Is there something of an Avengers feel to the men’s draw at Indian Wells this time around? As in, we're getting the gang back together, for the first time since Wimbledon last June. OK, that may be pushing it. In truth, the only member of the Top 4, or the Top 10, who has been consistently missing over those months has been Rafael Nadal. But his return tour in South America has breathed old and new life into the ATP so far in 2013. On the one hand, we’ve been reminded of the energy that he brings to a tennis court; on the other, with his return, we’ve been able to contemplate what the men’s game will look like at full strength again. In Indian Wells, where Nadal's road act comes to Broadway, we’ll start to find out. There are only so many golden years left in this era; hopefully this will be another.
That seems like a fine way to kick off the heart of the tennis season, which runs, with a short mid-summer break, from Indian Wells to the U.S. Open. Here’s a look at the first draw of tennis’s sweeps season.
Nadal is the biggest story, but the most relevant question of the moment is: Can anyone stop Novak Djokovic? He's won his first 13 matches and two tournaments, and he’s a two-time champion at Indian Wells. It’s not an idle question. In 2011, Djokovic came to the desert after winning the Australian Open. He won the title at IW as well, and went on to have one of the great seasons of the Open era. In 2012, Djokovic again arrived after a victory in Melbourne; but this time he was upset by John Isner. Novak still had an excellent year and finished No. 1, but he didn’t build the same momentum that he did in 2011, and he didn’t win another major.
Djokovic will be in his element on the slow hard courts here. He could play an interesting third-rounder against Grigor Dimitrov—Novak won their only meeting, in Shanghai last year, 3 and 2. After that, he could potentially play Sam Querrey, who upset him in Paris last fall.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is the top seed on the other side. He has struggled the last two years here, losing early to Nalbandian and Malisse. So far in 2013, Jo has been up-and-down with new coach Roger Rasheed, winning in Marseille, playing well in Melbourne, but losing his openers in Rotterdam and Dubai. Tsonga should like his IW draw, anyway. He starts with the winner of Blake and Haase, and might get the long-sidelined Mardy Fish after that. The one ominous name near him is Milos Raonic. The two played a monster three-setter at the Olympics last year.
Jack Sock, who might play Querrey in the second round
Horacio Zeballos, who starts with Albert Ramos
Michael Llodra. Could the hook-serving French veteran give Raonic a test in the second round? Tiebreakers may ensue.
Andy Murray, when did we last see him? Was it really the Australian Open final? Murray may feel like he needs the rest before the Indian Wells-Key Biscayne stretch. The last time he played these two events after losing the Aussie final to Djokovic, in 2011, he went home without winning a match.
I’m thinking things will go a little better this time around. Murray must feel less weight on his shoulders after his U.S. Open win last year, and his draw looks tolerable. Martin Klizan would be the first seed he would face, and his fourth-rounder is scheduled to be against Kei Nishikori—Murray is 3-0 against the Japanese No. 1.
Juan Martin del Potro leads the way on the other side. Like Tsonga, he’s bounced up and down in 2013; a title in Rotterdam has been sandwiched between early losses to Simon and Chardy. Unfortunately for del Potro, he might get Chardy again in the third round this weekend.
Alexandr Dolgopolov—a third-rounder between Nishikori and the Dog would be fun
Tommy Haas—the California fan favorite will open with the winner of Steve Johnson and Pablo Andujar
Nikolay Davydenko—he might play del Potro in the second round
Tim Smyczek—the wild-carded American has been steadily rising toward the Top 100
This is David Ferrer’s quarter—i.e., the place to be if you’re ranked 5-8. The beneficiary is Tomas Berdych, who is scheduled to play Ferrer in the quarters.
Ferrer went out early to tall, big-hitting Dennis Istomin here last year. Could tall, big-hitting Kevin Anderson do the same thing to him this time? They might play in the second round. If Ferrer gets past that, he should be OK to the quarters—Simon, Kohlschreiber, and Verdasco are the other seeds in his half.
As for Berdych, he comes in after a win over Roger Federer in Dubai, but his recent history in Indian Wells isn’t great. He’s lost in the round of 16 the last two years. On his side this time are Gasquet, Janowicz, Nalbandian, and Tomic. This feels like gut check time again for the Berd Man. He has an opportunity to make the semis. Can he take it?
First-round match to...watch with trepidation: Tomic vs. Bellucci
Possible second-round match to...watch with even more trepidation: Nalbandian vs. Janowicz
The major question before this draw was done was which quarter Nadal, who is currently ranked No. 5, would land. Was it by the hand of God that it ended up being Roger Federer’s? Or was it the hand of an even greater power, Larry Ellison? Whoever pulled the strings, it certainly gives the tournament a talking point. Nadal and Federer have only faced each other before the semifinals of a knockout event once, in their first match, in the round of 32 in Key Biscayne back in 2004.
But there are other matches to get through first. Federer may face the man who beat him in Rotterdam, Julien Benneteau, in the second round. After that, he could get the winner of Wawrinka and the player he beat in the final here last year, John Isner. That’s not an easy road just to get to Nadal. Federer has champion’s points to defend, and he’s already given them up this year in Rotterdam and Dubai. Murray could close the gap on him for No. 2 here.
As for Rafa, he’ll start with the winner of Go Soeda and Ryan Harrison; he beat Soeda two years ago in Tokyo, and has never played Harrison. The other seeds on Nadal’s side are Youzhny, Seppi, and Tipsarevic. Both Youzhny and Seppi own wins over him, but neither has done it since 2008. Nadal looked back in form on clay in Acapulco, but that's obviously not the same as hard courts in Indian Wells. He'll need to adjust quickly, and most likely win at least one match without his best stuff, but he has a draw that should let him do that.
First-round match to watch: Rosol vs. Hewitt, for the right to play Isner. If the struggling Isner, who has runner-up points to defend, goes out early, it could start to feel like precipitous descent time for the big man.
Semifinals: Djokovic d. Murray; Nadal d. Berdych
Final: Djokovic d. Nadal