a match that Ivanovic controlled initially before letting it slip away.  The steadiness of Errani has allowed her to outlast streaky shot-makers like the former Roland Garros champion over the last year, but the latter displayed her best form in several months during her two victories here.  For her part, Errani has lost just five games in two matches, the fewest of any woman left in the draw.  If Ivanovic bursts to a fast start and sustains it, as she did against Kuznetsova, she could overwhelm this opponent before she settles.  If Errani can find her footing and extend the rallies, meanwhile, she could complicate the plot for a woman who prefers her matches straightforward.

Sorana Cirstea vs. Jelena Jankovic:  Until Jankovic won their most recent encounter in Dallas last summer, Cirstea had swept all of her meetings against an opponent consistently ranked higher than her, although each stretched into a final set and none came on an outdoor hard court.  The Romanian brunette managed to upset Kerber a round after barely eking out a victory over Silvia Soler-Espinosa, a pair of results that illustrates how wide her range of form extends.  Almost as impressive as the Kerber upset was Jankovic’s victory over Nadia Petrova, her seventh win in her last eight matches with the only loss coming in an airtight clash with Kuznetsova.  Both women thus should enter this match with confidence, and they eye a similar opportunity to Vinci and Cornet, the winner of whom would meet the winner of this match in the quarterfinals.

Sunday at the Sony: Sharapova, Serbs, and More

As the third round begins in the men’s draw, the women finish deciding who will reach the final sixteen at the Sony Open.

Maria Sharapova vs. Elena Vesnina:  The world #2 has won 14 straight matches against fellow Russians, but she lost her last meeting with Vesnina in the fall of 2010.  An Indian Wells doubles champion, her opponent has compiled a quietly solid season in singles that has included her first career title and a second-week appearance at the Australian Open.  Each Russian handled a rising young star in her opener with ease, Sharapova crushing Eugenie Bouchard and Vesnina dismissing Donna Vekic.  The only Indian Wells finalist still in the Miami draw, the women’s champion there may face her greatest challenge from the heat and humidity of a tournament that she never has won.

Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Ana Ivanovic:  Sony Open organizers showed their knowledge of tennis when they chose this match for the evening marquee ahead of those featuring higher-ranked champions.  While neither Kuznetsova nor Ivanovic has won a major in nearly four years, one should not miss this battle of fellow major champions with ferocious forehands.  Kuznetsova possesses the superior athleticism and Ivanovic the superior serve, an advantage less compelling on a slow surface where she never has reached the quarterfinals.  A champion here in 2006, the Russian aims to build on her miniature upset of countrywoman Makarova, but Ivanovic looked as brilliant as she has all year in an opener beset by rain and power failures.  Nerves beset both women when they try to close out sets and matches, so no lead will be safe.

Albert Ramos vs. James Blake:  An unthinkable prospect when the tournament began, a quarterfinal appearance for James Blake now looms well within the range of plausibility.  Much improved from recent form at Indian Wells, he continued to turn back the clock with a resounding victory over seeded Frenchman Julien Benneteau.  Meanwhile, the upset of Juan Martin Del Potro in this section has left him no significant obstacle to overcome.  The Spanish lefty across the net plays a steady game that will test Blake’s consistency, but the American should relish the opportunity to showcase his flashy skills under the lights at this prestigious event.

Alexandr Dolgopolov vs. Tommy Haas:  Each man survived talented opponents in the previous round, Dolgopolov dominating 2008 champion Nikolay Davydenko and Haas weathering a three-setter against Igor Sijsling.  The unpredictable quirks in the Ukrainian’s game could fluster the veteran of the famously flammable temper, but the latter has produced more impressive results over the past several weeks.  When they met in last year’s Washington final, Dolgopolov rallied from losing the first set to outlast Haas.

Kevin Anderson vs. Janko Tipsarevic:  Profiting from his vast advantage in height, Anderson defeated the second-ranked Serb three years ago on North American hard courts.  He started this year more promisingly than any year before, outside a February injury, and has won multiple matches at every tournament.  In contrast, Tipsarevic had lost ten consecutive sets (some resoundingly) from the Australian Open through Indian Wells before snapping that skid against a qualifier here.  Hampered by nagging injuries, he has suffered a sharp loss of confidence that could trouble him when he attempts to break the South African’s intimidating serve.  When the rallies unfold, however, Tipsarevic’s superior movement and balance could reap rewards.

Roberta Vinci vs. Carla Suarez Navarro:  On the gritty, slow hard courts of Miami, these two clay specialists look to continue their encouraging results from last month.  While Vinci reached the semifinals in Dubai, Suarez Navarro reached the Premier final in Acapulco.  Gone early from the California desert to an unheralded opponent, the Italian narrowly avoided a similar disappointment in navigating past Christina McHale.  She has lost all of her previous meetings, and all of her previous sets, to Suarez Navarro in a surprising head-to-head record considering their relative experience.  Just six rankings spots separate these two women, so one can expect a tightly contested encounter of elegant one-handed backhands.

Jelena Jankovic vs. Nadia Petrova:  Among the most entertaining women’s finals in recent Miami history was the three-setter that Jankovic contested against Serena Williams in 2008.  The sluggish court speed showcased her counterpunching game at its best, a level from which it has long since receded.  While she has won her last four meetings from Petrova, none of those has come since her precipitous plunge from the #1 ranking that started in 2009.  The Russian’s game has aged more effectively, allowing her to stay within range of the top ten even at the age of 30, and she enjoyed an unexpected renaissance with two titles last fall.  Like Jankovic, her two-handed backhand down the line remains her signature shot, but she will look to set the tone with penetrating first serves and aggressive court positioning as well.

Alize Cornet vs. Lauren Davis:  The only singles match not on a televised court, this overlooked encounter pits a French former prodigy against an extraordinarily lucky loser.  When Azarenka withdrew from the Sony Open, Lauren Davis filled her shoes with poise in an epic victory over countrywoman Madison Keys that climaxed with a third-set tiebreak.  Having benefited from Azarenka’s bye as well, Davis has progressed through more rounds in the main draw than she did in the qualifying draw.  The last American woman left in this half, she faces a winnable match against Cornet, who also survived a tense clash with Laura Robson in which she remarkably never lost her serve through the last two sets.