April 3, 2011

Where It All Began

It's easy to forget that the men's and women's champions in Miami both kicked off their successful careers at this tournament just a few years back, so it's only appropriate that they both returned here to reclaim that glory -- and proved they may have grown a bit in the meantime.

Victoria Azarenka had begun to make a splash on the WTA Tour in 2009, claiming titles in Brisbane and Memphis before really breaking out on the hard courts in Key Biscayne. That year she dropped only one set in the semis to Svetlana Kuznetsova before downing five-time champion Serena Williams in the finals to capture her first premier trophy. Since then she's been a staple in the top ten, giving the sport's elite agita here and there, but never really making the same impact at the big events -- until this year.

The eighth seed in Miami struggled most through her early rounds, but had progressed through the strongest names later in the tournament. When she met Maria Sharapova, whom she had beaten for the Stanford title last year, in the final all momentum was on her side. She took the first set easily, breaking the once-dominant server in each of her service game and ran off to a 4-0 lead in the second before the three-time Grand Slam champion came roaring back. The twenty-one year old from Belarus got a chance to serve out the match and was broken again, but instead of combusting like she used to just a few months back, she held strong to win just enough points to take the title, her biggest in two years.

Novak Djokovic also cut his teeth on the courts of Miami, winning the title here four years back while ranked #10 in the world. It was only his fourth career title, but his first Masters 1000 crown and he had to beat Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray to claim that trophy. Of course, he's sprung to even greater heights in the years that followed, but it wasn't until the start of 2011 that we really saw how much he's matured.

Coming to Miami with a stellar 18-0 record on the year, everyone was talking about the new #2's win streak, but few thought it would continue quite as far as it has. He battled his way to his fourth final of the year, dropping only eight games in his first three rounds. In a rematch of the Indian Wells championship against Nadal just two weeks ago, Nole found himself down a set playing some understandably lethargic ball in the early goings. But he quickly reinvigorated himself, forced a third and served to a tiebreak. After nearly three and a half hours of play, he was again the one holding the trophy, clearly reminding us that he's not just the joker he once was.

It's been a long time since both Vika and Nole emerged as next-generation stars in tennis, and now that they've established themselves as this generation's stars it's nice to see them return to their roots. All that remains to be seen is whether they'll continue their success in the coming weeks.

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