Men's Look Forward: Miami
It's a measure of how strong Miami is that the event can lose Lleyton Hewitt to toe problems and people will hardly notice.
That's because we have 32 of the top 34 players in the world here; the only potential seeds to be missing are Hewitt and Nicolas Massu, both hurt. Even Andre Agassi, who had toe problems of his own last week, will at least be trying to play.
Unfortunately for Agassi, they're using the new rankings to seed the event, so even with Hewitt out, he ends up at #9. Above him are Roger Federer, defending champion Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, 2004 finalist Guillermo Coria, Carlos Moya, Tim Henman, Gaston Gaudio, and David Nalbandian. Rounding out the Top 16 seeds are Joachim Johansson, Guillermo Canas, Tommy Robredo, Ivan Ljubicic, Nikolay Davydenko, Fernando Gonzalez, and Tommy Haas.
Which still leaves quite a few very strong players unseeded -- guys like Jurgen Melzer (who is next in line), Karol Beck (just off a very nice Challenger win), Sjeng Schalken (who seems to be very close to recovering his old form), Tomas Berdych, James Blake (who needed a wildcard but who has been playing quite well lately), Greg Rusedski -- plus, of course, Juan Carlos Ferrero, who is in his last Masters Series main draw before he ends up having to play qualifying.
Also in the draw, though perhaps with less chance to do well, is Younes El Aynoaui, trying once again to make a comeback; let's hope this one works better than the last one....
People are, of course, already talking about Roger Federer's chances of winning back-to-back Masters. It's worth remembering, though, that he went out very early after all his Masters wins last year (third round at Miami after winning Indian Wells; third round at Roland Garros after winning Hamburg despite a week off; first round at Cincinnati after winning the Canadian Open). And if ever there were a Masters Series designed to help out Andy Roddick, this is the one: He lives near here, so he knows the conditions. He's the #2 seed, and doesn't have to contend with Lleyton Hewitt this time -- though he has Marat Safin in his half. For that matter, Andre Agassi has won this thing six times; Federer's best past result was a final, and other than that, he's never been past the quarterfinal. Is he the favorite? Sure. Is he a lock? Our guess is, this is going to be the toughest non-clay required event for him to win.
Noteworthy Early Matches
We usually do first round matches, but of course all of the seeds here have first round byes, so we'll look at first and second rounders. That's the more true since there almost seems to be a rule here that all the really interesting unseeded players face qualifiers.
Still, we have some fun matches in the opening round, starting with the contest between Ivo Karlovic and Olivier Rochus. That is the biggest mismatch, in terms of height, on the ATP: Karlovic is 43 centimeters/17 inches taller than Rochus, and the difference in serves is commensurate. But so is the difference in speed; Rochus could probably run the entire length of the court faster than Karlovic can get from the service line to the net. And Rochus is steadier and more varied off the ground; odd as it sounds, he, not Karlovic, is the Top 40 player.
We'll also seed Stefan Koubek make his return from his drug suspension; he opens against a qualifier. Also facing a qualifier is Mark Philippoussis (though, in that case, we'd put the odds on the qualifier); Juan Carlos Ferrero faces wildcard Brendan Evans.
Gael Monfils sure seems to face a lot of Frenchmen lately. In this case, he'll open against Michael Llodra.
The two best doubles players in the singles draw are Jonas Bjorkman and Max Mirnyi, and they're doubles partners -- and they're facing each other in the first round. At least it guarantees that one of them will be well-rested for the doubles -- important, since Bjorkman is the defending champion.
Agustin Calleri made the quarterfinal here last year, and he's starting to show life again in 2005, but he'll have to be pretty steady to deal with Alberto Martin.
Looking at the second round, we note that Roger Federer will face the Karlovic/Rochus winner. Talk about not knowing what to expect for your first match! (Though it's hard to imagine Karlovic really bothering him; Rochus might be a very faint threat -- if Federer breaks his arm or something.)
#16 seed Tommy Haas could potentially face Mardy Fish, who is another one of those young Americans who really loves conditions here. Though he's never really been the same since his hip injury. Maybe facing Haas, who has had far worse injury problems, will inspire him.
Tim Henman, who has the chance to move back up to #5 here, has the unenviable task of facing Sjeng Schalken, who seems to be close to his previous Top 25 form.
Nicolas Kiefer could face countryman Florian Mayer -- though Mayer, after a very good year last year, is slumping badly.
Assuming Mark Philippoussis can make it to the second round -- not a bet we'd want to take -- he would face Fernando Gonzalez. That's reminiscent of a naval battle around the time of the Spanish Armada: Lots of cannons firing, but not many hitting the target.
The best young player in the draw is probably Tomas Berdych, and Feliciano Lopez will be the first seed to face him. And this court is awfully slow by Lopez standards....
The longest points of the second round will probably be seen in the contest between speedsters Sebastien Grosjean and Karol Beck. Beck is in vastly better form, but he's tired; Grosjean at least is rested.
#8 seed David Nalbandian gets the toughest opponent of all in the second round: Jurgen Melzer, the top unseeded player -- and a guy who can throw everything but the kitchen sink at you.
Juan Carlos Ferrero got lucky in his first round draw in facing Evans. He'll have a much tougher task in the second; he'll face Guillermo Canas. Though Canas is another guy who is fairly tired.
The Llodra/Monfils winner will have to face Nikolay Davydenko. We'd be quite interested seeing if Monfils can find a way to deal with the Russian's speed.
James Blake will get to see just how far he's come back in the second round; he'll face Carlos Moya -- with the winner facing the winner of a match between Greg Rusedski and Thomas Johansson.
You know, of course, where Roger Federer will be ranked when this is over: He'll be #1. With Lleyton Hewitt out, in fact, he's sure to be #1 in both Race and Entry. As for Hewitt, he has enough cushion that he'll stay #2 after Miami no matter what, and by a large enough margin that it will be hard to pass him before Rome.
But below that, things get interesting. Andy Roddick is the defending champion; Marat Safin lost his opener last year. Which means that Roddick's 600 point lead is actually only a 100 point lead in safe points. If Roddick loses his opener and Safin makes the quarterfinal, or if Safin can reach at least the semifinal, and outlast Roddick, the Russian will be at least co-#3.
Between #4 Safin and the next few players is over a 1000 point gap; it of course cannot be crossed. But we have a very big contest for #5. Guillermo Coria has it now -- but he was last year's finalist. Carlos Moya has quarterfinalist points. Tim Henman and Gaston Gaudio and David Nalbandian have nothing to defend. What that means is that those five guys are all within 160 points of each other, with Coria last -- Moya is #5 in safe points, but only 20 ahead of Henman; Gaudio is 5 points behind that, Nalbandian 125 points behind that, and Coria 10 points behind him. Even Andre Agassi and Joachim Johansson and Guillermo Canas could get into that mix, though they don't have much chance of passing Moya. Still, after the almost complete lack of rankings movement at Indian Wells, we should see lots of changes here.
We also have a fair chance of getting a new Top Ten player. #10 Agassi has, in safe points, only a 90 point lead over Joachim Johansson, with Guillermo Canas 90 points behind that, Ivan Ljubicic 30 points behind Canas, and Tommy Robredo 20 points behind Ljubicic. None of those guys are noted as hardcourt players -- but Ljubicic in particular has been having a great year, though mostly in optional events. If he can transfer that to required events, he just might be able to hit another career high -- though he needs at least a semifinal to pass Agassi, and that's if Agassi loses his opener.
Apart from Coria and Roddick, the guys with the most on the line are last year's semifinalists Fernando Gonzalez and Vincent Spadea. Gonzalez, #16 coming in, is below #20 in safe points; Spadea, #23 starting the week, is below #30.
2004 quarterfinalists were Andre Pavel and Nicolas Kiefer, who both risk falling out of the Top 25; Carlos Moya, whom we've covered, and Agustin Calleri, the lowest-ranked of the lot, who is already down to #66 and unseeded; an early loss could leave him in the #90 range. The good news is, he has very little left to defend this year: Monte Carlo third round, Barcelona quarterfinal, and only two ATP wins after that in all of 2004. So at least he's nearly done falling.
The obvious Big One is the semifinal between Roddick and Safin: If that takes place, the winner will be #3 in the world. If it doesn't take place, of course, whichever of the two makes it this far gets the ranking.
The real objective for Moya, Henman, Gaudio, Nalbandian, and Coria is to stay Top Eight; while higher is obviously better, #8 will be big at the clay events -- the more so as all of them except Henman are clay types, and even Henman has Roland Garros semifinalist points to worry about. Moya and Henman are probably safe, but the Spaniard's path isn't easy at all: Blake, Thomas Johansson, Tommy Robredo, and Roddick. He did scare Roddick at Indian Wells, though, and he was the finalist two years ago. His run for #5 could feature quite a lot of fine matches.
Henman's path probably starts with Sjeng Schalken, then Juan Ignacio Chela, then Joachim Johansson, then Federer. Prior to the meeting with Federer (and, remember, other than Marat Safin, Henman was the last top player to beat Federer), the most important contest is the match with Johansson. Henman probably needs to win that to reach #5; Johansson absolutely has to win it to get into the Top Ten.
Coria is the highest seed of the five, but is #9 in safe points, so he has the toughest task ahead of him. He has to beat Taylor Dent in the third round if he is to have any chance at staying Top Eight. After that, he takes on Gonzalez -- which, other than the Safin/Roddick match, may be the biggest of the event. If Coria loses, he'll be falling to #8 or lower; if Gonzalez loses, he may well be out of the Top 20.
Gaudio lost first round last year, and he's certainly the weakest of the Top Ten on hardcourts. He has to like the first part of his draw: Alex Calatrava or a qualifier, then Karol Beck or Sebastien Grosjean. Then comes trouble, though: Andre Agassi. If Agassi wins that match, his odds of staying Top Ten improve dramatically, so that's another Really Big One; for once, Agassi might deserve all the air time he gets.
That leaves Nalbandian. He is perhaps the best hardcourter of the Argentines, though his luck here has been terrible (he missed the event last year, and has a career record of 1-4 at the event, his only win coming in 2003). It's by far his worst Masters Series. And, if he's to go anywhere, he has to beat Jurgen Melzer in the second round, then Xavier Malisse, then countryman Guillermo Canas. A tall order.
Guillermo Canas, in fact, stands in all sorts of people's ways. He's the first seed Juan Carlos Ferrero will face (the good news for Ferrero is, he didn't play here last year, so he can't lose ground). He's also the first seed Andrei Pavel will face, and Pavel probably needs to win that if he is to stay Top 25. On the other hand, Canas needs to beat Pavel and Nalbandian if he is to have any hope of improving his #12 ranking.
Last year's quarterfinalist Kiefer will face last year's semifinalist Gonzalez in the third round. That's another one where the loser is going to suffer badly.
And while we're talking about guys in trouble, let's not forget Vince Spadea. As in, the guy who faces Robby Ginepri or Filippo Volandri, then Ivan Ljubicic, then Andy Roddick. He has to beat Ljubicic if he is to have any hopes of staying Top 30, and odds are he needs to beat Roddick. Ouch.
Speaking of Ljubicic and hopes, he also stands in Calleri's way. His path, in fact, is Calleri (2004 quarterfinalist), Spadea (2004 semifinalist), Roddick (2004 champion). Maybe they should just assign a camera crew to follow him wherever he goes; everything he does is going to be vital to someone.