Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and the Winners and Losers at Miami Masters 2014

Jeremy EcksteinFeatured ColumnistMarch 30, 2014

Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and the Winners and Losers at Miami Masters 2014

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Novak Djokovic dominated Rafael Nadal at the 2014 Sony Open in Miami, but the 6-3, 6-3 win only underscores the way he has seized the upper hand in their rivalry.

    Serena Williams also made a couple of redundant big-play statements to Maria Sharapova and Li Na. Some things never change, especially Serena's awesome ability to overwhelm would-be rivals.

    There were also a few unpleasant surprises, especially at the ATP semifinals. And don't ask Andy Murray about line judges. He might need another week to cool off.

    The second Masters 1000 tournament of the year is now in the books, but our weekly "Winners and Losers" column is determined to pry away at the unusual, disappointing and triumphant happenings in tennis.

Loser: Roger Federer

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    Alan Diaz

    Newsflash! Roger Federer did lose and he is not planning for retirement anytime soon. No need to psychoanalyze what this match means in terms of his rise into the top four and if he is still a Grand Slam contender. (Yes on both counts.)

    Simply put, Federer had this match, but he let it slip away. It happens to everyone. He wasted a good start and fell in the quarterfinals to Kei Nishikori 3-6, 7-5, 6-4.

    Federer had been riding an excellent service game at Miami, but even in winning the first set he connected on only 38 percent of his first serves. The final two sets were a different kind of struggle as Federer gave up 11 break-point chances and four breaks. He could not hold onto two breaks in the second set, and ultimately limped to the finish line.

    Is this more of a matchup problem for Federer? Last year, he lost to Nishikori at Madrid and has dropped two of their three career meetings. Nishikori has consistent baseline accuracy but otherwise does not generate the power of Stanislas Wawrinka or the baseline speed and consistency of David Ferrer. Federer has dominated those two, but has not played as well against Nishikori.

    Chalk it up as a bad day for Federer, but also an inspiring performance by Nishikori.

    Davis Cup fans will watch Federer play for Switzerland next week against Kazakhstan. Then it's farewell to Federer until Madrid comes calling in May. The clay-court season is a good time for Federer to recharge for the year's most important stretch, so he will get enough work but ideally be fresh for Wimbledon and the North American hard-courts tour.

    Tennis was the loser with Federer's loss. Instead of a semifinal showdown with Djokovic, Nishikori had to pull out of the match and Djokovic got a walkover.

    We won't hold this against Federer.

Winner: Kei Nishikori

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    Each week we profile a new dog who has his day. In the past that has included players like Ernests Gulbis, Grigor Dimitrov and Alexandr Dolgopolov. These are players who put one foot in and then take it out, like tennis' version of the Hokey Pokey.

    Our hot player of this week is Japan's Kei Nishikori, a quietly consistent player who has lurked between No. 11 and No. 22 for more than two years. He earns his stripes in this column for impressive wins over Dimitrov, David Ferrer and Roger Federer. The Ferrer match saw him at Death's door, four times facing match point before digging out like Andy Dufresne. Did somebody check for a rock hammer?

    Nishikori also gets props for his attempted volley versus Federer, but he couldn't quite get a handle on things (video above from ATP World Tour). Good stuff regardless of the illegal and obviously unintentional tactic.

    Oh yeah, we almost forgot to mention that Nishikori had to pull out of the semifinals with a groin injury. It's too bad because these opportunities are rare for non-elite players.

    So is this the year's highlight for Nishikori, or will he contend in other big tournaments? Federer's post-match remarks on ATP World Tour said, "I predict he's going to be Top 10 in a short while."

    Possible, but the road to the Top 10 takes at least months of deep tournaments success. Nishikori is just one of many standing in line after taking a number. Let's see if he can thrive this year on clay, or if it chews him up and leaves him pining for Miami.

Loser: Bad Call Bothered Andy Murray

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    Tennis is one of the best officiated sports. The replay system is also quick and accurate. Judging lines is more of an exact science than ruling for a foul call in a team sport. But tennis is not perfect, and line judges blow calls.

    Andy Murray trailed Novak Djokovic 5-6 in the first set. During the first point of the 12th game, Djokovic finished a volley by reaching across the net to make contact with the ball. The chair umpire did not see this correctly or refused to concede his initial call. At any rate, a fuming Murray was broken at love, and for all intentions the match. He lost 7-5, 6-3.

    Unfortunately, Murray's blood boiled over this non-call. The occasionally mercurial Murray is more apt to take out frustrations on himself for poor play, but this time he had been robbed through no fault of his own.

    Once rattled, twice angry. Murray's frustrations were understandable as he dropped the next few points. Clearly his concentration had disappeared and he was unable to respond.

    All players must deal with fateful calls and losses of momentum. Yes, there are thousands of dollars on the line and a chance for Murray to compete and win a big match. But right or wrong, he did not respond well.

    There are "what ifs" to poke at, but instead of rallying around his misfortune, he was doomed by it.

Winner: Dominika Cibulkova

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    Joel Auerbach

    Dominika Cibulkova is proving her Australian Open runner-up trophy should not be recalled. She has continued to follow up with Top 10-caliber tennis the past two months, and will now enter the Top 10 for the first time in her career. She is also No. 2 on the Road to Singapore.

    At Miami, Cibulkova battled through another strong lineup of contenders featuring Alize Cornet, Venus Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska. She succumbed to Li Na in the semifinals, falling in the third set. It was a more confident war than their Australian Open clash.

    Now she is showing a feisty edge with her tennis, scampering for each point and responding well through pressure. There is no fear in competing on the court right and the results are paying off.

    Can Cibulkova win the French Open? Five years ago, she was a surprise semifinalist at Roland Garros. She is a more seasoned player who is cresting as a contender. She has the speed and sturdiness to endure clay-court matches, and she has good athleticism and variety with her groundstrokes.

    Cibulkova has to at least be an early dark horse for the French Open, but let's see if she can continue her fine work with the preliminary clay-court tournaments.

Loser: Maria Sharapova

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    Alan Diaz

    Maybe this time Sharapova would ride her 4-1 opening-set advantage to a win over Serena Williams. After nearly a decade, and 14 straight losses, Sharapova and the law of averages would ambush Serena, right?

    Let's be honest: Serena owns Sharapova. The harder Sharapova tries to hit, the easier it is for Serena to out-think and outplay her with superior all-court skills. Whatever Sharapova tries to do, Serena has the answer, but better. Even Sharapova's intensity and grunting are whimpers next to Serena's more  occasional fist pumps and celebrations. It's always been a mismatch.

    Serena lights up when she faces big-name stars, and Sharapova is the poster child of WTA attention and endorsements. But Serena loves competition and would probably find a way to take her apart in the heptathlon, a game of Trivial Pursuit or checkers.

    So there's little point in detailing the rest of their all-too predictable quarterfinals meeting: Serena serves well (nine aces and two double faults) and Sharapova's serve falls apart (zero aces and five double faults). Serena figures out her problems and creates new ones for Sharapova. Sharapova keeps playing the same way but loses the fire. The end.

    Two takeaways from the match:

    1. Until Sharapova can overcome her shoulder problems and serving woes, she will be hard-pressed in winning another Grand Slam title, to say the least.
    2. Serena should be the CEO of Sugarpova. This needs to happen now.

Winner: Entertainment Volleys by Milos Raonic

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    Milos Raonic is ranked No. 12 behind a huge serve and credible groundstrokes, but he has occasionally shown flashes of good volley skills, even if he is reluctant to trudge to the net.

    His quarterfinals match against Rafael Nadal saw him reach down for a gorgeous dropshot to set up his breakpoint clincher to the first set.

    In the third set, serving at 1-1 and 15-0, Raonic showed his ninja reflexes, slapping away three quick replies from Nadal that would put ping-pong to shame (see video above).

    So why can't Raonic do this more often? Shouldn't he try to take at least a page or two from the Pete Sampras book of tennis tactics?

    When Raonic is at net, his hands are fine, but the problem is getting there. His footwork has a plodding sense of delay and there are times he does not bend his knees and keep the racket head firmly up and in good position to volley. He often stabs at shots near his feet. And today's baseline players can carve out more angles and power than ever before.

    But Raonic gets recognition for the most entertaining point of the week, even if he did go down in defeat to Nadal.

    And we won't even comment on his shirt pattern that looks like it was tangled in the wash with Ivan Lendl's argyle shirt from the 1984 French Open final. Maybe it can rub off some Grand Slam magic.

Loser: ATP Semifinals in Miami

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Here are the highlights to Friday's ATP semifinals matches at the Miami Masters, featuring Novak Djokovic vs. Kei Nishikori and Rafael Nadal vs. Tomas Berdych: ......

    Got that?

    Suppose you are a tennis fan who has saved up and anticipated this tournament for several months. Spring break is centered upon that final weekend. You arrive on Saturday, but become disappointed in learning that Nishikori cannot compete because of a groin injury.

    Tough luck. At least you have the Nadal match waiting in the wings.

    Four hours later, you learn that Berdych withdraws because of pain in his stomach, even claiming that the restaurant was his tried and true routine, according to his tweets via SI.com.

    Two matches ended without a single struck ball. Two walkovers. No Final Four tennis. However said, it is still disappointing.

    It's not really Miami's fault, though the tennis gods may be sending some kind of subliminal message: We don't like your venue as a Masters 1000 event. Give it to Brazil, Germany or somewhere in Central Africa.

    If the fans all tossed burnt bagels onto the court, who could blame them?

    And yet, it's not Miami's fault, even if Friday tennis was a total bust, like a weak rerun of Miami Vice.

    Really, it's not Miami's fault. It's just trying to host the Sony Open and provide good tennis. But something always goes wrong at this tournament, and we can't ignore the tennis gods. We are compelled to throw our Burnt Bagel award onto center court. May this offering alleviate future tennis sufferings at other 2014 venues.

Winner: Serena Williams

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    Alan Diaz

    No. 2 Li Na had No. 1 Serena Williams on the ropes, up 5-2 and serving for the first set. And then Serena turned it on. She claimed back both breaks and roared ahead with five straight games. She then dismantled Li to finish her flurry with 11 of 12 games won. The final line, 7-5, 6-1, was a clear separation between their top two rankings.

    How disheartening is this for Li? She is the early points leader for the Road to Singapore, but is behind by nearly 5,000 points for the No. 1 ranking. She played well early in the match, but now falls to 1-11 versus Serena and has lost ten straight matches. Is there any hope in beating Serena in a big match?

    Serena continues to prove that only health and age (maybe) are her antagonists, because the current crop of WTA stars has done very little to dent her dominance. If nobody surprises her before the final weekend and a trophy sits upon the match, they may as well engrave her name on it. Her preparation and execution for big matches is without peer in the WTA.

    And Serena recovered nicely from her "amateur" performance last week. Maybe her scathing self-assessment was motivation enough, but she becomes our first tennis champion to trade in the Burnt Bagel for the Golden Breadstick award in a one-week turnaround.

Loser: Rafael Nadal

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    Wilfredo Lee

    It was a good tournament for Rafael Nadal, and the end result was still the best he has accomplished at Miami. And it really wasn't an upset to lose to Novak Djokovic. But it was the way that he lost the match, which was in some respects more lopsided than the 6-3, 6-3 line.

    Nadal was beat up by a superior performance from Djokovic, no question about it. But he looked grumpy and out of sorts in trying to stay with his streaking Serbian rival. He flubbed away too many topspin forehands, several not even clearing the net. He could hardly challenge the Djokovic serve, losing several games in less than two minutes.

    Nadal seemed to have forgotten a few things he did so well last summer in this matchup. He fed the Djokovic backhand far too often, to the point that his backhand became the more effective weapon than his wavering forehand. And he couldn't move Djokovic from corner to corner, but instead watched his rival step into shots and hit them for biting angles and up-the-line winners.

    All the while, Nadal kept retreating farther beyond the baseline. He was reluctant to take chances with his shots and still the errors piled up. He had trouble reading the disguise in Djokovic's strokes. The Serbian was like a master puppeteer and ventriloquist, pulling strings and throwing his shots in unpredictable patterns.

    Too often Nadal looked lost as he stood in his tracks.

    In a way, this could be the impetus Nadal needs to reconfigure his game on European clay. He got whipped at Miami, but it should fuel his comeback to recapture the Monte Carlo title that Djokovic now holds.

    It's not going to be easy, and the road to the French Open might be the toughest defense of his career.

Winner: Novak Djokovic

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    J Pat Carter

    Even on the previous slide about Rafael Nadal, the overriding theme was how great Novak Djokovic played. What can we say about the Serbian's sensational performance?

    It was a masterful clinic of shotmaking extraordinaire. It was a vintage Djokovic masterpiece. It was the kind of championship dominance that his fans can pull out of the digital files a decade from now when reliving just how awesome and impeccable his game can be.

    It was easily his best match of the year, given the opponent, stakes and execution.

    There were several "Can you believe that shot?" moments. There were times he blasted his backhand to the corner, or swiped it mid-court and wide for a sick angle. There were times he stood up, watched Nadal run one direction and then casually hit up the line to the empty side. It seemed all too easy as if he were playing Top Spin 4 on the XBox 360.

    He has every right to bask in his triumphs. He now holds both Masters 1000 trophies this year, sweeping the Indian Wells and Miami tournaments for springtime in the southern United States. In 2013, it was October before he won a second Masters trophy.

    Can he take two or three more of these big trophies in clay-court Europe?

    Regardless of the other players, Djokovic was his best self in closing out Miami. He looks like he can continue this streak and fire shots at the No. 1 ranking before the French Open.

    We have no choice but to hand out a second Golden Breadstick award this week. To dominate his fiercest rival and play like Novak 2011 has to be a scary sight for the rest of the ATP. Maybe coach Boris Becker is the only one who can halt this momentum.