By Fernie Ruano, Jr.
Looking for his first Sony Open Tennis title, World No. 1 Rafael Nadal returns to Miami as a three-time finalist primed to push through and take his first Key Biscayne title. Novak Djokovic, on the other hand, is already a three-time champ at the Sony and his title run at the BNP Paribas has him eyeing more crystal to his collection.
The Spaniard and Serb, a couple of Swiss players (ahem, Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka) and Scot Andy Murray – who just happened to win the tournament last year – are the favorites looking to take home the Sony Open Tennis championship. But, of course, there are many others who will have something to say about the matter.
Here are 6 things to look for over the next two weeks on the purple courts as well as the Draw highlights in our Sony Open Tennis Men’s Preview:
Will Rafa Glow?
Rafa’s fluorescent kit will shine, but will this be the year he makes his mark at the Sony Open? After missing out on the tournament last year, the fiery Spaniard is looking to get to his fourth final and finally break through with one of the few tournaments he has yet to conquer. Nadal is coming off what was arguably his best year ever, with 10 total titles and 2 Grand Slams (French Open, US Open), and already has two wins this year (Rio de Janeiro, Doha).
Nadal’s Draw: Rafa will have to work to get to the final with a potential match up against 19th-seed Jerzy Janowicz (2013 Wimbledon semifinalist) in the third round, a possible quarterfinal against Gael Monfils, Milos Raonic or Juan Martin Del Potro, and either Stanislas Wawrinka or Tomas Berdych in the semis.
No Worries for Novak
We know Novak will be riding high after his win at Indian Wells but will he have what it takes to win his fourth Sony Open? It’s hard to be against the World No. 2, especially after going 24-0 to finish 2013. Djokovic has reached five of the last eight Grand Slam finals and collected titles at Crandon Park in 2007, 2011 and 2012. Although he started the year slow (for his lofty standards!) – he went into Indian Wells without a title – his confidence should be brimming after bouncing back from a set down to defeat Federer in the finals at the BNP Paribas Open.
Dkokovic's Draw: The Joker has far from a laughable draw as he could face Ernests Gulbis - who won in Marseille this year and made the quarters at Indian Wells - in the fourth round before a potential quarterfinal tilt against last year's champion Andy Murray or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Federer Finding his Form
Federer, second all-time in Masters 1000 titles (21), comes into the 2014 Sony Open Tennis in Key Biscayne on a resurgence after taking over the No.5 spot in the world rankings thanks to his finals run at Indian Wells. He also won in Dubai earlier in the year. The 32-year-old Swiss has played clean, aggressive tennis over the past several weeks, and opens the tournament with 19 match wins for the year, second on the ATP Tour to Marin Cilic. A switch to a bigger racket appears to be paying off for Fed as he guns for his third title in Miami.
Federer's Draw: Roger's grit may be tested early and often at the Sony Open as he has potential matches against Fernando Verdasco (3rd round), Kevin Anderson (4th) and fourth-seeded David Ferrer in the quarters before a possible BNP Paribas Open rematch against Djokovic in the semis.
Stanislas Wawrinka Has Officially Arrived
The No.3-ranked Swiss had a run of 13 straight wins to start the year, including capturing the Australian Open, his first Grand Slam title, and will be hungry for more at the Sony Open. He also won another hard court tournament already this year (Chennai) so look for “Stan the Man” to go deep into the draw. Wawrinka is primed to secure his place among the game’s elite thanks in large part to his blistering, one-handed backhand. A more consistent serve, improved forehand and aggressive net play could make him a top contender at the Sony Open. Of note: Wawrinka’s jump from No. 8 to No.3 was the largest ratings hike on the ATP Tour in more than a decade (since Andre Agassi went from No. 9 to No. 3 and Tommy Haas jumped from No. 7 to No. 2, both in 2002).
Wawrinka’s Draw: Stan has a potential third-round match against Cilic, followed by a possible fourth-rounder against Alexandr Dolgopolov -- who reached the semis at Indian Wells.
Andy Murray’s Home Away from Home
The defending Sony Open champion spends considerable amounts of time in Miami, going through rigorous workout regimens in the sub-tropical heat most Decembers. All that work paid off last year when he took home the Sony Open title, his second Key Biscayne win (also won in 2009). Murray will be looking for a repeat performance this year as he strives to get his first title of 2014 in the friendly confines of Crandon Park.
Murray’s Draw: The Scot could face Frenchman Tsonga in the fourth round before a possible quarterfinal with Djokovic.
Americans in Action
US tennis is primed for a resurgence with John Isner carrying the torch and reaching his second Top 10 ranking since turning pro in 2007. Isner comes to Miami in form, having made it all the way to the semifinals at Indian Wells and pushing Djokovic to three sets. Earlier in the year, Isner won at Auckland, his eighth career title. Sam Querrey, a former Top 20 player will also be in action, while Donald Young looks to impress.
Some dark horses: South African Kevin Anderson, who defeated Wawrinka at Indian Wells, is quickly moving up in the world rankings following consecutive finals appearances in Delray Beach and Acapulco. He notched his 150th match victory in California. Also, look out for World No. 12 Canadian Milos Roanic, whose big serve helped him reach the quarters at Indian Wells, including a win over Murray.