Miami Masters Sun and Storms Bring First Tennis Season To Its Climax
The Florida Keys, at the height of spring, simply burst with weather in all its drama.
Hot sunshine alternates with breezy outbursts. The coastal winds kick up the odd storm, then die away to leave air so heavy it presses like a saturated sponge on the forehead.
Residents and visitors alike can take to the sea, or sink beneath the waving palms, indulge in every sport known to man, or simply sit back and soak in the atmosphere.
The Miami Sony Ericsson Open, the second of the two giant Masters that bestride the early hard court season and the late spring of clay, is in full swing.
It is surely the brightest and breeziest tournament of the year: the sprightly allegro before the transition into the adagio of the second movement on clay.
Crandon Park, home of this popular tournament, is bright and breezy in the old fashioned sense, too. It wears its heart on its sleeve, burgeoning with primary colors, Mexican waves, and more diversions from tennis than you can count.
Perhaps it is the humidity—touching 90 percent at its worst.
Perhaps it is the ebullience of the Latin American fan-base, here to support a wide field of South American players.
Perhaps it is the temperature, soaring from a nighttime in the 50s to a daytime approaching the mid-80s.
Or maybe it’s the uncertainty of what tomorrow will bring: thunder and lightning or cloudless skies.
Whatever it is, Miami seems to live for the moment.
For some players, though, the moment was quickly gone.
The Fly Swat of Fate Strikes Early
If Indian Wells, Miami’s desert-based cousin, saw a leeching away of the top players, Miami had a swift bloodletting.
Still missing with injury from the men’s draw were Nikolay Davydenko and Juan Martin Del Potro: That’s Nos. 5 and 6 out. Then Gael Monfils, No. 16, exited at the last minute.
On the women’s side, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Dinara Safina did not feature.
Ivan Ljubicic, hero of Indian Wells, fell at the first hurdle with a back injury. Marc Gicquel followed, as did the popular Elena Dementieva and Sabine Lisicki.
Young American hopes Sam Querrey, John Isner, and Melanie Oudin dropped sooner than the home crowd hoped, leaving the old stalwarts to carry the Stars and Stripes deep into the rounds: Andy Roddick, Venus Williams, and Mardy Fish.
The biggest body blow, however, came from Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray: friends separated by just one ranking place—and potential finalists.
Neither had looked entirely at ease with their games in Indian Wells, but in the humidity of the Keys, their confidence seemed to drain into the court as their names slipped from the scoreboards.
For Murray in particular, it led to one of the most heartrending press conferences of the year. Head hanging, with the look of a beaten animal, he simply acknowledged: “Mentally, the last few weeks, I've been really poor....It's purely down to me, what goes on inside my head. No one else can make that better or change it.”
This is Murray’s home base for training. He practises on Stadium Court, and he was the Miami titleholder. It has hit him hard, but the gutsy Murray will now train harder than ever.
Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot…
Several favorites may have disappeared early, but it’s hard to stay gloomy for long in the vibrancy that is Miami.
The place shimmers with tropical color—from the entrance arch all the way to the courts.
Pink jostles with purple, acid green lettering vibrates on its bottle green background, banners of orange and lime flutter amongst the trees. Even the courts are a vivid purple, sitting like dark amethysts in their grassy surrounds.
Dots of crimson streak back and forth—the ball kids.
Spots of turquoise hover at the court edges—the line judges.
And squatting like someone’s discarded furniture are the ugliest of green and purple benches, possibly the most uncomfortable players’ seats ever designed.
But the tournament radiates razzmatazz—right down to the marketing. The launch event threw together Ana Ivanovic and Djokovic with Jay Sean and Mel B in a mixed doubles showdown—Glam. Set. Match.
Then there were fashion shows, and photo shoots of players swimming with dolphins.
As if to gild the lily in this extrovert State, the players have connived in the tropical theme. The women dazzle like flowers: Henin in fuschia, Williams in geranium red, Radwanska in forget-me-not blue.
The men favor citrus fruits: Fernando Gonzalez in tangerine, Rafael Nadal in lemon, Tomas Berdych in lime, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in orange.
Sharp and zesty, sweet and brilliant, the tournament has offered treat after treat.
Americans to the Fore
The home crowds, whether looking north to the United States or south to Latin America, have had much to relish—and they have a particularly relaxed and cheerful attitude. The hats are big, the smiles fulsome, the posture laid-back, the atmosphere upbeat.
Do the high spirits come from the sunshine? Or from the colors so reminiscent of a Disney animation? Perhaps it’s simply the anticipation of a local hero lifting a trophy this weekend.
Roddick, for one, is going strong and working hard. He battled back from a first set deficit against the German Benjamin Becker and wiped the floor with Sergiy Stakhovsky. He has been sharp, eager, and industrious in the pursuit of his first Masters title since 2006 and his first Miami title since 2004.
A Roddick win would bring the house down.
Meanwhile, Williams has ripped through the women’s draw in imperious form. She won her fourth round and quarterfinal matches for the loss of just nine games, and against seeds 19 and 6. That’s class.
She first won this title a dozen years ago. Who would bet against her winning it for a fourth time in 2010?
Latin passions, too, have been reaching boiling point—and South American players are cheered at every turn in Miami. The most vociferous support was saved for two players in particular.
Gonzalez, back from his work in earthquake-stricken Chile, set the tournament alight with his exuberant and dynamic shot-making. A fourth-round defeat at the hands of a rampant Robin Soderling awaited—a step too far for a Gonzalez with so little match play.
The crowds went into overdrive, though, for the 22-year-old rising star of Brazil: Thomaz Bellucci.
His glamorous, dark looks, elegant bearing, and easy movement around the court are already drawing crowds, but he is also winning matches. He has recently taken only his second title—in Santiago against Gonzalez—and he is rising inexorably through the rankings, now at an all time high of 32.
His match against the equally sultry Nicolas Almagro was a show-stopper, full of passion and fury, and it went the full distance in a final set tie-breaker.
Almagro won through, but Bellucci is one to watch as the players head to the clay.
One more South American thrilled the crowds in Miami: Daveeed is back.
The Rise and Rise of the Old Flair
After the pleasure of seeing the 31-year-old Ljubicic take his first Masters title last week, his many fans were saddened to bid him an early farewell. But as one former maestro was cut down, several more sprung up in his place.
With just five matches on his resume since his return to the tour last May, the magician that is David Nalbandian looked rusty at Indian Wells, but he's more trim and nimble than he’s been in more than two years. And he also seems to have found that old hunger.
So his match-up with Nadal in the third round was one of the most anticipated encounters of the tournament. They had, after all, produced one of the best matches of Indian Wells 2009.
For a man under six feet tall, the Argentine can produce expansive, swinging serves delivered by an exceptionally high ball toss.
His tight, compact action looks deceptively easy, the result of perfect technique, wonderful footwork, balance, and rhythm. He is able to take high balls on the backhand and forehand side and return them with acute angles and low trajectories. What’s more, he is one of the few players around who can get Nadal on the back foot.
This match was like watching a double dose of sunshine: Nadal in buttercup yellow, Nalbandian in daffodil yellow.
And just as last year, Nalbandian took a fabulous first set from the Spaniard. But also like last year, the punishing, extended rallies—athletic chess—was energy-sapping. Against a resurgent Nadal, looking in prime fitness, the Argentine was run into the ground—and his lack of training and match play started to show.
The result became inevitable: Nadal powered to a win, but the affectionate embrace of the two men at the net spoke volumes. Respect, admiration, and a wonderful display of tennis.
Another man with a conjurer’s touch is Mikhail Youzhny, also back to his classy winning ways after some time in the doldrums.
His third-round meeting with Stanislas Wawrinka was a match made in heaven: the two best single-handed backhands standing toe-to-toe.
It went all the way to the wire, with the 27-year-old Youzhny victorious. He then sailed through a struggling Fish to the quarterfinals.
Youzhny has made the finals of his last two tournaments. Can he now do a Ljubicic and win his first-ever Masters?
At the time of writing, there was still an outside chance of the long-awaited, long-anticipated, longed-for match-up between the closest and greatest of rivals: Nadal and Roger Federer.
It didn’t materialise in Indian Wells. And there are threats aplenty to it happening this week: a Soderling just bursting with confidence and hitting power; a rampant Fernando Verdasco hoping to make his first Masters final; Tsonga riding a wave of brilliance.
Meanwhile, Federer has looked uncertain, inconsistent, lacking match-sharpness. He has let leads slip from his grasp, and he acknowledged his failings: “I still have to tidy up my game.”
Yet even when casting errors to the wind—29 in the two sets it took him to beat Florent Serra—he is constantly compelling.
Profligate with his errors, wanton in his first serve percentage, he nevertheless magicked up flourishes that left crowd and commentators lost for words. The same abandon that scattered errors also garnered extravagant winners.
At 5-2 in the first tie-break, for example, he found not one but two successive backhand flicks from the back of his heel—one near the baseline, the second from the service line.
In the second game of the second set, it was a running backhand pass. Then it was a forehand cross-court winner hit at full stretch and facing away from the net. That one very nearly brought a smile to his face. It brought a huge beam of pleasure to the face of a watching Caroline Wozniacki.
And there is the measure of the Federer tennis. On that cool, windy afternoon, after torrential rain and a changed schedule, fellow players sought out perches around the court to watch.
Nadal soaked it up alongside doubles partner Marc Lopez. Nadal’s dad sat farther down the bleachers. John Isner and Sam Querrey were there, too. And Wozniacki looked like the cat who’d got the cream.
Federer will have to up his game, be less promiscuous in his errors, and find a better range with his serve if he is to beat Berdych—let alone take on a Soderling, Nadal or Roddick.
The cut of Federer's shirt may be new, crisp, and modern. Its color might be in-your-face orange, a burst of Florida sunshine. The tennis, too, will always deliver the irresistible tang of freshly squeezed juice.
But has enough rust worn off the magical Federer's right arm to take him to that long-awaited final?
We’ll soon know.