The Definitive Pre-Desert Debate (ATP Edition)
It takes a special athlete to lift the trophy at the BNP Paribas Open.
I’m serious, that trophy is insanely heavy.
But it takes an even special(er?) athlete to make it through our sport’s very own March Madness head and shoulder above the competition. Ahead of the two “mini-majors” – Indian Wells and Miami – the TTI Staff broke into smaller groups to discuss the states of the ATP and WTA: who will rise to the challenge, who will be left hoping for a change in fortune when concrete turns to dust, and which #fifthslam is the fifthiest of them all.
Of the ATP:
1. Who will March through the Madness?
I can’t really look much further than Novak Djokovic. He’s the No. 1 by so many points right now, and really looks every bit the best in the world. I see no reason why he shouldn’t continue asserting his dominance during this stretch. I think the other likely candidates – and this isn’t exactly a risky suggestion – are Roger Federer and, to a lesser degree, Andy Murray.
If any of these three lose early, you can chalk them down as a genuine upsets, as they have all looked good in 2015. If I had to pick winners for the tournaments, I’d give one to Djokovic and the other to Federer.
For me, this is an easy pick between Djokovic and Federer; since Federer won’t be playing in Miami, I’ll take Djokovic here. The Serb will be defending titles in both Indian Wells and Miami, and will surely be hungry after losing the Dubai final to his Swiss rival. While I only expect the top guys to be seriously challenging Djokovic in these events, the best-of-three format could lead to a giant-killer like Ivo Karlovic to test Djokovic down the road.
Jumping off from Nick’s point on best-of-three, I think now is as good a time as any for the “second line” to continue pushing the Big Four. Out of that relative chaos, look for Stan Wawrinka to rise above the fray. Last year’s Australian Open champion has had a solid start to the season, backing up his title run with a semifinal finish Down Under and winning two titles in between. The Swiss No. 2 had a 2014 full of highs and lows, but finished fairly respectably at Indian Wells and Miami, losing in the fourth round of each. With little pressure and few points to defend, Wawrinka may surprise everyone and end up looking like the man to beat heading into the clay court season.
One can’t help but favor Djokovic during this four-week hard court madness. Given that both Indian Wells and Miami are played on notoriously slow surfaces, the Serb should be able to grind out wins even if he isn’t playing his best, and take a few more break points against the game’s best servers (link to Federer article). He’s the defending champion at both events, having won the prestigious Indian Wells/Miami double twice already in his career. The ATP No. 1 had poor showings in 2013, but there’s no reason to believe he can’t take at least one of the crowns this coming month.
He might have lost to Federer in Dubai, but Djokovic can work the slower hard courts south of Coachella valley and in Crandon Park like few others. If I was forced to make a pick between the Serb and the field during the next fortnight, I’d go with the World No. 1 – barring any injuries, of course.
I’m struggling to find a reason why he won’t repeat his 2014 Indian Wells-Miami double.
2. Who will be left “Craving Clay?”
Rafael Nadal. I still don’t buy that the Spaniard is fully fit; he’s looked fatigued far too early in matches, even admitting that he’s getting tired faster than he’s used to. The clay is Nadal’s home surface, and the next few weeks will likely be about preparing for that, rather than putting his body on the line for Indian Wells and Miami.
Apropos of that, I’ll be fascinated to see how he is on the clay this season and if he can pick up his pace; the narrative has been neatly set up for either a resurgent dominance in Europe, or an unholy fall from grace.
Based off of Nadal‘s hard court performances over the last six months, there’s no reason to expect him to be winning either of these tournaments. He’ll be ready to make a strong push for the French Open once April rolls around.
His week in Dubai was impressive, but something about this season brings back memories of 2009, when a dejected and ostensibly bewildered Roger Federer declared an unbridled enthusiasm to get the heck off hard courts. Beating Raonic and Djokovic in two finals has done much to obscure the fact that the Swiss is otherwise untested against most every other Top 25 opponent, and again, while best-of-three may aid him against the best, it could get him into trouble against the rest.
When is Nadal ever not craving clay? While it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him make deep runs at either/both events, there’s a chance an inspired big hitter might be able to outlast his dogged defense in the earlier rounds.
This one’s tricky. Rafael Nadal might fall short of his seeding in either – or maybe both – but not under-perform, per se. Marin Cilic will likely suffer early exits, but Indian Wells and Miami are his first events of 2015 – so expectations shouldn’t be at an all-time high.
I’ll go with Grigor Dimitrov. The 2014 Wimbledon semifinalist has looked underwhelming for quite a while and he’d do himself a massive favor by doing well in the next month – particularly since he wouldn’t be “craving clay,” regardless. But after witnessing the 23-year-old eat a final set bagel at the Harrison bakery in Acapulco, I’m doubtful that’s going to happen.
3. Who makes up the most exciting “March-Up?”
Unpopular opinion: I wouldn’t mind a bit of a Djokovic-Murray throwdown. Or, rather, push-down. I know that combination is probably the least compelling of the Big Four match-ups, but I quite enjoy a bit of a messy slug fest every now and again. I’m also hungry for a repeat of the above Australian Open drama, which I thought was a really fun tournament to start the year.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal haven’t played since they met in the semifinals of the Australian Open, all the way back in 2014. Since then, the two have both played Murray and Djokovic, who have each played one another. This rivalry has suffered a bit of a dry spell and it would be interesting to see the outcome of a reboot, given the match-up problems Federer has with Nadal combined with the lack of consistent results from Nadal on hard courts.
Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic have been the veritable stars of the ATP’s next generation, and if rivalries are what keep you interested in the game, look no further. The two played four times last season, and though the Japanese star won three, each encounter was extremely close. Ahead of Indian Wells and Miami, the Canadian has met his nemesis twice more in 2015, splitting the difference after a heart-breaking five setter at last weekend’s Davis Cup. With Raonic’s serve up against Nishikori’s return, it’s an interesting match-up, and a different look at the men’s game after over a decade of the increasingly similar permutations mentioned above (and below).
One can’t help but feel Federer needs to get one more win over Nadal to cement their otherwise one-sided rivalry into a more competitive contest, but with the Swiss only playing Indian Wells, the chances are slimmer. I personally would love to see Murray vs. Wawrinka, since they exchanged Top 4 status throughout 2014, yet haven’t faced one another since 2013.
Their contrast in styles could make for some entertaining tennis during this double-fortnight.
Oh, tough one – there are a couple of matches I’d be happy to see, but if I was in charge of the draw I’d put Rosol and Berdych within immediate proximity of one another. It’s been over three years.
4. Who will make a “Concrete” Breakthrough?
Does David Ferrer count? His whole 2015 has been one a protracted breakthrough thus far. The Spaniard is looking like a really exciting prospect, playing some absolutely wonderful tennis that I hope he can maintain through the coming months. For years he’s put himself in winning positions, but rarely reaped the rewards. If we see any chaos taking out the big names, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him come through and lift a trophy. He may even take out a big name himself.
Of course, if Nadal really isn’t fit for the French Open, Ferrer will be one to really keep an eye on.
Not only do I think Kei Nishikori will eventually win major tournaments, but I also expect him to reach the summit of the ATP rankings at some point in the future. There is nobody on the planet Nishikori can’t beat when he’s on his A-game. He’s been winning a lot of the smaller tournaments he’s been playing.
Now it’s time for the Japanese to make inroads at the higher tier tournaments.
The Nishikori pick is a wise one; don’t forget it was in Miami that he began hitting his stride, taking out Federer in three grueling sets only to pull out of the semifinal against Djokovic. He has looked strong and generally in better (read: more durable) health than in years past, and could strike gold at Indian Wells or Miami as easily as Djokovic.
But when it comes to breakthroughs, I’m ready to go all in on Ryan Harrison. The American is just 22 years old, but with how long he’s been a part of the American tennis landscape, you would think he had already past his peak. He proved quite the contrary in Acapulco with statement victories over Dimitrov and Karlovic, and though things ended rather abruptly in the semifinals to Ferrer, the youngster is equipped with a new coach and new attitude that could take him far over the next few weeks. Aggression will be key for Harrison – who has tended to fall back too often in rallies – but he showed encouraging improvement against Dimitrov, attacking the net with aplomb.
With veterans like Ferrer or Tomas Berdych consistently performing as one might expect, it’s up to the young(ish) guns among the world’s elite to make a breakthrough. While the “very young” guns – like as Kyrgios, Coric, Chung and Kokkinakis – aren’t all playing through March, Top 15 staples Dimitrov, Raonic and Nishikori could make a final or – shockingly – even win one of these events.
While I personally believe Dimitrov has the tools to beat anyone, he hasn’t been able to put it together this year in important (or even unimportant) moments. Raonic still seems to struggle in key matchups, so Nishikori might be the best bet to take home Indian Wells or Miami.
I’ve got a funny feeling that Bernard Tomic might do some things. He’s managed to keep in his interest and good results going for a month longer than anyone expected, climbing up to No. 38 in the rankings.
In fact, calling it right now: One year after his 28 minute loss to Jarkko Nieminen in Miami, Australia’s enfant terrible will leave Florida with a new career high ranking (previously No. 27) and as the top ranked Kangaroo/Koala, you name it.
5. Who will Hog the Spotlight?
Oh, if it’s not Nick Kyrgios, then I won’t know what to think. I’m really enjoying the young Australian guys at the moment, very much led by NK’s performance in Melbourne. It’ll be interesting to see if he can start bringing the same kind of passion and drama to non-Slam events; but if he’s going to do it anywhere, then surely the big stages of Indian Wells Miami are good places to start.
They certainly have an atmosphere that could get him excited.
Any time I’m posed with this question, my answer is always Fabio Fognini. There are times where the Italian’s antics can be destructive and embarrassing, yet there are other times when his antics are hysterical and actually not offensive.
Two weeks in the heat of Indian Wells and Miami may be more than enough to get Fognini’s blood boiling.
Tennis Australia has a lot to be excited about; from Tomic to Kyrgios, the next generation of the ATP looks to be going up Down Under. Most underrated – but with plenty of potential – has been Thanasi Kokkinakis. The teenager plays a balanced game from the back of the court, and is going about the beginning of his career the “right” way – cutting his teeth in qualifying of smaller ATP events. With Juan Martin Del Potro out, the Aussie is getting a rare wild card into the Indian Wells main draw; just as he did in Australia, look for him to claim another upset and keep that momentum going. After a hard-fought victory in Davis Cup, it’s clear Kokkinakis fears neither the moment nor the stage.
This opening could be the first of many.
Fognini is an easy bet, but I feel like we’re in for something ridiculous from Ernests Gulbis this time around. He hasn’t registered a win yet in 2015; surely the stakes are high enough in Miami and Indian Wells to set this highly flammable player alight.
I’m going with Andy Murray. He doesn’t hog the spotlight, but I have been thoroughly entertained by the Australian Open runner-up this year – more often for better than for worse. Gulbis and Fognini might have been more obvious picks, but I don’t see either of them doing massive things in the next few weeks.
6. Which is the Fifth Slam: Indian Wells or Miami?
Indian Wells. ‘Nuff said.
Indian Wells, in my mind, is truly the fifth slam in tennis. The fact that Indian Wells comes before Miami definitely gives it the edge as players will be (ostensibly) fresher and more able to play their best tennis. Other than that, the draw may end up being the ultimate factor that determines how entertaining these tournaments end up being.
I feel like Miami gets a bit of a bad rap. Sure, the last few years haven’t exactly featured emphatic tennis – two walkovers in place of men’s semifinals last year were so not a good look – but comparisons to Indian Wells are only seem to be getting more overblown as Indian Wells continues its Daft Punkesque transformation (Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger, etc.). Either way, I would hate to see Miami become the forgotten mini-major, as too many great moments have taken place there for it to recede into the background.
Tough call, but Indian Wells has always been a notch above Miami, simply because the conditions are slightly faster and you tend to see more winners in a match. Players tend to be fresher as well at the beginning of March, and with Federer not playing Miami, Indian Wells will have a complete set of names and match-up possibilities that might make it the more exciting of the two prestigious tournaments.
Who would you have chosen? Sound off in the comments!
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