One of the great unknowns of the 2018 ATP season is when 60 percent of the quintet known as the Big Four Plus Stan will regain full health… if that even happens.
Andy Murray’s goal is to be ready for Wimbledon. Stan Wawrinka and Novak Djokovic — unable to accomplish much of anything in March — would love to achieve something by early May, but shouldn’t be expected to. They merit trust, but require patience. Dominic Thiem’s health is in question in the weeks before the most important period of his year, the clay season. Kei Nishikori has a long way to go. David Goffin needs to heal his eye injury.
That is merely the first layer of injured ATP players. It doesn’t refer to non-star players who are injured. It also doesn’t refer to healthy players who are struggling to play well (cough, Grigor Dimitrov, COUGH).
As soon as Djokovic — clearly well below 100 percent — lost to Hyeon Chung in Australia and Rafael Nadal suffered his unfortunate injury in the quarterfinals of Melbourne against Marin Cilic, it should have become apparent to the men of the ATP Tour that the first half of the 2018 season was going to be one big grab bag of opportunity, one extended chance to take advantage of the depleted landscape.
As the Indian Wells-Miami double stack arrived, the tennis community wondered: Would ATP tennis descend into complete madness? Yes, the tour did not provide an abundance of compelling matches — the WTA is the far better product these days — but men’s tennis has not become the factory of random results many people had good reason to anticipate.
It is not the most surprising reality ever comprehended in human history, but it still rates as a curveball: Five men not named Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Nishikori, Goffin, or even Roger Federer have made quarterfinals in both Indian Wells and Miami. That fact in itself reveals a level of stability many didn’t predict (including me). Yet, what’s even more of a plot twist is that the identities of three of the five men point to a certain degree of staying power.
Juan Martin del Potro and Milos Raonic, when healthy, are quarterfinal- and semifinal-level players in major tournaments. They have both achieved quarterfinal doubles in Southern California and South Florida. Kevin Anderson stumbled in the months following his unexpected U.S. Open final last September, but since late February, he has regained his edge and has posted QFs on both American coasts in March. Those three men join 2018 risers Hyeon Chung and Borna Coric as quarterfinal conquerors of the Indian Wells-Miami test. Even in the case of Chung, one can identify a pattern of stability, given that Chung reached the semifinals in Australia and has steadily built on that run to remain a foremost shining star in the ATP firmament.
Even among quarterfinalists who can’t claim a pair of QFs in California and Florida this month, one can identify and admire the quality of resilience. Pablo Carreno Busta met Anderson in the U.S. Open semifinals. He reached the round of 16 in Indian Wells (where he lost to Anderson — one of them was going to make the quarters) and has now gone one step further. The two men who met in a major semifinal last summer in New York have pushed back against the notion that they would fall off the map. (This stands in marked contrast to Jack Sock and Grigor Dimitrov.)
Another quarterfinalist in Miami who is more than an accidental member of the final eight: Alexander Zverev. After months of dormant play and being stuck in mental sludge, the German — by no means a player to be trusted in big events (he has to earn that in the course of time) — is at least showing signs of a possible revival. He needs to be able to bring his A-game on a more regular basis, and everyone is waiting until the French Open to see if he can finally take the next step at majors, but this forward step in Miami is at least an emergence from the shadows of misery.
The only other quarterfinalist who hasn’t been mentioned to this point: John Isner. Like Zverev, he broke free from the chains of a slump in Miami, but he is not what one would view as an obscure Masters quarterfinalist. This is very familiar territory for him. His upcoming Miami quarterfinal will be his 14th Masters QF.
It is counterintuitive, at least to a certain extent: Despite the ATP undeniably becoming vast field of unpredictability following a Big Four golden age in which semifinal and quarterfinal spots were so constantly spoken for from one tournament to the next, there hasn’t been as much upheaval as one might think. The names occupying the fin. Yeal eight or four slots have changed, but they don’t change as often as they could. Players who did well in Indian Wells have backed up their results in Key Biscayne, and players who achieved breakthroughs at points in the 2017 season are not going away.
Yes, the Chung and Coric ascendancies put coats of very fresh paint on the ATP quarterfinals in Miami, but most of the men in the round of eight aren’t new kids on the block. They are (except for Isner) men who have either become high achievers in the past 12 months (Zverev with his two M-1000s, Anderson with his U.S. Open final and PCB not far behind with an ATP Finals alternate berth) or who once gained prominence before injuries got in the way (Delpo and Raonic).
Five men repeating as quarterfinalists in Miami after doing the same in Indian Wells? If the names came from the Big Four Plus Stan, no one would be surprised. They have come from an entirely separate group instead.
Who thought stability could exist in the ATP universe — albeit for only one month — without the names and faces we have become so accustomed to over the past 13 years?
One could have envisioned so many more random collections of ATP results in Indian Wells and Miami
Image taken from zimbio.com