Tennis’ version of March Madness came to a close on Sunday with John Isner grabbing a first-ever Masters 1000 trophy thanks to a three-set win over Alexander Zverev in the Miami final.
Americans scored big in the tournament’s final staging in Key Biscayne, with the Miami Open relocating to the Hard Rock Stadium next year.
Besides Isner’s success in south Florida, his compatriot Sloane Stephens walked away with the women’s title, the Bryan brothers won in doubles, while CoCo Vandeweghe triumphed in women’s doubles alongside Australia’s Ashleigh Barty.
With Juan Martin del Potro and Naomi Osaka clinching titles in Indian Wells earlier in March, all four singles champions in the California desert and Miami were first-time winners at that level.
Here’s a look back at the four weeks of thrilling action on the hard courts of the United States.
FEDERER’S ABRUPT MOMENTUM SWITCH
Roger Federer went from topping the world rankings and starting the year with a stellar 17-0 undefeated record to losing two matches in a row (Indian Wells final to Del Potro and Miami opener to Thanasi Kokkinakis) for the first time since 2014 and relinquishing the No. 1 spot to his rival Rafael Nadal. The 36-year-old Swiss is also skipping the clay swing, which means we won’t see him on court again until June.
Things change ever so fast in the world of tennis and Federer’s sudden halt in momentum is another reminder of that.
SPRING OF SLOANE?
Just six months ago, the ‘Summer of Sloane’ was in full effect. Stephens, who had returned from an 11-month injury layoff last June at Wimbledon went on to make semis in Toronto and Cincinnati, then won the US Open, to enjoy one of the most stunning comebacks we’ve ever witnessed in the sport.
The American then went on an eight-match, five-month losing streak, which she finally snapped in Acapulco end of February. And just like that, Stephens found her groove and defeated three top-10 players en route to the Miami crown – her first Premier Mandatory title.
Stephens, who is making her top-10 debut this week, also extended her perfect record in career finals to 6-0. Is this the start of a ‘Spring of Sloane’?
FOURTH TIME’S A CHARM
Contesting his fourth Masters 1000 final, Isner finally got his maiden title at that level, with a run that included three top-10 victories (over Cilic, Del Potro, Zverev). His win took him back into the top-10 for the first time since May 2014.
It also means that the last three consecutive Masters 1000 winners were all first-time champions at that tier, with Jack Sock triumphing in Paris last year, Del Potro reigning supreme in Indian Wells and now Isner in Miami. The last time this happened was in 2003 when Guillermo Coria, Felix Mantilla and Andy Roddick won Hamburg, Rome and Canada.
We’ve now had five first-time winners in the last 11 Masters 1000 tournaments.
VIKA WITH A VENGEANCE
Playing just her second tournament of the season, and fourth event in nearly two years, Victoria Azarenka made the semi-finals in Miami, taking out world No. 6 Karolina Pliskova and two more top-20 players en route, before falling to Stephens in three sets. She’s back in the top-100 (currently at 92) but remains uncertain about her upcoming plans on tour.
“I need to be more tournament fit, more match fit, and I need to continue to play,” she told reporters after losing to Stephens.
Azarenka’s ongoing custody dispute with the father of her child means she isn’t able to take her son Leo out of California, which has kept the Belarusian away from the tour for the majority of the past nine months.
Dealing with that and managing to make the semis of a Premier Mandatory event with virtually no match play under her belt is truly remarkable. In Miami, we were also reminded of how much Azarenka brings to the WTA tour. Here’s hoping she can play a full schedule soon.
— WTA (@WTA) March 28, 2018
OLE, OLE, DELPO, DELPO
As a fellow journalist put it, Del Potro got quite the support in “Miami, Argentina”. The popular Argentine had the Miami crowd firmly behind him throughout the fortnight, even when he was facing USA’s Isner in the semis. Isner snapped Del Potro’s 15-match winning streak that stretched back to Acapulco end of February but the South American can only walk away with positives from the past five weeks, that saw him win Acapulco and Indian Wells, and make the last-four in Miami. He’s up to No. 6 in the world rankings and climbing.
The crowd getting right into this semi-final match here in Miami, Argentina.
— Stuart Fraser (@stu_fraser) March 30, 2018
KVITOVA SLOWS DOWN A BEAT
Also someone who saw their winning streak end during the Sunshine Swing is Petra Kvitova, whose run of 14 consecutive victories came to an end at the hands of 16-year-old Amanda Anisimova in the third round of Indian Wells, then lost to eventual runner-up Jelena Ostapenko in the Miami fourth round.
It seems that Kvitova’s super February caught up with her in March but the Czech world No. 10 is still playing really well and is healthy enough to head straight to Charleston and begin her clay season. That is good news for everyone.
SERENA STARTS NEW JOURNEY
Serena Williams dipped her toes back into competition by taking on the world’s best at two Premier Mandatory events: Indian Wells and Miami. While others may choose to return from maternity leave – as well as some serious medical problems post-delivery – by playing smaller tournaments, Serena is not that person.
She wanted to test herself at the highest level and can walk away with positives from her first two events. She lost to Venus in the Indian Wells third round and fell to Naomi Osaka in her Miami opener.
The 23-time Grand Slam champion chose to skip her post-match press conference in Miami and get fined over facing the media and reiterating what she said in Indian Wells, which is that she knows she has a long way to go but believes she can return to her best.
THE DJOKOVIC PREDICAMENT
“I’m trying, but it’s not working. That’s all. That’s all it is,” said Novak Djokovic after his latest defeat – this time an opening round loss to Benoit Paire in Miami. The Serb, currently ranked 13 in the world, went winless in Indian Wells and Miami, which were his first two tournaments back from elbow surgery.
The 12-time Grand Slam champion also ended his coaching partnership with Andre Agassi, who told ESPN of the split: “We far too often found ourselves agreeing to disagree.”
On paper, this collaboration felt like a match made in heaven but it seems like it was bad timing.
“I’m not at the level that I used to be. I’m aware of that. I just have to obviously believe in myself and hopefully it will come,” said Djokovic in Miami.
The 30-year-old is 3-3 win-loss this season. Six matches is not enough to draw any major conclusions but if you’re worried about Djokovic at the moment, no one can blame you.
Happy Easter weekend everybody! Hope you are enjoying with your loved ones ❤ pic.twitter.com/T4koq20xmm
— Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) April 1, 2018
HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE MARIA?
Maria Sharapova lost her first round to Naomi Osaka in Indian Wells and skipped Miami as she continues to struggle with a forearm injury. She also split with her coach Sven Groeneveld. It’s difficult to make a proper assessment of the Russian’s game at the moment simply because her physical problems are preventing her from playing regularly.
As Svetlana Kuznetsova told me in February: “In order to say what’s going on with Maria, you’ve got to know inside information and nobody does.”
Sharapova’s on a three-match losing streak and is 5-4 this season. When you try to check her schedule on her official website, the link doesn’t work. It’s not looking good for her at the moment.
— IMG Academy (@IMGAcademy) March 28, 2018
LUCKY NUMBER ‘97
The year 1981 gave us both Roger Federer and Serena Williams. No other year can beat that. But in terms of young promise, 1997 is proving to be a hotbed for talent on the women’s tour.
Three of the four women’s singles finalists in Indian Wells and Miami were born in 1997 – Naomi Osaka, Daria Kasatkina and Jelena Ostapenko, who continues to back up her French Open triumph with solid performances on the big stage, despite the lapses in between.
“I think actually the year of 1997 is quite strong, because I think we are maybe like 10 players in top 100. It’s quite strong year,” Ostapenko told reporters in Miami.
“I remember back in juniors we had some tough matches and some great players.”
NO SUNSHINE FOR GRIGOR
Grigor Dimitrov had a forgettable March with the Bulgarian winning just one match across Indian Wells and Miami. The ATP Finals champion is now on a three-match losing streak and is far from his end-of-2017-season form.
CHUNG ON A MISSION
Marinate on this for a while. South Korea’s Chung Hyeon has made the quarter-finals or better in his last six consecutive tournaments. The only event in which he missed out on the last-eight was his first tournament of the season in Brisbane.
The 21-year-old’s ability to keep going strong after his breakthrough semi-finals appearance at the Australian Open is incredible and his quarter-finals in Indian Wells and Miami have taken him into the top-20 for the first time as he sits nicely at No. 19 this week.
ATP Top 20 for first time 😃 So happy and hope for more success like this very soon. Thanks to my team and fans always for the support! 👍🙏👏
오늘 제 생애 처음으로 ATP 세계 랭킹 Top 20 에 진입했습니다. 이런 성과에 무척 기쁘고요, 조만간 더 좋은 결과를 낼수 있도록 노력하겠습니다. pic.twitter.com/0KbXGOdZwL
— Hyeon Chung (@HyeonChung) April 2, 2018
After a string of injuries and coaching changes, it appears Milos Raonic is back on track. And while he’s still not at his former top-three in the world level, the Canadian had a promising March, making semis in Indian Wells and quarters in Miami. He’s moved up from 38 to 22 in the rankings over the past four weeks.
SHOUT-OUT TO COLLINS
Danielle Collins started Indian Wells ranked 117 in the world and her second-round win there over Madison Keys was her first against a top-20 player.
Fast-forward to Monday and Collins is ranked 53 in the world and has won 10 of 12 matches (including qualifying) played in Indian Wells and Miami, making the fourth round in the former and the semi-finals in the latter, including an upset over Venus Williams in south Florida.
A career-changing month for the two-time NCAA champion.
Osaka followed up her Indian Wells title run with a win over Serena Williams in the Miami Open first round. The world No. 21 then fell to fourth-seeded Elina Svitolina in the second round but it’s fair to say the young Japanese looks and feels like a totally different player. She truly has flourished in March.
Semis in Indian Wells and quarter-finals in Miami have lifted Borna Coric to a career-high No. 28 this week. The young Croat is becoming more and more dangerous for others on tour and things are finally falling into place for him.
BIG GUYS RULE
Five of this week’s top-10 players are 198cm or taller: third-ranked Cilic (198cm), fourth-ranked Zverev (198cm), sixth-ranked Del Potro (198cm), eighth-ranked Anderson (203cm) and ninth-ranked Isner (208cm). Looks like size does matter on the ATP tour.
Wow 😮 as of Monday in new @ATPWorldTour rankings there will be 5 in the the top 10 that are 6’6 and above
— Brad Gilbert (@bgtennisnation) March 31, 2018
JO’S STAYING POSITIVE
Johanna Konta, who started the year ranked No. 9 in the world, has dropped out of the top-20 thid week (now at 22) after seeing her title defence in Miami end at the hands of Venus in the fourth round.
The Brit is 8-7 this season and is still trying to build momentum after ending her 2017 a month early due to injury that saw her finish the year on a five-match losing streak.
If Konta doesn’t pick things up in the clay season, she could slip even further since she’s defending semi-final points at Wimbledon and Eastbourne.
22-year old Krygios wrote in a tweet, “I hope TK wins this match, verdasco is the saltiest dude, must be frustrated at his past success against aussies”. The tweet was soon deleted.
Verdasco had apparently argued with his opponent Thanasi Kokkinakis in the final set of the last-32 encounter and accused his father of talking, while the former took his serves.
Verdasco eventually went on to win that game 3-6 6-4 7-6 (7-4), to better his poor record against Australian players, and will now face Pablo Carreno Busta in the last-16.
@NickKyrgios when you have the courage to put a tweet insulting another player you need to have the same to don’t delete it.
— Fernando Verdasco (@FerVerdasco) March 26, 2018
Although, after the game ended the 34-year old replied to Krygios tweet, saying “@NickKyrgios when you have the courage to put a tweet insulting another player you need to have the same to don’t delete it.”
That provoked another reply from the often out-spoken Krygios. “I would honestly have told it to Fernando’s face, the reason I deleted my previous tweet was because I didn’t want to cause unwanted attention, but I’m just gonna leave this here. Thanks for blocking me, I’m sure that took a lot of courage x”.
Meanwhile, Krygios will face Germany’s Alexander Zverev, after an easy 6-3 6-3 win over Fabio Fognini.
I would honestly have told it to Fernando’s face, the reason I deleted my previous tweet was because I didn’t want to cause unwanted attention, but I’m just gonna leave this here. Thanks for blocking me, I’m sure that took a lot of courage x
— Nicholas Kyrgios (@NickKyrgios) March 26, 2018
The Australian world No. 175, who was granted a wildcard into the Miami qualifying rounds, is on the comeback trail from a series of injuries that have hampered him over the past two seasons and at 21, is still looking to fulfil his potential and put his physical issues behind him.
Here’s a closer look at the stats and takeaways from Kokkinakis’ massive victory over Federer.
TOP RANKING SLIPS AWAY FROM FEDERER
The Swiss’ defeat to Kokkinakis did not just end his title defence in Miami, but it also means that Federer will lose the No. 1 ranking next week and will be replaced at the top by the currently injured Rafael Nadal.
Federer needed to at least reach the quarter-finals in Miami to retain his position at the summit but instead faltered in his opener in Key Biscayne.
“I deserve it after this match. That’s how I feel. Just so bad,” said Federer of losing the top spot.
Federer’s loss to Kokkinakis is second consecutive defeat, having fallen to Juan Martin Del Potro in the Indian Wells final last Sunday.
This is the first time Federer has lost back-to-back matches since 2014, when he fell in the Monte Carlo final to Stan Wawrinka, then lost his Rome opener to Jeremy Chardy.
BIGGEST UPSET OF A WORLD NO. 1 IN 15 YEARS
Kokkinakis is the lowest-ranked player to defeat a world No. 1 since a 178th-ranked Francisco Clavet upset a top-ranked Lleyton Hewitt in Miami in 2003.
Federer was a quarter-finalist at in that Miami tournament in 2003, while Kokkinakis was six years old.
Here’s a look at the lowest-ranked players to upset a world No. 1 on the ATP tour since 1984 (via atpworldtour.com):
RARE OCCASION FOR ROGER
This is just the second time Federer has lost to someone ranked as low as the 175th-ranked Kokkinakis in 18 seasons. The only other time within that period was when he fell to a 302nd-ranked Tommy Haas in the Stuttgart second round last year.
A FIRST FOR KOKKINAKIS
This is the first top-five victory of Kokkinakis’ career and the second against a top-10 opponent. The young Aussie defeated a sixth-ranked Milos Raonic in at the Queen’s Club last year.
IT WAS SUPER TIGHT
Federer actually won two more points than Kokkinakis in that match. The Swiss won 98 points compared to Kokkinakis’ 96.
The top seed also had a positive winners-unforced errors differential of 39-31 while Kokkinakis hit 25 winners against 27 unforced errors.
“He was just a bit better than me today, you know. What exactly that was, I think you probably have to break it down to the key moments. He was a bit more relaxed. I was in search mode the whole match. I never got going,” said Federer.
Kokkinakis didn’t necessarily serve too well, landing just 52 per cent of his first serves in but he hit 12 forehand winners and 10 service winners, including seven aces.
“Winning a lot of baseline rallies and dictating with my forehand, I think when I’m playing like that off the ground, I can be very dangerous,” said Kokkinakis after the win.
The Aussie was also a successful 9/11 at the net while Federer was 26/36.
NOT DAUNTED BY THE CHALLENGE OF RF
Kokkinakis has spent time practicing with Federer in Dubai, last year and in 2014, and that probably helped him on court against the 36-year-old on Saturday.
He also doesn’t seem to be intimidated by the 20-time Grand Slam champion and was clutch when he needed it the most.
“Yeah, I mean, everyone is human. He just plays tennis a lot better than a lot of people,” said Kokkinakis of Federer.
This is the first time Kokkinakis has posted back-to-back main draw wins at an ATP Masters 1000 event since Indian Wells 2015, when he made the third round before losing to Bernard Tomic. It was also just his second-ever main draw victory in Miami, while Federer is a three-time champion at the tournament (2005, 2006, 2017).
NO CATASTROPHE FOR FEDERER
Federer remains a stunning 69-7 win-loss since he returned from a six-month injury break in January 2017 and is 17-2 this season. His two defeats in the last seven days were 7-6 in the third (against Del Potro and Kokkinakis) and he is likely to get back the top spot during the clay season, even without playing, since Nadal is defending 4,680 points on the red dirt and is still recovering from his psoas issue.