The first ATP Masters 1000 and WTA 1000 tournament of the season takes place this week as the Miami Open returns.
The tournament, which is usually preceded by Indian Wells, was cancelled last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but will be played from March 24 with limited fans in attendance.
While several top players, including Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Serena Williams, won’t be travelling to Florida, there will still be plenty to look out for over the next fortnight.
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Osaka, Barty, Andreescu return
It’s been over a month since Naomi Osaka last played a competitive match.
The world No 2 has taken a break after securing her fourth Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, but is set to return to action riding a 21-match winning streak.
Osaka will likely start as the favourite to lift the trophy, even though she hasn’t enjoyed much success in Miami, failing to make it past the third round in four attempts.
World No 1 Ashleigh Barty will also be returning to action in Miami along with Bianca Andreescu.
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Barty will be featuring in her first tournament outside of Australia since February 2020, having opted not to play most of last season due to safety concerns amid the Covid-19 pandemic and then skipping Doha and Dubai this month due to injury.
"You weigh up the risk for your reward, and what you’re willing to accept," she said last week as she confirmed she will play in Miami.
I feel like now we are in a comfortable position, knowing that the tour is doing the right things and we are going to be in a safe environment.
This is a big move for Barty, who was playing with a strapped leg at the Australian Open and has since been looking to recover full fitness. She is the defending champion in Miami after winning in 2019, but that means she has points to defend and Osaka is closing on her position as world No 1.
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Like Barty, Andreescu also missed most of last season due to injuries and disruption caused by the pandemic.
She lost in the second round of the Australian Open before making the semi-finals of the Phillip Island Trophy and then skipping the Middle East swing to focus instead on training. Her progression is something to keep an eye on over the next two weeks.
Growing list of absentees
With Indian Wells postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Miami is the biggest tournament of the year so far aside from the Australian Open.
But that hasn’t stopped a number of players opting to skip the event.
Part of the problem is probably that there is no Indian Wells, which means a trip to the USA for one tournament before heading to Europe for the clay season.
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Nadal and Thiem both chose not to make the trip and focus on clay preparations while Djokovic said he wants to spend more time with his family. Federer decided not to play as he looks to get back to full fitness and Williams says she can’t play after undergoing oral surgery.
It will be the first time that none of the ‘Big Three’ have played at a Masters event since 2004, but world No 12 Denis Shapovalov has warned more withdrawals could be on the cards due to the challenges of playing during the pandemic.
I want to win big tournaments, I want to go up the rankings but I think for the bigger guys it’s not really motivating. They’ve been there, they’ve won Masters, they’ve won Slams, so they don’t have a reason to go and play.
Will Murray find his magic in Miami?
Miami is a city that Andy Murray knows very well.
He spent several winters there putting himself through gruelling training blocks in a bid to be at peak fitness for the new season. He owned a property there until 2017 and in 2019 told his coaching team that he might feel better if he quit tennis due to the pain he was playing through.
He’s also won the Miami Open twice, but a third title this year seems unlikely as he enters as a wildcard and with only one ATP Tour win this season. He is determined, though, to prove he can still compete with the best players in the world.
Scotland's Andy Murray returns
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“I expect a lot better than what I produced in the three tournaments that I played so far. Certainly more consistency,” he told Prime Video.
I want to make sure I get on court with as many top players as possible in Miami, and I expect to perform much better on the court. I like the conditions there.
Murray has also said that he thinks his game is still good enough to win Wimbledon.
Can Rublev make the step up?
With four of the world’s top-six ranked men missing, who will lead the charge?
Alexander Zverev is coming off a victory in Acapulco while Aslan Karatsev continued his remarkable season by winning in Dubai and world No 2 Daniil Medvedev will be the top seed in the absence of Djokovic.
But Andrey Rublev could be one to watch.
He’s had a strong start to the year, going 13-2 with one title in Rotterdam, and looks primed to step up at a bigger event. He knows it’s an opportunity with several top players missing.
"I want to be as much ready as I can for Miami, because there’s going to be no Rafael Nadal, no Roger Federer and no Dominic Thiem,” he said in Dubai. "And in my case, all 1000s tournaments, I have no points there. So I can win a lot of points by winning a couple of matches, if I go further I can win a lot of points. So it’s a really great challenge for me."
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