Who can stop Roger Federer's 15 match winning streak? Will Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal reestablish their dual dominance (with Djokovic winning and Rafa as the bridesmaid)? Those are the questions going into the Miami Masters.
The 30-year-old veteran Federer holds an impressive sway over the ATP Tour at the moment, going on a 39-2 tear since the US Open.
The only problem? He lost the second most important match he played in that period to Rafael Nadal in the semifinal of the Australian Open.
Rafa himself is surrounded by question marks. He took a long break between the Australian Open and the US Masters as usual, but he didn't exactly come back rejuvenated and fell in straights to Federer in conditions that observers expected to benefit Rafa.
Then there's Novak Djokovic. Has he finally come down to earth again? Or is he merely pacing himself for that bigger goal, the French Open in May, where he can become the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four slams at the same time?
Whatever the reason, Novak Djokovic is no longer the lean, mean winning machine we got used to between January and September last year. Since then, he's won in Australia, but lost everywhere else.
The good part is that there's no shame in losing tiebreaks, and eventually the match, to John Isner. The bad part is that Andy Murray ripped him apart weeks earlier. Then again, Djokovic won when it mattered in Australia.
Andy Murray, for once apparently not suffering post-traumatic-Australian-stress-syndrome, made it all the way to the final in Dubai after straight-setting Djokovic. But then he ran into world No. 92 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in Indian Wells and fell in straights.
Did Federer defeating him in Dubai cause that loss? Or was it just a minor bumb on an otherwise upwards trajectory with Ivan Lendl as his coach? We'll see.
So, what are we to make of their respective quarters?
Djokovic is set to meet Marcus Baghdatis in the second round, Victor Troiki in the third and Richard Gasquet or Feliciano Lopez in the fourth, before a showdown with either Juan Martin del Potro, David Ferrer or Australian prospect Bernard Tomic in the quarters.
Not too easy, but also not too hard. It would be a surprise to see him fall before the semis.
In the semis, he could and should meet Roger Federer, who can look forward to a far easier draw than last week's tough one in Indian Wells.
First, he's likely to get American prospect Ryan Harrison followed by Andy Roddick, who's out of top 30. When did the two of them last square off in a third round match? Next up is either Juan Monoco, Ernesto Gulbis or Gael Monfils followed by a relatively easy quarterfinal against either Mardy Fish or Nicolas Almagro.
The early rounds are not super easy, but he couldn't have hoped for an easier quarter-final opponent and should continue his streak.
Andy Murray is probably the one with the least draw luck this time around. He starts off with ever dangerous Denis Istomin followed by up and comer Milos Raonic. If he survives that, he's in for either the poor man's Murray, i.e. Gilles Simon, or Jürgen Melzer.
Finally, Tomas Berdych, Janko Tipsarevic or Alexandr Dolgopolov is lurking in the quarters. Murray could use a rebound, but he's the one with the hardest quarter to survive from. I could see Raonic proceding, but the safe pick is Murray.
The good news for Rafa is that his second home, the Monte Carlo Masters, is waiting around the corner. The bad news is that Miami comes first and that he can lose his ranking to Federer before they hit clay.
Rafael Nadal has a fairly easy stroll to the quarters, but from on then it becomes more tricky. He starts out with Pablo Anjujar, Radek Stepanek followed by Kei Nishikori in the fourth. In the quarters, he could run into either Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or in-form John Isner.
Both men are dangerous opponents to Rafa as they take away his rhythm and dictate every point with their big serves and big, go-for-broke forehands.
Can Isner do the hat trick and beat Djokovic, Federer and Nadal in six weeks? He certainly has the potential. How he fares, if they both get there, will tell us a lot about his future prospects and Rafa's current state.
Again, the safe pick is Rafa, but you have got to like Isner and Tsonga's chances too.
Semis: Novak Djokovic versus Roger Federer
Federer's streak has got to stop at some point. And it may very well be against the reigning champion and world No. 1. Miami is supposed to play slow, not least of all because of the high humidity, but Brad Gilbert, among others, have tweeted that the courts are unusually fasts this year.
Roger would need them to be just that. I think the match, as most matches between them, is pretty much a toss-up. If it plays as slow as last year, it'll be Novak. If it is reasonably fast and Roger can keep his momentum going, he'll win.
Andy Murray versus Rafael Nadal (or Milos Raonic versus John Isner):
I like Murray's chances in this one. He's had his early, inexplicable loss this season. He might of course have another, like last year. But in the best of three format on hard against Nadal in a non-slam tournament, Murray should win. Will he get there? That's another question.
Final: Novak Djokovic vs. Andy Murray
Surprise result: The King of Masters, a.k.a Andy Murray, adds one more to his collection. Provided he gets there and does not run into Federer.
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