Is there a changing of the guard in tennis? - NBC Sports

Is there a changing of the guard in tennis?
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March 18, 2014, 7:00 pm

One of the most interesting questions as we head into the second ATP Masters 1000/WTA Premier Mandatory tournament of the year (Miami) is, simply put, “Is the old order breaking down?”

It’s a valid question on both tours, and a legitimate issue that’s been in play at both of the top-drawer events played so far, the Australian Open and Indian Wells.

The Australian Open spawned the first men’s champion—No. 8 seed Stanislas Wawrinka—seeded outside the top four since Juan Martin del Potro won the 2009 U.S. Open. And there was a surprise women’s finalist Down Under, No. 20 seed Dominika Cibulkova.

Granted, two of the usual ATP suspects contested the men’s final a few days ago at Indian Wells. But only half of the “Big Four” made it to the semifinals, and tournament was rife with upsets and surprises. On the WTA side, the chaos was complete. Despite featuring every noteworthy player but Serena Williams, the winner was 32-year old Flavia Pennetta, who embarked on 2014 barely within the seeded-player bubble at No. 29.

Most astonishing to me, though, are these two statistics: None of last year’s women’s Indian Wells quarterfinalists made it that far this year, and that only two of this year’s men’s quarterfinalists were seeded in the top eight (No. 2 Novak Djokovic and No. 7 Roger Federer).

Given where the game is today, it’s not a stretch to suggest that we could see eight different names engraved on the eight Grand Slam singles trophies. The only major that seems to be a gimme for any player, male or female, is the French Open. Federer is sure to win that one again.

Relax, I’m joshing.

But even that customary Rafael Nadal win in Paris seems less certain now than in years past. Nadal is approaching the point where he might be described as “injury-plagued,” and at some point the sheer weight of his amazing record in Paris in May is going to become too much to bear.  

Of course, there’s a good chance Nadal may put a damper on this overall theme once the tour moves to European clay. But in the meantime, and with Serena returning to action this week, it will be interesting to see if Miami will add to and confirm this trend. The draw gods seem favorable to it, so let’s see how this assault on the familiar order might continue.

The Men

—Nadal, the top seed, is in a quarter choc-a-bloc with players who punish the ball; it’s almost as if said gods decided to show their sense of humor by also throwing the creative and expressive Fabio Fognini in with the Janowiczs, del Potros, Monfilses and Raonics of this world. And did you notice that Roberto Bautista Agut and Federico Delbonis are also in that quarter?

—A Milos Raonic breakthrough in the quarter is a real possibility, while Gael Monfils, ever the tease, is also due to steal some headlines. Jerzy Janowicz simply needs to get his act together.

—Number three seed Wawrinka is the big man in the second quarter, but that segment lacks no muscle either. In fact, Wawrinka could face a major test in just his second match (third round) if Marin Cilic wins his opener. There are other big hitters in that quarter as well, among them John Isner and Tomas Berdych.

—Curiously, the quarter also harbors some electric shotmakers: Tommy Haas, Indian Wells semifinalist Alexandr Dologpolov, and the unseeded, talented knucklehead Bernard Tomic. The section, anchored by Berdych, represents a diverse group.

—The last thing fifth-seeded Federer needed is having to face both sides of the Spanish coin. But he may have to contend with both the firepower of resurgent Fernando Verdasco in the third round and the consistency and doggedness of David Ferrer in the quarterfinals.

—Grigor Dimitrov, up to No. 15 in the seedings, is in that group also, and a quarterfinal against his idol Federer would attract a lot of interest.

—But Ferrer, a runner-up here last year (to Andy Murray) after holding match point in the final, is the one to watch. He’s returning from injury, well-rested, and—we hope—healthy and fit again.

—The big distinction of the fourth quarter is that it contains Djokovic and Murray, meaning they’re penciled in to meet in the quarterfinals. The good news for both men is that they might be able to marshal their resources for that projected clash.

—This quarter contains a fair number of re-treads (led by Marcos Baghdatis and Nikolay Davydenko), and the highest seed after Djokovic may be soft titan Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (he’s No. 11). Ernests Gulbis is in this quarter as well, and the exuberant, brash Latvian could meet Djokovic in the fourth round.

—Despite the possibility of Gulbis knocking off the Indian Wells champion, this final quarter is the one where the familiar big name—Murray or Djokovic—has the best chance of making it through to the semis.

The Women

—Top-seeded Serena Williams has a manageable task. Angelique Kerber is struggling, Sara Errani is slipping, and Sam Stosur is as baffling as ever. But Yaroslava Shvedova seems like a very tough opening-round opponent for Williams, should she knock off Francesca Schiavone.

—The second quarter contains any number players who could upset the plans of No. 4 Maria Sharapova or No. 8 Petra Kvitova, a pair of Grand Slam champs who have also proven vulnerable to being beaten at almost any time, by almost anyone. Sharapova could face the volatile, dangerous Sabine Lisicki or the versatile, tricky Kirsten Flipkens in the fourth round, if she gets that far.

—Kvitova? Never safe. Nearby seeds include Svetlana Kuznetsova, Ana Ivanovic, and Pennetta.

—The only Grand Slam singles champ in the third quarter is No. 29 seed Venus Williams, but she may have to get by Simona Halep if she wants to be a semifinal stand-in for the top seed in the section, Agnieszka Radwanska. They may meet in the third round.

—Cibulkova, who just keeps knocking on the door, is also in this quarter, and so is Eugenie Bouchard. It would only be fitting if Bouchard made a breakthrough here, but she may have to get by Radwanska in the fourth round to do it.

—The fourth quarter is the domain of Li Na, who’s probably still smarting from her semifinal loss at Indian Wells to Pennetta. She has a pretty tough row to hoe, though, what with possible opening-round adversary Alisa Kleybanova rounding back into form, and Daniela Hantuchova and explosive Kaia Kanepi just a few doors down.

—The next highest seed in this quarter is No. 7 Jelena Jankovic, who’s becoming dangerous again, but if it’s fresh blood you seek, the players to watch are Sloane Stephens and Garbine Muguruza.

—Speaking of Americans, both Madison Keys and Christina McHale could use a few good wins, and if nothing else their quarter is at least navigable.

Semifinal Predictions: In this week's Tennis Tuesday

Will the upcoming 10 days in Miami bring surprises comparable to the ones delivered in Melbourne and Indian Wells? I have a feeling they might; the game seems to be changing, right before our eyes and not a moment too soon.



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