Thursday March 22nd, 2012

Kim Clijsters is back in action in Miami after reaching the Australian Open semis on a hobbled ankle. (Getty Images)

The Sony Ericsson Open in Miami boasts a strong field, with the return of Kim Clijsters and Serena and Venus Williams to the women's draw. The top-tier event is a big destination for players on both sides, so here's five women and five men to keep an eye on as the action rolls on in Miami.


Kim Clijsters: Having already announced that she'll retire after this year, and given her penchant for playing a very limited schedule, Clijsters is going to be a permanent fixture on the "Players to Watch" list for every tournament she plays. She has already won her first two matches, shaking off some early rust to eventually roll over the streaky (and currently slumping) Jarmila Gajdosova, 4-6, 6-1 6-0, and followed it up with a straight-set win over Julia Goerges.

I'm a little surprised Kim is even playing Miami. Her goal this year is to peak for the Grand Slams and the Olympics, and with the grinding European clay season set to begin, you'd think she'd skip the U.S. hardcourts entirely to save her body. But Clijsters has to know that she needs to keep her ranking up in order to maximize her chances at the Slams. Unseeded in Miami, Clijsters has the toughest draw of any top player. After beating Gajdosova and Goerges, here's her potential road to the final: countrywoman Yanina Wickmayer, No. 4-seed Caroline Wozniacki, Serena Williams or Sam Stosur, Maria Sharapova or Li Na, and then most likely Victoria Azarenka in the final. Clijsters will need to find her rhythm early.

Serena Williams: It's easy to forget that Serena started this year injured. She sprained her ankle in Brisbane and played through the injury in Melbourne and Fed Cup. Now she's back after over a month off and we'll have to wait until the weekend to find out how she's feeling. Her history of flying out of the blocks after a long lay-off is well-documented and she started off by beating Shuai Zhang in straight sets, though the scoreline may not accurately indicate how tough the match was.

Still, given the way the draw has played out she, has a good shot at reaching the final. Once she's there she could finally get a shot at Victoria Azarenka, a match that everyone has been waiting to see. If Vika can come through in that match she'll silence all the critics who question whether she's really as good as her 2012 record indicates. But if Serena can lift the trophy at the end of these two weeks, she will have solidified the fact that records, streaks and Slams don't matter. When it comes to the women, Serena Williams is the gold standard.

Ana Ivanovic: Ivanovic hasn't had much success backing up deep tournament runs. It doesn't help that quite a few of those runs have ended in injury. The Serb had a semifinal run in Cincinnati end in an ankle sprain in 2010, and her rejuvenated form hit a wall last week in Indian Wells when she was forced to retire from her semifinal match against Maria Sharapova due to a glute strain.

Doctors have cleared her for Miami, where the conditions (both on and off the court) can be brutal coming off the pleasant heat and calm of Indian Wells. Ivanovic was seen practicing with kinesio tape around her hip and fans watching the practice reported that she had to lie down in the shade mid-practice to cool off. An ominous start to her campaign, but if she can get past the disappointment of the injury, Ivanovic should make some strides towards unlocking her game here.

Mona Barthel: Make no mistake: I am firmly in the driver's seat of the Barthel Bandwagon. Never heard of her? That's because up until last year, Barthel was focused on finishing her studies, only committing an hour a day for tennis. Once she got her degree she's been fully committed to tennis and the results are coming. In their second round match in Indian Wells, Azarenka was firmly in control of the match, leading 6-4 5-1, before Barthel battled back to take the second set in a tiebreaker and race to a 4-1 lead in the third.

OK, yes, she blew the lead and Azarenka was able to escape with a 6-4, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (6) victory, but I was impressed by the smoothness of Barthel's game. Good movement, beautiful backhand that she can redirect down the line at will, and a solid forehand that can do damage. She's still a work in progress but she started the year at No. 69 and she's already worked her way up to No. 36. She upset Jelena Jankovic on Thursday, I just hope she's around long enough to get some TV coverage, which doesn't start until Saturday, so more people can see her.

Caroline Wozniacki: During one of her press conferences in Indian Wells, Wozniacki criticized the WTA scheduling roadmap, seemingly out of nowhere. Wozniacki, who definitely skews toward the high side when it comes to how many tournaments she plays, said that she'd like to see more flexibility in which tournaments the top players can enter "because it's tough to go head to head against the top players all the time." If ever you needed any insight into her mind right now, there you go.

Nothing would do more for the former No. 1's confidence right now than playing an International level tournament, beating up on a bunch of players ranked outside of the top 20, and winning a title. Getting her hands on a trophy -- any trophy -- would do her mind a world of good. She's sick of losing and that losing is taking its toll. She's noticeably subdued these days, both on and off the court, and she looks confused and directionless in matches. It makes you wonder whether she has a good support network around her who are trying to build her up -- instead of tearing her down to completely rebuild her game. If she doesn't, it might be time to bring one in.


Novak Djokovic: Hey, remember this guy? He's pretty good. But in tennis, you only get ink if you're winning or losing big. There was no way Djokovic was going to repeat his 43-0 streak in 2012, which makes everything he does this year a little less exciting, even more so after he blew all of our minds again at the Australian Open by outlasting Rafael Nadal in that near six-hour marathon. He could get a rematch with Nadal in Miami but he might have to get past a streaking Roger Federer first. It would be a tremendous statement if the No. 1 can beat both Federer and Nadal for the title here.

Rafael Nadal: It's odd to think that Rafa has never won Miami, though he's made the finals three times. The Latin American fans have adopted him as their own (so long as he's not playing any South Americans) and the atmosphere when he plays makes it feel like a soccer game. Nadal hasn't won a tournament since Roland Garros in 2011 and he hasn't won a hard court tournament since Tokyo in 2010. Meanwhile, since the U.S. Open, Nadal has lost to Djokovic (Australian Open), Federer (London and Indian Wells) and Murray (Tokyo). Take from that what you will but with Federer closing in quickly on Nadal's No. 2 ranking (there's a mathematical possibility Federer could grab it in Miami), Nadal needs to get back into the business of winning things.

Andy Murray: Well it can't get much worse than Indian Wells for Murray. He's reunited with coach Ivan Lendl in Miami and they've had plenty of time to work on things after he was bundled out of Indian Wells in his first match. He trains in Miami and won the tournament in 2009 so he knows he can play well here. Murray has been adamant that he wouldn't suffer another post-Australia slump this year because he was pleased with his performance in Melbourne. He definitely backed that up by making the final of Dubai and beating Djokovic along the way. But the loss in Indian Wells must have rekindled those old insecurities and doubts, as he wonders why he suffers these types of losses more frequently than the Big 3. He needs a deep run in Miami to get his confidence back for the clay swing.

David Nalbandian: To this day, Nalbandian remains the only player who has defeated Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer en route to a title (Madrid 2007). That's the talent that sits beneath the surface of the otherwise temperamental Argentine. But is he starting to pull himself together? I was blown away by how fit he looked in Indian Wells (shelve the fat jokes for now, tennis fans) and he looked fantastic against Nadal.

Or at least he did until his frustration finally boiled over in the third set. Nalbandian could do some damage in Miami, where the crowd has the ability to give his matches the Davis Cup atmosphere he loves so much. If he plays as well as he did in Indian Wells, there's no reason to think he can't make the fourth round here where he could face Tomas Berdych and potentially even set up a quarterfinal match with Murray. A fit and motivated Nalbandian is just what the men's Tour needs right now -- a player who has the ability to cause an upset on any given day. It makes the early rounds fun. John Isner: Lots of players can look back on their careers and point out that one big win or one deep run that made them believe they belonged in the upper echelons of the tennis world. But ask them what happened after those wins and the story can get depressing. The hype around Isner is well-deserved, but now that he's proven he can beat and push the top guys, early-round losses to guys like Jurgen Melzer or Kevin Anderson won't be acceptable (he lost to both in Memphis and Delray Beach). He can pass Mardy Fish to become the top American in Miami, and a fourth round clash with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga would be very intriguing. Big John has earned the hype. Now he has to live up to it.

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