Tennis in the time of pandemic has largely been defined by stress, uncertainty, scheduling shifts, complicated travel logistics, COVID-related protocols, frequent testing, near-empty stands, the omnipresence of masks. It’s a scary picture, worthy eventually of an evocative documentary and millions of powerful, personal memories.
Emerging, however: gratitude for the chance to once again watch the world’s best players in action. On a bit-by-bit basis, right alongside the ongoing pandemic, the 2021 tennis year is happening.
Amid flux and challenge, dread and hope, at one level, it remains disappointing to see several prominent men's players absent from this year’s Miami Open. None of the Big Three. No Dominic Thiem or Stan Wawrinka. Unfortunate.
But at another level, a year ago, this event had been cancelled and the tennis world wondered what the future held. Now, it’s here.
For those who’ve shown up this year, opportunity is in the air, most notably for a number of contenders who appear set to sharply make a major mark on the current turbulent decade.
Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas are the top two seeds. Medvedev recently became the first man other than Djokovic, Nadal, Federer or Andy Murray to be ranked No. 2 in the world since 2005. As I wrote following their recent Australian Open semi, these two have the makings of what could be a tremendous high-level rivalry, a lively contrast of styles and personalities.
Miami happened to be the setting for their first meeting. It took place three years ago and was marked by bathroom breaks, rancor and post-match profanity.
Medvedev has won six of their seven matches. Whether he remains that dominant is uncertain. But it’s likely each of these two will improve on their rather meager Miami records (3-2 for Medvedev, 2-2 for Tsitsipas).
Several others are both hopeful and young. Alexander Zverev, runner-up at this event to John Isner in 2018, by now seems like he’s been around forever. But Zverev is only 23 years old. So is Andrey Rublev. The last time Rublev played Miami, he’d won one ATP singles title and was ranked 99th in the world. Since then, he’s snapped up seven and is currently ranked eighth.
"I want to be ready as much as I can for Miami, because there's going to be no Rafael Nadal, no Novak Djokovic, Federer and Thiem," said Rublev, whose 23-match winning streak at ATP 500-level tournaments was snapped last week in Dubai. "And Masters events, I have no points [to defend] there."
Then there’s Rublev’s rapidly rising compatriot, surprise Aussie semifinalist Asian Karatsev, who beat Rublev in the semis of Dubai this week, went on to win the tournament, and will be making his Miami debut.
Additional players of note reveal a wide variety of playing styles, from gritty baseliners like Diego Schwartzman, Roberto Bautista Agut, David Goffin, Pablo Carreno Busta, Alex de Minaur and Borna Coric, to lively aggressors Denis Shapovalov, Grigor Dimitrov, Felix Auger-Aliassime, to those two ever-intriguing shot-makers, Fabio Fognini and Gael Monfils. Each of these men has played some sparkling tennis around the world, but hardly made an impression on Miami. Will this be the year?
"I do want to achieve certain things—like win big tournaments and go up the rankings. but I think for the bigger guys it’s not really motivating. They’ve been there, won Masters, won Slams, so they don’t have a reason to go and play," Shapovalov said Dubai, where he competed last week.
But for players that are still on their way up, he added, it's ''more chances to win and there’s more opportunities for sure. It’s good for young guys like us."
The only men in the field who’ve won Grand Slam singles titles are Marin Cilic and Murray. Cilic is ranked 45th in the world, while Murray, twice a winner in Miami, stands at No. 118. The chance to see these two veterans mix it up versus a great many younger players is intriguing.
And what about the native sons, those Americans who were raised on this surface and seek significant ranking points during the “Sunshine Double” of Indian Wells and Miami? Of course, this year, their only shot is Miami.
America’s biggest hopefuls are trio of big servers. Isner, still the highest-ranked American in the world at No. 28, has only played two matches this year, losing in the second round of Delray Beach. Taylor Fritz, two spots behind Isner, has posted some impressive results, reaching the semis last week in Doha and also extending Djokovic to five sets in the third round of the Australian Open. Reilly Opelka, ranked 38th, has been scratching for his best form this year, but Miami could be a fine place for that to happen. Behind those three are several more Americans of various ages and stages—Tommy Paul, Frances Tiafoe, Tennys Sandgren, Sam Querrey, Marcos Giron, Steve Johnson.
Just over two weeks from now, someone will raise the champion’s trophy of one of the sport’s most-prestigious tournaments. Given events of the last year, what the entire planet has been through, and the many stressful factors that continue to shape the life of a contemporary professional tennis player, that will be one highly memorable achievement.