Djokovic has been the top man in Miami over the last decade, claiming the title in five of the last six years, and emerging champion six times overall. His remarkable record should naturally make him favourite for the title, but the Serbian’s patchy form in the last seven months creates plenty of room for doubt over his claims to the favourites’ tag.
Since winning his career Slam at Roland Garros last year, Djokovic has won just two more titles- the Rogers Cup in Toronto and the Qatar Open in Doha- and lost his number one ranking to Andy Murray. Djokovic’s dip was thought to have ended with his battling victory over Murray in the Doha final, but that proved to be a false dawn as the Serbian crashed to a sensational five-set defeat to wild card, Denis Istomin in the second round of the Australian Open. That was the earliest exit he had made in a major since Wimbledon 2008, and the second time in three Slams that the 12-time major winner had fallen in the first week of a Grand Slam.
Novak Djokovic. (Photo by: PAUL CROCK/AFP/Getty Images)
He didn’t look particularly comfortable in his Davis Cup tie against Russian rookie, Daniil Medvedev- battling a shoulder problem as he recovered from a set and a break deficit to establish control, before Medvedev retired due to cramps. Bottom line is- all is not right with Novak Djokovic.
Given the uncertainties surrounding the three-time defending champion, opportunity beckons on the other top guys to make their marks at Crandon Park. Andy Murray put together a sensational final six months of 2016 to rise to the top of the world rankings, and enter 2017 as the man to beat, but having won six straight titles to end 2016, he is yet to get off the mark in that department in 2017. The 29-year-old never looked assured in Doha, and ultimately succumbed to a three-set loss to Novak Djokovic, but worse was to follow in Melbourne, and the Brit accompanied Djokovic in making a shock early exit after a stunning fourth round loss to serving-and-volleying German, Mischa Zverev. Djokovic’s elimination provided a golden chance for Murray to go on and claim his first Australian Open title, after losing in five previous finals, but he wasn’t good enough to do so. That would have hurt. Now, all that optimism, and excitement heading into the new campaign have been doused somewhat.
On the positive side, Murray’s number one ranking isn’t at immediate risk, as he has next to nothing points to defend before the clay court season. The two-time Miami champion fell in the second round to Grigor Dimitrov last season.
Djokovic and Murray enjoyed a sort of duopoly last year, with Djokovic dominating the first half of the season, and Murray taking over in the second half, but life has got that little bit more complicated for the top two with the ominous return to form of traditional powerhouses, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Written off by many after their respective bouts with injuries, the two legends stormed back to reckoning with runs to the final of the Australian Open final, where they produced a title match worthy of their colossal status in the game.
Resurgent Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal pose with their Australian Open prizes. / AFP / GREG WOOD / IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
Federer was returning from a six-month hiatus, taken to rehabilitate a lingering knee problem, but he showed little signs of the set back as he eliminated four top 10 opposition, Nadal inclusive, on his way to an unprecedented 18th Grand Slam title. Nadal, on his part, had struggled with a wrist problem for most parts of 2016, eventually bringing an early conclusion to his season after Shanghai in October, but like Federer, the Spaniard looked in top shape and form in Melbourne. Both men also experienced disappointments in Miami last year. Federer pulled out late because of a stomach virus, while Nadal retired from his opening match against Bosnia’s Damir Dzhumhur after feeling dizzy in the final set of the contest. That was the first time he had retired from a match in six years. Such health problems are hopefully behind the two greats.
Federer is a two-time Miami champion, but his last success came in 2006, while Nadal has never won the title- having played and lost in four finals.
They look set to be big factors in the 2017 event.
So is Grigor Dimitrov, whose storming start to the season has yielded a title in Brisbane and a semi-final at the Australian Open. The Bulgarian was desperately unlucky to fall to Nadal in a monumental semi-final in Melbourne, but he will take great heart from his early season form in his hunt for more success as the year progresses.
Of the other possible contenders, look no further that last year’s beaten finalist, Kei Nishikori, Swiss number one Stan Wawrinka, and big-serving Canadian, Milos Raonic, who remain good enough to get through the draw on their very good day.
The 2017 Miami Open will be the most open edition in recent years.