By Mario Sarmento
You know the names: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Li Na and Maria Sharapova.
But, the beauty of the 2014 Sony Open was that in a field as deep as this year’s men’s and women’s draw, there were plenty of young up-and-comers who served notice that the future of the sport is in good hands. Let’s take a look some of the rising stars who continued to make waves just off the shore at Key Biscayne.
Dominika Cibulkova is no stranger to deep tournament runs, having reached the Australian Open final in January and the semifinals in Roland Garros in 2009. The 24-year-old continued her fine play at this year’s Sony Open as the 10th seed, upsetting No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska before falling in three sets to Li, who also beat her in the Australian Open. In reaching the semis in Key Biscayne, Cibulkova will also crack the WTA top 10 for the first time in her career, and showed that she may soon be making a run at the top 5, and perhaps enter the discussion with Sharapova, Williams and Li as one of the elite players in tennis.
Two years Cibulkova’s junior, American Coco Vandeweghe emerged from qualifying and didn’t stop there, winning three matches in three days, including an upset of No. 16 seed and former U.S. champion Sam Stosur to reach the quarterfinals, where she was finally beaten by the top-seeded Williams. “I’m happy with all the matches I was able to put together,” Vandeweghe said. “Going through qualifying and winning those tough matches was a big step.”
On the men’s side, a quartet of players threatened the Big Four stranglehold on the sport, and two of them reached the semifinals.
No. 7 seed Tomas Berdych has been knocking on the Big Four door for some time now, having reached the 2010 Wimbledon final against Nadal, and winning his ninth ATP title earlier this year in Rotterdam. In Key Biscayne, he beat No. 10 John Isner and No. 22 Alex Dolgopolov to reach the semifinals. After this week’s tournament, he will rise to No. 5 in the ATP rankings.
Kei Nishikori, 23, has flashed his promise ever since he won the Delray Beach International Tennis Championships over American James Blake as an 18-year-old in 2008. So far in 2014, he has added consistency, reaching the fourth round at the Australian Open, and then, as the 20th seed in Key Biscayne, he stunned No. 4 David Ferrer and No. 5 Federer in back-to-back matches, saving four match points against Ferrer in a 7-6 (7), 2-6, 7-6 (9) in what has so far been the match of the tournament.
In the quarterfinals, he stunned the formerly untouchable Federer, who had lost just 18 service points and won all 27 of his service games entering the match. After dropping the first set, Nishikori broke Federer five times in the last two sets alone to walk away with a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 victory. “I think he’s serving better this year, and I see him moving up in the rankings,” Federer said. “Clearly, I mean, with this tournament anyway but also in the future. I predict he’s going to be top 10 in a short while.”
The man who Berdych beat in the quarters, Dolgopolov, had his best result at the Sony Open, stunning No. 3 seed and Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka along the way, 7-5, 6-4.
The youngest of the new wave of top players entering the ranks is 23-year-old Milos Raonic, who blasted his way to the quarterfinals against Nadal with a serve that topped out at 144 mph. The Canadian didn’t lose a set before taking on the top seed, and he actually held a set lead over Nadal before falling 4-6, 6-2, 6-4. “When you feel that the opponent has the serve that he has and he’s able to play well from the baseline, playing some good rallies and going for the point with his forehand, so then you are in big trouble,” an impressed Nadal said afterwards.
Finally, Americans Jack Sock and Ryan Harrison are the next generation of U.S. players expected to excel in singles, but they made noise at the Sony Open in doubles, entering the main draw as a wild card, and proceeding to upset No. 6 Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic on their way to the semifinals.
So even though the big names once again found their way to the finals, it was the rising stars who gave the tournament – and the sport – some glimpses of light that could illuminate the future.