Rafael Nadal - Sony Ericsson Open - Day 7

Only once in the history of the Miami tournament have the same two men met in consecutive finals, when Agassi and Sampras split titles in 1994 and 1995.  Above a draw without Federer now loom the top two men once again, two wins each from reprising a Sunday collision that ranked among the best ATP matches of 2011.  Whereas the women’s quarterfinals featured seven players who had reached a major final, the men’s quarterfinals feature just four (and five who have reached a major semifinal).  We divide the eight remaining competitors into three categories before the quarterfinals begin.

The contenders:

Djokovic:  For the second straight Masters 1000 tournament, the defending champion has advanced to the later rounds with minimal resistance.  While Baghdatis seemed likely to pose a meaningful test in his opener, Djokovic dominated behind his serve with the exception of a single game late in the second set.  One can glean little from his 12th consecutive victory over Troicki, who functions as a convenient doormat whenever he clashes with his more famous compatriot.  Unable to capitalize upon opportunities in the first set, the notoriously weak-willed Gasquet does not possess the self-belief or competitive stamina to inspire the best from the world #1.  At Indian Wells, this lack of adversity seemed to leave Djokovic a little unprepared for his first significant challenge when it arrived in the form of Isner.  But he has won all 15 sets that he has played on outdoor hard courts against Ferrer, including three in an Australian Open quarterfinal this year.  Able to strike the ball with more weight and depth than the Spaniard, he can rely on his serve to win more free points and earn more comfortable holds.  Nor has Djokovic ever lost—on any surface—to the other two players in his half, although he has dropped sets to Fish in several of their meetings.  Likely disappointed by his setback in the Indian Wells semifinal, he seems a little more determined at this tournament albeit not quite impenetrable.

Nadal:  With similar ease, the Spaniard has cruised past three opponents without the weaponry to muster more than sporadic threats.  Credit to Nishikori for gallantly battling Nadal from the baseline through two tight sets, but his serve and groundstrokes lacked the explosiveness that can discomfit Rafa on hard courts.  In fact, the three-time Miami finalist may have benefited from the opportunity to settle into a rhythm during rallies, absent from his resounding victories over Stepanek and Giraldo.  His next foe will unleash the aforementioned explosiveness and has defeated Nadal in each of their last two meetings.  Surrendering just five games when he faced Tsonga in Miami two years ago, though, the Spaniard has swept their three encounters at Masters 1000 tournaments.  On a slow hard court, his greater versatility and smarter shot selection should wear down the acrobatic Frenchman more effectively than on the grass of Queen’s Club or the skidding indoor surface of the World Tour Finals.  Despite a loss in the Tokyo final that culminated with a third-set bagel, Nadal still maintains the momentum in his rivalry with Murray.  Not since the Rogers Cup in 2010 has he lost to the world #4 at a major or Masters 1000 tournament, delivering five straight wins on every surface in the sport.  While he should thrash any finalist other than Djokovic, a rematch of last year’s epic duel would present a towering test of nerve indeed.

Murray:  Over his last six Masters 1000 hard-court tournaments, the Scot either has lost his opening match or won the title.  Having survived Falla in the second round, then, he should feel sanguine about his chances.  Curiously, however, he has split his four meetings with Tipsarevic on this surface and won just four of seven overall.  All of those matches happened at relatively insignificant tournaments, at which Murray perhaps brought less motivation than he did to Miami.  After his most recent loss to Tipsarevic in Dubai 2010, he admitted that he deliberately played a diluted form of his game in an effort to accumulate match practice.  Featuring three tiebreaks, Murray’s last three victories over the Serbian #2 have come less smoothly than one would expect considering the talent gap that yawns much more broadly than their rankings would suggest.  If he survives that potential ambush, he will need to summon the same brand of aggressive tennis that he played against Nadal at the Australian Open and the World Tour Finals in 2010.  He found that fearlessness for about a set at Wimbledon and in the second half of their Tokyo meeting, but Murray has not shown the courage to sustain it recently.  In one of the multiple paradoxes surrounding the top four, he probably would harbor higher hopes against Djokovic in the final than against Nadal in the semifinal. 

With a little luck…

Tsonga:  At the 2008 Australian Open, this electrifying shot-maker dominated Nadal as overwhelmingly as anyone else in the last several years.  (Del Potro’s victory at the US Open a year later probably represents the only other occasion when an opponent so thoroughly outplayed the Spaniard at a major.)  A few months after that encounter, Tsonga thrust Nadal to the brink when he led Nadal 5-2 in the third set at Indian Wells after they had split two tiebreaks.  He lost the next five games, but that near-victory on an even slower court indicates that he could record the upset of a player not quite at his best for much of this year.  Following impressive performances in the early rounds, Nadal’s form dipped when he reached the quarterfinals, and Tsonga could exploit such a decline better than Nalbandian could.  Unimpressive in his loss to Stepanek two weeks ago, the world #6 will have felt grateful to draw the mercurial Kohlschreiber in the third round and avoid Isner in the fourth.   He will need to serve exceptionally well to trouble Nadal in a far more physical encounter, and a similarly arduous test of his focus would await should he face Murray in the semifinals.  Although he has dropped two of three meetings to Djokovic at majors, Tsonga has enjoyed recurrent success against the world #1 at other tournaments—with the exception of a straight-sets loss here in 2009.

Fish:  Accomplishing nothing of note recently outside a Davis Cup victory over Wawrinka, the American #1 did not gain our sympathy when he whined about orders of play that scheduled him for the Grandstand.  In our view, someone with a 2-4 record in completed matches at ATP events and three losses to players outside the top 70 should feel lucky to play on a tournament’s second-best court.  But Fish has supported his bold words with equally bold swings in an authoritative victory over Kevin Anderson and a three-set rollercoaster against Almagro.  The eighth seed could have won the latter match efficiently, having led by a set and a break, but his sturdy response to the squandered lead impressed us just as much.  Initially aligned to face Federer in the quarterfinals, he should soar past the unseeded Monaco considering his far greater aptitude for the surface.  Repeatedly winning sets from Djokovic on marquee occasions, such as two Masters 1000 finals, Fish has defeated every other member of the top four on the North American hard courts where he has earned his best results.  Just when one starts to expect something memorable from him, though, he generally fizzles in ghastly fashion.

Ferrer:  Reaching his second straight Miami quarterfinal, the feisty world #5 rebounded like Tsonga from a pedestrian effort at Indian Wells.  In the humid conditions, Ferrer’s fitness has served him well in victories over opponents as different as Tomic and Del Potro.  Running circles around the Tower of Tandil, the Spaniard brilliantly deflected his power and found ways to transition from offense to defense.  Ferrer specializes in breaking the spirit of opponents as well as their serves with his grinding style that pleases few purists but has embedded him well inside the top 10.  During the first two sets of his Australian Open encounter with Djokovic, he fell just a few points short of seriously threatening a laboring Serb.  If the latter enters the court with a shade less resolve than usual, Ferrer might win the mental battle as he did in their previous meeting at the World Tour Finals.  Unable to outserve Djokovic or outhit him from the baseline, the Spaniard must hope to frustrate him by retrieving one potential winner after another and extending rallies until his opponent blinks.  Easier to deploy in a best-of-three rather than a best-of-five format, this strategy relies heavily upon assistance from an opponent who has offered very little of it over the last 15 months.

Snowballs in Hell:

Monaco:  The last Argentine remaining from a group that included Del Potro and Nalbandian, this clay specialist feasted upon depleted opponents in his last two matches.  Having played only five matches since the Australian Open, a rusty Monfils let a one-set lead slip away against the resilient Monaco with his characteristic carelessness.  A far different type of competitor, Roddick normally would have dispatched this unseeded opponent, but the lingering effects of his victory over Federer less than 24 hours before drained his energies.  Breaking the American’s mighty serve five times, Monaco should not succumb to delusions of grandeur.  His next opponent, Fish, should deliver his equally imposing serve with undiminished effectiveness and earn the break or two that he needs to overcome the most improbable quarterfinalist.  Even if Monaco somehow survives that test, Djokovic would overwhelm in a gruesome semifinal mismatch.

Tipsarevic:  A semifinalist at Cincinnati last year, he has begun to register his presence at Masters 1000 tournaments relatively late in his career.  In order to win his first shield, the quirky Tipsarevic faces the prospect of defeating Murray, Nadal, and Djokovic in succession.  No amount of bravado or idiosyncrasy, both of which the Serb routinely displays, can propel him through that string of upsets.  Although he can serve with power surprising for his size, he cannot consider himself superior to Murray in any department of the game, even his crisp two-handed backhand.  On the opposite side of the draw, though, Djokovic will cheer enthusiastically for his countryman to derail one of his leading rivals.