Miami Masters: Scene Set for Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal Showdown
The talk in Indian Wells, from start to finish, was of Novak Djokovic.
He had continued his 2011 unbeaten run all the way to the title, dropping precious few games on the way, and he took the No. 2 ranking in the process.
He notched up his third victory over Roger Federer on the trot and won his third tournament on the bounce. And he even beat Rafael Nadal for the first time in a final.
And the talk in Miami has still been about Djokovic, from fund-raising football to an apparently seamless transition to more near-perfect tennis.
He opened his account against the hapless Denis Istomin, much as he played most of last week, with a 6-0, 6-1 win in a mere 48 minutes. Which makes him the last man on the tour to need a helping hand.
Yet the Djokovic quarter of the draw has opened like a flower in the Florida sun as the big seeds tumbled—Andy Murray and Fernando Verdasco—together with lesser seeds such as Tomaz Bellucci and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.
In the other quarter of the Djokovic half, Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic also disappeared, while many of the remaining dangers faced up-hill battles through three-met marathons—Robin Soderling, Juan Martin Del Potro, John Isner and Djokovic’s next opponent, James Blake.
Would the top half of the draw give similar encouragement to Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer on Miami’s first Saturday?
In this party-time resort that schedules an intense programme of play across its eight courts throughout the heat of the day, it did not take long to find out.
Roger Federer and Radek Stepanek
Two of Miami’s star attractions in succession hit the Stadium Court with the sun at its full height—all 30 degrees of it: Roger Federer followed by home favorite, Andy Roddick.
Both men are double champions in Miami, with Roddick defending the title, and should the seedings work out, they would face each other for the 23rd time in the quarterfinals.
Both men, too, came to their opening matches in good form, but the world No. 3 and No. 8 could not have produced more contrasting results.
Despite rumors of imminent decline, Federer came into his opening match with an 18-3 win-loss record this year, 16 of those wins achieved in straight sets. He had looked in good shape and was producing good performances. Only Djokovic had denied him.
He produced another good performance against Radek Stepanek, a former top 10 player now sunk to 68 after a succession of injuries.
It started in appropriately tropical style with the Swiss and the Czech playing colorful tennis. Stepanek has an attacking net game supported by a variety of ground strokes that together aim to take time away from his opponent.
He certainly held his own in the early stages, using his offensive shots and some wonderfully deft drop shots to the maximum. But the 32-year-old looked a good deal slower than in his prime and, by the fifth game, Federer had worked a break point, converted it and moved smoothly through the rest of the set, 6-3.
Stepanek opened the second set with some more lively attack, and he rallied Federer in some nifty net exchanges. He even rushed the net on the Federer serve and a feather-light drop shot produced a break point.
With Federer’s serve percentage for the match touching 70, however, it was no surprise to see him not just save the break point but turn the tables in the next game to win two break points of his own. He took the first with ease and settled the set with two love games, 6-3.
For the record—and where Federer is concerned, there often is a record—the Swiss has now equalled the Sampras total of 762 Open era match wins: the seventh highest tally. His comment was typically low key: “It’s a funny stat, but it shows how long I have been around.”
Federer will no doubt view his Stepanek match as a good warm-up game, testing him in all parts of the court and with a variety of shots, spin and pace. A bit like Goldilocks’s porridge, it was just right, and his next match against Juan Monaco should be equally "right."
The Argentine also plays with variety and speed, and will benefit from the strong South American support in Miami, but it’s hard to see Federer not advancing to meet Mikhail Youzhny—who dropped just one game in his opener—in the fourth round.
Federer will not, however, find Roddick in the quarterfinals.
Andy Roddick and Pablo Cuevas
The American came into Miami with a 16-3 winning record for the year and his 30th career title in Memphis.
His record in Miami, too, was second to none: He had made the quarterfinals or better in six of his last seven visits and had won the title twice.
But from the very start, the Roddick serve was missing—he managed just 46 percent in the first set—and his opponent, Pablo Cuevas, took full advantage with an offensive game plan that had him attacking Roddick time and again in long backhand exchanges.
The Uruguayan was also willing to attack the net and had numerous break chances that eventually earned him the first set 6-3.
It soon became apparent that Roddick was unwell, and he sought help from both medic and physio at two change-overs in the second set.
With such obvious breathing and mobility problems, many players would have retired, but Roddick fought on, heavy-footed, through the second set tie-breaker to suffer his earliest Miami loss since 2002.
Worse news is that it will see him fall outside the top 10, a place in which he has found himself for just four weeks since August 2006. If he falls as far as 15 in next week’s rankings—which is possible—it will be the lowest he has stood since the summer of 2002.
This is the third illness Roddick has suffered in little more than six months. Last autumn, he had a mild bout of glandular fever, and he was then struck down by flu a month ago. It is possible, it seems, to see this as part of a single pattern: an immune system still weakened by the after-effects of glandular fever.
Rest may therefore be the order of the day, and it would come at the perfect time for the American. He plays little tennis during the clay season and can afford to recharge his batteries until Roland Garros without losing any more precious ranking points.
Roddick was the highest seed to leave the top half of Miami’s draw, but his eighth was quickly depleted by more: Marin Cilic and Jurgen Melzer.
Nadal’s quarter lost Ernests Gulbis, Albert Montanes and Juan Ignacio Chela.
So Saturday’s day session play wound down with as many shocks as its Friday session had, and Miami headed off to enjoy its night on the town in this holiday haven.
Only Stadium Court stayed in action on Saturday evening, and only one ATP match was scheduled to play as the night fell. Had it not involved Nadal, one wondered who would stay in Crandon Park at all.
The Miami Experience
Perhaps it is the ebullience of the Latin American fanbase, here to support their men in what has been dubbed the South American Slam.
Or maybe it’s the weather and the uncertainty of what tomorrow will bring. Hot sunshine alternates with breezy outbursts, and the forecast after this weekend promises change: maybe even thunder and lightning.
Whatever the reason, it’s hard to stay gloomy for long in the vibrancy that is Miami, a tournament that shimmers with tropical color from its entrance all the way to the courts.
Acid green lettering vibrates on the bottle green backgrounds that surround its vivid violet rectangles of play, while the line judges and ball kids shout their presence in purple and lime.
Even the canopies around the mid-tier of the Stadium show-court suggest melting ice cream, alternating peach and pistachio and green.
The men this year are all playing their part in citrus style. The dominant colors are dayglo-bright lime and lemon, brought together in the zesty figure of the event’s top seed, Nadal.
One man, though, has bucked the trend to such an extent that it even featured in his press conference.
Onto court shimmered the silver-grey figure of Federer—though in a nod to the Miami theme, there were highlights of apricot on shoulder and forehead. But gone, too, was the signature crisp polo, replaced by a v-neck tee. It was a sharp look by most players’ standards but by Federer’s standards, this was laid-back casual.
“Yeah it's a bit different…I like the freshness of mixing it up a bit…I hope the fans like it; and if they don't, then the French clay court season is coming up. But I like it.”
How many more outings the monochrome look gets may depend on one particular man…that citrus-sharp Nadal.
Rafael Nadal and Kei Nishikori
The Spaniard faced one of the up-and-coming young players on the tour, Kei Nishikori, who has been thrown into the spotlight this fortnight by events in his homeland of Japan.
The 21-year-old stands at 68 in the rankings, a rise of 400 since the start of last year and up 20 places in this season alone. His only two meetings with Nadal had been on grass and in the second of them, at Queens, Nadal needed three sets for the victory.
So the Japanese man was a tricky customer for an opening round match, and it showed in the fourth game when he gained two break points. He failed to convert and, as is so often the case with a threatened champion, Nadal immediately broke to take a decisive lead.
Nishikori was not done, though: He held two more points to break back but failed to capitalise. It was Nadal, 6-4, and the top seed carried his impetus into the second set with an immediate break.
The match continued to be highly competitive all the way to its 6-4 conclusion, and Nadal will be pleased to have the hour and 48 minutes workout in his rear-view mirror.
He will also, despite asserting that his serve “worked very well at the end of the match,” want to keep working at that part of his game. His serve let him down badly in his Indian Wells final against Djokovic, and he only had a 53 percent first serve success rate in that second set against Nishikori.
Nadal next faces fellow Spaniard Feliciano Lopez who does have a big serve—he fired off 18 aces in beating Chela.
Lopez also scored a victory over Nadal on the grass of Queens last year. This one could be a fight to take the net position, and a lively, fiery matchup, but the Lopez serve will have to be working at its very best if Nadal is not to run the bigger, older Spaniard ragged.
Remaining Barriers to a Nadal-Federer Semi-Final
Nadal’s draw still has a competitive look all the way to the quarters, with either Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Alexandr Dolgopolov lying in wait after Lopez. And the next highest seed in his quarter, No. 7 Tomas Berdych, is still lurking at the bottom of this segment.
The good news is, almost every other man in Nadal’s quarter needed three sets and more than two hours to reach the third round: all except that dangerous Ukrainian, Dolgopolov. He enjoyed a quick win when Andreas Seppi retired just one game short of a tidy two-sets victory for his opponent.
If the No. 1 and No. 21 seeds make it through their next matches, they could produce one of the most interesting contests of the fourth round, but Nadal—getting more match sharp all the time—is the favorite to advance.
In Federer’s quarter, Youzhny was the only man in the draw to equal the Djokovic achievement of conceding just one game to his opponent.
It is on the bottom eighth, however, that Federer will be focusing, where only the lowest seed in that segment remains, but it happens to be a man who holds a winning record against the Swiss. Not only that, his two hard-court victories both came after Federer won the opening set.
Their last meeting was equally memorable, with Simon taking Federer to a five-set thriller at this year’s Australian Open.
So things are far from straightforward if Federer is take up his appointed place in the longed-for semi-final.
So great has their rivalry in tennis been that they have 19 times met in finals out of their last 21 matches, the only exceptions being two semi-finals in the Masters Cup where world rankings do not determine the draw.
And for the winner is the prospect of facing Djokovic in the final. No one ever said it was easy to win a Masters title!