March 29, 2010

Three Down, One to Go?

There's a strange parallel between NCAA basketball and what's going on in Miami this week. For only the third time since 1980 we were in danger of seeing all the top seeds in the mad March tournament eliminated before the Final Four. Similarly in Florida, where so many of the elite athletes pulled out even before play began, both of last year's men's finalists, runner-up Novak Djokovic and champion Andy Murray, were bounced in their opening rounds.

That leaves Victoria Azarenka as the lone defender still in the mix. In fact, she's the only winner -- man or woman -- from the last three years still alive at the Sony Ericsson Open, and with a fourth round match-up against Kim Clijsters later today, I'm not sure how much longer she will last.

Should we be worried about the performances this year? Perhaps a little. Vika is probably in the clear as she's proven to be a solid competitor these last few weeks, and a potential loss to Kim is certainly not something to be ashamed of. And Serena Williams, out with injury for the past several weeks, has always proven her ability to rebound, so I'm not too concerned about her yet.

But the men could be in more of a jam. Djokovic had chances in his loss to Olivier Rochus, taking the middle set tiebreak and successfully breaking serve a few times in the decider. But two straight defeats by players ranked out of the top twenty is not the best sign. And Murray has been in a bit of a funk ever since his drubbing in Australia. Since Melbourne, he's only amassed a three-and-three record, losing to Jankko Tipsarevic in Dubai, Robin Soderling in Indian Wells and Mardy Fish this week. He's got to find a way to keep upsets from, well, upsetting him if he's going to take home that first Slam.

What these exits do mean is that past titlists like Clijsters and Roger Federer, Andy Roddick and Venus Williams -- who, incidentally, is riding an amazing twelve-match win streak -- can breathe a little easier. And let's not forget the unseeded Justine Henin or two-time finalist Rafael Nadal, a man who has not won a single title since Rome last year. Who could possibly discount those threats?

And there are still a few spoilers quietly making their way through the draws. Australian Open semifinalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga hasn't dropped a set yet this tournament and took out a feisty Philipp Kohlschreiber in just about eighty minutes on Sunday. Then there's Vera Zvonareva, who fell out of the top twenty this week thanks to a failure to defend in Indian Wells. She has nevertheless powered through strong opponents like Melanie Oudin and Sara Errani to make the fourth round.

The field might not technically be wide open as there are plenty of champions still lurking out there. But a dark horse like ButlerTsonga or Zvonareva has got to like his or her chances a bit better now.

And if the NCAA tournament has taught us anything this year, it's that no one is really an underdog.

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