The first five days of Indian Wells are a little bit like a second qualifying tournament—this one including the elite players who were directly accepted into the main draw.
Conventional qualifiers who are still alive and kicking now have already been successful—in some cases, spectacularly so. But direct-acceptance players still in the running are most likely just breathing a great big sigh of relief.
The shining example of a conventional qualifier basking in glory this week is Casey Dellacqua, the Aussie who upended recent Acapulco finalist Christina McHale, followed by 2013 Wimbledon semifinalist Kirsten Flipkens and, yesterday, No. 13 Roberta Vinci. Dellacqua is in the money now—fourth-round, main-draw money, that is—and still going strong. And her next opponent is unseeded American Lauren Davis, so greater riches are within reach.
Dellacqua is one of three qualifiers (the others being Austrian youngster Dominic Thiem and Italy’s Camila Giorgi) who may yet duplicate the feat Jerzy Janowicz pulled off when he raced through the qualifying and main draw to play the championship match at the Paris Masters 1000 in 2012. Janowicz is a direct acceptance player nowadays, thanks to his No. 20 ranking. But that didn’t keep him from lurching out of Indian Wells over the weekend (to Alejandro Falla) in that tricky second qualifying event.
The first weekend is a nerve-jangling time for stars and contenders trying to make it to Monday, at which point all but the very best players feel they’ve acquitted themselves well—or at least avoided the disastrous flame-out. The two No. 4 seeds in the singles weren’t so lucky. Tomas Berdych didn’t survive, nor did Victoria Azarenka. He lost yesterday, and combined with the upsets of seeds Florian Mayer and Philipp Kohlschreiber, that blows a very big hole in that third quarter of the draw. But not as big, perhaps, as the gap in the final quarter, in which No. 7 Juan Martin del Potro pulled out with injury and No. 9 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was upset by Julien Benneteau.
Now, the highest seed left for No. 2 Novak Djokovic to contend with in the bottom half of the draw is No. 8 Gasquet.
Things aren’t quite as peachy for world No. 1 Rafael Nadal, who in his own first match outlasted—but barely—Radek Stepanek. It was a 7-5 in-the-third struggle in which Stepanek had 10 break point opportunities, many of them created by Nadal’s second-rate serve.
Among other transgressions, Nadal served eight double faults. After surviving the scare against a 35-year-old who achieved his career-high singles ranking (No. 8) eight years, ago, the top seed lamented:
“When I couldn’t do anything with my serve (Stepanek) the opponent was able to play more aggressive, more confident tennis. I served eight double faults. I gave him the opportunity to win a lot of free points. . . [Tonight’s] match will help me understand that I really can start to serve with my normal motion again, without limitations and without feeling scared about my back.”
That last sentence is a puzzler, all due respect to the fact that topspin, not English, is Nadal’s native language. I’m not sure how the narrow escape will help Nadal “understand” that he can once again serve exactly as he wishes. That would seem to be a decision that will be made by his troublesome back, which is the latest gray cloud to come sailing over the horizon to dampen the sunny Mallorcan’s enthusiasm.
The back pain that hampered Nadal in his loss to Stanislas Wawrinka in the Australian Open final hasn’t entirely gone away, despite Nadal having about two weeks of rest and rehab before he played Rio. Nadal is downplaying the injury, claiming that it hampered him in just one aspect of the game: His serve. And it was clear that the crafty veteran Stepanek had Nadal running scared with his bold, almost insolent, attacking strategy.
Nevertheless, back injuries are always unnerving and difficult to diagnose and treat. And saying a sore back “only” affected the serve is a little like suggesting that a downpour “only” affected the barbecue grille at a picnic.
While Nadal likes to put on a brave face about these things, the feeling is that the men’s game is a far cry from what it was a year or two ago. Neither Nadal nor Djokovic appear invincible, Roger Federer is in resurgence, and Andy Murray is itching to get back on a winning track. I’m taking nothing for granted.
The women’s draw is also tough to figure, and also without its No. 4 seed. Azarenka, who had a first-round bye, was ousted by Davis. Vika was the dominant force in the third quarter of the draw, which also hosted the most dangerous No. 29 seed in Indian Wells history, Daniela Hantuchova, a two-time surprise champion in the desert. This time, the Slovak’s luck soured and she was sent packing in the second round by Varvara Lepchenko.
Azarenka, the WTA No. 1 not that long ago, was visibly limping and at times suppressing tears during her second-round loss.
This was the former Indian Wells champ’s first match since she lost to Agneiszka Radwanska in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open a month-and-a-half ago. Azarenka’s injured left foot obviously hasn’t responded to treatment as well she had hoped. As she bitterly revealed after the match, “Basically, all I had was my fighting spirit. When I'm on the court I try to give as much as I can, even on one leg.”
What with Serena Williams still boycotting Indian Wells, the main contenders left as we get into the meat of the tournament are Li Na, Radwanksa, and Maria Sharapova. This is one of those rare times when the title really seems to be up for grabs in both draws. And I know just what all of you Grigor Dimitrov fans are thinking, having noticed that he’s seeded 15th but residing in that stripped down third quarter of the draw.
But how does this sound? Casey Dellacqua and Dominic Thiem, singles champions of Indian Wells!