It's a sign of the times that only two of the ATP's big four reached the semifinals at Indian Wells. Next up is Miami, the second leg of tennis' monthlong, cross-country hard-court tour; two-time champion Roger Federer and newly crowned Indian Wells champ Rafael Nadal are absent; they are skipping this Masters event."
So if you think Indian Wells offered up some surprising results, odds are that Miami could be even more chaotic.
But we have to put that statement in relative terms. "Surprising results" these days consist of Juan Martin del Potro, ranked No. 7 in the world, beating a man just four places above him, Andy Murray. Now, del Potro's follow-up win over world No. 1 Novak Djokovic was undoubtedly a stunner, especially considering the Serb led 3-0 in the final set. But Djokovic, who headed into Indian Wells unbeaten this year, can certainly be forgiven for losing to a fellow top-10 player. Right?
To even think of asking that question, let alone posing it, is another testament to the top tier's unquestioned authority.
As for the "chaotic" nature of Indian Wells, well, that refers to del Potro, Nadal and Murray being joined in the semifinals by a true "Cinderella" ... the world No. 6, Tomas Berdych. George Mason or VCU he ain't, college hoops heads.
What I'm getting at is, even though Roger and Rafa are removed from the Miami draw, look for much of the same come late next week -- a top-heavy final four.
In particular, look for Djokovic and Murray to erase any thoughts of temporary decline you may have experienced after watching them fall like redwoods -- OK, tall cacti -- in the California desert. The two have combined to win four of the past six Miami Masters, with Nikolay Davydenko (in 2008) and Andy Roddick (in 2010) the only others to do so in that span. The only other active player to have won Miami is the missing-in-action Federer (remember, the now-retired Roddick will be watching on TV along with you and me).
That said, chalk doesn't always advance, as many of you will discover once the NCAA basketball tournament gets under way. Which players could bust the men's Miami bracket?
Even though Thomaz Bellucci has struggled badly this season, I think he is the unseeded player with the best chance of causing a major upset. Like Ernests Gulbis, who beat two seeded players and nearly ousted Nadal in Indian Wells, Bellucci possesses the powerful shots needed to challenge the elite. He'll need to stick around long enough to prove that, of course. Bellucci lost his opener out west, but shouldn't in Florida, where he'll face wild card Christian Harrison. Bellucci should be well-rested and, perhaps more importantly, eager to perform in front of a South American-friendly crowd. Remember, the Brazilian beat Murray and Berdych in the 2011 Madrid Masters, and won a set versus a practically invincible Djokovic.
As for seeded players, keep an eye on Nicolas Almagro (No. 10 seed), Milos Raonic (No. 14) and Sam Querrey (No. 17). They all own huge serves, yes, but they're also each in Berdych's quarter of the bracket. The Czech is a big beneficiary of the big-name pullouts this week, but he's earned his good fortune with a splendid 18-5 record this year. But as good Berdych is, he can still throw in the occasional clunker. Almost all of his losses in 2013 have been to upper-echelon players, but I think it's asking a lot of Berdych to go deep yet again, right after Indian Wells. One of these three ball-bashers should be able to take advantage.
Speaking of beneficiaries, David Ferrer, who fell to No. 5 in the rankings Monday, gets to lead a quarter as the third seed. In his Indian Wells opener, the Spaniard was unlucky to face Kevin Anderson, but nonetheless disappointed in a three-set loss. Ferrer should fare better in Miami, though Jeremy Chardy or Kei Nishikori, the Bollettieri Academy product who should have plenty of local support, could prove troublesome in the fourth round.
But it's the quarterfinal round where I see Ferrer's run ending. That's when he should meet del Potro, who will surely be inspired at the Grand Slam of Latin America. The Argentine couldn't have asked for a better draw, and if he hits his forehand as well and as consistently as he did in Indian Wells, a semifinal rematch with Djokovic looms.
It was a bit of a surprise to see that semi last week, but it wouldn't be a shock at all if it came to pass in Miami. But I think the more things change, the more they'll stay the same. Meaning, look for Djokovic to earn some revenge; the Serb has held the key to winning Key Biscayne in each of the past two years.