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    Naomi Osaka Finds New Motivation Despite a Loss in Miami

    A couple of years ago, Naomi Osaka told Iga Swiatek she was too good to quit tennis. On Saturday, Swiatek proved her right.MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — A little more than two years ago, over dinner during the Australian Open, Iga Swiatek told Naomi Osaka that she wasn’t sure a career in tennis was going to go her way, so she was thinking of going to college. Osaka, who was 22 then and had already won two Grand Slam titles, told Swiatek that was a terrible idea. You’re really good, Osaka told Swiatek, who at the time was still cramming in high school homework. Don’t divert your energy to college just yet, Osaka advised.Swiatek took Osaka’s advice, and good thing she did. Nine months later she came out of nowhere to win the French Open while she was ranked 54th in the world. Saturday, in a clash of styles, narratives and friends in the finals of the Miami Open, Swiatek ended a run that Osaka hopes will mark the beginning of the next chapter of her turbulent career with a 6-4, 6-0 win to cement her remarkable rise to the top of her sport.Next week, Swiatek will officially take over the No. 1 ranking, the first player from Poland to rise to that lofty perch. As she held the winner’s trophy, Swiatek called Osaka “an inspiration” and said she would never have imagined when they were having that dinner that they might actually be playing each other for championships one day.“I think it’s the start of a great rivalry,” Swiatek said.For Osaka, this tournament marked a remarkable turnaround that few saw coming, even if she felt like it was not far off. Just three weeks ago at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, a lone heckler rattled her during her second round match, bringing her to tears and triggering memories of the racist treatment Serena and Venus Williams endured at the event two decades ago.But it also seemed to suggest that Osaka, who lost 6-0, 6-4 to Veronika Kudermatova that night, might not be up for the grind and pressures of the professional tennis tour after a year filled with breaks and setbacks, a disclosure of a yearslong struggle with her mental health and questions about whether playing tennis could ever make her happy.In South Florida though, her home for most of her childhood, a far-steelier Osaka took the court, and she played a lot like she had when she won four Grand Slam tournaments. She won eight consecutive sets on the way to a semifinal match in which she battled back against an opponent, Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, who had beaten her repeatedly for years.Osaka was once more ripping forehands through the court and coming up with unreturnable laser serves when she needed them most. Beyond the tennis, though, there has been a lightness to her experience. Even in defeat Saturday, she could not help but grin as the hometown crowd smothered her with cheers.They were never louder than when James Blake, the former pro and the tournament director for this event, gazed at Osaka during the awards presentation and said, “I can’t tell you how good it makes me feel to see you happy again.”Then it was Osaka’s turn. “I know I haven’t been in this position for a little while,” she told the crowd after her first final since the 2021 Australian Open. “The outcome wasn’t what you wanted, but hopefully I can keep working hard and be in a position to do this again soon.”Swiatek entered Sunday’s final on a 16-game win streak.Erik S Lesser/EPA, via ShutterstockIn the past, she would say later, she would be crying with disappointment following a day like Saturday. Instead, she experienced it as “a sad outcome but a fun day. “It’s cool to see where the level of No. 1 is and to see if I can reach that,” she said.In Swiatek, Osaka ran into a version of a player that didn’t exist when Osaka was last a mainstay of important tournaments.With the sudden retirement of Ashleigh Barty last week, Swiatek earned the No. 1 ranking, owing largely to a white-hot start to the year. Since her loss in the semifinal of the Australian Open, Swiatek has won three masters-level titles, in Doha, Indian Wells, and Miami, events that are just below the Grand Slams.Saturday’s final riding a 16-match winning streak. But it is the manner in which she has managed all the winning that has her opponents leaving the court with a dazed and glazed look in their eyes.Gone is the shaky mind that used to rattle after a handful of lost points or games or a set. She has evolved into a ruthless problem solver who tears through opponents, especially in finals. She has seemingly gained a half-step — or maybe just a willingness to embrace the next level of fatigue — that allows her to extend points and force opponents to hit extra shots when they thought the point was over.She also is just about the only player in the world who can consistently pull off a kind of tennis magic trick when a ball comes rocketing across the net and lands inches from her feet. In a split second, Swiatek squats so low that her skirt is basically on the ground and fires a kind of swinging half-volley that allows her to go back on the attack. She seems to invent a new shot in every match these days. Saturday it was a back-spinning squash shot lob that landed within inches of the baseline.Osaka, who entered the tournament ranked 77th, had little to lose in the final. She had never lost the final of either a Grand Slam or a Masters 1000 tournament, but neither had Swiatek. Osaka positioned herself several steps into the court on Swiatek’s second serve, trying to rely on her quick hands and instinctive skill to punch the ball back and keep Swiatek off balance.The strategy never quite clicked. “I could never really figure out what to do,” Osaka said.Swiatek never faced a break point, and she had Osaka on the defensive from the start. It took Osaka 11 minutes to hold her serve in the first game. On the afternoon, she won nearly two-thirds of the points on her first serve, which hovered in the neighborhood of 120 m.p.h., but just one-third of those on her second, which was often in the mid-70s.Osaka’s next move will be closely watched. The clay court season in Europe is fast approaching. Clay has long been her worst surface. Grass is no picnic for her either. But she said she will travel to Europe later this month to prepare for the Madrid Open, and has an extra week of preparation built into her schedule. After months of questioning what she wanted from her tennis life, she desperately wants to do well, she said. She wants to be seeded for the French Open, which would likely mean being around the top 30. And she wants to be in the top 10 by the end of the year and reclaim the top ranking next year. “It feels kind of good to chase something,” she said. “That is a feeling I have been missing.” More

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    With Biggest Stars Absent, Miami Open Serves Up Some Chaos

    Top men’s seeds and Naomi Osaka fell earlier than expected, but there was some normalcy: Ashleigh Barty won in women’s singles, successfully defending her title.MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — So what exactly happened at the Miami Open over the past two weeks?Other than the top-seeded Ashleigh Barty walking away with the women’s singles title, something like tennis chaos unfolded at the only significant tournament in North America until August.Where to begin? Naomi Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam event winner, lost a match for the first time in more than a year, and on a hardcourt, a surface it seemed she might never lose on again. After the men’s Big Three — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — skipped this tournament, Jannik Sinner of Italy and Hubert Hurkacz of Poland, close friends and doubles partners, dueled in their first ATP Masters 1000 final. Hurkacz blew past Sinner, a player experts have tapped to be an eventual No. 1, 7-6 (4), 6-4.Barty and Bianca Andreescu, who won Grand Slam events in 2019 but barely played in 2020, gave notice they were just about fully back as they met for the first time in the women’s singles final. A 20-year-old with top-class tennis DNA named Sebastian Korda, the son of the former world No. 2 Petr Korda, made the final eight and was the last remaining American.The top two men’s seeds, Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, lost in the quarterfinals. Alexander Zverev, the No. 3 seed, lost in the second round after having a bye in the first. Andrey Rublev was the only player in the top 10 of the ATP Tour rankings to make the semifinals, where he lost to Hurkacz in straight sets.Simona Halep, the No. 3 women’s seed, and Sofia Kenin, the No. 4 seed, each won just a single match, and Maria Sakkari, the No. 23 seed, served a bagel to Osaka in the first set of her 6-0, 6-4 quarterfinal win.In short, Miami provided a glimpse of a tennis future that does not include Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Serena Williams, who withdrew from the event after oral surgery: a sport of surprise and entropy.“Everyone can win now,” Rublev said after his quarterfinal win over Korda. “It’s not about ranking.”Rublev was talking about the tournament’s final rounds, but he could have meant the sport. Djokovic and Nadal are still nearly indomitable at big events, but when they skip one, all bets are off. (Federer, 39, has played just one tournament since his two knee operations last year.)Bernard Tomic of Australia said earlier this year that there was not much difference between a player ranked 60 and one ranked 250. It sounded strange, but now seems prescient.Aslan Karatsev, a Russian qualifier, made the semifinals of the Australian Open. Juan Manuel and Francisco Cerundolo, two brothers from Argentina who are ranked outside the top 100, made the finals of tournaments in South America, with Juan Manuel winning a title. Lorenzo Musetti, 19, an Italian ranked 94th, knocked off two players in the top 16 at the Mexican Open.Musetti, though, is only the second-best 19-year-old Italian at the moment: Sinner, the son of a cook and waitress and a surprise semifinalist at the French Open last year, is staking his claim as one of the brightest young players in the game.“He has everything,” Roberto Bautista Agut, the veteran from Spain, said of Sinner after losing to him in three sets in the semifinals. “Big serve. Tall. Moves well. Very good groundstrokes. Mentally great, and he’s improving.”Sinner is 6 feet 2 inches with long arms and legs that make him seem taller, and he has that priceless ability to pivot from defense to offense from nearly anywhere on the court and when his opponent least expects it. On three occasions against Bautista Agut, it looked like Sinner was about to wither, especially when he was down a set and three break points at 3-3 in the second set. Instead, he knotted the game with two winners, including a risky, floating crosscourt backhand that nicked the outside of the line.“Every match has a story,” Sinner said after that win. Later, he said, “Sometimes a few points can decide a match.”Ashleigh Barty, above, played Bianca Andreescu for the first time on Saturday, and beat her in the Miami Open final when Andreescu retired in the second set.Lynne Sladky/Associated PressThe Miami Open was an opportunity to show on a big stage what tennis could eventually look like.“I knew when Novak, Rafa, Roger and Dominic Thiem said they were not going to play, some of the younger guys would have a chance to play really deep,” said Hurkacz, 24, a lanky, pigeon-toed big server who has won two tournaments this year.Hurkacz, who often trains in Florida, was seeded 26th here, but he beat players seeded second, fourth, sixth and 12th in five days. He came back from a set and a service break down to Tsitsipas on a brutally hot day in the quarterfinal; outslugged Rublev in a gutsy performance, on a cool night in the semifinal; then knocked off the game’s latest boy wonder on a bright and breezy Easter afternoon.Sinner served for the first set at 6-5, but Hurkacz broke him at love. Then a series of errors allowed Hurkacz to cruise through the tiebreaker. Hurkacz frustrated Sinner with a serve that kept kicking up above his eyes, and two early service breaks in the second set made the final result come fast.Before the match, Sinner had begged off anointing himself the next big thing in tennis, cautioning that a good 10 days in Miami guaranteed nothing. “The road is long,” he said. “I know that. My team knows that.”Barty, 24, and Andreescu, 20, also know that. The two young Grand Slam champions had never played head-to-head before Saturday’s final, though the showdown proved an anticlimax. Andreescu, who struggled to find her rhythm against Barty’s relentless groundstrokes, appeared to roll her foot and ankle while down, 2-0, in the second set and defaulted two games later, giving Barty her second consecutive Miami Open title, 6-3, 4-0.Barty, the world No. 1 from Australia, opted not to play when tennis returned last August, because of her country’s strict quarantine requirements for anyone returning home during the pandemic. She played little tennis in 2020 from March until October, when she began to prepare for the Australian summer of tennis. She kept her top ranking only because of a pandemic rule change that allowed players to maintain their points from 2019.She won a tuneup for the Australian Open, but lost in the quarterfinals of the Grand Slam event and in the first round of a tournament the next week. Barty has gained confidence. In Miami, she barely used the slices she tends to hit when she loses her edge. She does not plan to return to Australia until the fall so she can avoid the country’s mandatory two-week lockdown for international arrivals.“I knew eventually I would find it,” Barty said of her form and the patience with which she approached her return to the game. “I knew it might not be in the third week or the 10th week or the 20th week.”Andreescu, a Canadian, caught the injury bug shortly after winning the 2019 United States Open. It kept her from last year’s summer and fall events. In Australia, she showed flashes of her shotmaking prowess but was too inconsistent to play deep into events. In Miami, she prevailed in four three-set matches to make the final, surviving a third-set tiebreaker in the semifinal against Sakkari that finished past midnight. Then came another injury, a final twist in this strange tournament.She tried to play through the pain, but eventually gave in to her trainer, Abdul Sillah, who urged her from courtside not to risk further damage. “Abdul basically saved me from myself,” said Andreescu, who crouched and cried when she knew the end had come.With the Miami tournament over, the tours are planning to shift to the clay- and grass-court seasons in Europe, but events there are shrouded in uncertainty. Italy and France are in various stages of lockdowns as the European Union struggles to distribute the coronavirus vaccines. While organizers say the tournaments, the Italian Open and the French Open, which is the next Grand Slam event of the year, remain on track, it’s not clear whether government officials will allow them to take place.While Nadal and Djokovic will no doubt quickly attempt to restore order, Federer has yet to say how much clay-court tennis he will play. His focus, he has said, is being healthy for Wimbledon.Osaka, the winner of two of the last three Grand Slam events, has never won a tournament on those surfaces, leaving the door open for any number of her competitors to catch up to her.“I have more freedom on the clay and grass because I am still learning a lot,” Osaka said last week.In other words, expect more chaos. More

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    In Tennis, Tough Decisions as Players Adjust to Shrunken Paydays

    With less money to be won, many players are working harder than ever, especially those not lucky enough to have million-dollar endorsement portfolios.Lloyd Harris has been on a bit of a roll this year.It’s a good thing, too, because if the 24-year-old from South Africa weren’t, he might be having a hard time breaking even as a professional tennis player these days. Even with his recent success — which includes making the third round of the Australian Open in February, the final of the Dubai Tennis Championships last month, and the second round at the Miami Open last week — his earnings are hardly the windfall they might have been, because prize money in his sport has been substantially downsized during the coronavirus pandemic and expenses are higher than ever.Harris, ranked No. 52 in the world, probably will not be able to go home until November. So he has to support himself on the road and pay for his usual coaching and physiotherapy, expenses that can run into the high six figures for a player of his caliber.“It was definitely tough last year,” Harris said last week after a tight first-round win over Emilio Nava. “This year, with the prize money being so reduced, it can really be a struggle.”Professional tennis may be the most economically top-heavy sport in the world. The best players are fabulously wealthy, in part because of lavish endorsement deals, and any player ranked in the top 30 lives very well.For those ranked between roughly 40th and 70th, a bad few months can cause serious problems. Life for those outside the top 80, and especially outside the top 100, can be precarious.The pandemic has made things more challenging, as cuts in prize money at most tournaments make each win more essential for players fighting for the extra cash that comes with making each successive round.Ann Li of the United States, who is ranked 67th in the world, hustles to earn a living.Rick Rycroft/Associated PressAt the Miami Open, which concludes this weekend, more than 200 players have been vying for $6.7 million. That is among the largest prize purses outside the Grand Slam events and the tour finals, but it is down nearly 60 percent from 2019, when the purse was $16.7 million.Heading into the season, the men’s and women’s tours worked with the players and tournament executives to figure out how to share revenues in an environment where only a fraction of the usual number of tickets can be sold.The professional tours have tried to structure prize payments so that players eliminated in the early rounds can still make a decent wage.In Miami, making the second round yielded $16,000 for a player this year compared with nearly $30,000 in 2019, the previous time the tournament took place. The winners will receive just over $300,000, a healthy payday but down nearly 80 percent from 2019. The tours are helping smaller tournaments avoid deficits by funding prize purses through broadcast rights deals and cash reserves.“It’s obviously a very challenging period of time for everybody,” said Steve Simon, chief executive of the women’s professional tour, the W.T.A. “Our approach was how do we manage this so we have prize money levels in a manner that would support players and make sure our events can operate.”No one needs to take up a collection for players who advance deep into tournaments, but the economics of being a solid professional tennis player can be challenging.Depending on the country where a player lives, roughly 50 percent of income can go to taxes. A decent coach demands $50,000 to $100,000 a year plus travel costs. Fitness training and physiotherapy over an 11-month season can cost an additional tens of thousands of dollars.Danielle Collins, the 27-year-old American ranked 40th in the world, trained with a four-person team before the pandemic — a tennis coach, a hitting partner, a physiotherapist and a fitness coach. With the cuts in prize money, though, Collins is now training largely with her boyfriend, Tom Couch, who is her fitness coach.“We don’t have an organization that pays for coaches, and physios and nutritionists like we would if we were on a team,” she said. “We have financial responsibilities that we are 100 percent committed to. Having to manage through that with the pandemic and ongoing uncertainty and with the prize money reductions, it’s taken a toll.”Danielle Collins, ranked 40th in the world, has had to reduce her support staff.  She says some players may lose money by competing.Geoff Burke/USA Today Sports, via ReutersAlso, travel this year figures to be more expensive, given the restrictions and quarantine rules that can change from week to week and country to country.This month the professional tours will shift to the clay- and grass-court seasons in Europe until mid-July. In typical years, players might return home several times during that period, especially if they lose early in one tournament and have a two-week lag until the start of the next event on their schedules. That might prove difficult this year.“If you can get to Europe, you might just want to stay there,” said Ann Li, a 20-year-old American who recently broke into the top 100.Housing abroad is complicated. When players are eliminated from a tournament, they lose their free lodging until the next tournament starts.And the pandemic presents more than logistical challenges.“We’re always at risk of contracting the virus and being in a two-week lockdown in a city far away from home,” said John Isner, a veteran player from the United States. “To do that in an environment where the money is much less is very risky on our part.”There is little choice but to keep competing. Endorsement contracts are often laden with incentives that require players to enter a minimum number of tournaments and earn rankings points by advancing. Collins said these deals — New Balance and Babolat are her main sponsors — had helped sustain many players during the past year.“For players outside of top 100, they might have opportunities to play, but they are losing money by playing,” she said.Harris had to default his second-round match in Miami. In the coming weeks, he plans to use Dubai as a kind of base camp, because if he returned to his home in South Africa, where the virus has been prevalent, he couldn’t be sure which countries would permit him to enter later.He has won nearly $300,000 in prize money this year, bringing his career total to $1.5 million. That may sound like a lot, but Harris turned professional in 2016. He spent far more than he earned during his first four seasons. He was fortunate that his two sponsors, Lotto and Yonex, remained loyal as he grinded through the lower-tier tournaments.Now, after a busy winter, he is trying to set aside his desire for a break, particularly from the restrictions players must follow while competing.“Most of the guys on tour have been very selective about where they can play,” Harris said.But he is finally winning more than losing at the top level. He is climbing the rankings and making decent money. For better or for worse, after a short break, he plans to play on. More

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    A Big Tennis Tournament Is About to Happen in Miami. Really.

    The Miami Open is the lone significant North American tennis event before late summer, and a glimpse of what the sport might look like for the foreseeable future.There is a significant tennis tournament beginning its main draw in Miami this week. It is one of the most important annual events in the sport, attracting hundreds of players from all over the world, including multiple Grand Slam winners, competing for one of the largest prize purses of the year.So why doesn’t it feel that way?Maybe it’s because several of the biggest names in the sport — including the grand troika of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in the men’s game, plus Serena Williams — are skipping the event. Or because attendance will be limited to a maximum of 1,000 spectators a day, compared with nearly 400,000 over two weeks in 2019, despite state rules in Florida that would allow far more.Maybe it’s because the Miami Open is taking place without the opening act of the March winter hard court swing, the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., which officials in the state wanted no part of in the winter when infection rates were surging in Southern California.Or maybe it’s because the Miami Open is a microcosm of tennis in 2021 — an unpredictable puzzle of player scheduling, travel advisories and health precautions in a season that has forced players to set priorities in a way they never have before. Many, especially the biggest stars, now view tournaments not simply as a means to compete or a chance for a paycheck but for whether an event fits into their broader life.“It’s so many different reasons,” James Blake, the former player who is the tournament director in Miami, said when asked what has influenced players’ decisions to play or skip the event. “As a former tour player, I can tell you are programmed to want to compete against the best players in the world. That is always your main motivation.”Except when it isn’t. Williams withdrew Sunday, announcing she had not fully recovered from recent oral surgery. Djokovic, who is the top-ranked men’s player and recovering from a torn abdominal muscle, pulled out Friday afternoon. Djokovic’s management agency, the sports and entertainment conglomerate, W.M.E.-I.M.G., owns the Miami Open, but that was not enough for him to make the trip. He announced on Twitter that he had “decided to use this precious time at home to stay with my family. With all restrictions, I need to find balance in my time on tour and at home.”Daniil Medvedev, the world No. 2 and a 2021 Australian Open finalist, is playing, as are the rising stars Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev. But the women’s draw, which includes Naomi Osaka, Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep, may provide much of the heat.Nadal announced earlier this month that he was skipping Miami to continue healing his sore back and to prepare for the spring clay-court season, during which he usually excels.Roger Federer, the defending champion in Miami who returned to professional tennis earlier this month after two knee surgeries and a 14-month hiatus, said his goal is to be 100 percent healthy for Wimbledon in late June. A two-week jaunt to the United States for a single hard court event didn’t make sense. He also has not committed to playing much on clay this season.Roger Federer won’t be at this year’s Miami Open to defend his 2019 title.Rhona Wise/EPA, via ShutterstockAustria’s Dominic Thiem, the 2020 United States Open champion, is slumping and taking a pass. Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland, a three-time Grand Slam winner, said he was too tired. Nick Kyrgios lives in Australia, which has strict quarantine rules for travelers, and has yet to figure out how much tennis he wants to play this year.It is the new normal of tennis. To play or not to play is a complicated question, and an unexpected result of that is Miami foreshadows what tennis will look like eventually. No Big Three. No Serena Williams.“It’s always nice to have two of the biggest names in sports on your air, but there is so much talent out there and that gives the chance for different stories to be told,” said Ken Solomon, chief executive of The Tennis Channel, which will air 125 hours of live coverage of the event in the United States. “We get 128 phenomenal athletes competing in this thing, you don’t start thinking about who is not there.”For months in the United States, many sports have more or less proceeded, even as most people faced significant limitations on travel and contact with those outside their households. The N.F.L. held a Super Bowl with 22,000 fans, the N.C.A.A. started two Division I basketball tournaments with 132 teams from across the country descending on the Indianapolis and San Antonio regions, and hockey players scrap cheek-to-jowl on the ice every night.However, with Florida essentially ridding itself of most pandemic-related restrictions, the roles of have flipped. Players arrived in Florida during the past few days along with spring break revelers who are filling Florida’s beaches, bars and nightclubs. The players, who are used to indulging in Miami’s culture, restaurants and nightlife when they are not playing tennis, are living under strict guidelines that the men’s and women’s tennis tours created to keep them as safe as possible.During the tournament, they must live in one of two hotels for players and officials. Had she played, Williams could not have commuted from her home, roughly 75 minutes away. The players’ movement is limited to the tournament and the hotel. No ventures to Joe’s Stone Crab, South Beach or Coconut Grove until they’ve lost.“It does make it harder when you are part of the bubble,” Lauren Davis, the veteran U.S. player, said. “The experience is more draining. There is no outlet for the stress.”Miami Open organizers did not construct the temporary 14,000-seat court inside the Miami Dolphins’ stadium this year. The most important matches will take place on three smaller courts.Prize money has been slashed to $6.7 million from $16.7 million in 2019, though it is among the largest prize purses outside of the Grand Slams and the tour finals. Nearly everyone at the tournament site will have to wear a mask at all times, except for players while they are on the court.Crowds enter and exit South Beach in Miami during the spring break season.Calla Kessler for The New York TimesTennis will likely look this way for some time. The All England Club, the host of Wimbledon, announced last week that players will have to stay in specified hotels for the tournament, set to begin in late June, despite Britain’s success with its vaccine program. Crowd sizes will be reduced and spectators will not be able to line up during the day to search for a ticket.Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, ranked No. 5 on the men’s tour, said during last week’s tournament in Acapulco, Mexico, that the tour sorely missed Indian Wells this year because it gathers so many top players in front of rabid and casual tennis fans in the United States during the first half of the year. The opportunity to play in front of a crowd of any size — Acapulco allowed roughly 3,000 spectators for each session — had vastly enhanced the experience.“I feel really connected,” he said of the experience of playing in front of fans. “I feel like I can enjoy the game.”But the challenges of the pandemic have forced Tsitsipas and other players to focus almost entirely on larger tournaments for the time being, and the biggest stars to focus almost exclusively on the Grand Slams. Events like Miami may offer plenty of money and rankings points, but everything is just a little different this year. More