Novak Djokovic enjoys pondering the countless curiosities in life, whether it be the delicate art of balancing his racket, the stylish brunette nibbling strawberries in the front row, or the aforementioned strawberries themselves. Consequently, he serves as the poster boy for our discussion of the five potential narratives that could emerge from the men’s tournament. (And there’s a “+1″ at the end this time too, you can be assured!)
1) Does Federer care at all about the non-majors? The greatest man ever to lift a racket looked chronically contemptuous and disengaged during his brief appearance at Indian Wells, where he seemed to feel that the occasion was unworthy of his presence. Since he had just recovered from a respiratory infection, it was difficult to determine where the line lay between physical rust and mental detachment. We should be able to define it more precisely in Miami; his benign draw puts any early loss squarely on his own shoulders. At this stage in his career, one can understand why he plays his best tennis only 8 weeks a year, but it would be better for the sport if its #1 showed some interest in a few of the other 44.
2) Can the Djoker and Murray get their Heads back on track? Last year’s runner-up, the Serb’s 2010 campaign has been lethargic at best (Dubai, Davis Cup) and listless at worst (Australian Open, Indian Wells). His apparently depleted commitment level surfaced when he chose not to play an Australian Open warmup, previously a regular part of his schedule. The needless adjustment to a new service motion has further hindered his efforts, turning many of his matches into unpredictable and emotionally draining rollercoasters. Meanwhile, his nemesis in the 2009 Miami final has reverted to his immature, passive self after a dismal performance against Federer at the Australian Open. While his game has regressed, Murray has engaged in distracting wars of words over his overt contempt for minor tournaments–a deplorable example to set his peers–and the British Davis Cup team’s uncertain future. Until the Serb and the Scot start simplifying their lives on court and off court, they’ll be merely supporting actors to Federer and Nadal.
3) Can Nadal build momentum for the clay season? Following another knee-induced hiatus, his Indian Wells semifinal run should have encouraged his fans. We caught frequent glimpses of the lithe, fluid Rafa to which we had grown accustomed before last year’s French Open. Yet that vintage Nadal never would have choked a third-set tiebreak against a player like Ljubicic; it appears as though his body has progressed further towards recovery than his mind. If he can finally find “calm” at crucial moments and produce a stirring performance in Miami, there’s no reason to think that he can’t recapture his past brilliance on clay. If he wilts against another unheralded foe, on the other hand, an noxious cloud of doubt will hover over the Spaniard just when he most needs his confidence.
4) What is Andy Roddick thinking? There are two potential, diametrically opposed ways in which he could react to his fortnight in the desert. A: “Wow, it felt great to be back in a groove after the scary injury in Australia and beat some tough opponents; I can’t wait to get myself out on (a hard) court again and keep building on everything that I did well here.” B: “I don’t drop my serve during the entire final, and STILL I lose to an elderly dude with more kids than hair? Will I ever win one of these big matches, or am I cursed forever?” (Well, I probably sanitized Andy’s inner voice for you there.) Knowing Roddick’s past history, Option A is more likely, but he looked clearly demoralized after falling to Ljubicic.
5) Does anyone outside the top 8 matter when it counts? No, I haven’t forgotten the events of last weekend any more than Roddick has. Still, Indian Wells has a storied history of producing the unexpected and often the shocking, so Ljubicic’s title there was highly appropriate. Beyond that event, the juiciest plums on the calendar have long been plucked by the top six or eight men; occasionally, a Verdasco or a Tsonga or a Monfils gets a sniff, but in the end the challenger regularly falls to the established star. Will the pattern continue in Key Biscayne, or has Ljubicic lighted a torch for others to bear? Remember what happened when Pandora opened her box.
5+1) What will be this year’s Youtube moment? Last year, a frustrated Federer obliterated his racket (see photographic evidence below) in a flash of piqued perfectionism. Two years ago, an equally frustrated Youzhny turned his racket against himself in a burst of masochistic mania. Who will provide the indelible image (or highlight clip) of this year’s tournament?
I’ll be back shortly with a post that may surprise you. It was inspired by a special request from one of my Twitter followers, and I hope that you find it a scintillating read. No guesses!