Playing in America has always been a recipe for success for Americans – and Frances Tiafoe is no exception.
#NextGen ATP Frances Tiafoe battled his way into the third round of the Miami Open presented by Itau with a tight three-set victory over World No. 26 Kyle Edmund, prevailing 7-6(4), 4-6, 7-6(1) in a thriller, converting on his sixth match point.
The win sends Tiafoe, into the third round at Crandon Park for the first time, having lost to Roger Federer in the second round in his tournament debut last season. The 20-year-old is currently on a seven-match winning streak in Florida, having claimed his maiden ATP World Tour title in Delray Beach in February. Additionally, the win marks his third Top 30 scalp in the past month (d. Hyeon Chung and Juan Martin del Potro) – prior to that, he had earned just one in his career (d. Zverev). All four Top 30 wins have come on home soil.
The match pitched two contrasting styles of play against each other on a sunny Saturday afternoon. With exceptional athleticism and a flare for impressive shotmaking under pressure, Tiafoe was able to outmanoeuvre the forehand onslaught of his British opponent, much to the delight of the American crowd. In what was a first-ever meeting between the two, the American struck 15 aces and won 58 per cent of return points on his opponent’s second serve.
Despite being broken while serving for the win at 5-4 in the final set, Edmund maintained his typically cool composure, eventually saving six match points before succumbing on the seventh, having fought back from 1/6 down in the final-set tiebreak. With one final ace, however, Tiafoe sealed the win after two hours, 26 minutes.
After the match, Tiafoe acknowledge the impact that the crowd had on his tennis and his ability to dig out the win despite being a break behind in the third set. "It was unbelievable. The crowd was packed... I just needed a reason to give, to leave it all out here and the crowd gave me a reason to that.
"Delray taught me a lot," said Tiafoe on his newfound confidence. "I beat some quality players back-to-back-to-back, which I've never done. I've played so many matches in my career so far where I played unbelievable, came up just short. Now I'm feeling really comfortable when it gets tight. I actually embrace it, I want it."
Next up for Tiafoe is No. 10 seed Tomas Berdych, who navigated past Yoshihito Nishioka with relative ease, winning 6-1, 6-4. Berdych was dominant on serve, never facing a break point and claiming 89 per cent of points on his first serve. Although Nishioka was able to save eight of 11 break points, he was unable rekindle the magic that saw him come from behind to win their previous FedEx ATP Head2Head matchup last year at the BNP Paribas Open.
No. 32 seed Karen Khachanov moved on to the third round after a straightforward defeat of Marius Copil, 7-5, 6-3. The 21-year-old, who earlier this season claimed his second ATP World Tour title in Marseille, overcame his big-serving opponent in just one hour, 15 minutes to register his 12th win of the season. He advances to play either Kevin Anderson or Nikoloz Basilashvili.
Italians have long celebrated a rich history in tennis. From the prestigious Internazionali BNL d'Italia, a staple on the ATP World Tour for more than 80 years, to its legendary superstars including Adriano Panatta and Nicola Pietrangeli, it’s safe to say that il Tricolore has always deserved its place among the flags of great tennis nations.
But as the current generation of Italian stalwarts continues to age, the question remains: who will fly their proud flag in the future? Enter Matteo Berrettini.
The 21-year-old Italian, who hails from Rome, has been surging on the ATP Challenger Tour over the past year, claiming his maiden title on home soil in San Benedetto in 2017 and a second crown in Bergamo in February. Add to that a final at the $150,000 Challenger event in Irving, Texas, last week and suddenly the young Italian finds himself blasting into the Top 100 of the ATP Rankings for the first time. He is youngest from his country to reach the milestone since Fabio Fognini in 2009.
“I'm really excited, because I have been dreaming about this since I was a child,” said Berrettini. “I started to play when I was seven and I was always thinking about it. But I'm here now and it's not my final goal. I hope to work hard and improve a lot.”
The right-hander admits that although his game and his results have improved rapidly over the past year on the ATP Challenger Tour, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.
"Two years ago, I was injured for about six months. And one year ago I was outside the Top 400. I didn't expect this to happen so fast,” he said. “I'm really happy and enjoying the moment ... I'd like to just keep improving myself and my best ranking. That's tennis. It's a lot of work to do but I look forward to it."
At 6’4”, Berrettini packs a predictably potent serve and booming forehand that sees his game more at home on hard courts than the clay courts that countrymen such as Fognini have made a name for themselves upon. He possesses versatility on his backhand wing and, alongside longtime coach Vicenzo Santopadre, has developed new elements in his game to help him make further inroads towards the top of the game.
"My coach is a like a second father. We've been together for eight years. I spend more time with him than my own family,” teased Berrettini. “It's not a joke because it's important for me to spend a lot of time with him, in and outside of tennis. I'm glad that's here with me always.
"We work hard every day on all my strokes. My serve and my forehand are my best weapons, but I have improved a lot with my backhand and my movement on the court,” said the Italian of his style of play. “I need to play more aggressive, in attack mode. I'm very tall and need to improve these kinds of things. I have to attack the point quickly, because I'm not the kind of player that likes to play too many strokes."
The 2018 season has also seen Berrettini make progress on the ATP World Tour level. At the start of the season, he won his first tour-level match in Doha, coming from a set down to defeat Viktor Troicki after coming through qualifying. Weeks later, he played his first main draw at the Grand Slam.
Tour life appears to be coming along nicely for Berrettini, but even in the wake of recent successes, he manages to keep a level head.
“I'm here in the Top 100 now, but I don't like to put too much pressure on myself with the ATP Rankings. I would like to improve myself and my tennis. I'm really happy to do this and play tennis around the world. I want to become the best person I can be.”
Miami has always been a special place for Alexander Zverev. It was the site of his first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 win in 2015 as well as his first Top 10 win at the elite level last year, when he defeated top-seeded Stan Wawrinka en route to the quarter-finals.
"It was not an easy match, but if you look at my history, the tournaments I do well in have very tough opening rounds," said Zverev. "I didn't play my best, but it's very important to find ways to win matches like that.
"He's one of the best servers on tour. On his serve, anything can happen. I was just happy to take my chances in the tie-break and capitalise at 6/5 to win the match. It was very important for me and I hope to keeping winning."
The World No. 5, who is now 9-4 in 2018, is looking to kickstart his season a year after earning five titles and winning 55 matches. By this time in 2017, the eventual Nitto ATP Finals qualifier had pushed Rafael Nadal to five sets at the Australian Open and won his second ATP World Tour title at Montpellier.
The victory against Medvedev comes in Zverev's 200th tour-level match, and the 20-year-old is now 126-74. Perhaps his ninth consecutive deciding-set tie-break victory at the tour-level (9-1) will give the third seed the momentum he needs to go on a deep run in Miami once again. He will play No. 28 seed David Ferrer in the third round after the veteran Spaniard ousted Russian Evgeny Dosnkoy 6-2, 6-2.
Ferrer has made at least the quarter-finals in Miami six times, including an appearance in the 2013 final (l. to Murray). The 35-year-old leads the pair's FedEx ATP Head2Head 2-1, but Zverev earned his lone victory in the series last month in Rotterdam.
A year ago, another rising star, #NextGenATP Canadian Denis Shapovalov, was playing an ATP Challenger Tour event in Guadalajara, Mexico. He had played just one tour-level match all year: a loss in Marseille against World No. 120 Julien Benneteau. The left-hander was No. 194 in the ATP Rankings.
What a difference a year has made for the teenager. Shapovalov ousted No. 24 seed Damir Dzumhur 6-1, 7-5 to advance to the third round on his Miami debut, making it this far at a Masters 1000 event for the second time. The 2017 Emirates ATP Star of Tomorrow now has 10 tour-level victories on the season, a mark he did not hit until September last season.
It appeared for a moment that Shapovalov was experiencing déjà vu. The 18-year-old let slip a 5-1 lead in the third set of his first-round match against Viktor Troicki before battling through a deciding tie-break. Shapovalov led by a break twice after breezing through a 24-minute opening set against Dzumhur, but could not hold that lead. But the 2017 Next Gen ATP Finals qualifier broke for the fifth time at 5-5 before serving out the victory.
Did You Know?
Zverev's victory over Medvedev comes in his 200th tour-level match. He has won six ATP World Tour titles and reached a career-best No. 3 in the ATP Rankings.
Yoshihito Nishioka has made coming back from a major knee injury look simple this week at the Miami Open presented by Itau.
He scouted his #NextGenATP opponent by watching YouTube videos. He adapted his gamestyle and played aggressively against Aussie Alex de Minaur. Then, during only his fifth match of the past 12 months, he routed the Sydney International finalist to set a second-round contest with 10th seed Tomas Berdych.
But don't let the soft-spoken left-hander's easy success deceive you: Nishioka's rehab from a torn ACL in his left knee was as arduous as you'd expect.
After surgery in early April 2017, Nishioka couldn't run for three months. He couldn't play tennis for nine months. Every day, he trudged to rehab in Tokyo, from 9 a.m.-1 p.m., and then from 3-6 p.m, followed by another hour of training in the evening.
Some days, he felt depressed. He wanted to quit. He confided in countryman Kei Nishikori, who was going through his own rehab on his right wrist. Nishikori advised him to take a couple days off when he felt especially down.
“It was very tough for me,” Nishioka told ATPWorldTour.com. “I wanted to move, and I didn't feel any pain but inside the knee, it was still very, very weak. So I had to stay. Everything, I couldn't do it.”
But Nishioka harboured mixed feelings for his friend's breakthrough.
“That was very good for Japanese tennis, but I felt a little bit mad because I was doing great before I got injured. And maybe I would have won a title too,” Nishioka said.
Before the 2017 Miami Open presented by Itau, the 5'7” left-hander had reached the quarter-finals in Acapulco and the fourth round at the BNP Paribas Open, his maiden Round of 16 at an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament.
Watch Nishioka Uncovered
Nishioka, then-No. 58 in the ATP Rankings, arrived in South Florida full of belief and was leading American Jack Sock 3-1 when he slid to his left and his leg “stopped”.
Nishioka slightly stumbled, leaning on his racquet as he regrouped. He played for two-and-a-half more games before rain suspended play. He eventually retired from the second-round match.
“I didn't know how badly my knee was injured. I had never had an injury like that. I didn't feel any pain so, [I thought], 'Well I can play'. But my coach and the physio said, 'You tore your ACL for sure. You have to stop',” Nishioka said.
Better days, however, have come for Nishioka, who returned to ATP World Tour action in January, a full nine months after his injury. This week in Miami, Nishioka picked up his second win of the season after claiming his Australian Open first-rounder (d. Kohlschreiber).
Read More: The Maturation of France's Mannarino
Nishikori, who also has successfully returned from injury, sees a better future ahead for Nishioka and Japanese tennis.
“Very happy to see him back. He was out for almost a year so he's dropped his ranking, but I'm sure he can be Top 50 easy. Now Sugita is Top 50 so I hope to see [Nishioka] Top 50 again, Nishikori said.
“We are good friends. We always hang out. I'm happy to see him here, doing well. Hopefully he can keep winning.”
Nishioka, who's slipped to No. 374 in the ATP Rankings, has a little further to go before he feels completely back. He estimates he's at about 80 per cent of his former self, but, most importantly and what especially causes the 22-year-old to grin, is the fact that, 12 months after he couldn't run or play tennis, he's playing the sport he loves pain-free.
“I don't feel anything... I can move well. I can run,” Nishioka said. “Tennis is all I can do. But if I can't do tennis, I can't do anything. So I'm very happy to be coming back, and hopefully no more injuries.”
The clips are all over YouTube, moments Adrian Mannarino wished never would have occurred. There's the time he threw his racquet against the fence at the ATP Challenger Tour event in Lexington, U.S.A, causing a ball boy to flinch. Another time he lost his cool in Stockholm and lobbed his racquet across the court.
Plenty more exist, Mannarino knows, because that's how the Frenchman used to react to a missed forehand or a double fault.
“I was getting frustrated so easily just losing my serve once, missing one easy shot, and I was getting out of the match so quickly. Also, I was feeling like my opponents knew it,” Mannarino told ATPWorldTour.com.
His opponents thought, Mannarino said, “OK, I just have to keep going, and something is going to happen, maybe a ball boy is going to miss one ball, and definitely a bad call from the umpire, and he's going to go out of the match.”
The flare-ups affected his play. Before October 2017, Mannarino had spent only eight weeks inside the Top 30 of the ATP Rankings.
But that was then, Mannarino hopes, a time in the past that he has successfully put behind him. He's been working with a new coach for the past year, and he says he's calmer than ever – on and off the court. Last year, Mannarino made his biggest ATP World Tour final in Tokyo at the Rakuten Japan Open Tennis Championships, an ATP World Tour 500-level event.
This week, he's at a career-high No. 22 in the ATP Rankings, and the 29-year-old, who's in his 15th year of professional tennis, says he understands his tennis more than ever.
“I haven't changed anything in my game really. It's just that now I understand the game a little bit better. Mentally, I'm a little bit more into it. I feel like at least I'm fighting on every point,” Mannarino said.
“When I'm losing a match I'm not losing a match because I'm getting pissed on court and going stupidly out of the match. I'm just trying my best on every point, and I've become definitely more of a consistent player, and finally it's working out.”
His transformation began about a year ago when Mannarino started working with countryman and former competitor Jean-Christophe Faurel, who reached No. 140 in the ATP Rankings during his career.
They've focused on Mannarino's temperament every day, in practice but especially before matches. Faurel walks Mannarino through a hypothetical situation. For example, he tells his player, it's 4-1 but your opponent has come back and made it 4-4. How are you going to react?
Faurel, in the white T-shirt, has been instrumental in helping Mannarino stay calm on court. (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
“You have two options: To be frustrated and say, 'Yeah, forget it. I should have finished this set two games ago,' or stay focused. It's 4-all. You have to win two games, and so if there is a moment where you have to be strong in your head, it's now,” Faurel told ATPWorldTour.com.
He knew Mannarino's game well before they began working together after the 2017 Miami Open presented by Itau. The two had played twice on the Futures level in 2008, both three-set wins by Mannarino, and they played at the same club in Paris.
“It was his biggest problem to solve with himself, to manage his frustrations,” Faurel said.
It wasn't as if Mannarino was ignoring his weakness. He had talked with mental coaches in the past, but had never as much success as he's had with Faurel.
“It's a really personal thing so you have to feel confident and comfortable with the person,” Mannarino said.
With Faurel, Mannarino has found his confidant.
“I feel like I'm able to talk about anything with him. Sometimes it's just going into a deep discussion, it's maybe sometimes working better than practising on court. He understands me pretty well, and we understand each other so it's easier to work together,” Mannarino said.
The mental clarity has spread to his on-court tactics. Mannarino, with his unorthodox short backswings on both sides, knows what he wants to do once he steps on the court.
“My game is to be consistent as I can. Running well. Making the opponent have a hard time on court, making him work a lot,” Mannarino said. “I know that I can run for a long, long time... I am just trying to get into a real fight.”
Read More: Shapovalov Made To Work In Miami Debut
Eventually, Mannarino said, he wants his opponents to think of his game style like they think of David Ferrer's – that every match against him will be a contest of attrition.
“Every time you play against David you know it's not going to be easy, because he's going to be on every ball,” Mannarino said. “I'm not doing as good as he's doing, but I'm just trying to do the same things, and it's paid off lately.”
If Sam Querrey's comments last month are any indication, though, Mannarino is on his way to a Ferrer-like reputation. Querrey, No. 14 in the ATP Rankings, had lost to Mannarino the first three times they had played in their FedEx ATP Head2Head series, before beating him at the New York Open.
“It feels like I beat Rafa out there. That guy’s always been so tricky,” Querrey said.
Mannarino knows he's still a work in progress, on the court and mentally. But he's not expecting perfection. Instead, he'll take what's happened during the past 12 months – tiny bits of improvement followed by more bits of improvement.
“I'm just trying to stay focused as much as I can and not to get distracted by anything out of the game... It's not something you can change, like this,” he said, snapping his fingers.
“But I'm just trying day after day to become a more patient person and hopefully it's going to get better day after day. I don't know. It's a long process as well. But still maybe sometime [this] year, I'm going to finally be a mature guy. I'm not going to be a kid anymore. Well, we'll see.”
Age is just a number, right? Especially these days, players in their 30s play as if they're in their 20s, and players in their 20s bounce back as if they're in their late teens.
Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis completely agrees. The 21-year-old doesn't feel like he's only two years removed from his teenaged years. Kokkinakis, who's spent the past two seasons battling injuries, feels closer to the age of his second-round opponent, Roger Federer.
“I feel like a bit of a veteran in some ways. I'm 21, but I feel a lot older. I don't know if that's a good thing, probably a bad thing. I definitely feel like I'm in my late 30s, at least,” Kokkinakis told ATPWorldTour.com.
Watch: Kokkinakis Happy To Be Feeling Good Again In Miami
Two years of injuries and rehab, and then more injuries and more rehab, will do that to even the most upbeat and positive of players, such as Kokkinakis.
The 6'5” Aussie reached the fourth round of the 2015 BNP Paribas Open (l. to Tomic) and finished the season at No. 80 in the year-end ATP Rankings, one of four teenagers – Borna Coric, Hyeon Chung and Alexander Zverev – in the Top 100. Kokkinakis was 19 and headed to the Top 50, maybe the Top 20, before his 21st birthday.
But then just about every injury a tennis player can get, Kokkinakis got. Shoulder surgery in December 2015 kept him out for nine months, and when he was to make his ATP World Tour return at the 2016 Winston-Salem Open, a pectoralis strain placed him on the withdrawal list for Winston-Salem and the US Open.
In 2017, another strain, this one in his abs, forced him to miss more than four months. But thankfully for Kokkinakis, fist pumps and wide smiles followed later in the year.
At The Queen's Club in London, he celebrated his first Top 10 win against No. 6 Milos Raonic. One month later, in Los Cabos, Kokkinakis checked off a list of first accomplishments: his first ATP World Tour quarter-final, semi-final and final (d. Fritz, Berdych and l. to Querrey).
Kokkinakis' win against Raonic last year at The Queen's Club was his first Top 10 win. (Photo: Getty Images)
But more strains – groin, pectoralis – and a rolled ankle derailed him to finish 2017 and start 2018.
This week in Miami, however, he's feeling good, again. Kokkinakis, in only his second ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event since 2015 Cincinnati, dropped only three games against France's Calvin Hemery to set a second-round showdown with Federer, a three-time champion in South Florida.
“I've had a lot of ongoing things but this is the best my body has felt [since 2015] – touch wood – so I'm just going to see how it goes and stay positive and not get too worked up and keep working hard and see where I go,” he said. “It feels good to be back and the big one for me is just staying healthy and staying positive.
“I think I'm a lot better player than I was in 2015; for me, it's just showing that and staying on the court.”
Although Kokkinakis has never faced Federer, the two have spent weeks training together. Federer invited the Aussie to train with him in Dubai on two occasions – for a few weeks during the 2014 off-season and for a couple weeks during the European clay-court swing last year.
“[I know] everything about him so if I lose it's completely on me,” Kokkinakis said in between laughs. “Yeah, I'm sure he doesn't show everything on the practice court. But I've seen what I can and I'm going to go out there and have a crack.”
Despite heavy odds against him, Kokkinakis will take the court against Federer, No. 1 player in the ATP Rankings and the defending champion in Miami, with the same attitude he had throughout qualifying and during his first-rounder in South Florida: Play freely and enjoy his health, and his time, on court.
“One of the guys asked me, 'What's my goal in the match?' I don't think it changes from match to match. You go there to win. You're not going to go there, thinking, 'I hope I get a few games.' That's just not the attitude you need,” Kokkinakis said.
“I think if I serve well and play well, I can have a good crack, but obviously playing Roger is tough. I think the majority of the crowd will be supporting him, which is not too much of a surprise. But it is what it is. If I play well, I think I can do some good things.”
Jean-Julien Rojer collected the 350th doubles win of his career Friday when he teamed with Horia Tecau at the Miami Open to defeat recent Indian Wells champion Jack Sock and Nicholas Monroe 6-1, 7-6(2).
Rojer, 36, claimed the first of his 26 titles in 2010 in Tokyo.
In another result of significance, American duo Steve Johnson and Sam Querrey upset top seeds Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo 6-4, 7-6(0). Since beginning the year 7-1, including a title in Sydney, last year's No. 1 team has gone 2-4 in its past four outings, including back-to-back first-round losses in Indian Wells and Miami.
But things won’t get any easier for the the World No. 6 Argentine, who last week won his first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title in Indian Wells. Del Potro will face former US Open finalist Kei Nishikori in the third round after the Japanese beat Australian John Millman 7-6(4), 4-6, 6-3.
Del Potro said that he would need a much better effort to beat Nishikori. “It was a terrible match for me even though Robin played well,” he said. “It was a very difficult first match of the tournament for me. I'm still alive and that's important. But I need to improve my tennis, my physicality and my mind if I want to go further. My body started to feel tired but I will have some time now to recover.
"It could be a very difficult match for me. Kei has a very good two-handed backhand, good returns. And he's playing well. He feels 100 per cent, free of pain in his wrist. And he's a dangerous guy on Tour. I mean, if he has a good day, he can beat all of the other players. I must play even better than tonight."
Playing his first match in almost a month since his first-round loss in Acapulco to Denis Shapovalov, Nishikori said that the difficult nature of today's win was a boost. "I'm happy to win; it wasn't an easy match," he said. "I didn't play the past two weeks, so I had to get used to playing points again, but in the third set I thought I played well. I am feeling very good and playing with intensity for three hours today is good for my confidence."
Did You Know?
Del Potro improved to 5-0 lifetime against Haase with Friday night's win in Miami.
Here are five must-see matches on Saturday:
1) Roger Federer vs. Thanasi Kokkinakis
Only once before has the No. 1 in the ATP Rankings fallen in their opening match in Miami to a player ranked as low as World No. 175 Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis. That was in 2003 when Spanish qualifier Francisco Clavet (No. 178) sent then-No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt packing in the second round. Roger Federer was a quarter-finalst in Miami that year, while Kokkinikas was just six years old. Three-time champion Federer will open his title defence against the 21-year-old knowing he must reach at least the quarter-finals to retain his hold on the No. 1 ATP Ranking. The Swiss comes off a runner-up finish to his BNP Paribas Open title defence against Juan Martin Del Potro, a match in which he held three championship points before the Argentine prevailed. Kokkinakis, who was granted a wild card into qualifying, has won three straight matches to reach the second round in Miami for the first time.
[GROUP POLL]119[/GROUP POLL]
17) Nick Kyrgios vs. Dusan Lajovic
Kokkinakis’s fellow Australian, No. 17 seed Nick Kyrgios, makes his return from a right elbow injury when he takes on Serbian Dusan Lajovic for the first time. It will be the 22-year-old’s first match since 4 February. Kyrgios played out one of the most thrilling ATP World Tour matches of the season in the semi-finals against Federer in 2017. The Swiss snuck through in three tie-breaks after three hours and 11 minutes. The Aussie landed his fourth ATP World Tour title and first on home soil in Brisbane (d. Harrison) to start 2018 before a fourth-round appearance at the Australian Open (l. to Dimitrov). Lajovic came from a set down against Horacio Zeballos to book his place against Kyrgios. He also reached the second round in Indian Wells (l. to Chung) leading in.
4) Alexander Zverev vs. Daniil Medvedev
Fourth seed Alexander Zverev is one of four #NextGenATP players in action on Saturday. The German takes on a Next Gen ATP Finals qualifier from 2017, Daniil Medvedev, for a place in the third round. Zverev leads the pair’s FedEx ATP Head2Head series 2-0, including a straight-sets result in the quarter-finals in Washington in 2017. After losing his opening match in Indian Wells (l. to Sousa), Zverev will be keen to make another deep run in Miami, where in 2017 he upset top seed Stan Wawrinka en route to the quarter-finals (l. to Kyrgios). Russian Medvedev reached the third round in Indian Wells (l. to Carreno Busta) leading in. The 22-year-old started the year in impressive fashion, winning seven matches to claim his first ATP World Tour title in Sydney as a qualifier (d. De Minaur) .
24) Damir Dzumhur vs. Denis Shapovalov
#NextGenATP Canadian Denis Shapovalov’s opening match almost slipped from his grasp when he let a 5-1 third-set lead dissipate against Serbian Viktor Troicki. The 18-year-old needed six match points to finally book his second-round clash with Damir Dzumhur. Seven months after his emphatic ATP World Tour Masters 1000 debut at the Coupe Rogers, in which he defeated Juan Martin Del Potro and Rafael Nadal back to back en route to the semi-finals, Shapovalov is contesting his first Miami Open presented by Itau. His best result in 2017 is a semi-final appearance in Delray Beach (l. to Tiafoe). Shapovalov has never played Dzumhur. Seeded No. 24, the Bosnian has reached quarter-finals this season in Montepellier and Marseille. He is coming off a first-round exit in Indian Wells (l. to Kicker).
8) Jack Sock vs. Yuki Bhambri
Fresh off his 10th ATP World Tour doubles title in Indian Wells (d. Bryan/Bryan), his second with John Isner, eighth seed Jack Sock hopes his trophy run serves as a timely confidence boost for his singles results. The American, who finished 2017 in a flurry with his first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title and a semi-final run at the Nitto ATP Finals, has so far struggled to carry that momentum into 2018. Last year, he reached the quarter-finals in Miami (l. to Nadal) and the doubles final with Nicholas Monroe (l. to Kubot/Melo). Yuki Bhambri has not dropped a set in winning through two rounds of qualifying in in his first round (d. Basic). The 25-year-old from India comes off the biggest win of his career over No. 10 in the ATP Rankings Lucas Pouille in the third round in Indian Wells (l. to Querrey). Bhambri defeated Sock in a ATP Challenger Tour semi-final in Kaohsiung in 2013.
Novak Djokovic has seemingly always found a way to play great tennis. It’s how he got to No. 1 in the ATP Rankings and occupied the top spot for 223 weeks during his career. It’s how he has won 30 ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles, tied for the record with Rafael Nadal. It’s how he had won 30 of his past 31 matches at the Miami Open presented by Itau, where he has won six titles.
But since suffering an elbow injury that kept the Serbian out for the final six months of last season, the 30-year-old has struggled to find that great tennis. And on Friday afternoon, he lost his third consecutive match, something he had not done since the end of the 2007 season, when he dropped his final five matches.
“I mean, I'm trying, but it's not working. That's all. That's all it is,” said Djokovic, who fell in straight sets against Benoit Paire. “I'm not feeling great when I'm playing this way. Of course, I want to be able to play as well as I want to play. Just it's impossible at the moment. That's all. I lost to a better player.”
To be fair, it is only Djokovic’s third tournament since 2017 Wimbledon, so he has not played many matches — six, to be exact. But when in the past he has found ways to battle through tough matches, the Serbian has fallen short this year. The ninth seed appeared poised to turn things around against Paire in the second set, when he won eight of nine points to recoup a break and threaten the Frenchman’s serve. But soon thereafter, the match was over, and not in his favour.
“I felt I started the match well, first six games, then I just ran out of gas,” Djokovic admitted. “He was serving well. I just wasn't able to break him down. He was just coming up with the good shots at the right time. It happened very fast.”
There is no doubt that Djokovic is capable of jaw-dropping tennis. He would not have finished inside the Top 3 of the ATP Rankings for 10 straight years, including four year-end No. 1 finishes, otherwise. But the 68-time tour-level titlist is not thinking about all of that success.
“I know that you can't be the person that you were yesterday, and the player [you once were]. You have to keep on training, evolving, trying to improve your game,” Djokovic said. “The circumstances that I was in the last two years were very challenging. But I'm not the only one that goes through that. I mean, there are tougher injuries that players go through. I don't want to sit here and whine about my last couple of years.”
And just because Djokovic has struggled does not mean he isn’t working to get back to top form as quickly as possible. The Serbian notably altered his service motion before the season to release the load from his elbow during the motion and to help make the overall stroke more efficient.
“I'm just in general trying everything I can. It is what it is. I'm not at the level that I used to be,” Djokovic said. “I'm aware of that. I just have to obviously believe in myself and hopefully it will come.”
Djokovic told the press he came to Indian Wells and Miami — he has won the ‘Sunshine Double’ four times — because he loves the hard courts and wanted to play more matches before to help prepare himself as the ATP World Tour gets ready to shift to the European red clay. But he never stepped on the court thinking he did not have a chance to triumph.
“I wouldn't go out on the court if I didn't believe I can win a tennis match. I wouldn't be here if I wasn't trying. I mean, nobody is kind of forcing me with a whip to go out on the court. I have a freedom to choose whether I want to play or not,” Djokovic said. “I love this sport. There's a lot of people that support me, especially here. I thank them for their great support. Unfortunately I'm not at the level they would like to see me at and I would like to see myself at. But it is what it is. Life goes on.”