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Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Updated: March 28, 3:29 PM ET
Time to put up or shut up in Miami

With the second of back-to-back Masters Series events just under way, it's time for some of the game's elite to step out of the murky waters they've been entrenched in for some time and post results we've become accustomed to.

For others, the Sony Ericsson Open might only augment the shifting of the guard in tennis. Here are five questions to ponder:

Will Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal re-establish their stranglehold on the men's game?

If they bring their best stuff, there's no reason they can't battle it out in the final again. But bringing their best is something they haven't done so far this year, and that's the whole problem.

Semifinal defeats at Indian Wells left their double-barreled dominance looking shaky for the first time in years, and marked the first time since 2004 that one of them did not win the Pacific Life Open. Federer's exit to the zoning Mardy Fish was the most puzzling, given the one-sidedness of the match and Federer's declaration afterward that he was "not that disappointed." All eyes will be on him at Miami to see whether it was just a one-off or a more sustained dip in his level of play.

Of course, last year's first- and fourth-round losses to Canas at Indian Wells and Miami were equally jolting, and he bounced back a couple of months later. But that Miami defeat was the moment when Federer, who had till then maintained a gravity-defying levitation over the rest of the field, began to drift back down to earth. Twelve months later, his feet might be about to touch the ground. If that's the case, the rest of the season will tell us a lot about his heart.

Nadal's loss was more explicable, coming as it did to his serious challenger for the No. 2 spot, Novak Djokovic. But the Spaniard we tend to think of as indefatigable looked spent after two tough matches against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and James Blake in the previous rounds. His draw at Miami isn't any easier, and the conditions don't suit him quite as well.

Will the Serbian surge continue?

It's not quite as deep as Venus and Serena dodging broken glass on the Compton courts or Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva's pizza parties at the Spartak club in Moscow, but Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic still go back a long way. The two 20-year-old Belgrade-born Serbs have also been moving up the tennis ranks at a similar pace, and their strong starts to the year have put the summit within sight. Djokovic won the Australian Open in January while Ivanovic reached the final, with the two then sweeping the singles at Indian Wells.

Djokovic has a reasonable shot at pulling off the Indian Wells-Miami double, which some say is just as tough to win as a Grand Slam title. The list of men who've managed it is certainly an accomplished one -- Federer, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Marcelo Rios, Jim Courier and Michael Chang -- and all except Chang have achieved Djokovic's lifetime goal of reaching No. 1.

Things should be tougher for Ivanovic because Miami will have a much deeper field than Indian Wells. Still, the draw has been extremely kind, putting Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Venus Williams in the other half.

And what of Jelena Jankovic? She's been chronically overplaying and getting left out of the conversation as her results fade. She's scheduled to meet Ivanovic in the semifinals again -- their meeting in Indian Wells marked Jankovic's fifth straight defeat against her national rival.

Will the Williams sisters emerge from hibernation?

The two had their first all-sister matchup since the 2005 U.S. Open a few weeks ago at the WTA event in Bangalore. Serena won in a third-set tiebreak and edged ahead 8-7 in their career head-to-head.

As always, no one quite knows what to expect from them -- they're just as capable of winning the whole thing or going out early. This marks only Serena's third event of the year, while Venus has played four with very mixed results.

Serena and Henin are scheduled to meet in the quarterfinals for what seems like the umpteenth time in the last 10 months. A year ago, they played the final in Miami, with Serena winning a dramatic come-from-behind encounter. This time, the winner of the matchup could face Venus in the semifinals.

The only thing to do is wait and see.

Will the two most dominant women build the WTA rivalry of the season?

Not in the next couple of weeks.

This one was answered definitively when Maria Sharapova pulled out of Miami, removing the possibility that she and Henin might reprise their Australian Open quarterfinal earlier this year. Sharapova won that one in straight sets, playing what might have been the best tennis of her career.

Still, these two are the ones most likely to contest the No. 1 spot this year (Ivanovic is still a little untested and the Williamses just don't play enough). Henin can do herself significant good with a deep run, especially since Sharapova will get an automatic zero for this mandatory event in her rankings total. But the Belgian might be required to get through both Serena and Venus just to get to the final. She did it at the U.S. Open, but it's never an easy task.

Will either of the Andys get their first big result at a big tournament this year?

Andy Roddick and Andy Murray have both won two smaller events this year: Roddick in San Jose and Dubai, and Murray on the indoor courts in Qatar and a second in Marseille. They've also posted some big wins this month -- Roddick over Nadal and Djokovic, and Murray over Federer.

But they've also underachieved on the more significant stages. Roddick lost in the third round at the Australian Open and Murray in the first (though the defeat to eventual finalist Tsonga wasn't quite as bad in retrospect). At Indian Wells, they both fell to the same player, Tommy Haas.

Their games could hardly be more different -- Roddick's power contrasting with Murray's versatility -- but they do both have a penchant for attention-grabbing coaching changes and dark rages on court. Oh, and impatient national audiences awaiting big things. Fall short again in Miami, and the pressure only builds.

Things should be easier for Murray than Roddick, who is in a tough quarter with Tsonga and Federer. Murray potentially faces a tricky opener against Mario Ancic, but unless Fish keeps up his form at Indian Wells, no one else in his quarter looks particularly threatening these days.