Last year, previewing Indian Wells, I wrote that the event could prove to be the “first tournament of the future of men’s tennis.” What I meant—or at least what I think I meant—was that a win by Novak Djokovic would cement his rise after his Australian Open title of a month earlier, and that a final between Djokovic and Rafael Nadal would cement them as the ATP’s new rivalry. That is what happened, though it really goes to show how little changes from year to year these days in the men’s game. While Roger Federer is now behind Nadal and Djokovic, he can’t be called the “past” just yet, and the same four guys are still entrenched at the top. While Djokovic’s dominance is new, the future of the men’s game thus far has looked a lot like the recent past.
What could Indian Wells signify in 2012? This time it would be a Djokovic defeat that would change the landscape. He showed some vulnerability even in winning the Australian Open, and more of it in his straight-set defeat to Andy Murray in Dubai. It’s a measure of how untouchable he has been at the biggest tournaments that any winner other than Djokovic would feel like a major shift heading into the meat of the season. God knows what we’ll think if any of the Big 4 don’t make the semifinals.
Count Djokovic as an Indian Wells lover. He’s won it twice, and slow hard courts are his bread and butter. The desert heat troubled him against Andy Roddick one year, and that could conceivably be an issue again; Djokovic’s old physical issues, which he seemed to have put behind him in 2011, cropped up Down Under. But Indian Wells is a bigger deal than Dubai, and I expect Djokovic to treat it that way.
Djokovic will open against a qualifier, and then could face a tricky opponent in Kevin Anderson, who just won a tournament in Del Ray and has beaten the Serb before. After that, it looks less troubling: Gasquet and Florian Mayer are the other seeds in Djokovic's half; Berdych, Almagro, Nishikori and Roddick are the seeds on the other side.
Questions and notes: Is Nishikori ready to continue his transition from pitchman to threat, or is he content where he is? Could Florian Mayer, he of the swooping game and a win last year over Nadal, give the Djoker any fits? Tomas Berdych played some brilliant tennis in Melbourne; his draw to the quarters looks eminently doable. Wild card Sam Querrey continues his new working relationship with Brad Gilbert. Wild card Jack Sock plays Santiago Giraldo in the first round.
Best names: Jack Sock, Pablo Andujar
Reasonably interesting first-round match: Alex Bogomolov, Jr. vs. Sergiy Stakhovsky
One thing seems certain: Andy Murray hasn’t suffered his third straight post-Oz swoon. He beat Djokovic in Dubai, and you have to think a stunner like his loss to Donald Young last year is unlikely. Though there are a couple of potential obstacles for him early: Viktor Troicki, who nearly beat Murray at the French Open last year, and Ryan Harrison, who tends to like big stages and big-time opponents.
Deeper down in this section, another player casts a longer shadow: John Isner. He nearly extended Murray to five sets at the U.S. Open last year, and with his win over Federer in Davis Cup, he knows for the first time that he can get it done against the Top 4. He has traditionally struggled at the Masters level, but he reached the semis in Paris last year. This one should loom even larger for him.
Also here: Eighth seed Mardy Fish, a finalist and Fed-beater in 2008; Stan Wawrinka, a quarterfinalist and Fed-loser last year; Juan Monaco, who could spoil the party for Isner in the third round.
Roger Federer completes a tennis whirlwind that took him from Dubai to Madison Square Garden and finally to very different courts and conditions in California. He flies in to face an imposing draw as well. Missile-serving Milos Raonic in the third round; potentially Monfils or Davydenko after that, and potentially the winner of del Potro and Ferrer after that. More imposing still is the fact that Federer hasn’t reached the final in Indian Wells since 2006 (though he was a set away against Djokovic last year in the semis), and that his best surface is not the slow hard court he’ll find there. But I think he gets past Raonic nonetheless. Federer has been defusing missile servers for the better part of a decade.
Del Potro has been knocking on the door for a while now; what are the chances he breaks the Big 4 stranglehold here? He made the semis in 2011, and has looked good against everyone not named Federer recently. Unfortunately for both del Potro and David Ferrer, the under-the-radar fifth seed, they’ve found Federer’s quarter. He pretty much owns them both.
Also here: Grigor Dimitrov—is this the year we expect his transformation from a caterpillar into tennis’s Federer-esque future? Or was it last year? Is it just me, or is it getting to seem less likely that it will happen at all? (By asking this, of course, I guarantee that Dimitrov wins this tournament, as well as the next five Wimbledons.)
Second-round match to (hopefully) watch: Monfils vs. Davydenko
Sleeper: Fernando Verdasco. He played some good tennis in South America, and he’s been to the quarters here. Of course, he also played that match against Tomic in Melbourne…
Semifinalist: Del Potro
Rafael Nadal: remember him? Life isn’t so bad at No. 2. He’s had a good long rest, and now he gets to stay at the billionaire tournament owner’s house and play on his personal golf course. It’s a relaxing scenario, and one that, along with the friendly slow courts, has helped Rafa to two titles here.
His draw won’t hurt, either. Mayer, Falla, Nieminen, Haas, Granollers are the names nearest to him. And the closest seed is good buddy/perpetual whipping boy Feliciano Lopez. But it could get trickier for Nadal in the quarters, where he’s scheduled to face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The two had a barn burner here way back in 2008, though Tsonga seems like he might have peaked just before the Aussie Open this year. That would be just like him, wouldn't it?
Also here: Bernard Tomic, trying to make himself more than a major player; Alexander Dolgopolov—I want to see him play Rafa in the fourth round; Donald Young, trying to rise yet again.
Best name, as always: Potito Starace
Semifinals: Del Potro d. Nadal; Djokovic d. Murray
Final: Djokovic d. Del Potro
I'll be writing from Indian Wells starting Friday. See you then.