March 7, 2012

Now or Never

The first balls of this year's BNP Paribas Open have been struck, with the ladies kicking off their main draw today while the men wrap up their qualifying matches. And while the seeded players all get byes for their first rounds, there's nevertheless a lot of pressure on everyone to perform from the start.

With just a handful of matches in the books, we've already seen a couple of disappointing results. Iveta Benesova, who's beaten Sabine Lisicki and Sam Stosur already this year, won her first set but dropped the next two to comeback kid Sorana Cirstea, and Memphis runner-up Marina Erakovic, looking for her first win in Indian Wells, was defeated in a two-and-a-half hour battle with Galina Voskoboeva. Meanwhile Sara Errani, fresh off singles and doubles crowns in Acapulco, surrendered a break lead to Vania King and lost in straights. But others hope to avoid similar fates.

Defending champion Caroline Wozniacki has amassed a mediocre 7-4 record so far this year, and will fall out of the top five if she doesn't make at least the semis here. She comes to the desert as the #4 seed, but has more than a few potential spoilers in her part of the bracket. Her first opponent will either be Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who put up a fight at the Hopman Cup, or Ekaterina Makarova, who stunned Serena Williams in Melbourne. And if she survives those early tests, Caro may face a rematch of last year's final with Marion Bartoli just to make the final four. She'll need to raise her game if she's going to survive deep into this draw.

Jelena Jankovic, winner her two years ago, doesn't have quite so many points to defend this time around but may have as much on the line. She's been pretty busy this year, already playing six events in addition to Fed Cup, and marked some big wins -- Stosur in Dubai -- and some not-so-big losses -- Petra Martic in Kuala Lumpur. To her credit, she's hung around most draws, but she hasn't won a title since she lifted the trophy here. Ranked out of the top ten this year, JJ will first face American wildcard Julie Hampton, but is slated to meet Aggie Radwanska, who beat her in Dubai, in the fourth round and current #1 Victoria Azarenka in the quarters. It's going to be a tough fight if the Serb plans on using this to launch her comeback campaign.

There are a couple men with just as much on the line over the next ten days too. Fernando Verdasco had struggled over the past two years or so, declining to defend points in San Jose and failing to make any headway against the sport's top players -- he'd only beaten one top ten player since the spring of 2010. But his run to the Acapulco final last week might have come at the perfect time -- now back at #19 in the world, he comes to Indian Wells with more confidence than he's had in a while. He'll meet either Ryan Sweeting or Challenger champion Cedrik-Marcel Stebe in his opener, but will likely face a much tougher challenge in Juan Martin Del Potro a round later. If he can score a win there we'll really know he's back.

Andy Roddick, runner-up here in 2010 -- and doubles champ the year before -- is also out to claw his way back to the top. Now ranked #31, his lowest position in an astounding eleven years, he's logged a 4-4 record in 2012. Injury forced him out of the Australian Open, and he hasn't been able to hold onto leads in matches since then. He did score an impressive win against Roger Federer in an exhibition match at MSG on Monday night, so things aren't completely bleak. He'll be challenged from the start, though, facing either big-serving Ivo Karlovic or dangerous Pole Lukas Kubot in the second round, and should meet back-in-form Tomas Berdych after that. It'll be a long road for Roddick, but a couple big wins here would be a good start.

There's a lot riding on the results in Indian Wells this week -- sure some players may not have a lot of ranking points at stake here while may have plenty of time left in their careers to make up for any disappointing results. But if they're going to silence the naysayers and prove they're still real contenders in the sport, they'll all have to put up a fight in the California desert. And there's never been a better time for them to show us what they've got.

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