What do the Miami victories by Djokovic and Azarenka portend?

While Novak Djokovic is confident of winning at Roland Garros, the only Grand Slam he hasn’t captured, Victoria Azarenka, who is all fired-up, could pull it off among the women.

Novak Djokovic equalled Andre Agassi's men's record of six Miami titles.   -  AP

Stanislas Wawrinka looks like the only player who can upset Djokovic at Roland Garros.   -  AP

Serena Williams hasn't won a title since last August.   -  AP

Never before has a player been so heavily favoured to win a Grand Slam tournament that he’s never won before.

It’s a tribute to Novak Djokovic’s near-total domination of men’s tennis that Ladbrokes bookmakers give him 8-11 odds to capture the French Open. Following far behind are 4-1 Rafael Nadal, the nine-time champion at Roland Garros, and 8-1 Stan Wawrinka, the defending champion. Legendary 17-time major titlist Roger Federer and No. 6-ranked Kei Nishikori, who reached his only major final in 2014, are virtual longshots at 20-1.

When Djokovic disposed of Nishikori 6-3, 6-3 in the Miami Open final, a fortnight after he routed Milos Raonic 6-2, 6-0 in the Indian Wells final, the 28-year-old Serb broke, extended, or tied several records. That’s what superstars in their primes do.

Djokovic eclipsed Nadal’s record of 27 Masters 1000 titles and Federer’s career prize-money record of $97,855,881.

He also became the first player — male or female — to capture the Indian Wells and Miami crowns in the same season four times, twice that of the second placed Federer and Steffi Graf. And he equalled Andre Agassi’s men’s record of six Miami titles.

“Amazing is everywhere on the ATP World Tour” is the slogan on its new TV commercial, which highlights sensational shots by its stars. But Djokovic’s record, even more than his routinely high-calibre shots, is what is truly amazing.

For starters, Djokovic ranked No. 1 in four of the past five years and has already raced off to a 28-1 record this year, his only loss being a retirement in the Dubai quarterfinals due to an eye infection. Since the start of 2015, he’s a stupendous 110-7 overall, and he’s won 12 straight matches against top-10 opponents. And when the going gets tough, he gets tougher, grabbing the last 19 sets he’s contested in tournament finals. His 16,540 ranking points are more than double that of No. 2 Andy Murray’s 7,815.

In the spring of 2015, John McEnroe said, “It seems that he’s inhuman, a machine that’s unbeatable.”

Since then, the Djokovic machine has become even more efficient and devastating. Last year, Djokovic’s aggressive yet consistent serve return, the most important and remarkable cog, accounted for his ranking No. 1 in three key statistics: return games won (34%, tied with David Ferrer), points won returning 1st serve (34%, tied with Ferrer), and points won returning 2nd serve (57%). These stats are even more impressive considering Djokovic played more total matches (87), as well as more tough quarterfinal, semifinal, and final matches (12) at Grand Slam events against elite opponents, than any other player.

 

In the finals of the three most prestigious tournaments so far this year, the Djokovic machine has continued to steamroll. That’s especially true for service breaks, the category that separates him from the rest. He broke Andy Murray’s serve four times in his decisive 6-1, 7-5, 7-6 Australian Open victory, Raonic’s rocket serve an astounding five of seven times at Indian Wells, and Nishikori’s serve in five of nine service games in Miami.

Despite the 8-1 odds, Wawrinka looks like the only player who can upset Djokovic at Roland Garros. Before the Miami final, ESPN analyst Darren Cahill asserted, “You cannot go through Novak with pure offence.” Yet, that is exactly what Wawrinka did when he overpowered the Serb 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 in the 2015 French final on relatively slow red clay.

Are there any other legitimate contenders at Roland Garros?

The Nadal clay dynasty is done. It was enthralling while it lasted, and happily, it lasted a long time. From 2005 to 2014 the Spanish matador conquered Paris nine times, a record that will never be broken.

Since then, the Rafa forehand that blasted winners from seemingly everywhere and was rarely out-steadied misfires all too often. The blazing foot speed has lost a half step, maybe even a full step, and when he turns 30 on June 3, he may not even be alive in the tournament. A quiet, resigned demeanour has frequently replaced the fiery face, fist pumps, and shouts of “Vamos!” during his salad days.

Nadal has dropped his last six encounters with Djokovic without winning a set. The downward trend was lowlighted by a dispiriting 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 quarterfinal setback at the 2015 French Open. This year Nadal lost three-set matches on clay to No. 19 Dominic Thiem and No. 45 Pablo Cuevas.

Don’t count on Murray to win Roland Garros either. Djokovic has won 11 of their last 12 matches and all four career matches on clay, though Murray did extend him to the fifth set at the French Open last year. The tantrum-prone Brit has neither the fighting spirit nor stamina to prevail in clay marathons.

A freak knee injury Roger Federer suffered while walking his twin daughters in the park in Melbourne sidelined him from Indian Wells, and then an intestinal bug kept him out of Miami. Lacking match play, Fed will likely use the clay court season chiefly to prepare for Wimbledon, which he’s won seven times.

Nishikori has never advanced past the quarters in Paris. The Japanese star has the ground game and speed but not the defensive tactics and skills indispensable on clay. “Kei isn’t comfortable playing defence,” ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert rightly noted during Nishikori’s error-prone Miami final. “He should play higher shots (on the dead run).”

Although Roland Garros remains the only major Djokovic hasn’t captured, he’s been a runner-up thrice and a semifinalist four times there and also won seven Masters 1000 titles on clay. This year he’ll approach RG not with desperation — he’ll have a few more chances — but with the perfect mental game to complement his formidable physical and technical skills. He trains hard and competes hard. He’s confident but not over-confident. As Cahill pointed out, “Novak is just not taking anything for granted. As good as he is and as far ahead of the competition as he is, every match he plays means an enormous amount to him. That’s what it means to be No. 1 in the world. I give him full credit for the way he’s managing his career.”

Azarenka overcomes adversity

Victoria Azarenka also deserves full credit for reviving her career. The 26-year-old Belarusian’s completion of the Sunshine Double, back-to-back titles at Indian Wells and Miami, was even more remarkable than Djokovic’s considering the adversity she’s overcome.

A serious knee injury forced former No. 1 Azarenka to withdraw from the 2013 Wimbledon. A foot injury which sidelined her for five months in 2014 and her break-up with musician Redfoo induced depression. Her ranking plummeted to No. 48. Despite tough draws and three close losses to Serena Williams in 2015, she gradually rose to No. 22 by the end of the year.

 

In a candid Dec. 31, 2015 piece on SI.com titled “From the Players’ Box with Victoria Azarenka,” she discussed her chronic foot problem and how it hampered her performance. “I’ve had a problem in my foot for as long as I can remember,” she revealed. “Because of the pain that the injury has given me over time, I changed the movement of my foot. I forgot how to plant and push off my foot the right way because I was always overcompensating for the pain.

“The correct way to change direction is to push off from your heel to the middle of your foot and then push off from there and through your toes,” she explained. “I didn’t have this movement in my repertoire any longer. So the challenge for the off-season was to learn this movement from scratch and try to re-program my body to do it properly going forward.”

The psychological challenge proved just as daunting. “When we first started working on this movement, I had many thoughts going through my head: Damn, I am slow? What am I going to do if I don’t get this right? Is it hurting again? I think I am feeling the pain... but is it in my foot or in my brain? Is it real pain? Or am I just afraid? Let’s be super careful, O.K.? I don’t want to feel this pain again. I feel like I am walking on glass — is it all in my head?”

 

Fortunately, the footwork exercises and drills paid off. She steadily regained the speed, balance and agility that enabled her to win two Australian Open titles and reach U.S. Open finals in 2012 and 2013. The extremely ambitious and determined Azarenka wrote, “I’m not trying to get back to where I used to be. I am here to push myself to become better, to get to where I have never been before.”

The results came immediately this year. Azarenka took the Brisbane International without surrendering a set, knocking off Angelique Kerber in the final. It marked her first WTA title since winning the Cincinnati Masters in August 2013. Though Azarenka failed to convert five set points and lost 6-3, 7-5 to eventual champion Kerber in the Australian Open quarterfinals, her comeback momentum accelerated.

A month later at Indian Wells, the 13th-seeded Azarenka upset Serena 6-4, 6-4 in the final for only her fourth victory in 21 matches against her nemesis. That prompted former superstar and ESPN analyst Chris Evert to say, “Women’s tennis needs a little shot in the arm right now. We finally could have a rivalry this year.”

With ruthless and relentless efficiency, the resurgent Azarenka then conquered Miami without giving up a set. She edged fourth-seeded Garbine Muguruza 7-6, 7-6, overpowered fast-rising Johanna Konta 6-4, 6-2 and outplayed Kerber 6-2, 7-5 to avenge her Aussie Open loss. In the final, she displayed a devastating Djokovic-like serve return — smacking 93% of them from inside the baseline — to break Svetlana Kuznetsova’s serve all five times in the first set en route to a decisive 6-3, 6-2 triumph.

“Vika is definitely back,” enthused ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez. “Mentally, she’s stronger, she’s confident. She’s playing the best since she was No. 1 in the world. She’s on a mission. She wants to get back to No. 1. She wants to win more majors. And let me tell you, she’s taking all the right steps to achieve that.”

In nine appearances, Azarenka has never advanced past the semis at the French Open. She knows she needs to improve her sliding, patience and second serve. But don’t tell her she can’t win it.

“I am definitely motivated for the clay season,” Azarenka said. “I’ve always liked to prove people wrong. It motivates me. When people say clay is not my favourite surface, I’m going to work hard to make sure it’s my favourite surface. I will do the work. Do the adjustments. I’m looking forward to going after it.”

Azarenka’s current competition isn’t exactly overwhelming. Slumping Serena hasn’t won a title since last August, while two-time French champion Maria Sharapova is provisionally suspended for taking a banned drug.

Simona Halep, the 2014 French finalist, too often falters under pressure. Lucie Safarova, the 2015 finalist, was sidelined by a bacterial infection for three months, and has lost the only four singles matches she’s played this year, in straight sets.

Belinda Bencic, the 19-year-old Swiss Miss ranked No. 10, isn’t quite ready to win a major. The moody Muguruza, who barked at her coach, “Tell me something I don’t know” during a match changeover, hasn’t made the semis in six events. And new No. 2 Kerber, only once a French quarterfinalist in eight tries, has already lost twice this season to Azarenka.

With such vulnerable competition, the in-form, fired-up Azarenka could pull it off.