Winners and Losers of the 2015 Miami Open

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistApril 6, 2015

Winners and Losers of the 2015 Miami Open

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    Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams once again ruled at the Miami Open, proving that the gaps between No. 1 and everyone else are as wide as they want them to be. How about 13 combined titles for the two superstars?

    What does this mean for also-rans like Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych and Simona Halep? Falling short means getting close but feeling the pain of bitter defeat. It can galvanize some but demoralize others.

    Our winners and losers column examines the top performers of the week. As always, we are left with a few statements and plenty of questions as the tours head to Europe for the peak of the clay-court season.

Winner: Dominic Thiem

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    The roulette wheel of young ATP World Tour prospects landed upon Dominic Thiem, who took the first set off Andy Murray in the quarterfinal. The Austrian's ability to overpower the Scotsman won his admiration, as Murray told Sky Sports 1 (h/t to The Guardian), "He’s such a powerful guy. When he’s dictating points and inside the court, you end up doing a lot of running. It’s tough."

    But it's not easy to play two brilliant sets against one of the few proven champions of the last decade, and Murray prevailed 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 because he figured he could run Thiem from corner to corner and wear him down. Thiem looked spent by the end of the match and probably saw the value of better conditioning.

    Down the road, Thiem's battle will be not so much in overcoming the likes of Murray and Novak Djokovic, but of proving he is the best of the newcomers like Nick Kyrgios and Borna Coric. It's a long line of contestants who fade in and out like different varieties of flowers depending on the weather and the season.

    So chalk up a good week for Thiem as to why he rose nine spots to No. 43 in the ATP rankings. Will he build on this week, or was this a guest appearance? The work is just beginning.

Loser: John Isner vs. Milos Raonic

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    Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

    Searing heat missiles were launched from two of the biggest serveborgs in the game, Milos Raonic and John Isner. By the end of their one-sided bombings, the court at Miami was pockmarked with dents, and tennis balls were pulverized into misshapen lumps. Neither player could effectively stroke a return, so it was a matter of waiting for the other guy's shoulder to fall off or winning the lucky lotto of tiebreakers.

    It was little surprise that the final line read 6-7(3), 7-6(6), 7-6(5), even if the shock winner turned out to be Isner. If it were boxing, it would be like two flatfooted combatants taking turns hitting each other in the face without being allowed to put up a guard.

    It was anything but traditional tennis. When tennis was played a century ago, nobody could have envisioned the racket strings and technology-blasting supersonic aces. The serving boxes are enormous, but as they have remained spacious landing zones, the players have become much larger and stronger.

    Why not shrink the serving boxes? Move the borders up on the back and sidelines—yes, painting in an extra line there. Make sure skilled players like Kei Nishikori and David Goffin are on a more level playing field of being able to return the ball, therefore making tennis more of an all-around skills contest.

Winner: Serena Williams vs. Simona Halep

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    The real women's final was the semifinal showdown between World No. 1 Serena Williams and No. 3 Simona Halep. Towering, powerful Serena vs. little, retrieving Simona. Veteran legend against rising star.

    The beautiful thing about the match was the determination of both players. There are few players (except Maria Sharapova) who show such purpose and drive to win. Those types of players are willing to run hard on each point, and they have the courage to bounce back after failure. Serena in particular has created the blueprint, and the next generation has so far been getting a firsthand demonstration.

    In the end, Serena prevailed in another big match 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, controlling the great majority of the points with her power. Halep could only absorb so much pace and retrieve so many balls, and for all of her grittiness, she has a long way to go until she proves she can win her first major.

    Serena rolls on, continuing to dominate younger players and piling up trophies as if it were a video game. Eight titles at Miami now could feasibly become nine or 10 in a few years.

Loser: Is the WTA Really in a Weak Era?

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    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    Jon Wertheim of SI.com responded to a reader about the idea that Serena Williams is feasting on titles because of a weak era of tennis competitors. It's the same idea that has been bounced around when ATP fans discuss Roger Federer's dominance from a decade ago. Is Serena taking advantage of more limited players, or is she just that great?

    With the absence of a rival who could split titles or crash her party at least once in awhile, she conjures up memories of Steffi Graf's dominance in the mid-1990s after a stabbing tragically forced Monica Seles out of tennis for a time. As mentioned in one of Wertheim's mailbag questions, Martina Navratilova referred to this as "Steffi and the Seven Dwarfs," mostly to remind the tennis world that she had to win against a rival like Chris Evert.

    So what about Serena? It's clear that despite her advancing age (33) she has picked up momentum, performing better than she had against the likes of champions who are now absent—Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters, Jennifer Capriati, Venus Williams, Martina Hingis and Lindsay Davenport to name a few.

    Williams is certainly greater than Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and other names who are trying to move up. She is dominating the way she does because she is better. But there's no question that Serena had better champions to contend with during her younger years.

    As for how that went, 2002 and her Serena Slam (holding all four major titles through 2003 Australian Open) are evidence enough that Serena can be dominant in any era.

Winner: Juan Monaco

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Our feelgood story this week is the quiet if unspectacular rise of Juan Monaco. The Argentine veteran, 31 years old, briefly appeared in the ATP Top 10 in summer 2012. By summer 2014, he had fallen out of the Top 100.

    But there's plenty of room for consistent player to move up. Like Gilles Simon, Bernard Tomic and David Goffin, Monaco has put together more tournaments with multiple wins. This past week, he defeated Ernests Gulbis, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and Fernando Verdasco for three of his four wins in the quarterfinals before falling to Tomas Berdych.

    Monaco moves up seven slots to No. 39 and must be smiling at the upcoming clay-court season, when he shines best. He is a dangerous adversary to favorites who should not underestimate him in Europe.

Loser: Tomas Berdych

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    Alan Diaz/Associated Press

    Tomas Berdych is good enough to make it to the Indianapolis 500, but once there it's inevitable that he will get a flat tire. His semifinal loss, 6-4, 6-4, to Andy Murray was just the latest in a career of big-match crashes.

    The score hardly showed just how lopsided things were. While Berdych's serve was wayward, Murray was grooving away like '70s disco. While Berdych's groundstrokes were missing the center of the court, Murray masterfully stroked his to the corners, stretching Berdych like fresh taffy.

    Once again, the better champion won, but the discouraging thing was watching Berdych slump his shoulders (kind of what he did on some atrocious overheads) as if resigned to his fate. Murray detractors must at least grudgingly admire his desire and tenacity to keep fighting even when his doom is delivered (more on that in the next slide).

    Berdych's pain can be measured as if Axl Rose were crooning the lyrics to his old Guns N' Roses hit "Sweet Child O' Mine": "Where do we go? Where do we go now? Where do we go?" If Berdych cannot defeat the top four players when a title is on the line at a big tournament, he will be lost in the historical limbo of tennis also-rans. It might already be too late.

Winner: Novak Djokovic

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    Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    Cue up Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" because Novak Djokovic does walk alone when it comes to winning big trophies. Not that his three-set win over Andy Murray was as easy as a walk along the beach, but King Novak reigns supreme.

    In typical Djokovic fashion, he won the important tiebreaker in the first set by showing steadier nerves than his more agitated opponent, weathered the charge and comeback in the second set and then slammed the door shut with a bagel for the 7-6(3), 4-6, 6-0 victory.

    What else can we say about Djokovic? He swept the Indian Wells-Miami Open double for a second straight year and became the only player to do so three times in his career. It was his fifth trophy at Miami, which overwhelms Roger Federer (two) and Rafael Nadal (zero). The Serbian is carving out quite a few accomplishments that are trademarked as exclusively his own.

    The amazing thing is that Djokovic's tennis might have been at about a B-level for the week. He struggled to get past Alexandr Dolgopolov, and his title-clinching win was hardly a vintage performance, splattered with blown overheads (in a brutal sun) and a rather routine display with 28 winners and 37 unforced errors. (Murray was actually more aggressive by the numbers with 29 winners but coughed up 49 unforced errors.)

    It doesn't matter; Djokovic wins.

    As usual, the question heading out to Europe will be if Djokovic can dominate the clay-court season and realize his greatest ambition—to win the French Open. There's a lot of time until then—and his greatest rival is, after all, the king of clay—but right now the sun is shining on the ATP World Tour No. 1.

Loser: Andy Murray

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    It's hard to disparage Andy Murray's efforts against Novak Djokovic. He lost to a greater champion as he has 10 of the last 11 times in their "rivalry." Furthermore, Murray had a good game plan and matched Djokovic's pace and aggressiveness, understanding that he had to step out of his usual advantages against the rest of the tour.

    Murray lost the match and another chance at a title, but he is not a loser. Nobody else can conquer Mt. Djokovic right now either.

    The Djokovic-Murray rivalry is the modern version of Ivan Lendl vs. Mats Wilander. Lendl had the greater forehand and baseline power, and Wilander was more comfortable as the responder, using his defensive proficiency and his brain to force Lendl into mistakes. At times it worked.

    The trouble for Murray right now is that Djokovic is not self-destructing. He's matured to the point where his peak of physical, mental and strategic preparation is all coming together beautifully. Murray threw everything he had at his more accomplished rival until he was left gasping in the heat and humidity at Miami where he has lived and trained. What else could he do?

    It will take a perfectly executed match from Murray, a quicker court or Djokovic's self-immolation.

    Let's see if Murray can pick off his first career title on clay. That could energize him for a big summer. Stay with this feisty Scot. You have to admire the way he keeps coming back for more.

Winner: Retro Rivalry 1995

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    Twenty years have passed since the peak of the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi rivalry. The reason for that rivalry was Agassi's firm commitment to tennis and his willingness to take on the most dominant player of that time who was in the midst of a six-year run as the No. 1 Player of the Year.

    In 1995, Agassi was off to a sensational start. He defeated Sampras in the Australian Open final, the only time he would defeat his rival in a major final. (Of course, it was the only major final they played on a slower surface; Sampras was superior at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.)

    Sampras got a measure of revenge in defeating Agassi at Indian Wells in straight sets (best of five for the final), but a week later Agassi took the Miami final in three sets 3-6, 6-2, 7-6(3). It was an historic win for Agassi, launching him into the No. 1 ranking that he would hold for 30 weeks.

    The limelight was brighter on Agassi. His bid for the French Open title went sour, and he collapsed against Boris Becker in the Wimbledon semifinal. Then he put together his memorable "Summer of Revenge." But he lost to Sampras in the U.S. Open final, which allowed Sampras to finish with two major titles to Agassi's Aussie title and to outlast him for the yearend No. 1 ranking.

    It's hard to believe that 20 years have passed since the rivalry was all the rage and captured by Nike's incessant commercialization. It would be the last true golden age of American tennis.

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