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Road to the Open: Five things we learned from the U.S. spring swing

2016 Miami Open champion Victoria Azarenka (Getty Images)
Photo by:  (Getty Images)

Is it a bit early to anoint Victoria Azarenka and Novak Djokovic as the favorites at the 2016 US Open? Perhaps, but certainly, their respective sweeps of the U.S. spring hard-court swing – the Masters 1000/Premier Mandatory events in Indian Wells and Miami – bode well for summer success in New York.

Indian Wells and Miami are two of the biggest hard-court tournaments in the world, along with the US Open, Australian Open, Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati and the Rogers Cup in Canada. So the impressive sweeps are hard to ignore. Throw in that Indian Wells and Miami are held back to back and on opposite ends of the country – the dry California desert and the humid Florida beach – and it’s undeniably a difficult double to achieve.

So with that in mind, here is a closer look at the champions and a few other things we learned before the European clay-court season begins in earnest:

Azarenka and Djokovic are separating themselves from the pack: After a two-year absence, Azarenka is back on the short list of US Open title contenders. Djokovic never left.

Djokovic has now pulled off the BNP Paribas Open-Miami Open double for three consecutive years – an unprecedented accomplishment. In fact, since the launch of the Miami tournament in 1985, the only other man to sweep both tournaments on more than one occasion is Roger Federer, who did so in 2005 and 2006. To his credit, Djokovic has now done so four times, also accomplishing the feat in 2011.

Azarenka, meantime, is the first woman to win Indian Wells and Miami back to back since Kim Clijsters in 2005. Though, it should be noted, this is due in part to Serena Williams’ longtime boycott of Indian Wells, which ended just last year, and her dominance in Miami, where the Florida resident won eight titles (2002-04, 07-08, 13-15).

Djokovic has no peer: The ATP World Tour is solely the provenance of Djokovic right now. He has won four of the last five Grand Slam events and eight of the last 11 Masters 1000 tournaments to amass an astounding 16,540 tour ranking points – more than double the distant No. 2, Andy Murray, who checks in at 7,815. Essentially, that means Djokovic would be the No. 1 seed at the 2016 US Open even if he does not play again until Flushing Meadows.

The Serb’s dominance is even more pronounced on hard courts. He has captured five of the last six Australian Open titles and appeared in five of the last six US Open finals (winning two), in addition to winning four of the last six titles in Indian Wells and five of the last six in Miami.

At this point, the most likely question surrounding the world No. 1 this summer is whether he’ll be going for the calendar-year Grand Slam when he arrives in New York.

Azarenka is making up for lost time: Injuries took a toll on Azarenka’s 2014 and 2015 campaigns. In 2012-13, she won back-to-back Australian Open titles and reached consecutive US Open finals, but she hasn’t returned to a major semifinal since, with a handful of quarterfinal showings serving as her best finishes since the 2013 US Open.

That figures to change in 2016. She was playing spectacularly well in Melbourne before getting tripped by eventual champion Angelique Kerber, and her recent run in the U.S. boosted her ranking from No. 15 to No. 5. Without a lot of points to defend between now and Wimbledon, she is well within striking distance of No. 2.

A Top 4 ranking means Vika can avoid Serena Williams until at least the semifinals of the Slams, which is a welcome relief for tournament officials and a delight for tennis fans.

Wither Serena Williams?: It’s hard to quibble with runner-up showings at the Australian Open and Indian Wells, but for fans accustomed to a run of titles, it has been an unusually slow start to the year for Williams. She has yet to win a crown in 2016 and, in fact, has not hoisted a trophy since winning Cincinnati seven months ago.

For a woman with 69 career tour titles, it is a rare dry spell – made longer, of course, by her sitting out the rest of the season following last year’s US Open – and the air of dominance she established during her 2015 Grand Slam quest does not seem quite the same this year. Still, despite her loss in the Miami Open round of 16 to Svetlana Kuznetsova, her recent stumbles are hardly cause for panic. Serena has the will and ability to run off epic winning streaks at any time, and a few victories on the dirt this spring could change this narrative in a hurry.

Expect Serena to be a major factor this summer. And what tennis fan wouldn’t be rooting for a third installment of Serena-Vika at the 2016 US Open?

The next generation is starting to break through on the men’s side: Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Rafael Nadal have been so dominant for so long – with consistent veterans Stan Wawrinka, Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer right behind them – that there hasn’t been a lot of space for any up-and-comers at the top of the men’s rankings in recent years. The rising stars, however, are starting to make some noise.

Among the 20-somethings, 26-year-old Kei Nishikori reached the Miami final and the Indian Wells quarterfinals; 25-year-old Milos Raonic reached the Indian Wells final and the Miami quarters; 25-year-old Belgian David Goffin advanced to the semis in both Miami and Indian Wells; 22-year-old Dominic Thiem excelled post-Melbourne, with titles in Buenos Aires and Acapulco; and 20-year-old Nick Kyrgios made the Miami semis.

And among the teens, German wunderkind Alex Zverev dazzled in Indian Wells, defeating Top 20 player Gilles Simon and holding match points against Nadal in the round of 16; American Frances Tiafoe won a round in Indian Wells and stretched Goffin to a third-set tiebreak in Round 2; and fellow American Taylor Fritz qualified and reached the second round in Miami to rise to No. 79 in the world – he is the youngest player in the Top 100.

It may still be a stretch to see any of these talents unseating Djokovic at this year’s US Open, but don’t be surprised if a few of them are playing deep into the Flushing fortnight.

Novak Djokovic celebrates his victory at the 2016 Miami Open. (Getty Images)
Photo by:  (Getty Images)