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Wednesday, March 7, 2007
March madness, coast to coast

As you prepare for your office's NCAA Tournament pool next week, you might remind your co-workers (you know, the ones who wouldn't know Andy Roddick from Andy Dick) that college basketball doesn't have a monopoly on March Madness. The month also belongs to tennis, with the sport's two biggest dual-gender events outside the Grand Slams, Indian Wells and Miami, played back-to-back.

Think the road to the Final Four is going to be tough this year? Getting through the fields at the Pacific Life Open, which started this week, and Miami is one of the most difficult hurdles in tennis. Those hoping to hoist the hardware must navigate through 96-player draws on hard courts, first in the heat and wind of the California desert and then the humidity of the Florida Keys. Talk to the top players, and most of them will tell you that winning one of these Masters events, to say nothing of two consecutive in a month's time, is harder to pull off than capturing a Slam. The reason: the draws are deep, with quality opponents from the get-go. There are no breathers, no easy passes and fewer days off.

Looking at who has won our sport's double -- and who hasn't -- since 1985, when both tournaments started to be played side-by-side, reveals just how impressive an accomplishment it is. On the men's side, six players have won back-to-back: Jim Courier (1991), Michael Chang (1992), Pete Sampras (1994), Marcelo Rios (1998), Andre Agassi (2001) and Roger Federer (2005-06). Talented group of guys, don't you agree? All of them, except Chang, were No. 1, and Chang reached a high of No. 2. Other all-timers, including John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl, failed to win both tournaments back-to-back.

Naturally, Federer is the only player to double up in two consecutive years. Can he pull off the hat trick this month? The odds are heavily in his favor, with Rafael Nadal struggling. It'll likely be up to Roddick, Andy Murray or a wild card like David Nalbandian to stop Fed-Express.

On the women's side, just two players have won both events consecutively: Steffi Graf in 1994 and '96, and Kim Clijsters two years ago. Those who fell short make up a nice Hall of Fame list: Monica Seles, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.

Results for the women have been skewed in recent years, because Venus and Serena Williams haven't played Indian Wells since the Battle Over Wounded Knee. In 2001, Venus, suffering from a knee injury, pulled out of her semifinal showdown minutes before the match; fans took their anger out on Serena in the final, a jeer-fest that Richard Williams labeled as racist. The sisters have not returned to the desert since.

Considering that Serena won Miami three consecutive times, 2002-04, she probably would have earned at least one Indian Wells/Miami double.

But that's conjecture. What's certain is that March, hyped for its games on the B-ball court, offers up equally compelling, and arguably more grueling, competition on the tennis court.