Sony Ericsson Open in Full Swing

The Russians are coming for Serena! And Nadal looks to fend off Federer - again.

The perfect combination of top-notch tennis and star-powered tropical hoopla that is the Sony Ericsson Open is in full swing today at Key Biscayne, with the promise of some great match ups ahead.

A notch below a Grand Slam, the Open is free to act its age and take advantage of its setting -- and it has.

Over there are Andy Murray and Venus Williams climbing out of their sun roofs on Ocean Drive to volley back and forth on top of their cars for the fans.

And over there are throngs of bronzed vacationers paying more attention to the stars' practice courts than the opening rounds of middling contenders. 

Oh, and underneath the main court is Serena Williams, launching a line of bangles and handbags for the Home Shopping Network before defending her title begins to take up her time.

It's all so Miami.

What's also so Miami: the juicy story lines on the court.

The Sony Ericsson has been the site of a more than a few epic showdowns, like 17-year-old Steffi Graf mowing down Hall of Famers Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert for the title in '87, and Roger Federer's five-hour win over a fledgling Rafael Nadal in 2005.

It's also seen its share of amusing sports moments, like when Boris Becker gave his racket to a teen-aged ball girl and Andre Agassi let her win a point in 1994.

What to watch for this year: hints of what's to come for Roger Federer. After 237 weeks as tops in the sport, Federer finds himself in the backseat behind Nadal, and has dropped five straight to the Spaniard on three different surfaces. History shows that once a player loses his grip on No. 1, it's awful hard to come back. 

Federer is upbeat, but he's also not making any promises.

"He's the greatest challenger I've ever had," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I am really motivated because I don't know how much better he can play. I don't know how much better I can play, but I am right there.  I'm going to hang onto No. 2 and hope to find a way to get back to No. 1."

With the influx of young talent in men's tennis, the challenge of retaking the throne grows ever more difficult. Novak Djokovic and Murray certainly aren't going down without a fight. Murray will be aching for his fifth straight victory over Federer since losing to him in the US Open final last year.

On the women's side, keep an eye on the Russians, who are surging up the charts.

Maria Sharapova is out with injury, but her countrywomen sit at No. 2 (Dinara Safina), No. 4 (Elena Dementieva), and No. 5 (Vera Zvonareva, who, coming off her first big title at Indian Wells, could very well be the star in Key Biscayne this month). And then there's Svetlana Kuznetsova and Nadia Petrova at numbers 8 and 9, respectively. 

The new Russian mafia? 

"We're all different players but we all have that Russian mentality of trying to fight all your life," said 17-year-old Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, ranked 27. "Just walking on the streets of Moscow you see it in the eyes of everyone, trying to improve, trying to have a purpose, trying to go up the stairs to get something out of their life."

Janie Campbell is a Florida sports fan who looks forward to a Cold War in tennis. Her work has appeared in irreverent sports sites around the Internet.

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