Tennis, as I wrote more than once last month, had a good February. But the winds went out of those sails on Monday, when Maria Sharapova announced that she had failed a drug test. Even the sight of Gael Monfils hotdogging his way across Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night couldn’t rescue World Tennis Day from the shadow of Maria and her meldonium.

That story isn’t going away, and it shouldn’t. But if anything can shake the game from its funk, it’s the sight of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on a cloudless March day. The draws have been made, and the qualifying matches are underway at the year’s first ATP Masters 1000 and WTA Premier Mandatory event. Here’s a look at what we’ll see on the men’s side.

Did a crack in the seemingly impenetrable Novak Djokovic facade appear this past weekend? In a home Davis Cup tie, the world No. 1 lost a doubles match and was down two sets to one in a singles match. When it comes to Djokovic, that may be as close to a sign of vulnerability as we’re going to get.

Indian Wells would seem to be the perfect place for Djokovic to put his Davis Cup struggles, as minor as they may have been, behind him. He’s won the event four times, and is the two-time defending champion; the tournament’s slow and sandy hard courts are tailor-made for his game. Plus, the man he beat in the last two finals here, Roger Federer, is not in the draw. What could stop Djokovic? Perhaps only the fact that he doesn’t need Indian Wells anymore. By now, with the French Open and the Olympics ahead, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was just slightly less motivated for a Masters event that doesn’t lead into a major.

Of course, even if Djokovic isn’t at his sharpest, someone has to beat him. The seeds in his half of the section—Roberto Bautista Agut, Feliciano Lopez, Philipp Kohlschreiber—don’t look like plausible candidates. There are a couple of slightly more likely possibilities on the other side—Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Dominic Thiem—if they can survive to the quarterfinals.

Possible Third-Round Match to Watch: Thiem vs. Jack Sock

Semifinalist: Djokovic


California Dreams

California Dreams

Let the Rafa rumination begin again: Has a player ever inspired as much head-scratching and handwringing as Rafael Nadal has over the last year?  It’s true, though, that he could use a win, or three. He has traditionally done well on the slow courts at Indian Wells, and he counts the event as one of his favorites. But an early loss this year wouldn’t be a shock, and that’s precisely the problem. Nadal will start against either Gilles Muller or Victor Estrella Burgos, and then could face Martin Klizan or Fernando Verdasco, two lefties who have beaten him before.

Nadal’s path won’t get easier after that: Kei Nishikori, John Isner, Grigor Dimitrov and Gilles Simon are all in this section. Nishikori will try again to break his strange, career-long run of mediocrity at Masters events: The world No. 6 has only reached one final at that level. Unfortunately, he’s been even more mediocre at Indian Wells, where his record is 4-7. A player who has had more success there is Isner; he beat Djokovic on his way to the final in 2012, and reached the semis in 2014.

Teens to watch: Alexandr Zverev, who starts against Ivan Dodig; U.S. wild card Jared Donaldson, who plays Vasek Pospisil

Semifinalist: Isner

California Dreams

California Dreams


Speaking of top players who don’t get the desert, Stan Wawrinka is the top seed in this section. While he should know his way around a slow hard court, he hasn’t been past the fourth round here since 2011, and has never reached the semis. As always, Wawrinka is simultaneously ripe to be upset and a contender for the title. His draw this time might lead you to believe that he has a shot at going all the way—Richard Gasquet, Marin Cilic, David Goffin and Pablo Cuevas are the next four seeds in this section—but Wawrinka hasn’t lost his capacity to surprise, both in the players he beats and the players he doesn’t.

First-Round Match to Watch: Frances Tiafoe vs. Taylor Fritz. Last year’s great American hope, meet this year’s.

Player of Interest: Juan Martin del Potro. He plays a qualifier to start, and could get Berdych in the second round.

Semifinalist: Gasquet

Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych are the top seeds, but the biggest possible story in this section exists one rung down the totem pole: Will feuding Aussies Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios get a chance to play each other? It’s conceivable; they’re both in this quarter. But it’s not probable; they’re on opposite sides and could only face off in the quarters. Can Murray and Berdych each take a dive to make this happen?

Also here: Monfils, who has shown signs of interest again, and Milos Raonic, who is returning after being sidelined by an adductor injury. We’ll see if he has any momentum left from his stellar run to the Australian Open semis.

When the dust settles, though, the player to advance will probably be Murray. At times in the past, the Scot has looked lost in the desert, and he hasn’t reached the final in Indian Wells since 2009. But he has a good chance to make it back there this year.

Semifinalist: Murray

Semifinals: Djokovic d. Isner; Murray d. Gasquet

Final: Murray d. Djokovic