Miami: the lessons that we learnt

... before we slide onto the clay courts and build up to Roland-Garros.

John Isner Alexander Zverev Miami 2018.©AFP.
 - Alex Sharp

The “Sunshine Swing” has culminated in a mesmerising Miami Open. Before we slide onto the clay courts and build up to Roland Garros, here are the lessons that we learnt from the American east coast.

Stephens sparkles in the spotlight 

The big stage clearly doesn’t faze Sloane Stephens. 

A 100 per cent record in finals is impressive in anyone’s book.

Well, Stephens, who grew up playing on the courts at Key Biscayne, prevailed past Jelena Ostapenko 7-6(5) 6-1 at the Miami Open, to launch back into major contention on the WTA.

“I'm glad to be 6-0 in finals when it matters,” said the 24-year-old American, who had rows of friends and family in the stands whilst lifting the trophy on Saturday.

Since securing her maiden Grand Slam at the US Open in September, Stephens openly struggled for motivation and form with a 3-10 match record. 

However, en route to a first Premier Mandatory title, Stephens managed to return to her fearless heavy-strike game to oust four successive Grand Slam champions.  

Stephens, who debuts in the Top 10 this week, knocked out Garbiñe Muguruza, Angelique Kerber, Victoria Azarenka and Ostapenko in a flawless fortnight. 

“Oh my god that's really good. Everyone's always complaining that I play the easiest players when I win a tournament and I don't play anyone in the Top 10 and blah, blah, blah,” quipped the American. “Four Slam champions, that's pretty incredible.”

Stephens has booked a fourth-round ticket four times at Roland-Garros and will relish the challenge of the clay court campaign off the back of sunshine success.

With such a ‘big time’ mentality, Stephens will be a dangerous duel for any of the draw on the Parisian red dirt.

1997 is the ‘in’ year on the WTA 

Reigning Roland-Garros champion Ostapenko re-ignited her season, over-powering Petra Kvitova and clinching a two-tie-break triumph facing Elina Svitolina for a spot in the trophy showdown.

The amicable Latvian might have missed out on the silverware, but it’s a welcome return to form for the pocket powerhouse.

Remarkably, the world No. 5 joins Naomi Osaka and Daria Kasatkina in the 1997-born generation who have accounted for three of last month’s Premier Mandatory finalists.

Three captivating players and three prospects to keep an eye on in the clay season.

Jelena Ostapenko - Simona Halep, final 2017: the highlights

Hometown hero Isner proves window of opportunity

It’s currently a bizarre but intriguing landscape in the realm of men’s tennis.

Consider the Miami Masters; Roger Federer fell early to an inspired Thanasi Kokkinakis, Novak Djokovic made a sharp exit, Rafael Nadal was also absent alongside Andy Murray.

With the heralded ‘Big Four’ out, the prestigious Miami throne was very much up for grabs. 

Unsurprisingly his serve was relentless, but Isner appeared to be striking the hammerhead forehand with more conviction, he attacked returns and wasn’t scared to mix up the play in decisive moments. 

Entering the tournament off the back of just two singles wins all season, Isner beat then world No.2 Marin Cilic, fledging South Korean Hyeon Chung, before outgunning Indian Wells champion Juan Martin del Potro all in straight sets.

The towering 32-year-old hailed the “best moment of my career” having hauled back Next Gen leader Alexander Zverev 6-7(4) 6-4 6-4 in a pulsating finale, to become the oldest first-time Masters titlist since Ivan Ljubicic in 2010. 

The elder statesmen of the ATP Tour are being faced with a host of ‘Next Gen’ stars threatening to send them tumbling down the rankings, but Isner’s magical Miami run proves the established guard are willing to fight for supremacy and sense a window of opportunity without the ‘Big Four’ all firing on all cylinders.

Zverev building foundations for Grand Slam glory

Sascha Zverev has endured a turbulent beginning to 2018, with expectations magnifying his every move between the confines of a court.

Over to Miami and something clicked. The two-time Masters 1000 champion had extra fizz in his shots, engaged with the crowd regularly, whilst his retrieval and court speed were absorbing.

The 20-year-old survived a third set tie-break against Daniil Medvedev, before brushing aside the dogged David Ferrer, Nick Kyrgios, Borna Coric and Pablo Carreno Busta.

That’s a tough line-up in any tournament and despite the narrow loss on Sunday, it seems Sascha is back. A dark horse at Roland-Garros?

Coric and Azarenka are poised for promising campaigns

Back after child birth, Victoria Azarenka dusted off an early Indian Wells exit to remind everyone of her capabilities in Miami. 

Madison Keys fell, Anastasija Sevastova relinquished a set lead and Agnieszka Radwanska was defeated by the two-time Grand Slam champion in an enthralling match.

Stephens was too greater obstacle in both “Sunshine Swing” battles, but Azarenka instantly competed with elite players. That’s mightily impressive and the 2013 French Open semi-finalist could be a key contender to dismantle the draw in Paris once again this summer.

Over to the men’s side, Borna Coric appears to be a nightmare opponent and he’s becoming even harder to put away.

He scampers from corner to corner with remarkable athleticism and wheeled to the Indian Wells semi-finals, which included leading eventual finalist Federer by a set. In Miami, the 21-year-old went the distance with Denis Shapovalov and gave Zverev a stern test.

Entrenched in the Top 40, nobody will fancy tackling the combative Croatian on clay.

Nole needs inspiration on road to Roland-Garros

Former world No.1 Novak Djokovic is seeking a spark following the departure of Andre Agassi from his coaching set-up.

Back from an injury-blighted 2017, the 12-time Grand Slam champion has slumped to three successive defeats for the first time since 2007. 

His 6-3 6-4 lacklustre loss to Benoit Paire in Miami encapsulated his disjointed game. 

“I'm not at the level that I used to be. I just have to obviously believe in myself and hopefully it will come,” said a despondent Djokovic. “I'm trying to figure things out.”

Will the Serbian recapture his scintillating best on the clay courts?

Novak Djokovic - Andy Murray, final 2016: highlights