Making the Marks in Miami

Monday, March 31, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

The Sony Open suffers in all current comparisons with its rival in Indian Wells, and it wasn’t helped this year by a disastrous double-pullout in the men’s semifinals. But the tournament closed well, with weekend finals between the No. 1 and No. 2 men and women—not many events can say that. As the tours and the talk move to clay, here’s an assessment of what we saw from the major players over the last two weeks in Miami. Feel free to hand down your own grades in the comments below.

*****

Novak Djokovic

Who says new coach Boris Becker hasn’t helped? He seems to have given Djokovic a better appreciation of what his old coach, Marian Vajda, has to say. 

What a difference a match can make: Before Djokovic’s win over Roger Federer in Indian Wells—even during his win over Federer—he looked and sounded frustrated and doubtful. Djokovic was inconsistent and, in his own words, unsure of his “mental approach in the big moments.” Now, two weeks later, he’s walked away with the rare Indian Wells-Miami double for the second time; on the men's side, only Federer has also done it twice.

Just as significant for the immediate future, Djokovic has done what he hired Becker to help him do: Catch up to Nadal. Since his loss to him in last year’s U.S. Open final, Djokovic is 3-0 against Rafa, with all of those wins coming in straight sets. Yesterday’s was the most comprehensive of all. He was superior in every aspect of the game, and had success going straight into Nadal’s strength, his forehand, and exploiting the gap that the Spaniard leaves open on that side with his cross-court backhand. As Djokovic said afterward, there’s no reason this tactic can’t work on clay, too. 

For the last three years, we’ve been told that Djokovic would never go back to playing the way he did in 2011. That’s probably true. But now that he’s looking good yet again, it’s time we all stopped speculating and worrying that he’s going to go back to what he was like before 2011. A+

Serena Williams

Serena also used these two weeks, as she has six times in the past, to show that she’s not going anywhere, anytime soon. After losses in Melbourne and Dubai, she won her second event of the year and recorded wins over two of her closest competitors (in the rankings, anyway), Maria Sharapova and Li Na, in straight sets. While the scores of those two matches looked routine, Serena started slowly in both; she went down 1-4 to Sharapova and 2-5 to Li Na. Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, told the New York Times that she felt the pressure of having to repeat her dominant ways of the last two years. But it looked to me like Serena, as has often been the case with her, simply needed to feel challenged—to feel the urgency of a possible defeat—before she could engage fully and instinctively. 

Those slow starts aren’t the best sign for the immediate future; the pressure to repeat will be with her for most of the year, and she won’t always be able to come up with a backhand winner from well behind the baseline when she’s down set point, as she did against Li. But the way she responded showed that once she does engage, Serena's still a cut—and a serve, a forehand, and a backhand—above everyone else. A+

Li Na

It ended quickly and brutally, but Miami qualifies as progress for Li. For much of it, she suffered through her usual wild swings in form. This time, though, rather than succumbing to them mentally and lashing out at her coach and husband, she stayed patient and managed her way through—she seemed to be confident that her lulls wouldn’t last forever. And the shot she hit, a high forehand, when she had set point on Serena, was the right one. There wasn’t much she could have done after that. A-

Rafael Nadal

It’s all about match-ups, no? Nadal started this tournament looking much better than he had at the previous one, in Indian Wells. He finished it by enduring one of the most lopsided defeats of his career. Rafa is still No. 1, and after skipping Miami last year, he gained 500 points in the rankings with his runner-up finish. But Djokovic remains a thorny match-up.

In their 40th meeting, nothing worked for Nadal. It was bad enough for him to watch Djokovic’s crosscourt backhands sail past; it must have been even worse watching his own service returns sail over the baseline for no discernible reason. Or maybe there was a discernible reason: Nadal knew that everything had to be perfect if he was going to stay with Djokovic on this day. During the first set, Nadal hit nine percent of his shots while he was in front of the baseline, 91 percent while he was behind it.

“Easy to analyze,” Nadal said afterward, “the opponent was better than me. That’s it.”

So here we are again. As in 2005, 2008, and 2011, Nadal leaves Miami a final-round loser. Each of those years he went to Monte Carlo and left a final-round winner. In 2014, that tournament, his favorite, will mean more than ever. A-

Dominika Cibulkova

Even if she doesn’t reach another Grand Slam final anytime soon, Domi has established herself. She was three games from the final in the third set against Li. She beat Agnieszka Radwanska for the second straight time this year. And she cracked the Top 10 for the first time in her career at 24. Judging by her overjoyed reaction, she’s been waiting to say that last fact for a long time. Could chasing her dream leave her burned out down the road? Cibulkova has already played seven tournaments, plus Fed Cup, this season. Still, it’s hard to imagine her running out of energy. A-

Kei Nishikori

His leaping backhand winner at match point against Roger Federer in the quarterfinals turned out to be a leap too far. He hurt himself and had to withdraw from the semifinals. But add him to the list, with Dimitrov, Gulbis, and Dolgopolov, of young-ish guys who have made inroads in the first quarter of the year.

And that backhand did make for a helluva way to go out. A-

Maria Sharapova

She won without her best in the early going, then she won with something approximating her best against Petra Kvitova. She also played well against Serena, and at least made her loss a high-quality one. But I thought the most telling moment came on a changeover, when her coach, Sven Groeneveld, told her that “the plan was working” against Serena, despite the fact that she had just lost the first set. Sharapova essentially rolled her eyes at him. As determined as she is, after 15 straight losses, it’s going to take more than anything a coach can say to get her to believe she can beat Serena again. B+

Milos Raonic

Raonic recovered from an early-season injury to reach the quarters and push Nadal to three. Then, at 3-all, he made the fatal mistake of getting his first serve in at break point. Rather than having to think about it, Nadal just reacted to the bomb, and won the point. I’m not sure Raonic has improved since last year—he still struggles when his serve comes back—but as of this week, he’s back in the Top 10. B+

Alexandr Dolgopolov

Just when I start speculating about his improved closing skills, he fails to close a second set against Tomas Berdych. Still, a quarterfinal appearance and a win over Stan Wawrinka qualifies as a surprisingly solid follow-up to his Indian Wells run. B+

Elina Svitolina

Once the unknown up-and-comer, Svitolina, of Ukraine, is making a name for herself. She beat fellow youngster Genie Bouchard in three sets, and took a set from Radwanska two rounds later. A player, finally, to remember. B+

David Ferrer

Yes, he was beaten by Nishikori in the fourth round. But on a hot day, when his fellow Europeans Tsonga, Gasquet, and Wawrinka looked as if they were trying to beat each other to the airport, Ferrer stayed in (little) beast-mode and fought it out to the bitter end. B+

Agnieszka Radwanska

Another week, another surprising disappointment for Aga. In Indian Wells, a knee injury caught up to her at the wrong moment, in the final. In Miami, Cibulkova did. In the second set, Radwanska had three match points at 5-4 and led 5-2 in the tiebreaker. For all of her genius, Aga's body leaves her vulnerable to breakdown, and her finesse game leaves her vulnerable to any opponent’s hot streak. B

Roger Federer

It’s all about matchups and pressure, no? In his easy win over Richard Gasquet, Federer’s backhand was, as they say, firing on all cylinders. In his three-set loss to Nishikori, it lost a cylinder or two along the way. At a certain point in their quarterfinal, Nishikori started to dictate the baseline rallies, yet Federer didn’t try to vary things much. For all of the talk of Fedberg, he came to the net just 16 times over the course of a long three-setter. Federer has had a very good and promising first quarter of 2014, but against Djokovic in Indian Wells and Nishikori in Miami, he was the less-confident player in the crucial moments. B

Andy Murray

Murray finished the spring hard-court swing in an OK, if still vexing, place. While his back troubles seem to be behind him, and he’s certainly played enough tennis in 2014 to feel comfortable on court, he’s still dealing with another residual effect of his time off for surgery: A diminished ranking—he’s currently No. 8—that has put him up against Federer in the quarters in Australia, and Djokovic in the quarters in Miami. 

Against Novak, it didn’t appear that Murray knew quite how to react after being robbed of a point at the end of the first set. Anger didn’t take him far in the second. Now, without Ivan Lendl, how far can he climb before he has to defend his Wimbledon title? B

Stan Wawrinka

You can't keep failing better forever. C+

Richard Gasquet/Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

In retrospect, their hit-the-road fourth-round losses to Federer and Murray made those two look like they were playing at a higher level than they were. D+

Sloane Stephens

I won't speculate about her future or criticize her words afterward. I'll just say that I hope her 55-minute, 6-1, 6-0 loss to Caroline Wozniacki goes down as a low point in her career. It's hard to get lower. F

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