Miami conclusion: a sign of two tours heading in different directions?

Miami conclusion: a sign of two tours heading in different directions?

After the complaints about bubble restrictions in the early going of the Miami Open, it was satisfying to see such down-to-earth people as Ash Barty and Hubert Hurkacz win titles. But it felt as if Miami told us more about the future of the pro game.

“Miami nice” was the theme at Hard Rock Stadium this weekend.

On Saturday, Ash Barty had only kind and caring thoughts for her opponent Bianca Andreescu, after the Canadian was forced to default from their Miami Open final down 6-3, 4-0.

“I really feel for her having to pull out today; I think that’s going to be the first of many battles between us,” Barty said, in words that Andreescu described as “super sweet.”

On Sunday, Hubert Hurkacz and Jannik Sinner sounded more like long-lost brothers than two guys trying to win their first Masters 1000 title at the other’s expense.

“I’m more proud of the kind of person you are,” Sinner said to Hurkacz, who had just beaten him 7-6 (4), 6-4. “You are maybe my best friend on tour.”

To which Hurkacz responded: “Jannik is an amazing player and an amazing person.”

If the Miami Open is any indication, kindness and camaraderie will be the name of the game in tennis in the future. I’m never going to argue against that, especially in times like these. After the complaints about bubble restrictions in the early going in Miami, it was satisfying to see such friendly, down-to-earth people as Barty and Hurkacz be crowned champions, and to see the respect that all four finalists had for each other.

But it felt as if Miami told us more about the future of the pro game than just that. It seemed to showcase two tours moving in different directions. For the past 15 years, since the advent of the Big 3, the ATP has given fans a sense of order and permanence, while the WTA has offered surprise and flux—since the start of 2005, there have been nine different men’s Grand Slam champions, and 26 different women. In Miami, the two sides traded roles.

The women’s finalists, Barty and Andreescu, are Slam champs who returned to the spotlight after down seasons—Andreescu’s was due to injury, Barty’s to the pandemic. Since 2018, the WTA has introduced us to a series of exciting young major-title winners in Barty, Andreescu, Naomi Osaka, Sofia Kenin, and Iga Swiatek. What the tour hasn’t done so far is introduce those players to each other on a regular basis. The stars are there, but they haven’t taken the stage together often, and they have yet to form any durable rivalries. Barty vs. Andreescu was, hopefully, a first step in that direction.

Over the course of the tournament, the Australian showed off her varied game and unflappable temperament during the afternoons, while the Canadian soaked up the spotlight in the evenings with her stubbornly fierce attack. Their final obviously didn’t live up to expectations, in part because Andreescu gave so much, physically, to get there. But Barty still had time to remind us just how tough she is as an opponent, and how entertaining she is as an athlete. For the set and a half that the final lasted, she had Andreescu lunging, stretching, scrambling, guessing, and moving in the wrong direction. Osaka has talked about how Barty can pull an opponent in all different directions; Andreescu knows how it feels now.


WATCH: WOMEN'S FINAL HIGHLIGHTS:


Let’s hope the damage to Andreescu isn’t long-lasting, and that Barty’s confidence grows from here. We need to see these two play again, and to see them mix it up with Osaka, Swiatek, Serena Williams, Garbiñe Muguruza, Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, Aryna Sabalenka, Victoria Azarenka, Jen Brady, Maria Sakkari and others in the coming months. Miami had a full women’s draw, and it showed in the quality and competitiveness of the matches.

“The fact now is we have had a really successful couple of weeks,” said Barty, who will be in Charleston starting Monday. “With each match I have been playing better and better, which is ultimately what we're after, and to be able to have the title at the end is a bonus, and to be able to defend my title, the first time in my career I've been able to do that, is really, really special too.”

The men’s draw, by contrast, was not full. Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, and Dominic Thiem all pulled out before it began. This made Miami the perfect place to get a glimpse into the ATP’s future. The top four seeds were the cream of the Next Gen: Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, and Andrey Rublev. Which of them, I asked in my tournament preview, would take this golden opportunity to win a Masters 1000 event?

The answer, we know now, was none of them. Zverev looked tired and lost early; Medvedev was agitated by one of his nemeses, Roberto Bautista Agut; and Tsitsipas and Rublev were outplayed by the 37th-ranked Hurkacz. Instead, it was the leading member of the Next Next Generation, 19-year-old Sinner, who took advantage and reached his first Masters final in just his third try.

This whiff by the Next Gen may not mean much in the immediate future. Starting next week, the ATP will return to European clay, which means it will return to the GOAT chase between Djokovic and Nadal. But in the long term Miami may foreshadow a future filled with disorder and surprise on the men’s tour.


WATCH: MEN'S FINAL TROPHY SPEECHES:


If so, Hurkacz’s title run would seem to be the perfect harbinger of that time. The 24-year-old Pole had never made the semis, let alone the final, of a Masters event, and he had lost early at his recent tournaments. But while he didn’t have to beat Djokovic or Nadal, his last five wins all came over higher seeds: Denis Shapovalov, Milos Raonic, Tsitsipas, Rublev, and Sinner. Along the way, Hurkacz showed off a flexible game. He beat Rublev with pace, and then turned around and beat Sinner with defense. The only thing Hurkacz struggled to do was find the right place to kiss the abstract glass winner’s trophy. With practice, he’ll learn.

“It feels unreal,” Hurkacz said, “I’m so happy I was able to play a really good match today.”

In the last 10 years, Miami has been won five times by Djokovic, twice by Federer, and now once by Hubert Hurkacz. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.