Linda Robertson

Linda Robertson: Fab Four minus one still makes for epic Miami Open men’s draw

Rafael Nadal signs autographs at the Miami Open in Key Biscayne on Tuesday, March 24, 2015.
Rafael Nadal signs autographs at the Miami Open in Key Biscayne on Tuesday, March 24, 2015. El Nuevo Herald

The Fantastic Four will not be gracing the field of the Miami Open this year. Tennis fans will be denied the pleasure of watching the maestro — Roger Federer — perform.

So South Florida’s “Fifth Slam” gets three-quarters of the protagonists of this Golden Age of men’s tennis. That’s still quite a bonanza, and one which should not be taken for granted despite the predictability of their dominance.

Savor the epic while you can, right here at the Tennis Center at Crandon Park, because who knows when the sport will see such bright stars align again?

Novak Djokovic arrives as leader of the pack at No. 1 in the world, winner of the Australian Open and defending Miami champion. Rafael Nadal is No. 3 behind Federer, is almost back in relentless Rafa form, and hungry to claim the title he lost in rather helpless fashion to Djokovic last year. Andy Murray, at No. 4, was vanquished by Djokovic in the Australian Open final and eager to win a Grand Slam in 2015. Federer chose to skip the event to give himself more time to prepare for the clay court season.

To contemplate how consistently the Big Four have ruled tennis is to shake one’s head and smile. Since 2010 in 21 Grand Slam finals, Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Murray have appeared 36 times, meaning only six other men have crashed the four-man party (Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic).

“The same players are achieving almost everything,” Nadal said recently at the Indian Wells (California) BNP Paribas Open. “That is something that I think has never happened in the history of our sport.

“Novak, Andy, Roger, myself — it’s something special. It’s something that is finishing. I don’t know if it will end in one, two, three, four years, but for everybody it finishes.”

Nadal was being honest and realistic, but it’s a melancholy thought. The Beatles gave us hit after hit and then all of a sudden, it was over. The Fab Four was no more.

While women’s tennis is still mainly a one-woman show starring Serena Williams and featuring too many one-sided matches, the men have given fans a long-running narrative of intense, intertwining rivalries.

Djokovic comes to Miami at the peak of his career. Physically, the lean Serb has never been fitter, and he manages to avoid the injuries that interrupt his peers. Mentally, he has an acuity he lacked in his early 20s that enables him to get back on track when he falters and outlast anyone. He defeated Murray for the sixth consecutive time, winning in 88 minutes in the Indian Wells semifinal, capitalizing on Murray’s unforced errors and capturing more than half the points on Murray’s serve. Then, he defeated Federer on Sunday to win Indian Wells for the second year in a row.

Djokovic married Jelena Ristic, whom he has known since high school, last year, and their son Stefan was born in October. Djokovic, 27, said fatherhood has rejuvenated him. He admires the relaxed attitude of Federer, 33, father of four.

“Getting married and becoming a father was definitely something that gave me a new energy, something that I never felt before,” Djokovic said after he beat Murray in four sets for the Australian Open title. “Right now everything has been going in such a positive direction in my life. I’m so grateful for that so I try to live these moments with all my heart.”

Nadal couldn’t overcome Milos Raonic’s powerful serve in the quarterfinals at Indian Wells. He’s on the upswing, though, after winning his first tournament in nine months at Buenos Aires in February.

Nadal, 28, won his ninth French Open last year, equaling Pete Sampras’ total of 14 Grand Slams. Then he lost in the fourth round at Wimbledon and missed the U.S. Open with a wrist injury. In the fall, he was hampered by appendicitis.

Nadal, who has looked tentative on the court, said he is slowly gaining his confidence back.

“I was able to be very focused, playing with positive energy for three hours, so that’s great news for me, because that’s the way I competed during all of my career,” Nadal said after his loss to Raonic.

Murray, 27, went Slam-less in 2014 — and didn’t even make a single Slam final. He needs to attain a higher level of consistency against the elite. He wants a breakthrough year, as his hold on the Big Four designation is the most fragile. He was optimistic after his loss to Djokovic on Saturday.

“So far this has been big progress from where I was at this stage last year,” he said.

Murray plans to marry longtime girlfriend Kim Sears on April 11 in the 1,000-year-old cathedral of Dunblane, Scotland, where he grew up. He has said he hasn’t decided whether he will wear a kilt.

As for the challengers, look for Canada’s Raonic, Japan’s Kei Nishikori and Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka to throw wrenches into the Miami Open bracket. You have to go all the way down to No. 20 to find the top American, John Isner, and the next three are Sam Querrey at 43, Steven Johnson at 44 and Donald Young at 47.

But it’s really time to watch the trio of Djokovic, Nadal and Murray — the Fantastic Four minus one — while you still can.

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