March 20, 2014

A Slightly Different Story

It's easy to assume that the Sony Open, the second American hardcourt Masters event in March which, like Indian Wells before it, lasts nearly a Slam-like fortnight and attracts the best players in the sport, should play out along the same lines. But with more humid weather and arguably quicker courts at night, this is a vastly different tournament. Huge stars like Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova have never been able to lift the trophy, and only seven men and two women have won both in the same year.

That doesn't necessarily bode well for last weekend's champions in the Califonia desert, but it could mean those who were disappointed in the first half of the month have a shot at redeeming themselves this time. And there are plenty in the field who'll be looking to improve.

Those two Major champions certainly lead that list. Both titleists in Indian Wells last year, Rafa's loss in his third round to Cinderella Alexandr Dolgopolov was surpassed in shock value only by MaSha's earlier exit at the hands of qualifier Camila Giorgi. They've each reached the final in Miami in the past, many times, in fact, so they know how to win here -- the problem has been, of course, closing it out. Sharapova begins her campaign with the late-night match today against rising star Kurumi Nara, while Nadal will take on either Lleyton Hewitt or Robin Haase in his opener -- both matches the favorites should win. But we've seen surprises in the past of course, so if either is going to redeem themselves, they'll need to bring it from the start.

There are other ladies, though, also out to prove themselves over the next two weeks. Ana Ivanovic, Sam Stosur and Angelique Kerber have all fallen from the heights of their careers and are looking to erase memories from earlier than anticipated exits last week. They each won their openers in Miami already today, so may be on good ground to do so. Meanwhile Sara Errani, who failed to defend quarterfinal points in Indian Wells when she lost in the third round this year, and has at much at stake at the Sony Open -- she's facing off against Patricia Mayr-Achleitner right now and will want to make quick work of that challenge. But the real one to watch in the women's bracket is Sabine Lisicki, one of the biggest talent's in the sport who's nevertheless only won three first round matches this year. She's so far split sets with veteran Nadia Petrova, a woman she beat here three years ago, but she'll need to up her game if she wants to finally realize her full potential.

The men's seeds will begin their opening round matches tomorrow, but the pressure will be on them too. Jerzy Janowicz was the breakout star of 2013, somehow reaching the Wimbledon semis as the twenty-fourth seed. He lost his BNP opener to Alejandro Falla, though, and has yet to beat a top ten player at all this year. And Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has been rather quiet this year despite a run to the Marseille final. He's made the quarters here three times before and might have the kind of section that allows him to do that yet again. Tomas Berdych, on the other hand, who had his breakthrough here four years ago, suffered one of the biggest early upsets at Indian Wells. He opens against another Melbourne Cinderella, though, so he'll be tested again right from the start.

But while all these guys are looking to turn around their luck, last weekend's winners can't be counted out just yet. Flavia Pennetta continued her run today with a straight set win over Olga Govortsova and Novak Djokovic, the last man to complete the Indian Wells-Miami sweep, will begin his quest for another title against Jeremy Chardy tomorrow. They way they're both playing, either could prove the transition isn't as tough as so many believe. And with the momentum they're carrying so far, it certainly will be tough to derail them.

Whether Miami becomes an opportunity for redemption or another tough slog for all these athletes of course remains to be seen. But it sure looks like a lot of the top players are well on their way to writing a plot twist to their seasons. And if they can keep it up, we might be in for a surprise ending no one saw coming.

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