The action at Key Biscayne starts heating up swiftly on Friday with some intriguing matches in both draws. We take a look at what to expect from around the grounds.
Keys vs. Azarenka: The toast of Sydney when she reached the quarterfinals as a qualifier, nearly stunning Li Na there, the American teenager has more weapons than any of her peers and an apparent fearlessness of the elite. Both of those traits make this match against the two-time champion intriguing, although the smooth balance of Azarenka’s game ordinarily should expose the raw, untethered talents of Keys. Uncertain whether she would withdraw from this tournament after she issued a walkover at Indian Wells, the recent world #1 continues to nurse an ankle injury that hampered her in the desert. If Keys can keep the match close early, she might not have to worry about finishing it.
Ferrer vs. Tursunov: Sometimes a struggling player can benefit from the experience of dropping back into qualifying draws and building confidence with victories over clearly inferior opponents. Many fans must have thought that Tursunov had retired once he vanished from main draws with a plummeting ranking, but he marched back into relevance with an excellent February that included a quarterfinal and a semifinal. The Russian qualified for one of those tournaments, qualified for Indian Wells (but lost in the first round), and qualified again here. Winning a tight two-setter in the first round, he could test a Spaniard whose confidence appeared to have dipped after another demolition by Rafa. Days removed from that embarrassment, Ferrer lost his Indian Wells opener and soon his top-four ranking. He will get it back here, but can he get back his swagger before the clay?
Djokovic vs. Rosol: Neither of these men really needs any introduction, the world #1 on one side and the man who stunned the world at Wimbledon on the other. Usually either excellent or awful, Rosol suggested that he may be dangerous this week simply by winning his first match. Djokovic needs to bounce back from a mediocre fortnight at Indian Wells, where he should have counted himself fortunate to have stumbled within a few games of the final. Not dropping a set at Miami last year after a similarly flawed effort in the desert, he should enter this tournament hungrier than he did the last.
Errani vs. Hantuchova: Both experts in the art of doubles, these veterans have a lovely sense of subtlety highlighted by their deft drop shots. Errani has reeled off three finals already this year, but her Indian Wells quarterfinal may have impressed as much as any of her results. Testing eventual champion Sharapova more than anyone before or after her in the desert, Errani reminded skeptics that her talents extend beyond the terre battue. Hantuchova has proved a thorn in her side, winning five of their eight meetings, and that pattern has persisted even with the disparity in their current rankings. Both of their matches this year have reached third sets, each woman securing one, and this slow hard court should offer a neutral surface for a clay specialist and a grass specialist.
Makarova vs. Kuznetsova: Rarely does an all-Russian women’s battle fail to entertain, filled as they usually are with equal doses of fabulous shot-making and existential angst. While Makarova enters this match as the seeded player, 2006 Miami champion Kuznetsova has achieved as much as her lefty compatriot in recent months. Both women reached the Australian Open quarterfinals, but both have struggled to gain traction since then with the former losing three straight matches and the latter unable to sustain her best form for long passages. They have met only twice before and not on a hard court in five years, so today will write a new chapter in their history.
Blake vs. Benneteau: The American’s career appeared to pass its expiration date long ago, so the wildcards that he received at tournaments such as these resembled acts of charity. Dusting off his game without warning at Indian Wells, Blake not only won his first match against a quality opponent in Robin Haase but gave Tsonga a spirited test in the next round. He dismantled his first opponent again this week and again faces a Frenchman next, one who has compiled a curious season. Unable to close out an upset of Tipsarevic at the Australian Open, Benneteau lost in the first round of Indian Wells. On the other hand, he upset Federer in the 500 tournament at Rotterdam, the second event this year where he reached the semifinals or better.
Dolgopolov vs. Davydenko: It’s hard to know what exactly to expect from either of these men at any given moment. For example, Davydenko bageled his first-round opponent twice while losing a 6-2 set in the middle. He shares Dolgopolov’s fondness for playing the game at a turbo-charged pace at which instincts take over from conscious thought. The seeded man will try to disrupt the flat-hitting Russian’s relentless rhythm from the baseline, compared by some to a video game, by using his funky forehand slices and superior serve.
Simon vs. Hewitt: Although he won two matches at Indian Wells and reached the semifinals at his previous two tournaments, Simon looked dreadful in the desert with double faults and service breaks sprayed across a series of three-setters. Hewitt knocked off a similarly underachieving seed there in John Isner, and the confidence gained from his third-round appearance could propel him to another mini-upset. One can look forward to a match filled with grinding rallies and crisp two-handed backhands as both men resort to a war of attrition.
Sijsling vs. Haas: These men meet for the third time this year, Haas winning comfortably in Auckland and via retirement in Delray Beach after they had split the first two sets. That latter match came in the wake of Sijsling’s near-upset of top seed Marin Cilic in Memphis and actual upset of Tsonga in Rotterdam, which showcased the Dutchman’s impressive serve. A finals appearance in San Jose, which his infant daughter attended, set the German’s game back on track following a first-round debacle in Melbourne. Never known for his consistency, he has compiled a 9-3 record on American hard courts this spring and seems to thrive in the status of fan favorite that he often holds here.
Vinci vs. McHale: Up a set and a break on Kirilenko in Indian Wells, McHale could not quite finish the job for what would have been her biggest victory by far since recovering from mono. All the same, that experience should have proved to her that she can put the effects of that potentially devastating illness behind her and return to where her career left off last summer. McHale lost her only previous meeting with Vinci, two years ago, and faces the task of slowing down a woman who defeated Kuznetsova, Kerber, and Stosur to reach the Dubai semifinals in February. Although she knows that Vinci cannot hit through her counterpunching game, the changes of pace created by the crafty Italian offer a challenge perhaps just as compelling.
Hampton vs. Suarez Navarro: On the verge of cracking the top 20 for the first time, Suarez Navarro turned plenty of heads at Indian Wells with an elegant one-handed backhand that recalled Justine Henin. The rest of her weapons do not recall the Belgian champion, though, and her serve should lie vulnerable to an opportunistic returner like Hampton. The last American woman standing in the previous Premier Mandatory event, this unassuming figure built upon encouraging form from an Australian season that included a semifinal and a set won from Azarenka. But she faces a test similar to what McHale faces in a European clay specialist with plenty of variety.
Keep checking back for more previews as the tournament progresses!