We’re getting there. February, traditionally a time of respite, went in like a lamb and came out like something of a lion. This past weekend Roger Federer and Grigor Dimitrov closed the month with potentially significant 500-level titles in Dubai and Acapulco. At the very least, their wins serve as worthy preludes to what comes next: The year’s first Masters 1000 event, in Indian Wells. With it the men begin the heart of their season, which lasts, largely uninterrupted, until the end of the U.S. Open. From now on, everything counts.
And Indian Wells may count as much any event. This year no player comes to California as a clear-cut favorite; the season's momentum is still for the taking. Rafael Nadal, the defending champion, has played well, but his loss in the Aussie Open hurt, physically and perhaps psychically. Novak Djokovic arrives without a tournament title for the first time since 2006. Andy Murray is still putting back surgery behind him. And after taking a month off and walking the runways of Italy, Stan Wawrinka, surprise champion Down Under, will finally make his royal return to the tour.
There’s a lot at stake for each of them, because Indian Wells has been a harbinger in years past. In 2013, Nadal rolled to a surprising title, and kept rolling from there. A year later, Rafa is at the top of the Indian Wells draw, which was made this afternoon. Despite an almost total lack of interesting first-round matches, it eventually does its best to give us what we’ve been waiting to see.
If Nadal’s going to repeat, he’s going to earn it; his quarter is pretty well loaded. He’ll start with the winner between Radek Stepanek and Denis Istomin, and then could get a rematch with the man he beat in the final last week in Rio, Alexandr Dolgopolov. The Ukrainian has had a good run of late, and pushed Nadal on clay in South America. After that, Rafa is scheduled to face either Gael Monfils or Fabio Fognini, neither a slouch so far in 2014.
The landscape doesn’t look any more forgiving in the other half. Andy Murray is is the top seed there, but Milos Raonic and Jerzy Janowicz, each of whom owns at least one win over Murray, are as well. Murray, who hasn’t reached a final yet this season and has struggled in Indian Wells over the years, is still a question mark. He could face Lukas Rosol, a potentially difficult opponent, in his opener.
I’d love to see a Nadal-Murray quarter; they haven’t played since 2011, when Murray was still a Grand Slam wanna-be. It’s the Big 4 match-up we’ve been missing, and you never know when it might come around again.
Speaking of match-ups we’d like to see, there’s another one lined up in this section, where Stan Wawrinka and Roger Federer are slotted to play in the quarters. Wawrinka, who hasn’t played in a month—those 250s cease to be quite as crucial when you win 2,000 points at a Slam—is another interesting case. How will he handle sudden, world-beating success at 28? The IW fans will back him, but I’ve thought for a while that he was likely to have a letdown until the clay season. Stan’s draw should help: He opens against either Ivo Karlovic or Alex Bogomolov, Jr., though if it’s Dr. Ace, Stan may wish he’d never come back. He could play Andreas Seppi after that, and would likely see either Kevin Anderson or Mikhail Youzhny in the fourth round. Not a bad welcome.
As for Federer, he’ll start against the winner of two qualifiers; the three seeds in his half are Dmitry Tursunov, Kei Nishikori, or Tommy Haas—the latter two have each recorded a win over Federer in the past two seasons, so facing either of them would be a test. Federer hasn’t had a ton of success in Indian Wells or Key Biscayne in recent years, but he did notch a win in the desert two years ago, in the run-up to his Wimbledon title. Another title this year would send a message. If we do get our wish and Federer does meet Wawrinka in the quarters, he’ll come in with a 15-1 career record against his countryman. New Stan or old Stan, it would be tough to pick against Federer.
With that much game in the top half, one of these quarters had to suffer, and this is it. Tomas Berdych, Richard Gasquet, and John Isner are the top three seeds. But weak is a relative term in the ATP right now—Grigor Dimitrov and Ernests Gulbis, seeded 15th and 20th respectively, are here as well, and they’ve been playing as well as anyone of late. The Latvian and the Bulgarian, who split matches last month in Rotterdam and Acapulco, could play the rubber contest in the third round.
Two other players to watch are Isner and Berdych. After rising back up the rankings last summer, the American has been sidelined for much of 2014 by injury. He reached the final here two years ago, but Isner turns 29 next month; does he have another surge in him? As for Berdych, he’s in mid-flight as we speak. Despite blowing a set and a break lead over Federer this weekend, Berdych is up to No. 5 in the rankings and is a few hundred points from David Ferrer at No. 4 (Ferrer pulled out of IW with an adductor strain). Berdych, never a fan of the desert elements, made the semis here for the first time in his career in 2013. Is he ready to go farther? Or has he peaked?
So...Juan Martin del Potro is playing this? After his loss in Dubai, I thought he was destined for an operating table, but apparently he’s flying to Indian Wells and testing his wrist. Is he just putting off the inevitable? We’ll see. He's scheduled to open against either Feliciano Lopez or Dudi Sela.
If Delpo, a finalist here last year, is healthy, he could face Novak Djokovic in the quarters. Djokovic, a two-time Indian Wells champion, is another interesting case at the moment. In his two losses this year, to Wawrinka in Melbourne and Federer in Dubai, he looked uncharacteristically nervy with the lead, and made too many routine errors in general. Whatever he was hoping for from Boris Becker, it hasn’t been delivered yet. But, as Djokovic is getting tired of telling us, it’s still early; they’ve worked together for a total of two events. And his draw should help sooth any anxiety: The three seeds in his half are Tommy Robredo, Marin Cilic, and Ivan Dodig.
Also here: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, on del Potro’s side.
Semifinals: Federer d. Nadal; Djokovic d. Gulbis
Final: Federer d. Djokovic