Former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka is on the verge of pulling off a rare ‘Sunshine Double’ as she attempts to follow up her Indian Wells title triumph with victory in the Miami Open final on Saturday.
The Belarusian two-time Australian Open champion will take on Svetlana Kuznetsova for a chance to become just the third woman to win titles in Indian Wells and Miami in the same year, a feat only accomplished by Steffi Graf (1994, 1996) and Kim Clijsters (2005).
Both Azarenka and Kuznetsova are previous champions in Miami with the former grabbing the trophy in 2009 and 2011 and the latter experiencing success in 2006.
Azarenka, who is looking to win the same title on three separate occasions for the first time in her career, has amassed an incredible 21-1 win-loss record in 2016 so far, with her only defeat coming to Angelique Kerber in the Australian Open quarter-finals in January.
She avenged that loss to Kerber in the Miami semi-finals late on Thursday, overcoming the reigning Australian Open champion 6-2, 7-5 in an exhilarating battle.
Having plummeted in the rankings due to injury, Azarenka is finally back in the top-five for the first time since May 2014 thanks to her bullish performances over the past three months that saw her capture titles in Brisbane and Indian Wells.
Standing between her and the elusive ‘Sunshine Double’ is Russian veteran Kuznetsova – a two-time major champion herself – who is back in the Miami finals 10 years after she won it as a 20-year-old.
Kuznetsova, seeded No15, upset Serena Williams in the fourth round earlier this week and made the final by defeated Timea Bacsinszky 7-5, 6-3.
“She’s a very talented and diverse player. She is one of the players who knows how to handle big stages. I know she has her up and downs in her career, but she knows how to handle big stages. She is a two-time grand slam champion, so it speaks a lot,” said Azarenka of Kuznetsova.
“Seeing her coming book into her form, I know she’s always been a dangerous player, so for me it’s going to be really fun challenge to see also where we both are in a different timing of our career since we last played. It’s going to be really fun. It’s tough, but the final can be unpredictable and is the type of the match where you give it all.”
Azarenka, who beat Williams in the Indian Wells final last week, is searching for a 20th career title on Saturday.
Asked if she feels like she is the best player in the world at the moment, the 26-year-old said: “I wouldn’t go out there and kill myself every day if I didn’t feel like that.”
On the possibility of pulling off the Indian Wells-Miami double, Azarenka added: “I don’t think about too much ahead what it’s going to mean because those are just stats. For me, I have a job to do on Sunday.
“Regardless if I’m going to win and it’s going to make a history, first I need to focus on now recovering for this match. It’s been a lot of tennis for me this past month, but I’m ready. I’m prepared… I’m going out there hungry.”
Should Kuznetsova win the title, she will re-enter the top-10 for the first time since May 2010.
Djokovic, trying to match Andre Agassi’s record of six Miami titles with his third in a row, will play Belgian 15th seed David Goffin on Friday for a berth in Sunday’s final.
The 28-year-old Serbian won his 14th consecutive match at the hardcourt event and his 28th out of 29, but needed a gritty performance after back pain began early in the second set, prompting him to have massage therapy before serving in the sixth game.
“Due to windy conditions on the court, it was hard to find a good rhythm to serve,” Djokovic said. “I had a little bit of a spasm in the back but (the trainer) did a great job and I was able to finish the match.”
Asked if he had any worries the spasms might become a long-term issue, Djokovic said: “No concerns. None at all.”
On the women’s side, reigning Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber, the second seed from Germany, and two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka of Belarus advanced to a Thursday semi-final showdown.
Both have finals wins over top-ranked Serena Williams this year, Kerber at the Australian Open and Azarenka at Indian Wells.
Berdych lost his 10th consecutive match to Djokovic, whose domination of their career rivalry reached 23-2. Berdych’s last victory over Djokovic was in a 2013 Rome quarter-final.
Djokovic blasted a crosscourt forehand winner to break Berdych for a 3-1 lead and held from there to claim the first set, in which the Czech had 21 unforced errors.
Berdych surrendered a break to open the second set but Djokovic first reached for his lower back in the next game but held and broke again to end the match.
“Overall, this is the best match I’ve played in the tournament,” Djokovic said. “I feel better than I did last year at the same stage. I’m hoping I can keep the same trajectory.”
Djokovic won his 11th Grand Slam title two months ago at the Australian Open and also has crowns this year at Indian Wells and Doha.
Goffin matched his semi-final run from Indian Wells by downing French 18th seed Gilles Simon 3-6, 6-2, 6-1.
Former world number one Azarenka defeated British 24th seed Johanna Konta 6-4, 6-2 while Kerber cruised into the semi-finals, downing US 22nd seed Madison Keys 6-3, 6-2.
The German second seed, the last of the top 12 remaining, is 1-6 lifetime against Azarenka, but won their most recent meeting in the Australian Open quarter-finals on the way to the title.
Eighth-ranked Azarenka, who won the 2009 and 2011 Miami titles, will jump to fifth in the world next week.
Azarenka could become only the third woman to win back-to-back in Miami humidity and Indian Wells desert heat after Steffi Graf in 1994 and 1996 and Kim Clijsters in 2005.
Two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova meets Swiss 19th seed Timea Bacsinszky in the other semi-final. The 30-year-old Russian has won both their previous meetings.
Andy Murray has rubbished talk of a rift with coach Amelie Mauresmo after he crashed out of the Miami Open with a three-set loss to Grigor Dimitrov.
Mauresmo watched on from a different part of the stadium to the box where the rest of Murray’s team and family were located as the world number two produced more than 50 unforced errors in a 6-7 (7/1) 6-4 6-3 loss to the Bulgarian.
Murray, who received a violation from the umpire for smashing his racket during the second set,
insisted that Mauresmo was sat elsewhere in a bid to curb his on-court tantrums.
“I’ve just been trying to find different ways to improve my focus on the court,” Murray said.
“I also did the same thing at the O2 Arena as well, so I’m trying to find different ways to improve and that’s something I’ve tested to see if that might help.
“If I’d had a falling out then Amelie wouldn’t be here at the tournament. We had dinner with all our families last night, so we certainly haven’t fallen out. It’s one of those things that when I win no one says anything about it, and then when I lose that’s an excuse. I don’t think that is the reason for me hitting 50 unforced errors in this match.”
The defeat, in which Dimitrov showed the sort of form which propelled him into the top 10 of the world rankings in 2014, brought to an end a difficult American hard-court swing of the season for Murray, who is still facing challenges of life as a new parent.
He lost to Federico Delbonis at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells a fortnight ago and he has won just two ATP World Tour matches since the final of the Australian Open in January.
However, Murray’s position at No2 in the world rankings is safe for the moment, but the Scot will need to rediscover his form quickly if he is to avoid being overtaken by Roger Federer in the coming weeks.
Having lost in the Miami final to Novak Djokovic last year, Murray will see his points total drop by 555 to 7,815 when the world rankings are updated at the conclusion of the tournament next week.
That will leave him just 120 points ahead of third-placed Federer.