Masters mini-Slam sweep a daunting task

The Indian Wells Masters 1000 is underway, and Miami follows immediately on its heels. Sweeping the two events is a major accomplishment (among the Big Four, only Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have done it). Call the accomplishment a Masters mini-Slam. The feat may not yield the same prestige as winning a Grand Slam title, but it does pay off with the same number of ATP ranking points (2000).

That raises two interesting questions: Who’s got the best shot at completing a North American Masters mini-Slam, and who’s got the most to gain from doing it?

Let’s start with Federer: The guy has been saying all the right things about his motivation and his new racket. Besides, he’s still the only man to have accomplished the mission in back-to-back years (2005 and ’06). A hat trick on the U.S. hard courts would be a second cherry on top of his Masters resume.

As little as two weeks ago, the very idea of Federer slashing his way to the title at Indian Wells and Miami seemed untenable to all but the most blinkered of his fans. Then he won Dubai last week, with back-to-back wins over Djokovic and Tomas Berdych. Federer has shown, once again, that you count him out at your peril.

The answer to the second question is a little more complicated. How much success does Federer need or crave? And what real motivation does he have to go big at this point in the year?

Granted, a Federer revival that leaves him with two Masters and the Dubai title as the tour heads to Europe would be a major story. But Federer isn’t focused on publicity; he’s concentrating on the major events and Davis Cup this year. A win at either one of the upcoming Masters would boost his momentum, but it isn’t something he really needs at this stage of his career.

Rafael Nadal has been denied the honor of a hard-court spring sweep, and he’s certainly demonstrated the ability to pull it off. But as good as he’s been at Indian Wells (three titles, including last year’s) is as unlucky as he’s been in Miami, where he’s never won (three-time runner-up).

Given Nadal’s proficiency on clay (where he’s completed the Masters mini-Slam of Madrid and Rome three times), it wouldn’t exactly be stop-the-presses news if he won a pair of Masters on hard courts in successive fortnights.

It all may be moot anyway. The maintenance of his troublesome knees may dictate that he take a pass on Miami, as he did last year. If he defends successfully at Indian Wells (where the court speed is said to be very slow), I can’t imagine Nadal even showing up in Miami.

There’s not much for Nadal to gain by winning both of the events -- not when you factor in the physical toll the feat would take with all that low-hanging fruit waiting on the European clay circuit. Nadal likes playing at Indian Wells, and he’s good buddies with billionaire tournament owner Larry Ellison. But I don’t think he’s dying to win Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back.

And how about Andy Murray, who’s a little bit like the poorest guy in a club composed of billionaires (still not bad work if you can get it)? A sweep of the spring hard-court Masters would be a powerful statement. At this point, though, it may be too much to ask, and not just because he’s the most junior member of the Big Four.

Murray missed most of the fall because of back surgery, and he’s reluctant to push himself. He’s down to No. 6 in the rankings and has a 13-4 record in tournaments this year, but he hasn’t been beyond the quarterfinals. Making a final in either of the hard-court Masters coming up would be a big step forward for him.

As for the benefit, Murray has proven to be a Masters 1000 warrior. He has just two Grand Slam titles, but nine Masters shields -- a situation that has led to much speculation in the “horses for courses” vein. Murray is healthy now, and he’s had a good dose of match play. He could really benefit from winning one of these Masters events, and winning both would be a declaration of war on Nadal and Djokovic.

That leaves Djokovic, who won Indian Wells and Miami back-to-back in 2011. Djokovic sorely needs to recapture the magic he had in that dazzling year, and his trials and tribulations this year -- the first year since 2006 that he’s without a title on the eve of the these two big events -- only adds to the urgency.

Djokovic has absorbed some unexpected losses this year, but he’s played very well for pretty long stretches. The slow hard courts are his best surface. What questions swirl around him have more to do with motivation than the X’s and O’s of his game.

I can’t imagine a better time for Djokovic to re-invent himself by repeating his feat of 2011. Nobody would benefit more from completing a Masters mini-Slam than Djokovic, and the time for him to get his game in gear again is right now.