Tim Clement looks at Andy Murray's chances of defending his Maimi Masters title
By Tim Clement - Twitter: @SkyTimClement. Last Updated: 20/03/14 5:36pm
Andy Murray: Facing a tough ask in defending his Miami Masters crown
Andy Murray faces the toughest of tasks in defending his Miami Masters title, coming up against a near full-strength field without form or a coach on his side.
As his training base, the Tennis Centre at Crandon Park has typically been a happy hunting ground for the Scot, landing titles in 2009 and 2013 while also reaching the final in 2012.
However, the Wimbledon champion is 12/1 with Sky Bet to win here for a third time, having endured well below-par results since undergoing back surgery at the end of last year.
The bombshell news that he has split with Ivan Lendl, with whom he won a first Grand Slam, Olympic gold and Wimbledon, after a two-year partnership casts further doubts over his chances.
Having slipped down to sixth in the world and with 19 of the 20 top-ranked players in attendance, it is always going to be a tough task, but being placed in Novak Djokovic's quarter serves as a further blow.
The Serb has endured his own troubles this year but ended his wait for a first title in Indian wells by beating Roger Federer in three sets on Sunday, although that triumph raises more questions than it answers over his partnership with Boris Becker.
Marian Vajda, under whom Djokovic has won all of his tour-level titles, was back in the players' box as part of his reduced schedule, making things somewhat awkward as Becker resumes his duties in Miami.
Djokovic is considered 7/4 favourite as he chases a fourth title here while Rafael Nadal follows closely behind at 9/4, despite never having won the season's second Masters event before and suffering a shock early exit in California.
Roger Federer is next in line at 6/1 as he continues to look a rejuvenated force, having reached a semi-final, two finals and lifted one title from his four events in 2014. A run which has seen him climb back up to fifth in the world.
After seeing two of the traditional 'big four' meet in the Indian Wells final, it would take a brave punter to look beyond the favourites, with mixed form following Stanislas Wawrinka, David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych into the tournament, while Juan Martin del Potro sits out another event due to his ongoing left wrist problem.
The courts at the Crandon Park Tennis Center are Laykold Cushion Plus, which is classified at 'category 2 - medium-slow' with the ITF, explaining why Djokovic and Murray have been so successful here, winning five of the last seven editions.
In contrast to the relentless dry heat in the Indian Wells desert, rain has already disrupted qualifying while further showers are forecasted in patches throughout the event. The added moisture in the air makes balls fluff up quicker and get heavier, meaning slower and lower bounces.
With Nadal and Federer absent, Murray claimed his second title here with a gruelling final victory over Ferrer. Tommy Haas did the Scot a significant favour in ousting Djokovic in the fourth round before bowing out to Ferrer, who pushed Murray hard before eventually going down 2-6 6-4 7-6.
The Serb has endured an uncharacteristically slow start to his campaign, suffering his first quarter-final exit in 15 Grand Slams at his most successful one, the Australian Open. Results have gradually improved since, losing to Federer in the Dubai semis before avenging that defeat two weeks later in California. It comes as no coincidence that a change of coaching set up has occurred at the same time and Vajda's absence here is a concern, with Becker yet to oversee a title. It might be suggested that the Indian Wells title paves over some worrying cracks still on display, with four of his matches going to three sets. Last year's defeat to Tommy Haas ended hopes of a third successive title here and a fourth in total, with the slower conditions normally perfectly complementing his game.
In the extraordinary career of the 'King of Clay', the start of this season has been somewhat of an anti-climax. The Spaniard battled rather than bulldozed his way to the Australian Open final before being struck by a back problem, while he also had to save match points against Pablo Andujar en route to a seemingly routine Rio Open title. Last week's third-round upset at the hands of Alexandr Dolgopolov was about as inexplicable as tennis results get, with Nadal previously enjoying conditions in Indian Wells more than any other hard court event and winning all five previous meetings with the Ukrainian in straight-sets. In contrast, he has never triumphed in Miami, losing finals in 2008 and 2011 but missed the last two instalments. The world No 1 is probably the main benefactor of the draw, with Milos Raonic now the top-ranked player in his quarter following Del Potro's withdrawal and Wawrinka seeded second in their half.
As aforementioned, Federer's results have greatly improved this year with his new racquet and coach having the desired effect. The Swiss star looks comfortable in his game again and it took some of Djokovic's best returning to end a 33-game unbroken streak in California. When able to stay aggressive, the Swiss star is playing as well as anyone on tour but Djokovic and Nadal have both been able to drag him down into baseline battles this year, from which there is only one outcome. Federer boasts a relatively modest record here, having failed to lift the trophy since back-to-back successes in 2005/06, while at 32 it remains to be seen whether going the distance in successive events will take a toll.
The disrupting influence of parting company with Lendl should not be underestimated given the importance of stability in such a mentally-demanding sport. Sky Bet reacted to the news by pushing the Scot out from 10/1 to 12/1 for the title, shorter than Wawrinka is to retain his Australian Open crown. The Scot is not currently considered in the same vein as Djokovic and Nadal, having bowed out of the last four events to players outside the top 10, despite claims that he is back to full fitness. If there's a place for Murray to regain his best form then it is at his second home in Miami. Whether he is mentally in the right place remains to be seen.
Best of the rest
Murray should arguably fall into this category at the same odds as and Wawrinka (201/) but we'll allow him some respect for rewriting the British tennis history books. Wawrinka has some way to go in doing the same for Swiss tennis and he is yet to win a single Masters title, while he went out at the same stage as the Scot in Indian Wells. Whether he can become a regular contender for the big titles at 28 is up for debate but the slower conditions here are unlikely to help. Likewise, Berdych (14/1) is a contender to go deep from the second quarter but cannot be touched without each-way cover, with Marin Cilic (33/1) and John Isner (50/1) making up a power-packed section. In Federer's quarter, Ferrer (40/1) is given little chance of going the distance again here as he returns from injury, while Grigor Dimitrov (50/1) has a good chance of a quarter-final run.
In all honesty I was considering tipping up Murray with Lendl expected to be back in his corner and the conditions perfectly complimenting his game. However, with confidence the key to him returning to form further doubts surround his chances. Djokovic's coaching situation raises similar concerns but the Serb possesses greater mental resolve and, even if he continues to play below par, can grind it out in the slower conditions. Going on a 'horses for courses' logic, the winner will come from that fourth quarter. However, each-way options are apparent elsewhere, with Berdych a finalist here in 2010 and well rested following his early exit in Indian Wells.
Trading Views Podcast
Tim is joined by Sky Sports tennis pundit Barry Cowan to for a Miami Masters preview podcast. Listen here: