Opening the Door

Wednesday, March 20, 2013 /by

Yesterday Sony Open tournament director Adam Barrett stated the obvious when he said that losing Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal from this year’s event had been a blow. You can already see the slip in ticket sales, Barrett claimed. Which makes me ask in response: How does he know for sure that Roger and Rafa are the reason? Maybe it was the famed Gulbis Army that decided to stay home after Ernests said he wasn't playing. 

There’s no question that Federer's and Nadal's absence has an immediate effect on the draw. For one thing, David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych are seeded No. 3 and No 4, respectively. That said, the strength at the top of the men’s game right now is such that even without the tour’s two biggest gate attractions, Key Biscayne still has the finalists from the last two Grand Slams, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. These two also played each other in the final here last year. Can they shake off disappointing performances in Indian Wells and do it again? Can the man who beat them in California, Juan Martin del Potro, keep his roll going on the other side of the country? 

It’s always a little tricky making Key Biscayne picks. You never know how a player—such as, say, del Potro–will react to making a good run in Indian Wells. Sometimes the confidence carries over, but just as often there’s a letdown.

Let’s see how things are shaping up for Round Two of the U.S. hard-court season—you can see the draw here. As I write this, a few first-round men's matches are being played. Hopefully whoever I pick to win it all won’t be out of the tournament before this preview goes up.

*****

First Quarter

Djokovic left Indian Wells this year much the way he did in 2012. With a quick, unhappy press conference immediately after a close semifinal defeat to an inspired opponent—in 2012 that player was John Isner, in 2013 it was del Potro. As we know, Djokovic bounced back to win in Miami last year. This time, though, he blew a 3-0 lead in the third set of his Indian Wells semi, and often struggled during the tournament to maintain his best form. Are these bad signs for his chances in Key Biscayne? Watching him in Indian Wells, and listening to him say that he had lost his concentration against del Potro, I did wonder whether Djokovic has begun to have trouble getting fully motivated for non-Grand Slam events. Maybe that’s what happens when you're 4,500 points ahead of the person closest to you in the rankings. If so, I’m guessing the feeling will pass as Roland Garros approaches.

For now, Djokovic will face the winner of two upset specialists, Gilles Muller and Lukas Rosol, in his opening round. Neither of those guys is an easy out, but neither is likely to upset Djokovic on a slow hard court. After that, he could play Feliciano Lopez or new kid on the block Evgeny Donskoy, who took a set from Murray last week.

Djokovic is also helped by the fact that he’s scheduled to get Janko Tipsarevic in the quarterfinals. Tipsy looks like a long shot to make it there, as he has been getting tipped over in first rounds on a regular basis lately. Since the Australian Open, he’s 0-4 in matches and 0-8 in sets, and he managed just two games against Gulbis in Indian Wells. Kevin Anderson and Marinko Matosevic, each of whom played well last week, have to like being near Tipsarevic here.

—Also here: Dolgopolov, Haas, Simon, and wild-card king Lleyton Hewitt.

—Sleepers: Anderson and Donskoy.

Semifinalist: Djokovic

*****

Second Quarter

No wonder Ferrer insists he doesn’t belong in the Top 4. Last week he was seeded fourth in Indian Wells and he went out in his opening match to Kevin Anderson. What’s he going to do now that he’s seeded third? Retire and go home? Ferrer, who is 21-10 for his career in Miami—I won’t bother making a joke about crying babies, but that unfortunate incident happened here, too—opens with the winner between two qualifiers, Tursunov and Smyczek. The latter gave Ferru a good run in Melbourne. 

The big issue for Ferrer comes later, in the form of his scheduled quarterfinal opponent, del Potro. All eyes will be on Delpo to see what he has in store after Indian Wells. More slice backhands? More big comebacks? Or flatling mental exhaustion? His draw should help if the latter becomes a problem. He’ll start with the winner of Kamke and Kavcic, and might play Granollers after that. Del Potro's probelm could come if he does face Ferrer in the quarters. The Spaniard has won their last four matches, including a 3 and 3 win in the fourth round here last year.

—Also here: Monaco and Nishikori, who have been hurt, and Chardy, who has come tumbling to earth since his good run in Australia.

—First-round match to follow on live scores tonight: Ryan Harrison vs. James Blake. Harrison could use a win like this, especially when Julien Benneteau awaits in the next round.

Semifinalist: Ferrer

*****

Third Quarter

The two biggest beneficiaries of the absence of Federer and Nadal? That would be the top seeds in this section: Tomas Berdych moves up to No. 4, and Richard Gasquet slides into the No. 8 slot. You can see the difference in their draws. Berdych will open with the winner of Istomin and Gimeno-Traver, and then could get the slumping Fernando Verdasco. As for Gasquet, he’ll start with the winner of Ito and Rochus, and might get 28th-seed Mikhail Youzhny in his second match. You’d think that Tomas and Reeshard, never sure bets, would advance.

Also here:

—Milos Raonic and Sam Querrey, who could play in the third round. Querrey won their first two encounters, but Raonic got revenge this year indoors in San Jose. A match between them in the Miami heat would be interesting. Both of them are, generally speaking, on the upswing.

—Robby Ginepri, who qualified and starts against Yen-Hsun Lu.

—Nicolas Almagro, who could benefit from being in Gasquet’s half. He’s been to the quarters in Miami once before.

Semifinalist: Raonic

*****

Fourth Quarter

Sometimes you just can’t win. Murray didn’t play between Melbourne and Indian Wells so he could come in rested and refreshed. Then he ended up losing to de Potro—in part, he said, because he hadn’t had enough matches.

Now that Muzz has some matches, how will he do? Miami will be an important tournament, considering that he has runner-up points to defend, and he isn’t far behind Federer for the helpful No. 2 spot in the rankings. It’s been feast or famine for Murray here in the past. He won the event in 2009 and reached the final last season; but he also lost his opening-rounders in 2008, 2010, and 2011. This time he might start with a tricky one, against Bernard Tomic. Murray won their only meeting, 3 and 2, last year in Brisbane. If he wins that, he might face another young talent in Grigor Dimitrov, who looked very good for a set against Murray earlier this year, and very good for a set against Djokovic in Indian Wells last week.

Murray’s scheduled quarterfinal opponent is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, another man who is forever knocking on the door but never bashing it in. The closest seed to Jo is Martin Klizan. That's good news; it would be even better news if Klizan hadn’t upset Tsonga at the U.S. Open last year. 

Also here:

—John Isner, now seeded No. 20, with whatever the opposite of a bullet is next to his name. He opens against the winner of Ivan Dodig and Lukas Lacko.

—Jerzy Janowicz, who will likely play Thomaz Bellucci to start.

—David Nalbandian, who plays fellow veteran Jarkko Nieminen in the first round.

—Christian Harrison, little brother of Ryan and the wildest of wild cards. He plays Bellucci in the opening round.

Semifinalist: Murray

*****

Semifinals: Djokovic d. Ferrer; Murray d. Raonic

Final: Djokovic d. Murray

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