MIAMI -- This year’s NCAA basketball tournaments have been decidedly lacking in major surprises. The four No.1 seeds in both the women’s and men’s brackets are all intact as the Sweet 16s approach.

At the Miami Open, however, more than a whiff of March Madness is hanging in the sultry air.

The Top 3 seeds -- Iga Swiatek, Aryna Sabalenka and Coco Gauff -- are all out and, as of Wednesday night, the Final Four is upon us. Despite the vastly different fortunes between the favorites, there are some undeniable similarities between those four Miami semifinalists and the teams that remain in the women’s NCAA tournament.

No.4 Elena Rybakina, the highest seed remaining, won 11 of 12 matches during the Sunshine Double last year, taking the Indian Wells title and falling in the Miami final to Petra Kvitova. She’s the favorite, like the No.1-ranked University of South Carolina. The 34-0 Gamecocks lost in last year’s Final Four and are spoiling for revenge.

No.27 seed Victoria Azarenka is a three-time champion looking to relive past glories -- not unlike the University of Connecticut, which has won a record 11 titles. The last time Azarenka won in Miami, 2016, she swept the Sunshine Double. That was the same year the Huskies won their last title, capping an unprecedented run of four straight.

Following up on last year’s run to the quarters, where she lost to eventual champion Petra Kvitova, No.14 Ekaterina Alexandrova has progressed a step further and is looking to go the distance. Just like the University of Texas, a No.1 seed with 32 victories that has recorded two Elite Eight appearances in the past three years.

Unseeded Danielle Collins, ranked No.53, is your classic Cinderella story, the kind of underdog March Madness is all about. This year’s NCAA underdog darling is No.7-seeded Duke University -- this is an analogy that Collins, as a graduate of the University of Virginia and Atlantic Coast Conference rival, will detest.

Let’s make the case for each member of this Fab Four:

Elena Rybakina vs. Victoria Azarenka

The case for Rybakina: She will be the first to tell you that she’s not functioning at 100 percent. There’s a general lack of match fitness following a viral issue that forced her to withdraw from Indian Wells and she’s working around an inflamed left ankle, but …

The 24-year-old who represents Kazakhstan has a perfect 3-0 record against Azarenka, the most recent coming last month in Dubai. And while Azarenka is a three-time champion here, Rybakina took her down in the semifinal of last year’s Australian Open, where Azarenka is a two-time champion.

Moreover, Rybakina is a keen closer; she’s 3-0 in semifinals this year and went on to win titles in Adelaide and Abu Dhabi. This is a stage at which she’s extremely comfortable; Rybakina will play her seventh WTA 1000 semifinal since the beginning of 2023 -- only Swiatek (nine) has more.

Rybakina holds off Sakkari to make second straight Miami semifinal

“For me it’s going to be a tough match,” Rybakina said after defeating Maria Sakkari in three sets. “Very important how I feel physically. [Azarenka’s] a great player, experienced player.

“I came to this tournament not that prepared. For me, it’s already a great result no matter what happens in the semis.”

In the end, Azarenka is not equipped to match -- or defend -- Rybakina’s firepower. With 35 winners against Sakkari, Rybakina’s total at this year’s WTA 1000 soared to 353 -- 40 more than second-best Swiatek. She’s got 83 aces in those events, second to Karolina Pliskova.

The case for Azarenka: At the age of 34, Azarenka is redefining her concept of hunger.

“Where I come from and the way my career was going, one of my top motivations was to prove people wrong,” Azarenka said. “You say I can’t? Well, watch me. After I achieved being No.1, winning Grand Slams, winning gold medal and so many titles, and probably also becoming a parent, that motivation was not a priority for me. It’s not something that made me turn on beast mode. 

“I don’t need to prove people wrong. That’s been, I wouldn’t say a challenge, but it’s definitely a searching process. I feel like this year, especially after the pretty challenging last year, I feel like I was able to at least find that space, and I’m working through that.”

Now it might sound counterintuitive, but Azarenka should have an edge over Rybakina in the energy department. 

True, she’s been on this planet nearly a full decade longer than Rybakina. And, yes, she went 2 hours and 55 minutes in her quarterfinal match with Yulia Putintseva. Azarenka is only the fourth player to reach a WTA 1000 semifinal after turning 34, joining Venus and Serena Williams and Svetlana Kuznetsova.

But Rybakina and Sakkari battled for 2 hours and 48 minutes in their 7-5, 6-7 (4), 6-4 match. Afterward, Rybakina said she had no words because she was “so tired.”

Azarenka can draw on her vast success in Miami; she’s a three-time winner and this is her fifth semifinal. A win would put her into the last match 15 years after her first championship in south Florida.

Ekaterina Alexandrova vs. Danielle Collins

The case for Alexandrova: In her past two matches, the 29-year-old has upset No.1 Swiatek and No.5 Jessica Pegula. It’s the first time she’s eclipsed multiple Top 5 players in a single event. 

Her 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 win over Pegula was a study in sustained aggression. While Pegula actually won more points, 88-85, Alexandrova risked far more -- and was rewarded accordingly. She finished with 61 unforced errors but was credited with 40 winners. Pegula had a more restrained 15 winners, against 27 unforced errors.

This is the second WTA 1000 semifinal for Alexandrova, the No.16-ranked player. The first was 2022 Madrid, when she lost there to Ons Jabeur. 

Five powerful winners from Alexandrova's comeback win vs. Pegula in Miami

Alexandrova has had a full card this week. After beating Pegula, she was off to play the doubles quarterfinals with Irina Khromacheva.

“I’m feeling great,” she said. “I’m really enjoying playing here. I can’t wait to play tomorrow and hope I can do my best -- so we’ll see.”

How well is Alexandrova seeing the ball? She has now beaten three Top 5 players this year -- the mark best on tour -- matching her career total before 2024.

The case for Collins: After announcing her intention to retire after this season, Collins might want to reconsider. At the age of 30, she’s in rare form -- tossing out fist pumps, issuing “Come ons!” at the drop of a hat and staring down opponents with her trademark high-intensity daggers.

Collins defeated Caroline Garcia with a muscular 6-3, 6-2 effort on Wednesday. Her backhand was lethal, and so was her serve. Collins won 26 of 29 first-serve points (12-for-20 on second) and did not face a break point.

This was no easy feat, for Garcia was the player who took out Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff in back-to-back matches.

'Come on!': Collins' greatest hits from the Miami quarterfinals

Collins entered the tournament with a sporty 13-7 record but has elevated her play and won five straight matches. The last time Collins did that? The 2022 Australian Open, when she reached the final.

This is her second semifinal in Miami -- and the second time she’s done it from outside the Top 50. A win would put her inside the Top 30.

In a Wednesday press conference, Collins was asked if playing with a definitive expiration date helped her play more freely.

“I don’t really think about it that much, to be honest,” she said. “As a professional athlete you’re so consumed in your day-to-day and your routines, getting ready, preparing, recovering, maintaining your strength, all of the things that go into our day-to-day. I don’t really have a lot of time to be, `Well, I’m retiring at the end of the year, so yeah, I think I don’t have as much pressure on me because I only have a few more tournaments left.

“Or I could sit there and be like, `Well, I’ve only got a few tournaments left. If I don’t do this now, what the heck am I doing?’ I don’t know. But it’s a good question. I’m still trying to figure it out too.”

In the meantime, Collins will try to figure out Alexandrova, whom she’s never played.