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Beyond the Baseline

Miami draw preview: Roger Federer, Victoria Azarenka streak into Florida

Men's draw

Roger Federer rides a wave of momentum into Miami after winning three straight ATP titles. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Click here for the full Miami Sony Ericsson Open men's draw.

Roger Federer is at the head of the pack these days, having lost only two matches since the U.S. Open last year. Speaking of the U.S. Open, Miami will be the first time Federer has been drawn into Novak Djokovic's half since that epic semifinal. Djokovic hasn't won a title since the Australian Open, but his losses haven't been bad ones, losing to Andy Murray in Dubai and John Isner in a coin-flip of a match in Indian Wells. The same can't be said for Murray, who's under a lot of pressure here after his shocking loss to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez last week. As for Rafael Nadal, his season seemed to flip last year right here in Miami, where he lost to Djokovic for the second consecutive tournament in a grueling three-set final. Can he get the rematch and exorcise his Djoker demons?

Here's how the men's draw breaks down.

Djokovic's half: Can anyone stop a Federer vs. Djokovic semifinal? It looks unlikely. David Ferrer and Juan Martin del Potro lurk in Djokovic's quarter, but given his current form, only Del Potro has the potential to cause the world No. 1 significant problems if they meet in the quarterfinals.

As for Federer, he's drawn a bunch of Americans into his quarter, none of whom are threats to him right now. He could face Ryan Harrison in the second round and then Andy Roddick in the third, which would be brutal for Roddick. Mardy Fish will try to jump-start his season in Miami, where he's also drawn into Federer's quarter. Fish would have to get by either Nicolas Almagro or Fernando Verdasco to see Federer in the quarters. With Isner poised to become the No. 1 American any day now, Fish has semifinal points to defend here. Given his current form and his draw, that seems unlikely.

Early-round matches to watch: Sam Querrey vs. Matt Ebden (first round); Djokovic vs. Marcos Baghdatis (second round); Ivo Karlovic vs. Del Potro (second round); Bernard Tomic vs. Ferrer (second round); Harrison vs. Federer (second round); Roddick vs. Federer (third round); Almagro vs. Verdasco (third round).

Nadal's half: Nadal shouldn't have too many obstacles to reach the quarterfinals, but a potential clash with the steadily improving Isner in the quarters would be interesting.

Murray's quarter is ripe for upsets and surprises. The most intriguing early-round match of the tournament is Murray's potential third-rounder with Milos Raonic. But even that's no guaranteed matchup. To get there Murray may have to beat Denis Istomin, who defeated Roddick on his way to the finals of San Jose in February and just last week quietly upset No. 5 Ferrer in Indian Wells. Lurking in the other part of Murray's quarter is David Nalbandian, who is looking to back up his great wild-card run to the Indian Wells quarterfinals. Nalbandian, Janko Tipsarevic, Alexandr Dolgopolov and Tomas Berdych are all in the same section, and any one of them could make the quarters. My money is on Berdych, but don't be surprised if Nalbandian pulls off an upset or two.

And let's step back for a second and relish that Gonzo forehand one last time. This marks the farewell tournament for Fernando Gonzalez, who is set to retire at age 31. As luck would have it he's drawn Nicolas Mahut, which just goes to prove that Mahut has the worst luck of any man on Tour. Talk about a lose-lose situation.

Early-round matches to watch: Gonzalez vs. Mahut (first round); Nikolay Davydenko vs. James Blake (first round); Pablo Andujar vs. Nadal (second round); Nalbandian vs. Tipsarevic (second round); Istomin vs. Murray (second round); Davydenko vs. Isner (second round); Murray vs. Raonic (third round).

Semifinal predictions: Djokovic vs. Federer; Berdych vs. Nadal.

Winner: Nadal def. Federer.

Women's draw

Hoping to stay perfect in 2012, top-ranked Victoria Azarenka received a favorable draw. (Robyn Beck/Getty Images)

Click here for the complete women's draw.

After she won the BNP Paribas Open last week, Victoria Azarenka was asked what the best thing about being No. 1 was. "That you don't really have to find yourself in the draw anymore, you know," she said, laughing. "It's the first one." It's the first one with a bullet and a bullseye, in fact. Azarenka's Miami campaign is loaded with significance. She's looking to defend her title, become the third woman to complete the Indian Wells/Miami double (Kim Clijsters in 2005 and Steffi Graf in 1994 and 1996) and extend her 23-0 start to the year with each match.

Here's how the women's draw breaks down.

Azarenka's half: Not that she needs any luck these days, but four of the women I'd tap as the most likely "Vika Stoppers" are in the bottom half of the draw: Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters, Caroline Wozniacki and Li Na. Petra Kvitova, who is the last woman to beat Azarenka, at the 2011 WTA Championships, could meet Azarenka in the semifinals but that's a very big "if." Kvitova has won just two main-draw matches in four appearances in Miami, where the heat and humidity wreak havoc on her asthma. All this is to say, it's hard to see anyone except Azarenka coming out of the top half of the draw. She's earned that deference not only because of her unimpeachable level of play this year but also because she's always played well in Miami, already a two-time winner in her young career (2009, '11).

While Azarenka tries to keep winning, two women will be making headlines just by stepping onto the court. Venus Williams hasn't played a Tour-level singles match since last September after being diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome. While the tournament insists that Venus will take the court Wednesday for her first-round match against Kimiko Date-Krumm, her 2012 has been partially defined by having to pull out of tournaments due to illness. It would be wonderful if we could see Venus on the court again, regardless of result. Similarly, Hodgkin's lymphoma took Alisa Kleybanova off the Tour for 10 months, but she'll make her return on Tuesday in her first match since the Italian Open last year. No matter how hot and humid it is in Miami, just hearing their names announced and seeing them walk on the court will bring the goosebumps. It's been a hard road back for both of them.

Early-round matches to watch: Heather Watson vs. Sorana Cirstea (first round); Ksenia Pervak vs. Francesca Schiavone (second round); Kleybanova vs. Maria Kirilenko (second round); Venus Williams vs. Kvitova (second round); Ana Ivanovic vs. Daniela Hantuchova (third round).

Sharapova's Half: I have one word to describe the bottom half of the draw: carnage.

Serena Williams and Clijsters return after lengthy layoffs, and as the draw gods would have it, they're in the same quarter. It's impossible to know what their level is at the moment, but the prospect of a Serena vs. Kim quarterfinal is undoubtedly exciting. The last time they played each other was that U.S. Open semifinal in 2009, when Williams was defaulted for offering a lineswoman some questionable nutritional advice. In order to get that rematch, Serena may have to avenge another tirade-laden U.S. Open loss, that one to Sam Stosur in last year's final. The two could meet in the fourth round. Stosur's been scratchy lately and she's never played well in Miami, only getting as far as the quarterfinals.

In fact, Miami has served as kryptonite to a number of players in this half. Much like Stosur and Kvitova, Li and Wozniacki have never progressed past the quarterfinals. IMG client and No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova, who grew up in Bradenton, Fla., has made it to the final three times (2005, '06, '11) but has never won. The tournament can be a grind for many players, as the hectic grounds, intense heat and logistical nightmare of getting to Key Biscayne from Miami can add to the distraction. Without having seen Serena or Kim play since January, I've got those two, Li and Sharapova making the quarterfinals. Keep an eye on Clijsters, though. As a non-seed she has the toughest draw of anyone.

Early-round matches to watch: Clijsters vs. Jarmila Gajdosova (first round); Clijsters vs. Julia Goerges (second round); Mona Barthel vs. Jelena Jankovic (second round); Christina McHale vs. Wozniacki (third round).

Semifinal prediction: Azarenka vs. Ivanovic; Serena Williams vs. Sharapova.

Winner: Azarenka def. Williams.

What do you think about the Miami draws? Sound off with your picks in the comments.
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