With apologies to the continent of Australia, this week marks the true, or at least logical, start of the tennis season. I know the Aussie Open is a Slam, and we love it, but it’s also a glorious false start, a big tournament on a big island cut off from the rest of the schedule.
Now we’ve reached mainland. I don’t say that only because the tour has come to the U.S., and the California desert in particular. I say it because it’s "go time," as the cliché has it—from here on, there’s little rest for the weary, all the way through to the end of the U.S. Open. With that in mind, I’ve written a post for ESPN on five players heading for Indian Wells who are in need of do-overs to begin their 2008 campaigns.
Also with that in mind, here’s the customary bracket analysis of the year’s first Masters tournament. It’s fully loaded on the men’s side, but has its share of WTA absentees—Henin and the Williamses most prominent among them. We’ll just start without them.
Competition is sparse for Roger Federer in the top half here, which may be just what he needs, considering his early exit at IW last year and his shaky recent health. The first seed he might play is No. 25 Nicolas Almagro, who just won a clay-court tournament but is 0-5 against Federer. Still, it could be his toughest early test, considering that the next seed he might face is Tommy Robredo, who is 0-8 against Federer.
Andy Murray and Andy Roddick are the top seeds on the bottom side. Of the two, Murray has a slightly harder road, with Marat Safin a potential second-round opponent; Roddick may be looking at another showdown with Fernando Verdasco (please God, no). Murray-Roddick would be a fun—they’ve had their battles and have both been in pretty good form. After his Dubai run, I’ll take the American Andy in three in a wild night match. Then he’ll lose to Federer.
Player to watch: Marin Cilic. The big Croatian (are there small Croatian men?) may be embarking on his pre-breakout season (like, say, Djokovic in 2005).
Welcome back to the Nalbandian-Davydenko quarterfinal. How we’ve missed you! In between those two eternal enigmas the heavy hitters are Hewitt, Youzhny, Gonzalez, and Ferrero. But I wouldn’t count out Igor Andreev. The Russian had a weak start to the year, and he never lives up to expectations, but the slow courts and true bounce feed his monster forehand—he made the quarters here in 2006, the best he’s done at a Masters so far.
Giants to watch: Isner and Querrey are stomping around these parts, as is the wild card Mario Ancic, who starts another comeback against Gael Monfils. Potential early match to watch: Nalbandian against the bruising Ernest Gulbis.
It’s the shotmakers—Djokovic, Kohlschreiber, Baghdatis—versus the pesky grinders—Ferrer, Monaco, Nieminen, Cañas. Djokovic is most likely to succeed, of course. He likes the courts, he wants to catch Nadal in the rankings, and he’s a cut above everyone else in the bottom half. A quarterfinal against Baghdatis or Ferrer would be a test, but one that he’ll pass.
Potential early match to watch: Kohlschreiber vs. Malisse, two guys who know how to hit the ball.
Who’s left? First we’ve got Rafael Nadal, a man both chasing and being chased in the rankings. He’s got the daunting task of defending points from his title run last year. But it’s safe to say he’s ready for the challenge, and this is the best hard-court anywhere for him. His quarter is not too brutal, either—Gasquet, Tsonga, Blake, and Mathieu are the top guns. Blake has never lost to Nadal, but they wouldn’t play until the quarters; Tsonga toyed with Rafa in Melbourne, but he’s still an unproven commodity as of now. Seeing if he can prove himself may be the most intriguing element of the whole draw.
First-round match not to watch: Spadea vs. Ginepri.
Semifinals: Federer d. Andreev; Djokovic d. Nadal
Final: Djokovic d. Federer
It’s still a little odd, at least to me, to think of Ana Ivanovic as the top seed at an event of this size, but there she is right at the top of this quarter. I like her chances of getting through to the semis. The next highest seed is Nicole Vaidisova, who faces a tough potential early match with Tamira Paszek. If Vaidisova gets through that, she’s still a long shot. Ivanovic just beat her in Dubai 4 and love.
This one isn’t pretty. Jelena Jankovic is the player to beat, and there aren’t many near her who are likely to pull it off. How do these seeds grab you: Sugiyama, Medina-Garrigues, Razzano, Bammer, Govortsova, and Bartoli. There’s one other I didn’t mention, and that’s Lindsay Davenport. This could be her best chance at going deep at a tournament of significance.
It gets a little better over here, with Sharapova trying to stay perfect in ’08; Hantuchova trying to defend her inexplicable title of last year; Mirza and Peer walloping away; and Mauresmo…well, what is she doing at this event, anyway? I hope she plays well; the women’s game could use a little more of her.
Every year I pick Na Li to do something significant, and every year she doesn’t. Should I pick her to upset second seed Svetlana Kuznetsova and come out of this section? No, I’m not ready for that, even though Li has shown some signs of life after being off the tour for much of 2007. Radwanska and Safarova are also hanging out in the top half, but Kuznetsova is still the woman to beat.
Semifinals: Sharapova d. Kuznetsova; Jankovic d. Ivanovic
Final: Sharapova d. Jankovic
I’ll be out in the desert sun trying to keep the heat-based hallucinations to a minimum next week, along with Pete Bodo and James Martin from our office. Anyone else who’s going to be there, let me know.
No Indian Wells on ESPN or Tennis Channel this time; it’s all moved to Fox Sport Net, which means coverage will be hit and miss throughout the country. Not good—but all the more reason to make the trip.