Best of Five: Djokovic defends crown, WTA counterpunchers, more
Novak Djokovic outlasted Andy Murray 6-1, 7-6 (4) to win the Sony Ericsson Open
Upsets on the women's side showed that accuracy and finesse can still beat power
Rafael Nadal seems displeased with his job; Andy Roddick notched a career win
1. The clutch Mr. Djokovic: With Roger Federer dazzling in Indian Wells, Victoria Azarenka failing to lose for the first 90 days of the year, likable John Isner infiltrating the top ten and even Martina Navratilova dancing with the quasi-stars, it's easy to overlook this reality: Novak Djokovic is still in the throes of one of the most dominant stretches in tennis history. He's won four of the last five majors. He is a threat on any surface. And while he's lost twice this year, he is still the King. With some help from 60 Minutes, he reminded the public of this last week in Miami.
Playing the same weakness-free, impenetrable, indefatigable, offense/defense tennis that has served him so well over the last 15 months, Djokovic defended his Sony Ericsson title. It was less a dazzling performance than a study in unflustered excellence. Djokovic seldom got in trouble. And we he did, he extricated himself just fine. A microcosm of his tournament, in the final he subdued Andy Murray. In the first set, he outclassed him, 6-1. In the second set, he outlasted him 7-6 (4). The historians quickly noted that more than 20 years have passed since the Miami winner also prevailed at Roland Garros. But Djokovic rules the roost right now. You pick against him at your peril.
2. The counterpuncher's delight: Every shot need not be a power shot. That was an abiding lesson learned from the women's draw of the 2012 Sony Ericsson Open. Giving hope to the nuanced, a number of players unarmed with high-powered weapons advanced, not least Garbine Muguruza Blanco, a teenage wild card from Spain. In the quarterfinals, Marion Bartoli used her quirky two-fisted game and love of angles to stymie top-ranked Victoria Azarenka for the first time all season. Then in the final, the ultimate: Aga (and you'll note the trendy new nickname) Radwanska played Maria Sharapova in the women's final. In a classic case of guile versus power, brain versus brawn, Radwanska recalled Martina Hingis at her cagey best and -- in a thoroughly entertaining match -- won the biggest title of her career. A-Rad is a top four player now (and closing fast on Petra Kvitova) and, predicated as it is on accuracy and movement, her game translates well to clay. If you're picking French Open favorites, you could do worse. Before we go there, let's take a moment to acknowledge that knives can still beat guns in women's tennis. Thank heavens for that.
3. Disgruntled employee?: The big events in tennis always provoke more questions than they answer. All part of the appeal. After Miami, Rafael Nadal is swaddled in these (?) and even these (¿). It wasn't simply that Nadal withdrew before his semifinal match against Murray citing still another knee injury. It's simply that he hasn't beaten Djokovic since 2010, nor that he hasn't won a tournament of any size since last year's French Open. Or even that he testily resigned from the ATP council, claiming that he has insufficient energy.
It's the composite portrait of a man who projects a sense that he's not currently enjoying his job. Maybe clay will be his tonic, he'll win the French yet again and his spirits will be rekindled. Maybe he's rationing his mental energy for the Olympics. Maybe he's more injured than he's letting on and could simply use the equivalent of a semester sabbatical. (After taking some time off in 2009 he responded with one of the better years in tennis history.) Whatever, if Nadal were a stock, you'd be a concerned investor right now.
4. A-Rod's big win: It got a bit lost in the news cycle. And he did himself no favors losing the following night. But let's spend a moment to reflect on Andy Roddick's one-for-the-memory-banks win over Roger Federer last week. This has been a rough year for Roddick, who fell out of the top 25 for the first time since he was a teenager. His body has been in an extended state of rebellion. His longtime agent died unexpectedly last fall. How reassuring it must be to know that on a given night, he can still summon the game that made him a formidable player all those years.
Last Monday against Federer, Roddick played an almost perfect tactical match. He served well, pounded his forehand as he did he in heyday and forced himself to be aggressive on the crucial points. Roddick is still nowhere near his best level. (To wit: his desultory performance in the next round against Juan Monaco, precisely the type of opponent he brushed aside in the Reebok Years.) But for one night he gave us -- and surely himself -- a poignant reminder of why he's still clocking in to work every morning.
5. First step to recovery: After an unfortunate period of silence, the WTA has finally sounded off on grunting. Sort of. After an extended meeting in Miami -- the Earplug Summit, as it were -- the WTA acknowledged that grunting is a serious issue that must be addressed. Yet it would be unfair to the current players to demand they alter their habit. We could tee off on the logic here ("But officer, it's my habit to exceed the speed limit. You can't ask me to change now!") but we need to remember that the WTA is neither a league nor a union and the players are core constituents. The money quote from the WTA's Andrew Walker: The meeting "stemmed from an increase in negative fan reaction to excessive grunting and an increase in media coverage, and we made a determination that the landscape had changed, and we owed it to the fans to take a look at it."
Puns aside, we haven't heard the last of this.
• Doubles winners: Nadia Petrova and Maria Kirilenko take the women's title at the Sony Ericsson Open. Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek take the men's.
• On the heels of Indian Wells doing the same, the Sony Ericsson Open set an all-time attendance record with 326,131 guests visiting the Tennis Center at Crandon Park over the last two weeks. The event boasted a record 14 session sellouts and set five session attendance records. Federer-Nadal? Murray-Djokovic? I'd say the sustained rivalry between Miami and Indian Wells, ultimately benefits the sport as well.
• Question: Given that the U.S. is eager to improve its collective aptitude on other surfaces, hard court tennis devastating players' bodies, the sport always searching for better defined segments to the season, might the Key Biscayne training center be better off surfacing the courts with clay and re-branding the Sony Open in Miami as the kickoff on the Road to Roland Garros?
• Novak Djokovic won $660,000 for winning the men's title; Radwanska won $712,000.
• You like players. You dislike players. But only the most sadistic fans take pleasure in watching players go completely down the mine shaft. Which is to say no one should be sorry to see that Melanie Oudin qualified for Charleston, her first main draw appearance of the year.