By Jane Voigt
Let’s face it, the last time you really paid attention to a tennis tournament was in January for The Australian Open.
Well it’s time to wake your inner tennis child because after a smattering of tournaments in the Middle East and South America, the WTA and ATP tours return to the United States for back-to-back blockbusters.
First up in the desert about 90 miles east of Los Angeles is the BNP Paribas Open. Touted as the Fifth Grand Slam and owned by billionaire Larry Ellison, the Indian Wells site offers sun, perfectly wonderful temperatures around 85 (or so they predict), courts tracked by Hawkeye, delicious foods, and happy Californians plus folks from around the world.
The men’s and women’s singles champions earn $1 million each plus 1,000 ranking points, which is a notch away the biggest money and point makers, the Grand Slams.
The draws are out, so let’s take a look and cast some predictions for the men.
Men’s Singles Draw — Top Quarter
This is Rafael Nadal’s perch as the No. 1 seed and defending champion. Last year Nadal left most naysayers shaking their collective heads in the desert sand. He had played a couple clay court tournaments in South America before arriving, testing the reliability of his knee which he had rehabbed for 7 months. Not many figured he would win the title especially this one, a tournament he had not won since 2009. But the Spaniard proved everyone wrong and then went on to have a brilliant year, his best in ten.
Wimbledon Champion Andy Murray (seeded No. 5) is one of the troublesome player that lurk in Nadal’s quarter. There are others. Gael Monfils (seeded No. 23) could cause problems, especially if the courts are as slow as they were last year. Monfils can hang in a rally like no other aside from countryman Gilles Simon. Remember their 70-shot rally at the U. S. Open last year?
Jerzy Janowicz (seeded No. 18) could be bothersome with his huge serve and penchant for drop shots. Milos Raonic (seeded No. 10) is of the same caliber, but more steady off the ground thus more dangerous. This will be Raonic’s first tournament since The Australian Open. For him to face Nadal, though, he would have to defeat both Janowicz and Murray, which seems unlikely.
Top Quarter quarterfinalist — Rafael Nadal
Men’s Singles Draw — Bottom Quarter
In this little corner of the draw stands Roger Federer (seeded No. 7) and Australian Open winner Stanislas Wawrinka. Wawrinka is seeded No. 3, the highest perch ever in a draw. His performance in Indian Wells will be scrutinized. Fans and media will want a solid result from Stan-the-Man in order to substantiate their continued support and trust of his abilities against top 10 players.
Look for Wawrinka and Federer to advance to the quarterfinals, if Wawrinka can successfully fend off Kevin Anderson (seeded No. 17) and Federer takes care of Kei Nishikori (seeded No. 19). These two are the biggest contenders for the Swiss contingency.
Wawrinka has not played since Davis Cup at the end of January. Match play is essential for rhythm and confidence. Federer, though, has tuned his engine in Dubai last week, winning it for the sixth time. He defeated Novak Djokovic in the semifinals and a hot Tomas Berdych in the final.
Bottom Quarter quarterfinalist — Roger Federer
Top Half Finalist — Roger Federer
Men’s Singles Draw — Top Quarter, bottom half
Berdych is the highest seed, No. 4, in this section. For him to make the quarterfinal round he will probably have to defeat Grigor Dimitrov (seeded No. 15). However, he will have to first beat the tricky Latvian Ernest Gulbis (seeded No. 20). Their head-to-head record is even at 1 – 1. Both matches were this spring and both have titles from this season: Dimitrov from Acapulco and Gulbis from Marseilles. Look for this third round match to be one of the blockbusters of the tournament.
Also on the prowl in this section is John Isner (seeded No. 12). He loves the venue and proved his worth last year when he defeated Novak Djokovic in the semifinal. But the six-nine American has had a wiggy start to the year, nursing a sore knee and bagging out of The Australian Open in the first round. Richard Gasquet has tons of talent, but isn’t the steadiest of competitors, although he is seeded No.8.
Quarterfinalist, Top Quarter of bottom half — Grigor Dimitrov
Men’s Singles Draw — Bottom Quarter, bottom half
No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic will be looking to resurrect his worth from the loss to Federer in the semifinals of Dubai. The Serbian is on a tear to knock Nadal from ‘his’ spot as number one in the world. He has a lot of work to do.
Juan Martin del Potro (seeded No. 6) may be the least of Djokovic’s worries, and only a probable opponent in the quarterfinals due to a recent left-wrist injury that forced him to withdraw from Dubai in the first round.
That said, sitting in Novak’s quarter are Jo Wilfred Tsonga (seeded No. 9), a hot Marin Cilic (seeded No. 24), the Canadian wonder Vasek Pospisil (seeded No. 25), plus the always-ready-for-a-long-fight Tommy Robredo (seeded No. 16).
Of these, Cilic is the most dangerous now. His relationship with new coach Ivan Ljubicic (both are from Croatia) has relaxed Cilic enough for his game to even out and bloom. He won Delray Beach at the end of last month for his 11th career tour title. Ljubicic knows how to win Indian Wells, too, which he did in 2010 for his only Masters 1000 title.
Djokovic recently told the press that he is ready to get back on track, which means he’ll be fixated on taking prisoners. His uncanny ability to look down-and-out then miraculously spring back to life has to be keen because his draw is a tough one.
Quarterfinalist, Bottom Quarter of bottom half — Marin Cilic
Bottom half finalist — Marin Cilic
Final — Roger Federer and Marin Cilic
Winner — Roger Federer
Tomorrow … a look at the women.