Building an Empire

As television watchers in the U.S. tuned in by the millions to watch the season finale of the hit Fox show “Empire”, tennis watchers around the same time were also focusing on two very much for real rulers trying to extend their own reigns over the sport.

For current World No.1’s Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, the Indian Wells slash Miami swing last month provided neither “the ides of March” nor “March Madness” for either in terms of their hold over the top rankings. And while there was plenty of plot twists and surprises to discuss and debate after the end of both the T.V. show and respective tournaments, Djokovic and Williams, unlike the fictional Lyon family, remained very much in secure control over their respective kingdoms.

Williams, who made an emotional return to Indian Wells for the first time in 14 years, navigated her way into the semifinals. While the title looked hers for the taking, a knee injury forced her out not only of an anticipated semifinal meeting with Romania’s Simona Halep but the event as well. Halep went on to win the title, her biggest so far. But a few weeks later she finally did get her hoped for rematch against Williams who she beat in Singapore at the end of last year.

The down to the wire semifinal, that felt like a final, went in favor of Williams who went on to win the actual final in a rout over Spain’s Carla Suarez Navarro a few days later. While Halep was proclaimed by many as the immediate new rival to the veteran Williams, in some ways it felt like she was the only player capable of any sort of rivalry based on results during the U.S. hardcourt swing.

Maria Sharapova lost earlier than expected in both events. Victoria Azarenka, who many thought would zoom back into the top ten right away during her comeback from injury, instead continues making slow yet not exactly steady strides. Agnieszka Radwanska, despite now being coached by the great Martina Navratilova, has yet to transform her game into something that can propel her back to the top. Young American Madison Keys, who reached the Australian Open semifinals, lost early too and later chalked some of that up to feeling the pressure to excel. Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard, picked by many to be the next great WTA superstar, has struggled with injuries and inconsistent results post-Melbourne.

With all this turmoil going on, the prevailing sentiment after Williams won her eighth Miami title was that the 33-year-old wasn’t just in a class of her own, but in a tour of her own. “Can anyone beat Serena at a Grand Slam?” said many. Several did last year before she won the U.S. Open. But, knee issues aside, Williams looks more confident and relaxed now entering the clay court swing than she did last year. Could an elusive calendar year Grand Slam be in reach for the woman who has won and achieved just about everything in the sport? Is Halep, last year’s Roland Garros finalist, really the only woman who can stop her? Or is it still a case of Williams only stopping herself from the ultimate feat?

Winning Indian Wells and Miami back to back is considered a near impossible achievement. But Djokovic has now done it three times in his career – yet another historic accomplishment. Not without difficulty this time though that included a scare from the always entertaining Alexandr Dolgopolov. Djokovic then faced off against familiar rival Andy Murray in the final.

This once close rivalry is now in favor decidedly in the Serb, who after running away with a bagel third set, closed out his seventh straight win against the Scot that includes the recent Australian Open title. While Murray certainly has to be happy to be inside the top four again, the fact that he hasn’t managed a win over Djokovic since the 2013 Wimbledon final, has to be a major cause for concern.

The other big news out of Miami was Rafael Nadal’s unexpected early exit at the hands of fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco. Later, Nadal attributed some of the loss due to “nerves” and not feeling 100% confident of late in recent matches. While what exactly Nadal meant was widely interpreted, some of it may have to do with Nadal’s often ongoing injury woes throughout his career and perhaps the constant fear he may feel when he feels a twinge in his body during a match and thinks, “Is something breaking again?”

While Nadal is expected to rebound once he hits the clay courts again very soon, what does Djokovic think about all of this? Especially if he hopes to win that elusive Roland Garros title. Djokovic has gotten close several times only to lose to Nadal. If they should meet again in the Paris final, will it really all come down to mental fortitude other than physical endurance that so often determines the last man standing on the terre battue, literally.

The TV show “Empire” is all about music, family, and they how intersect, and often don’t. Djokovic, now a new father, often talks about his young son and how he’s had to adjust his schedule accordingly. Williams, long known for her outside interests off-court, still manages time to post the occasional music video and appear on the cover of fashion magazines, as she did recently for “Vogue”. Yet make no mistake, both Djokovic and Williams are still keeping their main focus on their tennis careers. They are still the players to beat this season and don’t look ready to give up their crowns anytime soon.

For those fans of “Empire” looking for something to watch now that the show is on a break till next season, they could no wrong then tune in to seed if both Djokovic and Williams can lift the famed French Open trophies a few months from now.

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