March 25, 2021

Miami Heats Up

I can't be the only one a little surprised that the Miami Open kicked off as planned -- though, I suppose, with my dear James Blake in charge, I shouldn't be so shocked (💕).

And while the primary hope is that everyone there stays safe and healty amid the revelry, as the first premiere tournament since the Australian Open, there is also a lot of top notch tennis to look forward to -- with a slew of top-ranked talent, a couple players riding huge momentum, and even a few we haven't seen in a while.

The Men

I'll start with the men's draw, which may be missing three of its top ive players, but nevertheless boasts some real firepower. Daniil Medvedev takes the court as the top seed, the first time he's hit the court as the #2 player in the world. He's never made it past the third round here, but he's a far different and much more formidable player than he was the last time he was in Miami. With a twenty match win streak that he rode all the way to the Aussie final and a title in Marseille just for good measure, he's certainly deserved his climb, and it's hard to see anyone in his immediate draw derailing him.

Of course, there are players who could surprise us in the top half. Lloyd Harris is coming off a run to the final in Dubai where, as a qualifier, he stunned Dominic Thiem in the second round, and then picked up upsets over three more players. Now at a career high of #52 in the world, he's still a real long shot to make any real play for the title -- but we might have said that about him last week too.

Also in this half of the draw is John Isner who -- meh. After a second round loss at the French Open last fall, he ended the abbreviated season due to injury and then pulled out of the Australian Open this year because of the COVID restrictions. (No comment.) We haven't really seen a lot of the 2018 Miami champion (he beat Alexander Zverev in the final, if you can believe it! -- in the past year, as he's only made it past the second round once. He'll open against qualifier Mackenzie McDonald, who did well to make the fourth round in Melboune last month, and while Isner may be the favorite, he's by no means a sure thing.

On the bottom half of the draw is a man who's had a much more successful 2020 season so far, and had to come out of the depths to do it. Aslan Karatsev, the surprise standout Down Under and brand new trophy-holder at 27, is suddenly ranked one spot ahead of Isner and is far and away at his career best. All eyes will be focused on how he performs now that we actually expect something from him, and while his first opponent, veteran Mikhail Kukushkin, has had some nice results this year, I imagine Karatsev will continue to prove his worth at least a few rounds in.

And finally on the men's side is Thanasi Kokkinakis, who played his first match since 2019 in February. The 24-year-old revealed his battle with anxiety and depression had made the game and life tough for him over the years, but it's nice to see him getting his feet back under him again -- he took Stefanos Tsitsipas to five sets in his homeland Slam's second round. Still ranked outside the top 200 -- a far cry from his previous high of #69 in the world -- he made it through qualies without losing a set and today beat another qualifier to set up a second round against Marton Fucsovics. The barely seeded Hungarian is certainly not one to be dismissed, but there will be a lot of people rooting for an upset here.

The Women

On the women's side, we've already seen some of the favorites in action and a couple have been tested. Top seed and inexplicable world #1 Ashleigh Barty is playing an event ouside of her native Australia for the first time since last February, and it's probably a good place to start. Her run to the title in Miami in 2019 was what set off that magical season that propelled her up the rankings, and what she does in her return will go a long way to quieting my doubts. She struggled in her opener, though, facing a match point against qualifier Kristina Kucova before pulling out the win. With players like Victoria Azarenka, Angelique Kerber -- who double bageled her own opponent today -- and, more immediately, a resurgent Jelena Ostapenko in her section, she's going to have to up her game if she wants to repeat.

Kicking off her run tomorrow will be Sofia Kenin, who followed up a second round loss in her Australian Open defense with a shocking defeat at the hands of then un-ranked Olivia Gadecki in Adelaide. She was nursing a leg injury in Melbourne and eventually had to undergo an apendectomy, so there are explanations for her upsets. Of course, now that she's recovered, we're going to want to see her step up. She'll face off against veteran fan favorite Andrea Petkovic, which will be a good test. The stage her performance sets for the rest of her season, of course, may not be clear -- we've seen her ride roller coasters before -- but a strong showing would still make a big statement.

Then there's Bianca Andreescu, who's only played this event one time in her short but prolific career, reaching the fourth round -- with wins over Kenin and Kerber -- right after her own breakthrough title in Indian Wells in 2019. Sidelined by injury for all of last year, she's had spotty results in her comeback but will try to turn things around against qualifier Tereza Martincova tomorrow. Of course the bigger challenges lie after that -- either former Roland Garros semifinalist Amanda Anisimova, who's had quite a string of bad luck this year, or one-time U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, who's had trouble putting together two straight wins recently, most immediately, and more later -- so we'll see what she's got soon.

Meanwhile, Jessica Pegula is coming to Miami at her career high ranking. She followed up her breakout run in Melbourne by making the semis in Doha, ridiculously as a qualifier, and the quarters in Dubai, absolutely dismantling former world #1 Karolina Pliskova in the process. She's barely seeded at this event, but we should be well aware of the damage she could cause. She'd likely face Pliskova again in the third round, but there's no reason to bet against her making at least the quarters. And for someone who's never won a main draw match here, that would be quite the triumph.

And finally there's Ana Konjuh, ranked #20 in the world four years ago when she was just 19, who's been pushed out of the top three hundred after one surgery after three others. She's been struggling to even qualify for events over the last few years -- her last main draw WTA win was back in 2018 -- but as a wildcard here she seem to be back with a vengence. Still just 23, the Croatian opened her run with a win over a very talented Katerina Siniakova and today notched her first top-twenty win in four years over Madison Keys. While she'll be a serious underdog against her next opponent, reigning French Open champ Iga Swiatek, hopefully her performance even thus far is a sign that she's truly on the comeback trail.

We're still in the very early days of this event, of course, and so much can still happen. But it's great to see so many players back on court. And what happens over the next week-plus could give them all a great opportunity to really shine.

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