March 30, 2014

Total Domination

This weekend in Miami we were treated to a rare occurrence at the Sony Open -- in both the men's and women's draws, the world #1's and #2's had survived the tough, first-rate fields to make championship weekend. And while all did not go as we might have expected -- or hoped, in some cases, I'm sure -- the ultimate winners both earned their trophies with some spectacular performances, wholly overpowering opponents who seemed caught slightly off-guard when it mattered most.

Serena Williams had already claimed the crown here six times before, and though she suffered a mild hiccup against world #74 Caroline Garcia in her third round, was the clear favorite in Saturday's final. Australian Open champ Na Li, who'd three times been stopped in the quarters here, had been pushed to the limit by Dominika Cibulkova in the semis -- a match in which she actually won fewer points than the Melbourne runner-up. It'd also been almost six years since her only win over Serena, and she'd only taken one set off the American in their last nine meetings.

Still, Li came out swinging on Saturday, taking advantage of a sluggish start from the American -- she broke Williams' first service game and built a 5-2 lead in relatively short order. But Serena, as she often does, upped her game when she needed too. She foiled Li's two attempts to close out the set and after more than one-and-a-quarter hours of play -- longer than her entire quarterfinal against Angelique Kerber -- somehow took the first for herself. She didn't let up in the second, either -- she upped her service game, never allowing a break opportunity this time, and pounced during her return games. In a much shorter set, Serena only barely let Li to get on the board, putting together a run of eleven games in twelve to cap off the match and secure her record seventh title in Miami, making this the winning-est venue in her career -- quite a feat for someone with nearly sixty titles to her name.

Novak Djokovic hasn't reached that milestone just yet, but after nailing down trophy number four in Miami earlier today, he may be well on his way. The world #2 had an easy trip to the final here, getting walkovers in both his third and semifinal rounds. Still, coming off a crown at the BNP Paribas Open, he was going after the elusive Indian Wells-Miami double -- for a second time, something only Roger Federer had ever been able to do. Nole did have some things going for him though -- since the U.S. Open, he'd only lost two matches and had put together a 19-0 record at Masters events. And having narrowed his head-to-head record against world #1 Rafael Nadal over the last several months, he had to have confidence on his side as well.

Nadal, for his part, certainly had some advantages himself. Three-times a runner-up at one of the few Masters events he hasn't won, he'd seemed to have bounced back well from an early Indian Wells exit and with three easy wins to kick off his Miami campaign -- plus a walkover himself in the semis -- he seemed hungry and able to finally change his luck at the Sony Open. He even earned the first break chance of the match and dominated his early service games. But once Djokovic turned up the heat, Rafa had nowhere to go -- Nole broke in the sixth game of the match and never blinked again. He held Nadal to just fifty percent on both serves in the second set, never allowing the Spaniard a break opportunity again, and closed out his final in a drama-free eighty-odd minutes. He now stands behind just Andre Agassi in titles in Miami, and may have secured his place as the only man to beat here.

While neither of these outcomes might have been totally predictable -- at #2, Nole was the on-paper underdog in the final, and it sure looked like Serena would have to fight through three sets in hers -- the one-sided performances from both these champions sure puts them at a level above the rest of the field. And though things might be about to change for both of them -- the red clay season is just around the corner -- there's no reason to believe their domination won't continue.

And even on courts where they might not be at their best, they've certainly sent the message that everyone should beware.

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