March 12, 2010

Things Are Heating Up

There were signs of spring in the New York air this week, but a little further west the action is getting really hot.

The BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells is the first Masters event of the year and, more importantly, marks the return of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. After injury-induced absences they'll both be back in action in tonight's Hit for Haiti charity exhibition before getting ready for their main draws. And they've chosen quite the stage on which to make their debuts. Eight of the top ten men pepper the field and some are coming off big wins in the last few weeks. And that could be a bit intimidating for someone a little out of practice.

Rafa is the defending champion here, but he seems like a whole other person than he did in 2009. Last year's trophy came in the middle of a five-title run, but the now-#3 hasn't won another tournament since that streak ended. He tumbled out of the Australian Open quaterfinals after re-aggravating his knee and hasn't yet been back on court. Though he still hits hard as always, when I watch him now I often find myself wincing in anticipation of pain.

Roger, on the other hand, should be a a bit fitter, though a lung infection late in the winter caused him to pull out of Dubai. But he's got some hot players in his section -- Marcos Baghdatis, Gael Monfils and Janko Tipsarevic have all put together a string of wins in the time since Melbourne and any could face Roger before the semis.

The women's draw is no less formidable. Though missing Serena & Venus Williams as well as Dinara Safina, past champions like Vera Zvonareva, Maria Sharapova and a still-unseeded Justine Henin pose real threats. A different woman has won Indian Wells in each of the past six years, though, so the tournament is really wide open. While there is, again, the possibility of a Henin-Kim Clijsters final, this time I won't hold my breath. In fact I wouldn't be surprised to see someone like Victoria Azarenka or even Alona Bondarenko advance far into the bracket.

Of course, you don't have to win to make a statement at Indian Wells. With such an impressive field, this tournament is a great opportunity for players like James Blake or Anna Chakvetadze -- both in action today -- to turn their spate of bad luck around. And newbies like sixteen-year-old Sloane Stephens and Ryan Harrison, just a year her senior, can both put their names on the map if they can follow up on the upsets they scored in their first rounds.

And with more than a week of play left, it certainly looks like just about anything can happen!

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