Greet Victoria Azarenka as well. She took the top honor for the women in Miami with a single-minded focus strikingly reminiscent of Djokovic’s. She, too, pulled off the improbable Indian Wells-Miami double—a feat last realized in the women’s game by Kim Clijsters eleven years ago— and matched the Serbian’s feat of sweeping through the field in Florida without conceding a set. The industrious and unwavering Azarenka ruled in Miami for the third time in her career to rise significantly in the WTA Rankings from No. 8 to No. 5. Azarenka has overcome some debilitating injuries and absences to play some of the finest tennis in her distinguished career, which included finishing the 2012 season as the top ranked player in the game. She may well be headed back to No. 1 in the not too distant future.
Djokovic refuses to let his guard down these days, treating each match and every tournament with the utmost of seriousness. In Miami, he cast aside Kyle Edmund and Joao Sousa in straight sets, without much bother. Then he confronted the most demonstrably improved upper echelon player in the men’s game—No. 14 seed Dominic Thiem. The tenacious Austrian will soon be entrenched among the top ten, and by the end of the year he might reside among the top five. He hits the ball a ton off both sides, volleys well, and serves both big and purposefully. Thiem is going to be a major threat this year at the French Open.
Djokovic had not played Thiem since Shanghai in 2014, and the world No. 1 knew full well how much progress his adversary has made since then. Although Djokovic prevailed 6-3, 6-4 in this round of 16 contest, it was far more complicated than the score would indicate. All through this encounter, Djokovic looked ill at ease, strangely uncomfortable in his customary home at the back of the court, and extraordinarily apprehensive on his own serve. He served nine double faults, made an inordinate number of unforced errors, and faced no fewer than 15 break points. Yet he lost his serve only once, rising ably to overcome all of the challenges he brought upon himself.
More relaxed after that showdown, Djokovic handled Tomas Berdych 6-3, 6-3 on a windy evening. That set the stage for a semifinal confrontation against a resolute David Goffin, who was appearing in the penultimate round of a second Masters 1000 tournament in a row. Goffin—beaten by Milos Raonic in the Indian Wells semis—has no glaring weaknesses but no extraordinary strengths either. I have seen Goffin look remarkably vulnerable against opponents he figures to pick apart, and yet he performed magnificently against Djokovic on a scorching and oppressive afternoon last Friday.
The No. 15 seed recognized that Djokovic was not in sparkling form. The explosiveness of the Serbian’s movement was largely missing. Weakened by the extreme humidity, the Serbian’s ball striking was less penetrating than usual, and the enterprising Belgian No. 1 took full advantage, going toe to toe with his adversary in some exhausting exchanges. They fought tooth and nail for 75 minutes to achieve success in the pivotal first set. Serving at 4-4 in a tie-break, Djokovic threw up a very short lob. Goffin was almost hanging over the net for an overhead, with the entire court at his disposal. Djokovic had essentially conceded the point, but a weak and miss-hit smash from the Belgian came right back to the top seed.
Suddenly realizing he had a chance, Djokovic reached up and lofted a perfect lob over Goffin’s head. He forced his adversary back to the baseline, and eventually approached the net himself, winning the point with a neatly executed forehand drop volley winner. Buoyed by that unexpected turnaround, Djokovic took the tie-break seven points to five, and came through with one timely break in the second set to win 7-6 (5), 6-4.
Two days later in the final, Djokovic took on the No. 6 seed Kei Nishikori. Nishikori was appearing in only his second Masters 1000 final, while this was the 40th time Djokovic had been in a title round clash at one of these elite events. Having won 27 of the previous 39 finals, Djokovic knew his way around the territory much better than his Japanese rival. Moreover, Djokovic had defeated the gifted yet fragile Nishikori in six of eight career head to head contests, prevailing in their last five duels in a row.
Bear with me briefly before we get to an assessment of the final. Space must be devoted to Nishikori’s stirring quarterfinal triumph over Gael Monfils. These spirited men gave us the match of the tournament and one of the most memorable skirmishes of the entire 2016 season. After the two charismatic competitors split sets, Nishikori seemed ready to run the match out when he advanced to 4-2 in the third. But Monfils—who seemed totally spent up until that juncture—found a new life and a burst of enthusiasm late in the proceedings. He swept three games in a row. With Nishikori serving at 4-5, the dynamic Frenchman surged to 0-40 and triple match point.
Nishikori saved the first match point with an unstoppable first serve before the enigmatic Frenchman missed badly with a backhand return off a second serve and then bungled a routine two-hander into the net. Nishikori fell behind match point for the fourth time later in that game, but bravely took a short return from Monfils and connected impeccably with an inside out forehand winner. He held on with much poise for 5-5, but two games later faced a fifth match point. On this one, Nishikori had the temerity to try a forehand drop shot. Monfils scampered forward and sent a forehand passing shot crosscourt, but Nishikori covered the net with alacrity, sending a forehand volley down the line into a vacant court for a stylish winner. He held on for 6-6 and then was too solid in the tie-break, moving past Monfils 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3).
Nishikori then took apart Nick Kyrgios in straight sets to garner his place in the final. He had seldom put together a showing like this since reaching the final of the 2014 U.S. Open with a shocking victory over Djokovic. But, this time around in Miami, conditions were not so favorable for the Japanese player. When he toppled Djokovic in New York, it was one of those impossibly hot days, and the Serbian was subdued, ineffective and depleted. Nishikori was victorious in four sets.
In this latest showdown, the skies were largely cloudy and the conditions ideal for both players. Djokovic, however, started slowly. He was broken in the opening game of the match, winning only one point as Nishikori returned superbly. Djokovic took advantage of a double fault from Nishikori in the following game, breaking back at 15 for 1-1. On his way to a 3-2 lead, Djokovic put seven of eight first serves in play and did not drop a point on his delivery. In the sixth game, he was fortunate when a let-cord return landed short in the court and gave him an opening for an easy backhand pass up the line.
But Djokovic played a disappointing seventh game on serve, double faulting for 15-30, making a pair of backhand unprovoked errors. He lost his serve for the second time, failing to challenge an errant backhand return from Nishikori that was erroneously called good. The next game was the most important of the match. Serving for equality at 4-4, Nishikori was not up to the task. A cluster of unforced errors put him down 15-40. Djokovic handed him the next point with a netted backhand unforced error, but then Nishikori completely miss-hit a forehand long.
It was 5-3 for the heavy favorite, and Djokovic was thoroughly concentrated, confident and admirably disciplined. He did not miss a first serve, holding at love to seal the set unhesitatingly. He would never look back.
At 30-30 in the opening game of the second set, Djokovic came out on top in an absorbing 33 stroke rally, drawing Nishikori forward with a short, biting, low backhand slice, coaxing a backhand error from his adversary. When Nishikori punched a backhand down the line volley wide on the following point, Djokovic had the immediate break. He held swiftly at 15 for 2-0. Serving at 2-1, Djokovic made a couple of careless errors to trail 0-30, but managed to hold on for 3-1.
Nishikori was not going to stop the sport’s greatest front runner, but he kept on competing, holding for 2-3 at 15 before Djokovic answered with a love hold in the sixth game. It was now becoming apparent that Nishikori was ailing. His left knee was an issue. Djokovic held at love for 4-2 and should have gone to 5-2, but he netted a routine backhand in a neutral rally. Nishikori held on for 3-4 and then had the trainer work on the knee problem. Serving with new balls in the eighth game, Djokovic reached 30-0 with consecutive winners, and held at love. Nishikori battled gamely in the next game, saving two match points. But a persistent Djokovic gained the break, sealing the 6-3, 6-3 triumph on his third match point as Nishikori miss-hit a forehand long.
And so Djokovic secured the 63rd ATP World Tour title of his career. He moves past Guillermo Vilas into eighth place on the Open Era list, but now is only one title away from Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras, and four behind Rafael Nadal. John McEnroe (with 77) is in fourth place, Roger Federer is in third with 88 singles crowns, and Ivan Lendl stands alone at No. 2 with 94. The leader, of course, is Jimmy Connors at 109. Already in the young 2016 campaign, Djokovic has collected four championships, including one major and two Masters 1000 crowns.
And what of Azarenka? Having garnered only her fourth victory in 21 career contests against Serena Williams in the final of Indian Wells, the 26-year-old from Belarus had a tough draw in Miami. Her serious work commenced in the round of 16 against a rejuvenated Garbine Muguruza, the Spanish stylist who was seeded No. 4. Azarenka built a 7-6, 5-2 lead before eventually succeeding 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4) in the highest quality match of the women’s event. The rallies were hard fought and riveting. Neither woman ceded much ground with their court positioning on the baseline. Both women were terrific. They were strategically sound and remarkably precise.
After Azarenka accounted for Great Britain’s impressive Johanna Konta in a straight set quarterfinal, she then collided with Australian Open victor Angelique Kerber. Her only career loss to Kerber occurred in the quarterfinals of that recent major, and Azarenka was deeply disconcerted that she had squandered five set points in the second set of that defeat. She surely believes that if she had knocked out Kerber in Melbourne, that tournament could have belonged to her. Now, under the lights in Miami, utterly determined to avenge that loss, ferociously competitive, Azarenka was magnificent, winning 6-2, 7-5. Serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set, Azarenka released three damaging double faults, but she broke right back and finished off the victory in style. In turn, Kerber shined in defeat, and played her best tennis since Melbourne.
In the final, Azarenka upended two-time major singles titlist Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-3, 6-2. Kuznetsova had toppled Serena Williams 6-7 (3), 6-1, 6-2 in a daytime, round of 16 duel fought out under an intense sun. Already the tournament had lost Roger Federer to a stomach bug that prevented him from facing Juan Martin Del Potro in what would have been his first match since having knee surgery in early February. Moreover, Rafael Nadal bowed out in his opening assignment against Damir Dzumhur 2-6, 6-4, 3-0, retired. Nadal had been seen by a trainer after experiencing dizziness, and he played on until he had nothing left to offer.
Kuznetsova exploited 51 unforced errors from Williams, who seemed spent and out of sorts most of the way. The eight time Miami victor refused to dig out points in any concerted way, and Kuznetsova was superb on defense, particularly off her forehand side. The 30-year-old Russian subsequently ousted Ekaterina Makarova and 2015 French Open semifinalist Timea Bacsinszky to make it to the final.
Against Azarenka, the Russian was outplayed across the board. It was an odd match in many ways as neither woman served well, but ultimately Azarenka was the decidedly superior returner and the better match player as well. Azarenka bolted to 3-0, but then lost her serve on consecutive double faults. She broke again for 4-1, but then was broken again, serving two double faults in that game.
The No. 8 seed broke Kuznetsova for the fourth time in the set for a 5-2 lead, but another double fault in the eighth game cost Azarenka a chance to close out the set. But she made amends with another break in the ninth game and closed out that bizarre set 6-3. Some order was restored in the second set as both women held through the first three games. Azarenka broke at love for 3-1, and held for 4-1. Kuznetsova closed the gap to 4-2 and had a break point in the following game. Azarenka aced Kuznetsova out wide for deuce, and soon held on for 5-2. She broke once more in the next game, closing out the tournament on her own terms with a backhand down the line winner.
That 6-3, 6-2 win allowed Azarenka to become only the third woman ever to sweep Indian Wells and Miami in the same year. As mentioned, Clijsters in 2005 was the last to do it. The only other woman to realize the feat was none other than Steffi Graf in 1994 and 1996. Azarenka is in some very good company. Now she needs to start enhancing her record with more major titles. Azarenka took back to back Australian Open titles in 2012 and 2013. In those same years, she lost hard fought finals to Serena Williams at the U.S. Open.
The view here is that Azarenka will capture a Grand Slam championship this year, most likely the U.S. Open. As for Djokovic, if he doesn’t secure at least two more majors this year—and probably the Olympic gold medal as well—count me among the many who will be startled.