Novak Djokovic - Sony Ericsson Open

Out with the old, in with the new:  Just two days apart, spectators caught glimpses of the last decade’s dominant ATP rivalry and the rivalry that has crystallized in its place.  More striking a contrast one could scarcely imagine than the gulf that yawned between Friday’s pallid semifinal and Sunday’s pulsating final.  Only occasionally competitive, the Federer-Nadal clash lasted just 79 uneventful minutes as the Spaniard dominated a somber Swiss in every department of the game.  Early in the second set, Federer’s double fault on break point epitomized an encounter only slightly less decisive than Djokovic’s victory over Fish in the other semifinal.  The sprawling 201-minute labyrinth of the championship match, however, encompassed multiple momentum shifts between two fiery competitors who rarely relaxed their willpower.  Permitting no breaks of serve after the second game of the second set, Nadal and Djokovic collaborated on a crescendo of suspense that culminated in a final-set tiebreak after the eventual runner-up had edged within two points of the title.

The last two rounds in Miami thus proved that Federer has sunk to the third-best player in the world—and by a considerable margin.  Unless the balance of power shifts sharply on clay and grass, this realization may erode the Swiss legend’s confidence in future meetings with the two who have surpassed him.  Meanwhile, fans can thrill to the prospect of a new, distinct, equally scintillating duel at the top.  Can Djokovic launch an assault upon Nadal’s clay citadel?  If he doggedly pursues the Spaniard’s footsteps across the spring and summer, the Serb could initiate a genuine battle for #1 that few would have envisioned a year ago.   In a sport where narratives shift exceptionally fast, though, one would be unwise to project too far ahead.

In with the old, in with the new:  Amidst a transitional period and the criticisms that accompany it, the WTA must have relished the convergence of past and future that transpired in Miami.  Suggesting parallels with Zvonareva’s emotional maturation, Azarenka found her long-absent composure to withstand three three-setters in her opening matches.  Not distant from defeat against Cibulkova, she later surrendered just 14 total games to the notable trio of Clijsters, Zvonareva, and Sharapova.  Azarenka  admittedly struggled to deliver the coup de grace after thoroughly dominating both Slam champions, but she likely will maintain leads with greater aplomb as her confidence mounts.  Juxtaposed with Wozniacki’s performance at Indian Wells, the Belarussian’s second Miami title reclaimed at least a corner of the spotlight from her peer, although she still must prove that she can build upon the achievement more effectively than in 2009.

Forced to concede the champion’s supremacy, Sharapova may struggle to solve the conundrum posed by newcomers like Azarenka who can fuse power with consistency.  Nevertheless, she demonstrated throughout the week how far the mind and the spirit can carry a competitor of her towering resolve.  Psychologically adjusted to her serve’s fallibility, the Russian continued to impose her will upon opponents with a grim determination as relentless and intimidating as her shrieks.  Returning to the top 10 for the first time since 2009, the three-time major champion earned her ascendancy in suitably dramatic fashion with the longest match of her career.  That signature performance tested her perseverance to the limit, but 76 unforced errors, 17 double faults, and a painful ankle injury could not dull the Russian’s appetite for conquest.  Her most impressive result since shoulder surgery, Sharapova’s exploits in Miami extended her surge from Indian Wells and dispelled the malaise that had hovered above her since the US Open.

Surprise semifinalists:  Earlier in his career, Fish would not have won wars of attrition against formidable opponents in the torrid environment of Key Biscayne.  But a draconian fitness program has enabled him to complement his shot-making skills with serviceable defense and movement, which he showcased in an unexpected triumph over Del Potro.  Then he mentally outlasted grinder par excellence Ferrer in a quarterfinal to become the top American man, an accolade that he earned for the first time.  Unable to convert his first-set opportunities against Djokovic, Fish nevertheless challenged the world #2 more consistently than the scoreline suggested.  Unfortunately for him, the clay season will blunt his momentum, but he might well resurface during the US Open Series for the second straight year.

Even more impressive than the American’s accomplishments were the feats of a plucky, zany German in the other draw.  Although Wozniacki contributed to her own demise with over 50 unforced errors, Petkovic still merits applause for inflicting steady pressure on the world #1 and showing no uncertainty as she served out the match.  Firmly confident in her weapons, she clawed back from a third-set deficit against 2008 finalist Jankovic by weathering a grueling series of deuce games riddled with protracted rallies.  Bursting to the attention of international audiences with her patented “Petko-dance,” Petkovic now wisely has chosen to center her energies upon activities during rather than after the match.  A threat on every surface, the German has developed a habit of peaking at the most significant tournaments; this trend could vault her into the top 10 later this year should it persist.

What a difference a year makes:  Plunging outside the top 10, Roddick suffered from a host of ailments en route to an opening-round loss at the tournament that he captured in such scintillating style last year.  When he fell just one victory short of the Indian Wells-Miami double in 2010, the American seemed on the verge of regaining the form that he displayed during the 2009 Wimbledon final.  But such hopes evaporated after an untimely bout of mono from which Roddick still has not quite recovered.  While winning Memphis and reaching the Brisbane final this year, he has lost before the quarterfinals at the three marquee events that he has contested:  the Australian Open, Indian Wells, and Miami.  Despite a quarterfinal appearance at this year’s tournament, 2010 runner-up Berdych resembled his inconsistent former self during a three-setter against Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo and a near-loss to Florian Mayer.  Required to defend copious quantities of points on clay and grass, the Czech may bounce from his elevated ranking by the second half.

What a difference a surface could make:  Shining on the red-brick road to Roland Garros last year, Verdasco will welcome the Tour’s return to his favorite surface after losses to Querrey and the nearly unknown Pablo Andujar in North America.  Doubtless sharing his delight is compatriot and 2010 Rome finalist Ferrer, eager to erase the memories of an oddly listless loss to Fish in a quarterfinal poisoned by costly double faults.  Like Roddick, Soderling has battled illness and injury over the past month, so his premature exit against Del Potro raised few eyebrows.  Nevertheless, the Swede’s spirits should soar when he steps onto the terre battue where his greatest achievements have occurred.

Stirring briefly to life before Sharapova stifled her, Stosur prepares to mount her title defense in Charleston this week.  Often confused and disorganized during her recent slump, the 2010 Roland Garros runner-up should profit from the additional time allowed by the surface where her kick serve most thrives.  Looking similarly puzzled over much of the last several months, Kuznetsova has failed to capitalize upon her victory over Henin in Melbourne as well as a Dubai finals appearance a month later.  Searching for consistency, the Russian will find the terre battue an ideal terrain to hone her technique and develop a rhythm, while the longer rallies will force Sveta to sharpen her focus.  And, while March proved generally kind to the 2008 Roland Garros champion, a change of surface and continent may aid Ana in draining the disillusionment of her Clijsters defeat from her mind.  Justifiably determined to view that match through an optimistic lens, she still may benefit psychologically from turning her back on the hard courts for the next few months.

Ana Ivanovic - Sony Ericsson Open

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