The Miami Open — formerly the Sony Open and casually known as just “Miami” or “Key Biscayne” — has long been a sixth finger or toe on the tennis tour.
This is not a commentary in any way on the spicy and alluring Miami area or the many people who work hard to put together this tournament every year. This is merely a reflection of the tennis calendar and its rhythms.
(What does this have to do with Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic? We’ll get there soon enough — besides, we’re wrapping up a week-and-a-half-long tournament in one post, so there’s plenty to touch on.)
The French Open is preceded by a series of significant run-up tournaments. Wimbledon is preceded by (well…) very little, but it is preceded by grass tournaments with the exception of Newport in July. The U.S. Open is preceded by the August hardcourt events in Canada and Cincinnati. Three of the four majors are therefore properly situated relative to tournaments on other surfaces.
The Indian Wells and Miami tournaments are different.
These showcase hardcourt events come after the Australian Open — more than a month after, in fact. Whereas the other three majors are generally culminations of surface-specific play, at least in relationship to the more prominent non-major tournaments of the year, the Australian Open is different. (The U.S. Open can reasonably be seen as a culmination of sorts. The event winds down the year’s run of strictly outdoor tennis, leading to the most indoor-based portion of the season, the autumnal run from late September through mid-November.)
Indian Wells and Miami exist in a nowhere land on the tennis calendar. At a time of year when the French Open is the next major on the horizon, these two lucrative events consume almost four weeks. For the men, the Monte Carlo Masters are only one week away, on April 12, meaning that three Masters 1000 events are going to start and finish within a six-week period. Yet, only one of them will be on clay, the surface for the French.
Indian Wells and Miami, as hardcourt events, are simply out of step with the flow of the rest of the tennis season. That might appear to be a criticism (and one is free to take it that way), but the specific point of emphasis is simply to note that these events don’t flow into the next major on the horizon. (It is for this reason that Miami ought to consider becoming a Har-Tru green clay event, but that’s another discussion for another day.)
Having mentioned that Indian Wells and Miami are both odd events, it’s worth noting that Miami is the true “extra appendage” of the two, and therefore worthy of a special level of scrutiny — not necessarily bad scrutiny, either.
What does one really mean by saying that Miami is the sixth toe or finger of the tennis tour? Consider that when the tour leaves Dubai in February and moves to the United States for March Madness, tennis-style, Indian Wells is far enough away from Monte Carlo and the rest of the clay season that it can (more) credibly be seen as the showcase conclusion to the hardcourt winter. The 96-player field; the week-and-a-half duration; and the fat prize money all give Indian Wells and the BNP Paribas Open the feel of a reasonably big event.
With Miami, though, it’s different for a deceptively simple reason: It’s unoriginal.
Miami is everything Indian Wells is… only later. It immediately follows Indian Wells, and so anyone who didn’t do well in the California desert gets the ability — with fresher legs — to set up in South Florida and beat players who might have overextended themselves on the other side of the United States. In this sense, Indian Wells and Miami detract from each other.
It’s true that these two tournaments give a lot of American tennis fans the chance to see top players in action. It’s also true that their locations in the country and on the calendar give a lot of American tennis fans from cold and wintry locales the ability to catch some sun and fun — a lot of economic activity is generated by these events, so it’s not as though they don’t serve a purpose. Yet, strictly in the attempt to prepare players for the French Open and provide an original tennis experience in terms of a 96-player field, Miami goes 0-for-2.
This last pair of details is important, though, and it leads us to our appreciation for Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, the champions at the 2015 event: Precisely because Miami does not prepare a player for clay season and is the same partially expanded tournament Indian Wells is, it is so easy for a player who did well in California to let down his or her guard in Florida. Miami is a logical example of a tournament that should feature some surprise champions every now and then, given its location on the calendar. Bercy (men) and Cincinnati (women) fit into the same category. However, as the years go by, these upsets just aren’t happening, and if anything, they occur more often in Indian Wells (especially on the women’s side).
In Miami, there were no letdowns for two great champions — this was true in 2014, and it’s true again in 2015. Despite the grind of the tennis tour, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic bested the field in Florida. They reminded us that for all the speculation about early-twentysomething ATP talents and the rising young contenders on the WTA Tour, this sport is currently governed by established champions who keep proving themselves even though they have very little (if anything) left to prove.
Serena and Djokovic keep going to the well; they keep drawing water; they keep winning; and beyond the act of winning itself, they keep winning in the ways tennis fans have come to expect from them.
There doesn’t seem to be a strong need to take you through the granular details of Serena’s and Djokovic’s championship-winning matches. Serena typically dominated her final, wiping Carla Suarez Navarro off the board in a 6-2, 6-0 blowout. Serena reminded tennis fans that a lopsided match can be enjoyable to watch if it’s the result of the winner blasting high-quality shots, not the loser spraying errors left and right.
In the men’s final, it was just the opposite: Novak Djokovic’s most familiar method of winning is to look uncomfortable and take refuge in that lack of comfort. Djokovic lost the second set to Andy Murray in the 2015 Australian Open final and then won 12 of the next 15 games to claim his eighth major title. In this match on Sunday in Miami, Djokovic lost the second set and then bageled Murray in the third.
Both players not only won; they won the way they normally won, and they did so in tournaments when so many other players had a lot more to prove.
Caroline Wozniacki, Victoria Azarenka, Kei Nishikori, Tomas Berdych, Agnieszka Radwanska, Lucie Safarova, Stan Wawrinka, Grigor Dimitrov — these were the most high-profile examples of players who had a lot to gain with a good showing in Miami. Nishikori and Berdych did better than others on this list, but even they fell short in some sense — Nishikori by failing to go deeper in the event, Berdych with a typically tame performance against Andy Murray in the semifinals.
The larger point remains: So many competitors needed a big week and a half in Key Biscayne more than Serena and Djokovic did. Yet, Serena put her Indian Wells knee injury in the rearview mirror rather quickly. Djokovic, by beating Murray in the final, made sure that the gap between the Big Three and the Big Four increased even more. The Big Three of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer has now won 26 of the last 30 Masters 1000 events. Murray’s loss in this final means his last Masters title remains 2013 Miami; it’s also his only Masters 1000 title since Shanghai of 2011.
This tournament might be an odd duck of sorts, but it continues to show with each passing year how special Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic are… in their own very distinctive ways.
As a postscript to Miami, there are some obvious storylines and some just-as-obvious parallels between the WTA and ATP tours:
Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal both left Miami early, and did not play a ton of matches in March. They should be relatively fresh for the coming clay season, which is when both are expected to make their move up the rankings ladder. Nadal faces the particularly important task of ensuring that — at No. 5 in the rankings — he gets into the top four before Roland Garros. It shouldn’t be a problem for him, but he needs to be sure to get the job done. Otherwise, he could hypothetically draw Djokovic in the quarterfinals, and no tennis fans outside of Switzerland would want that to happen.
Another main storyline heading into the clay season is that Stan Wawrinka — currently ninth in the ATP rankings — needs to do well in Monte Carlo as the defending champion. An early loss would push him under 4,000 rankings points and make a climb up the board a difficult one over the remainder of the year.
On the WTA side, Victoria Azarenka is still waiting to make a push toward a much higher position in the rankings. For now, she’s still going to be a dangerous floater in any tournament she enters. As long as she’s outside the top 10, her rate of progress — be it fast or slow — will gain a lot of attention from tennis observers.
A player currently residing in the WTA top 10 who faces an important clay season is Ana Ivanovic. She performed well in the more prominent clay events leading up to Roland Garros in 2014. An empty clay-court spring for her will translate into a fall toward the bottom of the top 10.
It’s time indeed for clay-court tennis. Miami abruptly ends one surface-specific season in favor of another. You might like it or you might protest it, but regardless of personal views, two things are for certain:
1) The most unusual part of the tennis calendar is over, giving way to a more conventional rhythm of the seasons and surfaces.
2) Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic remain the very best practitioners of present-moment professional tennis.