Complete Preview for the 2015 ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Tournaments

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistMarch 8, 2015

Complete Preview for the 2015 ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Tournaments

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    It’s time to kick off the 2015 ATP Masters 1000 series beginning this weekend at Indian Wells. These are the nine biggest tournaments outside of the four majors, and the very best players are packed into the draw for a week or more of thrilling best-of-three-sets tennis.

    There are five of these tournaments to fill the long gap between now and the French Open, including the best of the clay-court stops at Monte Carlo and Rome. The heat of the summer features two North American Masters 1000 tournaments, and the post-U.S. Open stretch features the Far East and Paris.

    The following is a recap and preview. We spotlight the defending champions at each event, including moments from 2014, and we preview the events from where we sit in March. The season ahead is just peaking, and there will be countless, unforeseen shifts and stories, but it’s never too early to think about matchups and possibilities.

Indian Wells: March 12-22

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    What happened in 2014: Defending champion Rafael Nadal was overpowered by Alexandr Dolgopolov's big body blows. Dolgopolov continued to the semifinal, before bowing out to Roger Federer.

    Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic was looking to rebound from recent struggles under new coach Boris Becker. He found himself under longtime coach Marian Vajda and capped off a thrilling final win over Federer in a third-set tiebreaker 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(3). His postmatch embrace with Vajda was the enduring memory and reaffirmed Djokovic's chase to take back the No. 1 ranking from Nadal.

    What to look for in 2015: Djokovic is usually the favorite for any tournament, and he should be very motivated to turn the tables on Federer after losing at Dubai. It's eerily similar to 2014, except that Djokovic is comfortably on top in the ATP Rankings, and Federer should have a better draw from the No. 2 seed than his No. 7 seed a year ago.

    Spring blooms more hope at the beginning of the year, and there are several players who can contend or make a statement here. Nadal aims to mirror the comeback season he had in 2013. Andy Murray does not want his early-year momentum to slip away. Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic would love to finally win one of the huge trophies on tour, and pesky David Ferrer is making more noise with his remarkable consistency. 

    Prediction: This is really the best chance for Nadal to win a non-clay Masters 1000 event, but he has not flashed his 2013 form. A semifinals appearance would be a good trip for him. Murray has not performed well on this slower hard-court surface, and Federer might have to get through Djokovic again in the final.

    The Serbian is our clear favorite to be the first back-to-back winner since Federer in 2006. It would be his fourth career title at Indian Wells.

Miami: March 25-April 5

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    What happened in 2014: Djokovic continued one of his torrid streaks, sweeping the Indian Wells and Miami combination, the southern corner pockets of the first U.S. series.  He cruised by defending champion Andy Murray in the quarterfinals. He dismantled Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-3 in the final with power and the kind of anticipation that seemed as if he was rewinding each of Nadal's shots before settling in and grooving them with his patented tattoos.

    Two other notables: One, Kei Nishikori knocked out Federer, as he continued his quiet ascent to a very good clay-court season. Two, and most disappointing of all, neither semifinal was played as Nishikori and Tomas Berdych gave up walkovers to Djokovic and Nadal. 

    What to look for in 2015: Federer is not slated to play Miami, and this tournament is often a bizarre and unpleasing venue for the players. The facilities and experience pales in comparison to Indian Wells and could use an overhaul. Ed McGrogan of ESPN.com wrote a compelling argument for Miami to invest in its own unique brand by using America's green Har-Tru (fast clay) surface.

    Upsets often happen, which means players such as Ferrer and Berdych might be able to slip into the final. Nadal has never won the Miami Masters, and he seems to always have an eye on Monte Carlo (In 2012, Nadal gave up a semifinal walkover and clearly prioritized getting healthy to win Monte Carlo. It worked.) Djokovic has four Miami titles, and Andy Murray has two.

    Prediction: Besides Djokovic, Murray and Nishikori have nice games for this surface. We will choose a very feisty and motivated Murray to win his first Masters in two years.

Monte Carlo: April 12-19

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    What happened in 2014: The first shock wave was delivered by Ferrer who abused Nadal in the quarterfinals. At that point, there were rumblings about Nadal's lackluster form. Wild card Roger Federer ousted injured Djokovic in the semifinals, and this set up an all-Swiss final with Australian Open winner Stanislas Wawrinka.

    Federer nearly won his first title at Monte Carlo, but he could not cash in the second set and eventually dropped the tiebreaker. Wawrinka took over the third set, hammering huge backhands for the convincing win.

    What to look for in 2015: Last year there was two weeks between the Miami Masters final and the start of Monte Carlo. This year there is only one week, lending even greater weight to the idea that Nadal would not be overly crushed to leave Miami early. It could play a factor for players who get to Miami's Sunday final. Will they be fresh for Monte Carlo?

    Wawrinka stands a better chance than Federer in slugging his way back to another title opportunity, but maybe taking time off from the Miami Masters will help Federer's preparation for the clay-court season. Nishikori is not scheduled to play, which is a pity because he was the surprise of the clay-court season a year ago and the 2014 Barcelona winner.

    Prediction: It has to come back to Djokovic vs. Nadal, right? Well, it depends on the draw of course, but it would be the ultimate final where Nadal once won eight straight titles. He is the ultimate measuring stick for Djokovic who is usually at his best getting up to play his chief rival. We might not get as many of these Djokovic-Nadal finals as we once did, so this could be one to enjoy.

    I'm going to take Nadal to return as king of Monte Carlo. He badly wants to win this one, and the court is perfectly suited for the time he needs and style he plays. He can still outlast anyone here as long as he doesn't get blitzed by Djokovic like the 2013 final's first set.

Madrid: May 3-10

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    What happened in 2014: It was not exactly a typical tournament last year, but then again it never is at the airy and faster clay surface at Madrid. At least the venue had to abandon its insane idea to put in blue clay in 2012. It was a travesty to tradition and more appropriate for hockey or figure skating.

    Djokovic was out with his right-arm injury, and Federer was attending to his expectant wife. Nadal looked much better in getting to the final. Then he felt the rising storm of Nishikori, and Nadal was crushed in the first set and down a break late in the second.

    We'll never know for sure if Nadal would have been finished off had Nishikori's back not seized up, but the Japanese star was hampered, broken and forced to retire three games into the third set.

    It would be the only Masters title win in 2014 for the Spanish great and an unusual defense of his title.

    What to look for in 2015: This is the kind of tournament that requires good clay footwork to counter some of the bigger hitting in the high altitude. Federer could employ a lot of his offensive aggresiveness, and Djokovic would be better able to counter Nadal here than at other clay venues. Still, Nadal has come through three of the last four times on red clay.

    Prediction: Maybe Nadal gets on a run with Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and that galvanizes him as the favorite to defend Madrid. But other players could step up, and for all of Nishikori's anguish a year ago, he could very well complete the step this time around.

    Certainly things will be clearer in May, but right now I'm going with a minor surprise here and picking a tireless veteran who is coming off a big February and who could emerge out of the Madrid madness to steal a title. This is your time, David Ferrer.

Rome: May 10-17

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    What happened in 2014: Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov made strides in getting to the semifinals, foreshadowing their Wimbledon success. But Dimitrov was whipped senseless by Nadal and quit competing.

    Raonic showed he could play on slower clay, and his baseline game certainly had more time to track down shots and set up consistent groundstrokes. He split two tiebreakers with Djokovic but was broken in the third set.

    Defending champion Nadal looked terrific in taking the first set against Djokovic in the final. Then the Serbian took apart Nadal's strength and once again feasted with his offensive aggressiveness to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-3. Many tennis observers thought Rome and Miami had made Djokovic the favorite to capture the French Open, but of course Nadal won that final, all-important war.

    What to look for in 2015: We're probably not going to get anything like Nadal vs. Roger Federer 2006, but Federer's wily mind and continued resilience could get him another shot. By Rome, we should have a great idea of who the real contenders and pretenders are going to be for the French Open. The Rome winner will feel plenty of confidence for Roland Garros.

    Prediction: Too easy to predict another Nadal vs. Djokovic final, but if I favored Nadal for Monte Carlo, I'm going to swing back to Djokovic to win Rome. They are that close, and we may get another classic redux of the 2013 French Open (de facto championship) semifinal.

Montreal: August 10-16

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    What happened in 2014: Defending champion Rafael Nadal sat out with injury. The most unlikely result of the Masters series saw Jo-Wilfried Tsonga steamroll an impressive lineup of stars for his most impressive career win. He took down Djokovic, Andy Murray, Dimitrov and Federer with hot serving and powerful groundstrokes.

    The most amazing thing was nobody saw this coming. Tsonga had been playing lackluster tennis heading into August, and he was hardly a factor after winning the Rogers Cup.

    Federer played poorly in the final, falling 7-5, 7-6(3), and at that time it continued a run of big finals losses (Indian Wells, Monte Carlo, Wimbledon, Toronto) that left him snakebit, despite a good season. He would change that a week later.

    What to look for in 2015: This year, Montreal hosts the Canada Open, and the past decade it's traditionally been dominated by the biggest four players on tour until Tsonga's breakthrough. Nadal and Djokovic have three titles each, and Federer and Murray have two titles apiece.

    Prediction: If Raonic is going to take a step up this year, Canada is the ideal place. He was a finalist here in 2013, and he plays well in front of his home country's fans. So we will give him the nod, unless Djokovic is clicking. Then forget about it.

Cincinnati: August 16-23

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    What happened in 2014: Defending champion Rafael Nadal continued to sit out with injury. Finally Federer returned to winning a Masters title, his first since Cincinnati in 2012.

    After a bitter performance in the Rogers Cup final, Federer struggled by surviving two consecutive three-setters before lifting his game and blowing away Murray and Raonic. He polished off the everyman David Ferrer in the final, 6-3, 1-6, 6-2.

    What to look for in 2015: There is plenty of history to play for. Federer, who just won his seventh title at Dubai has just as many titles at speedy grass courts Halle and Wimbledon. A win at Cincinnati would be his seventh title there, rivaling the Nadal quad at Monte Carlo (eight), Barcelona (eight), Rome (seven) and Roland Garros (nine).

    Djokovic, who would sell half of his trophy collection to lift up the prize at the French Open, only needs Cincinnati to complete a career Masters sweep. No other player has accomplished this, and it's not likely anyone else will do it anytime soon, if ever.

    Murray should play well counterpunching with better pace on these courts (He has two Cincinnati titles), but he is still a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde mystery at this point. Nadal may or may not be healthy for anything in the U.S. Open series.

    Prediction: I think it's more likely Djokovic gets Roland Garros than Cincinnati. While the French Open means having to defeat Djokovic for three sets on more staggered rest, there is only Nadal who can be his equal there.

    Cincinnati has other fast-court contenders beside Federer, Murray, Raonic, Marin Cilic and Tsonga. Any of them could get on a roll and more likely defeat Djokovic for two sets. Federer is the most versatile and comfortable on these courts. He will get No. 7 here, and Djokovic will have to wait another year.

Shanghai: October 11-18

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    What happened in 2014: Swiss Maesto Roger Federer was streaking after (2014 Shanghai champion) Djokovic for the No. 1 ranking. He proved that when he is on top of his game on fast courts, he is the one player who can stymie Djokovic, proving this by defeating him in the semifinals. Federer went on to consummate his title by winning both tiebreakers against Gilles Simon, 7-6(6), 7-6(2).

    Nadal struggled in coming back from an injured wrist, exiting in the second round, and Wawrinka continued to slide from his early-season form, also exiting in the second round. U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic had cooled off entirely, evaporating in the first round.

    What to look for in 2015: Will Federer and Djokovic be battling for the No. 1 ranking once again by the fall? The three majors preceding this will largely determine if Nadal, Murray and other players are factors as well. The only thing that is nearly certain is that Djokovic will be in the thick of things, probably leading.

    Prediction: If Federer is fresh and on his game, he could be the favorite to defend his title. But this is also a great opportunity for Murray to get another title here. It would be his third title in six years, and he would be the first player to win three titles in the brief history of this venue. He likes this time of the year, so we will say that he earns his second 2015 Masters 1000 title at Shanghai.

Paris: November 2-8

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    What happened in 2014: In typical Novak Djokovic fashion, the Serbian took a killer draw and turned it upside down. Having heard Federer's footsteps, Djokovic found more space to the finish line for the No. 1 ranking. He successfully defended his title with a statement.

    Djokovic took Paris with impressive wins against Philipp Kohlschreiber, Gael Monfils, Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic. He swept all 10 sets he played, most of them lopsided including the identical 6-2, 6-3 pastings he put on Nishikori and Raonic to seal his title.

    What to look for in 2015: This is a bizarre tournament that often showcases players with very different motivations. Some champions may feel there is extra to add with a better WTF seeding or a chance to move up in the rankings. Others might be tired, injured or ready to move on to London.

    Young players like Jerzy Janowicz (2012) can a make a name for themselves. And past winners have included more second-tier stars like Ferrer, Berdych, Tsonga, Robin Soderling, David Nalbandian and Nikolay Davydenko.

    Oddly enough, Federer has only one title (2011) here, where the indoors courts should be more conducive to his multi-pronged attack.

    Prediction: If Djokovic has to win Paris to clinch the year-end No. 1 ranking, he will. (Note that Djokovic could reasonably win two to five Masters 1000 titles this year.)

    If not, we could choose any number of strong players. This time we will put two young-but-aging players into the final, and one will win his first Masters 1000 titles. Nishikori could be the solid bet, but how about a sudden surprise from Dimitrov? He will be our March choice to win a November tournament.

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