We are down to just four at the last stop on this mini hardcourt Masters swing. And what we have is three guys we thought would be there and a very tall interloper named John Isner who is playing some sick tennis at the moment.
Today, the American played one of the best matches of his career smashing the foot-shorter World No. 5 Kei Nishikori 6-4, 6-3 in a match that wasn’t even that close. If you were watching like me, you’ll recall Isner won 10 straight points AGAINST Nishikori’s serve. That’s called being in the zone.
“It was a very good match,” said Isner. “A lot of times, just to get to a situation to play like that, you have to win a match that maybe I couldn’t, shouldn’t have won, which was my last match… I played extremely well. I have nothing to complain about, that’s for sure.”
Nishikori, who made the semifinals in Miami last year and the US Open final, had no answer for Isner’s big serve which hasn’t been broken since Indian Wells.
“I think he play really well today,” Nishikori said. “On the serve, I didn’t have any chance. “Also, his forehand and backhand — he hit some winners from the back of the baseline. I couldn’t really stop him today. I don’t think I really played bad. Maybe I could do a little better with everything, but I think he played well today.
He won’t complain, but his opponents might. Next for John is familiar face Novak Djokovic who won his eighth straight match over David Ferrer. On his 33rd birthday, Ferrer was gifted an early break, but Djokovic took control from there in a tough 7-5, 7-5 victory.
“I had to fight for everything that I got tonight on the court because he wasn’t going to give it to me,” Djokovic said. “I knew that coming into the court. I know that he’s a great competitor, that he grinds a lot, runs and makes you play an extra shot.”
So to my picks…
Andy Murray v Tomas Berdych
They met in Australia and now they meet again Friday in Miami where Murray calls his second home. And Murray’s won there not once but twice. So right away a bid edge to Andy.
But Berdych has actually beaten Andy six of their 11 meetings. When Andy doesn’t play offense, his balls just sit there waiting to be crushed and a guy like Berdych can do exactly that. That’s what he’s built for. The problem with Tomas is between the ears, especially against the top guys.
He played so well to beat Rafael Nadal at the Australian, then played pretty good in a loss to Murray in semis. But then last month at Indian Wells laid an egg against Roger Federer. He won’t be that bad this time, but it’s just too hard to put much faith into the guy. Heck he should have lost to Bernard Tomic of all people who had four matchpoints on him earlier in the week.
Murray, on the other hand, has to feel motivated after also being humbled in Indian Wells by Djokovic. That said, he’s not playing particularly well, either after a few scratchy three set wins en route.
“Tomas obviously started this year well. Been pretty consistent in most of the events that he’s played,” Murray said. “Tomas is obviously a big hitter and plays lower percentage tennis.”
Added Berdych on their Australian Open match, “What’s positive for me is that I think [Murray] played a very good tournament, very good tennis, and I managed to find a way to win a set,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be my goal to stick to the game plan and execute it.”
But the gameplan didn’t work in Australia and with Murray’s former coaches in the Czech’s box, I don’t think Andy wants to lose on his home court. Too bad, though, the match is probably on the Berdych’s racquet. Still..
The pick: Murray in three
Novak Djokovic v John Isner
I said earlier I wasn’t impressed with Andy Murray’s play. And I’m not crazy about Berdych’s either. Djokovic’s? Meh. But Isner is the one guy really peaking right now. The question with streaky players like him is, when does the clock hit midnight? Because it always does.
After a dismal opening to 2015, Isner’s finally playing some ball. And this week he overwhelmed Grigor Dimitrov, then escaped Milos Raonic before that jaw-dropping win today over Kei Nishikori. So his confidence has to be soaring.
“Playing him is always a challenge,” Isner said of Djokovic. “He’s the greatest player in the world right now, hands down. I played well against him last week in Indian Wells and he beat me in a tight two set match.
“I’m going to have to bring that level and some if I do play against him, and I believe I can do that.”
While Isner clearly has that belief, Djokovic is just getting by. Alexandr Dolgopolov had him against the ropes the other day but the Ukranian’s luck ran out and Djokovic cleaned him up. And I think something similar could happen Friday.
Novak really doesn’t like playing Isner much even though he leads 6-2. They always have tough matches – every match has had at least one tiebreak (John leads 6-3 in breakers). Novak’s got the return of serve and the game to neutralize Isner, but it just seems the nerves really get to Novak when he plays John because the margins are that small.
Novak’s weakness is his serve. And I think playing someone like Isner puts that much more pressure on Novak to hold serve. And it spirals from there, hence the deficit to John in breakers. Remember one of the two losses Novak’s had this year was to another big guy Ivo Karlovic. And Novak even talked about the mental advantage John has.
“Coming into tomorrow’s match, I think he’s more confident because he’s won against Top 10 players back-to-back,” said Djokovic who’s lost to the American at Indian Wells and Cincinnati. “I’m sure that’s going to give him more of an advantage mentally. He’s going to try to be aggressive. He’s going to try to take his chances… That’s what makes him very dangerous.”
And Novak’s right. John’s just going to rip anything he can reach, as he should, and sometimes those shots will find the court, other times they won’t. But that’s the plan. A plan that might keep Novak up at night.
Still, playing at night should help Novak as the slower, heavier Miami conditions will also benefit the Serb. In theory, Novak shouldn’t be troubled on his serve and he’ll get a break chance or two and that should be enough in a tight one. A very tight, very nervous one.
The pick: Djokovic in three
And if you missed the Thursday night women’s semifinal, you missed an instant classic as Serena Williams hung on for a tough 3-set win over No. 3 Simona Halep 6-2, 4-6, 7-5. The 7-time champion will face the surprising Carla Suarez Navarro in the Saturday final. Serena is 4-0 against the Spaniard including a 6-0, 6-0 thrashing in the 2013 US Open quarterfinals.
“I actually had a fun match,” Serena said. “I just feel it was on my racquet. I had chances in the second set but didn’t take them. That’s something I can’t do going into the Grand Slams coming up.”
And Serena-Simona could be the rivalry women’s tennis needs.
“Her game was great,” Serena said of Simona. “She plays so well, and it’s so good to see her play so well. She’s so young, and I actually love watching her play. I’m actually a fan of hers.
“I really like her attitude on the court. I like how she gets pumped up. I like how she fights. I like how she plays. I just think it’s fun to watch and it’s different – it’s definitely a refreshing type of game.”
ESPN2 have live coverage of Murray-Berdych at 1pm and then Djokovic-Isner at 7pm.
MIAMI FRIDAY SCHEDULE
STADIUM start 1:00 pm
ATP –  A. Murray (GBR) vs  T. Berdych (CZE)
WTA –  A. Hlavackova (CZE) / L. Hradecka (CZE) vs  E. Makarova (RUS) / E. Vesnina (RUS)
ATP –  N. Djokovic (SRB) vs  J. Isner (USA)
WTA –  M. Hingis (SUI) / S. Mirza (IND) vs  T. Babos (HUN) / K. Mladenovic (FRA)
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