March 16, 2011

A Level Above

The early rounds at Indian Wells have been a story of triumph for young, new talent. And while you clearly can't discount the nascent ability of players like Ryan Harrison and Somdev Devvarman, both of whom have capitalized on their opportunities time and again in the desert, you just can't ignore the perennial powerhouses who've simply trampled their opponents, proving that they're still the alpha males in the sport.

Top seeded Rafael Nadal hadn't played a lot since Melbourne, having taken time off after the Australian Open to treat a tear in his thigh muscle. And though he won both of his Davis Cup rubbers, it wasn't until he arrived in California that we'd get a real idea of how back to form he really was. And the two-time winner here would not disappoint -- he blanked qualifier Rik De Voest in his opening set, dispatching the South African in barely an hour and dropped only four more games against American Ryan Sweeting in the third round. To make his sixth straight quarterfinal, he'll have to get past Devvarman tonight, but the way he's been playing, I wouldn't worry too much about his chances.

In similarly devastating form is world #2 Roger Federer, a two-time titleist himself, though he did face a slightly tougher battle to kick off his Indian Wells campaign. Pushed to the limit by Igor Andreev on Sunday -- he won 7-5, 7-6(4) -- he only needed fifty-eight minutes to take care of Juan Ignacio Chela yesterday. Having already improved on his performance from last year when he lost to Marcos Baghdatis in the third round, Roger can rest easily from here on out, but something tells me he's going to bring the power harder than ever. Eighteen-year-old Harrison will be his opponent tonight, and while I'd love the next-gen star to put up a fight, he might be easy pickins for the much more experienced vet.

And while the best two athletes in the sport are always the ones to beat at these tournaments, perhaps the most impressive play has come from the man who's just recently proven he belongs among their ranks. Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic is undefeated on the year, backing up his second Grand Slam with a trophy in Dubai last month. He's arguably had the toughest draw of the three at the Masters event, but has bagelled all three of his challengers in their first sets, from world #39 Andrey Golubev to sixteenth-seeded Viktor Troicki. And with a quarterfinal date against the winner of the Andy Roddick/Richard Gasquet match, you have to like his chances to rack up a few more wins in the coming days.

Sure it's nice to see emerging stars pull off these impressive victories and prove they can at least hit with the big boys, but when you look at the players who've really excelled in Indian Wells over the last week, there's no mistaking who the real powerhouses are. And until they're ready to hand over the mantle, this is really their tournament to lose.

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